Saturday, January 23, 2021

“Not Just a Hometown Prophet” - January 17, 2021

Text: Luke 4:16-30


Ken Chafin was my preaching professor in seminary – just a wonderful guy.  Ken had us read textbooks on preaching, he lectured about preaching, and we had to write a sermon outline every week.  But the best – and the scariest part - was preaching labs.  

We all had to preach several sermons in front of our peers.  The class not only formed the congregation; for each sermon, several other students filled out evaluation forms.  Some in the class were pastors of churches while some had never preached a sermon in their life.  And for the record, the inexperienced preachers by and large were better - they hadn’t picked up bad habits and were more open to learning.  My memory is that we were all pretty generous in our evaluations, knowing we would be evaluated too.

I know some of you have taken a preaching class, but one way or another, we all have some experience having our speech evaluated.  Our scripture for today is Jesus’ inaugural sermon recorded in Luke.  He has just started his ministry – Luke devotes just a couple of sentences to it, says that Jesus was getting rave reviews from everyone, but basically this is the beginning.  He is at his hometown congregation, and they are evaluating his sermon. Let’s join them, with our evaluation sheets in hand.

Synagogue worship was fairly informal compared to worship in the temple.  There would prayers, reading scripture, comments on the scripture, and almsgiving.  On this day, Jesus was invited to read the scripture.  He was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Now it takes a while to find a given scripture in a scroll.  It’s not like turning to a page in a book.  He unrolls the scroll, and he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll – again, this tool awhile - and gave it back to the attendant.  This functioned as a big, dramatic pause.  There was great anticipation.  And when he spoke, this is what he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wow.  This was powerful.  People commented on how well he spoke, how proud they were.  They marveled at him.  “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy?” they asked.  Then Jesus continued.  But rather than wow the crowd with a moving, inspirational sermon, Jesus says, “No doubt you are going to quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself.”  Take care of your own people, your own town.  And then he said, “You are going to want me to do here in my hometown the things I did in Capernaum.  Well, I know that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

What?  Jesus seems to be going out of his way to antagonize the people of Nazareth.  The great preacher Fred Craddock said that the opening of a sermon is like driving a bus.  As you start off, you’re just trying to get everybody on board so that they will take the trip with you, and so you want to connect with the hearers.  Unfortunately, Jesus had not read Fred Craddock’s book.  

Jesus goes on to remind the crowd of instances in which God’s favor is shown not to good Israelites, but to Gentiles.  Remember when there was a severe famine, and Elijah went not to one of the Hebrew widows, but the widow at Zarephath and she was the hero of the story?  Or remember when there were many lepers in Israel, but the leper who was healed was Naaman the Syrian?”

What is Jesus thinking?  It is one thing to be provocative; it’s another to be stupid.  What’s the use of having a hometown Messiah if it’s not going to benefit the hometown?  Where did Jesus get off?  

Why did Jesus seem to go out of his way to offend his hometown congregation?

Well, there are a couple of possibilities.  There is this quote from the poet Maya Angelou.  She said, “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”  Jesus could not be the prophet he needed to be – he could not be the savior he was called to be – if he just told the home folk what they needed to hear.  And so to truly be free, to truly be Jesus, he could not be tied to his hometown.

There is maybe another reason.  The scripture Jesus read was basically his purpose statement.  And it pointed to the idea of Jubilee and the Jubilee year – every 50 years, debts were to be forgiven, indentured servants were to go free, land was to be returned to the original family.  Jesus was about healing and release and recovery and reconciliation.  This was Good News for the poor, the troubled, the oppressed.

Maybe the people in Nazareth were relatively privileged.  Maybe they were not in need of his ministry in the way the people in Capernaum were.  He was not going to make a big production just for the sake of impressing the home folks.  

For whatever reason, Jesus lays out in no uncertain terms that he is not just a Hometown Prophet – that his ministry will have a far greater scope.  The people had heard that he put on a good show in Capernaum, but he was not about show.  
So of course, the crowd became enraged.  They did a 180 and mob mentality set in.  The punishment on the books for false prophecy was death.  They chased him to the edge of town and intended to throw him off the cliff there.  Luke does not tell us how exactly, but Jesus was able to walk away.

So: Check your evaluation sheets.  What kind of grade does Jesus get?  From the crowd, he gets a big fat “F.”  

There were good reasons the people in Jesus’ hometown reacted so strongly.  First, there was the problem of familiarity.  They knew Jesus—or they thought they did.  This was the kid they had watched grow up, the boy who had worked with his father in the carpenter’s shop.  Who was he to think he could just come in and tell them the way it was?

Jesus’ words were harsh, but if it were someone else, they may have been a little easier to digest.  But having known Jesus for years, they could not recognize him as a prophet.  Certainly not as a messiah.

I wonder if we sometimes have that same problem.  Jesus can be too familiar.  Too much of a pal, too much “our” guy.  Have you ever noticed all the paintings of Jesus that have him as a blond, blue-haired white guy?  Have you noticed that we tend to attribute to Jesus good middle-class American values?  Making him somebody who could probably serve on the board of the Chamber of Commerce?  (No offense to those of you who may be on the chamber.)  Familiarity can blind us.  Jesus is a friend, yes, a friend who is always with us.  But Jesus is not our lackey.

Maybe the bigger issue was resentment that Jesus had taken God’s favor to others – others whom they didn’t care for.  Capernaum, where Jesus had already had success, had a strong non-Jewish population.  That was one thing.  But then his stories about the widow of Zarapeth and Naaman the Syrian were completely uncalled for.

It galled them that Jesus had used their own scriptures against them, turned their own tradition against them.  They wanted a manageable Messiah.  They did not want someone barging in to remind them of a part of their own tradition that they would just as soon forget: that God’s favor extended beyond the confines of Israel.

