Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

How to help Jose

Last Sunday I mentioned in my sermon a member of my friend's church  who is in trouble, and people asked how they can help.

To see the original video of his story click here

My friend, Pastor Rachel Ringlaben, of Mesa Abierta Lutheran Church in New Orleans, shared with me this week that Jose is applying for a U-visa which is for victims of trafficking. She says it's about a 2 year process which is being interrupted by ICE's decision to carry out deportation proceedings.  At this point, ICE isn't sharing any information with Jose unless he shows up to their offices.  Instead, he has taken sanctuary until they give him an answer on his case. He is staying at First Grace UMC. His family needs help with phone bills and transportation for his family. We can help by donating at the donation link at https://mealtrain.com/0nv3k4. Or, mail or deliver a pre-paid visa card to 

Attn: Sanctuary Committee, 
First Grace UMC, 
3401 Canal St, 
New Orleans, 
LA 70119.

There is also a request for Uber and Lyft giftcards for Jose's family. Please drop off all giftcard donations to First Grace or mail them to:
Attn: Sanctuary Committee
First Grace UMC
3401 Canal St.
New Orleans, LA 70119

Pastor Rachel also shared that we can help by making a phone call or writing an email to ICE:


She shared with us the following script:

Hi, my name is __________. I am reaching out today to request that your office renew Jose Torres’s prosecutorial discretion so that he can stay with his young U.S. citizen daughters who depend on him to survive. Mr. Torres’s A number is 200-061-563.

As you know, Mr. Torres’s daughters Kimberly and Julissa both have chronic conditions. His youngest, Kimberly, is especially vulnerable as she was born premature and has suffered from seizures since birth. These girls need their dad. Rather than plunging them into poverty and potential danger, you have the ability to allow them to grow up healthy and strong supported by their dad who loves them.

Mr. Torres is an essential member of our community and a father. Far from being in the public interest, his deportation would only destabilize a family and our broader community. Do not hesitate to contact me.
Thank you,

Hiding in plain sight

Sermon 11-26-17 Christ the King
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of our Church year…it sure can be easy to miss. It’s anywhere near Dec. 31st – instead, it falls sometime around the business of thanksgiving and Black Friday, and is soon forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of the beginning of the “Christmas Season,” or what we in the church world call “Advent.” We don’t make any “New Church Year Resolutions,” though maybe we should. We don’t have a count down. There is not bedazzled ball to drop from the roof… and I’m NOT recommending we start that!

Like Christ the King Sunday, sometimes Jesus is also really easy to miss. And, if we have learned anything from the last few weeks, it’s how important it is to pay attention and keep alert. Otherwise, you might end up missing the wedding… get caught with your talent in the ground… or accidentally almost fly Denver while trying to get to Trenton. Like, “Home Alone 2” style. Yes, this actually ALMOST happened to me.

I was flying from Chicago to Trenton via Frontier after spending some time in WI for my little sister’s college graduation. And, of course, things always take longer than you think they will, and so I was running late, rushing frantically through security line, dodging people to get to the gate… and let me tell you how relieved I was to see that lots of people still in line to board. Whew, I made it!

While I was still congratulating myself, I handed my ticket to the lady at the door. “You’re going to Trenton, Ma’am?” she asked me. Relieved, I responded with a cheery, “Yes I am!”
“Well, ma’am, this plane is going to Denver.” …. Whoops.

It turns out it was Right Gate, Wrong Plane – MY plane had been delayed, which I would have known if I had thought to check my email… my phone… OR ANY OF THE BAZILLION SIGNS that are ALL OVER the airport. Instead, I hurried, rushed, and stressed, until I were literally forced to stop, to look up, and pay attention. I were in such a hurry that I had missed all the signs.

