Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

12-4-16: Make Room for the Kingdom

My call sermon at Family of God Lutheran Church on December 4th: 

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

Imagine, if you will, what a “John the Baptist Christmas card” would look like.  We see pretty much every other thing every other thing associated with Christmas on cards… so why do we leave out John the Baptist? Perhaps such a card might look something like this – a big hairy man with crazy hair out in the desert, knee deep in the river he has been baptizing people in, with a Santa hat on, singing “I know if you’ve been bad or good, so repent for goodness sake!” Or maybe holding out a tray of honey covered bugs and saying “I made you Christmas cookies!”

But of course John the Baptist doesn’t bake cookies or stand still enough to get his likeness on a Christmas card. He is far too busy baptizing, of course, which is well, you know, part of his name, after all!

Often we associate baptisms with babies, because babies are cute, especially when they cry when the pastor pours the water over his or his head. Often too we think about Jesus coming to us as a cute baby as we head toward Christmas, like the chubby infant pictured perfectly clean and happy on Christmas cards.

But John the Baptist reminds us that the coming of Jesus is not about cute babies or Christmas cards. Christmas is actually an invasion. Not an alien invasion or a British invasion, but a divine invasion. This is an invasion, not of weapons and power, but of peace and love. Jesus is about to invade our own world, and enter fully into our realm that is ruled by sin, death, and the powers that defy God. And the sign of this invasion in your baptism.

Jesus enters our world so that he can snatch you out of Satan’s hand, right out from under his very nose. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War Two, who lived out his baptism in some very scary times, wrote that wrote that, “Christ invades the realm of Satan, [and] lays hands on his own…” (The Cost of Discipleship). 

That’s you. You are his own. When the water was being splashed on your head, Jesus was saying, “Excuse me, this one is MINE.”

We became God’s children and given the promise of being part of God’s kingdom forever.
But the world tries hard to convince us that we aren’t children of the promise – that instead, we are children of snakes. “Brood of vipers,” to quote John the Baptist. People like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Pharisees who were the religious score keepers. And the Sadducees had cozied up to those political power – the Roman government, who had conquered their people and ruled with a heavy fist.

The Pharisees and Sadducees heard the snaky voices of the world calling to them, voices that said following “the rules” are the way to earn God’s love, and that seeking after power and influence are more important than seeking God’s justice. We hear the same voices calling to us every single day from every direction. These voices tell us that following certain rules or lifestyles will make us more deserving of God’s love and those who fall short are worth less than us. These voices tell us that seeking after more money, power, success, the newest gadgets, and the most popular friends is the right way to live our lives.
And right now, when we in the church are celebrating Advent but the rest of the world is in full-blown Christmas mode, the voices tell us that our Christmases are supposed to look and feel like the most perfect Hallmark card.

Those voices, for all their promises of happiness and fulfillment, do not deliver. Following these voices takes us down a road that ends in credit card debt, strained relationships, a planet in peril, conflicts and wars and poverty and national anxiety, leaving our lives as dead as a stump left behind after chopping down a Christmas tree.

Another voice, coming from John the Baptist, a voice from the wilderness cries out that the kingdom of heaven is coming near to us. We are Children of the Promise, and the promise is about to be fulfilled. It’s time to remember who we are. It’s time to remember what kingdom we belong to. We belong to a kingdom where new shoots grow out of dead stumps. We belong to a kingdom where the old, “snaky” person in us dies, so that a new person, a new creation in Christ, can be born. It’s time to get ready for this kingdom to arrive.

But there is certainly a lot of junk left over from the old life, the “brood of vipers” life that is cluttering up the way and making our paths of following Jesus pretty crooked. This extra stuff needs to be given up and left behind – like getting rid of extra files on your computer or apps you never use on your smartphone so it can run faster. Or like those boxes that you take with you on every single move, boxes you have not opened in five or ten years, boxes that are filled with things you can’t even remember. But every time you see them you think, “Gosh, I shouldn’t get rid of this, what if I need it later?” So you drag it to your next move so it will take up room in your closet for the next five years. 

