God’s Dream is WITH us

SERMON Advent 4A Matthew 1 18 25

Phew….. It was only a dream….

So often today, we are quick to dismiss dreams as meaningless nonsense… the result of too much late night eating or late night TV seeping into our subconscious. But throughout the Bible, God uses dreams as one of many ways in which God communicates important messages to God’s people. Perhaps in dreams, we humans are more receptive to messages we may not want to hear, or for messages which are too amazing for us to fully understand while in our rational, fully awake mind?

Take Joseph, for instance: he was a humble carpenter from small town Nazareth. He was simple man, with hopes for a simple, uncomplicated life. His dream in life was the dream of every faithful, first century Jew: to get married, have kids, to raise them in the faith, to work with his hands and to provide service to his family and community.

He was a humble carpenter in 1st century Galilee. But, twenty-eight generations prior to Joseph, his family was royalty –the house of King David in Jerusalem! God made an everlasting covenant with his servant, David, saying “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” A Davidic king ruled in Israel for 14 generations, but after the people were sent away in exile to Babylon, a descendant of David never again sat on the throne in Judea.

The prophets kept God’s dream alive by reminding the people of God’s everlasting covenant with David. They taught that the Messiah would come –the descendant of David who would rule not just for a few years, but forever and ever! The Messiah, God’s anointed one, would come and save God’s people from their enemies and would usher in a kingdom of peace and justice.

Now Joseph, as a faithful Jew, was waiting for Messiah to come, but never in a million years would he have imagined that the Messiah would be raised in his house! Joseph seemingly had nothing in common with his royal ancestors besides the love of God.

Kind David was favored by God, but deeply flawed. He was notorious for having stolen Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah, and then sending her husband off to battle to die to cover up his adultery. Joseph, on the contrary, was so righteous that when he learned that his fiancé, Mary, was pregnant before they had lived together, he made up his mind to divorce her, for divorce seemed to be the only faithful way forward in this very painful scenario. He could not possibly marry a woman who had been unfaithful to him before they lived together! He was a righteous man! He lived according to the law! That being said, he was a kind man and did not wish physical harm to come to her, and he did not wish to shame her any more than she had already been shamed by what he assumed were her own actions, so he decided to divorce her quietly. It was the only possible way to obey God’s law and to hopefully someday achieve his dream of a quiet, uncomplicated, holy life. There were no great options in this situation, but Joseph made up his mind to do what he felt was right for everyone involved.

He had it all figured out when he went to sleep, but then a dream came to him while he slept. This dream revealed a way forward that was nothing like what he had planned for his life –this was nothing like what he thought God would have wanted for him. Instead of maintaining his righteousness, his purity, God wanted him to dive right into this holy mess and embrace the scandal of raising a child not his own. Joseph was not a passive bystander in this dream, he played an important role. He was charged with the responsibility of naming the child in Mary’s womb, thus taking on the vocation to be his father.  The scripture says, “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”’
which means, “God is with us.”2

God’s dream for our world is Emmanuel. God’s dream is to be “with us” and to “save us.” God’s dream is to be “with us” in the peak moments of life –like the birth of a child, or achievement of one’s academic or career goals. But God’s dream is also to be “with us” in those moments when we’re not sure how to go on…. When we’re not sure what to do…. When we have no good options. God is with us when we feel betrayed, with us when we feel ashamed, with us when we’re angry, with us when we’re depressed or despairing. God is with us in those moments like Joseph himself experienced –when we’ve found out that our fiancé is pregnant and we know we couldn’t be the father. God is with us when we feel like Joseph –when our dreams for a normal, simple life come crashing down, and we have to adjust ourselves to “plan B.” God is with us. And God makes holy the road ahead of us, which we would not have chosen for ourselves.

Joseph’s obedience to God’s will –to be the father of the Messiah, t0 name him and claim him as his own heir- Joseph’s obedience to God’s will makes God’s dream a reality. Because of Joseph’s great love of God, of Mary, and eventually of Jesus, Joseph sacrificed his dream of a normal, simple life, and Emmanuel survived to be born into our world through Joseph’s wife. Emmanuel was protected and instructed in the faith by this faithful earthly father. Emmanuel survived and grew strong and fulfilled the mission of the name Joseph gave him –Jesus saves us all. Because Joseph gave up his dream in favor of fulfilling God’s dream, God IS with all of us forevermore. Amen.

