Follow Your Call – January 19, 2019 (MLK Observed)

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Sermon Text

There was a saying among the Rabbis that, “Everyday a heavenly voice resounds from Mount Horeb, proclaiming, ‘Woe unto the people for their disregard of Torah.’” This is true for us today, a voice constantly crying out and telling us, “Woe to you who disregard the instructions of Christ.” Each of us has received a call to follow Christ, that is what brings us here week after week. Each of us has received instruction, in the form of scripture and the form of preaching and study. The life of other Christians who we are in community with, mentors, the saints who have gone before us, all provide ways for us to live into our call, to regard the instruction of Christ.

There is a definite danger that arises in the life of Christians when we let ourselves become stagnant. Worse than acting out against our Christian call is to sit and do nothing with it. If we do evil, perhaps we did it because we were mislead or we acted out of good intent with poor results. However, someone who does neither good nor evil is effectively useless. We can remember the words of Revelation – water that is Hot has its uses water that is Cold has its uses, but lukewarm water is only good to be thrown out. When there are problems in the world, we should know when it is our place to step into a situation and when to sit out. However, if we find ourselves only ever sitting out than maybe we should be honest with ourselves about our lack of conviction.

Today our scripture tells us of the inciting incident in the lives of Jesus’ first apostles. They like us were told second hand to pursue Jesus. Following the call of John, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away our sins,” the apostles follow Jesus to see what this teacher was about. To see what lessons they could learn. They followed a call without knowing hardly anything about the final destination of it. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was enough to fascinate them.

None of us know what lies ahead for us in life. We pursue a life initiated by God that ultimately is a mystery. We do not know what dangers we will face, what opportunities will come because of God’s work and ultimately where it leads us. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German minister and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in simple words – “When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Die to self, die to desire, and yes even die for the cause of the Kingdom.

The idea of call, and our need to live into it. Is relevant every day. No aspect of our life is removed from the call of God which is given to us day after day. However, tomorrow we as a country celebrate a minister who followed their call to the very end. The idea of chasing after Christ without knowing what may be at the end it epitomized in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most controversial figures the twentieth century and one of the most necessary for us to hold up as an example here and now, to understand the way that we are called to cause Holy trouble for the good of God. Especially today in a world which is so full of conflict, so full of hate.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born Michael King Jr. His father decided, after visiting Germany during the rise of the Nazi party, that he and his son should be named for who they considered to be the most admirable of protestors in history. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant movement. King Jr. was raised by his father, also a minister and lived his youth in a state of internal conflict. He was deeply depressed, attempting suicide at age 12. He also faced profound doubt about his faith, nonetheless pursuing a life as a minister of God. He also, of course, lived in a segregated America. His memoirs of his youth are full of incidents where he and his family were pushed to the edges of society, reviled, hated, mistreated, simply because of the color of their skin.

He would go to college, excel in all he did, and take on his first pastoral roles. His life as a minister. It was hardly a year into his ministerial duties that he became involved in the Civil Rights movement. An action which King felt was the natural outpouring of his service to the church. The Montgomery bus Boycott, campaigns across the South, the historic march at Selma, and the world-shattering march on Washington – these and so many more defined a life that was lived out loud in service to the Kingdom of God.

Throughout all this King faced criticism from others. Especially white ministers criticized how he worked. There was a desire to see a tamer version of King’s ministry. Their voices cry out in a tone that is not unfamiliar to us today. “Rather than disrupting the bus lines, couldn’t you just write letters to them?”, “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”, “If you have a problem, that’s fine, but this isn’t the right time to express that problem.”, “Rev. King, I just think you have made your ministry too political. Isn’t your business the Gospel?”

All these complaints were not met with silence by King. An excerpt of one of his most powerful responses, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, is printed on our bulletins in place of my usual letter. The critique which is gives is only partial, it does not speak to the fullness of these accusations and “advices” given to Dr. King. In summation to all those that asked why his movement could not be more, “Respectable,” and less disruptive to those who were being protested against, Dr. King had these things to say.

“My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”

The protests of all those who wished for a more respectable protest. One that asked less of them, silenced in the sight of the reality of the oppression which others faced in the world. Silenced in the face of Scripture. Silenced in the witness of the Early Church. Silenced, so that perhaps in the uncomfortable space where we find our own guilt, we may hear our call.

