Sermon for 3/29/20 John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary’s lament seems a little too familiar these days, doesn’t it? In these times, we may look at what is happening in our state, in our country, and in our world and be filled with grief. We may be weary, I know I certainly am. We may even, dare I say, be lacking hope. That can be a scary place to be. As we hear news stories, read articles, hear from family members or friends in other places, or even as the reality that our first case of Coronavirus in Clinton County was confirmed earlier this week, it may feel like we are looking out over a valley of dry bones. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I don’t know, Lord. These bones are kind of tired, how about yours? 

The story of the raising of Lazarus is a good one for the time we find ourselves in. Combined with the reading from Ezekiel, and, well, we’ve got ourselves a doozy today. I am not going to beat around the bush here, my beloved. This illness is serious. I think we all know this. It is responsible for grinding a lot of things to a halt and requiring of us to really think about every movement we make. That door handle, do we know who last touched it? Chris sanitized our groceries after I brought them home the other day, which was a new experience. At the funeral for Anna Paarmann I couldn’t pass the peace or comfort the family with anything but words. But the starkest and harshest reality is this: people are dying from this. People will continue to die from this. One of my greatest fears is that I will have to bury one of you because of this dreadful virus. “Lord if you had been here….” 

I think it’s good for us to listen and feel the lament of Mary and Martha. After all, I know so many of you are faithful in your prayer life. I have no doubt that many of you have beeseached God to stop this virus, to heal people, to cure this illness, to turn this all around. And every day the numbers go up. And every day more people die. And every day the market is a roller coaster. As the psalmist says “out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” This isn’t just a passing prayer, but a guttural lament. This comes from our souls. This is a prayer of desperation. This is the prayer of weary, dry bones. This is the prayer of Mary and Martha. This is the prayer of all of us who don’t know when or if we will go back to work or school. This is the prayer for all who stand outside nursing home windows waving at loved ones. This is the prayer of those waiting to hear test results. This is the prayer of tired, overworked health care personnel on the front line. How long, O Lord? If you had been here! 

Mary and Martha are not like so many of you: faithful. They knew what Jesus was capable of. This is why they lamented that he had not been there to save Lazarus from his death. And, as we’re told, by the time Jesus does show up to express his own grief, Lazarus has already been dead for 4 days. Martha and Mary expected healing. They didn’t immediately get one. Yet, they remain faithful. It is perfectly acceptable to be faithful and disappointed at the same time. The two do not negate one another. Did you hear? Almost immediately after Mary’s lament of “if you had been here” she says “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She remains faithful despite her lament and disappointment. 

Is it possible then, my beloved, that God is calling us to such discipleship at this time? It is perfectly acceptable to lament. It is perfectly acceptable to be angry. It is very normal to be overwhelmed. In the midst of that, however, is God’s faithfulness in the midst of death and destruction. Where are the signs of God’s faithfulness that will restore life in the midst of death? Where can we point to the dry bones that have life in them once again? Remember, Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even in times of agony and death, illness and destruction, God wants for us abundant life. 

And just like Lazarus, in the middle of uncertainty, Jesus calls our name. Jesus knows us by name. Every single one of us. Jesus knows you whether you know it or not. Jesus calls you by name. And when the call comes, we are all brought back into community, back into healing, back into wholeness. Lazarus had air in his lungs and his bones were no longer dry. These times may last for a while, my beloved. It’s important that we name that reality and the fear that accompanies it. This may last for a while. We don’t know when we will see one another again. But one day, the rock covering our tombs will be rolled away and Jesus will call our names. We need not fear death. Because in Jesus there is life. Life abundant and life eternal. In this time of confusion, death, destruction, hypocrisy, and too many questions to name, don’t be afraid to roll all those stones away and listen to the only thing that can give life and defeat death. Jesus. He calls your name. He calls my name. He calls and claims each one of us. 

Sermon for 8/18/19 Luke 12:49-56

This is a cheery little piece of scripture, isn’t it? Aren’t you excited you came to church today? Jesus sounds a little…. un-Jesus like today, doesn’t he? I know what you’re wondering. “How in the world is Pastor J going to spin this so I don’t leave here wanting to burn the whole world down?” Because if Jesus is supposed to be good news, then where in the world is the good news in this scripture? I mean, what are we supposed to think when the first thing we hear in this scripture is “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” That’s not fuzzy warm Jesus! Once again, there isn’t necessarily a way around this. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about ease. God isn’t looking for Monday morning quarterbacks. The call to discipleship is one that demands we get in the game, get dirty, and also be willing to lose. 

At first glance, division may not seem comfortable. But, when I really started to think about it, it occurred to me that division is actually our normal way of life. We may not think of it that way necessarily, but we all make choices on a daily basis that may put us at odds with one another. Now, these choices aren’t always going to cause a riff at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, but it’s possible that other choices might. In our house, it has to be Jif peanut butter, Crest toothpaste, Charmin Ultra toilet paper, and while we didn’t plan it this way, ever since Chris and I could drive, we’ve never driven anything but a GM car. Other things could cause division: cats versus dogs, Cyclones versus Hawkeyes, even (gasp) green versus red. But there are other divisions that do cause heartache and even pit family member against family member. All we have to do is look at the most recent election to know this to be true. These divisions prevent us from really seeing and feeling the presence of God and seeing the kingdom here on earth. 

