Saturday, December 21, 2019

God's Got This--Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 15, 2019

Year C, Advent 3, Dec. 15, 2019, SMHP
Isaiah 35:1-10
          The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
               5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Response       (You are invited to read the text in bold.)                       Luke 1:46-55
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
45who has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name.
50God’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord, from generation to generation.
51God has shown strength of arm, and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54God has helped the servant Israel, in remembrance of the Lord’s mercy, 55according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants forever.”

          Gaudete Sunday!  The Sunday of Joy!
          The name of this Sunday—the only Sunday of Advent which has its own name—comes, as these things often do, from the first word of the Introit, or Entrance chant, in mostly Catholic churches. 
          [SLIDE]  That first line comes from the Latin version of Philippians 4:  Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.
          As we have talked about other weeks, each Sunday in Advent has a theme.  This is week three, the week of Gaudete!  Rejoice!  Joy!
          And there is lots to be joyful about, right?
          I bet you can all think of at least one joyful thing in your life right now.
          Slight pause
          [SLIDE]  But as I went through this week thinking about what to say about Gaudete Sunday, it occurred to me that there is also a bit of irony in this Sunday, placed where it is, at the point of the year right before the solstice—the longest night of the year, when the trees have gone bare.  This is the view from my front yard.
          We’re not quite in the bleak midwinter, but the landscape is not what I’d call joyful.  And you can hunker down inside, but you might want to avoid the television or the radio, or you will be treated to this [2 SLIDES] depressing spectacle.
          Or this one.  [2 SLIDES]
          There are some pretty NON-joyful things happening out there in the world, am I right?  Some downright depressing things.
          Yeah, I chose Isaiah for a reason. 
          We are spending our Advent with Isaiah, and not just because I’m not a fan of preaching the apocalypse when it feels like we’re living through its advent.
          Isaiah is written for us.  Or for people like us.  For people living in a time and place that feels like it isn’t theirs. 
          Specifically, Isaiah is written for a people who have watched their neighbors give themselves over to a foreign entity, in this case Assyria.  Their leader just basically handed the keys to Tigleth-pileser, the Assyrian king.  Hard to imagine, isn’t it?
          The people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, held out for a while.  They maintained their independence until the next century, when the kingdom of Babylon, under the evil Nebuchadnezzar, became too much for them to handle. 
          Isaiah is writing to a people who are beginning to understand the inevitability of what is before them.  That things in their country are broken, and it may be a while before it gets back to normal. 
          And Isaiah does that by reminding them of something that bears repeating:  God’s got this.
          It bears repeating, so let’s repeat it:  God’s got this.  God’s got this.
          The word we hear from Isaiah this Advent is a word of hope for a people facing exile.  God can make the desert bloom.  God can make food and water appear in the wilderness.  God is faithful, even when we are not.
          And God is just.  Listen to the word of justice in today’s lesson, the word God gives to Isaiah:  Say to those who are of a fearful heart,” God declares.  “’Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.’”
          God will come and save you.  With vengeance, if necessary, and if you are uncomfortable with that image, join the club.  But we have spent enough time with the Magnificat to understand that God’s justice is real, and strong.  And right now, quite honestly, I take comfort in knowing that our God has both “mercy” and “strength of arm.”  God’s promise is concrete—it is a word for people living under the constant threat of empire.
          It is a promise, that our God can make the desert bloom, and tear a dictator off of the throne.
          God’s got this.  God comes to bring peace, but know that God’s peace comes with justice!  As Dr. King reminds us, true peace is the presence of justice.
          And there are reminders all around us that God is here, God is present.
          Even in the bleak midwinter, life abounds.  The promise comes near.
          [Slide]  This is also my front yard.  We built a tiny raised garden from a kit Colleen bought at Aldi’s.  Got a few plants into it.  Basil, rosemary, tomatoes, parsley.
          When we had the first freeze of the year, I took out everything but the rosemary, because rosemary is pretty hardy.
          [Slide]  And you can see that the rosemary had the last word.  Dead as a doornail, as they say.
          [Slide]  But last week I noticed this.  Flat leaf parsley, poking up through the dead leaves, sending up new shoots from the roots I left behind.
          God’s power is on exhibit, all around us.
          God’s power is on exhibit here inside us.  God’s power shone through Isaiah, the prophet to exiles and to their children, who returned to Jerusalem and made it truly great.
          God’s power shone through a young woman, who heard the news that she would carry the child of God, who knew that the news came with shame and difficulty and trouble…and who said, “the Mighty One has done great things in me, and holy is God’s name.”
          The name of God has knit people together since God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah.  Through bondage, exile, and empire, people have lifted up the name of God and allowed God’s presence—God’s holy, incarnate presence—to flow through them.
          We have a new name on the prayer list.  Anita Williams is the mother of Richard Williams, Valorie and Rick’s son-in-law.  She had a heart attack on Thursday night, and Valorie let me know on Friday.
          Yesterday morning, I sent Richard, who mostly goes by “Rick,” a text, just letting him know I was praying for his mom and his family. 
          Apparently the number I have for him is old.  Yesterday afternoon, I got this response:
Hi Donna,
Sorry this made it to the wrong number.
Adding Rick, his Mom and family to my prayer chain now.
God works in mysterious ways, doesn't he?
Peace and Love to you this holiday season