We spent some time with a particular example of a call,  because the work of Christ executed through Dr. King is not yet finished. Though we are no longer legally segregated as a country there is much that still divides the life of People of Color and the life of the white majority culture. Almost universally in the United States studies have shown that when businesses are given resumes with identical credentials, one of whom with a traditionally white name and one that is more, “ethnic,” the white name will be receive an interview and the other name cast aside.

In a similar vein, you can still be sent home or terminated from your job in many states for having your natural hair as a person of color. Not to mention expectations about dialect and a variety of other expectations which see anglicized speech as the norm.

Beyond matters of simple discrimination we can talk about matters of life or death. The amount of hate crime offenses against people on the basis of race has increased 40% since 2012. This number of course only reflects reported instances, so the numbers in either year could be higher, but the growth trend pans out across data pools.  People are dying. People continue to be discriminated against and killed because of who they are. Where is the outrage of the age? Where are the voices from the church? Crying out once more for a more civil dialogue, or championing the needs of those who are perishing, accepting uncomfortable silences and moving toward something better.

A cry comes out every day, “Woe to you who disregard the instructions of Christ.” Will we listen to the Messiah who tells us to take up our cross, to give up our advantages in life? Or will we be disregard him, creating our own Gospel which asks nothing of us, pursuing the good only of the things which preserve our own powers and our own households. – Amen

To Fulfill All Righteousness – Baptism of our Lord 2020

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon Text

Baptism is that act which brings a Christian into the full communion with the Church. When we are washed in the waters, whether that be by a full dip into a river or by effusion of water over our heads, we join with Christ in the reality of a new Kingdom. The waters leave us dead to the world, alive in Christ. We are killed, after-all Baptism means “drowning,” as much as it does “dipping”. But we are also reborn. The waters of the font becoming the waters of a new womb, a birth into a life removed from our previous sins.

As a sign of God’s grace, no one is barred from receiving baptism. Any adult who earnestly pursues a repentant life is ready to be washed. Any infant who is born is immediately prepared for baptism, God’s grace cannot be denied to someone because of age. From the cradle to the grave, all can be washed. A final declaration of the death of our former selves and the start of a new life. In our washing there is a simultaneous proclamation of God’s work and our acceptance there-of. God moving like the waters around us, God taking away sin as water washes away dirt.

The church has practiced baptism uninterrupted for two thousand years. Occasionally sects emerge to try and minimize the practice. Other groups, many which are popular today, will try and explain to people how, “You know, you say you were baptized, but that’s not true.” This latter camp insists that full immersion is required, or that infant baptism is not really baptism, or that baptism outside of a single denomination is false. These all place the wrong sort of emphasis, they all make human beings the primary actors in baptism. The only thing needed for a baptism is a person, a minister, some water, and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” all other acts and words are secondary.

As with anything in human life we do not go into this alone. The sacrament of baptism is a participation in God’s grace which we see modeled for us in the life of Christ. Jesus does not tell us to be baptized from on high without showing us the significance of it. The Baptism of Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It is the example of our own pursuit of baptism. It is also one of the most debated facts of Jesus’ life.

Why would Jesus, the Incarnate God, the Divine Logos, the Sinless sacrifice, need to be washed in a baptism of repentance? Baptism is for sinful humans, not the sinless Messiah. What is Jesus up to by being baptized by John in the Jordan? The various answers given by this have led to controversies and heresies galore. Whenever we look to the life of Christ, we see a way made for us to walk. Whether or not we all agree what the way is not always clear. To quote a mentor of mine, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be four or five opinions.”

The washing of Jesus in the Jordan, like most things in our understandings of God, must be defined by what it is not before we can understand what it is. We know that it cannot be that Jesus needed to repent of Sin, after all we believe that Jesus, “who knew no sin, became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” This cannot be, as some say, the first time that Jesus experiences the Holy Spirit either, because we believe that Jesus was, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” and more importantly Jesus being God could not cut himself off from himself. Finally, we know that Jesus is not saying that John is the authority in this situation, not only because of John’s own words, but because we baptize today in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – not in the name of John the Baptizer.

In these three ways Jesus’ baptism does not reflect our baptism. Unlike Jesus our baptism is a sign of sin being washed away, it is a sign of our reception of God’s spirit, and it is fully given in the name of the Trinity. Jesus was not baptized so that Christ could be made Holy, but that we through imitation of Christ’s baptism could become Holy. As with so many things, our ability to enjoy the presence of God, the work of God, all comes from Jesus first taking the journey for us, paving a way through the wilderness of our sin.

