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“Wide Awake” – Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  

– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11


 

In the movie “Wide Awake,” there is a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through tears that he is scared, and when Joshua fearfully asks his grandfather if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”

Yet, after his grandfather passes away, Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.

Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, fear consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.

*****

Fear.

I think this is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a Messiah who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.

These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.

Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.

Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus returned before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What would happen to those deceased friends and family now? Would they be left behind when Jesus comes again?

Fear.

I think this is an unwanted feeling that many of us know too well today… Especially in times like these.

And fear is a natural human feeling.

One that even Paul, Silas, and many of the early Christians most likely felt numerous times. One that even Jesus felt and so honestly expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breath.

We are not alone when we experience feelings of fear.

And fear is a normal human feeling that can guide us in making important choices and taking safety measures when needed.

And yet while this is true, I think we also need to be careful about how much power we allow our fears to have. Because in times like these, it can be incredibly easy to allow our fears to consume us and to take over our lives. Our fears can drag us down into the dark – where we become blind to the needs of those around us. These fears can transform us into being people of the night – as Paul explains in Thessalonians – rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time asleep with our eyes shut to the joys and the beauty in our world.

And this is where I think Gandhi is right in saying that “the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”

I think fear can become our enemy when – in times like these – we allow our fears to have power over us. When our fears of failure, change, or the unknown future hold us back from taking chances. Or when our fears of loneliness and rejection hold us back from opening ourselves up to new relationships or publicly standing up against injustices. When we allow our fears about our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals. When our fear that we might not have enough keeps us – as individuals or as a church – from giving to those in need around us. Or when our fears of the “other” blind us so that we don’t see and experience the image of God in our siblings who may appear to be different from us.

I think that while fear is incredibly human, it becomes our enemy when we allow our fears to keep us from actually living.

And so Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear.

And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. Just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”   When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.

And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Therefore, Paul urges us: “Encourage one another with these words.”

Paul then provides further encouragement in our passage for today.

“Now regarding the times and the seasons,” Paul says, “we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.”

However, we must not live without hope and consumed in fear. For – we are not asleep, we are not dead – Paul reminds us. We are not children of the dark, children of the night, where our eyes remain closed to our neighbors needs, the world’s injustices, or to the joys and beauty that surround us. Rather, we are children of the light, children of the day.

“Therefore, let us not fall asleep, as others do,” Paul urges us. “Keep awake.”

*****

Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship, whose name – of course – is none other than Hope.

And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his own insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because Joshua had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.

At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”

*****

I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – in the here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.

It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love.  To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.

So let us choose to live. To remain wide awake to what’s happening in the world around us.

Let us choose hope over fear.

And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.

Amen.

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“Paul, Philippi, and Privilege” – Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

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If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” – Philippians 3:4b-14


This August, I took 24 youth to Dubuque, IA for our third mission/service and learning trip. We had so many wonderful experiences, and I really hope you will stop by founders hall today after worship to watch a slide show from our trip.

Every year we’ve had wonderful experiences in Iowa. However, the first year we went – several years ago, there was one experience that was not as wonderful as the rest.

While in Dubuque, we went to the local YMCA to shower each day after our service projects. At the Y, there was one locker room for girls under 18 years old and one locker room for women above 18. Unfortunately, the girl’s locker room did not have any enclosed showers with doors on them and only had one large open, shared shower.   Since I knew this would not be a very comfortable situation for our girls, I asked the manager months in advance if he would allow our girls to shower in the women’s locker room under my supervision so that they could access the private individual showers that were enclosed with walls and doors. The manager had no problem with this. Unfortunately, while we were in Iowa, two of the women in the locker room did… And what was even more unfortunate was that the manager who gave us permission was out of town that week…

Let’s just say that those two women were not very kind to our girls when they walked out of the showers… Or to me, (or to the rest of the YMCA staff) when they explained to these women that we had received permission because the Y was our only access to showers for the week… (Might I add that these same women were also not very kind to one of our other adult women chaperones when she accidentally dripped some water on the locker room floor when she walked into the locker room from the pool.)

In my conversation with these women, I heard a lot of: “this is the way we have always done it.” “I’ve been a member here for 22 years and it’s my right to be able to come to my locker room without having people like you break the rules.” And “I don’t care if you got permission, this is the rule, and if you don’t like it, then you can leave.”