[Name withheld]
Smithville, MO

          God’s got this, my friends.  Because incarnation is real, and God is working in us…even in those of us who haven’t me yet. 
          And that should bring us all joy.

HOD #251:  My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness

We Wage Peace--Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 8, 2019

Year A, Advent II, Dec. 8, 2019, SMHP
Isaiah 11:1-10
          A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
               10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

          [Slide—one at a time] Leopards, bears, lions, cheetahs, crocodiles, cobras, asps, and other vipers.  This is just a sampling of the predatory fauna of the Holy Land.  [Slide, Slide] Because of where Israel sits, on a bridge of land between Eurasia and Africa, along the Mediterranean Sea…and because of the variety of climate zones within the country and nearby…The Holy Land is home to an incredibly diverse array of plants, animals, and poisonous spiders. 
          So there are no shortage of images for a prophet to call upon to inspire a sense of dread and danger, as should be obvious from our lesson today. As all of these lessons in Advent will do, here we see Isaiah creating a portrait of the future Messiah with images drawn from the hopes and dreams—and fears—of his kindred.
          Hopes first:  when the Messiah comes, the prophet declares, he will carry the bloodline of king David and be imbued with the Spirit of the Lord:  “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
          If that language sounded familiar to you it’s because you heard it emanating from over there at the font when we baptized Sam and Dominic and Jean Marie and CeCe.  You may remember those words being pronounced over you some time long ago, or not so long ago.
          In the baptismal liturgy, we’re reminded that the attributes of the Messiah aren’t just spiritual gifts that fell on Jesus and ascended to heaven with him:  they are spiritual gifts which confer to us upon our baptisms.
          When we were baptized, the Spirit of the Lord came upon us too, and we became children of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord.  We have all of those gifts because of all of that water combined with love from the community and from our adoption as children of God.
          And it’s a good thing, too, because as Isaiah reminds us…there is so much scary stuff out there.  In Isaiah’s day, a simple walk down the road could mean an encounter with a lion, a leopard, a bear—oh my! 
          For us, the dangers might be more subtle.  Or just as immediate.  Regardless, we all want a reminder that we are safe, don’t we?
          So when Isaiah wanted to paint a picture of the glorious kingdom which would be ushered in by the shoot of Jesse, the branch of King David’s tree—God’s Messiah—Isaiah drew a world in which even little children were safe from the vipers and the asps hiding under every rock.  In which lambs and wolves set up housekeeping together, lions and bears were no threat to the cattle, and, most importantly, the ruler over everything was righteous and just.
          Isaiah was speaking to a people who had been living under the rule of the foolish King Ahaz, [Slide—rare black and white photo of Ahaz]  who became a vassal of the Assyrian Empire—remember them from last week. The book of Second Kings records that Ahaz “did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done,” instead pleading for help from the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser, and sending gold and precious artifacts from the temple in Jerusalem to the King in Damascus. 
          Ahaz even went to Damascus to swear allegiance to Tiglath-Pileser, falling down before the gods of Assyria.  According to Second Kings, Ahaz “even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations.”  Ahaz had an altar built in the temple to match the one he had seen in Damascus, and moved the altar of the Lord out of the center of the temple.  He then commanded that the priests make offerings to Moloch and the other gods of Assyria daily.
