Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

First sermon of the year - Epiphany

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Happy 2014! How is it going so far? Did you stay up to watch the ball drop? Or did you turn in early, confident that the New Year would arrive when you woke up?

Are you where you thought you would be one year ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Is your life in the shape that you expected it to be, or has the dawn of 2014 found you on a road that you did not expect to be traveling? Did you wake up one day and – bang! - find that the ball had dropped and a new day had dawned, and everything you thought you had planned went straight out the window?

Tomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas, or the celebration of what Christians around the world call the day of Epiphany. The day of Epiphany is when the light of the star rested on the place where Jesus was, where the wise men were able to find him, which we are celebrating today. While the rest of the world has already finished up its after-Christmas sales and New Year’s parties, are cleaning up and putting away the Christmas lights and decorations, today we are observing the final element to the Christmas story.  Today we too pay homage to a God who so often comes into our world as a blazing light, surprising us in our darkness, and changing our lives forever.

I think God must have been like this from the very beginning, when God created light to shine out in the dark universe. Just one little sentence, “Let there be light,” changed the entire universe, revealing the mystery of creation for all time. Darkness would no longer reign. The world would never be the same again.

I sort of makes me think of the Big Bang theory. Actually, I don’t mean the scientific theory that states that the creation of the universe came from the explosion of everything pressed into one infinitely small space. I’m thinking of my husband’s favorite show, The Big Bang theory, about a group of super-intelligent but super-socially awkward guys whose lives are completely changed when a beautiful and blond actress-wannabe moves into the apartment next door. One minute, experimental physicist Leonard and theoretical scientist Sheldon are strolling up the stairs to the apartment they share and – bang! – they meet their new neighbor Penny. And from this one chance encounter, instead of a universe, a wildly successful seven season television sitcom is born.

Fortunately for CBS, sometimes unfortunately for us, big bangs seem to be how God works. One minute we are going along in life, traveling the path that we think we have mapped out for us, when we have our own personal Big Bang moments. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
Take King Herod, for example. He seemed to have everything going for him – the support of Rome, wealth from cruelly taxing his own people, political security from murdering members of his own family, a legacy in architectural grandeur, religious influence by following Judaism only when he felt like it.  This man Rome named “King of the Jews” had it pretty good.

And then one day, which dawned just like any other day, he receives some unexpected and unwanted visitors.

There were foreigners, wise men, wandering in Jerusalem, and they were asking for the King of the Jews. But they weren’t looking for Herod.

Take these wise men, as well. They had left positions of esteem and influence in their native countries to make a long and perilous journey, thousands of years before the ease of cars and airplanes. These well-educated and well-respected scholars, the experimental physicists and theoretical scientists of their age, left everything familiar to follow a star that would take them to worship a newborn king in a foreign land.
Jesus was a Big Bang moment for both King Herod and the wise men, but their reactions could not have been more different. Herod, and all Jerusalem, were terrified at the news of the birth of this new King. For them, darkness and preserving their own power were more desirable and convenient, so the news of the arrival of God’s light on earth struck fear into their hearts.

For the wise men, the announcement drew them far out of their comfort zones, but at the same time compelled them to follow a divine star to a land far away to worship this king of the Jews.

In T.S. Eliot’s famous poem called “The Journey of the Magi”, Eliot imagines one them recounting his harrowing trek many years later. This wise man wonders: “were we lead all that way for birth or death? There was a birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death, but had thought that they were different; this birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.” We might easily imagine that for them, and for the whole world, life would never be the same.

A ball of light drops and the world calls it the New Year. We make resolutions and later break them. We make plans and have visions of the future that don’t always turn out as we expect them to. We, like the wise men of old, travel by a road different than the one we thought we would be traveling. Life changes after an encounter with the light of Christ.

Most of us I think can speak from experience about the big bangs and the little detours that God placed in our lives. I know I have a few from the last few years, both big bangs and small seeming detours. Just recently, before celebrating the New Year with some friends to watch the festivities in New York in the comfort of the indoors, my husband and I stopped for a vigil for peace at the Trenton Quaker house. He had read about the vigil in the information about Patriot Week in Trenton, hidden among the listings for battle reenactments and other festivities. As we walked into the dark, sparse meeting room at the Quaker house, each of us were given a small flameless LED candle to hold.