After talking with the YMCA staff and a few other members later on in the week, we found out that we were not the only ones these women had been snippy with or had thrown a fit about… for various reasons…

These two women were long-term members, had established a set of “rules” – both written and unwritten – about the way things needed to be, and they believed that they had the right to enforce those rules because of their seniority. Newcomers and visitors needed to abide by their rules, and there were no exceptions. Period.

*****

Privilege, entitlement, judgment, closed-mindedness, exclusion. These are some of the themes we see in this scenario that took place at the YMCA several years ago. And to be honest, I think these are some of the themes we see quite a bit today as our country is trying to determine who is welcome to live in this country, who gets to receive needed services and has particular rights, which victims of natural disasters should receive aid, who and how people should speak up against injustice, and how we might address local gun violence and world violence. And the list could go on.

And this scenario at the YMCA also reminds me of the situation Paul is addressing in his letter to the Philippian church. You see, the city of Philippi was in the center of Macedonia, and yet since it was considered a colony of the Roman Empire, all residents had Roman citizenship and therefore received the benefits that were awarded to the citizens of Rome, such as property rights, exemption from taxes that were enforced upon non-citizens of Rome, and civil and legal protections. Because of this, most citizens of Philippi were very proud of their Roman citizenship, viewed themselves as the elite residents of the preeminent city in the center of Macedonia, and often boasted about their status.

In addition to this, as with a few other churches Paul communicated with, within the church at Philippi there were some Christians who were insisting that any converts to Christianity must first take on the Jewish identity, such as observing the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws and being circumcised, a practice that was viewed by many Greeks as revolting. In some instances where non-Jewish Christians did not observe such laws and chose not to be circumcised, they were deemed as “un-savable,” inferior to those who were “saved,” and were even excluded from meals and other gatherings. (Acts 15:1)

So, as we can see, the members of the church of Philippi inherited privileges (that many other Christians in Macedonia lacked) and were proud because these privileges elevated their social status above the others. And it is possible that they were using some of those privileges to exclude others from their community, unless these “others” first gave up their own identities and became like “one of them.”

*****

Now, I can imagine many of us here have encountered modern-day prideful Philippians at least at one point in our lives. I imagine many of us at one time or another have known someone who has been excluded from a group or discriminated against because of their identities or lack of societal status — or some of us have even experienced this ourselves.

And yet, I wonder if any of us here can also see ourselves in the Philippian Christians. I wonder if we – too – have inherited privileges that allow us to enjoy benefits and opportunities that others around us cannot enjoy: Whether we benefit from the privileges of being white, male, Christian, heterosexual, cis-gender, or having socially accepted body weight and abilities – where we have never felt unsafe, been shamed by others, or discriminated against because of our identities or abilities. Or maybe we benefit from the privileges of being educated, employed, economically stable, or a U.S. citizen, where we are granted the rights of these statuses and never have to worry about putting food on our tables, losing our homes, or being deported back to very dangerous situations.

And within the church, some of us may even have the privilege of growing up in a Christian congregation and knowing the Christian lingo, being involved in the Lutheran denomination for as long as we can remember and knowing its rituals, or even worshipping here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for years and knowing its expectations and unwritten rules that newcomers do not know.

We might even sometimes expect that those newcomers must also act, talk, dress, worship, and think like we do in order for them to be fully included into our community or worship gathering.

And there may be some of us here who know what it is like to work really hard throughout our education process and our careers, are involved in our communities, and are pleased at how far we have come. And so it’s no wonder that there might be times when we feel so proud about our resumes and status that we can’t help but boast about our achievements.

It’s easy and very tempting when things go well in our lives to look at ourselves as better than those whose situations are not like our own and to look at those “others” with judgment… They are “lazy” or “not smart enough”; she has “poor leadership;” she isn’t making the “right” choices; he isn’t standing up for just causes in a “respectable” way, the way I would – we might think or say. And so we victim blame. They got themselves into these difficult situations. And as we point fingers at those people while we uplift our own choices, we often do so without recognizing our own inherited privileges – that so many others lack – and yet that have enabled us (maybe even with a lot of hard work) to get to where we are now.