For the last few weeks, we have been listening to Jesus’ stories about people who seem to have missed the signs too, and have been brought up short in often some very unpleasant ways. The five unprepared bridesmaids. The slave who buried what his master entrusted to him. And now, at the end of the church year, Jesus sets the scene for the end of history, where Jesus decides to give some spoilers and give away the end of the movie. And it turns out that the final judgement of the nations looks strikingly like a game of “Where’s Waldo.”

If Jesus is playing a big game of hide and seek with us from now until the end of time, I think from this story we can see that he’s trying to be BAD at it. He does what we all do when playing hide and seek with little kids – we hide in plain sight. We want to be found.

But we are so good at missing the signs that are right in front of us. We’re really very good at cluttering up the picture, like the chaos in those “Where’s Waldo” books. Jesus is wearing Clarke Kent glasses, shaking his head, and saying, “Come one, church. This one is SUPPOSED to be easy! Finding me shouldn’t be this hard!”

You’ve probably all seen that bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – quick, look busy!” When that bumper sticker comes true, the sheep don’t HAVE to LOOK busy… they would simply gaze up at Jesus in surprise, caught in the very act of giving a coat to a homeless person, or scooping rice into a meal pack for Feed My Starving Children, or putting a toy for a child under the Angel Tree. When that happens, though, the sheep would still say, “When did we see you, Jesus, cold, hungry, or in need of some Christmas cheer?”

Both the sheep AND the goats are just as clueless about where Jesus is showing up. The difference is that the sheep are caring for their fellow human beings like they belong to their own family. But, the sheep were just as surprised to find out that the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger in need of welcome - all were actually their Lord and king in disguise.

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that EVERYBODY missed Jesus. And that we all miss seeing Jesus every minute of every day. After all, THIS kingdom here on earth has values like power by force, speaks the language of violence, rules by greed and fear, favors false stability over compassion. Every day, we see the evidence of these powers at work, and every day, it seems like these powers are the ultimate reality, because they always seem to win. And if we aren’t paying attention, we WILL find ourselves being bullied or lulled into following along with the agenda of that kingdom…. like nearly boarding a plane that is not going to the city we thought it was.

This is probably because OUR King, Jesus, is not like any king history has ever known. Jesus, was born, not in a royal palace surrounded by servants, but in a dirty cave with farm animals. His inner circle was made up of day laborers and social outsiders. “His royal court” consisted of scandalous women, sick people, and children.  His kingly acts included feeding over five thousand freeloaders and healing people without health insurance. His coronation was with a crown of thorns and his throne is a cross. His true power is revealed, not in wealth or might or force. Instead, our king makes his home with whoever is suffering and in need. With those who have no power, no control, and no voice.

Like Jose. Jose belongs to a church where a friend of mine is the pastor. Jose is originally from El Salvador. Jose is a life-long Lutheran, and an active leader in my friend’s church. He is married with two kids, two daughters who both have special needs. His youngest often has seizures which were the result of being born prematurely. Just recently he has been court-ordered to self-deport, to leave his wife and two daughters to probably face a life of poverty and perhaps homelessness, simply because he came to this country as a victim of human trafficking, and so he has no official documents.

He is now staying in a local church, claiming sanctuary, so that he can stay with his family and church community… even though technically even this will not actually save him from deportation. What it does give him is time for his community to rally around him, and for his pastor to reach out to her friends, like me, to write letters and make phone calls on Jose’s behalf. It gives us time to wake up and see Jesus in him.

“For I was hungry,” says Jesus, “and you said, Drug test those who would ask for food.”

“I was thirsty, and you said, Build the pipeline and poison the water supply as long as it makes a buck.”

“I was a stranger and you said, he’s not actually a citizen. Deport him.”

“I was sick, and you said, Take away her health insurance.”

“I was in prison and you said, they got caught, so they should feel lucky to get whatever we given them.”

As Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The Joses of the world, the refugees…. the unjustly incarcerated… those who are lonely and have no one to visit them… those denied basic human needs like clean water… those who live on the couches of friends and family… those who have to choose between feeding their kids or paying the rent… That’s where Jesus is.