Quakers worship a little differently than most. At this peace vigil, there was no scripture read or hymns sung or sermon preached. Every once in a while, one of us would speak into the darkness – some spoke about seeking peace in the wider world, and some about seeking peach within ourselves. But most of time was spent in silence, in the small light of the flickering LED candles. In those times of silence, I prayed for the peace of the city right outside the door, which could be seen in the darkness outside the window of the Trenton Quaker house. A city that is shrouded in darkness, and can use all the light that it can get. A city that now my husband and I call home.

In 2011 as I finished up my seminary degree in St. Paul MN, I would never have guessed in a million years that the end of 2013 would find me in a three hundred year old Quaker meeting house in Trenton. Nor would I ever have imagined that in 2014 this Wisconsin girl would be looking forward to my second ordination anniversary while serving a fabulous church in central New Jersey. They may say that the devil is in the details, but I think I may safely saw that it is God that is in the detours.

But no matter where the dawning of 2014 finds you, whether on the main road you imagined, off the beaten path, seemingly lost on a detour, stuck in a rut or in the ditch, dawn will come and the light of risen Christ will shine upon you. For even the darkest night is dispelled with the rays of the rising sun.

At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, that light of hope in our lives. At Epiphany we rejoice that this light has exploded out to shine on all people, in all places and times. For in Jesus the light of God’s love has dawned upon us, to show us the way of peace. And in each of us that light burns brightly and will never be extinguished. And we will never be the same. Amen.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Christmas Eve Sermon

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I've kind of always had a soft spot for the shepherds. I think I might be because I was one – not in real life, of course, but from first grade until fifth grade I was type-casted in my church’s Christmas play. Always a shepherd. Never an angel, who got to wear white robes and wings and cool halos and look pretty. Never a wise man or wise “person,” who brought nice gifts. Always a shepherd, wearing itchy brown robes and towels tied to your head, just sort of standing there awkwardly, like a group of misfits who showed up to the wrong party.

Finally, in fifth grade, I knew that my typecasting days were over. The fifth graders always got the lead parts, like Mary and Joseph and the speaking angel. I was going to be Mary, because MY hand would be the first one up when our teacher asked for volunteers. I was ready.

Unfortunately for me, the hand of my best friend was also ready. And unfortunately for me, it was her name that was taken down to play Mary and wear the pretty blue robe. The worst part was, a moment later she turned around and whispered to me: “hey, what did I just volunteer for?”

 So it was itchy robes and towels for me again that year. But I got my chance a few years later, when I was asked to be Mary in the adult Christmas play, where Mary had actual lines and got to hold a real baby. Now, I wonder at this baby’s mother, letting a strange teenager hold her baby for an hour. And I wonder that the she, the baby (there was a girl baby Jesus that year) didn’t cry at all while being held by this strange person in a blue robe, though she did fuss for a minute right before Mary’s big monologue.

But really, Mary doesn’t have a monologue, though she must have been thinking about an awful lot that night. And we don’t hear what’s on Joseph’s mind either, what he must be thinking about all this. We do have an angel of the Lord with a birth announcement, and a great angel gathering praising God. But as far as we know, the only witnesses to this grand announcement … were the shepherds.

Not the itchy robe-wearing, towel-headed variety. These shepherds were the living-in-the fields with the sheep variety –dirty, smelly, tough, night-shift workers doing a thankless job for little pay. These shepherds were on the fringes of polite society, unclean, unwanted, untrustworthy.

They knew what life was like on the outside looking in. They knew what it was like to sit in the dark and cold night of exclusion and isolation. They were last on anyone’s list, no matter what time of the year it was.
But we don’t really have shepherds around anymore. And for that matter, we don’t have emperors or traveling census, and when was the last time you saw a manger? My dad, as a dairy farmer, might be the closest thing we have to what a shepherd is like, and the kind of manger that he and my brothers clean out every night are not the kind you would ever want to put a newborn – full of bits of hay and silage and cow drool.