Let me remind you what’s in those boxes we’re carrying around. Things like trying to keep up with the Joneses and having the picture perfect Christmas. Things like the fear of people who are a different gender, sexual orientation, were born in a different country, celebrate a different religion, and those who struggle with homelessness, addiction, or mental illness.
We are told to cling to all the things in these boxes, but none of these things belong in God’s kingdom. These things need to be left behind, in the kingdom of snakes. These things belong by the side of the road along the way of the lord.

In the baptismal liturgy, we are asked if we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, the ways of sin that draw us from God. Our response is to renounce them, to abandon them, to turn our backs on them.

We renounce them when we use our income to give back to our communities to help those in need, or to patronize businesses that ethically treat their workers and the environment.

We renounce them when we do not give into the messages of hate and fear, or listen to the loud voices telling us that some of God’s children are worth less than others.

We renounce them we make way for the needs of someone else rather than looking out for ourselves first.

Renouncing these boxes is really hard, though. We will be called to live differently than many of the people around us, even our friends and family. We will be called to leave behind what feels comfortable or secure. Others may see us as weak, as easy marks, as losers, as not keeping up,” or being hopefully out of touch.

In our baptisms we were given everything, but we were also given a call to follow. We may not be imprisoned or beheaded as John the Baptist was, or to be sentenced to death in a Nazi prison camp like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But we will be called to make tough choices in our daily living. As Bonhoeffer also wrote, “When Christ calls [a person], he bids [them] come and die.”(The Cost of Discipleship) 

In our baptisms, though we have died with Christ, we have also been raised with him in new life. It’s scary and wonderful newness.

Isaiah reveals to us the vision of what we have to look forward too, as we make room for the coming of a new kind of kingdom in our lives. Isaiah describes a world where mighty predators coexist with the most helpless and vulnerable among us. A world where the powerful and the powerless live together in peace.

We may even recast Isaiah’s vision in different ways. What do you imagine the coming kingdom of God to look like? I think it might look something like this, from the reflections of a colleague: “The CEO will dream with the peace activist … the senators will dance with the undocumented farm workers … the American military leaders will dine with Pakistani mothers… children from all nations will play together and learn together and grow in to their full God given potential … animals and the earth will be treated with respect and care … war will cease and they will not harm anywhere in this holy creation “ Now THAT would be a pretty amazing thing to see on a Christmas card, wouldn’t it?

This is the vision of how life can be that we are making room for - the vision of a new kingdom getting ready to be born in the world, a kingdom you are a part of. This is the kingdom we are turning TOWARD, turning to face as it arrives, like the dawn that comes after a long dark night, like a shoot growing up from a stump long thought dead.

Leave those boxes behind. God is doing something new. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Final Sermon at St. Paul Lutheran

Epiphany Jan 8th 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the Muppet Christmas Carol. It’s an adaptation of Charles Dickens original Christmas Carol, with Jim Henson’s famous Muppets. Kermit the Frog is Bob Cratchet, Gonzo is Charles Dickens telling the story, and Michael Kane is the “regular human” playing a wonderfully grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge.  Naturally, it IS a musical, and in one of the songs the Ghost of Christmas Present sings these words: “[Christmas] is the season of the spirit. The message, if we hear it, is make it last all year.” And at the end of the story, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and realizes he gest another chance to right a lifetime of grouchiness, he exclaims, “I WILL honor Christmas, and try to keep it all the year!”

And Scrooge is right, Christmas is not just one day on the calendar. Long after the 70% off sales are over and the rest of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating Christmas, all twelve days, to be exact. And, following the example of Ebenezer Scrooge, we too honor Christmas during the rest of the year, by living our lives as if every day were Christmas Day. And that means, though our trees may be put away and normal life may be in its full, hectic swing, it means the work of Christmas is never done

Canadian Catholic theologian Michael Dougherty writes, “When the carols have been stilled, when the star-topped tree is taken down, when family and friends are gone home, when we are back to our schedules – The work of Christmas begins: To welcome the refugee, to heal a broken planet, to feed the hungry, to build bridges of trust, not walls of fear, to share our gifts, to seek justice and peace for all people, to bring Christ’s light to the world.”