*****

And yet, for Paul, there is no room for finger pointing and boasting. No matter how impressive one’s resume or achievements are, no matter what community or “club” one is a member – or citizen – of, and no matter if one makes all sorts of the “right choices” (based on certain people’s standards) that have gotten that person to a comfortable and elevated place in society– according to Paul, this all counts for nothing.

Of all people, Paul knows this. At the beginning of our passage, Paul states that if anyone has the right to have confidence in the flesh (meaning confidence in one’s circumcision or Jewish identity markers, human achievements, or societal status) – if anyone has the right to be prideful of and boast about such things – it is Paul, himself, who has more. For it is Paul who has quite the extensive resume, as we see in our passage for today.

And yet, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges his privilege that enabled him to reach such a worldly status and says whatever societal and religious “gains” he once had, he now regards as loss because of Christ. These “gains” no longer matter. They are rubbish, or in a more accurate translation and more crude terms: they are dung, horse manure… or whatever other four letter word that comes to your mind.

Contrary to his old understanding, Paul has not gained righteousness by making the “right choices” determined by the law that elevated his worldly status. Righteousness does not come from anything he has done to achieve it. Rather, Paul says: righteousness comes through faith in Christ – or, as some translators suggest: it comes through “the faithfulness of Christ.”

In other words, righteousness comes through the faith in or faithfulness of the One who came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free. It comes through and because of the One who spoke out against all forms of violence and challenged the unjust hierarchical structures – both in Rome and the Temple – that created class systems of privilege, which elevated and cared for only some while marginalizing others. Righteousness comes through and because of the One who boldly and loudly proclaimed justice on behalf of the “least of these,” even though his radical teachings and actions ultimately led him to his arrest and eventual death on the cross. It comes through and because of the One who – through his resurrection – conquers injustice and death and brings forth new life, which is both that which is to come and that which liberates us from all the hate – the isms and phobias – that cause us to experience death here and now.

Righteousness comes through the One who calls all of his followers to choose this resurrection life that proclaims love, peace, and life-giving justice for all of God’s children, especially in a world where evil and suffering seem to overcome us. Because – as we see in Jesus’ resurrection – death does not have the final say. And we – as resurrection people – are called and gifted with the ability to share this good news of hope to a hurting world.

And so counter to what the world says, it no longer matters what our resume looks like, how much education we might or might not have, what our heritage, identity, or worldly status is, how long we have been in or out of the faith community, or whether or not we know the Christian lingo and rituals.

In Christ and because of Christ, we are all invited to the Table.

Now – according to Paul – what does matter is the way we live. And the way we love. That we become like Christ in his death. That we come to know him and be transformed by his compassion and the power of his resurrection – and in doing so – that we might emulate and share that love to all of God’s children, especially to those who are suffering the most.

What does matter is that we continue to learn about and acknowledge our privileges that have helped us get to where we are today and allow that acknowledgement of our privilege shape the way we look at, care for, love and stand in solidarity with others who walk through this world differently than we do. That we begin to listen to those voices around us that are not being heard or represented. That we begin to use our privilege to help right wrongs so that Christ’s liberating resurrection may not just be experienced in the future, but that it will also begin to be experienced by all in the here and now.

This is not an easy task, and we cannot just reach our goal with the snap of our fingers. It’s a process. It’s a life-long race that we cannot run on our own: it’s one we must pursue together.

And as we do, we must remember – as Paul explains – that we may never quite reach the finish line and obtain the prize at the end of the race. But, as we continue to learn how to take our eyes off the worldly values of our past, learn from our mistakes when we stumble or fall off the path, and let go of the guilt that sometimes weighs us down when we begin to acknowledge our privilege, we must press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

And this is true – even and especially in times such as these – when evil and injustice overwhelm us and we feel so overcome by hopelessness and helplessness. And so in times such as these, may we sing and cling to the words of the late rocker Tom Petty: “Well, I won’t back down. You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down. No, I’ll stand my ground. Won’t be turned around. And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down, gonna stand my ground. Hey, there ain’t no easy way out. But I won’t back down. Well I know what’s right. I got just one life, in a world that keeps on pushin me around, but I’ll stand my ground. And I won’t back down.”

Amen.

 

 

“What Kind of King?” – Sermon on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday

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When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:33-43

Today is Reign of Christ (also known as Christ the King) Sunday, the last Sunday in our church calendar year before we begin our journey through Advent as we expectantly wait for the coming of our Savior.