Are YOU the One?

SERMON Advent 3A Matthew 11 and Isaiah 35

Not everyone appreciated being called “a brood of vipers.” Not everyone appreciated John’s call to repent from sin and return to God.

And so, John the Baptist, whom Jesus calls “the greatest man ever born of woman,” and “the most important prophet who is even more than a prophet,” now finds himself in prison.

Imprisonment in the ancient world was not the organized, regimented punitive system that we know of today. You weren’t necessarily sentenced for a specific length of time as a punishment for some crime committed, rather you could –like both John the Baptist and the apostle Paul- be locked up at the whim of the local ruler who had every right to imprison you if they felt you were a threat to the status quo or if they generally found you to be a nuisance. While in prison, you could be forgotten about, left to languish for years and years with no end to your imprisonment in sight, or you could be released if your imprisonment no longer served the needs of the ruler, or the jailor could come in one day and announce the order for your execution. Imprisonment in the ancient world was an experience of uncertainty, and an unpleasant exercise in patience.

John the Baptist knew how to handle the desert’s wilderness. He was, infact, quite content there with his locusts and wild honey. All he ever needed, God’s hand had provided. But this jail cell was a TRUE wilderness experience for John. He didn’t know what to expect –when or even IF he’d be set free. He had a lot of time to sit and think and wonder about his own significance. Had he done what God had called him to do before he’d been arrested? Had his life, his ministry, truly made a difference? He wondered about the Messiah–he longed for him to come with vengeance on the enemies of God’s people. He longed for him to clear the threshing floor, to throw Herod and his whole rotten family into that unquenchable fire as the Messiah would be at last God’s Justice embodied in the world.

John wondered about Jesus.

When he had baptized him, John felt sure that he was standing in the presence of the one for whom he’d prepared the people. John felt certain that he was the Lord, the Messiah…. But since John had been thrown in prison, he just wasn’t sure what he believed. Jesus’ teaching was compelling,  he spoke with authority, but John hadn’t heard much news of judgment and winnowing forks lately.

Was Jesus really the one who would come to judge the living and the dead? Was he really the Messiah for whom John and all of Israel had waited for so long?

Tortured by these questions and uncertainties, by the endless waiting in the wilderness landscape of a jail cell, John sent a message to ask these questions of Jesus himself.

Are you the One?

Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

John was waiting for the King, the Judge, the Son of Man descending from the clouds with fierce glory, John was waiting for the Messiah straight out of the book of Daniel. But Jesus’ response made clear to John that he WAS the Messiah, but the one who embodied the prophet Isaiah’s words at this point in his ministry. John and everyone else thought the Messiah was only coming once, and that he had to be all things and fulfill all scriptures in the days he had on earth. But God’s plan of salvation, God’s plan for the return home of the people, back to God’s own heart, was a multi-step process. The Messiah would first come and lay the foundation of his kingdom of grace and love, before finally –one day- coming again in glory and might to judge the living and the dead!

Jesus said, “Go tell John everything that you’ve heard about me, and everything that you’ve seen with your own eyes: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

John had been waiting for the Messiah to come with his mighty winnowing fork and to burn up all that didn’t fall in line with God’s way. But, Jesus revealed to John that he is not that kind of Messiah –not yet anyway. He fulfills the prophets hopes and dreams for salvation. He is the one enacting God’s healing through his kingdom’s work today, but he is also the one who leads the people home to God. Jesus completes John’s good and faithful ministry. Jesus IS the WAY  -the holy highway spoken of in Isaiah. Jesus is the road carved through the wilderness, creating hope of new life and a future and the joy of homecoming for God’s people. No one is excluded from this future with God, everyone –particularly those who were previously left out –the lame, the blind, the poor, the lepers- frolic home along with the rest of society. God loves the people so deeply, God comes to them and leads them home. The Way is foolproof, no matter how dark the night or how foggy the day, it’s impossible to get truly lost on the road that leads to God.