          So it was not a great time for Isaiah’s people—facing dangers all around them, and being betrayed by their own leaders. 
          In times of poor leadership, we must remember God’s promise.  We must lean in to a word of hope and peace.  [Slide]  Peace is our theme for the second week of Advent, but like hope, the theme for the first week, the Word of peace casts its light over every week of Advent, as we are reminded that the Messiah brings a world in which people, and beasts, live and prosper together without animosity.
          Bad kings come, and bad kings go.  Jesus is forever.  And because Jesus is forever, and because we have been washed in the waters of baptism and received the same promise Isaiah laid on his people before the birth of the Messiah—we are people of peace.  When the world around us feels threatening and unsafe, we wage peace.
          We wage peace!  Because we are an Advent people—a people comfortable in good old Lutheran paradox—and we know the Messiah has come…and is yet to come.  And in the time between, the time in which we live, the fearful time of uneven leadership, we must actively seek out peace.
          Peace is not passive.  It’s not the absence of war and conflict.  Dr. King said it well, borrowing most of his quote from Jane Addams:  “true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
          True peace comes when we remember that we are led by a little child, sent by God, born in Bethlehem.  Because we are led by him, we are actively at work in the world waging peace.  Calling justice into being.
          A woman was stuck in the airport, having just been told that her flight was delayed four hours.  She was making her way through security when a voice came over the loudspeaker:  “if anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 speaks Arabic, please come to the gate now.”
          She looked at her boarding pass and realized that A-4 was her gate.  When she got there, moments later, she saw an older woman sitting on the floor, crying uncontrollably.  She told the agents she spoke some Arabic, and she sat down on the floor with the woman.  She discovered that the woman thought their flight was cancelled, and she was on the way to El Paso for an important medical procedure.  She explained that they were just delayed, and the woman calmed down.  They called the woman’s son, who calmed her even further.
          Then the younger woman called her father, who spoke to the older woman in Arabic for a while. It turned out they knew some of the same people. Then, just for the heck of it, she called some poets she knew in Palestine.  They spoke on the phone for a while longer.  Then the woman pulled out some mamool cookies—crumbly cookies stuffed with dates and nuts and covered in powdered sugar.  She offered them to the women at the gate, and every one accepted a cookie with thanks.  The airline brought drinks, and two little girls waiting for the flight passed them out.
          The afternoon passed quickly, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
          Peace doesn’t just happen.  We make it happen.  We act justly, with “wisdom and understanding, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.”  We sit on the floor and eat the cookies and recognize the humanity in one another.
          And perhaps you are thinking now, “Well sure, but I don’t speak Arabic, so I couldn’t be the hero of that story.” 
          But only one person in that airport spoke English, and there are a lot of heroes in the story.
          I am telling you this morning that you will have an opportunity in the next few days to be a peacemaker, a bringer of justice.  I don’t know what the moment will look like—but you will know when it appears.  And then you will decide.  Will I act in fear, or will I wage peace?  Will I welcome, bless, affirm another person, and thus introduce a word of justice.
          I believe you will.  Because I know that you are children of “wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and joy in the presence of the Lord.”  And we are people of hope and peace.  It’s not just a name.