Now, many Christian leaders have struggled to know whether or not they should drop this feast or change its name. And I can understand why they live in this tension. King, Lord, ruler, reign, and kingdom are all titles that refer to worldly and often exclusive and oppressive governmental systems.

But – before we jump too quickly to writing these titles off or skipping out on the feast of Reign of Christ/Christ the King that we celebrate this morning – I think we might look at why Christ’s Lordship has been emphasized and why this feast was established and has been celebrated in the Church in the first place.

While the Church has upheld the belief that Christ is King and Lord throughout much of its history, Christ the King Sunday is actually very new to the church calendar. The first feast was instituted in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s and soon thereafter was celebrated by many other Christian traditions.  It was not only established in these traditions in response to the Church’s concern with the rise of secularism, which led many to deny that Christ was central to all parts of peoples’ lives.  But this feast was also instituted and began to be celebrated in a time when dictatorships were on the rise in Europe. And it was during this time, when many within the Church who rejected such dictatorships began to strongly reemphasize Christ’s Lordship over all things.

We can hear an example of this in the Barmen Declaration, a document that was written in Germany in 1934 by theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran Hans Asmussen. The document was a statement that refuted the dangerous teachings of the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement, which glorified Hitler as a leader and – in the name of Christianity – justified his exclusionary and violent actions both inside and outside the Church during his early rise to power.

Part of the Barmen Declaration states:

“We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

‘Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.’ (Eph. 4:15-16)

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.”

You see, many churches and Christian leaders at this time reemphasized Christ’s Lordship as a means to oppose such oppressive worldly governmental systems. And for the churches that celebrated it, the feast of Christ the King became a reminder that it is Jesus Christ – and no other worldly leader – who has authority. It is the Kingdom of God – and no other worldly government – that reigns over the heavens and all the earth.

****

And now, we hear a similar message as we celebrate Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday this morning. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power,” our author in Colossians urges us. “And may you be prepared to endure everything. For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers. ALL things are created through him and for him. It is Jesus – himself – and no other worldly ruler – who is above and before all things. He is the beginning. Therefore, he must be placed first in everything.”

Yes, our Savior, the One whose coming into the world we will begin to prepare for this week, is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose reign does not only last a few years, but lasts for all eternity.

Yes, it is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in whom Christians and our church institutions are to pledge our allegiance to.  And there is no time or part of our lives that is not subject to his reign…

But our Scriptures this morning remind us that this King and Lord is not the kind of ruler our world expects, celebrates, or uplifts. And our Gospel text in Luke shows us that our King and Lord is not the kind of leader who would have won an election… or even a popular vote.

Rather, here in Luke, we see a different kind of king in which we are to follow.

Here, in Luke, we see a king in the middle of a crucifixion scene. We see a king who is wearing a crown of thorns rather than a crown of jewels and gold. We see a king who is stripped down to his skin, bullied and spit upon, beaten and mocked for proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is not just for those on top, but rather it is a Kingdom for all.

We see a king who shows up in the midst of great suffering and fear. Who hangs on a cross between two criminals on death row – offering forgiveness and compassion to those who are most vulnerable and even to those who put him on the cross in the first place.

We see a king who chooses to save the entire world rather than to save himself.

And as we look at this crucifixion scene in Luke this morning, we are reminded that our king is one who brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, gives sight to the blind, and lets the oppressed go free.

With his arms outstretched, we hear him crying out to us: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And in his final breaths, we hear him reminding us: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

You see, for the one in whom we proclaim is Lord, the way to greatness is not to be first, but rather it is to put others first.

To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, our concerns of offending others or being rejected, and our temptation to want to get ahead.

Our Lord’s path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood and taking up our cross. For those of us who have been on the front-lines in our society, this path to greatness is putting ourselves last so that others who’ve been last can move into the front-lines. For all of us, this path to greatness is welcoming, embracing, loving, and walking alongside all who suffer, including and especially those whom the world deems as the last and the least.

 It is proclaiming that Jesus Christ is indeed King and Lord and in doing so, tearing down all walls that divide and speaking out against any and all forms of hate.

