“You Are A City on a Hill”- Jesus. A Sermon for Epiphany 5A 2017

Jesus says, “A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14b). While I know that St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church ELCA is not a city unto itself, we are indeed a community within a community. But with the phenomenon of being one of three churches at an intersection, just how visible are we? Are we hidden? Are we just one of the “three churches” or just the “church next to the CVS?” This week I was told by another pastor that we used to be known as St. Stephen’s by the steakhouse, and now we’re just the St. Stephen’s by the drug store. I wonder what our community would say about us- what people who don’t attend worship here would say about us. If we shut the doors to the church tomorrow, would our community miss us? I know all of us would miss the community here, but would our neighbors miss us? I would love to say yes, but honestly I’ve not yet been here long enough to know the real answer to that.

The answer to this important question is something for us to seriously consider. The number one way that people hear about churches is by word of mouth. Certainly people look up churches on the internet, but people still really want to know from someone who goes there what its like, if they think the person inquiring would like it.

Interestingly enough, this is the same thing that restaurants worry about. I learned an important lesson when I was in high school waiting tables at restaurants. One of my dear friends who was my manager at the country club where I worked once told me that if a person has a positive experience there, that they weren’t really likely to tell anyone. But if they had a bad experience, it could be counted on that they would tell every single person they know to avoid eating there like the plague. There’s a whole lot of truth to that.

Since the advent of social media, churches have become increasingly susceptible to having their dirty laundry aired in public spaces, thus turning people off to thinking about visiting or joining congregations that they were once intrigued by.

I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be a challenge for us as a community, and with good reason. In the last 10-12 years or so, St. Stephen’s has been through a lot, some positive and some negative. We’ve had some difficult relationships with pastors; we’ve lived through some pretty big changes in the life of our denomination, and we’ve lived through a good bit of staff transition. Those things all together are tough on a congregation. While we as a congregation have been trying to hold ourselves together- which from my point of view- you’ve done a really good job at- the world around us has changed immensely. Just thinking about the amount of time I’ve been here, Springs Road has changed a whole lot. There’s a new Sheetz gas station, there’s a new Zaxby’s, Walmart Neighborhood Market, Arby’s, carwash, and a new church all between here and the stoplight at the intersection of Springs Rd and McDonald Parkway. All of that has been done within the last year or so. So how do we keep up? I don’t have that answer in front of me- but it is something that I am committed to wrestling with, as is your church council.

Jesus gives us some good ideas about where to start addressing these challenges that face the church. Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth. And not only are we the salt of the earth, but that we need to stay salty! Not salty as in people who swear like a drunken sailor, but that we need to hold onto the thing that makes us different from the world, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the same way, we are a city on a hill whose light cannot be dimmed or hidden. So, how do we keep our lights from burning out? How do we stay salty?

There’s really no magic answer to this question, either. In fact, it’s a simple answer. Keep coming to church. Hear the word of God proclaimed. Share in the Lord’s Supper. Study scripture with fellow Christians. Pray without ceasing. Give to the poor and needy. Visit the sick and imprisoned. And when you feel like you’re tired and you cannot keep doing these things, just show up. When you can’t sing, we’ll sing for you as a community. When you can’t find the words to pray, we’ll pray for you as a community. When you can’t give any more of yourself, come here and find the care and mutual support of your brothers and sisters in Christ. This is what we do as a Christian community. It is here where we are refreshed and strengthened for service. It is here where we come to find our saltiness for the world so that we can season those around us with the love and grace of the gospel. It is here where we rekindle the fire in our hearts for Jesus so that we can carry that light out into the world just one more week.

If that litany of things I just suggested sounds like the things we’re already doing- then maybe we’re headed in the right direction after all. Martin Luther, when asked about what to study once one had “mastered” the Small Catechism, said to start over and do it again. The basic things of our faith are the things we’ll never out-grow or out-learn. They’re the central things that we must continue to do. Each time we circle back around and revisit the basics of our faith, we usually notice something different about them that we didn’t pick up on before. Part of this has to do with cognitive development, and part to do with life experience and finding new applications for these basic principles. For example, if we think about the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” we usually think, well that’s pretty easy, I haven’t murdered anyone lately. I may have thought about it, but I didn’t pull the trigger on anyone. As we grow in Christ, we learn that murder isn’t the only prohibition of the commandment. It has to do with not only not killing, but also with helping to preserve our neighbor’s life, to protect the vulnerable, and not to kill people emotionally or spiritually by bullying or pastoral abuse.

But just because we need to keep doing the basics doesn’t mean that we stay static and keep doing the same things over and over again expecting different results. That is the definition of insanity. As we seek to grow and spread the good news, we must continue to look for new, innovative ways to share the gospel with our neighbors. We must pay attention to the ways in which the world around us is changing- not just so we can change with it- but so that we can remain contextually relevant in a rapidly changing world. Sometimes that starts with some basic things- like installing Wi-Fi throughout the church so that we can invite people to remain connected and for us as church leaders to access more resources to help teach. It looks like updating our organ- which we’ll talk about next week at the semi-annual meeting so that the instrument that we use (at least in one service and at all of our joint services) can be used appropriately to support congregational singing. Remaining culturally relevant and context minded looks like finding new events to open our faith community to our neighbors around us. It looks like finding ways to partner with other non-profits and aid organizations to make sure that our community around us knows that we care about their health and well-being as children of God.

Those places where we’re called to change can be the scary parts. But the God who has seen this congregation through the past 180 years will see us through the next year, and the next, and the year after that. As long as there are faithful people who call St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church home, there will continue to be an active presence of faithful disciples who seek to make the world around us a better place and to proclaim the gospel to all the ends of the earth- starting right here on our corner of Springs Road. And even though change can be a scary thing, we have to change. Do you know what kinds of things don’t change? Dead things. And we’ve been called by the LIVING GOD to have a LIVING, ACTIVE faith that will shape not only us as a people, but will change the face of this entire earth.

So don’t lose heart. God has brought us this far and will continue to lead, guide, and direct our ways. God has called some wonderful, insightful, inspired leaders to this congregation that are sitting on your church council, in the committees of the church, who work behind the scenes in our admin and finance offices, literally all over this place there are gifted people, working to make a difference. Keep the faith. Fight the good fight. And stay salty, my friends. Amen.

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Politics or Justice? Epiphany 4A 2017

 

So, there wasn’t supposed to be a sermon today. I didn’t write one… until last night. Today was supposed to just be a hymn sing Sunday. But, given the role of a pastor in times of upheaval in our nation, and that the task of preaching is sometimes to use one’s own prophetic voice, I couldn’t not preach today. German theologian Karl Barth once said that preachers should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. And when the texts in the lectionary for this week have something so clear to say about what is going on in our world, I can’t remain silent.

