Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Post-"Post-racial"--Race and Reconciliation. A Lenten Devotion for the Central States Synod

Post “post-racial”:  Race and Reconciliation

           On October 3, 1971, a group of about seventy politicians and academics formed The Southern Growth Policies Board in Durham, North Carolina.  According to a New York Times article published the next day, the members of the board believed their region had “entered an era in which race relations [were] soon to be replaced as a major concern by population increase, industrial development and economic fluctuations.” Duke University President and former North Carolina governor Terry Sanford described the meeting as an opportunity to move forward as a “post-racial South.”
           From our excellent vantage point, nearly fifty years hence, it is clear that neither the South nor the rest of the United States of America is enjoying a “post-racial” existence.  Over the last year, white supremacy has been on display in our nation from Charlottesville to Kansas City to Berkeley, California—that bastion of inclusivity.  Within the boundaries of our synod in 2014, the sin of racism became a clarion call for activists from across our country, who gathered in Ferguson, MO to ask why it is that young black men are so often the target of police bullets.
           We are not “post-racial,” and neither is that a realistic goal.  The eagerness to put away our past without endeavoring change our hearts is indeed the impulse which has gained us this moment of national shame.  Perhaps “shame” seems harsh.  After all, we didn’t march on Charlottesville, right?  Indeed, those displays of utter hate and vile sloganeering seem to make it easier on the rest of us.  We could pretend that we are the ones without sin, if we are not marching with tiki torches and embarrassing ourselves on national television.
           We could do that…if we were not the inheritors of a tradition which reminds us each year that we stand in need of repentance.  We could do that if we did not know that in our hearts beats the devil’s call to see the color of another’s skin before we know the content of the other’s character.
           As this Lenten season begins, let us heed instead the call of the prophet Joel, the call to return to God, who is endlessly merciful and eternally forgiving.  Our God created human beings in God’s image.  If someday we learned to see all of our neighbors as gorgeous reflections of God’s face, we could indeed live into the dream of Dr. King, the dazzling hope of Archbishop Tutu, and the deep and abiding love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
           In this Lenten season, let the color we see be love, which adorns itself in a rainbow of hues and tints that combine to make us one body—the body of Christ.  Let us find ways to work for reconciliation between all of our neighbors, the reconciliation Dr. King dreamt his children would see.  Perhaps it can be the reconciliation which our children will see.

Ideas for further reflection:
1.  As you encounter your neighbors this Lent, try to see God’s reflection in them.  Notice how that changes your sense of who they are.

2.  Pledge to work toward racial reconciliation wherever you are.  Speak out when you hear racist language or see bias and prejudice in action.

Standing in Awe--Sermon Written for St. John, Pittsburg, KS, Transfiguration Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9
                2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
                9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

           So we don’t know each other yet, and I don’t want to spend any sermon time giving you my bio.  I do want you to know this about me, because it relates to today’s gospel lesson:
           I am an introvert.
           Other introverts in the room?
           A lot of pastors are introverts which doesn’t make sense, since we spend a lot of time with people…and does make sense because we also spend a lot of time with books, and ideas.  And hopefully we spend a lot of time deep in prayer for our world and our community and our church.
           We spend a lot of time delving deeply into scripture so that we can notice things that might be helpful to our congregations.  Or to other congregations, if, perhaps, you are preaching at St. John Lutheran in Pittsburg, rather than St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran in Kansas City—which is where you will find me most Sundays.
           There’s a ton of stuff to notice about this morning’s gospel lesson.  I always enjoy preaching on Transfiguration Sunday, because every year, no matter who is telling the story—this year it’s Mark—no matter who it is, it’s a weird story.
           It’s a super weird story, right?  They go up the mountain and Jesus turns all glow-y and Peter wants to build booths and a voice booms out of the clouds, and this is a really weird story.
           And if you really unpack the story, parts of it will begin to make sense, but it’s actually best to let it be weird.  It’s sort of like Austin, Texas.  Have you seen the bumper stickers?  “Keep Austin weird.”  Well, I think we could make a bumper sticker about this text:  “Keep Transfiguration weird.”
           Jesus took with him Peter, and James, and John, up on a mountain, and there they had a profound experience of the holy.  Do we really want to explain it away?  Could we, if we wanted to?
           Probably not.  This is the story of the ordinary juxtaposed to the extraordinary.  In order to understand it, we have to pay attention to both parts.  It begins and ends pretty ordinary. 
           “2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
           Now, there’s not time in this one sermon to give you Jesus’s whole bio, but you should know this:  Jesus was an introvert.  You can argue with me on this, but I am right.
           In general, introverts like to hang out with a few close friends, rather than big crowds of people.  Jesus spent a lot of time in crowds—mostly because they hunted him down wherever he was.  But then every so often, he had to go off and recharge his batteries.  Sometimes by himself.  And sometimes with the guys—which usually means Peter, James and John.
           Just them, though.  Mark makes a point of it.  Did you notice that?  He “led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.
           Kinda redundant for the pithiest of the gospels, isn’t it?
           They were all alone up there.
           It’s important that we understand that.
           In fact, I think that might be the point of this whole weird lesson.