We’re not told how John responds to Jesus’ return of his message. But Jesus told John’s disciples not just to read the quote from Isaiah that he shared with them, but indeed to tell John everything that they themselves heard about Jesus and saw him do. He tells them to share with John their stories of Jesus at work in the world. And one thing I do know, is that for those in the most desperate longing, these stories of Jesus’ love at work in our world are like the springs of water bubbling up from the burning sand. The stories of Jesus –the good news of God’s love for us even still today- these are those stories which make the desert burst into bloom and the wilderness into singing. And so, I believe that when John heard the testimony of his disciples –all the stories of what they’d seen and heard from Jesus- that John’s heart was not only comforted, but filled with joy to the very end. Prison was no longer John’s wilderness, but a place of color and song. For he at last understood, his life’s work made sense, and he found hope, peace, and joy in God’s embrace in his prison cell. Amen.

Pointing to the Prince of Peace

SERMON Advent 2A Isaiah 11: 1-10 & Matthew 3: 1-12

“Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!…. You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

While he may not be the warmest and cuddliest of Advent characters, we and our world NEED the prophetic witness of  John the Baptist.

For the  Kingdom of Heaven has come near in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it will not come with completion until Christ comes again. The kingdom of heaven is both now, and not yet. We live it as best we can, we work for its manifestation in our world, and we await the day when we will see in our own world what was written by the prophet Isaiah long ago: A world where natural predators and prey will feast on the good provision of God together –all the lions and bears are suddenly vegan and sup next to the animals which were once their supper. And the venomous snakes no longer need to use their venom because humans are now their friends, and children can frolic and play around the adder’s den without fear of harm. Most importantly, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Violence and fear become distant memories of the past, and the world –full of the knowledge of the Lord- is a world full of peace.

For Christians, our faith is a worldview and behavior which reflect this kingdom. And the first step into this kingdom of heaven –this now and not yet world of peace- is the repentance which John the Baptist calls all people to pursue. Repentance means turning away from sin and turning toward God. And bearing fruit worthy of repentance means acting in ways that reflect your change of heart. Theologian Debbie Thomas defines the sin we’re to turn from like this, “Sin is, at its heart, a refusal to become fully human. It’s anything that interferes with the opening up of our whole hearts to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves.” We often think of sin as simply immoral or selfish behavior. But sin is also that which isolates and closes us off from the world around us and from the people whom we’re called to share God’s love with.

With as scary a world as it can be today, this call for repentance is ever more important, and ever more challenging. We know that our world today is not yet as it should be. We know that our world today is not yet full of the knowledge and peace of the Lord. It’s a scary, dog eat dog kind of world out there! It’s still a violent place, a place where we not only live under the threat of natural predators like bears and snakes, but where we especially live under the threat of the violent behavior of our fellow human beings.

Just here in York earlier this week, on Monday night there was a shooting in the West Manchester movie theater around 10pm- the same theater where Eric and I took in a late night movie just a few days prior because the earlier showing was sold out.

Events like this fill us with “what if?”s. What if we’d been in the theater when shots were fired? Is taking in a movie worth losing my life over?  Events like this –especially ones that happen in our own home town- can lead us into isolation and self-preservation mode.

But we can’t embody the kingdom of heaven for others if we stay isolated in our own bubbles of safety all the time.

A few weeks ago I had a really scary experience with my kids at Springettsbury playground. I was sitting at the pavilion within eyesight of my kids, while they played on the equipment. A few minutes passed and a dad came up to me and said that Rhys had been stepping on kids’ fingers while trying to get down the ladder. It turned out that Rhys didn’t realize other kids were trying to get up, while he was trying to climb down. He doesn’t always look where he’s going. Nonetheless, immediately, I went over to the equipment to figure out what was going on and remove him, if necessary. As I got to the climbing equipment, a grandfather came up to me and asked me if Rhys was my son, and when I said yes, he immediately got up in my space and began screaming in my face. He accused me of sitting in my car smoking dope instead of watching my kids. He asked me if I taught my son to step on other kid’s fingers, and then he said, “If he had stepped on my grandson’s fingers, I would have climbed up there myself and killed your kid!”