But before you stop listening because you think I’m going to start preaching politics- I want to invite you to listen. Sometimes the separation of church and state is absolutely impossible. Separation of politics and faith- whether you consider yourself a conservative or a liberal minded person- is also impossible. I hope that your faith influences your political conscience. It’s a good thing. And Jesus says some pretty political things. After all, he was crucified for claiming to be the king of the Jews- which made him an enemy of the state. Lastly, I’m an equal opportunity critic. I’ll be as hard on the left as I am with the ideas of the right.

So, here we go, and I’ll do what I can to keep it short. The prophet Micah asks an important question in our lesson from the Hebrew scriptures this morning. What does the Lord require? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. Sounds easy right? And then we hear in the gospel lesson from Matthew a list of those who are blessed. We hear the lesson of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount- the paramount teaching in Matthew’s account of the gospel. There’s our preaching tasks given with the bible in one hand.

In our world, thinking with the newspaper in the other, we’ve watched as people flew into the United States with an approved visa, land in the Philadelphia airport, and be turned away and sent back where they came from. Yes, they were from Syria. But they were also a family of Christians fleeing a nation where their practice of their faith makes them a target. Our beloved Statue of Liberty’s inscription reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Folks, the golden door is closed.

We’re called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. The beatitudes give us an image of the kingdom of God that is different than what the world considers to be blessed. The world says blessed are those who are rich, successful, powerful. Jesus says blessed are those who are poor, the meek, those who mourn. It is our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ to connect these two pieces of scripture. It is our call to do justice, to accompany and walk with those who are the ones who Jesus says are blessed. It is our job as disciples to pay attention to those who are meek, mourning, poor, homeless, outcast. We have to be a voice for the voiceless, to care for those who seek shelter under the wings of the almighty.

So- this begs the question, “is shutting the golden door to the United States something that God would approve of?” Believe me, I completely understand the need for national security. I’ve been in the Army for 12 years. I get it. So that you don’t have to just take it from me, I want to share with you something that a former member of this congregation wrote.

He wrote this letter to President Trump this week: “I am supportive of your efforts on behalf of our country, but I feel you don’t have all of the facts regarding refugee services. Lutheran Services Carolinas helps refugees in the Carolinas. I am deeply concerned for the world’s refugees and for our country, and I feel we can have both security and humanitarian leadership.

There has been great confusion and misunderstanding about refugees. Refugees are forced to leave their homes to escape death or persecution. They come to the US after already extreme vetting and with full approval and invitation of the United Nations and US government.

The US has always been a humanitarian leader of the world. I have been advocating that American greatness should include welcoming at least 200,000 refugees a year. That is not enough to be a leader, but it’s better than  more recent administrations have achieved.

Welcoming refugees saves the lives of people running away from groups like ISIS and people who risked their lives supporting our military who are now marked for death. Welcoming refugees allows us to express the very best traditions of our nation. Refugees are extremely entrepreneurial, becoming contributing members of our society very quickly.

I want our country to be safe and I want us to become a leader in Standing For Welcome! I would be happy to come to Washington at any time to discuss this issue with you or your representatives.

Thank you for your time and attention. Ted W. Goins, Jr. President, Lutheran Services of the Carolinas.”

This isn’t an issue of being a republican or a democrat. This is an issue for us as Christian people, united by the cross of Christ and the call that we all have through our baptism. This door cannot be shut. It doesn’t have to stand wide open, either. Neither of those are the solution.

But even this one issue isn’t really the issue, is it? The issue of immigration and refugee resettlement is but a mere symptom of the larger issue of the polarity in our nation that is tearing us apart.

In her March 2015 article in the Lutheran magazine, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton challenged us on the fact that too often our political positions have basically become an idol that has made us slip into the theological death trap of works righteousness, or somehow thinking we can earn our own salvation. We think we can justify ourselves by our actions rather than the actions of Jesus on the cross and in the empty tomb.

Bishop Eaton writes, “I’ve noticed the not so subtle shift to works righteousness in the work we do as the church. This exists in all three expressions—congregations, synods and churchwide—and all across the cultural spectrum. Jesus’ invitation to repentance and discipleship have become a kind of transaction between us and God where we figure out what we have done wrong, promise to work really hard to be better people, and then God forgives us. What we see as the moral wrongs that must be repented depends largely on our place on the cultural spectrum. The cultural right is preoccupied with private mores and behavior and the cultural left is preoccupied with political rights and the activities of government and business institutions. Here’s how that plays out. While driving through the Smoky Mountains on a family road trip, I saw a billboard that declared: “No smoking, drinking, card playing, dancing, movie going, swearing … there is no sin within 7 miles of our church!” Wow. There must not have been any people within 7 miles of that church. That is the works righteousness of the right. The works righteousness of the left plays out a little differently. If there are enough sit-ins or protests, or boycotts or enough petitions, we could inaugurate the kingdom of God. Then we could extricate ourselves from this bondage to sin. We could build a perfect world.”

She then goes on to talk about the reality that we live in as Christians. Something has to die so we can live. We are complicit in the world’s brokenness. We may work for justice or righteousness with the best intentions, and God knows there is plenty of work to do. But Jesus didn’t die to change behaviors or political systems or institutions. Jesus died to end the fundamental brokenness and estrangement from God that is the result of human sin, our rebellion against God that infects every aspect of our lives.”

So, dear friends. Friends on the right and on the left. We have work to do. And it begins with holding on for dear life to the cross of Christ. It is our call as Christian people to stand in the center and proclaim that this life and all of its blessings are for ALL of God’s children. In this way we will do justice, we will love mercy, and may walking humbly with God be our journey. Amen.

Social Media: Gift and Challenge for the Church- a Sermon for Epiphany 3A 2017

I would have never imagined that social media would have played such a large part in ministry as it has. Facebook, in particular, has become such a valuable part of my ministry that like many things throughout history- pastors in my generation and into the future will say “I don’t know how pastors did this job without it.” Facebook allows me to stay connected with other Facebook users, particularly parishioners and especially my Soldiers that I don’t get to see each week in church. People feel safe to post about what’s bugging them, what their struggles are, to post asking for prayer requests- all things that I’d have no idea about unless someone decided to pick up the phone and call me. But because of that, I’ve had countless opportunities to reach out, to be supportive in times of need when people hadn’t thought that maybe they should call their pastor or their chaplain for some support with a particular issue.

But as great a gift to ministry that Facebook is, it has also subtly shifted the way we think about a core Christian idea- what it means for us to be a follower. On Facebook, you can follow whatever you want, whether that be celebrities, musicians, other people you know, favorite tv shows, you name it- you can follow it. But for Christian people who profess to follow Jesus, there’s a huge disconnect. Its almost like the culture around us that has been shaped by things like Facebook that have totally redefined what it means for us to follow something or someone. You can follow all the people you want on Facebook with very little initiative on the individual’s part. All it takes is the click of a mouse and you’re now a follower of whatever is cool and happening now.