           Sometimes, we need to stand, by ourselves, in awe of the Lord.
           Sometimes we need to make the space in our hectic lives to simply stand and gaze upon the majesty of Jesus.  And hear the voice of God.  Reminding us that Jesus is God’s beloved child.
           And in so doing, reminding us that we are God’s beloved children.  God sent the Son into the world in order that the world might be saved, through him.  John 3:17, which for whatever reason never gets hoisted in football stadiums.
           God sent Jesus that we might be saved, through his body and through his words.  They are good words, right?  Words of love and hope that we need to hear all the time, but especially right now. 
           Because this is a weird time.  Our nation is at odds with itself.  And increasingly with the rest of the world.  No matter what political camp you reside in, people are uneasy.  A whole bunch of them are downright angry, and more than a few are pretty hateful about anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
           This is a weird time.  A scary time.
           Fortunately, for us, in the church, it’s also a special time.  This weird old Transfiguration lesson always arrives at just the right time, this year in particular, as we stand upon the threshold of the season of Lent.  Lent is a time for us to stand transfixed before the Lord.  A time to make space in our lives to heed the words of the prophet Joel:  “return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
           This Lent, this year, would be a good time to remind ourselves not only that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…but that we are called to be those things as well. 
           Couldn’t our world use a little grace right now?
           Couldn’t we all use a little mercy?  And don’t get me started on “slow to anger.”
           And what the world really needs now, to borrow from a great old song, is love.
           This Lent, I invite you to find your inner introvert—for some of us it is easy, for others, not so much—find your inner introvert and stand before Jesus.  Listen to the voice of God reminding us to listen to his clarion call of love.  Come to church on Ash Wednesday and as those ashes are marked upon your head, feel the cross being marked upon your heart.  A reminder that God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten Son…in order that the world might be saved through him.
           He can save this world.  He can lead us into that love and peace that truly surpass all understanding.
           This Lent, let us stand before the Lord.  Let us find space to hear his word of love.  Let us carve out the room to find the healing we need for our own lives, and then let that healing loose upon the world.
           God knows we need it.
           Jesus knows we need it.

           And I truly hope and believe that we know we need it.

Love Looks Like Service--A Sermon for St. Mark Hope and Peace--Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Feb. 4, 2018

                29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
                32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.33And the whole city was gathered around the door.34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.36And Simon and his companions hunted for him.37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

           I’m going to ask you to do something, and I want you to pay attention to the emotions you feel about doing it.
           Turn off your phone.
           How many don’t have a phone on you?
           Think about that.  Two decades ago-which is a blip in history—two decades ago, most of you would have raised your hands.  Now most of us have a phone on us or nearby at all times.
           How many felt some anxiety about being told to turn it off?
           I mean, you aren’t going to look at it during my sermon, of course!  But you still want the option.
           About the only time I turn my phone off any more is in an airplane.
           And I wanted to ask about that because I want to talk a bit more about Mark’s gospel.  It’s related.
           How many of us struggle to keep focused?  We are working on Task A, but Task B, and Task G, and Facebook and Instagram and checking messages, and “I wonder what’s in the fridge,” and any number of distracting thoughts and ideas and stuff intrude.
           IF you have trouble focusing, Mark’s gospel can be a challenge.  We’ve been working our way through Chapter One in the first gospel, and already it is clear that we will need to hone our focusing skills.  Because this gospel has a lot to teach us about Jesus, and about the call to be his disciples.  Stuff we need to learn, and we will learn, multiple times in every single lesson we get from Mark’s gospel.
           We’re gotta focus.  And take in a lot of information. 
           This morning’s lesson, for example. 
1.  Jesus leaves the synagogue (scene of last week’s lesson) and goes to Simon Peter’s house. Cures the mother-in-law who jumps up and starts serving them—we’ll talk about this in a minute, so don’t get hung up on it now.
2.  At sundown, they bring him a bunch of people who are sick and have demons and he cures them and tells the demons not to talk to him.
3.  He tries to take a day off.  People hunt him down and won’t let him have a whole day off.
4.  He says, “Fine, let’s go and preach the message.”
5.  Verse Thirty-nine:  “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