It wasn’t Jesus purpose to set family member against family member. At the same time, Jesus hasn’t come to “validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will” (Carlson, 363 Feasting on the Word). Maybe what Jesus says here seems radical. At the same time, if the disciples (and us, honestly) had been listening all along, this actually wouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea. We first hear of these divisions early on in Mary’s song of praise. The Magnificat, which we normally hear during Advent, speaks of division. She says that God, through Jesus Christ will bring the powerful down from their thrones, separating those who are in power from their places of power. Mary’s song goes on to say that the lowly will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty. The divisions that normally divided people will be reversed and God’s reign will be the only thing that makes sense. 

John the Baptist continues this idea of the upheaval of social norms. He says (using the words of Isaiah) that Jesus will come and that valleys will be filled, mountains and hills will be made low, the crooked made straight and the rough ways made smooth. And, in good John the Baptist style, he calls the crowd a brood of vipers. He challenges them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In short, demolish the walls of division for the good of the kingdom. Jesus himself has challenged societal norms since he started preaching and teaching through Nazareth, Galilee, and all through Israel. In one of his first times preaching at synagogue, he tells those listening that the spirit of God is upon him because he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and give sight to the blind. Again, the idea is that whatever divisions we try to put in place as humans, God, through Jesus Christ, has come to demolish. The question that we struggle with today is this one: what do we value more, those divisions or furthering the kingdom of God?

I have this theory. I don’t know that we, at least in the western world, know how to live in peace. We only know how to live in conflict avoidance and instead call that avoidance “peace.” No one actually like conflict and division. At least, I’ve never met anyone who has claimed to like it. Instead, we drum up ideas and reasons to avoid conflict, just not deal with it, perhaps even ignore it, and then say “we’re good” and move on. But, in our attempt to avoid conflict and division, we may be the hypocrites Jesus spoke of in verse 56. “we fail to recognize that Jesus’s ministry itself may be responsible for stirring up that conflict, bringing both heat and light to how sin, death, and the devil are at work in our communities. The ministry of the king of peace (Luke 19:37) often hides under the sign of its opposite” (Chan, Working Preacher). Jesus comes to bring peace but we can’t see it because we’re too busy hanging on to being on the right side of division (whichever side that may be). We’re worshiping being right rather than succumbing to Jesus literally shaking us up for true peace built on confession, forgiveness, and repentance. 

In order to have the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring, we have to be willing to engage in the tough work of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. Confession is wonderful but if we only say “I’m sorry” and our actions prove otherwise, God may continue to cause division. We are called to forgive, truly forgive one another. We can’t say “I forgive you” and continue to hold whatever it is over one another. Repentance is the even more difficult work of healing relationships that have been divided only by our actions or inactions. This work of being in community together is hard and can create a crisis feeling. 

In the midst of all that divides us and in the chasms that form between us, when chaos is swirling all around us, there is Christ. No matter what side you find yourself on, there is Christ. And Jesus is willing to stay with us until we get it right. Jesus is willing to love us until we let go of what divides us and instead work for what unites us. Jesus’ peace is wrapped up in the fire he brings through the Holy Spirit. Fire is what burns away all of the noise, all of the walls, all of the divisions that stop the kingdom from being on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s not always fun. And it doesn’t always result in warm fuzzy feelings. But in our attempt to find peace, whatever that may look like, Jesus is always there. Division doesn’t have to be the norm of our lives. Christ has set his face to Jerusalem, to the place where he will be crucified, the saving action for all the world. We could fight it. But, “a God willing to die for us and for this creation is” a “singular matter. That Jesus has no patience with those who do not grasp the urgency of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his mission there, and his life’s work” (363 Lull, Feasting on the Word).  Sometimes the things that make for peace are fire and Jesus’ harsh words. Getting our attention has never been so crucial. 

Sermon for 7/21/19 Luke 10:38-42

“But Martha was distracted by her many tasks…” How dare Jesus call me out like that. This text might as well say “but Jealaine was distracted by her many tasks.” I feel seen and offended all at the same time. I think there are better ways of getting my attention, Jesus. This Gospel text didn’t have to come up now, at this time, in this place, in order to get my attention. And I can almost hear Jesus saying “oh really? How else was I to get your attention?” I have no doubt that there has been a Sunday or two where you may have thought “I really feel like Pastor was talking directly to me. She’s got a lot of nerve.” Well, that’s me today except with Jesus. I have a small example of this. 