At the root of it all, they were offended by God’s grace, grace toward those of whom they did not approve.  

And here again, we can be like the folks in Jesus’ hometown.  We can feel under siege, like the good people of Nazareth.  The world feels out of control, and we want God to be on our side.  Like the people of Nazareth, we can be offended by God’s grace, which actually embraces those who are different from us.  

We want a predictable messiah.  What we don’t want is a savior who will challenge us and maybe even change us.

In his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached just a few weeks before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr.  closed by speaking of how he would want to be remembered.  King says not to mention his awards and honors, which in the end are shallow and not really important.  But he says,
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.  And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

He was referring to Jesus’ words from scripture.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, proclaiming good news to the poor.  What this all adds up to is offering God’s grace to folks who are on the outside, grace to those on the margins.  Then, as now, that can anger people.

As it was for Jesus, as it was for Martin Luther King, Jr., faithfulness can be costly.  King was assassinated in 1968, but there was another tragedy in the King family in 1974.  Martin Luther King, Sr. – Daddy King – was preaching at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  The church was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out.  A gunman missed King.  But the church organist was struck and killed.  The organist was Mrs. King.

Colleagues from around the nation came to support the King family, including Gardner Taylor, known as the Dean of African American preachers.  Taylor recalled the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had experienced this great loss, yet gave testimony to its abiding faith.

Taylor visited with King Sr. that week.  He recalled:

Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening.  He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “  He stopped awhile.  Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said is going to preach [he was called to ministry].”  Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”  
Jesus’ inaugural sermon did not earn high marks from his hometown congregation – but I have a feeling that Jesus wasn’t in it for the grade.  Amen.

“Jesus and the Pitchfork” - January 10, 2021

Text: Luke 3:1-22


Children grow up before you know it, don’t they?  Take Jesus, for example.  Two weeks ago, he was a baby, born in Bethlehem, and then last week a 12 year old at the temple, causing consternation for his parents.  Here we are one week later, and he is a grown man.  Time flies.

Our scripture today focuses on John the Baptist.  As you may have already noticed, Luke likes to set things in the historical context.  “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee… and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.”  This is a kind of timestamp.  Tiberius began his reign in the year 14, so this is the year 28 or 29.  Jesus is around 30 years of age.  

Just as Jesus has grown up, so has John.  The last time we read about John, he was not yet born.  He was leaping with joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greeted her.  Now he is out in the wilderness, the crowds flock to him, and he rains down judgment.  It is not exactly a warm and fuzzy message.

John is challenging the traditional powers, challenging religious authority.  He says, you don’t have to go to the priests at the temple in Jerusalem, you can come out here in the wilderness and repent of your sins.  That list of political and religious authorities that Luke begins with may be more than just a timestamp – John, and Jesus whom he points to, represent an alternative to those powers, a completely different kind of power.  Luke is painting a big contrast.

John lays it on pretty strong.  “You brood of vipers,” he says.  “And don’t even get me started about Abraham as your ancestor.”  He is saying that their ancestors’ merit and their family identity is not enough.  They are responsible for their own lives.

John calls for repentance, for change of life, and people are drawn to it – maybe because people know they need to change their lives.  And so they ask, “What shall we do?”

John’s response is very interesting.  If you have two coats, share with somebody who has none.  If you have extra food, share it.  If you are a tax collector, don’t rip people off.  Soldiers were among those who came to John – presumably Roman soldiers who were part of a peacekeeping force.  John tells them, don’t shake down people on the streets for protection money – be satisfied with your pay and don’t resort to extortion.  

The bar seems kind of low.  Maybe they were expecting John would say something really hard.  Don’t cheat and steal doesn’t seem that tough.  Share the extra you have doesn’t seem that hard.

This may seem easy, but it can be deceptive.  If you have an extra coat, share it.  Well, the hard part is deciding what is extra, isn’t it?  I’ve got an everyday coat I wear, really a ski jacket.  I’ve had it for years.  Then I have an older parka that is my snowblower and blizzard coat.  And a dress coat.  And a rain coat.  And a lighter jacket.  And a windbreaker and a couple of fleece jackets.  And some sportcoats and suit jackets and – well, what do we really need and what is extra?  

When do we cross the line - on coats or anything else – to more than we need, to indulgence?  The challenge is to live a life of openness and sharing and caring for those who do not have enough rather than a life of accumulating for ourselves.  There were people who literally did not have clothes to wear.  Do you share your extra coat?  That coat represented security.  John calls for the vulnerability of sharing.

I love that what he calls for is so tangible.  He doesn’t just say, be concerned for justice - he spells out how to do it.  And this isn’t just for the uber-rich – he calls on regular people, like tax collectors and soldiers – to treat others fairly and not just look out for themselves.

People are wondering if perhaps John is the Messiah, and John says, “No, one greater than me is coming; I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.  I am baptizing you with water, but he will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit.”  And then he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This sounds pretty hard core.  What is John is talking about?  A winnowing fork?  Some of us wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork.

Here’s the way it worked: before grain was ground for flour, it needed to be as clean as possible.  After harvesting and threshing, it contained a lot of chaff – the outer husks of the grain and other stuff you did not want in your bread.  To winnow, you might take a basket of grain and go outside on a windy day and pour it into another basket.  In doing so, the chaff would be blown away while the heavier grain would fall into the basket.  Another method would be to use a winnowing fork.  After grain had been beaten out of the husks, or threshed, you would have grain on the floor mixed with chaff.  You would take the winnowing fork and throw the grain into the air, allowing the chaff to be blown away.