           We gotta focus, right?  But on what?  There’s so much going on there. 
           Doesn’t life feel like that these days?
           I’m gonna suggest that there is one line in this lesson should command our attention.  Jesus does a lot of stuff, but he says one thing that is clearly about mission.
           Look at verse 38.  When the disciples found Jesus, in the deserted place where he was trying to be alone, they said everyone had been looking for him.  And he responded, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
           In the midst of a gospel in which Jesus is a Man of Action, teaching and healing and casting out demons right and left!—in the midst of that gospel and this chapter of that gospel in which Jesus is doing so much stuff…
           …he declares that what he really came to do was proclaim the message.
           He came to proclaim the message.  Which is?
           Love one another.
           And not just as a nice warm fuzzy feeling…but, of course, as an action.
           Put your love into actionLove one another…by serving one another.
           That is the message.  That is the most important thing a person can do with their life:  SERVE. YOUR. NEIGHBORS.
           When Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, he was freeing her to serve.  Because serving was the most important thing she could be doing.  It was her place in the household, and we might be a little uneasy about the power dynamics of that, but it is what it is.  The highest value in that culture, and in the world which God created for us to live in and created us to continue creating—the highest value is love proclaimed as service.
           Jesus came to proclaim that message.  That was the crux of his ministry, no pun intended.  (Think about it.)
           But don’t I always say there are two primary ministries of Jesus, and thus of his disciples?
           We are called to proclaim the word of love and…
           …to heal.
           Why is healing just as valuable as proclamation?
           Why is Jesus travelling through the Galilee healing people right and left, curing their illnesses and casting out their demons?
           Because illnesses and demons are barriers to loving and serving.
           It’s hard to focus on serving when you can’t get out of bed.  Or when some demon is talking to Jesus and you can’t get a word in.
           Peter’s mother-in-law can’t serve because she has a terrible illness which has kept her confined to her bed.
           By healing her, Jesus freed her to serve. 
           Demons get in the way of our ability to love other people, and to serve them in love.  We know that’s true, right?
           What are some demons that get in the way of loving each other?  [racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, busy-ness]
           Those demons get in the way.  And when we cast them out, we are freed to serve.  When we quit asking whether people deserve our help, and we quit seeing them through the lens of their race or the outward and inward expression of their gender or financial well-being—when we can just look at another person and see a child of God, created in the image of God and therefore beautiful—then we are freed to serve.
           When we cast out the demon of busy-ness—all that stuff we do that gets in the way of serving our neighbors the way we do when we’re just imagining it in our heads and not trying to make it fit on the calendar…when we vanquish the demon of busy-ness, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor.
           Lent is coming.  And as I do each year, like clockwork, which it is, I will remind you a couple of weeks before Lent, which is, oh, now, that Lent is a time for reflection. And action.  Action and reflection.  One way we turn our hearts and minds to God in the season of Lent is to take up a Lenten practice.  Give up something that is getting in our way.  Take up something that will draw us closer to God and closer to the message of love and service.
           As you think about what to do this Lent to help you draw closer to God and to the gospel, perhaps you might think about what gets in the way of serving others, and cast it out.  Skip a couple of those Starbucks double mocha lattes and give the money to the ELCA hunger appeal.  Or St. James Place.  Or find some time and use it to serve people in need.
           Do something that helps you focus.
           I will engage in my annual Facebook fast as one of my Lenten practices this year.  Because I want to focus on God, and Facebook encourages me to focus elsewhere.  I haven’t decided what to take up yet this year.  Perhaps we can decide together.
           Community is great for focusing and accountability.  We have church at this time each week because it makes us accountable to each other.  We agree that together we are going to pray and learn about the gospel, and share the sacraments.  We focus on what God is saying to us and how God is calling us…

           …to serve.  There is no more important focus for a Christian life than service to the neighbor.  Let it be our focus this Lent, and every day after.

Dealing with Our Demons--A Sermon for St. Mark Hope and Peace, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jan. 28, 2018

Gospel Mark 1:21-28
                21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
           23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
           27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
           28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

           How many know what season we are in?
           [Ordinary Time.  Epiphany.]
           How many think it’s Ordinary Time?
           How many think it’s Epiphany?