In the kingdom of God, every child is loved and valued. In the kingdom of God, all deserve to have their needs met and to live a life free of violence. In the kingdom of God, we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

In an interview, Jose’s pastor told a reporter, “If my faith commands that I take care of my neighbor, that is the greater command to worry about.”

If we truly live this way, it flies in the face of the powers-that-be, in both the oppressive regime Jesus lived under and in the more subtle, but no less present and powerful one we currently find ourselves in. But the powers of this world can’t stop Jesus from showing up, no matter how hard they try to keep us distracted.

This is the end of the church year cycle, and next week, the new church year begins, with the season of Advent. It is also the most distracting, challenging, and busy time of the calendar year for most of us. The rest of the world will try to lull us onto the wrong plane by putting us to sleep with too-cheerful Christmas songs, or sidetrack us with the never-ending sale-cycle and nostalgia-obsessed treadmill.

But Jesus IS coming…. Actually he’s already here. Stay awake. Keep alert. Pay attention… or you may miss him. But He’s WILL show up, just not in the ways we might think. And he may even show up…. IN YOU. AMEN.

Monday, November 20, 2017

What's in Your Toolbox?

Sermon 11-19-17
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.

You may have noticed by now that Jesus really, REALLY likes to tell stories. But not really fun ones.  And we’ve certainly heard a lot of doozies in the past few weeks, where someone is often getting the short end of the stick…. Cast into the outer darkness, shut out of the party… or just in general not getting a “happily ever after.”

This story we just heard comes directly on the heels of last week’s tale of the kingdom of heaven being like 10 bridesmaids waiting for the groom to arrive at a wedding celebration. And this week, we get the “Parable of the Talents.” Another story that both makes us uncomfortable, but perhaps also confuses us by referencing things we don’t encounter in our everyday lives –  things like slaves and slave owners, and coins called Talents that were worth about 15 years of minimum wage.

What would this parable sound like if Jesus were telling it to us today? Perhaps something like this story, which I found a children’s sermon website, and decided to alter it a little bit.

“Once upon a time there was a woman who had a very successful construction business.  She had to go on a long trip, so she called her top three employees together and said, ‘I’m leaving you three in charge. I’ve put together a tool box for each of you to use to keep the business going while I am gone.’

The tool boxes contained all the tools the employees needed to do what their boss expected of them, but since the three employees didn't all have the same abilities and passions, each toolbox was different. To the first employee, she gave a very large tool box filled with every tool that you can imagine. To the second employee, she gave a smaller toolbox, but one that still had a very good assortment of tools. To the third employee, she gave a very small tool box with just a few tools, but enough tools for the employee to do what was expected of him.

The boss then left to go on his trip. When she returned, she called her employees together to see what they had done while she was gone.

The first employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the homeless people of the world, so I used the toolbox that you gave me to build homes for the homeless.’

‘Great!’ said the boss. ‘You have done so well that I am going to put you in charge of all new construction for the entire company.’

The second employee said, ‘I knew that you had a great love for the elderly, so I used the toolbox you gave me to fix up the homes of elderly people who can no longer do the work themselves.’

‘Awesome!’ said the boss. ‘You have done such a good job, that I am putting you in charge of all the repair and maintenance work for the entire company.’

Then she turned to the third employee and asked, ‘What did you do with the tools that I left for you?’

The third one said, ‘I knew that you are a very demanding boss and that you expect a lot from your employees. I was afraid that if I used the tools you gave me that one of them might get broken or that I might lose one of them and make you angry. I put the tools in a very safe place. Look, here they are, just like new.’

To that, the boss said, ‘What a worthless employee you are! I didn't give you the tools for safekeeping, I gave them to you to use in my business.’ He was given a merger severance package and shown the door, and then the boss took his toolbox and divided the tools between the other two employees.”