Jesus the sinless son of God was washed in the Jordan. An act which, some of the early church said, was enough to make all water Holy. Jesus established baptism as the first step of entering into the church, only pursuing his ministry after his own baptism. The waters that pour over Jesus’ head, the immersion that he experiences, is not just a precedent but it is the very form of baptism. In Jesus’ baptism all people can be baptized, in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s work we all proclaim God’s work.

When we are baptized we die to our life and are reborn. We are not reborn as an individual, but into community. We cease to be motivated by our own wants and our own appetites and care only for what Christ would have us participate in. Our baptism is a one time event, a single moment in which a new life begins. However, like so much in our life as Christians – that single moment is a fulcrum on which our life can turn round itself. The washing we once received, the promises we make in dying to ourselves. When we feel lost or lose track of the way ahead of us. We can look to Christ as our example, and there is no better place to start than the beginning. With some water, with some words, with the Spirit declaring us, “Children of God.” – Amen

Even Magi Bow – Epiphany 2019

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘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.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then 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.” When 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon Text

The Magi are a great mystery. They appear only once and they leave soon after they appear. They are often described as kings, or priests, or astronomers, but we ultimately have no idea where they came from or who they were. The scripture is dense with astronomical terms that tell us they were some sort of nobility that studied the stars, but beyond this we are left to wonder, to imagine who these people were who somehow found their way to the infant Jesus.

The number of visitors is not given, but it is unlikely that a group of nobles traveling through an area would be without an entourage. Servants and supplies to see them through their long journey. They may have gone on foot, but more likely came riding in some kind of cart or chariot. The classic image of three single people on camels fits well into a nativity scene, but there were major disruptions created wherever they went. They would fill up any highway they traveled on and crowd any town that they walked through. Nobody would see this caravan and shrug their shoulders at it.

Though the exact place from which the Wise Men comes in unknown, we have some general ideas. Magi were at one time a class above even priests in the Persian empire. They were the keepers of rituals and secrets that were known only to them. Though we cannot know where they left from, the Magi likely left from the capital of the old Empire – meaning that if they traveled full tilt it would have been a fifty-day journey. Adding in the inevitable need to wait and to stop to resupply, this expedition was months and months of moving tens and tens of people.

The unlikely journey of a priestly class of people from an ancient conqueror of Israel to the ancient city of David: This was the first disruption caused by Jesus. When the rulers of an ancient enemy of God’s people became one of the first to worship the incarnate deity. In a life defined by reversing people’s expectations of God and God’s kingdom, Jesus began his work as an infant, working wonders enough to bring people who, in their own country, were more important to kings, to their knees. The first gentile mission of the church was achieved in the radiance of Jesus, a child so wonderful that even Magi bowed before him.

The celebration of Epiphany, the transition from Christmas into the Ordinary Time, represents the first of Christ’s “Theophanies,” or divine appearances. These were moments when people understood who Jesus was. The writers of the Gospel made it clear that when these occurred it was the people who should have been furthest removed from God’s work in the world that fully understood what it meant. The Gentiles who did not know Israel’s story, the lapsed people of God who did not keep covenant, the sick and the outcasts who could not keep purity laws – all of these saw Jesus for who he really was. Not just a teacher, not just a miracle worker, but God.

The Magi are described as having followed the signs of the sky. Some celestial combination of planets and stars that suggested to them that a king was being born that was more important than just being sovereign of a single kingdom. The king forecasted by the skies was greater than Nebuchadnezzar, than Cyrus, than Augustus in Rome, and certainly greater than Herod. This was someone who all people were to follow, the final and perfect king of all creation. However, at this time there was another King in Jerusalem…

The Herod in this scripture is the original Herod, the definite article. He was an Edomite who was able to work himself into the good graces of Rome. In backing Rome following Pompey’s conquering of Jerusalem he was made King of the Jews by the Roman government. He immediately got to work to try and win over the Jewish people, already suspicious of a king who was born to their ancient enemies in Edom and who sided with their enemies. Herod demolished Ezra’s temple and built it to rival Solomon’s. A massive plinth rose up above the city and a full system of pillars and roofs surrounded it to allow for people to gather and trade outside the Temple. To fund these projects he collected regular taxes, but some historians reported that he also stole gold and silver from King David and Solomon’s tombs. An expedition thwarted by Methane pockets under the temple mount that exploded when the robbers’ torches entered.

Having taken the throne Herod did not feel secure in his power. He was willing to kill anyone who opposed him. Though he had a fair number of children, several died because he suspected them of opposing his rule. He killed off his children anytime they seemed too interested in the throne, or even if they were just too popular with the people. To live in Herod’s household was to live with the threat of death over you constantly.