 You see, the thing is, we have a King and Lord who flipped the worldly systems of injustice upside down. We see that in and through his life, death, and resurrection he was radically transforming and redefining kingship. He was reigning in a kingdom of God that was nothing like the oppressive governmental systems of this world.

****

And so today, on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, we are being reminded of who exactly reigns in our lives, no matter what title we might give him. We are being called to boldly pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in all areas of our lives – no matter how difficult this might be. We are being asked to follow Jesus toward the cross, where he – our loving God who is with us in the flesh – performed a radical act of love that did and continues to trump hate.

Yes, Christ is King and Lord of all! So let us boldly and loudly proclaim it. Let us “testify [to it] in the midst of the sinful world.” “Let us speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.”

And let us choose to follow Christ, our King and Lord, to the cross.

Amen.

 

 

“A Lament For Times Such As These” – Sermon on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

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Scripture readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

 

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Many of us may have spoken these words from this morning’s passage in Habakkuk a lot lately.

Unrest, tension, and the ever-increasing division that’s taking place throughout our country as we get closer and closer to the end of this election season.

How long, O Lord, how Long!?

Devastating state budget cuts to programs and services that many in our community – including many of us – rely on.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Indigenous communities fighting desperately to protect their water and sacred burial sites. More police shootings of unarmed persons of color. The continuous bombings of innocent families in Aleppo, Syria.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Financial strain. The death of a loved one. A debilitating illness…The loss of a job. Broken relationships. Depression and anxiety.

Too often in times such as these, it can be easy to just check out. We often feel so overwhelmed with grief, anger, and pain. The needs around us seem too great, and we feel lost and defeated by a sense of helplessness. We fear the kind of backlash we might receive if we do speak out against injustice. We wonder where God is in the midst of all of this suffering, and we worry that if we express our real emotions and if we are honest about our doubts, others – and maybe even we – ourselves – will start to think we have lost our faith.

And so it becomes much easier to just shut our eyes and to ignore the cries around us – and within us. To just allow ourselves to become numb to the world’s afflictions.

And yet, we hear the author of 2 Timothy this morning urging us not to give up hope, even and especially in times such as these… For we have been saved – the author reminds us – and therefore we have been called to a holy calling, that does not allow us to shut our eyes to the pain around us.

“I recall your many tears,” the author writes from behind prison doors to Timothy, likely referring to the tears Timothy had shed over the suffering of many under the Roman Empire and over the persecution that the early Christians were facing. “I understand your sense of helplessness and why you seem to be at a loss of faith. And yet,” he continues, “I remember your sincere faith, one that has been passed on through your ancestors. One that I am sure still remains deep within you. Therefore, I urge you to remember that faith. Remember why you have that faith and who walked alongside you, helping to shape and inform your faith.  Rekindle that gift of God that is – indeed – with you, no matter how much you might feel it has been lost. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” he urges, “but rather God gave us a spirit of love and self-discipline.”

Yes, it is in times such as these, when we must hold onto our faith the most – even when we feel we may have lost it. It is in times such as these when we must open our eyes to the suffering in our midst and cry out to God in our anguish. Because we don’t just encounter God in the times that are easy, comfortable, and joyous, and we don’t just encounter God when we feel most confident in our faith. We also encounter God in our anger, in our suffering, and in our strongest of doubts. We encounter God when we step out of our comfort zones and when we face our biggest fears. Because God actually meets us right there in all of the messiness – even when we don’t see God and even when we refuse to let God in.

God is right there with us.

I love what one author shared in her lectionary devotion this week: “When I am in the midst of a tough time, I don’t always see God at work,” she explains. “Looking back on those tough times though, I can often see God in hindsight. When I was a senior in high school, my family was having a lot of trouble. God gave me good friends to support me and an outlet in music with my choir teacher and my class to express my emotions. I remember praying and begging God for resolution while I waited. What I couldn’t see until looking back, though, was how God was present in the midst of that tough time. Now I see that God provided the right people at the right time. I also see that one can’t go around pain, or over it, but we have to go through it.”

How long, O Lord, how long?!

Yes, it is in times such as these when we must go through the pain. It is in times such as these, when we need to join our voices with the voices of our siblings around our city, our country, and throughout the world in lamenting the suffering, violence, and injustice that surrounds us. 