           Guess what?  You’re all right!
           The season following Epiphany, January 6, is part of Ordinary time, that lengthy part of the church year that also includes the many Sundays following Pentecost.
           But more and more, we also consider it to be the season of Epiphanytide.  Which is too long a name for a season, but whatever.
           You can tell that we are considering this the season of Epiphany if you are paying attention to the Prayer of the Day.  Each week, those prayers have included language about Jesus being revealed, and images of light which are themes of Epiphany, right?  “Epiphany” actually comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “manifestation” or “revealing.” 
           If you look at this week’s prayer, you will see both.
           And…so what?  What does it matter that Epiphany is about revealing?  Well, it matters because that gives us a lens through which to view our lessons, especially our gospel texts for each week.  During Epiphany, we want to focus in on what our lessons are revealing about Jesus Christ.
           That is especially true this week, when our lesson is part of Epiphany and also part of that exclusive club of Jesus’ First Public Actions.
           Scholars have long suggested that we pay attention to the first public thing Jesus does in a gospel, as a way of uncovering the way that particular evangelist views Jesus.  What those same scholars refer to as Christology.
           Mark’s Christolology, his understanding of who Jesus was, is revealed in all of Chapter One, in which we see Jesus engaging in multiple acts of healing and proclamation, while also being baptized and calling disciples.
           But it is worth paying particular attention this week, when Jesus engages in his first public acts.  Two of them, really.  Teaching and exorcizing a demon.
           Proclamation and healing.
           We want to pay attention to the actions themselves, and also to the reaction of the crowd, because Mark has zeroed in on a particular response which reveals something about Jesus and about his ministry.
           What word do they use, about both the teaching and the healing?
           Authority.  Jesus is a different kind of rabbi.  He commands a room.  He commands an audience.  “He commands even the unclean spirits!”
           The fact that Jesus’ first really public act is an exorcism tells us a ton about what we will learn about Jesus from Mark. 
           Mark’s Jesus is on a mission.  And that mission involves crossing boundaries and casting out demons.  There are nine exorcisms in Mark’s gospel, and even more references to demons and the power to cast out demons. 
           The way Mark reveals Jesus is timely.  Mark is writing to a people living under an oppressive Roman rule.  In 66, the Jews in both the northern and southern territories rebelled against Emperor Nero.  In 70 AD, about the time that Mark finished his writing, Roman forces under the new Emperor, Vespasian, sacked the temple—the center of Jewish life. 
           The people living in that world had some demons.  Demons that had been around for the thirty-something years since Jesus’ death and resurrection.
           What kinds of demons were plaguing the people of Jesus, and Mark?
           --Separation    --Isolation    --Racism    
           How do you suppose a people living with those demons received the word of a Messiah who could cast out those demons?
           How do you suppose life changed for that one young man in Capernaum, up on the north shore of the Galilee?  He was living possessed by something unclean.  Which meant he could not be part of his community. 
           And Jesus, who has the authority to command those unclean spirits and cast them away, restored that man.  Ended his isolation.
           The people there that day knew this was a big deal.
           The people for whom Mark was writing knew that this was a big deal.

           So here’s a question for all of us:  do we know what a big deal this is?
           Do we have any demons that we’d like Jesus to help us destroy?  Because disciples get this ability, remember. 
           What demons are plaguing us these days?
           --Include homophobia and transphobia and talk about RIC Sunday.

           Can Jesus cast out those demons?  Does he have the authority to break down the walls that separate us from one another, the walls of bigotry and shame and stolen opportunity?
           Yeah.  He does. 
           Because his authority is built of love.  His authority continues to be unleashed in our world today, because it is built into the fabric of the life we share.  A life of faith built on love for God and love for neighbor.  Those aren’t just quaint phrases.  That is the power of Jesus Christ.  The power to overcome the demons plaguing our society and the demons plaguing our lives.
           Jesus has that power.
           Jesus has that authority.
           And so do we.
           Jesus isn’t just revealed in our gospel texts for the season of Epiphany.  He is revealed in us.  He is incarnate in us, every time we reach out to a neighbor in love.  And—hear me now—every time we let another reach out to us in love.  Every time that we admit that we need the healing power of love in our lives.