Last Sunday, Ellen was determined that she wanted to go swimming. On Sunday, after church one thing takes priority: my Sunday afternoon nap. I believe Jesus created naps for a reason. But, Chris wasn’t up for swimming and so I needed to be the best and coolest mom ever and go swimming. Task accepted. It was hot. I was a human jungle gym in the pool. There were like 3000 kids at the pool and Ellen had a great time so that’s all that matters. We made a brief stop at the grocery store before going home. By the time we got home, I was not the cheery ray of sunshine you see before you now. But, I kept moving as soon as we walked in the door. I started our dinner. I put the wet, chlorine filled towels in the washer, I changed my clothes, I filled one of the dog’s water bowls back up, and then I opened the dishwasher to empty that. By this time, Chris had come in the kitchen and said “what are you doing?” I said “emptying the dishwasher” (which, I thought was apparent by the fact that I was literally in the middle of emptying the dishwasher when he asked. It’s not like I was in the middle of brain surgery.) But I think what he really meant is “why are you moving? Why are you still working?” So, in his best and most gentle voice he said “go sit down.” He was inviting me to rest. I will tell you that the look I gave him was not real loving. 

How often does Jesus come among us, begging us to rest, to sit at his feet and learn, to soak in knowledge, to have a sabbath of sorts, and we either miss it or we’re just too busy? I find it interesting that when God created the world, everything was called “good” except for one thing, and that is sabbath. Sabbath is the only thing that, when created, was called “holy.” What a relief it must have been to Martha, perhaps, to take a rest from society’s expectations. And Jesus calls us to rest, calls us to recenter ourselves on that which is life-giving, calls us to just be, and we’re too damned busy to actually do it. 

Now, please understand that I am not telling you all to quit your jobs and go lay on the beach (although if you can afford to do that and want to do that then more power to you). But what do you do that is life giving? I’m not saying that being busy is a bad thing. But, we’ve made busy almost a status of statement in life. We often try and “out busy” one another. “You think you’re busy? Listen to this….” I know I’ve jokingly said that I often need vacations from my vacations. Yet US employees in general leave 170 million vacation days unused every year. Like Martha, our work is good work. It is work that may even leave us really satisfied. But, at the end of the day, we are called to rest. We are called to step away from society’s expectations, and sit with the one who loves us unconditionally. 

So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we take the time to rest? Why don’t we take the time for sabbath? Why don’t we stop for a while and rest at the feet of Jesus? Could it be that we’re missing Jesus? It’s possible. Jesus longs to be in relationship with us. And yet we treat him like anything else on our “to-do” list. As if Jesus is a light bulb we’ve been meaning to replace. We don’t take the time out for a few reasons (at least as I see it). One, we feel guilty when we do take time off to just rest and be. Two, we have a little bit of martyr in us. Perhaps people will feel sorry for us that we’ve been working 6 or 7 days a week straight for the last 18 years. And three, if we take the time to slow down, that means we just might have to listen for Christ and to Christ and do we really want to hear what he has to say to us?

Martha isn’t trying to avoid Christ. She’s not making herself a martyr. She might be dealing with guilt (especially again, because hospitality was expected). But it is as if Jesus is saying to her “Martha, I don’t care about any of that. Just put that stuff down and come and relax. Listen to me.” What keeps you from sitting at the feet of Jesus? Are you afraid of what Jesus might say to you? Are you afraid that you’re going to hear a message of love that you’ve convinced yourself you don’t deserve? Are you afraid that you’re going to hear a word of forgiveness that you’ve craved but keep denying? Are you afraid that instead of hearing judgement and condemnation, that you might hear mercy, peace, and the desire to love you? That is scary, my beloved. If we keep ourselves busy enough we don’t have to be vulnerable. 

It goes against everything this culture stands for to stop what you’re doing and sit at the feet of the one who gives life. It goes against everything that society says we should want to bask in the knowledge and love of the one who gives us love. And it is most certainly counter-cultural to not be busy. Perhaps it’s time that we start to “busy” ourselves with just being. Maybe we should busy ourselves being in the presence of the one who calls us to be. Nothing else in this life matters, my beloved, if we have nothing and no one to call on. Nothing else in this life matters if we are counting on ourselves or our own actions to ensure our salvation. Maybe if you won’t hear Jesus, you’ll hear me: I am giving you permission to rest. I am giving myself permission to rest. I am giving you permission to no longer cower and cave under what society expects of you. I am giving you permission to sit at the feet of the one who loves you and be reminded what it means to be loved, be washed, be fed, and be freed. I am giving you permission to be Mary and Martha in a world that expects you to be either one or the other.  

 

Sermon for 4/7/19 John 12:1-8

**nb: part of this sermon was visual. The congregation saw pictures of things that cost around $54,000. This included farm equipment, a boat, 5th wheel camper, jewelry, shoes, and a handbag. **

This is a gospel story about extravagant love. It’s hard for us to understand how much the perfume that Mary rubbed on Jesus’ feet was actually worth. After all, we don’t use denarii anymore. So, to say that she used 300 denarii doesn’t actually mean that much to us. So how about this? Mary rubbed approximately $54,000 on Jesus’ feet. That was extravagant love. Now, I don’t know about you, but even to say $54,000 doesn’t necessarily mean I understand it. I  don’t know what $54,000 looks like. So, I thought I would help us to understand this extravagant love. Let’s take a look at what I found you could get for around $54,000.