Does hearing the story in that way change what you are hearing Jesus say?

Perhaps something that Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry might help us out here. Way back in Matthew, Jesus gives his inaugural address, which we also call “The sermon on the mount,” where we heard the “blessed are yous” a few weeks ago. A little later in that sermon, Jesus also says, ““Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Thinking about this story in this light, which one of the employees let their light shine?

The first two employees went OUT into the WORLD to use their tools. THEY let their lights shine, while the third employee buried his light. He did exactly what one of the verses from “this little light of mine” song says NOT to do… “hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m gonna let it shine.”

In the ELCA, the denomination we are a part of, we have a tag line, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “God’s work, our hands.” That means, God uses US to do God’s work, to shine God’s light on the world. When we shine, people see, and that points the way back to where the light came from.

As followers of Jesus, we will be given opportunities to be a public witness for Jesus. Jesus wants US to shine… rather than having our unused tools stay shiny from still being in mint condition. Strange, how in the Kingdom of God, the worth of the gifts GOES UP the MORE it’s USED… and the more you give away, the more you HAVE.

Fast forward to the end of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’s tone has changed a bit.  He might be sounding a little bit on edge here because Jesus knows where he’s headed – in just a few more chapters, Jesus will be betrayed, denied, abandoned, humiliated, beaten, and nailed to a cross. Jesus is running out of time, and his disciples are acting more like dim bulbs than beacons of light.  

But the stakes are still high, two thousand years later. In many ways the world hasn’t changed all that much – we are still really good at hurting and oppressing one another. Injustice is still a reality for most. But perhaps that makes Jesus’ story all the more urgent. After all, what is the point of being given a light, or a tool box if it’s not going to be used for good?

A few weeks ago, I attended a Lutheran conference where I got to explore some of the parts of my tool box that I don’t usually think about… As a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle class, able-bodied English speaking white person, I don’t have ALL the privilege, but I DO have A LOT of privilege. So, what am I going to DO with what has been given to me? Am I going to bury it by and pretend it doesn’t exist? Or will I use the tools I have been given to build up those who do not have as many tools in their tool box as I might have? How will I let God’s light shine in me?

We’re going to have to keep extra awake for the coming days. Work stress, family stress, pre-Christmas shopping stress – where we’re going to hear, Bigger is better! More stuff will make you and your family happy! Throw away the old, and get great deals on the new!
What, then, in the midst of this onslaught, are we to use what God has given us for the use of God’s Kingdom, for the benefit of the people around us?

I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, and you may join me as you feel called, according to what YOU have in YOUR toolbox. I’m going to shop fair trade and second hand when possible, and patronize stores that treat their employees well and help the environment. I don’t know if I’m doing ENOUGH… but at least, unlike the 3rd slave… I’m going to let my light shine, give my tools some use.

“To be of Use,” says one of my favorite poems, by Marge Piercy, is something like this:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust…
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums,
but you know they were made to be used....
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

So, the next time you are wandering down the aisles this weekend bombarded with tinsel and bogged down with a list… consider this… when you see that shovel for sale, think about how you can help dig a friend – or even a stranger -out of a bad day. When you are hanging lights with your stepladder, consider how you could support someone who is participating in a 12-step program. As you take up your crochet hooks and knitting needles for Christmas gifts, imagine how God knits us all together, and how you might speak up for someone whom the rest of the world considers no more important than a dropped stitch.

We are the tools of Gods kingdom. We were made to be used. For work that is real. For the work of God’s kingdom, for the work of justice and mercy.

So, exhaust all the oil God gives you by shining God’s light into our dark world… Get some callouses on your feet from walking with your neighbor, get your hands dirty, and get some “purl pain” in your knuckles… strip all your drill bits into unusable nubs…  break all your needles stitching the world back together… because after all none of these tools are YOURS ANYWAY. They all belong to God… just as you belong to God. Thanks BE to GOD. Amen.