It is interesting to me that Jesus is pictured by John with something like a pitchfork.  This seems seriously fire and brimstone.  Did you know that the devil is never described in the Bible as having a pitchfork, but Jesus is?  All these years, we’ve seen those cans of Underwood Deviled Ham, with the little red devil with a pitchfork, and it turns out they were wrong all along.  Jesus is the one with a pitchfork!  This being Iowa, with Grant Wood and American Gothic, I would have thought that this image of Jesus with a pitchfork would have caught on, but for some reason it hasn’t.

The question, of course, is what John meant by this image.  It sounds as though John is saying that when the Messiah comes he will separate the good from the bad, and the bad will have a price to pay.

But this is not the way Jesus characterizes his own ministry.  Jesus was not about separating people, but bringing people together.  He was not about excluding people, but including people.  He did not treat people as chaff to be discarded.

Here is the thing: chaff is mostly part of the wheat plant.  So maybe this is not about separating good and bad people, but maybe it is about working on those parts of our own lives that need to change, that we may need to leave behind.  We all have some chaff.

In a reflection on these verses, Tom Ehrich asked if perhaps we have misunderstood John here -- if we have misplaced the emphasis of his words.  Luke goes on to tell how Herod the ruler was offended by John’s rebuke and imprisoned John for a time.  Ehrich says that John’s offense lay in insisting that the coming of Jesus represented a need for people to decide between good and evil.  That was not what Herod wanted to hear, and it’s not necessarily what we want to hear either.  

Ehrich wrote, “John said what few dare to hear, which is that life matters, how we take each day matters, our behaviors draw us close to God or not, and, while not all in life will be wonderful, all will be filled with the wonder of God.”

The choices we make matter.  We can choose to accumulate for ourselves or share with others.  We can choose to not rock the boat or we can choose to stand up for what is right.  We can love our neighbor or we can ignore our neighbor in need.  We can look out for our own tribe or we can value all of God’s children.

Like you, I was – astonished and mortified - to see an angry mob descend on the Capitol on Wednesday.  It was hard to believe what we were seeing.  Something that got my attention in the midst of all of it was a giant Jesus Saves banner that some of the rioters were carrying.  It was really striking.  

How did we ever get to this point?  To me, the scene was not just sickening; the actions of some of the people there were blasphemous.  People were using Jesus as a kind of mascot for their own cause.  

John said, “Don’t tell me how you are children of Abraham.  What matters are your actions.  Today, John would say, “God couldn’t care less about your Jesus signs or your Jesus talk.  God demands a new way of living, faithful living that shows love for your neighbor.  

I mentioned this at our devotion on Thursday night.  As we talked about it, we agreed that we can all make Jesus our mascot to bless whatever choices we make.  John the Baptist calls us out on that.  We all have choices to make about how we live and whether we will choose Jesus’ way.

Jesus made a choice himself.  In humility, he submitted to John’s baptism.  He was there, among the people.  He was baptized like everybody else – he did not think himself above others.  He recognizes his connection to the community.  He does not act like he is special.

But there is confirmation that he is special.  After his baptism, as he was praying, there is a voice from heaven saying, ”You are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  For Jesus, his baptism was an experience of affirmation of his identity and calling.  God is delighted in him.

Our baptism represents the choice we have made to follow Christ.  It represents repentance and trust and faith and is an experience of God’s grace.  In our baptism, God says to us, “You are my beloved daughter…you are my beloved son.”

As Christians, we are called to live out our baptism by following in Jesus’ ways, by continuing his ministry on this earth.  We don’t think of ourselves as needing a winnowing fork to live the Christian life, but maybe that’s not a bad image.  We consider various ideas, throw stuff out there and allow the wind of the Spirit to decide what’s good and what’s not, what builds up and what doesn’t.

It’s not just obvious choices between good and bad; we have to separate the important from the merely urgent, the good from the best.  We have to learn to separate those things that are attractive but fleeting from that which is solid and lasting.  

We have to learn to separate those core beliefs and values and commitments that matter most from those more peripheral matters that are not so important and on which we sometimes need to just agree to disagree.  A winnowing fork just might come in handy.

This is not to say that the choices facing us are always easy.  But in all of our decision-making, we live in God’s grace.  In those times when the way does not seem so clear, we can rest in knowing that God says to each of us, “You are my beloved child.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

“Searching For Jesus” - January 3, 2021

Text: Luke 2:41-52


As a seminary student I spent a year at Virginia Tech, serving as a Campus Ministry Intern.  Over spring break, I took 12 students to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to work at a place called the Graffiti Center.  In the midst of drugs and poverty and empty buildings as well as early stages of gentrification, the Graffiti Center had a significant ministry, and we were there for a week to work and to learn.

On Sunday morning, I took the students to worship at the historic Riverside Church, the cathedral–like church built by John D. Rockefeller.  Riverside is dually affiliated with the ABC and the UCC.  It was St. Patrick’s’ Day and Riverside’s pastor at the time, William Sloan Coffin, as Irish as they come, was in rare form.  It was quite an experience for some mostly Southern Baptist kids from Virginia.

The transportation alone was quite an experience.  After the service, we went to the subway station to ride back to Graffiti.  We were going to “Take The ‘A’ Train,” just like in the song.  We waited for what seemed like a long time.  Then an express train pulled up on the track behind us.  We realized that the express would take us to where we needed to go, and faster, so we all got on.  That is, all of us got on except for William.

William was a freshman.  He was kind of backward, very socially awkward.  If you had to choose one of the twelve students to get lost from the group, it definitely would not have been William.

We were on the train for a minute or so when we realized that William was not with us.  I was responsible for this group and I can’t tell you the awful sense of panic I felt.