           Love heals.  The gospel is good news of a power based in love which can tear down walls and heal pain and suffering.  Jesus the Christ is a light of love for a world in pain.  Let’s share him.  Let’s heal through him.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"And the people of Nineveh believed God"--A Sermon for First Lutheran Church, St. Joseph, MO, Epiphany + 3, Jan. 14, 2018

Sermon for First Lutheran, St. Joseph, MO, Epiphany + 3, January 21, 2018
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
           The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
                5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
           10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God turned away from the calamity that God had promised to bring upon them; and God did not do it.

                14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

           Nineveh…was a terrible place.  Terrible.  The people were engaged in all manner of wickedness, every sort of blasphemy against the word of God.  They were refusing to welcome the stranger in their midst, failing to offer food to those who had none, engaging in all manner of exploitative practices, and valuing money above people.
           In short, Nineveh was a real sh…immering example of What Not To Do.
           And God was this close to taking the place down. 
           But our God is a God is grace.
           Say that with me:  “Our God is a God of grace.”
           Our God is a God of second chances.
           Say that with me:  “Our God is a God of second chances.”
           God was ready to overthrow Nineveh, because their wickedness seemed to be beyond redemption, but our God is a God of grace and second chances.
           So God appointed a prophet—Jonah—and sent that prophet to Nineveh.
           Or tried to, anyway.  If you know that Jonah story, you know that his route to Nineveh was…circuitous.  It’s a real fish story.
           Because Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh.  He didn’t want to proclaim a word of grace to a people he considered unworthy.  Jonah ran away from the task of proclaiming God’s grace.
           But God, being a God of grace and second chances and all, was willing to let Jonah try again. 
           So Jonah finally relented, and went to Nineveh and informed the town that it would be overthrown in forty days!
           The people of Nineveh heard God’s plea in the voice of God’s prophet.  Here is their response again from our first lesson:

           5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

The people of Nineveh believed God.
How many people in this sanctuary believe God?
Most of you.  Good to know.
           And how many of us know what it truly looks like to believe God?
           Because if you believe God, the people around you ought to be able to see it.
           We tend to think of “belief” as a feeling.  But when God sent Jonah to Nineveh, was God asking the Ninevites to change how they felt?
           I don’t think so.  I think God was asking them to change what they were doing.  To do something different.  The fancy word for it is “repent,” which just means get off the road you’re on and try a better road.
           Fortunately for them, the Ninevites were willing to take God up on the second chance, and they showed it to God.  It’s left out of your lesson, but we’re told that the king himself put on sackcloth, and he ordered that no living thing should eat until God realized their repentance was for real and lifted the sentence upon them.
           That’s how you do it!
           When God offers you a second chance—and God always does—take it!

           When Jesus called his disciples, he was calling them to believe in him and his mission.  But the call told them not that they would be thinking differently—though surely they would.  He called them to get on a different road.
           Today you are fishing for fish.  Tomorrow you will be fishing for people.
           Tomorrow you will be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And that means acting differently, doesn’t it? 
           Disciples of Jesus Christ welcome and celebrate the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, in their midst.
           Disciples of Jesus Christ offer their own food to those who have none, and their own clothing to those who need it.
           Disciples of Jesus Christ value people above money.
           Believing God means living God’s commands in your body.  Speaking God’s word of justice with your mouth.  Preaching God’s word of love with your hands, and your feet.
           Believing God and being a disciple of Jesus Christ are actions.
           And re-actions.
           How many in this room are perfect at this stuff?  You always welcome the one in your midst who is strange?  You keep only what you need to feed and clothe yourself, and give the rest to those in need?  You love every person you meet, and are indifferent to money?
           Discipleship is the practice of getting our actions to match the words of faith we profess.  It is a journey—a lifelong process of pausing every so often to look around and see what road we’re on?  Are we on the Jesus Road?  Or the road to Old Nineveh?
           If you’re familiar with any twelve step program, this is step four:  “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
           As Christians—people who believe God and follow Jesus—we should be taking such an inventory periodically.  Hitting the pause button on life and asking ourselves, “Am I where I want to be?  Am I where God wants me to be?  Do the people around me know that I believe God and follow Jesus based upon my actions—the things I say and the things I do?”
           Little secret:  there are some people who profess Jesus, but that profession is belied in the way they act.  There are people who profess Jesus loudly, but whose actions are more Old Nineveh than New Jerusalem.
           Being a disciple of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean being perfect.  We are just starting the year of Mark in the lectionary.  Watch the disciples as you go through this year.
           Especially in Mark’s gospel, you will see them fall short of the glory of God.  Fail to recognize who Jesus is and what his incarnation means.  Fail to follow his simple commands.  Chasing glory instead of service.
           And isn’t that good news for us?!
           The disciples—the ones who were following Jesus literally—fell short.  And now they all have the same first name:  “Saint.” 
           Because our God is a God of grace and second chances.
           Wherever you are, whatever road you are on, our God is at the ready to forgive you and help you change paths.
           If you’re on the road to New Jerusalem, our God is at the ready to help you stay there, to walk with you in your searching and fearless moral inventory. 
           The people of Nineveh believed God.

