Sermon for 12/21/14 Luke 1:26-38

There is something comforting about a familiar story, isn’t there? In the midst of all that is happening in the world and in our lives, we know that we can hear this story and think about the miracle that occurs in this story. It’s as if, in the middle of chaos, this story is the calm that surrounds us in a warm blanket of security and familiarity. The annunciation is key to everything we believe. In our creed we even confess that “we believe he was born of the Virgin Mary…” Now, would the story be any less amazing had Mary been an older woman, already married, already with a child or two? Probably not. The fact is, Mary had been chosen for something pretty amazing, pretty miraculous, and pretty life-altering.

What amuses me about this reading is that it really is about one of the hardest issues we have to deal with in the church. A reading that usually brings us comfort and warm fuzzy feelings is really truly about one thing at its core: change. Oh no, there’s that four letter word again. Change. Change is the number one enemy of our dear friend “we’ve always done it that way.” Change is also a pretty good acquaintance of “we’ve never done it that way before.” I believe all of you are familiar with our old friends “we’ve always done it that way” and “we’ve never done it that way before.” They hang out here quite a bit. They don’t contribute much to the life of this church but it seems they have hung out here once in a while. It seems that they’re hanging around less and less though.

In an instant when Gabriel comes to Mary what he is saying to her is this: your life is about to change. Everything you know is about to change. What plans you had for yourself in your mind are about to change. Your identity is about to change. Everything you have held in your heart to be true is about to change. All of it. And Mary, instead of freaking out and running from the angel screaming  (as I might) she instead says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…” yes, because that is how we all embrace change, right?

Over the last few weeks I’ve talked a bit about the hurt in this world. I’ve talked about the reality of waiting, keeping watch, and being awake. I’ve talked about a world that is weary and is longing for Christ to return. And as Christmas has drawn closer, it seems that there is more hurt in the world. The stories on the news are almost too much to bear. A hostage situation in Australia, rising racial tensions in our own country, the threat of terrorist type attacks if a movie is released, and just the normal hum-drum of everyday life. Or maybe this year, for whatever reason, it’s hard for you to be anything close to “merry” as we get closer to Christmas. And maybe the one thing we need right now is consistency. What we need now is familiarity. What we need now is the old standby. What we get, instead, is change.

I’m sure it’s not just me, but for some reason, my life seems to operate in an opposite fashion. What I mean is that when I need life to slow down, it speeds up. When I need to find balance, I get tilted. When peace, quiet, and calm, I get met with chaos. Does this happen to anyone else besides me? Do you have those moments when you think “I don’t know how much more I can handle, God!!” Eventually you might start having that fight or flight reaction in your body. Darkness may get deeper. Love may be harder to feel. God may seem further away than ever. And just when it seems that things can’t get much worse, change happens.

We’ve learned, thanks to experience, that change isn’t always bad. But as I thought about Mary and how she must have felt upon receiving the news from Gabriel. Her reaction and how I would have reacted are complete opposites. Sometimes when I am faced with change, I go into an Ellen-style meltdown, complaining that it’s not fair and wondering “why does this have to happen to me?” (Of course, I get frustrated with Ellen when she has the same style of meltdown). But when I’m finally calmed down and quiet enough, I hear something. I feel something. I am warmed by something. It is the whisper of God. See, because it’s not just Mary that God adores, it is all of us.

Before even giving Mary her life changing news, Gabriel greets her with “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” Do you understand how amazing this is? Because this is the way that Mary was greeted, we know a lot about our God. Gabriel doesn’t show up to Mary and just dump the news on her that she is going to have a baby which will, consequently, be the savior of the world, and then leave. No. Gabriel, who is an angel of the Lord, says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!” And in that moment, we learn so much about the God that Mary will serve, the God that Gabriel serves, and the God that we serve. We serve a God who first and foremost favors us and promises to be Immanuel: God with us.

When it comes down to it, when we get a chance to be honest with ourselves and if we dare be honest with God, I think that what so many of us long for is an assurance of love. We want to hear “I love you.” Perhaps we want to hear that same sentiment but just using different words. Maybe you want to hear “you’re important” or “you’re worthy”. Maybe you long to hear “you are enough” or even “your life matters.” No matter what words we use the root of the message is this: I love you. And because Gabriel says it to Mary, we can believe it is true for us too. God favors you and God is with you. God loves you.

And it may be tempting to argue and say “but Pastor, how do you know? Gabriel only says these things to Mary.” I know because every time I hear the words “given for you and shed for you” what I am really hearing is “I love you.” And when you see someone receive communion, they are receiving love. When you see someone splashed by baptismal waters, they are receiving love. God finds so many ways to love us and often we are blind to it. You ARE loved, brothers and sisters. You are loved beyond your comprehension by someone who thought you are worth dying for. You are loved in a way that our minds and hearts have trouble understanding. But, you are loved, indeed. No matter what. Not only are you loved, but God is with you. Every moment, of every day, of every month, of every year until forever.

There is a lot of change happening in our world. There is a lot of change happening in our lives. Doesn’t it make it a lot easier to handle knowing that God loves us and God is with us? “Oh that you would tear down the heavens and come down.” “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Be awake. Keep watch. Be alert. Are you ready, favored ones? God is with you. The Lord is coming. Immanuel: God with us!