Finding Our Hope--First Sunday of Advent, Dec. 1, 2019

Year C, Advent 1, Dec. 1, 2019, SMHP
Sermon Reading                                                                                      Isaiah 2:1-5
          The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
          2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us the ways of the Lord, and we may walk in God’s paths.”
          For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4The Lord shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
Response       (You are invited to read the text in bold.)                           Psalm 122
1I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

          Advent is the greatest season of the church year, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.  Just kidding—I’m a pacifist. 
          But it is.  In Advent, we consider the whole world, the arc of human history, the strange specter of the “end times.”
          And most importantly, the promise of God. 
          [Slide] Each of the four weeks of Advent comes with its own theme: 
·       Hope
·       Peace
·       Joy
·       Love
          Advent is an opportunity, to relax into the more contemplative winter season and tend to our spiritual lives, in anticipation of the first of the two great festivals of the year:  The Feast of the Nativity…Christ Mass.
          We will be spending our Advent with the prophet Isaiah.  The lectionary offers us wonderful texts from Isaiah for each of the four Sundays in Advent, so I want to spend just a moment this morning setting the stage for our time with this amazing prophet.
          The book of Isaiah is the third longest of the prophetic books, but the most important to us as Christians, because of its focus on God’s promise and the coming of the Messiah.  You will see in the coming weeks that Isaiah paints a vivid picture of the future savior whom God will send to ransom a people gone astray.
          The context of the whole book is a bit tricky.  Scholars now (mostly) agree that this book is likely the work of more than one writer, writing in more than one time period.  Whether there are two or three distinct time periods is now a matter of debate, but this much is pretty settled:  the first 39 chapters of the book are written by the prophet Isaiah, who introduces himself in the first chapter and begins to outline his vision in Chapter Two, beginning with our lesson for this morning.
          [Slide] All of our lessons this Advent will come from that book, which was compiled during the long service of a prophet appointed to serve the kings of the southern kingdom of Judah.  Isaiah served from the second half of the eight century BCE until approximately a quarter of the way through the seventh.
          It was a time of division and upheaval.  [Slide] Israel, had been united under the first of the great kings, Saul, then David, then Solomon.  But things kind of fell apart after that.  Under Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, the kingdom was divided.  The Northern Kingdom retained the name, Israel, while the Southern Kingdom became known as Judah.
          Isaiah was a prophet in Judah, which was more stable during that time, the time of the first great conquest.  [Slide] The Empire of Assyria was in the process of conquering the Northern Kingdom, a conquest in which they were eventually successful.  Assyria took over the north, moving many Israelites to its stronghold in present-day Iran, and moving Gentiles into the Northern Kingdom to dilute the bloodlines and allegiances. Israel tried to get its southern neighbors to help it, but Isaiah counseled his king to stay out of the conflict.  This king actually listened to his prophet, and the southern kingdom remained intact until the time of Second Isaiah, during the Babylonian conquest.
          Things were still rough in that Southern Kingdom.  At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel invaded Judah, trying to get it to form an alliance.  Assyria mostly played nice with Judah, but they were a constant threat.  And then a renewed monarchy in Egypt began to threaten from the south.
          People began to divide into alliance—let’s call them political parties—each with a different answer to the great problems of the day.  One party urged strong borders and racial purity.  Another promoted openness, diversity, and state-funded social programs. 
          Imagine it, if you can.
          Imagine trying to find a word of hope for those people, fairly safe in their own country, but concerned about attacks of all kinds from outside their borders, and division in their own land.
          Imagine, being a prophet to those people.  What word of hope would you bring, could you bring.
          Let’s do that—imagine together.  Find another person or two, and talk about this, just for a couple of minutes.  What word of hope would you offer to a people who feel divided and threatened?

--Collect answers

          It is fair to say that this Advent, as God’s prophetic people, a people who have accepted a mission to build hope and proclaim peace, we are searching for a word of hope to offer our neighbors.  I believe we will find it in a couple of places.  First, in each other—in the wisdom collected in this very place, this beautiful, beautiful, warm and toasty place.
          Second, this Advent, we will find a word of hope by listening carefully to the great prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah’s first word of promise, before us this morning, is a recipe for hope.  Isaiah speaks of the days to come, which is both a promise and a challenge.  The “days to come” will arrive when we decide to venture up to the mountain of the Lord’s house, which is more a mindset than a place.
          The mountain of the Lord’s house is where we go when we realize that our ways ain’t working, and perhaps we should try a different way.  When we are willing to place ourselves in God’s hands, beat our swords into plowshares, and be people of peace.
          People of hope and people of peace.  That is who we are.  And our task for this Advent is to seek and find the ways that God is drawing us into hope.  And peace. 
          Then to step into the shoes of the great prophet Isaiah and share that word with our neighbors.  Our neighbors are struggling to find hope. Our neighbors are struggling to find peace.
          Let us find it ourselves this Advent, people of God.  And then let us share it widely.