We got off the train at our stop and waited.  And waited.  No William.  He didn’t take the next train.  Or the next.  Or maybe he did, but he didn’t get off where he was supposed to.  Of course, this was before everybody had cell phones.

I sent a couple of students back to the station near Riverside Church and a couple others to check a few stops further down the line.  A couple of us waited at our stop, and the others went back to the Graffiti Center.  I also instituted an immediate buddy system.

If I knew all of the details at the time, I would have been even more concerned.  William did not remember which stop was ours; in fact, he couldn’t even remember that we were working at the Graffiti Center.  He only had 25 cents in his pocket.  All he could remember was the name of a big Catholic Church a couple of blocks from the Graffiti Center.  But he did remember that we had eaten in Chinatown the night before, and that it wasn’t all that far from Chinatown to the Graffiti Center.  So he got off at Chinatown and wandered around, asking a few people if they knew where St. Stanislaus was, or whatever the name of that church was.  Finally, miraculously, he ran into a homeless person who happened to be a regular at the Graffiti Center, and Frank walked him back.

That was a long time ago, but it still scares me when I think about it.  If you have ever lost a child – even if it is someone else’s child and even if the child is 18 years old – you know what it is to have that sudden feeling of panic and terror.  Maybe you are in a store and you turn around and your 3 year old just isn’t there, and it just scares you to death.  

Mary and Joseph absolutely knew that feeling.  They had been to Jerusalem for Passover.  It was a big trip. They traveled with a large group of friends and family.  On their way home, they were on the road a full day when they started to worry.   They had assumed that Jesus was with his cousins and some other boys his age, on the road ahead of them.  But he wasn’t.  He wasn’t behind them, either.  He wasn’t anywhere to be found.  They kept expecting him to show up, but he never did.  

Feeling that dread and panic, they decided they had to go back to Jerusalem.  They arrived back in the city, checked the place they had stayed, checked the market, asked friends there if they knew where Jesus was, but no luck.  It was another whole day before they finally found him.

Where was Jesus?  Jesus was in the temple, sitting among the teachers and asking questions.  

I love that Luke includes this story.  It is the only glimpse we have of Jesus as an adolescent.   Luke is especially interested in sharing key developmental moments in Jesus’ life.  We have his birth as well as his circumcision and presentation at the temple.  We have this episode at age 12, shortly before he would officially become an adult member of the community at age 13.  And then we have Jesus’ baptism.  Here, we have a glimpse of Jesus the Tween.  He is not that adorable baby in the manger, but he is not an adult with complete independence and authority either.  He is in-between.  

His parents find Jesus in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions.  And everybody was amazed by what he had to say.  He’s 12 years old.  

Well, he might be 12 years old and he might be Jesus, but like any 12 year old he can drive his parents crazy.  When they finally found him, Mary says, “What’s the matter with you?”  That’s a rough paraphrase.  

There is a fantastic medieval painting of this scene.  It was painted in 1342 by Simone Martini of Sienna.  Check this out.  

click here for the painting

Mary asks, “What were you thinking?” while Joseph asks the same thing through his gestures.  But take a look at Jesus’ face.  As a 12 year old, everybody has that look on their face at some point.  His arms are crossed and he has that look of exasperation with his parents.  It looks like he is rolling his eyes.    

There are a lot of reasons I love that Luke included this story, but I appreciate that there is this episode that includes the dynamics of adolescence – of that time between childhood and adulthood.  

Jesus is 12.  Everybody heads back to Nazareth but he stays at the temple.  Most 12 years olds were not really into deep discussions of Torah, but Jesus was different.  I mean, everybody is a little different, but this was Jesus.

Mary says, “Your father and I have been worried” and Jesus says, “I’m in my father’s house.”  He is back-talking his parents.  And then - he is obedient, a child going home with his parents.  That is what it is to be in between childhood and adulthood – in between dependence and autonomy.  He is learning be his own person.  He will eventually go his own way but he will always have this close bond with his family, concerned for his mother even in his final hours.

Mary and Joseph find him having a deep conversation with scholars at the temple, displaying a spiritual depth they had not seen before.  They were somewhere in between “I’m so proud of you” and “What is wrong with you?”

This is a story of Jesus’ humanity.  He was human as we are, and he could drive his parents crazy just like we could, and just like our children can.  But this story also gives us a clue as to what and who Jesus was becoming.  He had been “about my Father’s business,” as some translations have it.  He was learning and immersing himself in the study of scripture.  

Looking at the whole episode, it strikes me that the unsung heroes of this story are the teachers in the temple.  They are hardly even characters.  We don’t know exactly who they are, or their names, and they don’t say anything.  But I love the community learning that happens here.  The teachers in the temple include Jesus in the conversation.  He comes, like others, to learn, and they don’t dismiss him because he is a kid.   And what happens is interactive.   

Jesus is learning and asking questions, but he is also offering his thoughts and answers.  Everyone was amazed at his understanding.  

It is not patronizing – the teachers don’t say “isn’t it cute, this 12 year old knows his scripture.”  Jesus is genuinely included.  He is learning the tradition, even as he in time will expand the tradition and go beyond the tradition.  It also strikes me that his parents traveled one day’s distance, then had to travel back, then it took perhaps a day to find him.  You can imagine that the teachers saw to it that Jesus had a place to stay and food to eat, that they looked out for him until his parents showed up.

I think about the role of young people in the community of faith.  They are learning and growing, but they are also fully a part of the community right now, and we can learn from them.  I appreciate that this often happens in our church.  Of course we have all depended on younger people, maybe on the 12 year olds we know, to help us with technology over these past months.  And there are plenty of families where one or both parents are working from home while kids are also at home trying to do online school, and everybody is learning together how to make it all work.