It’s not like that to be a follower of Jesus. We get a hint of what that looks like when we read today’s gospel text about Jesus calling the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John. When Jesus calls them to be his followers, they had to actually do something. They had to stop what they were doing- essentially fishing- and physically follow Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is about incarnational ministry. To follow a God who became flesh means that we have to become more like Jesus. This is at the heart of the rabbinical method of teaching. For disciples of Jewish Rabbis, the way you become a better disciple is to become more like your rabbi. For us Christians, that means that we must become more like Jesus.

We can’t be followers of Jesus if we think that following Jesus is the same as following people on Facebook. The difference is how we physically embody the reality of being Jesus’ followers. While it will look a little different for each of us, we still can’t be idle admirers of Jesus and call ourselves disciples.

Embodying the reality of our identity as Jesus’ disciples is something we do each and every day, not just on Sunday mornings when we come to church. Each day we get up and go out into the world we have to embody the love and grace that Jesus teaches us.

Luther had quite a bit to say about what it meant for people to be followers of Jesus. His theology of vocation helps us understand that the end-all be-all of discipleship isn’t about us quitting our jobs like the first disciples did to follow Jesus, but its about using our gifts and talents in our day to day vocations to the glory of God that allows us to follow Jesus in our homes, workplaces, and everywhere else we go in life.

This past week I shared something on Facebook about Labor and Delivery nurses, which is what my wife does for a living, and why she’s not here this morning- she’s busy at the hospital catching babies. The post I shared was a tribute to the work that labor and delivery nurses do- listen to these ways that one nurse described her experience as a labor and delivery nurse:

“I am just the nurse who was there during the birth of your child. I am just the nurse who held your hand, looked you in the eye, and made you feel like the strongest woman in the world. I am just the nurse who recognized that you had severe preeclampsia and got an order from your physician for magnesium sulfate to prevent you from seizing. I am just the nurse who carefully monitored your breathing with my stethoscope because I know the possible complications. I am just the nurse who vigilantly monitored your baby’s heartbeat and recognized that he was in distress. I am jus the nurse who had you on the OR table by the time your doctor was in the parking lot to deliver a healthy baby. I am the nurse who took photos of your baby because you were all alone… even though I really should be charting and doing about a  hundred other things. I am just the nurse who’s family has to experience another rday without me because I stayed 3 hours late to see you through a difficult delivery. I am just the nurse who maintained your dignity and made you feel comfortable when you were at your most vulnerable. I am just the nurse who held your hand and cried with you when you came through triage and your baby had no heartbeat. I am just the nurse who reassured a teenage mom that she can be an amazing parent and finish her education. I am the nurse who stood by you while you handed your baby to his adoptive mother. I held you steady. I watched you tremble. My heart ached for you. I am just the nurse who held your hand and told you, ‘she’s beautiful. I am so sorry for your loss.’ My heart ached for you. I wanted to hold my children and never let them go that night… but they were already sleeping because I stayed late to be with you. I am also the nurse who cried the entire drive home and who’s husband doesn’t even have to ask how my day was. He knows.”

If that isn’t the embodiment of what it looks like to love and serve people as a follower of Jesus, I’m not sure what is. I don’t know how I as a pastor can compete with that kind of self giving love. Being a pastor and giving your life to the church isn’t the only way to serve Jesus. Being a pastor isn’t the only “calling” that God calls people to do. I believe that my wife’s call to be a labor and delivery nurse is just as valid of a call of Christian discipleship as is my call to serve as pastor.

This is just one example of the countless ways that God calls us to follow. Your way of living out your discipleship might look different than mine, but that doesn’t make it wrong. God gives each of us gifts and skills that are worth embracing, developing, and cultivating so that we might make the world a better place- to shine light into the dark corners of the world that God so desperately loves. Being a follower of Jesus is about willing to place our selves- our physical selves into the places where God calls us to be his presence- at work, at home, at play, and at rest- we are called to be present with those whom God calls us to minister to. We each have a part to play, and together we can make a difference in the lives of people who are hurting, suffering from poverty and hunger, those who have been hurt by the church or whatever else ails them.

The call is the same for each of us. Jesus says, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.” But none of us use the same rod and reel. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Nones, dones, and the Baptism of Jesus: A Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord Year A 2017

If you were to read any of the studies published by folks like the Pew Forum Research Foundation or any others who track trends in church, you’ve probably heard about the rise of the “nones,” or people who say they have no religious affiliation. Most of these folks who call themselves “nones” are former practicing Christians who have fallen away from the church- some of them because they’ve been hurt by the church, some because they no longer believe what the church teaches, and some because they view the church as a place that is only full of hypocrites. These groups say that the time someone is most likely to leave the church is immediately following a ritual like confirmation or after high school graduation when they no longer are forced by parents to attend church.

I read a story this week that illustrates the idea about milestone ministries like confirmation that hit me like a ton of bricks. Pastor Robert Nishioka writes, “Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday, he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation class asked about him too, as did his confirmation mentor. Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class and they responded positively. In this congregation, the confirmation class happened during the ninth grade school year (as if God calls all ninth-graders simultaneously to be confirmed, just because they’re in the ninth grade). Kyle and his parents came for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and missed a class or event rarely. He quickly became a significant part of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with other ninth-graders who had barely known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and their mentors.

That is pretty much where it ended. That is when I knew we had done something wrong. When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I distinctly remember his mother saying, ‘Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?’ That is the problem. Depsite our best intentions and despite all that we say and try to communicate, too many people seem to think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and then we are all ‘done.’ Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism tells us the opposite.”

More times than I’d like to admit in my still growing pastoral career, I’ve seen this very thing happen. Once our young people race through the perceived finish line of confirmation, they’re done. And then they become “nones.”

Jesus baptism story paints a different picture of what baptism, and therefore confirmation, which is actually an affirmation of baptism, is all about. When Jesus was baptized, it wasn’t the end of his ministry, but the very beginning of it. This event marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry that is captured in the gospels. In fact, Mark’s account of the gospel completely skips over Jesus’ birth and begins only at Jesus’ baptism. It was a commissioning, a sending, a launching point for all of the wonderful teachings, healings and miracles that Jesus accomplishes.

The same thing goes for us, too. It’s a little easier to understand this for us since we Lutherans baptize infants, and obviously they’ve yet to even do the first thing in terms of living out the gospel. But if we think about confirmation- the affirmation of our own baptism as our commissioning- then it has to be a starting point, a claiming for ourselves this life of discipleship that we’re called to. Confirmation isn’t about agreeing with everything the church teaches and swearing your life to defending it, but it is about saying that you’re willing to struggle with your own faith for your lifetime, to not give up trying to learn and understand because God will not give up on you.