And yet, here we are again, Christmas 2013, listening to the same story we heard last year, and they year before, and the year before that. A story that is about shepherds, and emperors, and censuses, and angels, and mangers. But it is also a story that is about God, and what God has done. A story that is actually about us.

The shepherds are not the only ones who know what it’s like to be on the outside, to know what it’s like to walk in darkness and live in a land of deep darkness. Life is full of darkness. And this year may have seemed darker than most. On the world stage, this year has been full of violence, pain, and destruction – war in Syria, death in bombings in Boston and Kenya, natural disaster in the Philippines.  And closer to home, so many people I know have lost someone close to them in the last year, and for them this first Christmas without them will have an aftertaste of loss. The land of loss we travel is one not just of darkness, but of deep darkness, so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face, so dark that you might imagine the dawn might never come.

In the night, just like any other night of the year, the shepherds sat in the darkness, tending their flock and protecting it from the danger of the night. The last thing they were expecting was to come face to face with the bright and shining glory of the Lord. The last thing they were expecting that night was to see their Lord face to face.

We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. On those of us who live in a land of deep darkness, on us light has shined. But no one expect it the light to shine from the face of a helpless baby, born into poverty, whose parents’ were considered second-class citizens in their own country, in during a period of history that was fraught with violence and unrest.

But this is how our God chooses to work in our lives. Taking on power by becoming powerless. By showing exaltation in ultimate vulnerability. By exposing true peace and wholeness by entering into a broken and messy world. By first illuminating the arrival of the truest, mightiest, most powerful love in the universe to the very least of us. By revealing light in the midst of darkness in the gift of a tiny baby.

The best gift ever given was not expensive or fancy or impressive or grand. It was not covered in ribbons and wrapping paper. It could never be found in a store. The best gift every given arrived through the blood, sweat, and tears of a young women and her anxious husband, wrapped in rags and rough wood, visited by shepherds smelling of sheep. The best gift ever given was made possible by the deepest love we could never fully conceive or imagine.

This gift was named Jesus. And he was born so that we could know God. That the God in the highest heaven wants us to know – in person – who God is and how much God loves us. This God found a way to break into our world to reveal just how far this love goes.

This baby grows up, as all babies do. But Jesus grows up to face the powers of darkness head-on. The shepherds were just the beginning – during his ministry Jesus hung out with all sorts of unsavory characters: tax collectors, sinners, fishermen, lepers, women, children, and all kinds of people at the bottom rungs of the ladder. He showed them love and told them about what God’s kingdom is really like. Good news of great joy for all the people. During his life Jesus showed us that God is in the business of healing and peace and love and making broken people whole again.

Not everyone is pleased with this gift. There were those who wanted to return it. The darkness wanted it to stay dark, the deeper the darkness the better – a darkness as deep as death itself, and for three days, it seemed to be winning.

But our God is also in the business of life, and not even death can win against the love God has for his people, us. On that day another angel stood before the darkness of an empty tomb and announced, “Do not be afraid… he is not here, for he has been raised. Come, see the place where he lay.” And those who heard left with great joy and ran to tell the good news.

Perhaps instead of feeling honored to play Mary in the adult Christmas play, I should instead have felt privileged for all those years I spent as a “lowly” shepherd.  They were the ones who dropped everything, and ran into town, and checked every baby before seeing for themselves where the baby Jesus lay. They celebrated the very first Christmas service, out in that dark field with the sheep. We could probably do worse than have a little shepherd rub off on us.  They didn’t just SEE the God’s gift face to face, they shared that gift with everyone around them. And here we are, all these years later, celebrating the arrival of that gift this night.

But all gifts are meant to be shared, and this one is no exception. For it belongs to all of us, every single one of us. And the more we share this gift the brighter the light becomes, until that day when all the darkness will be extinguished forever, and we shall all see God face to face. Amen.