But it is more than that.  The questions and perspectives and ideas of everyone are important and valuable.  Younger people can offer new ideas and new perspectives that we need to hear.  The teachers in the temple model an inclusive, community approach to learning.

This is the first Sunday of a new year.  Thank God for that.  The last year was awful, but if we learned anything it is that we cannot predict what the future will hold.  We enter this year maybe a little wiser.  We know there will be change.  We know there will be challenges.  And we need the contributions of everyone as together we navigate the road ahead.  

Now one more thing this morning.  The text says that Mary and Joseph did not understand Jesus.  You know what?  They were not the only ones.  His disciples did not fully understand the grown-up Jesus.  Neither did folks in his hometown.  Nor the religious establishment, nor the political/economic powers that be.  And the same is true today.  I have to confess that it is true for myself: I don’t always understand Jesus.

You might say that like Mary and Joseph, we are all trying to find Jesus.

A lot of Jesus’ stories and sayings leave us scratching our heads.  It can be hard for us to understand the depth of Jesus’ love and commitment and self-sacrifice.  It can be hard to understand the idea of power in weakness, or that the last shall be first, or the notion of loving our enemies.  It can be hard to understand how the poor and the meek and those who mourn can be blessed.  We can’t fully understand life and love that is greater even than death.

But we are learning.  Like Jesus at the temple, we are all learning.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.       

“Do Not Be Afraid: Choose Love” - December 20, 2020

Text: Luke 2:15-20


A pastor in East Tennessee named Dale told about planning the perfect live nativity scene.  He found a stable on a parishioner’s farm.  A lot of work went into the staging, and everything was just right.  It was a beautiful, pastoral scene.  He found a great Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus and the costumes looked very authentic.  Folks shared their animals for the production and the whole thing looked fabulous.   Publicity went out all through the community and people waited in anticipation.

But then there was Reuben.  Reuben was the donkey, and Reuben refused to cooperate.  He made a lot of noise in the stable.  Then the sheep kept getting loose and running out onto the highway.  The ground had been wet and then had frozen, and on the big night, shepherds, angels, and wise men had all slipped and fell onto the frozen, muddy mess trying to corral the loose sheep.  The angels’ costumes were no longer a dazzling white – they all looked like they had been to an angels’ mud wrestling convention.

Reuben the donkey decided to stand right in front of Mary and Joseph when the lights came on.  He was so loud that everybody missed half of the Christmas story as it was read over the P.A. system.  Reuben would move away occasionally, only to reveal Mary and Joseph covering their noses with their robes.

From behind the stable, Dale, the pastor, asked Joseph why they were covering their noses.  Joseph said the donkey was having some digestive problems.  It was cold enough that everyone could see Mary’s breath, Joseph’s breath, and the donkey’s breath.  But Reuben’s breath was coming out the wrong end!

After the show was over, and it was quite a show, everything was torn down and Dale left that evening feeling defeated and dejected.  This happened several years ago – I was in an online pastors’ discussion forum with Dale – but you have to admit, this sounds exactly like a 2020 live nativity.

Dale had wanted this living nativity to be perfect, just like the first Christmas.  But then he remembered that Mary and Joseph shared the stable with real animals that made real noises and emitted real odors.  They had to deal with whatever the elements were doing on the night of Jesus’ birth.  Mary and Joseph did not inhabit a perfect world by any means – far from it.  They did not live in a Hallmark world.  They lived in the real world, a harsh world filled with hardship.

And so perhaps, Dale’s church had gotten that living nativity exactly right.  Dale said, “I’ll never do another living nativity scene.  After all, I got it right the first time.”

Christmas this year is not exactly going to be the Christmas of our dreams.  And that’s OK.  Perhaps it will help us to reflect more deeply on that first Christmas, and on the meaning of Christmas.

Shepherds in the fields are startled – terrified, the scripture says – by the appearance of an angel announcing the birth of a child, a savior, in Bethlehem.  The angel says to them, “Do not be afraid” – and is then joined by a multitude of heavenly host praising God, which while helping to confirm the message, no doubt added to their fear.  But after the angels had left, after they get their wits about them, the shepherds decide to go to Bethlehem themselves and see this amazing thing the angels had told them about.

So they go and they find Mary and Joseph and the baby, lying in the manger – a feed trough.  This was a place where the shepherds would feel right at home.  They tell Mary and Joseph about the angels’ visit, and the message they had heard, and everyone is amazed.

Over these past four Sundays, we have read the Christmas story from Luke, from the angel’s message to Mary to her visit with Elizabeth and her response in song, to Joseph and Mary making the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, and now the angel’s announcement to the shepherds and their visit to the manger.

We know this story.  We have heard this story so often, and we love it so much.  It is beautiful and it is meaningful.  And it is a part of our tradition.  Whether it is in worship or whether it is Linus reciting the story in a Charlie Brown Christmas, we love to hear the Christmas story from Luke told again and again.

It can be so much a part of the season that we take it for granted and set it next to the tree and the lights and the meals and the presents and the gatherings and it adds up to a nice Christmas.  It’s familiar.  It’s comforting.  And especially this year, we need familiarity.  We need comfort.

But the thing is, this is not just a nice story, a comforting and familiar story that has been retold and remembered and celebrated for 2000 years.  These are beautiful words, yes, but these are words that speak to us.  These are words that challenge us.  Christmas calls for a response from us.

At each point in the Christmas story, there is fear.  And at each point, those involved choose love over fear.  Imagine Elizabeth, an older woman past child-bearing years, and Mary, a young unmarried woman, both carrying a child.  They had reason for fear, but they each chose love, and Mary burst forth in song.