The Magi come to Herod and tell him what is coming. The King of the Jews is born, and more than that he is a king worthy of praise by all people. The scribes show Herod that this is true, that God is bringing something new into the world. Yet Herod sees this only as a threat, he claims he wishes to bow before this king, but as the scripture reveals his intent was to kill rather than to worship. Herod is not only unwilling to submit to God’s will but is willing to kill in order to avoid it. The idea of giving up his power to anyone is too much for him.

There is within each of us Herod and in each of us the Magi. We are rulers over various amounts of things, we have influence over many things in our life, but how we act with the power and influence we are given makes all the difference. The kingdom of God has only one ruler though, and it is our choice whether we accept Christ as King or if we go on trying to rule the world ourselves. We do not lose our power or opportunities when we accept God’s leading, but we do reorient them to the purposes of God, and away from the selfish impulses of our hearts.

While we do not rule countries or provinces, we are each of us rulers of our lives. From our birth to our death we control our actions. Situations may arise that limit the choices we have, but the ability to own our actions is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. What we do every day has weight, and we have a real ability to impact the world around us. The money we make, the people we meet, the family that we have. All these are domains that we have some amount of influence in if not control over.

We can either be like Herod and decide that there are things we cannot give up. Our right to feel superior, our right to withhold help from those we call unworthy, our right to hoard money rather than give it to those in need. We can meet the Christ in his home in Bethlehem and see a threat rather than salvation, we can see this child who deserves the throne we sit in and do all we can to remove him from our stories.

Alternatively, we can be like the Magi. Seeing that God has entered into the world, we let ourselves be led into a Kingdom. We do not cease to hold influence over the world when we bow the knee toward God, but we accept that we are not ultimately responsible to ourselves. A child who is born to nothing becomes the model of our lives. We put our rights down in front of Jesus, it is no longer important what we can do, but only what we should do. Kindness overcomes our selfishness; a love of our neighbor overcomes our love of self. We are no longer held captive by ourselves but are freed to act with righteousness.

We gather together to worship God. Every week we rehearse the acts of the magi. We put our gifts toward God, we devote ourselves to the King of Kings and let go of our own desires for power. The table fellowship which we participate in is a prime example of what God does for us. As we gather together and share this meal, we share God’s grace. We necessarily put God first. We who for so long wanted to rule over our life and our world now have the chance to acknowledge the true ruler of the universe. A ruler who is not a tyrant, but in all things works for the good of all people. Let us bow down now, and in thanksgiving offer ourselves to our God and King.

Covenant Renewal – 12/29/2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Matthew 25:31 –46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Sermon Text

    Today we gather to recommit ourselves to God. Whereas there is the secular custom of setting resolutions for the New Year, the Wesleyan tradition has often made use of the New Year as a time of reflection and prayer. With the changing of the calendar, the recognition of another journey around the sun, we now take time to look at the most basic aspects of our faith, and what that faith means for us as believers and children of God.

    Covenant, as the back of your bulletins go into detail, is not easily defined. The, “בְּרִית” which God made with God’s people throughout time were more than mere agreements – the words of the covenant encompassed the relationship between the parties involved. In the same way that a marriage covenant is described with the words of the marriage vows, the marriage is also somehow much more than those words. “Till death do us part,” carries as much meaning for the people who say them as they are willing to live them out.

    The Christian life is defined by the work of God. However, our enjoyment of the Christian life and our ability to grow is dependent on our willingness to take part in God’s work. We participate in God’s grace and are drawn into it. The gifts of God enable us to take more and more on. This does not mean that we get more and more work piled on us, but that we take on more of God’s goodness, hone our skills to act out what God has set us apart for. We do not live our Christian life by exhausting ourselves, we live it out by knowing ourselves and God enough to work to our fullest.

    That each of us take on particular calls in life is natural. Some of us are called to work in service industries, others in production, other to work directly in the work of the Church. Whatever the vocation that we choose in life is, we do so as Christians participating in God’s vision for the world. There is a lie that we choose to believe that we serve God only when we pray or only when we proclaim the Gospel. While both of these are aspects of the Christian life, simply pursuing excellence in what we do is a form of service to God. It shows that we wish to contribute to the goodness of others, to work earnestly to help others.

    Outside of working to the best of our abilities are the ways that we should serve one another. Helping one another by lovingly serving those we are community with – whether we know them through work, as part of the church, or as our friends and family. We serve those around us by doing what we can to further their good. This means helping them in times of need, supporting them in their pursuit of a good life, and meeting their emotional and spiritual needs. We should be a people that speak with one another, that pray for one another, that help one another. We cannot be passive participants in one another’s life.