Why Christ Is King--Reign of Christ Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019

Year C, Reign of Christ Sunday, SMHP, Nov. 24, 2019
Luke 23:32-43
               32Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33When 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.
          34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And 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!”   
          36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”   
          39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
          43Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

          [Slide 2] In 1919, a small group of disaffected Germans, demoralized after their defeat in World War I, formed the Deutsche Arbeiter-partei, the DAP or German Worker’s Party.  [Slide 3] That year, a soldier named Adolph Hitler joined the party, quickly impressing the leaders with his oratory skills.  The DAP promoted German nationalism and anti-semitism, ideals attractive to the young Hitler.  He was appointed Chief of Propaganda for the party, and began to promote a “Germany First” model among his fellow soldiers and other Germans.
          [Slide 4] On February 24 of that year, the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.  NAZI for short.
          I probably don’t need to tell you about them…except to say that the sin of Nazism is simply nationalism taken to its logical conclusion.  If one’s primary allegiance is to the state, then the state becomes a sort of deity, and one begins to worship it…and believe it can do no wrong.  Those beliefs are easily transferred to the leaders of the state, and especially to a single leader whose propaganda skills are well-honed.  Nationalism thrives in a world in a world rocked by change.  When people feel that their foundations are not solid, when their time-held traditions and attitudes—right or wrong—are being challenged, they will follow a strong leader who promises to put them and others like them at the center.
          In 1921, Hitler was appointed Fuhrer, or Leader, of the Nazi Party. In 1923, he led a failed coup in Munich and was thrown in jail.  [Slide 5] While there, he dictated the first volume of his memoir and manifesto, Mein Kampf.  That book expounded upon his belief that Marxism, globalism, and Judaism were forces which must be combatted with all due force.  Nationalism was the only answer for Germany, the Fuhrer insisted, and he would “make Germany great again.”