We, who are fellow bringers of this light of Christ, celebrate 12 days of the season of Christmas, ending on the day of Epiphany, Jan 6th, which was Friday this year. Epiphany celebrates the light of Christ coming INTO the world in order to be given TO the rest of the world. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus was born for US too. It is the day when our familiar manger scenes are finally complete, with the addition of our three “king” figurines joining Mary, Jesus, Joseph, shepherds, and various animals.

A favorite youtube channel of mine, “Adam Ruins Everything” is a short show that does exactly what it sounds like…. Ruins things that you thought you knew all about. I apologize in advance doing my own little segment called “Pastor Lydia Ruins Epiphany.”

 So, our familiar crowned figures didn’t actually show up one the night of Jesus’s birth… or even 12 days later. They didn’t arrive on the scene until … MONTHS or even YEARS later. And by the way, they even weren’t actually kings.  “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” while a great song, is not entirely true (though the choir sang it beautifully just a moment ago!). The men we think of as kings are actually astrologers from an unknown eastern country. There might have been three, two, six, twelve or fifty. We don’t know. But we DO know that there ARE three gifts, all fit for royalty - gold for obvious reasons, frankincense and myrrh, both those used for both anointing and embalming.

But there are KINGS here in today’s Epiphany story. However, there are not THREE, but TWO kings. One of them is a false ruler set up to be a puppet king of by the absentee power of Rome – and he is certainly NOT the fun kind of puppet like in A Muppet Christmas Carol. The other king is the true king of the universe, the Lord of Lords, with a star to herald his birth. And no two kings could be more different.

First, though, we have to go back into our time machine of choice – TARDIS, Scooby Doo Time Machine, DeLorean – to last week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which actually happens AFTER today’s reading Did you catch that? It is a little confusing. 

Anyway, AFTER the wise men fade from sight, Herod finds out how wise they actually are by giving him the slip. This sets off Herod into a rage, and because he felt so threatened by this toddler king that he ordered the mass murder of all the children under two years old in and around Bethlehem. This is what the dream that Joseph had warned him about, and he took Jesus and Mary to safety to live as refugees in Egypt until Herod died.

Herod is a king that you want to avoid, rather than seek after. Herod is a childish king, a manipulative, power-hungry, insecure baby-murderer. Instead, the wise men were led to the child King, who was God in the flesh and the light to all the nations. This child king would later grow up to keep making powerful people – like Herod – tremble in their boots, by turning the “world order” on its head. This child king grew up to bless the poor, make the last first, and grant his people life by way of an instrument of death that we invented. In the Jesus regime, as described in Psalm 72, Mary’s song, and many other places - the needy are delivered, the poor are given justice, and their oppressors are crushed.  The light of this king shines forth in the darkness of the world, and we will be able to arise follow this light where it is leading us.    

The road that the wise men were led on took them far from home, through a strange country, and into the path of some scary people. But they were always guided by the constant light of the star. And, after finding Jesus, they were still guided out of harm’s way by taking a different road. They took a path that was unknown to them, but they knew the one who was leading them on their way.

A prayer I have prayed often, which is found in our hymnal, is known as “The Servant’s Prayer." It 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; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What roads led you here today? All of us in the middle of this venture we call life, where sometimes the path ahead of us is hard to see and full of unknown challenges. Sometimes this road feels long. Sometimes this road takes us past all kinds of people, some of whom may be “Herods” in disguise.

Sometimes the path takes us to new places, away from the familiar, in order to do a new things and start new adventures. Sometimes our path takes a new turn, and we go by a different road than we had imagined ourselves following.

None of us really have any idea where this road will take us, but we know to WHOM this road is talking us, and who is guiding us along the way. Along the way, we find Jesus. And we are always guided by his light and love.

When the wise men found Jesus, they did not END their journey there, just as Christmas does not end on December 25th. Finding Jesus only caused them to get back out on the road. Like many of the wise men and women who have gone before us, we too are called to keep putting one foot in front of the other, continuing to do the work of Christmas by living the Jesus regime –“welcoming the refugee, healing our planet, feeding the hungry, building bridges, not walls, sharing gifts, seeking justice and peace for all people, bringing Christ’s light to the world.”