Now that we’ve seen examples of that, maybe we have a better idea of how extravagant and obnoxious (in the best way) this act of love really was. We don’t know how much of a sacrifice this was for Mary, financially. After all, we’re never told that Mary is poor. I think we often assume that the followers and disciples of Jesus were poor. And while that may have been the case for some, we aren’t told about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ financial situation. How did Mary manage to get such expensive perfume? We don’t know. But what we do know is that it was about a year’s worth of wages poured on Jesus feet in an act of anointing and love.

Jesus doesn’t say much during this very intricate and very intimate ritual. We don’t hear from him until he tries to quiet Judas. Mary didn’t say anything. Jesus didn’t say anything. But they both knew what was going on. Her actions spoke very loudly. Mary doesn’t talk about how much she loves Jesus. She doesn’t talk about how she is preparing him for death. Mary doesn’t talk about the significance of using pure nard, which, traditionally was used to prepare bodies in ritual cleansing after death. The fact that this nard probably came from India to Palestine made it even more valuable. Mary doesn’t know that in a few days following her washing Jesus’ feet with this perfume, Jesus will show his love to his disciples by kneeling and washing their feet. This was not a thank you gift to Jesus for raising Lazarus. But none of that was said. It was all action. Isn’t that how love is or at least should be?

How might you have reacted? After all, to receive a gift worth $54,000 isn’t something most of us have experienced. Can you even wrap your mind around that idea? And what if the person giving you this gift did it out of love and with no intentions of getting anything in return? I don’t know about you, but I certainly couldn’t have been as calm and quiet about a gift like that as Jesus was. But then again, that is what makes Jesus Jesus. I don’t know that a lot of us know what to do with that kind of abundance. At the beginning of the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus has come so that we may experience “grace upon grace” (1.16). An abundance of grace. An abundance of love. So much so that it may make us uncomfortable. So much so that we may not know how to react. So much love and grace that we may actually be rendered speechless. Jesus loves us in a way that cannot be reciprocated. It’s just not possible. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love Jesus and Jesus’ world and Jesus’ people. But Jesus loves us in such a way and with such an abundance that we can never love Jesus in the same way.

What happens in these short few little verses is actually quite huge. Mary is preparing Jesus for his death. That is an abundant sign of love. Mary recognizes the humanity of Jesus and recognizes his inherent need for love. It isn’t very often that people are able to see Jesus as the human he really is. Jesus is so often in his role as the divine that we can forget that he is human and has actual human needs. And one of those needs is love. We all need it. It is so powerful when we receive it without having to ask for it. It’s so powerful when we receive it without any expectations. Mary isn’t just loving Jesus for who he is but for who he will become. Mary is loving Jesus into his future. Mary is loving him towards his death.

Jesus knows what he has to do. He is turning his heart, mind, and physical body towards Jerusalem. He will enter the week with the waving of palms and then quickly tried and executed. But, it was Mary’s extravagant love that allowed Jesus to show extravagant love to us. Whether you know it or not, we have all been recipients of someone loving us into the next stage of our lives. This is what Mary did for Jesus. In her love, Mary was basically telling Jesus “yes you can do this. You can go to Jerusalem. And I love you.” But remember, none of that was said, it was all felt through action. Mary loved Jesus into his future. And there has been someone in your life who has loved you into yours. There is someone who has loved you $54,000 worth, or maybe even more.

We have all had a Mary in our lives. That person who loves us beyond what we can imagine. That person who loves us in such a way that the “what’s next” seems a bit more manageable. Maybe it was a parent, a spouse, or partner. Maybe it was a teacher. Maybe it was a friend. But I have no doubt that we have all had that person who has empowered us to believe that we are worthy of love and made us feel love. This is just a small taste of how Jesus loves us. Jesus always loves us into the “what’s next.” We may not know it’s Jesus. But it is. Sometimes, Jesus sends familiar people to love us into the “what’s next.” And when someone loves us into our “what’s next” we are actually empowered to be who God created us to be. Again, when someone comes alongside us to love us into the next part of our lives, it is more than just lip service.

Mary didn’t tell Jesus she loved him, she showed him. There is something really powerful about being shown love. Much like I said last week, when someone shows you love in a physical, healthy way, you are recognized. And there is power in recognition. There is power in being seen. There is power in gaining confidence to move boldly into our futures knowing that we are loved. Who is loving you into your “what’s next”? Are you loving someone into their “what’s next”? Jesus is always loving us into our next thing. Even when we don’t recognize it, Jesus is loving us with more than just lip service. Everything we have in our lives is proof of Jesus loving us into the disciples he knows we can be.