The issue of youth leaving the church after confirmation is something we’ve done to ourselves. When I was in seminary, our professor who taught Christian education got a bunch of photos of confirmation classes out of the archives in the basement of the library to show us. Each of the classes were dressed the same way: in robes that looked much more suited for a graduation than for a life of discipleship. Some of them even were wearing mortar board hats that you see at high school and college graduations. And we sit here and wonder why our children are leaving the church! We taught them to! We- without thinking about it- engrained in them the idea that once you get through this one hurdle, then you are done.

But there’s still hope for us. There’s still hope for our young people who are here in church. For one, you’ll never see a young person get confirmed here wearing anything that resembles regalia worn for a graduation. I’ll do my best to teach our young people about milestones in our faith life. But the real hope is you. The same studies that tell us about declining church trends also went out and talked to young adults who were still active in their churches into their 20s and 30s. They found that the number one reason that young people stayed connected to the church was because they had formed a relationship with an adult that was not a member of their family that took a vested interest in them as people who mattered- to them personally, to God, and to the whole church family. They were the people who reinforced the truth that our children are not the future of the church. They are as much the church right now as they ever will be.

So what I’m saying is- not only do we need to be thankful for the young people who are in our midst, but we need to invest in them. We need to spend time with them, get to know them, let them know that we’re glad they’re here and that they do indeed matter, not only to us, but to the God who loves them, who is teaching them, and who will commission them as disciples to carry the gospel forward into this world as well. It is our job as God’s people to continue to develop and nurture them in the faith. Each baptism that has been celebrated in this place, we all get asked if we will pray for and nurture these young people in their new life of faith. We always say that we will. Together, we need to find ways to put actions to those words, so that every young disciple that grace us with their presence to grow in love and service to God and neighbor.

Each time we gather and profess our faith, it is a renewal of our own confirmations. Each time we gather in worship, we renew our faith. Each time we gather here, we’re granted the opportunity to get to know one other more deeply, to forge relationships that will last lifetimes. These are the gifts entrusted to us as members of this part of the body of Christ.

 

Let us pray. We give you thanks, O God, that through water and the Holy Spirit you give us new birth, cleanse us from sin, and raise us to eternal life. Stir up in your people the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear fo the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever. Amen.

Epiphany of Our Lord- January 1, 2017

I cant tell you how excited I am that we get to begin the new calendar year the way every new year should begin- here in worship. We get to come here- in this sacred and holy place to give thanks to God for yet another year of grace, and we get a very interesting set of readings from the lectionary to couple the excitement of a new year.

Here on our last observation of Christmas, the day of Epiphany (which isn’t really until the 6th of January), is the day we observe the magi or wise men or kings visited Jesus by following the star to Bethlehem. The gift of Epiphany is exactly what the festival’s name suggests: it’s an epiphany- an ‘a-ha’ moment- a revelation. It is here on this day that we get the first glimpse in Jesus’ life that he has come not just for Jewish believers, but the entire world. The magi have followed the star that they observed at its rising, and after a brief intermission with Herod, finally arrive to pay homage to Christ the newborn king.

The interesting thing about the idea of paying homage is that its not something normally done to children, especially not in the time when Jesus was born. We pay homage, though differently, to newborn children all the time now. With baby showers, gifts, and visits to see newborn babies, it is a great way to celebrate the only miracle that God lets us participate in- the miracle of childbirth. But this child that the magi come to pay homage to is different. Jesus- though a child probably around age 2 by the time that the magi arrive- is no ordinary child. This child, whom even the heavens point to by the leading of the star, will save all of humanity from sin, death, and the devil. And somehow, these magi, these foreigners who aren’t even Jews, have acknowledged his greatness and his place of honor in the world. And so they make a journey to find him so that they might honor him in a way befitting a king.

To pay homage literally means to worship- to prostrate oneself on the ground before the person or object being worshipped. I can’t imagine a more fitting thing to do for Jesus than for the magi to do such a thing. It is the revelation- the epiphany- of Jesus identity as King of the Universe that leads them to make such an act. We, following their example, have continued to pattern our lives of worship in the same fashion, by kneeling, praying, and giving gifts, and even making journeys of our own lives of faith. Once we’ve had our own epiphany about who Jesus is and his rightful place as the Lord of our own lives has been acknowledged, we pattern our lives in worship and service to the King as well.

You might notice that the magi’s paying homage, or worship, of Jesus is an act of stewardship- and our pattern of worshiping Jesus is the same. When we come to worship, we, like the magi make a pilgrimage of sorts- from our homes here to church. While our pilgrimage is much shorter than the magi’s, we both have the same physical experience of coming and going, which takes effort on our part to come and worship. This simple act of leaving our homes and giving of our selves the time it takes to get up, get ready for worship, come to the church, worship, maybe go to Sunday School, and then home again, is a gift of ourselves and our time. Once here in worship, we give of our talents- in singing, in worship leadership as lay leaders, by playing the organ, setting up and cleaning up as members of the altar guild, being ministers of hospitality by serving as ushers, watching the youngest of our members in the nursery, and even working the sound system. There are so many talents that are shared here on any given Sunday morning it is really unbelievable! We also give our own gifts of treasure when we give financially to the church and its ministries. These things mirror exactly the gifts that the magi brought. Their physical gifts of treasure they brought were rather unique, though.

They brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold- obviously a fitting tribute for a king, but also as a way of being a patron of the work that Jesus will accomplish. Frankincense is an integral part of worship in the church. Incense has traditionally been burned in churches as a way of carrying our prayers on the smoke up to heaven to God. It’s a beautiful and sensory way to engage in a life of communal prayer. Come by my office sometimes and you can smell it burning- though I’ve been told it’s an acquired taste. Myrrh is the most unusual of the gifts to give a child king. Myrrh is another kind of incense, but this is the kind that is used as a spice for preparing dead bodies. This gift is a necessary thing, as this child king won’t have a long life, and foreshadows his young death on the cross. These gifts all have a specific purpose, and our gifts do, too.

So each year, about this time people have come up with New Year’s resolutions. More often than not, they have to do with some sort of physical health issue- whether losing weight, quitting smoking, or any other kind of thing. I think those kinds of things can be extremely helpful and healthy to do if we go about them the right ways. But what I want you to consider this year is what kind of resolution might you make in regard to your spiritual health. How might this be a year to grow deeper in faith? What gifts are we being called to give to Jesus- gifts of ourselves, our time, our talents and our treasure? How do we deepen our spiritual journeys in this new year?

This is the last week that the posters will be up in the hallway for our Stewardship of Time and Talent drive. There are still some noticeable holes. We still need folks to help with meals for special occasions- of which I know there will be several opportunities coming up during Lent. We could use some more folks to help count our offerings. And it would be really great to have some more folks willing to help teach a Sunday School class or help with Vacation Bible School. The things on our posters aren’t an exhaustive list, either! If you’d like to start a new ministry, come talk to me about it! I’d love to know what kinds of things you all would like to be doing. We’re here to work together for the gospel, and there’s an abundance of talent here within our walls.

