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.