    Our community is not limited to those we know, not even to those we like. The stranger, those who pass through our life for only a season or even a day, these people we have obligations to. While we can never truly treat someone we do not know with the same fullness as those who we know well, we can show them what God has put on our hearts. When we meet the eyes of those who are begging on the streets and in the medians. When we give to honest charities and to people we know need it. When we fight for the rights of people who are not like us, or who we will never meet. These are all expressions of our love of those we do not know, of hospitality for those outside our households.

    Today our scripture captures two moments that are fundamentally important to the history of God’s work with God’s people. The first was in the giving of the Mosaic covenant. Here God sets the stakes in clear terms. 

    The pursuit of God’s Kingdom is a benefit for all who participate in it. The language of blessing and prosperity here is not to be confused with the preaching that is popular today. Money and power is not a sign of God’s favor. No matter how much we make or how much we have, our worth in the eyes of God and God’s favor toward us is not manifested in the material. The reality is that God sets out an ideal way of being through the Covenants of God’s people. The community of the faithful is one that, when lived out fully, produces abundance for all people.

    The Teachings that were wrapped up in the Covenant on Sinai centered around a few key things. Religious devotion to God, respect of nature, and ultimately care for other human beings. The care of animals was regulated to see that they were not abused, crops were to be grown on rotation to preserve the integrity of the soil, and all of Creation is considered as fellow participants in God’s world. The prayers of the people Israel were founded in the words of Moses, the way that sacrifices were to be carried out, even the ingredients to be used in anointing oil written down. Finally, and perhaps most relevant to the day to day – prices were made to be fair, exploitative business practices forbidden, and systems put in place so that no one would ever need to go hungry or suffer unnecessarily.

    This same ethic, the ideal community, exists in Jesus message in Matthew 25. Those who see Christ are those who care for others. Religious devotion and preservation of the nature feed into the care of one another. God sets us in relationship with the Godhead, but that relationship is realized in how we treat one another. This covenant that we cut today is between ourselves and God, between each one of us gather here today, and it is to the service of God throughout all the world. Let us take this moment of reflection to recommit ourselves full to God’s vision, to repent of all evil, and to see the start of this New Year as a return to our faith. – Amen

Christ is Born – Christmas Eve 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Luke 2:1-20

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. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sermon Text

The birth of a child is never a casual affair. Despite the fact that two hundred and fifty children are born every minute, their arrival always causes a shake-up. For the family who receives the child the joy of the new life in their midst is met with the anxiety and uncertainty about their future. The birth of the child means that their community is given hope, a reminder that the world is oriented toward life, it also means that the world goes on beyond us, a future is possible without us. The entry of a child into the world is never as simple as a birth.

In the ancient world the perils were multiplied. Giving birth to a child was a risk to the one being born and to the mother. Mortality rates were high – the luckiest family would see half their children grow up, but most would see only three or four for every ten they had. Mother’s died almost nearly as often. We sometimes forget how much modern medicine has done, we sometimes let the sterile image of Christmas that we have made for ourselves distract us from one simple fact – the incarnation was risky.

God could have entered the world fully grown, as a divine spirit or as a human being who never had to be born. God could have planned to be born among the wealthy and secure of society, allowing the best chance of survival and of a pain free life. God could have done many things, but God decided to live among the poor. A woman and her husband hardly capable of feeding themselves, a risky birth in a cramped room, life entering in and immediately facing the threat of death.

The beginning of a story sets the stage for its end. Christ’s birth was dangerous, and he lived a dangerous life. He was among the poor, and his ministry was with the poor. It was to a mother whose reputation had been ruined by this pregnancy, and he lived among those of bad reputation – those who people were able to write off as sinners, whores, deadbeats – all those who so-called “righteous” people rejected.

A life on the fringes, this was the life of Christ. The King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, our Wonderful Councilor was given no throne to sit on. Even as Jesus ministered to all people, he showed a particular appreciation for those who went without. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, he removed obstacles to people’s pursuit of livelihood, he opposed anyone who used their power to abuse others. His ministry was to those in need and when necessary against those who created the conditions that led to their need. When the Kingdom broke out, it was among the untouchables of society and religion, when God came near it was a journey from the furthest places of society inward.