What other ways might you be called to serve Jesus this year? Maybe start reading a daily devotion at home or sing in the choir, or any of literally countless possibilities are available. With this being the 500th Anniversary year of the Reformation, we’ll shape our time together this year by paying particular attention to Luther’s Catechism. Maybe we’ll learn some new things about what it means for us to be Lutheran Christians- or maybe we’ll learn some things that we forgot we already knew that are buried under a lifetime experience of being in church. Either way, may this year be a year of new beginnings, of fresh starts, and of deepening our faith and commitment to the child whose birth we celebrate. I pray that it is our best year yet. And it will be, because we’re starting the year fresh with worshipping Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Word became Plastic? No, Flesh: A sermon for Christmas Day 2016

When my brother and I were in high school and our grandfather, who we affectionately know as our “Pappy,” was working for a courier service delivering office supplies, we used to like to go and ride with him, giving him a hand with all the boxes and spending time with our Pappy. One day, while working with him, we noticed in the dumpster of the storage unit where the boxes were shipped for delivery, someone had discarded an old plastic nativity scene. All of the figures were busted up and broken except for one. It was Joseph. We saved him from being taken to a landfill to await the resurrection- which for plastic- will never arrive since its not biodegradable. So, here these two high school aged boys had saved Joseph- which looked a lot like depictions of Jesus as a grown man, so we named him Plastic Jesus, or PJ for short.

PJ went everywhere with us. He had his own seat, either in my brother’s jeep or my red Toyota convertible. He was usually buckled safely, especially on days when we had the top down on the convertible. Plastic Jesus became quite the celebrity amongst our friends, and showed up in pictures, at parties, and at school. When the day came for my brother to graduate high school, PJ went with my brother to college at the University of South Carolina. This is proof that Jesus is a Gamecock fan if any of you were wondering, because that’s where Plastic Jesus got his education. PJ pledged a fraternity with my brother, saw him through his years in college, and somewhere along the way was lost and never found again. We’ll call that the ascension.

For the first time in recorded history, human beings had saved Jesus. Plastic Jesus, that is. But that’s not how the story goes, is it? That’s not why we celebrate Christmas, to put our plastic or other man made nativity scenes out in our yards and feel good about ourselves and our decorating abilities. We celebrate because rather than becoming plastic, Jesus became flesh and dwelled among us. Jesus took on our nature and our lot, was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary and became truly human. The mystery of the incarnation is what we celebrate when we gather around Christmas trees, carols, and the Word.

Martin Luther, in one of his Christmas sermons remarked that Jesus had to come as a baby. For a world that was so fearful of the God that they thought would smite them for their wrongdoings, the only way that God himself could come among us was in the form of a baby- something that almost no one is afraid of. So God comes to us, as a helpless child, in need of the mother who bore him so that he might save us from our sin.

You’ll notice that in the gospel lesson we read on Christmas day that there are no angels or shepherds, no room in an inn or a stable, no Mary, Joseph, or John the Baptist. There’s only Jesus. Jesus is referred to as the Word. The Word that was there in the beginning. The Word that was God and with God, through whom all things came into being. The Word has taken on our flesh and dwelt among us- not in plastic nativity scenes, but in our own bodies, Jesus becomes one of us- one of the very things that he created.

This human flesh of Jesus will experience all the things that we experience- life, death, joy and sorrow, all of human experience and emotion will now be embodied by the one who sent us. He won’t come as one who is plastic and sterile but as a babe born into the midst of the messiness of this world. For this human flesh that Jesus takes on will not last as long as the Plastic Jesus that my brother and I rescued. Jesus, like us, will die. Thankfully as people of the resurrection, we know that it is not the end of the Jesus story, though.

Finally, in the coming of Jesus, the light of the world has come. The light shines in the darkest parts of our world, and that darkness cannot overcome the light of the Christ child.

So what do we do with this good news that Jesus becomes like us, that Jesus- the one who has been around since the beginning of time- has come to us? The gospel writer says that “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” This John- the evangelist- not John the Baptist- writes so that others might believe. He has witnessed the light and has become a witness to the light.

Once we’ve been transformed by the light of Christ, which shines on all of us, we only have one real option- and that is for us to become witnesses as well, which begs the question, “Just what does it mean to be a witness?”

In order to be a witness, two things must happen. We have to observe something, and then tell someone else about it. If you only see something happen, and don’t tell anyone- you can’t be a witness, you’re just an observer. Witnesses have a compulsion to tell someone else. They have a duty to tell others. Whether it’s a witness in a courtroom or a witness for Jesus, you cannot remain silent.

In our baptism, we have been made witnesses to the light of Christ that we celebrate coming into the world this day. We, like John, are not the light itself, but called to be bearers of that light to a world that sits broken in the darkness.

Each time we share the light of Christ with another person, they become bearers of the light, too. And soon enough, the world starts to look a little less dark, the more people who share the light with others. Dear friends, we are witnesses to the light of Christ- we have seen it- we have seen Christ’s light and glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

As we leave worship today, I’m sure that some of you will go and spend time with family and friends, and I hope you have a terrific time celebrating. And at the end of your celebrations, you might be tempted to start putting away the Christmas decorations, because the Christmas day has come and gone. But Christmas has truly only just begun. The 12 days of Christmas that began at midnight will go past the new year’s ringing bells and all the way until the 6th of January, when we celebrate Epiphany. Let your Christmas lights shine a little longer. Let the light within you shine brighter. May your witness be emboldened by the lights around you and remember the true light that has come into the world. We don’t have to pack up and make all the trappings of the holiday go away just yet. Take some time to enjoy them. Enjoy your families. And enjoy the greatest gift of all: Jesus, God’s own Incarnate Word, has become flesh and dwells amongst us, and in us, and through us, calling us all to be a light to the world. Shine your light this Christmas. Be a witness for Jesus. Share the good news with all people. Amen.

The Generosity of Christmas: A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

Back during the Christmas season of 2011, when I was still in seminary, there was a strange phenomenon happening around our country that was only picked up by a couple of news sources. Someone- or a bunch of someones was paying off layaway accounts at stores. The unusual thing was that they were paying off strangers’ accounts. Here’s the news story from the Daily Mail:

“A California man is the latest layaway angel to embrace the spirit of Christmas charity by paying off $16,000 still owed to one shop for presents.

David Wilson, a car dealer from Laguna Beach, contacted the K-Mart in Costa Mesa after seeing a television report about other donors paying off strangers’ outstanding accounts.

He asked the manager to tally up the balances on all the accounts with balances of $100 or less, then wrote a check for $15,919.61 to pay off the whole lot.
The manager of the Costa Mesa K-Mart, Tricia Lawrence, then spent the whole weekend calling customers to let them know that they could come in and collect their presents.