Jesus took all the love given to him by Mary and all of his other disciples with him as he went into Jerusalem. And in his final breaths, in his death on the cross, in his blood poured out, Jesus took that love and gave it back to us. The blood poured out was loved poured out. Jesus has been loving us into our what’s next since his death. And in the empty tomb he showed us once again that we are loved. Because the empty tomb couldn’t hold all of that love. Love ushered Jesus into the resurrection. And, some day, may it be the same for us. You are loved, my beloveds. You are loved with love greater than $54,000. You are loved beyond what you can even imagine. You are loved into your “what’s next” which means you are loved into the person God created you to be. That is some powerful love! Thanks be to God!

Sermon for 12/24/18 Luke 2:1-20; Christmas Eve

The two sermons I struggle with the most are Christmas Eve and Easter morning. The pressure is on to say something amazing, magnificent, outstanding, and yet keep it short, maybe a funny or two thrown in, and also, not too political but yet make it applicable to what is going on in the world, in our nation, and also your own lives. But it must also be profound! And if I am judged by only 2 of the sermons I give throughout the year (out of 60 or so) then I really feel the pressure. Then I read the scripture, listen carefully to what it has to say, and I want to stand up and say “did you hear that?? Great. Sermon ended.” I know some of you may not mind.

This text can be so familiar to many of us. It’s easy to tune out and miss some of the finer details. At the core of this story is God becoming human. God, taking on human form and living, working, breathing like any other human. But, first, that human was a baby. This was a baby brought into this world by someone who was forgotten; even worse, she was most likely cast out from society. Were there really no rooms available or had word spread and no one wanted to be associated with an unwed pregnant teenager? And if this baby was to be so important, shouldn’t the word of his birth first be told to those in power? To Quirinius, Emperor Augustus, or others in the houses of power?

But the first to know about this birth (other than Mary and Joseph) were any animals finding refuge in the barn. And they can’t necessarily spread the good news. So logically, the next to be told were the shepherds. Now, despite any pictures you may have in your head about these shepherds, they actually were pretty low in society. They were frowned upon and shamed a lot. Because being a shepherd required you to be with your flock almost 24/7, the shepherds were not afforded time to go to worship. They also could not keep the sabbath. So, they were considered unclean. Society often stereotyped shepherds as being thieves, liars, and just a general drain on society. Had they told the news of this birth, they most likely wouldn’t have been listened to anyway.

I would have to imagine that being a shepherd was a lonely life. Long working hours, often in deserted places, shunned by society, your friends, and potentially your family, living life as an outsider; all of that would make me wonder about God. It might be enough for me to give up on God. Then, in a flash of light (literally, brilliant light) and angel of the Lord comes. An angel brings good news to the most unlikely of people. This is the second time in this story that God has shown up to and through the most unlikely of people; the most forgotten of people; the most shamed and marginalized group of people. Just when the shepherds might have given up on God, just when Joseph thought he had been abandoned by God, God shows up. And God has continued to do that ever since.

Jesus’ birth was a hint of what was to come in Jesus’ life. God makes Jesus known in the most unlikely of places to the most unlikely of people. Jesus showed up to people who had been forgotten. Jesus showed up to people who were kicked out, downtrodden, and maybe even spat upon. Jesus showed up to the unclean, the unkept, the unwelcomed, and the unchurched and did nothing but love. Jesus didn’t come and say “I’ve come for you but only on these conditions.” Nope. Jesus did exactly what Jesus does, he met the people right where they were. And Jesus continues to do that today. He meets us right where we are.

Of course it feels like God really is Emmanuel tonight, God with us. I mean, we’ve got the carols, we’ll have candles later, we’ll taste God in bread and wine, and you’re probably sitting near or around some of your favorite people. It’s easy to feel like God is in this place tonight. But what happens after tonight? What happens when you reflect back on your year as we so often tend to do during this season? For many people, maybe even some of you gathered here tonight, God may feel very far away. You may start to relate more to the shepherds than you thought. Maybe you’ve been wondering all about this God stuff. Maybe you’ve even begged God to show up in your life only to be left in the silence.

This time of year can be challenging anyway. The nights are longer, the days are colder. We see the sun less. You start to pass that same cold around to your family and friends only to get it back 3 weeks later. Maybe this is your first Christmas without a loved one that has passed since last Christmas. Or maybe it’s your 15th Christmas without them. Either way, grief seems to be felt deeper around this time. And while I love being reminded of love incarnate in the form of a newborn baby Jesus, I’m also not naive enough to think that all of your problems (or mine for that matter) magically disappeared when you walked through these doors. I’m also not going to assume that your problems will stay gone until after the new year.

But the birth we celebrate tonight is more than just a birth. It is an inclusion of those who have long been left behind by us, by the church, by society, for far too long. Tonight while we are in here celebrating, rejoicing, and generally being merry, God is showing up for and to the people who have all but given up on God. And for me, my beloved, this is good news. Because I have no doubt all of us have been through a time when we just about or actually did give up on God. Maybe you’ve had problems in your marriage. Maybe your kids are struggling. Perhaps you’re without a job or without meaningful employment. I know several of you watch the market reports daily and wonder if this is the last year you will tend to your fields. Or maybe you just observe the state of the world and genuinely ask and wonder “where is God?” So many of us have maybe several reasons to feel like God isn’t going to show up, isn’t real, and most certainly doesn’t listen to us.