The story of Christmas is not a clean story of a child being born without any trouble. Almost from the beginning there were problems. Traveling long miles while pregnant can’t be healthy for mother and child. Whether Jesus was born in a stable, a cave, or a side-room the conditions for his birth were cramped and not ideal. Roman soldiers patrolled constantly, and despite laws limiting their actions against citizens – the only people to police them were themselves – to travel on their routes was to risk meeting one willing to kill, steal, or worse.

Christmas was risky, Christmas was dangerous, Christmas was dark and cold. Jesus, this little child of Mary, came to be with us during a time of oppression and economic instability. Jesus was born into a world of war and of aggression. The advent of God was nearly covered up by the compounded troubles of the world. Shadow encroached on each side, darkness pouring down on the world and leaving all people lost. The world needed hope, it needed life, it needed a savior.

We are no different today. Despite our advancements in medicine, in culture, in society there are a great many evils that would be just as home in the first century as they are now. The poor freeze to death every winter on American streets, and they die of heat stroke in the Summer. Children are taken from families, left to wander in the foster care system, or go to bed hungry. Rulers across the world have taken the easy way of stoking fears in their people, in promoting aggression rather than peace. Herod rules our modern kingdoms, we have let our faith alienate rather than reconcile, we have forgotten service in exchange for the easier path of piety without community.

Jesus is born on the fringe so that we move our eyes away from ourselves. The message of Christmas is that a light breaks out in the darkness of winter, that death and evil have no place in the world to come. Jesus chose to be among us, to be a child and to live a full human life. Jesus did so as a poor person, as someone who would spend their youth fleeing those who would have him killed, a life spent with an empty stomach. Poor, born to a woman the world had decided was unclean, Jesus became fully human by taking on the life of someone who we would often overlook. When we see the poor, do we see Jesus? When we see the needy, do we love them as we would our savior? When we see children suffering, do we adore them as we do this child in this manger?

Christ is born today, the light of salvation shines. We have hope now, hope that endures. The promise that all oppression will cease and our deep darkness end. The light of Christ, the only light that endures from everlasting to everlasting is offered freely to us all. We prepare through Advent and now at Christmas, to receive this light. We must not let it go out, we must not keep it to ourselves, we must spread the light of our Savior. We must seek it on the fringe, shine a light on the troubles of the world, love the Christ child in the needy around us. – Amen

 

A Light in the Darkness – Advent 4 2019

Luke 1: 68-79

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Sermon Text

What messages do we bring to those around us? In our conversations, in our ways of life, what do we tell people who we meet? Beyond anything that we explicitly say about what we believe there are the statements we make in our day to day conversations and the things we do or do not do to those around us tell people about what we think and who we represent. To quote a popular apocryphal phrase, “Our lives are often the only Gospel a person will ever read.”

The proclamation of God’s word, of good news to the poor and of healing to the oppressed, it is not achieved in standing still and shouting loudly. The popular idea that Christians should be defiant observers of the world, standing at arms-length and inciting disagreements does not stand in the light of the biblical narrative. The posts we share on Facebook, our retweets on twitter, no amount of sharing Tik Tok videos can tell those in our life about the Gospel. For those of us who abstain from social media, it should be said that loud protest to things we do not like are not sufficient representations of the Gospel either. The call of the evangelist, the call of each and everyone of us, is more than just letting people know what we think and feel, it is showing them the real presence of Christ in our lives.

Scripture describes God and more specifically the Gospel as a light that shines into the darkness of the world. This light can only shine out if we uncover it. The bushel baskets that we put over ourselves, the caves that we hide our lamps in, they keep people from experiencing the fullness of God, the goodness of God. If we really are envoys of God’s love, messengers of God’s salvific work in the world, then we should take that responsibility seriously. At the end of it all, everything we do in our day to day can become an expression of the Gospel of Truth. We are each of us radiant because God has given us God’s own light. We are vessels of grace made to share grace to others.

We have focused this Advent on the life of John the Baptist. Charting how Jesus was preceded by John allows us to understand what our role of Christians, as proclaimers, as evangelists is really made of. As we go out into the world to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we also go out as representatives of the Triune God, of the God of Israel, of the God who saw fit to come among us, and who will come again.

John the Baptist is someone who is described as, “the greatest person born to women,” before the establishment of the Church. Jesus also is clear that, “the least of these in the Kingdom will be greater than John.” Which, in my view, suggests that each of us gathered here are more equipped than John ever was to share God’s word, to go forward and show everyone how God works for the good of God’s children, to produce real change in a world that badly needs it.