‘The funniest thing is that I haven’t been called a liar so often in my life,’ she told the OC Register…

As well as his $16,000, a further $8,000 has been paid off by strangers – including a seven-year-old girl who paid $47 off accounts from cash she had been saving in her piggy bank.

Kristen Sepulveda owed $251 on a scooter, some Nancy Drew books and a few stocking fillers.

But when she arrived at the K-Mart with her daughter Skylar, age 7, they found their balance had been slashed to one penny. Both Mrs. Sepulveda and her daughter wept with joy at the news.

‘To walk into that was probably one of the most… I’m just so… I was just… it was just amazing,’ she told the Register attendant.”

Millions of people around the world this weekend are gathering in places just like this one to hear the Christmas story told- a story about angels (which in Greek literally translates into “messengers”) bringing good news of great joy for all people- news that is delivered to a young woman, her betrothed, and some shepherds.

But the story of that night has become more than just a pleasant bedtime story. This story has inspired and continues to inspire countless generations of God’s beloved children to live in the light of the star of Bethlehem, following the teachings and example of the babe that is born and laid in a manger.

The angels in the story aren’t the only messengers, though. The shepherds who were watching over their flocks by night become messengers as well. When they hear the good news announced by the angels they made haste to go and see this thing that had happened in Bethlehem. When they found the child laying in bands of cloth and lying in the manger there with Mary and Joseph, they knew that they weren’t seeing just any normal babe, but that it was the one who would deliver their people and save them. When they left the stable, they returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. They were changed by this encounter. They were no longer just mere shepherds, but had been brought into the story of God reconciling the world to himself through his Son, Jesus. They had now become a part of the story, and are entrusted with being messengers to tell the story of what they had heard and seen to those they encountered along the way.

God’s messengers are everywhere, not only in angels and shepherds in the story that we’ve gathered to hear this most holy of nights. Indeed everyone who has ever encountered the Christmas story and has been touched by it has become one of God’s own messengers, sent out to tell the good news of great joy that today our Savior was born. Not only was he born some 2000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem, but is born anew in each of us every time we remember the story, tell the story, or share the story of God’s great love that has come down to us in Jesus the Christ. God’s messengers are everywhere, in everyone who lives the message of the Jesus story, in anyone who finds a way to make Jesus’ light shine in the dark places of our world.

There is indeed something special about this season and how it inspires people to do good, to help others, to care for the poor, the weak and the sick. It is the season when we acknowledge that God draws near to the earth to be with and for all of us. It is the season when perhaps we understand most clearly that we are the new messengers, living God’s story in our homes, at school, at our workplaces and in the world. And like the people who paid off other folks’ layaway accounts, even at the counter in K-Mart.

We’ve been given this great story to share, but not only do we share the story, we’re called to live it. It seems that each year there seems to be a growing sense in our country that there’s a supposed “war on Christmas.” People become angry when they see and hear anything about the Christmas season that doesn’t fit their own understanding of the story itself. People everywhere have magnets on their cars reminding us to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” Those things are good, and right for us to do, but only if it is held in the spirit of the same story that we feel so called to defend. We can’t attack other people for not sharing the same beliefs about the Christmas story that we do.

The public “war on Christmas,” I must admit, is a bit silly to me. None of us can take Christ out of Christmas. It is literally impossible. But that’s because Christmas belongs to the one who the story is about. It’s not even about giving gifts to one another, making sure we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” or even lighting candles and singing “Silent Night.” Living out and being a part of the Christmas story is about encountering the story of the babe in the manger, and being so uncontrollably changed by the miracle of the incarnation that we can no longer stay silent about God’s radical love that has come to us in this baby.

Keeping Christ in Christmas isn’t about having a monopoly on the story, either. The story doesn’t belong to just us, or to Hallmark greeting cards and movies, or even to big box stores like Walmart, but it belongs to this world. Christmas is God’s greatest gift to the entire world. We don’t get to choose whether or not we accept the gift or not, because it has been given to us, freely. The only conscious thing we have to do is decide whether or not we’re going to live out the love shown to us in this Christmas story and become messengers of the story ourselves or not. There’s only one real response to the Christmas story- and that is to share the good news of what God has done in sending the Son to save us. Each time we share the good news, the darkness of the world is brightened by the light of Christ. Each time we share the good news, we inspire others to share the story. Each time we share the story, Christ is born in those who hear the good news that today, in the city of David, our Savior is born. Share the good news! Be the messenger this Christmas. Amen.

God is still speaking

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Many churches, our own ELCA included, have slogans that help identify our brand as something unique. And while I have no issue and happen to like our slogan of “God’s Work. Our Hands.” because it connects us to the larger work that God is doing reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ by the work that we do to bring God’s love and hope to a world that sits in darkness, but I cannot help but be inspired by the United Church of Christ’s slogan. Theirs is “God is still speaking.” I absolutely love it. It somehow energizes me as a preacher, it comforts me as a believer, and it makes me hopeful as a parent trying to raise my children in the faith.

I think that the reason that I like their slogan so much is because I deeply agree with it and believe in it. And our scripture readings this morning would agree. God is still speaking- and God is speaking to us in many different ways. God speaks to us through the words of the prophets; God speaks to us through dreams; God speaks to us in the Incarnate Word, Jesus, “God with us;” God speaks to us in the proclaimed word on Sunday morning when we hear the word preached. God speaks to us in the sacraments of the church. God speaks to us through one another when we encourage, uplift, and pray for one another. God is still speaking!

In our first reading from the scroll of Isaiah, we hear the prophet’s words speaking a message from God. We hear the promise of the coming one, Emmanuel, literally God with us. When Ahaz refused to put God to the test after being invited by God to do just that, the prophecy comes that a woman in their midst who was pregnant would deliver a child. And by the time the child could be weaned, the problems that this king was facing would be long gone. But God remains. Always. With us. King Ahaz had placed his trust in neighboring kingdoms and alliances rather than in the God who had given them the kingdom in the first place.

God was still speaking; God wasn’t done with them yet, and nor is God done with us. God continued to speak through the prophets, calling for us to pay attention to the things that God is doing in our world. Prophets aren’t just a thing of the past, either. Modern day prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and many others have continued to speak a prophetic word to the world when it finds itself in error, always calling us back to the promises that God has made to us.

God speaks to us in more less-conventional ways as well. God spoke through an angel in a dream that Joseph had that we heard about in the gospel reading. Joseph has learned that Mary is pregnant, and he’s got to get rid of her. Teenage pregnancy as a scandal isn’t a product of the 21st century. And even more than that, Jewish law in Deuteronomy would have allowed her to be stoned to death for such an offense. So Joseph decides that he’s going to be merciful and dismiss her quietly. But that night, in a dream, an angel of the Lord appears and tells him that the child she carries isn’t your average kid. He’s going to save people. And, Joseph, you will name him Jesus. Thankfully, Joseph heeded the words of the angel, and the Christmas story as we know it continues. God was still speaking.