Of course I was horrified by this man’s words and his tone which made me take his threat seriously, and even more so by his posture which made me fear that he was about to punch me in the face in front of my children. When he stopped screaming at me, I called my children down from the equipment and we fled the playground. I was terrified by this encounter, and though there were other adults close by, no one intervened on my behalf or checked on me after the fact. I felt totally alone. But, while I waited for Rhys and Eva to climb down from the equipment so that we could leave, a 10 year old girl came up to me concerned and asked me how she could help.

I think this may be what Isaiah was speaking of when he wrote, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.”

Though I still sobbed for the better part of an hour after this experience, because of that 1 caring child, I truly felt God’s presence with me. I knew that God’s voice was with me, even in the wilderness of violent threats and vitriol, because of the voice of that 1 brave, compassionate child. I knew that I was not alone, indeed, that we are never alone.

Though it is a scary, violent world, as followers of Jesus we can embody the kingdom of heaven in powerful ways through the simplest caring words and actions today. And in so doing, we –like John the Baptist before us- point our neighbors to the true hope our world waits for –Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Our Prince of Peace will come again and replace the violence of this world with his own eternal peace, which surpasses our human understanding. Amen.

 

Faith to Endure This World As It Is

SERMON Pentecost 23C Luke 21: 5-19

Kanye West recently hosted his pseudo-religious “Sunday Service” concert for free in Louisiana, while controversially charging guests $55/plate to participate in “Brunchella” –for $55 guests received 2 pancakes, 2 pieces of bacon, and a sausage patty on a Styrofoam plate while enjoying Kanye’s pop-Christian churchertainment. That same Kanye is now bringing his “Sunday Service” concert to Joel Osteen’s Lakeview Church. Yes, that Joel Osteen, who with zero theological training preaches positivity and self-help under the thin veneer of faith, famously wrote the following: “If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from you” and “God wants to increase you financially, by giving you promotions, fresh ideas and creativity” and “You will often receive preferential treatment simply because your Father is the King of kings, and His glory and honor spill over onto you.”

Joel Osteen, Kanye West, and many other prosperity preachers tell people what they want to hear, that’s why his church is bursting at the seams with an average Sunday attendance of 43,000. But telling people what they want to hear is not spiritually beneficial, nor is it the gospel.

Jesus, in the last week of his life, in our gospel reading from Luke this morning says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples are admiring the glitzy and awe-inspiring architecture and décor of the Temple in Jerusalem. They are oohing and ahhing over the large stones and beautiful gems and dedicated furnishings. But Jesus warns them of the truth, that all of this beauty and extravagance will be torn down. Jesus warns his followers that trouble will come, that world turning shake ups would occur. For first century Jews, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, which happened in 70 CE, was the worst possible thing that could have happened to their faith and to their city. They didn’t want to hear Jesus making such horrifying predictions! What would become of their faith, what would become of all the beautiful stones they’d been admiring?

But Jesus wasn’t out to reassure them that it would all be ok if they just believed hard enough. Jesus wasn’t out to convince them that they could turn their fortunes around through the power of positive thinking. Jesus was preparing his disciples for the difficult journey of faith that lay ahead of them. Because of his great love for them, Jesus did not tell them what they wanted to hear, but rather what they NEEDED to hear as Jesus approached the cross and as their world was about to be flipped upside down through his death and resurrection.