          By now you might be wondering what all of this has to do with Christ the King Sunday and the lesson before us, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Well here it is:
          In 1925, dismayed by the rise of nationalism in Europe, [Slide 6] Pope Pius XI established the Feast of Christ the King.  It was first observed on the last Sunday of October, and in 1969, moved to the final Sunday of the Church year.  Most protestant churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary observe it on this day.
          The Pope announced the new festival in an encyclical which explained his concerns about the sort of nationalism he was seeing in places like Germany and Italy, and why it is incompatible with our Christian convictions. [Slide 7] In that encyclical, titled Quas Primas, or “In the First,” the pope wrote that Christians were bound to observe the kingship of Jesus Christ above all other social and political allegiances.  Only Christ, the pope wrote, is truly worthy of our absolute fidelity, because Christ "has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.
          And on the final Sunday of the church year, we contemplate the nature of our Lord, by observing Christ the King, or Reign of Christ Sunday.  We don’t do so in a vacuum; we think about our own world, and why it is that we invite Christ to reign over our lives, supreme to any other being.
          The answer to that why question should be about as clear now as when Pope Pius XI looked around and saw a world sweeping up the devastation of The Great War, and building the foundations for the Next Great War.
          So let’s break it down.  Why is Christ our king, rather than the president, or the chancellor of Germany, or even Oprah? [Slide 8]
          Because, as Pope Pius said, of his essence and his nature. 
          His essence—who he is.  Son of God.  Born humbly, lived simply, preached radical love. 
          Willing to take on our suffering—the worst of our suffering—in order that we might have life eternal. 
          That is the essence of one who ought to be directing our pathways, wouldn’t you say?
          And his nature?  His nature is evident in Luke’s presentation of the terrible moment of crucifixion.  There’s a lot of dialogue from a lot of constituencies in this text.  The religious leaders mock Jesus.  The soldiers scoff at him.  [Slide 9]  Under the direction of Pontius Pilate, a sign above him reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
          Even a criminal, crucified alongside the innocent Jesus, derides him, doubting his power and demanding salvation.
          [Slide 10]  But Jesus says only two things to those who have gathered for his final (brief) sermon:  a word of forgiveness and a word of inclusion.
          [Click]  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
          And, to the second criminal,
          [Click]  “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
          Forgiveness and inclusion.  To the very end, Jesus preaches a word of mercy and a word of radical love. 
          In the midst of an agonizing death which he could have avoided, Jesus was still teaching. 
          “Forgive one another.”
          “Love one another.  Keep drawing the circle wider and wider.  Bring ‘em all in.  Paradise is for everybody.”
          On our own, we chase after other ideals.  Left to our baser instincts, especially our fear, we gravitate toward the one who promises safety and comfort.
          Those reigns lead inevitably to division.  Destruction.
          The reign of Christ is different.  The reign of Christ knits us together in love and mercy.
          The reign of Christ is difficult.  It requires us to lay our fears and our hopes in one place.  At the foot of the cross, before the one who leads with mercy and love.  And teaches us to do the same. 
          Today, as the church year draws to a close, and we prepare to gather together to give thanks as a community, let us once again pledge our allegiance to the one who draws the circle big enough for everyone.  Let Christ be our sovereign, our example, the one who directs our steps and enlarges our hearts. 
          He is the only one who can, and the only one who should.
HOD #343 “My Song Is Love Unknown”

Lifted Up and Brought Down--The Way of the Lord; Year C, All Saints, Nov. 3, 2019

Year C, All Saints, Nov. 3, 2019
Luke 6:20-31
               20Then Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 
23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 
24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 
25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 
26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
               27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.

          I want to start this morning with two words guaranteed to get the attention of a few of us.
          Joanie’s father…  [Wait for raised heads]
          Joanie’s father and I are both members of a Facebook group called “Things they didn’t teach us in seminary.”  It’s a place for pastors to share all sorts of stuff, usually along the lines of “You won’t believe what happened to me!”
          So Joanie’s dad, Russ, posted a question that got people talking the other day.  “What is the dumbest…object you’ve ever had to dedicate?”
          It is the practice in a lot of churches to ask church members to help buy stuff, and then to gather ‘round and bless the stuff and stick a plaque on it.  I’ve seen such plaques on a lot of items.  Actually, if you look around, we’ve got a bunch of them.  All of the windows in the sanctuary have their own plaques, which means somebody gave money, and The Venerable Dr. Bard said a blessing.
          What’s this room called? [Marshall Hall]  We dedicated it to George Marshall, a saint in our midst.
          Some of the items lifted up by people in response to Russ’s question [slides]:

·       A typewriter
·       A copier
·       The back fence of the parsonage
·       A pickup truck full of toilet paper
·       An outhouse
·       Fifty dachshunds
·       A landfill