And yet, when we just can’t find the words to say, we can look to the words of those who have paved the way for us.

“How long, o Lord!?” – We cry out with Habakkuk this morning.

“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

How long, o Lord, how long!?

Now sometimes, we might need to stop right here with these words because we might not be quite ready to move beyond this place of lament. And that is okay. For a bit. Because there are times when we need to sit for a while in this place. There are times when we need to do our grief work. For we cannot go through the pain without first actually taking time to express it and process it.

And yet, after some time we will eventually need to move forward. Because our lament cannot just end here. It must move us to act.

And so we can look to the rest of our passage in Habakkuk this morning for guidance as we begin to move through. When we are ready, we – like Habakkuk, must take a stand at our watch-posts, and station ourselves, keeping watch: waiting with our eyes open to see God in our midst and with our ears open to hear how God is calling us to let our laments move us to action.

And when our inadequacies and sense of helplessness in times such as these get the best of us and when we feel like our faith is just not big or strong enough for us to make a difference, we can look to our Gospel text in Luke today. For, Jesus’ message to the disciples when they asked him to increase their faith in the face of such great suffering – is the same message that is intended for us. “If you have faith even the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you can say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

In other words: “Your faith is enough to make an incredible impact in the world.”

There’s a story I often think about when I feel overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness in the midst of so much suffering throughout the world.

One day a wise man was walking on the beach when he noticed a younger man, who was throwing things into the ocean. As he got closer to the young man, he asked him: “what are do doing?” The young man answered him: “well, I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.” “Why, might I ask, are you doing this,” the wise man asked him. “Well, the sun is up and the tide is going out.” The young man said. “If I don’t throw them in, they’ll all die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man said, “Don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” Just then, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he looked at the wise man and said: “Well, it made a difference for that one.”

Amen.

 

“And it was good” – Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4, Commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi

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God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

I don’t know about you, but while I may not be completely on board with everything that Pope Francis believes, I have been so intrigued and inspired by his commitment to calling people around the world to care for our environment and by the genuine and abundant grace and love he offers others, particularly those who have been deemed as outcasts by society. And so last week I was unable to keep my eyes off the news that continuously reported about his visit to the United States.

And I’m not just talking about being inspired while watching the Pope giggle as he blesses a baby dressed up in a baby pope costume or while watching him take selfies with a bunch of giddy teenagers… and adults. (Though these encounters were quite fun to watch.)

But I’m talking about being inspired by this man who spoke on behalf of the Church about the importance of caring for ALL God’s creation, by urging the U.S. to do much more to address climate change, to work to end homelessness, and to be a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees. And I loved seeing him put his words into action throughout his visit, not only by riding around in a humble and eco-friendly Fiat, but by blessing, meeting, praying with, and listening to the ones who have been voiceless and marginalized.

It was touching to see what he did while riding in his car on his way from the Philadelphia airport when his eyes caught a glimpse of Michael Keating, a 10 year old boy with cerebral palsy sitting in his wheelchair on the tarmac with his family. Pope Francis’ car suddenly stops, he exits the car, and then walks over to Michael and – looking directly into Michael’s eyes – he gives him a blessing. His family later told the press that they felt incredibly overwhelmed with joy in that moment.

It was also touching to hear how Pope Francis declined his invitation to have lunch with the most powerful U.S. politicians after his address to Congress because he chose instead to have lunch at a Catholic Charities meal with more than 300 individuals who are homeless or living in poverty. And as he prayed with and blessed those in attendance, he said: “In prayer there is no first or second class. There is brotherhood.” Lanita King, a woman who was present at the meal and who was formerly homeless, described the significance of the Pope’s lunch plans: “he is delivering the message that God is here for us. God is here with us.”

And it was especially touching to watch Pope Francis visit 95 prisoners at a correctional facility in Philadelphia. While there, he explained: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of resurrection.”

Pope Francis explained to these men and women in the correctional facility how Jesus humbly and compassionately washed his disciples feet during the Last Supper. He then went on to say: “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from… And I am first among them.” And at the end of his message before he went on to shake the hands of each of the men and women in the room, he told them that Jesus “comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

This past week, Pope Francis reminded our country – one of the wealthiest nations in the world – that ALL God’s creation is good. Including the earth and all the creatures that live off of it. Including the child with special needs. Including the immigrant and the refugee. Including the homeless and the poor. Including the prisoner who finds hope in God’s promise that ALL can change and be forgiven and cleansed from their past sins, no matter how horrible those past sins may have been.