Sermon for 12/7/14 Mark 1:1-8 Advent 2

Last week I told shared with you that I had the verse from Isaiah (64:1) running through my head all week “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” and not a lot has changed this week. I still have that verse running through my head this week but now I also have a verse from Mark running through my head this week too. “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” The wilderness looks like a lot of things to a lot of people. I think if I were to take a poll, we’d have several different answers as to how you imagine the “wilderness” would look like or does look like.

I want to broaden our definitions of wilderness a bit today. I think it’s easy for us to imagine a physical wilderness. My vision may be different than yours, but when I imagine the wilderness I think of a place that is dark, overgrown, filled with unknown creatures, and even a little scary. For some reason, I think of the haunted forest from “Wizard of Oz” as the four main characters march through chanting “lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” Perhaps your vision of “the wilderness” comes from those cheesy yet scary movies that were so popular in the late 80’s; the “Friday the 13th” movies with a hockey-mask wearing, machete wielding character terrorizes a camp full of unsuspecting youth. Or maybe your idea of wilderness is not even close to what I’ve described. Nonetheless, I think we can all imagine a place of physical wilderness.

At the same time, I want to talk about a metaphorical wilderness. A metaphorical wilderness isn’t so much a place, but more like a feeling. And again, every one of us will have a different definition of a metaphorical wilderness. Perhaps you’ve experienced a time of wilderness after the death of a loved one. Maybe you’ve experienced a time of wilderness after a job loss or maybe even after retirement. Wilderness is often found after a tough breakup or divorce. Wilderness, for me, is that time when God feels far away or even absent. Now, I know logically that God will never abandon me or forsake me and the same goes for you. However, that doesn’t stop those wilderness periods from happening. In my experience, a metaphorical wilderness usually is one of those times when you want to cry out to God “why are you letting this happen?!?”

It doesn’t seem like I have a positive definition of the wilderness no matter if it’s an actual physical wilderness or a metaphorical wilderness. In my experience, it’s difficult for good things to happen in the wilderness. So I have struggled this week as I’ve thought about what Mark says in today’s reading “…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And I wanted to play around with punctuation a bit because it changes the entire meaning of the sentence. What if that sentence was read this way “the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness (pause) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” The emphasis being that the voice is coming from the wilderness. But, what if, instead, it was read this way: “the voice of the one crying out (pause) ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” Here, the emphasis is that we will prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Either way, something is going to happen in or from the wilderness and that just doesn’t seem logical.

If the wilderness is a place of darkness or uncertainty, how in the world are we going to prepare for the coming of the Lord in a place like that? It doesn’t make sense to prepare for the coming of the Lord that is basically chaotic. I’m not trying to make light out of this situation, but if, for some reason, we knew the time and day that the Lord was going to return, I doubt any of us would say “sounds perfect! I’m just gonna go ahead and march out to the middle of a deep, dark forest, where there are no resources, perhaps some vicious animals, and no cell phone reception and prepare for the Lord out there.” No. Most likely we would iron our best lace tablecloths, get out the good china, polish the silver, dust from top to bottom and even vacuum under the couch cushions. Then maybe, just maybe, we’d be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

But, of course, the Lord never works the way we think he will. This, of course, is no exception. We hear from John the Baptist who is proclaiming forgiveness of sins from the wilderness. This doesn’t make sense. Proclaiming forgiveness of sins from the wilderness? I would understand if John the Baptist was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins from the temple, from the town center, maybe even from the home of a local; but to proclaim the forgiveness of sins from the wilderness tells us exactly what kind of Lord we should prepare for.

We should prepare for a Lord that meets us in the messy. We should prepare for a Lord that sees us hurting, in pain, suffering, in agony, and in great darkness and whispers “I’m here.” We should prepare for a Lord that sees injustice and encourages us not to just sit back and shake our heads but to get angry. We should prepare for a Lord that yes, will meet us in the wilderness, but that wilderness may not be our wilderness. As I said last week, what if the Lord returns but returns to the homeless community that lives under the bridge by the Mississippi in downtown Clinton? What if we’re to be preparing the way not here, but in a place like that? What if we’re to be preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness of a prison, or a domestic violence shelter, or a soup kitchen, or on the streets of Ferguson, or Cleveland, or New York City in the midst of protestors that shout, even cry “black lives matter!”

These places of wilderness are not places that we expect to find Jesus. I mean, if we’re going to be honest with one another, we don’t necessarily go looking for Jesus in places like a prison, or a rehab clinic, or a homeless shelter, or … (the list could go on and on). But you know what, a savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be born in a manger. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be mocked, riddled, and derided. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be betrayed by one of his friends. A savior like Jesus wasn’t supposed to be crucified. But, this is the Jesus we serve, my brothers and sisters. And believe it or not, the idea that Jesus would be coming in the wilderness is good news.