           I know that the people of First Lutheran Church in St. Joseph, Missouri do too.  So let’s show the world.

The Power in the Water--A Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, Jan. 14, 2017*

Two notes:
--We monkeyed with the lectionary a tiny bit, because I wanted to celebrate Epiphany on Sunday, Jan. 7, which was slated as Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.  So we were a week late on this Sunday.
--I wrote this sermon and then turned it into a sermon/devotion when we needed to cancel church.

Sermon for SMHP, Year B, Baptism of our Lord, Jan. 14, 2018
Mark I:4-11
                4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.5And 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.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.7He 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.8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
                9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.10And 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.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

           So I’ve been having an interesting relationship with water over the past few weeks.
           Water is one of those things.  On an average day, you don’t think much about it.  You shower in it.  Brush your teeth with it.  Use it to make a caffeinated beverage.
           Water is nice.
           Except when it attacks.
           It kind of attacked us this week, didn’t it?  We went to bed on Wednesday night and it was a balmy night in the fifties.  I let our dogs out at 3 am, and a gentle rain was falling.  It was about 45 degrees.
           By eight am, the temperature was at freezing, and by two hours later, it was barreling toward twenty degrees.  And freezing all of that gentle rain on cars and streets and everything else with the misfortune of being outside.
           Water’s not always so innocuous…
           For about three weeks now, I have been pretty consumed with keeping water from destroying our church.  That singular purpose involved buying new heaters and bringing heaters from our house and making sure we’ve get enough heat in every nook and cranny (and gigantic fellowship hall) to keep the pipes from freezing. 
           There’s been help, of course.  Steve and Tavis have filled and refilled the kerosene heater.  Colleen drove to the hardware store Friday night to get a new heater to replace the one in one of the bathrooms.  We’re all working together to keep those pipes from freezing.
           Which is a funny phrase, if you think about it.  It’s not frozen pipes that cause problems, is it?
           …it’s the water in the pipes.  Freezing and expanding and causing the pipes to break and crack and send water that is supposed to be gently flowing through iron and copper out into the rooms, where it causes all sorts of nefarious mischief. 

           Water is like that.  We control it…most of the time.  You turn a tap and out it comes.  Pull a lever and down and up it rushes, taking with it stuff you don’t want in your house.
           That’s all pretty modern, though, isn’t it?
           In the time of Jesus, water—getting water, keeping water where you wanted it, having enough water—these things consumed a lot of time.  Especially for women, who were generally tasked with the procurement of water, especially in towns and cities—places with wells. 
àHow often do you think about where you’re going to get water? 
àWhen you do think about water, what sorts of words come to mind?

           John the Baptizer was out in the wilderness, dunking people in water as a means of forgiveness and repentance.  Today we call that the “means of grace,” meaning that God’s grace is conveyed in the sacraments—baptism and communion.
           It was just water. 
           But John understood its power. 
           He also understood that there was even more power coming in the baptism Jesus would offer.
           That baptism would convey even more than forgiveness and repentance. It would convey the Holy Spirit.  A person being baptized into Jesus—the baptism of the Christian Church—would receive the Holy Spirit.

àWhat does receiving the Holy Spirit feel like?  Look like? 
àCan you tell when someone has received the Holy Spirit?

           When Jesus was baptized, the heavens (sky) opened up, and the Spirit descended.  God’s voice spoke from heaven.  It was a whole Trinitarian Rave!  The power of that water, that moment, that baptism was on full display.  Jesus is the Son. Of. God.  Halleluiah!