By Chinese artist He Qi
Hopefully we do go out “with good courage, not knowing WHERE we go,” but knowing that the hand of God is leading the way, like a bright beacon of hope, and the love of God is keeping us going, like an ever present companion. The path twists and turns, it goes through scary and beautiful places. But no matter where it may take us, we are going to be ok.

I have been taking down the wall art I’d hung up to get ready for moving to the next venture that God has called me to. One is a picture that hung in my office, a gift from another goodbye, of baby Moses in his basket of reeds, rescued by the princess of Egypt, after having been sent forth by his sister Miriam in the hope that God would make his journey a safe one. 

Another is a cross made out of broken ceramics put together with wise women, as we embraced our brokenness together and made something new and beautiful out of the broken pieces.

Another is a quote from C. S. Lewis, painted on wood reclaimed from the scrap pile, which says, “Courage, dear heart.” It’s a quote from one of his Narnia books, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The crew of the ship The Dawn Treader are lost in a magical cloud of darkness, and all despair of ever getting out. Then a white albatross flies overhead, whispers something to them, and then leads the way out into the light. What did albatross whisper? “Courage, dear heart.”

Take courage, dear heart, on all the paths the God takes you. Courage, dear heart, when the Herods of the world seem to loom large. Courage, dear heart, when traveling out on a road different than the one you arrived. Courage, dear heart, and keep walking. Amen.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Christmas Selfies

Christmas Day 2016
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior born to us this day, Jesus the Christ, amen.

A light shines in the darkness
(of the mall...) 
At the beginning of December, five youth and three adults, including myself, descended on the unsuspecting Quaker bridge mall to hunt for signs of the season of Advent. We were successful, and had fun taking selfies of ourselves looking for Advent when the rest of the world was already in Full-On Christmas Mode.

These were some of the selfies we took together: following a star like the wise men. Finding things, like trees and shoes, that were the color of advent, which was …. (Blue). Wearing a fur coat and giving our best impressions of John the Baptist. And my personal favorite, riding the down escalator, pretending to be the heavenly host.

But now Advent is over, and Christmas has actually, for real, finally here. But with it comes all the accompanying trimmings, including food, presents, stress, lights, carols, travel, family, traffic, and Christmas cards with pictures of happy family members with smiling, well-groomed children.

We of course want to share ourselves with family and friends at the holiday season, especially ones we can’t be with or haven’t seen in a while. But we never send out the picture where little Bobby is pulling Susie’s hair, when the baby won’t stop crying, or where Uncle Tim is arguing with cousin Billy, or the dog is chewing Grandma’s shoes. Instead, we send that one perfectly prepared moment when everyone is sitting still and looking great in their Christmas best.  

And similarly, the rest of the year, for those of us who post pictures and selfies on social media, we try to find the best angle or the best light, and we use filters and Photoshop. We curate and control how the world sees us - enhance the good, minimize the bad – so that we show the world, not our actual faces,  but our best faces, prepared for your viewing pleasure.

And at Christmas time, we go into overdrive. Weeks ago I started seeing so many pictures of Christmas trees and advent wreaths and churches being decorated for Advent. And as the weeks progressed, I saw pictures of people decorating Christmas cookies, posts complaining about traffic or lamenting about finding the “it” gift of the year – and also many, many people sharing how they couldn’t believe Christmas was almost here, and how woefully unprepared they felt for it to arrive.

Every year we strive to make Real Life look like what we send out in our annual Christmas cards. We’ve been prepping for months now, but still there hasn’t been enough time. What if we couldn’t find the almond bark or find time to bake and decorate cookies this year? What if the tree never made it up or decorated, or if you didn’t get as many gifts for the family as you usually do?

What if we’re not ready for Christmas to arrive? Will it still feel like Christmas? Will Christmas still come?

A friend of mine shared with me that she was looking back on past photos she shared on Facebook around Christmas time in past years. She remembers feeling surprised to see that five years ago, she and her husband had put up almost no Christmas decorations. That happened to be the year that her daughter was born (on Christmas Eve, no less!). Five years ago, though they had prepped for their daughter and NOT for God’s Son, Christmas still arrived.