Imagine Mary and Joseph, making the arduous journey to Bethlehem.  Imagine being close to the time of giving birth and having to walk for miles, for days.  They are unsure if they can make it to Bethlehem in time and unsure if they can find a place to stay when they get there.  They had plenty of reason for fear, but they choose not to be afraid of the ways their lives had been interrupted and upended.  

They choose not to be afraid of the difficult implications of this pregnancy.  Instead, they choose love.  They choose to embrace one another and embrace this tremendous mystery together.

Imagine the innkeeper.  There are lots of visitors in town because of the census.  The inns are full.  And this desperate couple shows up at his door, the young woman close to giving birth.  The innkeeper chooses not to be afraid of these strangers begging at his door and instead chooses love, choosing to make room for them when there was no room.

Imagine the shepherds, shaken from their slumber by an angel, and then by a multitude from heaven, sharing the news that a savior had been born.  It was beyond startling; it was terrifying.  But they chose to believe the Good News they had heard.  They chose not to be afraid of the unknown, not to be afraid of this mysterious announcement from God that had for some reason been shared with them, and they choose to set off in search of the amazing good news they had heard from the sky.  And then they shared the Good News with everyone they met.  The shepherds chose love.

Again and again, the angels said “Do not be afraid.”  We can be unafraid through the power of love.  In 1 John we read, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.”
From start to finish, the message of Christmas is about love.  And it is not just a passive receiving of love sent our way; it is embracing that love and acting in love.

It all begins in the love of God.  A God who chose love.  A God who chose to come and dwell among us.      

You are probably familiar with the story of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur.  They were bicycle builders from Dayton Ohio who tinkered with various projects and ideas.  They were working on a flying machine.  They had gone to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, an ideal place to test out their flyer because of regular breezes and a soft landing surface on the beach.

In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright brothers were successful in getting their “flying machine” off the ground.  Thrilled, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine, back in Dayton: “We have actually flown 120 feet.  Will be home for Christmas.”  Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message.  He glanced at it and said, “How nice.  The boys will be home for Christmas.” He totally missed the point.  He completely missed the real news.

We can miss the real news about Christmas.  In Christmas we celebrate the unbelievable love, the fantastic generosity of God.  That is the point.  That is the real news.  Christmas is about the marvel and mystery of God loving us so much that God chose to take on human flesh, to become one of us in order to show us the way.

Many of you know Mindy’s mother, Sally Radke, I don’t know if Sally is here this morning; she sometimes is.  In the last year Sally has taken up painting and making cards with inspirational messages and she posts many of these on Facebook.  Wonderful art.  The last one she posted included a quote, “Each of us is an innkeeper who decides if there is room for Jesus.”  And she added the caption, “Be an Innkeeper.”

I love that card.  It’s saying that Christmas is an invitation that calls for our response.  Be an innkeeper.  There is a big difference between remembering a beautiful story and allowing God’s love that came to us in a baby to change our lives.  Like Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper and the shepherds, we have a choice of how we will respond.

Jesus brings us hope and peace and joy and love, and this wonderful gift calls for our response.

We can hold hope, even when times are dark.

We can bring peace, working for justice and for goodwill among all people.

We can practice joy.  We can look for what is good and right and beautiful and regularly express praise.

And we can choose love, sharing God’s love that has come to us in Christ.  Amen.  


"Do Not Be Afraid: Practice Joy" - December 13, 2020

Text: Luke 2:1-14


Did you know that Christmas is 12 days away?  It doesn’t seem possible, does it?  Part of the reason is that we have been missing so many of the usual markers of the season.  As far as our church goes, we didn’t have a Christmas Dinner.  We haven’t gone caroling.  We aren’t getting ready for the Vespers service at Northcrest.  We have missed out on so many seasonal get-togethers, and most of us will not be gathering with families or groups of friends as we usually do this year.  That was also true of Thanksgiving, so maybe we weren’t primed as we usually are to enter into this season.

The theme for this third Sunday of Advent is joy.  I don’t know about you, but this does not feel like an especially joyful time.  Rather than joyful, in many ways we are living through a miserable season.  A season of feeling disconnected, a season of loss, a season of anxiety.  But the thing is, God tends to come to us and surprise us in such times.

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of God coming to redeem Israel in the midst of such a time, and the poetry of his vision is just soaring.  This is from Isaiah 35:

The wilderness and dry land shall be glad,
The desert shall rejoice and blossom,
Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
And rejoice with joy and singing…
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert.
I have lived pretty much my whole life in the Midwest, and to be honest I am not all that familiar with deserts.  Most of you probably are not, either.  But there are those desert places where everything is dry and dead and bleak and barren, but every once in a while there will be torrential rain, and then almost overnight the desert is in bloom.  There is color and life and newness. There is a transformation.

Isaiah said that when the Messiah comes, the desert will bloom with joy.  The coming of Christ would turn a bleak landscape into one of joy and gladness.

Isaiah, of course, was not talking about plant life; he was talking about the life of the nation.  And while we Midwesterners may be unfamiliar with desert conditions, the fact is that there are those times, maybe times like right now, when we are actually living in a desert.  Because life can be a desert – dry, burned up, burned out, lifeless.

Grief can be a desert, and the holidays can heighten the sense of loss.

Illness can be a desert.  Struggling with pain, struggling with not knowing what is coming next, struggling with the whole medical system – it can feel like a desert.
Or, losing a job and losing income and not knowing where to turn because there seems to be nowhere to turn and all of the anxiety that goes with it – it’s a desert.

Facing times of loneliness, or battling depression, or watching someone you love make destructive choices -  they can all be deserts.  Living in a pandemic – definitely a desert.

But the prophet said that the desert shall rejoice and blossom.  A word of hope.  A word of anticipation.