           I’ve been a pastor for seventeen years now.  I’ve done a few baptisms.  They’ve been nice.  I’ve baptized some of you.  I’ve baptized your children.
           And never once has the Spirit descended like a dove and a voice boomed down from the ceiling.
           But don’t think for one moment that the water in the font—the water in which we baptize, the water in which we were baptized—don’t think for a moment that there isn’t profound power in that water.
           That water has invited the Holy Spirit to take up residence in the life of every person who has been washed in it.
           That water has connected you to every other believer you see in church [edit:  every person you will see in church next week and every person who has been in church with you].
           That water claimed you as part of the church, and there is no water that can wash away, or freeze away, or flood away, that claim.  You are God’s.  You are in the grip of the Holy Spirit, as vaguely creepy as that might sound.
           The water of baptism still reminds us that we are forgiven, and calls us to repentance—to turn away from that which doesn’t lead us toward love of God and each other.  That water is a means of grace that works its power in us until we are received directly into the arms of our loving God.
           The water of baptism has cleansed you and made you a new creation in Christ.  How will you harness the power of that water?

Questions for Reflection

1.  How can I remember and honor my baptism?

2.  How can I be mindful of the presence of the Holy Spirit?  How can I call upon the Spirit’s help when I am feeling weak or alone?  When I am struggling to serve others, or to care for myself?

3.  What power has the water of my baptism awakened in me?

Herod the Despicable Liar--A Sermon for Epiphany, Jan. 7, 2018

Sermon for SMHP, Worship at our house, Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018
           In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
                9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

           Herod…was a liar.
           It happens, sometimes, that the political leadership of a territory, a kingdom, a nation…falls into the hands of someone who is a despicable liar.
           It falls then to the people who live under the rule of that leader—the despicable liar—to decide how they shall live in the territory, kingdom, nation.
           Will they huddle together in safe spaces—catacombs, churches…social media…and denounce the leader…thereby effecting no change, but allowing themselves to bask in the glow of their own right-ness?
           Or will they find ways to subvert a system gone corrupt?  Will they practice liberation…the best resistance technique for those whose power is neither monetary nor political?
           The story before us this morning is a story of liberation.
           The nativity of Jesus Christ is a story of liberation.
           This is the story of how God liberated God’s people, not through military might, nor through a political coup—but by the brave witness of a long string of people who belong more to the margins than to the halls of power.
           Think about how this story lines up.  Remember how Luke begins his telling?

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

           Men of power:  Caesar Augustus—first Roman Emperor—renamed “Augustus”—the illustrious one—by the Roman Senate.  (Sometimes the Senate goes along with a despotic ruler.)
           Publius Sulpicius Quirinius—Governor of Syria, to which Judea was added for the purpose of the census.
           Luke opens the story of the birth of Jesus with men of power.  But what happens next?  The baby is born, and laid in a manger, “because there was no place for them at the inn.”
           Jesus was born in the world of Augustus and Quirinius…in a stable.
           What’s the next line?  “In that region, there were shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

           The Word came into the world of Augustus and Quirinius.  And the first to hear of it, and tell of it, were shepherds.
           This is a story of liberation.
           Matthew tells the story differently.  See if you hear an echo, though:  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
           Herod the Great.  Jesus the baby.  Wise men from the East.
           This is a story of liberation.  It is a story that is sometimes used to separate people from one another, which makes no sense if we truly listen to the story.
           Persian astrologers—people pretty far outside mainstream Judean society—came to find Jesus.  Indeed, they saved Jesus, by taking a different road home.
           It was a subversive act:  taking a different road.  One of the tools of liberation, as the prophets and evangelists have taught them to us, is simply refusing to participate in an unjust system.  Those wise guys from the margins subverted Herod the Despicable Liar by simply refusing to participate in his plan to destroy the good which came into the world with Jesus. 
           It was good news for the whole world—Persians, and shepherds, and working class folks from Nazareth.
           Addicts and janitors and investment bankers—good news for them all!
           And allowing the good news to grow and be heard by the whole world sometimes means taking a different road.
           Taking a different road can be an act of liberation.
           We are living in a time of deep division.  A time in which faith in Jesus Christ has been twisted into a justification for drawing lines between groups of people. 
           Those wise men who saved Jesus…would fall under the current travel ban and be precluded from traveling to the US.
           The separation in our nation and beyond is palpable these days.  White supremacists are recreating the horrors of forgotten decades…and centuries, and often dragging Jesus into their rhetoric.
           From those who have little, more is being demanded.
           And the response of those who find the whole thing…despicable…is often a lot of foot-stamping that changes nothing.  I am chief among the foot-stampers, so I know of which I speak.
           So I feel fully able to say, “let’s take a different road,” since I need that word myself.
           There’s got to be a different road than tweeting and posting and grousing about all the people who look and think and act differently than we do.  Because the road we are on is taking us to Herod’s Palace of Paranoia.
           It’s a new year.  It’s Epiphany Sunday.  And we need a new road.
           I think all of those ideas fit together rather nicely.
           What if in this new year (and maybe the next couple of years as well) we commit to listening to people who have ideas different from ours.  And really listening, not that listening you do when you’re really just formulating what you’re going to say next.  What if we saw everyone else as a beloved child of God, and worked hard to reveal the love of Jesus to them?
           Which means we continue to stand up for what Jesus has revealed to us, right?  We continue to witness to the child who was revealed to the ones on the margins.  We continue to work for the liberation of those on the margins. 
           But we do that by loving the ones at the center, as we love the ones on the margins.  And everybody in between.
           Because if we can reveal Christ to Herod, we can set this whole world on a different road.
           If we can reveal Christ to those who know only Herod’s ways, the light will shine in darkness.