Jesus warns his disciples in this passage that the end of this world will come, and while no one knows the day nor the hour, and no one can predict that day nor hour, there are certain “signs of the times” that we should take note of:

Jesus says, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”

These are the signs of the times, signs of the day and the hour which we cannot possibly predict, for these signs of the times that Jesus offers us are simply signs of our restless world groaning under the weight of sin. The signs of the times that Jesus offers us, are simply a description of what happens to the world as it descends into chaos because of the greed of the powerful and the hardheartedness of humans. We’ve seen wars and insurrections and natural disasters and famines and plagues again and again and again throughout our human history. These are descriptors of the way our world is right here and now, and when this world does come to an end in the fullness of time, according to God’s heavenly time table, we have nothing to fear. For while the whole world will be turned upside down, while everything we know and hold dear will be torn down -when Christ comes again, God will create our whole world anew. When heaven and earth collide in the fullness of time, God will dwell with us here, and there will be no more war, no more violence, no more hunger, no more sickness, no more suffering.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, but rather what we NEED to hear in this passage, for until he comes again and brings heaven to earth, we will face persecution and hardship. The life of faith is not about the power of positive thinking, but rather the endurance Christ Jesus gives us to live the gospel in a world that would prefer we stay silent and complacent.  Jesus tells his disciples, “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.  You will be hated by all because of my name.” All of these trials and tribulations Jesus describes really happened to his first followers in the years following his death and resurrection. They were brought before religious and political authorities to account for their deviant religious beliefs and teachings, they were imprisoned for living in a way at odds with the culture, their own family members betrayed them and handed them over, and some were even put to death. We 21st century American Christians can scarcely relate to this level of physical persecution for our faith –though around the world there are places where Christians are still persecuted like this. But, even here telling people what they NEED to hear rather than what they WANT to hear is still liable to land one in trouble. Telling people what Jesus actually said, rather than what they assume he said can still cause friction in relationships. Living one day to the next with a heart not hardened, but wide open to everyone is counter cultural behavior. For some, our love of all people is the most offensive thing we can do. We still may be yelled at or argued with or uninvited to the family Christmas party. We may face persecutions today, simply because we are following Jesus in a faithful way.

Jesus comforts us with these promises: When persecutions come, trust that he will give you the words you need to testify or the peace you need to hold silence as wisdom dictates. Trust that the hairs on your head are numbered by God, and that God will hold you in loving care each and every day. And trust Jesus’ promise, that through a life of PRACTICING your faith you will learn how to endure this world as it is. That endurance will teach you how to keep an open heart in a hard hearted world.

Jesus promises in this passage, “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.” This has nothing to do with achieving our eternal salvation, for Jesus has already earned our salvation for us. But what Jesus is saying is that the life of faith is a marathon and not a sprint, it takes a lot of practice, forgiveness, and patient endurance to live a healthy, whole, and holy life in the face of the ugliness we may encounter. And the Holy Spirit will indeed give us all that we need to practice our faith in the way of Jesus and to endure until He comes again. Amen.

No One Will Have to do the Dishes in Heaven

SERMON Pentecost 22C Luke 20: 27-38

“Who will do our dishes in heaven?”

This is the real question the Sadducees ask of Jesus today. The Sadducees have come to try to stump Jesus and humiliate their theological opponents –the Pharisees. The Sadducees only subscribed to the first 5 books of the Torah –which they believed were all written by Moses himself. Everything that came after those first 5 books were viewed as scripture by the Pharisees, and written off by the Sadducees. The Pharisees held sacred examples such as our first reading from Job today where Job says, “I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God.”
The Pharisees drew comfort from these and other passages and they believed that there would be life after death and that the dead would see God face to face. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead because they did not believe that Moses ever wrote about such a thing. And so, they pose a ridiculous question to Jesus, with a ridiculous back story, hoping to point out the utter absurdity of a belief in life after death, saying,

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second  and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  Finally the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”

This is a roundabout way of asking, “Whose property will this woman be in heaven? Whose dinner will she cook? Whose dishes will she do? Whose bed will she share in the afterlife?”

While the Sadducees were trying to be absurd in their questioning of Jesus, to ridicule the belief in the afterlife, perhaps there were those in the crowd who really did have similar earnest questions. What WILL happen to my marriage in the afterlife? What will my responsibility be to my family after I die? Will I know my loved ones? Will we live in the same neighborhood of heaven?  As,“what happens after we die” remains a hot topic for discussion and contemplation in art, theater, and prime time television, perhaps there are some of us wondering today, “Just what WILL the ‘Good Place’ be like?”