An angel appeared to shepherds out in their fields.  What does the angel say?  You should know this because we keep hearing it, over and over: “Do not be afraid.”  Well, they were living in the desert.  They were shepherds.  They were on the low rung of the social ladder.  Heavenly messengers did not speak to people like them.  But an angel appears and the glory of God shone all around them.  Of course they were afraid.  They were terrified.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good tidings of great joy.”

A young boy was given an important part in the church Christmas play.  He was the angel who announces the birth of Jesus.  For weeks he had been rehearsing his line: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”

The whole family got in on it.  His older siblings would walk in the room and say, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  His grandparents came to visit and he dressed up in his costume and rehearsed his part for them.  “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!”  His grandparents were very impressed by his dramatic ability and told him he could have a future in theater, or maybe as a movie star.

The night came for the great Christmas pageant.  Church members and friends and extended family were there.  The children were all in costumes.  The three kings had their crowns and the angels had halos and wings.  Everybody was excited and pumped up.  There was electricity in the air.
The program began.  The dramatic event in the first part of the play was the announcement of the angel, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”  The spotlight hit this young boy, and as he stood center stage in the middle of all this excitement, his brain froze.  He just froze.  We’ve all been there.  He just could not remember his part.  His family in the audience was all mouthing the words for him.  But it didn’t help.

You could see him trying to come up with the line – you could almost see the gears turning in his brain, but it just wouldn’t come.  And then finally, in a heroic moment, he filled his lungs with breath and blurted out the words; “Have I got news for you!”

Have I got news for you!  That was the angel’s message.  That is the message of Christmas that we need to hear, that our world needs to hear.  In the midst of the sorrow and disappointment and loss and chaos of life that we all experience, maybe this year more than most, the angel says to us: “Have I got news for you!”

Good tidings of great joy.  

Now the shepherds had been understandably afraid.  And the angel’s announcement that a savior had been born – one that would bring life and joy to the nation – perhaps did not seem to make that much of an impact at first.  It is hard to go from terror to joy in a matter of seconds.  But suddenly the angel was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host – a choir from heaven praising God – almost as though they were showing the shepherds how it was done, reminding them of what it was to give praise and be joyful.

“Fear not,” the angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  If the angels announced this to shepherds, then it surely was for all people.  It is good news of great joy for us.  Suddenly, the desert was blooming.

Rather than being afraid, we would do well to practice joy.  Now that may sound a little odd because so often, joy just happens.  It kind of kind of sneaks up on us.  An angel appears saying: ”Have I got news for you!” and we experience joy.  But joy is also something we can cultivate.      

There was a young woman named Sarah Beth Thursby who was listed in an obituary a few years ago.  Her life was an example of practicing joy.

"On August 4, Sarah Beth Thursby, our precious gift from God, lost her battle with a rare aggressive cancer.  Sarah was serene to the end, blessed with an inner peace that she shared with all who knew her, comforting others even as they were grieving her passing.  Her body dying, Sarah’s spirit was strong and vibrant and full of joy.  She laughed and sang and danced as best she could up until the end. . .”.

“Sarah touched every life she met.  She was that rare individual who retained her child-like appreciation of the world without cynicism or deceit, while displaying a wisdom and maturity that few attain in a lifetime.”

The name of her religious congregation and the fact that she taught a class there was mentioned.  Her family and close friends who survived her were named, and three grandparents who would be “greeting her in heaven.”  Then it listed where to send memorials.  But instead of ending there, it went on to say, “Here are some things we learned from Sarah.”

  • Accept life as it happens.  It is what it is.  Banging one’s head against a wall gives you a headache.
  • Chill.  Useless energy is best spent petting a dog.
  • Accept yourself as you are.  Even bald and yellow.
  • Laugh out loud whenever possible.
  • Always have a positive outlook.  Negative people are energy suckers.
  • Enjoy life.  Dance if you can.  At the very least, move your shoulders.
  • Have no enemies.  Be good to your friends.
  • Be patient.  It is what it is and it takes the time that it does.  You’ll get where you’re going anyway.
  • Trust that most people are acting with good intentions.
  • Be calm in a storm.  There’s plenty of time to flip out later.

Here was a woman who had found joy – not a temporary happiness that depended on the circumstances, but a deep inner joy that is a gift of God.  Here was somebody who found life and a profusion of blooms even in the desert.  This young woman practiced joy.

I have noticed on social media as somebody I know shares a reason for joy every day.  Even when things are not going so well, they share a joy.  This is not a way of denying the difficulty of life, it is a way of celebrating God’s presence with us – a way of practicing joy.

The birth of Christ brought joy.  Jesus is Emmanuel, God With Us, and Christ, who is with us each day, continues to bring us joy.  Joy enough to bring life in the desert.  Amen.

“Do Not Be Afraid: Bring Peace” - December 6, 2021

Text: Luke 1:46-55


One of the ways that this year has affected us has to do with music.  Attending concerts and public performances and maybe especially, singing with other people is one of the big losses we have faced.  

Mindy and Emma and all those who have provided music for our services have been just wonderful.  That music has been a kind of lifeline, but still, if you are like me, you miss singing with other people.  We have had a couple of virtual choir videos, which has been fun, and if you can make it through the sermon this morning, we will have a virtual Yuletide Orchestra video.  I dusted off my saxophone and made a couple of recordings and emailed them to Mindy and Emma, but I haven’t seen the video yet.  It will be as much a surprise to me as it will be to you.

Usually, about this time of year our choir is in high gear.  We would be learning a cantata, thinking that there is no way we are going to learn this in time, no way we are going to pull it off.  But somehow, we do.  I miss that.