The ways in which we can show the world the work of God are too numerous to list. We can talk about our beliefs, we can show people kindness, but today I submit that there are three key features we can take away from this Advent we have spent together that aid us in understanding how we can proclaim the Coming of Christ into history this Wednesday and look forward to Christ coming in final victory every day. These are the need for us to have a clear understanding of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. If we can master our understanding of our own stories in this way, then we can meet people honestly and show them God’s goodness to the fullest extent.

As our scripture today tells us, proclaiming Christ begins with knowing that Christ is the fulfillment of a long tradition. Jesus was born out of an ancient household, born to God’s ancient covenant with Israel, and was told of by ancient prophets. The foundations of our faith are wrapped up in a history that spans, if we start if just at Moses, almost four thousand years.

The knowledge that the faith is something far older than us helps to ground us in the knowledge that we are working with something far bigger than ourselves. As you have likely noticed, I enjoy bringing Greek and Hebrew into our conversations about scripture. This is not just a means to add a bit more depth to our conversations, but it allows us to remember that these stories were not written in English only for us here and now. The root of scripture is in languages nobody speaks anymore – in Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew – the people it describes are not like us, they lived in a world fundamentally different than us. That is what makes God’s work amazing, that despite the differences of the past the present still gains insight and finds relevance in the words of God, in wisdom which transcends time and place.

In the same way we should know the corporate history of God’s promises and God’s people, we should be aware of our own histories. We know ourselves better than anyone else, we see God’s deliverances in us every day. Problems that were erased through faith, strength that we gained through prayer, even the silence we found ourselves centered in when we stand before God – whatever our experiences with God in the past, they have made us who we are now. If we wish to show God’s work in the world, we can look to famous stories and people – sure – but the experiences of our own heart, those moments when God has acted on our behalf, that is one of the surest expressions of God’s love and work in the world.

Being aware of the past we must also be able to look forward. John received his mission at birth, which as someone who struggled to find their call for a good number of years sounds like a pretty good deal. This meant though that he had a sense of what things were working toward. A church that can only describe what happened in the past is not a living thing, it becomes a historical society, and not a particularly popular one. God must have something planned down the line, or else our gatherings would be rehearsals of antiquity and nothing else.

Our knowledge of God’s future work is never complete, but it does not have to be. When John was given his charge we are told that he will be, “prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins…” That is not a specific calling, but it is enough to know the way forward. The reality is that each of us today is given the same calling. Christ has entered the world, but is physically absent until the reconciliation of all things. We give testament and knowledge of God’s work in the meantime.

When we are able to look ahead we can cast vision for a better world. We work to eliminate hunger because we know one day it will be gone. We comfort those who mourn because we know one day they will have every tear wiped away. We care for the poor because we know in the Kingdom their will be no rich or poor, only love and the beloved. The future reality of God, one free of pain and without suffering is a fuel for the work we do, not an obstacle to it.

Christmas is upon us. Our time with God’s prophet comes to an end as we celebrate the presence of Christ among us. The birth of a child, the entrance of God, two thousand years ago echoes into the present day. Will we be aware of the past enough to recognize Christ when we see him elsewhere? In the poor and needy? The future coming of Christ is foretold, the end of all suffering and pain, the realization of pure joy and love. Will we be able to look past our present problems to proclaim this message and to work toward the realization of the Kingdom here and now?

And can we now, recipients of the light of Christ. Acknowledge this moment, the nexus where past and present meet, and shine out the light which God has given us. The dawn from on high has broken upon us, let no one try and hide it away. – Amen

The Example of John – Advent 3 2019

James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Sermon Text

Questioning the work of God is something natural. The eternal and all-powerful God of the universe would not be working to their full extent if we could understand everything that comes our way. In the same way that a single chapter, removed from the context of an entire book, is hard to enjoy or understand the work of God is not always evident to us from our small view into it. While faith believes that the rest of the work is good and intelligible, our reason and our situations bring us to our questions.

In our Gospel, we see the way that John, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, reacted when he saw Jesus’ ministry. We remember that John proclaimed a message that the coming Messiah was to be a mighty person who would pour the Holy Spirit of God’s prophetic power on the world and send down fire to cleanse the world of all unrighteousness. John expected the coming of Christ to mean a quick and speedy resolution to the problems of the Jewish people. True faith would break out across the world, Rome would burn into dust, and the Messianic King would rule the people in righteousness and power for all eternity.