Flipping the Sadducees’ absurd story on its head, wouldn’t it be amazing if the wife got to pick her own husband in heaven? In such a scenario, perhaps God would solve this dilemma by making St. Peter the host of a heavenly “Dating Game” called “Afterlife Husband.”

“First up is Bruce! Oh, no, Bruce – we have video footage of you chewing loudly. Husband number 1, you’re not the afterlife husband! BZZZ. Next up we have Ted. Ted had a great sense of humor, but oh no… Ted snored so loudly our bride never had a good night sleep when she had to sleep next to him. Husband number 2, you’re not the afterlife husband! BZZZZZ. Next up is Henry. Henry, our lovely contestant shared with us that you never once did the dishes in all the years of your marriage. BZZZ. Husband number 3, you’re not the afterlife husband! Next is Jacob. Now, we’re told that you were an excellent haggler in the marketplace, but that you were so cheap you never let our contestant buy anything at all for herself. BZZZZ. Husband number 4, you’re not the afterlife husband. Next up is Joseph, now Joseph was very smart, but also very lazy and used his brilliance to get out of working whenever he could. BZZZZZ. Husband number 5, you’re not the afterlife husband! We’re down to our last two contestants, whoever will she choose? Micah, you were excellent with the yard work, but not that bright. And Abe, you were a diligent worker, but had no sense of humor. Afterlife Bride, these are your last two choices, who do you choose to share your afterlife with?”

PAUSE

“What’s that now?….. Folks, this has never happened before in all the years we’ve played the Afterlife Husband Game…. Our Afterlife Bride says she just really wants a break, she doesn’t want to spend her afterlife with any of these guys, she just wants to sleep in and enjoy her time with God. There you have it folks! The Afterlife Bride will simply be an Afterlife Child of the Resurrection!”

Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ absurd scenario was that in heaven our primary identity will be defined by our relationship with God, rather than our relationships with one another. Jesus said, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.  Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.

Jesus says that we will be LIKE angels…. We will not become angels when we die, but rather, like angels the laws of human civilization and customs will no longer apply to us when we find ourselves face to face with God. The rules and practices and minutia of earthly life will no longer matter to us. The things we spend endless energy worrying about here on earth will no longer concern us in the afterlife.

Instead of categorizing ourselves and our relationships in terms of our human hierarchies, in heaven God will be the head of our heavenly household, and we will all stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, as equal brothers and sisters in Christ, as equally beloved and equally worthy children of God. We will rest and we will sing and we will worship our Lord, and while of course we will know one another and love one another deeply as fellow children of the resurrection, we will no longer be concerned with human institutions such as marriage. We will be defined not as someone’s wife or someone’s husband, we will be deemed valuable not because of whose dishes we do or whose laundry we fold, or whose house we provide for, or whose children we raise up, but we will be defined as God’s child and loved forever simply because God is love. This is very good news for individuals oppressed by our human institutions and customs. Imagine the woman in the Sadducees’ story finally, for the first time in her life, not having her worth dependent on her husband, her fertility, or her sex appeal. Imagine how freeing the good news of resurrected life would be for her, and for so many others, finally able to rest in peace in the glow of God’s truly unconditional love!

In the resurrection, none of us will belong to each other, for we will all belong equally to God and we will enjoy together the feast in God’s heavenly presence. And no one, not even the angels, will have to do the dishes. Thanks be to God! Amen.