           And the darkness will be overcome.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Make Room--A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Sermon for SMHP, Christmas Eve 2017
Luke 2:1-14
           In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
           6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
                8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
           10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”
           When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

           “There was no place for them in the inn.”
           Jesus was born into a world that was full.  Full of empires.  Full of rulers for those empires and kingdoms—Augustus, Quirinius, Herod. 
           The world was so full it was necessary to count.  Count the people.  Count their money.  Take some of it.  Take some more.  Give it to the people who already had enough.
           This is the setting into which God chose to be born.  A world that, for all intents and purposes, belonged to Augustus, and Quirinius—men who had taken it, and held it, by force. 
           This is the world into which God chose to become incarnate…in the most exquisite of contrast to all of the power and extravagance of Empire.  “A child, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger…” because “there was no place for them in the inn.”
           The inn had no place for them.  The world didn’t seem to have room for Emmanuel to be born.
           But the animals made room.  And some shepherds made haste, having heard that a thing had taken place that was for them.  For them and for all of the people left out by the empire’s lopsided allegiances.
           The shepherds made room in their busy night of shepherding to go and see the thing that had taken place…just as all of you have made space to come and see and hear about the thing—the most amazing thing that ever happened.  It has taken place for us tonight; it takes place at this time every year.  Every time we remember that God came down for us.  That a child has been born for us.
           We need to hear and to tell that story every year, but I feel as if this year it might be particularly poignant.
           Our world doesn’t seem to have much room for Jesus right now, either.
           Even the celebration of his birth doesn’t seem to have much room for him—for his messy humanity and his egalitarian values and his love for all people.
           There seems to be less room for those things these days.
           I’m afraid the image that sums up the world this Christmas for me is going to be that Mercedez commercial--you might it:  a little boy wakes up and runs to the window.  He looks out at the empty snow covered driveway and hangs his head in disappointment.  The same scene plays out when he is an older boy, and then a teenager.
           Next scene, and a little voice says, “Daddy, it’s Christmas!”  The man rolls out of bed and heads for his living room, passing a window.  He slows, stops, and goes back to the window.  Outside in the driveway is a Mercedes GLE Sport Utility Vehicle with a big silver bow on it.  He looks at it with surprise and delight as a voiceover says “Mercedes-Benz:  the best or nothing.”
           The best or nothing.  It’s not a bad sentiment, is it?
           But is the “best” way to celebrate Jesus’ birth really buying each other luxury cars?  Or feeling bad because we can’t buy luxury cars and therefore what we give is essentially “nothing,” according to the advertising executives with the Mercedes account.
           The firm that gave us “the best or nothing” as the tag line to a commercial about Christmas.
           They were on the right track, those executives.  “The best or nothing” is a good tag line for Christmas.  It needs a little polish, though. 
           How about this:  “Christmas:  Jesus or nothing”?
           Because I’m guessing when each of us wakes up tomorrow morning and looks out into the driveway, there’s not gonna be a Mercedes with a big silver bow.
           And we won’t miss it.
           There will be a savior.  (Not in your driveway, cuz that would be weird.) 
           There will be good news of great joy for all the people. 
           The best news ever.  At a time when we really need to hear it.
           So hear it, people of God:
           No matter who you are or where you’ve been, God loves you!
           No matter what’s under your tree, or not under your tree, or in your driveway, God loves you!
           God became human and was born on a night long ago in Bethlehem, to teach us how to love one another and to remind us how much God loves us.
           Our world may be struggling to make room for Jesus, but we don’t have to.  We can make a big space for him, and let him be incarnate in us, just as he was long ago in the City of David.

           Our world is full once again.  Full of empires and threats and inequity. 
           But this night our world is full of hope.  For we are full of love.