Poor Mary and Joseph were certainly NOT READY for Christmas to come. They weren’t even in the comfort of their own home when Jesus was ready to be born. Instead, they were far from home on a road trip not of their own choosing, in a strange town with no room for them. Can you imagine Mary’s dismay when she realized that her contractions has started and she was going to deliver the promised Son of God RIGHT THERE, among these animals? And can you image Joseph fighting his panic when he realized how unprepared he was to act the midwife at Mary’s delivery? As NOT ready as these two were, they did the best they could with what they had, bands of cloths and manger and all. And Jesus still arrived.

The shepherds were not ready at all to receive the news about Jesus’s arrival either, during that night as they watched over their flocks on the night shift. And nothing on earth could have prepared them for witnessing the heavenly host arrayed in the sky, singing and praising God for the birth of a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. The only response they could think of to this amazing announcement was to go see him for themselves. So they high-tailed it out of there and descended on the poor, unsuspecting Mary and Joseph, who with these visitors, got their second surprise of the night.

Many of Jesus’ own people weren’t ready for him when Jesus arrived on the scene, especially when he began preaching about the kingdom of God and healing people and hanging out with the wrong crowd. John the Baptist did his best to try to get people ready for his coming, and we certainly had our fair share of hearing this from John the Baptist during this Advent. But many people didn’t recognize Jesus as who he was, as the reflection of the image of God, and others chose NOT to see. After all, Jesus disturbed their picture of God, one of a  God loves some more than others, a God who cares more about following rules than about justice and peace. And so, some rejected him, because Jesus was a threat to the image of God they preferred to see instead.  

But ready or not, Christmas still came. Ready or not, Jesus still arrived. Ready or not, the light still shines in the darkness.

Jesus came to us as the image of God, the picture of who God is and how God wants to be seen. This picture is not filtered or “cleaned up” to look nicer in with filters or Photo shop. Jesus came to be with us in the grittiness of life, born into existence with dirt and animals. Jesus pitched his tent and moved into the neighborhood, became flesh and blood and lived among us, so that he could be present with us in the NOT so “picture perfect” times.
Jesus came into this word to experience those not so “picture perfect” times too. He experienced loss and rejection, grief and pain, suffering and even death – all the things that we would rather edit out of lives. Jesus chooses to be with us in the unedited version of our stories, to reveal to us that our stories, as unfinished and rough as they are, are part of God’s story.

Jesus entered into that story on Christmas Day. And the good news today is that the light HAS dawned upon the world, that Christmas HAS come, because here we are. We made it – we “made it” to this day, but we did not “make it” happen. We don’t have to make, strive for, find, or “save” Christmas, contrary to all the popular Christmas movies on the hallmark channel and songs on the radio. Christmas arrives, whether we are ready or not. Christmas arrives and Jesus appears, and we get to witness it as it happens. Just as Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all did.

We, though, are unable to jump in a time machine and go back to witness the actually birth of Jesus. But we are still able to witness the arrival of Christmas today. Like Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with its spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, WE can say about Christmas that Christ came, Christ is coming to us now, and Christ will come again at the end of time. And in the present moment, Jesus is arriving all the time, all over the place. Think of these as the “Christmas Selfies” of Jesus, and our job is to find them, like a real life Christmas selfie scavenger hunt.

But what would these snapshots of Christmas arriving look like in our actual lives?

A Christmas selfie in real life might look like a friend of mine who, after witnessing a Kmart employee being chastised by a customer in the Layaway department, deciding to make an anonymous layaway payment for a stranger, and that made the Kmart employee’s day.

A Christmas selfie in real life might look like the time another friend had just started as the pastor of a church who agreed to make a meal and be a host overnight for a homelessness program, for the very first time, on the night of Christmas Day.

A Christmas selfie in real life might look like our Christmas pageant last Sunday, written by one of our own youth, when we witnessed a talking animal telling a scared and lonely foster child that “Christmas is the perfect time to welcome a stranger.”

These are just some of the selfies of Jesus shared with us in 2016. I’m sure that you all have witnessed others, and will be witnesses to many more in the years to come. You don’t need a smart phone or filters or fancy equipment to witness them. You don’t have to be completely ready or totally prepared in order for Christmas to arrive in our lives.

Christ was born for this. Christmas is HERE. Jesus happens. Every year. Every day. Right here and now. Amen.