All Saints 2019 A Saint is Not a Perfect Person

SERMON All Saints 2019 Ephesians


What comes to mind when you hear the word “saint?” Is it someone in a work of beautiful art with a shining halo? Is it someone we speak about from Biblical times? St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Mary Magdalene and the like? Is a saint for you the ones who have passed all the criteria to be named so by the Roman Catholic Church? St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and so on? Or what about people who have acted in particularly saintly ways, people who have lived exemplary lives like Oskar Schindler, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or Oscar Romero?
I think for many of us, some combination of all of these categories of saints captures what we think of when we hear the word, “saint.” But one major point leaves this definition incomplete. All of the saints I named above are dead, relegated to our sense of history. But many, many, many of the saints of God are very much alive upon this Earth. Each one of us in this room today, whether we feel like we fit the bill or not, is counted among God’s saints. Saints are the past, the present, and the future of God’s Church.
Our sainthood starts at Baptism.
A saint is very simply a Baptized child of God! A saint is any member of God’s great big, diverse family! Contrary to popular belief, a saint is not a perfect person who’s lived a perfect life. Even the most seemingly saintly among us sins on a regular basis. In our Reformation reading from Romans last week, St. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
We are saints from Baptism, and yet we are sinners our whole lives through –no matter how disciplined we become in living out our faith.
We are saints and sinners at every moment of every hour of the day, AND we are saved St. Paul writes, “by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
In the letter to the Ephesians, the author frames for the Church what it means to live as a saint today. He writes, “In Christ we have obtained an inheritance… When you heard the word of truth… and believed in him, you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.”
From the moment of Baptism, you are adopted into God’s family as God’s own beloved child! You are promised the same inheritance as Christ, God’s only begotten Son–that is, resurrection and life everlasting! And as a down payment or seal of that inheritance to come, God imbues each one of us with the Blessed Holy Spirit. We have the promise of life for tomorrow, and the heavenly empowerment for a life of faith today through the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit with us in all of life’s journeys. No matter how far we may stray from the faith, no matter how sinful we may feel, NOTHING can drive the Holy Spirit away from us. Nothing can wash away our Baptism, for nothing is more powerful than God’s promises of grace!
We are saints and sinners, all the time. And our greatest joy and greatest pain is that we do not live this life of faith in isolation, but through Baptism we are born into a great big, diverse family of God! We are part of the communion of saints, and that means that through Baptism we are knit into the community of God’s people, past, present, and future. The stories of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have come before us, become our stories. They teach us and inspire us, and mold us into the people whom God is calling us to be. Our calling today, is to live our lives in such a way that those who come after us learn from our lives of faith and find nurture and nourishment for their own spirits as they recall the ways God is at work in and among us here today.
To the Ephesian Church, the author notes with thanksgiving the faithful witness that their community of faith offers, saying, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” The Church of Ephesus seemed to embody Christ’s mission –they were known for their faith in Jesus and for their love of all the saints! Living as the community of the church is not always easy. It can be easy to love the saints who are just like you, the ones who hold all the same theological ideals, but the communion of saints is made up not just of the Lutherans –but of ALL the people of God! God calls us all into the family through Baptism –and just like earthly families are often made up of very different people with very different opinions and ideas, so too God’s family is diverse. We are called to a life of loving all people, and that means loving our brothers and sisters even when they make things awkward around the dinner table of Christ.
The author of Ephesians writes in chapter 4, “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… for each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
A saint is not a perfect person. Certainly none of the blessed dead whom we remember today in our prayers with thanksgiving were perfect people.
My Nanny held grudges for decades. She was stubborn. She could be provoking –she used to turn her country music up full blast and dance around in her living room because it brought her joy and also because it irritated her neighbors with whom she’d been feuding since before I was born. She was eccentric and that was partly what made her so much fun, and also made her difficult to get along with for some. She was not a perfect person. But, she did the best she knew how. She loved fiercely, and always wanted to bring a smile to your face. And she was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. She prided herself in living off of just 10 pound a week so that she could save up the rest of what she had to give away to others. Even in these past few years when she forgot everything else, she still tried to give away the pieces of cake off her tray or the scarf around her neck so that those caring for her would know that she cared. She never lost her generous, loving spirit.
Each and every one of us who have lost loved ones have stories like these: Stories of frustration, stories of pain, stories of joy, and stories of love.
A saint is not a perfect person, but their love points through their stories to Christ’s own love for us and for the world. Christ gives to all of the saints his own perfect grace and love, and his own inheritance of eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Reformation 2019 God Remembers Our Sin No More

SERMON Reformation 2019

I didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church, but I was searching for the Lutheran voice in Christianity for the entirety of my young life. In my earliest years I remember attending the Baptist Church –the tradition in which my mother was raised. I remember as a 5 year old how anxious I felt because I could never seem to memorize the scripture verses we were expected to memorize in Sunday school. After that, we were Presbyterian for a short time until the Presbyterian church made clear that my family was not welcome to worship there because of the special behavioral needs of my younger brother.