In those first cries, in that report from the angels, in the hurriedness of the shepherds, we see once again that God came, did come, and will continue to come to those who need it the most. If you’re just not feeling merry this year for whatever reason, then hear this good news: you are not forgotten. God will and does show up first and foremost to you. If you’re feeling like a phoney sitting in these pews tonight, you’re a shepherd. God will show up to you. If you’re feeling like God hasn’t shown up in your life all year, you’re a shepherd. God is showing up to you. If you’re feeling like shame, regret, remorse, grief, anger, or general apathy rules in your life instead of God, you’re a shepherd. God is showing up to you. And when you come forward tonight to receive body and blood, please hear the words “for you.” There is nothing you have to do for God to come to you. God will always come to and for you. And God does not expect you to check your baggage at the door.

So come in your anger. Come in your joy. Come in your faith and come in your questioning. Come with your doubts and fears. For some of you being here is an act of courage. Thank you for being so brave. God is here. God is with you. God will go with you. And God will continue to love you beyond your wildest imaginations. Especially (and maybe essentially) on the days when you can’t feel it, don’t want to feel it, or can’t even love yourself. Christ the babe was born for you!

Sermon for 12/23/18 Luke 1:39-55; Advent 4

As we anxiously await the one that is to come, we meet two friends.

Two friends who find each other on the opposite end of

Life’s various spectrums and they gather during a very uncertain time.

One is old. Very old. One is young. Unmarried.

Both carry prophets within them. One will be a savior,

The other will point to the savior. Both will die for their proclamations.

God is, indeed, making all things new and turning the world

Upside down.

These two? Elizabeth, who was said to be barren.

And Mary, who was said to be a virgin.

Both, now, worthy of a pregnant pause.

Both, chosen by God to bear prophets.

If that’s not God doing something new and turning the world

Upside down,

I don’t know what is.

This is not a calm conversation. This is not tea between friends.

This is obnoxious, unadulterated, exuberant joy!

When your soul is rejoicing, you are anything but calm.

Both women are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Anything but calm.

And when Mary sings! Oh goodness! When Mary sings

Look out!

Her soul magnifies the Lord!

Her being, her essence, her whole person,

Glorifies the Lord. God has looked on her,

A nobody, and made her

A somebody.

God has shown her favor. Her! Of all people!

Her family isn’t known. She isn’t rich. She is a nobody

From a nobody place. She’s young. She’s unmarried.

And she’s pregnant. Society does not celebrate her.

But Mary celebrates. If God has shown her favor,

Surely God’s favor will extend to all who feel forgotten,

Shunned, forsaken, excluded, and cast out.

There’s something to be said about the joy, glory, and praise

That comes from

Being recognized.

There’s relief and comfort in knowing

God, above anyone else, sees you.

Recognizes you.

Praises you.

Remembers you.

This is most certainly good news to all who have felt like Mary.

And if that was not enough! Mary insists that this same God,

The same God that favors even the most forgotten,

This same God will also humble the powerful.

This same God will feed the hungry with more than just words,

Thoughts, or prayers.

This same God will turn the rich away and instead

Respect the poor with seats of honor.

This same God chose the most vulnerable of all,

An infant, to become human.

This same God chose the most forgotten,

An unwed teenager,

To birth the Word into the world.

This is the world turned upside down.

This is a world totally different than we know it.

This is a world where hope is stronger than power,

Where mercy is stronger than money,

Where grace is stronger than grit,

And where love is stronger than anything else.

This is a world where an aged woman

And unwed teenager

Can both be pregnant, can both be birthers of the word,

And can both be proof of God’s unending dedication to

Uplifting the forgotten.

This is a world where walls, borders, and checkpoints

Cease to exist. And instead, all are greeted with

Welcomed, opened arms.

This is a world where the powerful and rich will cower.

This is a world where those on the margins are finally

Listened to and valued.

This is a world where every human life has value.

And it doesn’t matter if that human life is brown, white,

Gay, straight, fat, thin, or any other box checked,

God remembers the forgotten and

We’ve all been there.

Mary’s song is our song if we sing it in the key

Of G-O-D. Instead, we so often sing it in the key of

M-E.

In Mary, in Elizabeth, in John the Baptist, and in Jesus,

God is turning this world upside down.

But that’s okay. When God turns things upside down,

And makes all things new, that includes us.

That alone is worthy of soul magnification!