John was imprisoned before Jesus’ ministry really took off. He had been sent there because he refused to accept the work of Herod. This Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the ruler who had sought the death of Jesus following his birth. He was, for a time, considered for the title of King of the Jews, but lost out to his older brother. Though the scripture and he himself used the term, “King,” he was, in reality, a governor of two small provinces.

Herod was not as ruthless as his father but was just as politically minded. He has built fishing complexes all along the Galilee in an attempt to show himself fiscally minded and administratively savvy. These cities were designed to bring money into his coffers, to feed the Roman army, and to monopolize food production in the area. As one might expect, this put small fishermen out. They could either work for Herod as fishing serfs or keep their businesses for diminishing returns. Herod was not popular with the peasantry for many reasons, but his economic abuse of them was one of the chief ones.

When the Tetrarch found that his brother had died and his sister-in-law was no longer taken he divorced his own wife and married her. Herodias was brought in and his first wife Phasaelis was forced out to return to her family. Herod had added to his real estate mogul persona a penchant for womanizing. The ruler had established himself as a king who was capable of taking land, of destroying marriages, and of doing anything to take power.

It is not a surprise then that John the Baptist opposed Herod for his work. The prophet acted as a Nathan to Herod’s David. The Tetrarch trusted John to a degree, we are told in places he enjoyed John’s message of God’s coming deliverance. Yet despite this Herod decided John was too dangerous to let roam freely. He jailed John for his criticisms of the Herodian government. John sat in prison for opposing the injustices of his day.

While in prison John could only dream of the work that Jesus was doing. How his cousin whom he had baptized on the River Jordan was beginning his mission against the power structures of their day. Gathering the faithful people of Israel together and proclaiming the end of Rome and all its sympathizers. The divine army of God must be just around the corner, ready to start a new thing on Earth. John, sitting in his prison cell would have pictured all his messianic hopes coming true.

So, now… When John gets reports of what Jesus is doing… What confusion and disappointment must he have felt? “You’re telling me!” John says, “That he has been preaching and teaching about how to live together in harmony? He is instructing people on how to suffer? I thought he was coming to bring us out of suffering! He going around healing the sick and liberating the poor and oppressed? If he wanted to make their life better he would just get rid of Rome. He would kill them all and let God sort out the rest! Why won’t he just act like one!”

John sends those who told him about Jesus’ ministry back to Jesus and tells them to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah or if John was mistaken in thinking he was. The messengers meet with Jesus and ask him the question, asks him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus’ answer fills out what John’s expectations of Jesus had missed. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus makes it clear that the coming of God’s kingdom was not in fire and in death but in the renewal of life. The healing of people who were sick. The freeing of people from systematic oppression. The removal of any obstacle between them and God. Jesus also reminds John, if you really believe in the coming of God’s kingdom, the fact is has broken out will not be an offensive thing to you. You will not be upset about how God has brought about the kingdom, even if it is not what you thought it would be. You have to have faith even as you question.

With the messenger returning to John, Jesus looks back to a crowd that has already probably started whispering among themselves. “Can you believe John?” “How could he question Jesus like that?” “He should be so ashamed!” “A faithful person would not doubt God like this…”

Jesus does not tolerate this attack on John. He reminds the people what John did. “Remember who you came to see in the Wilderness! How he washed you for your sins and did not hold anything back! Remember how he gave up his comfort to seek God, gave up respectability for holiness! Yet you would doubt him for having questions?”

The shame the crowd was ready to place on John was redirected to them. The reality is that even the holiest among us those of whom it could be said, “No greater person was born of woman,” than them, will have doubts. They will question God and God’s work in the world. Why wouldn’t they? When the bills aren’t paid, when the diagnosis is bad, when the world ain’t fair, you should question things because suffering is never something we should just accept. The job of a prophet is to push beyond questions and to provide an alternative vision of the future.

John, now reoriented toward how God sought to bring about the kingdom, could rest in his cell. God was breaking out a new and radical vision for the future. The poor would be taken care of. The rich would meet their needs. Those kept from seeking their livelihood would have obstacles taken away from them. The doors to the Kingdom would be opened to all people, to gentile and Jew, rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, and all people would have a great deal asked of them.

But if we wish to step into our prophetic role in that Kingdom, to follow the example of our prophet’s as James would have us do, then we must be willing to accept our questions as they come. We must also be willing to follow the example of John in our willingness to oppose the evils of the world. We must speak out against every Herod we meet, we must do so even if it means we lose the privileges of the world we are born into. With John as our example, and Christ as our aim, we can never be discouraged from our mission in the Kingdom. We wait, we question, but among all these things we must act. – Amen.