*****

Today, just a week after Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S., we commemorate the late St. Francis of Assisi, the man whose name the Pope chose to take as his papal name.  The 13th Century friar who sought to follow Jesus’ teachings and believed with his whole heart that there is no last and least in the Kingdom of God. And who dedicated his life to loving and caring for nature, animals and birds, and those on the margins of society, particularly the poor.

And as we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi today, and recall his care and love for creation, I find it quite appropriate for us to listen again to the very well known creation story in Genesis 1.

In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth and the land and the seas. And God saw that it was good.

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

God created the stars, the sun, and the moon. And God saw that it was good.

God created the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. And God saw that it was good.

God created the wild animals of the earth and everything that creeps upon the ground. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
So God created humankind
 in the image of God.

And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

*****

Not only does this creation story remind us that ALL God’s creation was created good and that ALL humankind was created in God’s image and thus we have the ability to change and be cleansed from our past: no matter our faults, mistakes or past sins… But it also reminds us that God has given us – as members of humankind – the great responsibility of being stewards and guardians of God’s creation. Of caring not just for some of God’s creation, but doing everything we can to care for ALL of God’s creation… Of seeing the image of God in ALL people, no matter how much we may struggle to do so, and treating them with the love and care God calls us to. Of taking care of the plants and the trees and the water and the animals and the birds around us. Of being co-workers with God in caring for the earth and all its creatures and in doing the work of making this world – which is full of so much pain and hardship – a better place.

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

*****

Today, on this day when we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, we will participate in a blessing of our pets. This blessing is not only a reminder that our pets are good and loved and blessed by God, but this blessing is also a reminder that this is true for ALL God’s creation and that as humans created by God, we have been given the important responsibility of being stewards and guardians of it. So as we take part in the blessing of our pets, may we also take this time to make commitments to God and one another that we will take on this important responsibility of being God’s co-workers in stewardship and guardianship.

I would like to close this morning with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, so please join with me in prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Amen.

“Babies, Baptisms, and Beginnings” – Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

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John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11


I always love hearing the story about my baptism. I was about two months old. My parents dressed me in the same beautiful hand-made white baptismal gown and bonnet that my older sister wore at her baptism five years before. My parents and my sister dressed up in their nicest church clothes – my father sporting his white pant-suit.  (Yes, it was the early 80’s.)  And many of my extended family came into town that weekend to attend the service.

It was a beautiful ceremony – with the liturgy taking place over the baptismal font in front of the congregation at the Presbyterian Church in my hometown. Everything was calm and beautiful. Just perfect for a baptism…

Until I decided to have a huge blowout through my diaper and my gown as my dad was holding me during the baptismal vows in front of the congregation…

And it got all over my dad’s white suite…

*****

Though there was a bit of a surprise and commotion at my baptism after my accident, this was quite tame compared to the baptism of Jesus.

John – the radical Baptizer – the one who hung out in the middle of the wilderness, was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt tied around his waist, and whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey – was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were traveling from all over the Judean countryside and Jerusalem to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. As lines of people awaited their baptisms and were confessing their sins, John loudly cried out: “The one who is greater than I will come after me. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And – in the midst of this chaos – just as we hear about this One who is greater than John the Baptizer, guess who shows up to be baptized by John: Jesus, the Son of God, himself.

Yes, this baptismal event would have been a definite surprise and quite the site to see.

I love so many things about Jesus’ baptism. I love how John – this radical Baptizer seems to remind us of Elijah, the prophet who had been long expected to descend from the heavens and prepare the way for the Messiah to come. And I love that while – in his own insecurity – this popular Baptizer proclaims that he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.  And yet, it is this very same John to whom Jesus shows up and is baptized by.

I love how it is in this baptism that we find out that the One who is to come, this Messiah John is preparing the way for, is not the worldly king that the people had expected.  Rather, this Messiah is Jesus, the son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth, the One who had started his life as a homeless refugee on the margins of society.