Sermon for 12/24/17 Luke 1:26-38; Advent 4

This is one of my secrets but is also not a secret: I love Broadway showtunes. I can be found often rocking out to Rogers and Hammerstein, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and most recently: Lin Manuel Miranda. So, there’s a popular little musical on Broadway right now, you may have heard of it. It’s called “Hamilton.” And yes, it’s the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of this country’s founding fathers and the guy on the $10. And of course, as I was listening to the soundtrack this week for the 1000th time, I heard something that made me think of today’s text. So, I want to share this with you. The song is called “History Has Its Eyes on You.” George Washington needs some help, finally after some convincing, he callson Alexander Hamilton. What follows is this song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDeWJ0SiFCA)

I thought about Mary. Did she know? Did she know that history would have its eyes on her? Did she know that we would discuss her for years to come? She had no control, as the song said, of who would tell her story. And so, here we are, telling her story. Thousands of years later, we tell Mary’s story. And history still has its eyes on her. Did she have any idea? From the first time the angel greeted her with “greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” her life changed. Because really, up until then, she probably wasn’t considered a favored one. She was female. She was young. She wasn’t rich. She wasn’t extraordinary. She was ordinary. But in her ordinariness, she was found to be favored. She was like us: sinner and saint at the same time. And yet somehow, she was part of the work of God. And so are we.

While Mary is the mother of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, she was also a nobody. I don’t say that to be disrespectful. But until the angel Gabriel came to her, she was a nobody. And believe it or not, this is good news for us. Because if God can look upon Mary, who society would have looked at as a nobody, then God can look upon us. God chose Mary because she had nothing. God is going to become the incarnate Lord; Jesus will be fully human and fully divine. And out of all the people in the world, God chose Mary. Mary was, in her own words, poor and lowly. God’s coming reign which will consist of justice and mercy is embodied in Mary. The salvation of the whole world will be born by a nobody. And despite her confusion and a little bit of fear, Mary says “here I am….let it be.”

If we think that God is not going to find us, call us, come for us, or have expectations of us just because we try to keep a quiet lifestyle, we live in a quiet place, and try and live boring, unassuming lives, then we are terribly wrong. History has its eyes on us too. It’s exactly in the unexpected that God shows up. God shows up in the unexpected places. God shows up to unexpected people. God shows up at unexpected times. God shows up with unexpected reason. And every time God shows up, it takes us by surprise and we can’t but not respond. We may go through the same emotions as Mary: perplexed, confused, thoughtful, and/or afraid. But how amazing will our lives be after all those feelings, we finally settle into the incarnation promise and respond to God with “here I am….let it be.” We can try and fight God’s call on our lives, but remember, we have no control who tells our story.

We have every right to question God. Mary did. But there’s a difference in questioning God and doubting God. We have all had those but “how can this be” moments. But nothing is impossible with God. And yes, we try to get in God’s way and our own way time after time. We  put up our own blocks. We fight the call on our lives that God has for each and every single one of us. “Not me, God…you must mean someone else.” But no! Greatness lies in you. God is calling on each and every one of us for a purpose, for a time, and for a place. We can either remain scared and afraid, or listen and respond to God. But, what kind of a life do we end up living if we walk through life completely scared and afraid? God’s way is to call on a nobody and make their life a something and make them a somebody. We may have no control over who tells our stories, but God does. God already has our story written. God had Mary’s story written. When Gabriel came calling, Mary’s story took an unexpected turn and she rose to greatness. History still has their eyes on her.

God had a very large job and expectation of Mary. For her, it might have seemed unachievable. But, we’ve all been there. God might have called on us to do something, walk with someone, serve God’s people in some form and we may have said “ain’t no way.” But we are reminded, just as Mary was, that the Holy Spirit, who later is scripture is called “the advocate” is with us. God’s power will overshadow us. This should be a comfort to Mary and to us that when we encounter overwhelming expectations, God is already there to encourage us. And yes, you have no control who lives, who dies, or who tells your story. But, you do have control over you. You have the ability to say yes to God. You have the ability to respond to God’s call that may seem impossible to anyone else, but with God nothing is impossible. You have the power of the Holy Spirit behind you. You have Jesus Christ, God incarnate born into this world and crucified on the cross as proof of God’s love. Maybe the miracle we all need this Christmas, this fourth Sunday of Advent, my beloveds, is to be brave enough, bold enough, and courageous enough to say “here I am … let it be” and watch the Holy Spirit attain miracles through us. History has its eyes on us.

Sermon for 12/18/16 Matthew 1:18-25

It’s finally the fourth Sunday in Advent. We get to light all of the blue candles, we get to sing all the verses of “Light One Candle,” and we are finally in the week of Christmas. And so it seems fitting that we finally get a story that starts to talk about how the birth of Jesus came to be. This is the stuff we want, right? We want the lovely, awesome, Hallmark-y version of the Christmas story. We want to hear about a young woman chosen, her husband lovingly coming to terms with it, a reminder that God is with us, and then we want to hear the lovely soft cooing of the baby Jesus. If that is what you hear in today’s reading, I am not about to tell you that you’re wrong. I am, however, going to challenge you. The text calls me to wrestle with it and I don’t wrestle alone!