God also speaks to us through Jesus, the Incarnate Word. Jesus speaks to us through his teachings as recorded in the gospels. It is Jesus that teaches us how to live in a godly way. Think about what life would look like without Jesus teaching us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, or to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Think about what it would be like to live in a world without Jesus telling us that we who are without sin may cast the first stone. I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that. Even while the entire world doesn’t profess a Christian belief, our way of living as disciples of Jesus has permeated just about every structure and system in the world in some way. I’m certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that without Jesus’ teachings we’d be a lot worse off. Jesus doesn’t just teach us through his words, though. He teaches us by showing us what it looks like to serve God and neighbor. He shows us what it looks like to be obedient to the will of God, even to death on a cross. Jesus shows us what it looks like to love all people by eating and welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the prostitute.  God still speaks to us through these teachings and examples.

God is still speaking- this very moment. In your hearing of the proclamation of God’s word in worship, God is speaking a word of welcome, proclaiming the good news that God’s not done with us yet. Each week, when you hear God’s word preached from this or other pulpits across the world, God is speaking through faithful servants who have been called by God to continue to speak. From this pulpit, you hear words of affirmation and acceptance as God’s beloved, you hear the annunciation of your own salvation through the suffering, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of God’s own Son. We Lutherans believe that the proclaimed word is God’s word for us in this time and in this place. The task of preaching is sacred and holy, and because we believe that God does in fact speak through people, we need be attentive to what God is doing in our midst here in this place. God is still speaking.

Lastly, God continues to speak to us in the sacraments that the church celebrates. When we gather at the font to welcome a new person into the family, God is there, speaking a word of love and acceptance, claiming them as daughters or sons of the God who knows and loves them, who formed them in their mothers’ wombs. We are adopted into this family, much like Joseph adopts Jesus into his own. God speaks the most important words we will ever hear in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. God says to each of us, “I love you. I created you. You are mine. And I will stop at nothing to remind you of that.”

When we gather at the table and celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, we continue to hear God speak to us. In the proper preface that is chanted, we hear that God comforted and continues to comfort his people with the promise of a redeemer, in whom all things will be made new. In the Eucharistic prayers we hear a recitation of salvation history as it pertains to the day or season that we’re in and always hear the beautiful words from Jesus that this is his body and his blood, given and shed for us and all people for the forgiveness of sins, and the command to do this in his remembrance. God speaks to us each time we hear a pastor or whoever is distributing the sacrament, using their voice, to remind us that this is indeed his body, given for you; his blood- shed for you. Not only do we get to dine with our Lord, but we get to have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet- the feast that will not end when Christ comes in glory to make all things new. God is still speaking.

These are some of the ways that God continues to speak- in and through us- to our world. God is active, still working to bring about his reign of justice, hope, peace, and love. As you finish up your preparations for Christmas- getting the house ready, all the last- minute shopping, wrapping gifts, and preparing meals that will likely be fit for kings, remember to take time, like Joseph and Isaiah and all those who have heard God’s voice, to listen. In the business of these days, find time for some stillness so that you may be renewed by God’s own voice saying to you: I love you. You are mine. And I’m sending my Son to save you. May his peace be yours this Advent and Christmas season. In the name of Christ. Amen.

Jesus is coming! Look busy! A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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We’ve made it to a new year. I almost feel like we could take a collective sigh of relief that we’ve come through this last year by none other than the grace of God. Between hurricanes, wild fires and political unrest, it’s been a heck of a year. And now that we’ve made it past elections, the majority of the football season (which will help some of us with our blood pressure), and Thanksgiving, we can finally get on with good news that Christmas is around the corner. We can finally take a load off, sit back, listen to Christmas music on the radio, and coast our way into the stable where Christ arrives as a babe in just under a month.

 

But that’s not what our lessons in the lectionary give us this week, is it? We don’t get to rest just yet. We don’t get to celebrate baby Jesus in all of his glory- with his adoring parents, shepherds worshipping, and animals gathered around. We aren’t there yet. We’ve got work to do before we can experience the joy of Christmas, and that is the work that we’re called to do in the season of Advent. In fact, our gospel lesson today doesn’t even point to the birth of the Messiah, but to his promised return.

 

Jesus says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24:36). He goes on to give some lessons in being ready for his coming again. It’s not enough for us to live by an old bumper sticker that I once saw that said, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” We have to keep our lamps lit, always anticipating his return. But there’s a lot of question about what that is going to look like.

 

To be honest, we don’t really know a whole lot about what Jesus’ return will look like. One of my favorite things about the chapel at the seminary where I graduated, is the cross that is suspended above the altar. It’s made of Olive wood and the front of it is carved and painted with scenes from the life and ministry of Jesus. It is absolutely beautiful. But the back side is different. It is carved with the same images, but there’s two differences. First, Jesus isn’t on the cross- it stands empty, signifying the resurrection. But the back side isn’t painted, which depicts Jesus’ coming again. We know very little about what it will be like, but what we do know is that Jesus will still be the same loving servant when he returns.

 

But of course, there’s always going to be people who claim to know exactly what it’ll be like when Jesus comes again in glory. For example, in the mid-to-late 1800s, a preacher named John Nelson Darby invented the idea of the rapture. Nowhere in scripture does this idea appear. Nor does it show up in any of the writings of the early church fathers, the reformers, or encyclicals of the catholic church. It was made up as a way of scaring people into believing in God. Besides that, the idea that there’s going to be 1000 years of suffering for “unbelievers” is completely contrary to the message of the gospel. Darby’s idea spread throughout the United States primarily through his preaching and the printing of the Schofield Reference Bible in 1909.

 

The idea that we can paint a picture of what the return of the Lord will be like is ludicrous. In Mark, Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus says that NO ONE knows the day or the hour of his return. And if I’m being as frank as possible, it doesn’t matter. We know it will happen. We trust Jesus at his word when he says I’m coming back. But it’s not for us to worry about when it will happen, but to be prepared for its coming.

 

The return of Jesus is something for us to honestly look forward to. It will be glorious and beautiful. As the prophet Isaiah tells us, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nations, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). When Jesus comes, we will finally see peace. Real peace- the kind that only God can give or bring. Even the instruments that we make to use in warfare will be a thing of the past. I can’t tell you how often I pray when I walk past the tanks and armored personnel carriers in my National Guard unit that I think to myself, “I can’t wait for the day when these beasts of war aren’t needed.” So as we look forward to Christ’s return, Isaiah invites us to walk in the light of the Lord.