I love that in the midst of this chaotic baptismal event in the Jordan River, as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens tear open and the Spirit swoops down on him like a dove – reminding us of the Spirit-wind swooping over the waters of chaos in the beginning of creation in Genesis 1.  And it is in this moment during Jesus’ baptism when the heavenly and earthly realms collide and all that has separated God from God’s people is torn apart.

I love how it is in this moment when Jesus hears God’s voice crying out to him from the heavens, claiming him and marking him as God’s beloved Son, saying: “With you I am well pleased.”

But what I love most about this baptismal event is that it comes at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel… before any of Jesus’ miraculous acts or prophetic sermons about the Kingdom of God he was reigning in. Before Jesus’ brave and bold journey toward the cross and his hope-filled resurrection from the dead. Before anything that Jesus does in his ministry.

*****

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who recently got engaged.  As with many engaged individuals, my friend has found the wedding planning process to be quite a stressful one… Searching for the perfect attire, reserving the ceremony and reception venues, narrowing down the guest list, selecting the best food, cake, photographer, you name it…

Just the other day, this friend said to me: “I am so ready for the wedding to finally occur so that all of this tension will be past us and we can finally be done with this kind of stress in our lives… After the wedding, things will be so much easier and better. I’m so ready for this all to end.’”

These words may sound familiar to many of us who are or have been married, as we, too, may have felt the same way during the planning process of our own weddings. And yet, now that we are on the other side, we have likely come to realize that our weddings were not the endings to struggle and tension and that our marriages are not the “happily ever after’s” our fairy tales have told us they would be.

We have likely come to realize that rather than an ending, our wedding was a beginning. That as we joined with our partners in marriage on that special wedding day, we began the long, wonderful and also quite difficult journey that we have to continue to work at daily.

And this is also true for the gift of baptism.

As Mark states in the very first verse in chapter one, the baptism of Jesus is only: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It is in Jesus’ baptism when he is commissioned for the wonderful and yet difficult work of ministry that is to follow. It is in his baptism when his journey of spreading the good news of God’s love to the world begins.

*****

And this is true for us, as well. As we come here today to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we also are called to remember our own baptism. Because our baptism is not a means to an end. It is a means of grace and a means to a beginning.

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptisms. We do this by following the way of life and love Jesus has set as an example for us. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. In recalling our baptism, we are reminded that we are in God’s story and others are in God’s story, as well.

And in our baptisms, we are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together here at Ebenezer Lutheran on Sunday mornings, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: As our ELCA motto says: “God’s work, our hands.”

Now, there may be times when we – like John the Baptist –wander in the wilderness and get lost in the chaos of our lives, wondering how we might ever be worthy of following Jesus and living this baptismal life we are called to.

And yet, just as Jesus showed up to John the Baptist in the midst of his own insecurities, when we get lost wandering in the chaotic wilderness and our lives seem to be falling apart, Jesus shows up to us, as well.

In these times when we feel overcome with self-doubt and fear, I think we can learn something from Martin Luther.  As he was held up for almost a year hiding away in Wartburg Castle and translating the New Testament from Greek to German, he found himself questioning his adequacy, wondering how he might ever be worthy of doing the ministry Jesus called him to. And it was during these moments of insecurity, when he would often be heard throughout the castle halls shouting: “I am baptized!”

In our own times of feeling inadequate to do the work Jesus has called us to, we should be heard shouting this, as well. For in our baptism, the same voice of God who cried out from the heavens to Jesus while he was being baptized in the Jordan River cried out to each one of us, as well, before we ever even began our faith journey:

“You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you, I am well pleased.”

In our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it. For, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans: “not even death nor life, not even angels nor demons, not even the present nor the future, nor anything we have done or will do – can separate us from this love of God.”

When we celebrate the baptism of one of the members of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to join together as one family to help carry the burdens and share in the joys with one another that come as we continue to follow this wonderful and yet difficult journey of sharing this good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that each one of us here has been welcomed into the Kingdom of God – this loving family – and that each one of us is and will always be claimed by God as God’s beloved and cherished child. Because no matter what we do or say or think, in the midst of all of our fears, failures, and doubts, Jesus will keep on showing up to us, offering us God’s love and forgiveness whenever we are ready to accept it. And no matter how chaotic our lives may feel or how lost we may be in the wilderness, God’s voice will continue to be calling out to us:

“With you, I am well pleased.”

Amen.