The thing is, music sticks with you.  Sometimes you can’t get a tune out of your head even if you wanted to.  You may hear a song from years ago, a song you haven’t heard in a long time – for me, it’s most likely song from the 70’s or 80’s – and though it has been years, you still know most of the words.

Music is powerful.  But we have not been able to sing together or play together because of the risk involved.  One of the riskiest behaviors in the midst of this pandemic would be to sing together.  Much more so than simply talking, singing propels respiratory droplets into the air, in some cases nearly on a par with coughing and sneezing.  Six feet of distance doesn’t cut it.  Singing can actually be dangerous.

But we have always known that, haven’t we?  Singing always has the potential to be dangerous.  Singing can inspire and uplift and lead people to rise up and to work for change – which can be threatening, and make it dangerous.  A song can serve as an anthem for a movement.  From black spirituals that spoke of freedom to We Shall Overcome, from Blowin’ in the Wind to What’s Going On to Fight the Power, music can be dangerous.  

One song in scripture, above all others, has been viewed as a dangerous song.  It is Mary’s Song.  It’s known as the Magnificat – It begins with “My soul magnifies the Lord” – Magnificat in Latin.   

We like to romanticize Jesus‘ birth and make it a sweet story of a young mother and her child, but that is not exactly the way we read about it in the Bible.  There is a definite edge to it.

Mary is engaged but not yet married when she has this very strange encounter that we looked at last Sunday.  A messenger from God – an angel – tells her that she has found favor with God.  She will bear a child, who will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Mary believes, and she says Yes to God.  And right away, it causes her trouble.  She is pregnant and not yet married, and that is a bad combination, especially in that culture.  She is worried, frightened, and no doubt overwhelmed.  The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home, leaves town, to go see and stay with this older and wiser relative, Elizabeth.  She finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age.  Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary.  Elizabeth’s words to her are pure grace.  “Blessed are you among women,” she says.  

It is while with Elizabeth that Mary sings her song.  I wonder if the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth in singing.  Mary’s song is filled with gratitude and great hope.  And Mary is is prophetic.  She speaks boldly as to how things are and how things should be in God’s world.  She speaks both of what God has done for her, and what God is doing in the world.  

The word that comes to mind when reading the Magnificat is revolution.  God means to turn this world upside down.  And it all begins with Mary.  To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country.  From the very start, God is turning things upside down, doing the unexpected.

Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child.  “The proud will be scattered.  The powerful will be pulled from their thrones.  The weak and poor will be lifted up.  The hungry will be filled.  The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.”  We tend to overlook this side of Mary.

There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor.  It was considered dangerous.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin.  The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of the Magnificat, with its reversal of social structures.  Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to leave the Magnificat in Latin.

We are not kings or rulers, but if we are honest, these words make us a bit uncomfortable too.  On a global scale, in the big picture, we are all wealthy.  We read Mary’s words, about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought low, and we have to ask -- how exactly is this Good News for us?

Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news.  What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption.  We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God.

The Bible does not glamorize poverty, and Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do.  But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.

Maybe what this is about is that those living in poverty know their need while those who are wealthy may not.  The wealthy can feel like they’ve got it all together, that they have everything they need or they can easily get it.  Those in poverty know better.

Now, this may seem like an odd scripture for this Second Sunday of Advent, a day that we traditionally think about peace.  Mary is bold, she is courageous, she is joyful.  She is a prophet – saying that through her child God means to turn the world upside down.  Which is all nice, but does that really sound like peace?

Well, here’s the thing: peace is a lot more than just the absence of fighting.  It is the presence of good will.  Mary’s people—the Jewish people—lived under Roman occupation, and Roman soldiers “kept the peace” by keeping the population under the constant threat of violence.   The Pax Romana wasn’t really peace at all.  And it was an arrangement that harmed all who lived under it.  The injustice in Mary’s community meant that a deep peace wasn’t possible - for any of them.
Injustice affects everyone.  Mary’s song, with its soaring gratitude to God and recognition of God’s grace and favor, speaks of God’s work in turning the world upside down.  And what we need to understand is that in the end, everyone benefits from this – the proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads, the hungry who will be filled with good things, and the rich who will be sent away empty – so that they will have room in their hearts for those things that money cannot buy.  

Because her song is dangerous, we may not think of it in terms of peace.  But this is exactly what Mary is singing about.  Peace does not mean being quiet in the face of oppression or accepting things as they are.  Peace is not ignoring the world around you while you live blissfully in a bubble.  Peace comes in the midst of the storms of life.  We can know peace in times of trouble as a gift from God, a confidence in God’s care and provision despite the circumstances we face.  Even amidst strife and uncertainty – even in a pandemic – we can know God’s peace.  And God’s peace is something we join with God in working toward.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.  He is not the Prince of Passivity.  He offers the peace of God, and this means justice and equity and welcome and goodness and grace for everyone.  It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from one another.  It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from God.  We are called to have a part in bringing God’s peace to others.

You might think of peace as contentment.  Maybe sitting in your favorite chair in front of a warm fire while the snow falls gently to the ground in a winter wonderland.  God may bless us with that kind of contentment.  But if your neighbor can’t pay the gas bill and is shivering and struggling to get by, it is hard to feel quite so content.  And so part of our calling is to bring God’s peace to others – which, as Mary tells us, comes about in tangible ways.  Our efforts in this season to reach out and care for others in need and to work to make our community a more just place for everyone are ways that we bring God’s peace.

Mary does not have a sonogram.  She does not have a husband.  She does not have wealth or power or privilege.  All she has, really, is the belief that the God who chose her will be a part of whatever comes next.  And that, apparently, is enough.  Knowing that gives her peace.  Peace enough to sing.  May we join the song.  Amen.