Jesus in the wilderness or Jesus from the wilderness, no matter how we choose to read it is good news because that means that the “power” of the wilderness is not one of darkness and evil, but one of light and life. If Jesus comes from the wilderness that certainly means he will come to us in the wilderness. That means that when (not if) we have our times of doubt and darkness, Jesus not only is there, but is going through it with us and is, most likely, going ahead of us to prepare a way for us. Crazy things happen in the wilderness. Crazy people come from the wilderness (John the Baptist). When we start to realize that the Lord we serve will only ever make sense when we view him through his life, death, and resurrection and not through our biased, sinful eyes, then, and only then, will we start to realize that preparing a way for him in the wilderness is really quite logical.

The Lord is coming. We don’t know the time or the place. But we ought be prepared, even if that means being prepared in the wilderness. Keep awake! Be prepared! Keep watch. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”

A Year In

Today I celebrate my one year installation anniversary serving as pastor of Elvira Zion Lutheran Church. I remember the celebration fondly because it was the final step in something I had waited for so long. I’ve learned a lot in my first year as an ordained leader. I’m no where near done learning, I hope to never be done learning. But, for now, here are some of my thoughts on what I’ve learned while “taking stalk.”

1.  I really am called to do this. That may sound strange, but I waited for so long to receive a call that I started to wonder if God really wanted me to be a Pastor. As I have walked with this amazing group of people this last year, my call has been affirmed over and over and over again. I’m so grateful.

2. I had/have no idea what I don’t know. You know that saying “I don’t know what I don’t know”? Yep….that was me for a good portion of my first year. It is often assumed that a pastor, not just me, knows what has happened in a congregation in the past or how “we’ve always done things.” I didn’t. I often learned on the fly, which was fine (since that is most like my learning style). But, I am still learning a lot of what I don’t know.

3. I know nothing about building maintenance. Thank God I am surrounded by very capable men and women who do. But, I had a lot of conversations this year about sewers, boilers, how to capture rodents, floors, painting, etc… None of these things are in my wheelhouse. But, I am still grateful that I was part of the conversation. I’m still learning and so far, haven’t had to plunge a toilet while wearing my alb. Finding the dead squirrel, however, that’s a different story.

4. Taking an accounting class while in seminary would have done me worlds of good. Thank God I have a treasurer and financial secretary who are very patient with me and are more than happy to explain figures and spending and accounts to me. Thank God they also both want to be as transparent with numbers, budget, and spending as I do.

5. Funerals never get easy. Funerals are part of what I do. In fact, it is probably one of the moments where I get to encounter the “Holy” the most. That said, it doesn’t get easier with time. Walking with a family in grief (sometimes in great grief) is hard. When you see people that you love hurting, it’s difficult. Speaking of…

6. I had no idea how capable of love I would become. I consider myself a pretty loving person. I am affectionate and I’m not shy about it. However, in a year, I have grown to love these people more than I ever thought was possible. That’s not to say that they’re not lovable; it’s more of a reflection on my ability to love. They make me laugh, they challenge me, they accept me, they love our daughter, they know how to have fun, and most importantly, they know what it means to be Christ to me and to one another.

7. Thank God for my secretary. Seriously. This woman saves my sanity quite often. She is reliable and efficient. Most importantly, she has become a trusted colleague. Speaking of…

8. Thank God for my colleagues. I have amazing colleagues both near and far. My text study group that meets weekly has been a safe place for me, has helped me to grow, and has been a place of a lot of laughter.

9. It is really hard (I mean, really) to be a full time pastor, a full time mom, and a full time wife. I rarely seem to get all of these roles balanced. I am still learning what it means to have all of these vocations at the same time. I remind myself to be gentle with myself if one of these roles suffers because of the other (but try to not make a habit out of it).

10. Self-care is crucial…and I usually suck at it. I am horrible about putting myself first. I hope to make this more of a goal for my second year. Many aspects of my health suffered off and on this past year because I neglected my self-care.

11. I really do love rural ministry. When I first entered seminary, I thought that I wanted to serve an urban, inner-city ministry with an outreach to the homeless, HIV, LGBT, etc… population. And perhaps, someday, a long time from now, that will be the kind of ministry I am called to. But for now, there is something lovely about where I am. I can’t say I’ve grown accustomed to the “smell of money” but really, does anyone ever grow accustomed to that??

12. I am busier than I ever thought I’d be. At first, it would be easy to think “it’s a small church, there won’t be enough to keep me busy.” That’s not true. That’s pretty far from the truth, actually. In fact, i think I’ve spent the entire year feeling behind on things I need to do.

13. The Holy Spirit is amazing. Every time I get to preside at the table or do a baptism, I get the chills. Being trusted to be Christ’s hands and feet in these instances is really humbling and something I am honored to do. Every time.

14. What I do is really fun. For some people, it may not seem that way. But seriously, I love what I do. I can’t believe I get paid to do this (for the record, I appreciate the fact that I get paid to do this–it helps me pay student loans). Is every moment fun? Nope. But, every moment is filled with God and that’s pretty powerful.

15. God is always here making all things new. God doesn’t need me–but it’s nice to know they’ll keep me around for a little while longer.

I think that’s it for now. I’m sure this list could go on and on and on. I am looking forward to year 2 and learning even more about the people I serve, the God we all serve together, and myself.