 

Advent is our time each year to focus on walking in the light of the Lord and to prepare for the Lord’s return. In the time when the days are getting shorter, and it seems like it gets dark at lunchtime, it can be hard to focus on walking in the light. It would be so much easier for us to just think ahead to Christmas, wouldn’t it? But Advent isn’t merely a “get ready for Christmas” season, but a time when we begin a new year together, clinging to the promise that Jesus is coming and will make all things new. Every tear will be wiped away from every eye. The poor will be filled with good things. The rich will be sent away empty. The world will literally be turned upside down, but not in a destructive way- in a way that looks more like renewal. Wrongs will be righted- not as vengeance, but as justice.

 

But in the meantime- in the already-but-not-yet world we live in with regards to God’s kingdom, we have work to do. Being prepared for the Lord’s coming looks like loving God and loving our neighbors. It looks like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless. It looks like sharing the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of the world that Christ loves and died for.

 

Friends, there’s only a couple things in this world that I would bet the whole world on- that is that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again, and that he’s coming again. Those words to me are pure gospel, that the God who formed us and created us doesn’t want us to wallow in the stench of our own sin, but has sent and is sending the Son to save us. We’ve been claimed as God’s children, and he will never forsake us. God loves us too much to leave us the way we are, broken and holy at the same time. There will be a day, God promises, that all will be made well and right in the world, when Jesus comes again to reign over the world and bring us all into the blessedness of everlasting life. Join me, this Advent season, in preparing the way of his coming. Amen.

The End of the Year, a Crucifixion, and a King: A sermon for Christ the King Sunday

We’ve made it to the end of another liturgical year. For churches that follow the traditional pattern of the church calendar and the lectionary- we’ve experienced the waiting for Christ at Christmas, the arrival of the Magi at Epiphany, remembered our own mortality on Ash Wednesday, returned to the Lord our God during Lent, celebrated Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, watched and waited during Holy Week to receive a new commandment and remember Jesus’ death on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, celebrated Christ’s victory over death on Easter, gave thanks for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our lives on Pentecost, and spent a long time through the season known as “Ordinary Time,” hearing the parables and teachings of Jesus. We celebrated the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, remembered those who have died in the faith on All Saints, and now come to the conclusion of the year. Those events tell the story of Jesus year after year as we gather in worship. But that’s not the whole story of what happens here in the life of the church.

Just this time last year, on Christ the King Sunday, I got in my car after worship and drove to Columbia, SC. You all gathered here in worship on what seemed like any other given Sunday. But later in this week, as the church sat on the eve of a brand new liturgical year, a call committee and an unsuspecting pastor looking for where God might be calling him to serve, met in a hotel conference room in a sleepy little town called Hickory, North Carolina. During Advent this past year, he came back again so that the call committee could hear him preach a sermon, and again in January he returned, this time on a Sunday when worship had been canceled here because of weather. Then, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, you all voted to call that pastor to be your next pastor. You lived through the season of Lent- probably feeling more like Advent- with the expectant waiting feeling- for the next chapter of the ministry of this congregation to begin. When we gathered for worship on Easter morning, a new thing officially began. The new life we have in Christ because of his resurrection took a new hold on our lives as we began life together as pastor and people, both of us searching for some new life because of past experiences, and thankful that God had raised Jesus and promises to do the same for us- even here and now. And in the time since then and now, we’ve done a lot together. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, done some incredible ministry together, and here at the end of this first liturgical year together, we mark this Sunday as a place of transition for us.

This Sunday we’ve gathered to remember Christ as our King. We also gather to make plans for the upcoming liturgical and calendar year with our semi-annual congregational meeting. The plans that we make are made with the assurance that we’re going to live through the same set of stories of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension yet again next year. The plans that we make are our way of living out Christ’s promises to us and to the people and neighbors that we serve here in our community, relying on Christ to lead, guide, and direct us. We remember our place in life, knowing that ultimately we are not the ones in charge of our lives. This is the important work that is accomplished by having a Sunday dedicated to the transition from one year to the next- of celebrating Christ as our King.

Though in 2016, is hard for us Americans to understand the idea of actually having a king. The last time our land was ruled by a monarchy was 1776- some 240 years ago- 61 years before this congregation was even founded. We don’t exactly know what that is like. But, in some ways we do. If this past couple months has taught me anything, it has taught me to rely on the kingship of Jesus over any of the earthly powers that grasp for control of our world. The vitriolic campaigns for power that we’ve just lived through- on both sides of the aisle- have done nothing but continue to divide our country- between races, genders, orientations, and socio-economic statuses. The only thing- I am convinced- that can now become our unity is Christ our King. Even though all Americans aren’t in agreement on religion, for those of us who are disciples of Jesus will find ways to lean into our identity as children of God so that we can be a positive force of unity for all people. Our way of living as Jesus disciples just might make others see Jesus in a new way and come to faith in the King.

But here’s the sticking point- Jesus isn’t a king that is like other leaders of our world. Jesus doesn’t seek power to lord it over others. Jesus doesn’t even need to seek it out because all authority in heaven and earth belongs to him. Today we heard the story of the crucifixion- a story that almost feels misplaced in the lectionary for this kind of celebration of Christ as our King, but it is exactly the kind of story that tells us what kind of king that Jesus is for us and for the whole world. Jesus is the kind of king that doesn’t seek out human influence and power, but one that humbles himself, serves all people- the outcast, the orphan, the widow- those who society deem as expendable, calls them holy, and gives up his own life for those whom he loves- which just so happens to be everyone. Real kings are servants of the people. Real kings aren’t greedy. Real kings don’t sacrifice their followers for their own gains.

Hearing the story of the crucifixion on this day is no mistake. Even though it may seem out of place in the sequence of the story that we live through each year- this story belongs here today because Jesus’ kingship cannot be separated from the ultimate symbol of his authority and power- the cross. The cross shows us the ultimate power of love that Jesus yields against all the evil things of this world. The cross- which would have looked like a worldly defeat, is perfected in his resurrection. And to top it all off, Jesus forgives the thieves being crucified with him.

Jesus isn’t just king for the 12 apostles, or the thieves he saved on the cross, but he is king for all people- whether or not they know it, believe it, or live like it. Jesus’ concern as the king of the universe is for all people. If we who profess to believe in him and follow him as disciples of this king do not pattern our lives after his own humble life of service and love, then we have failed our calling. We are called to follow the example of Christ our King- loving and serving all people- not just the people that look like us, talk like us, or think like us, but all people. Following Christ’s example of love and humble service, we can boldly walk forward into the future that Christ has prepared for us.

Following Christ, we can look forward to another year of ministry in this place,- reaching out and serving all people, loving God and neighbor, and continuing the work of cultivating this community of recovering sinners. We are blessed beyond measure to do this work, and when we all pitch in to make it happen, we’ll see the fruits of our labors in the number of lives that are changed by the transformational power of the love of God in Christ Jesus our King. Amen.