Let’s have a brief history lesson. Marriages in the time of Jesus were nothing like they are now. There was no fancy dresses, no wedding showers, no “save the date” cards, and certainly no cake. Marriages were not for love; they were for necessity. They were often arranged and often included a dowry and/or agreements between the woman’s father and the groom. The marriage was made “official” when it was consummated. So, can you imagine Joseph’s surprise when he found out that Mary, the woman he was to marry, was already with child? This is certainly not the way Joseph thought things would turn out.

Again, in Jesus’ time, a woman was (most likely) a virgin until marriage. So for Mary to be with child before marriage leads Joseph to fear that Mary has been unfaithful. Under Jewish law, Joseph had a few options. Mary could have easily been sentenced to death. For a woman to be unfaithful in marriage was a sin punishable by death. (And yes, a man could be with more than one woman, but that’s another sermon for another time). Or, she could be divorced. During this time, divorce was seen as a stain on a woman because no matter the circumstances, divorce was always a woman’s fault. (We tend to get a bad rap, biblically speaking). But, Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” was going to try his best to kind of sweep this whole thing under the rug. He didn’t want a big dust-up. He kind of wanted to go quietly. If this were a Hollywood style divorce, we’d be reading about irreconcilable differences, thankfulness for the support, and requests to respect the couple’s privacy. But, this wasn’t Hollywood and there certainly was no reason (maybe even no precedent) for Joseph to act as he did.

And in the midst of all of this, Joseph has a dream where an angel of the Lord tells him “do not be afraid!” We’ve all heard this story more than once (or, at least, I am assuming most of us have). And to us, it makes perfect sense. Maybe we’ve gotten ourselves so wrapped up in sentimentality that the ludicrous nature of this story is missed on us. We don’t see Joseph’s anger. We don’t see Mary’s trepidation. We don’t see her family’s or his family’s reaction to this situation. But if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of any of those people (for even just a moment) you might be able to start to see that this amazing and miraculous birth story was not without scandal and even a little disappointment. We’re just supposed to believe that Joseph woke from his dream, took in the words of the angel and then went on his joyful way? I think he probably struggled with this for at least a minute or two.

Joseph is us. We are him. How do we react to life when life doesn’t go as you planned? It seems especially stressful this time of year when things don’t go as planned. Trust me, this comes from a woman who shed a tear or two on Monday because I forgot to take Ellen’s nap-time blanket to preschool. The expectations we set for ourselves and others around us are usually high. But, during the holidays, Christmas especially, they are almost unattainable. There is this misnomer that there is such a thing as a “perfect Christmas.” We desire this: http://www.ifitshipitshere.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Freedom_from_Want_ORIGINAL.jpg but what we end up with is this: http://athenacinema.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/christmas-vacation-christmas-eve-dinner.jpg

Joseph didn’t do what was expected of him by letting Mary go quietly. He remained faithful to Mary because, thanks to a reminder from an angel, God remained faithful to Joseph. God came to Joseph in an unexpected way: through a dream and through an unplanned pregnancy to a woman he was supposed to impregnate! While we may want to plan and plan and plan, prepare, and anticipate, often, like Joseph, things don’t go the way we would have wanted. And what does the angel of the Lord tell Joseph in his dream? His son, our savior, will be called Emmanuel, God with us. Joseph (and we as well) are assured that through a change in plans, God will continue to work and God will continue to be God with us. And maybe, now more than ever, we need that reminder that God is indeed with us.

We need a reminder that when we think everything around us is going wrong, or that we have failed, or that we were unsuccessful that God is still moving and God is going to surprise us. Joseph wasn’t expecting to hear that Mary was with child. I am certain that he certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that this was to be the savior of the world. When was the last time you allowed yourself to be surprised by God? In order to be surprised by God, in order to be disturbed in a wonderfully Holy way by God, we have to make room for God. This means that we have to be willing to let our plans go in order for something greater. Making room for God means that have to loosen the reigns on our perceived control of life. Making room for God means that we trust that God’s plans and timing are much greater than ours.

Being surprised by God means declaring with joy and trepidation that indeed God is with us. This holiday season, give yourself a break. If you can’t totally let go of your expectations, maybe you can lower them just a tad. It is usually when we expect (and maybe even almost demand) that a situation goes one way that God steps in and everything goes unexpectedly and almost better than we could have imagined. It’s not just Christmas, but life, that often (if not always) full of surprise and failed self-set expectations. And in the midst of this season, in the midst of crises, in the midst of our greatest joys, we are surrounded by a God that not only promises us something even better, but promises accompaniment. We are ushered through life from birth to death by Emmanuel, God with us.

Life often isn’t what we have planned. It’s an unexpected cancer diagnosis, it’s job opportunities, it’s fluctuating markets, it’s death, it’s a pregnancy, it’s a savior born into uncertain circumstances and dying only the way a king could: on a cross. Life isn’t what we had planned. Instead it is full of Holy surprises and God with us.