          In the church we bless stuff.  It’s a thing we do, and it’s not a bad thing, though—as Russ’s question and the responses imply—it can get out of hand.
          But the impulse is a good one.  We want to lift up generosity.  We want to observe important events in people’s lives.  We want to invite God to bless people at important times in their lives.
          Blessing calls down God’s favor and lifts up the person being blessed.  Even when we bless objects, the idea is to recognize the gift, or the one who will use the object—say with a backpack, or a typewriter.
          Blessing lifts up.  How many of you have been blessed publicly?  Some possibilities:  baptism, confirmation, taking a leadership position…or because we all, including you, think you’re moving…
          If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been blessed.  The church called down the power of God to lift you up and claim you as God’s own, and as a member of the Body of Christ.  And you are literally lifted up over the font and water is poured over you…and the Holy Spirit comes down and blows on you.  Very lightly.  You barely feel it.
          You could say that the ability to participate in the Body of Christ is a blessing that lifts us up every week.  I would say that, at least.  I hope you would…
          The Body of Christ lifts us up.  Jesus lifts us up.  His ministry has always been about lifting up, which is why his seminal public proclamation starts with blessings.
          Matthew and Luke can’t agree where it took place—Matthew says The Mount [slide], Luke says the “level place” [slide]—but they both agree that The Sermon on the Mount, or the Plain, started with blessings. 
          Blessings for those who needed lifting up:  the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the ones who are suffering because they are following Jesus.  They are to receive what they seek, in God’s promised future.
          Luke adds something else to the formula, and we shouldn’t be surprised at all, if we’ve been paying attention.  Luke adds woes for those who are consuming so much that they need to be brought down, rather than lifted up.  The rich, the full, those who are laughing, those who are exalted.
          Lifting up and bringing down continues the theme set for us way back in Chapter One when Mary sang her song known as the…[Magnificat].
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 who has looked with favor on the lowliness of the servant.
And then Mary goes on to sing of God’s vision for a holy world:
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

          This is what God is doing, Mary declares, in the birth of God’s begotten child.  In becoming incarnate among us.  God is making the world “a level place.”  A place in which there aren’t some who struggle to get by…and others who have much more than they can use. 
          From of old, God has intended for the world to be a level place.  Listen to the prophet Isaiah tell it:
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.

          God has always intended for the world to be a level place.
          So how are we doing at that?  Not so good.  You probably know the statistics.  [slide] Here’s just one image—share of income of the top one percent (that’s the red line) and the lower fifty percent (yup, the blue line). 
          “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.”
          We are struggling with this vision as a nation…
          …but we can create our own level places.
          We can create a level place here.  A place of hope.  A place of peace.  A place where we respect each other’s gender identity and do our very best to use the right pronouns…not because we’re trying to be “nice” to each other.  But because we believe in honoring the incarnation reflected in each of us, and that means seeing each other clearly and knowing each other deeply. 
          And respecting who each of us is and what each of us brings.  You all have done that so well.  I truly believe that this congregation is a level place, in which we see one another for who we are and love each other as we are. 
          Are we perfect?  Nah.  We’re not Jesus.  We are saints, though.  We are doing our best to be worthy of all that God has given us.  We’re sitting here in a gathering space named for George Marshall, who was so gifted at lifting up.  Raise your hand if you were lifted up by Mr. George.
          Some of you didn’t know George Marshall, a saint in our midst.  But I like to think that some of George lives on in this place, so you can see him reflected in others here.  Especially when we are showing gratitude, a particular gift which George shared so readily.
          This is the place in which we bless each other.  Where we are nourished for the journey of blessing the world.  I hope today you find sustenance for the next six days of being a blessing to others.  I hope in this space, this Marshall Hall, you find a spirit of gratitude that blesses all those around you even as it blesses you.
          Be blessed, saints of the church.  Be a blessing.   Amen

Be the Stones--Pentecost + 23, Nov. 17, 2019

Year C, Proper 28, Pentecost + 23, Nov. 17, 2019
Luke 21:5-19
               5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”
          8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
          10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

          In the old west, buildings were put up fast, since the people doing the building didn’t always know if the town would make it, and since there weren’t a lot of hardware stores on the frontier.  [Slide 2] In order to make the town look more inviting to cowpokes and homesteaders, owners would add façades—a larger front wall, often made of slightly better materials and painted nicely.
          [Slide 3] If you look carefully at this Bank, you will see that the building itself is little more than a shack.  But the front wall is nice.
          [Slide 4] I also found it interesting that the hotel seems to be owned by Mary, the mother of Jesus.
          Architects have kept the idea of the façade in their designs, using it in a variety of ways, with the advent of newer, more varied building materials. 
          [Slide 5] This is the Red Building at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.
          [Slide 6]  And this is the Bloomberg Pavilion at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.
          [Slide 7]  I think this is my favorite, as it turns other buildings into cubist art.  This is the Basque Health Department Headquarters in Bilbao, Spain.
          [Slide 8]  Amazingly, this one is also in Bilbao.  This is the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao…and I don’t know about you, but now I want to go to Bilbao.
          Facades used to be there to distract from the plainness of the building behind them.  Now they are sometimes ways to draw the attention toward something equally wonderful, like an art museum.  They are certainly always a “first look”—a way to get your attention.
          Before King David proposed—and King Solomon built—a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God was sometimes a rather plain affair. 
          [Slide 9]  Both Abram and, later, Jacob, stayed at a place which came to be known as Bethel, or Beit El (the house of God).  The two patriarchs were said to have built an altar there—basically a bunch of rocks.
          [Slide 10]  Moses and the Israelites built a tabernacle to house the ark of the covenant and other signs of God’s presence.  Parts of it were made of gold and bronze, so it wasn’t like an Old West Bank or anything.  But it was built like a tent, so it could be packed up and moved with the people. 
          [Slide 11]  So it didn’t hold a candle to the temple of Solomon, [Slide 12]  or the second temple, rebuilt after Solomon’s temple was destroyed by Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar.
          It was this very Temple which Jesus and a crowd of disciples were standing before when those followers became fascinated by the beautiful stones and other adornments on the temple façade.  They were in Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus having entered rather dramatically a few days earlier on the back of a colt.  Jesus had been teaching every day in the temple, knowing that his days on earth were coming to a close. 
          People had been coming to the temple to hear Jesus preach, but as they did so, they passed by all of the improvements which the King Herod (boo! Hiss!) had been making.  And they did exactly what Herod hoped they would do:  they Ooohed and Aaahed over the beauty on the outside of the temple. 
          And Jesus said to them something that we hear pretty often these days:  “It’s all coming down.”
          [Slide 13] One of my the professors, Dwight Zscheile, recently wrote an article which is getting a lot of buzz.  The title of the article is “Will the ELCA be gone in thirty years?”  The article refers to membership trends in our denomination which suggest that if we continue doing what we’re doing, there will be fewer than 16,000 ELCA Lutherans in worship on a Sunday in the year 2041.
          Pretty sobering, eh?  As Jesus stood before the temple, in the telling of Luke, who already knows the future, since he is writing fifty years in the future, Jesus tells those gathered pupils what Luke already knows:  this temple will be gone in less than forty years.  All those pretty stones are coming down.
          So if your faith is in the façade, be prepared for the whole thing to come tumbling down.  Wise words, then and now. 
          If your faith is in the façade—the idea of Christianity, the practice of regular worship—and not in the living Christ in our midst and your reflection of that incarnation, it’s all going to come tumbling down. 
          “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
          The days will come when this denomination as it exists now will be thrown down, if all we see are pretty worship and lutefisk dinners.  Important things, those…well, the worship, at least. 
          But our faith cannot rest upon a façade of Christianity.
          Jesus, knowing that his days are surely numbered, realizes that their days will be numbered as well, unless they can get beyond admiring the pretty thing they’ve built.
          “Don’t see the stones,” he tells them.  “Be the stones.”
          A façade of Christianity is not enough.  A façade of faith is not enough.  There are those in our midst which will use the name of Christ to advance a narrative which has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ.  “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’”
          You have to be stones.  You have to be rock solid in what you know of God, of justice, of truth.  Because they will call it all into question.  And if you are not rock solid, if you are not a stone, you will be cast down like this temple will be.
          There are many facades out there, people of God.  Pretty buildings, pretty words, pretty promises.
          But we shall follow Jesus.  Because we are the anti-trend.  We are preparing to make an accounting of our faith.  Not our worship.  Not our building.
          Our faith.  In Jesus Christ.
          We’re asking the questions that matter.  And we’re wrestling with the answers.  Because we want to be stones. 
          We’re not perfect.  We’re a lot like that first stone, Petros, the rock upon whom Jesus planned to build his church. 
          We doubt, we hide, we aren’t quite sure what to say.  But we keep working at it, asking the hard questions.  And the church will indeed be built upon us.  And it will be strong, and beautiful…from the inside out.