After that we were Methodist, and it was in the Methodist Church where I was baptized and confirmed. I received a red letter Bible as my Confirmation gift, and I remember feeling a hunger to know what was inside that Bible and why it mattered so much. I read that Bible from cover to cover. I didn’t understand all of it, but it gave me a keen sense of the overarching themes of God’s love and mercy. It revealed to me the story of God’s people messing up over and over again, and yet God stopped at nothing to save God’s people. In God’s great grace and mercy, God sent Jesus the Son to save us from ourselves. I knew from that time on that all who trust in these promises live forever with God. At 14, this was my understanding of theology, but I never heard it explained in so many words in church. In the Methodist Church, we learned all about the rules and how we had to live to be holy enough for God’s approval. When we started worshipping in the Catholic Church, I adored the liturgy, but again the overall message was what we have to do, what rituals we have to fulfill, to make ourselves worthy of God’s love for us.

I was 23 before I finally stepped foot in a Lutheran Church when Eric and I started dating. I never knew what a Lutheran was prior to that time! I had no idea what Lutherans believed. When I walked into that Lutheran Church and listened to the sermon, and sang the words of the hymns, I found at last the good news that God had written on my heart from the time I was a young girl. In the Bible I found a God of grace and ultimate love, and in the Lutheran Church I found where I belonged, as I heard the pastor preach that the cornerstone of our faith is what’s written in Paul’s letter to the Romans today, that we are saved or justified by God’s grace alone through our faith in Christ alone. God saves us and gives us life and freedom not because we know how to follow all of the rules –the Bible teaches us that we will never stop messing up the rules! But God saves us and gives us freedom and new life because we trust in the promises God has made to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A covenant is a promise. And in our reading from Jeremiah today, God makes a new kind of covenant with God’s people.  In this chapter of Jeremiah, God is consoling God’s people, Israel. The people had messed up royally, following in the same old pattern of oppressing the poor, allowing themselves to be corrupted by money and power, and worshipping the idols of their neighbors. As a result of these grievous sins, Babylon invaded and took the people away in exile. Yet, in spite of these many sins, in spite of the fact that their behavior had naturally led to their own destruction, God’s love and mercy is the one thing more pervasive than the people’s sin. In the beginning of chapter 31, God speaks gently to the people now languishing in Babylon, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built.”

God’s faithfulness to us is not dependent on our actions, it’s not even dependent on our repentance –(our ability to turn from our sin) because we’ll never truly be able to stop sinning- but God is faithful to us because God is faithful. Period. Faithfulness, grace, and steadfast love are the defining characteristics of who God is and how God relates to humanity. God loves us not just when we’re well behaved and following all the rules, but God loves us with an EVERLASTING love –in good times and in bad, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, for as long as we live on this earth and into eternity. God loves us with an EVERLASTING love. And only because of God’s love, God has made covenant after covenant with God’s people, promising life and relationship.

Some covenants have been contingent on the people’s promise to observe the law. But, at this point in the history of God’s relationship with God’s people, it’s abundantly clear that the people will never be able to hold up their end of the promise the way God holds up the heavenly promises. So, God makes with God’s people a new covenant, an unconditional promise of God’s eternal relationship with the people! God says in Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt –a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” The law- everything the people need to know about who God is and how God loves and guides them- will be written on their hearts. They will know who God is not based on how well they follow all the rules, but based on their experience of God’s grace and mercy and everlasting love. This is an all-inclusive promise- one given in equal measure from the greatest in society to the least among them. God’s promise of eternal love and relationship is now also a promise of the enduring forgiveness of sins. God’s love for us is stronger even than our human inclination to sin.

This passage from Jeremiah is of course one of the covenants God made with God’s people Israel, and endures forever as God’s promise to Israel. And in addition to this sacred promise to Israel, Christians interpret this promise of the new covenant as pointing to Jesus Christ as its embodiment. When Jesus says at the last supper, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin,” he connects the promise God made in the covenant of Jeremiah with the promise Christ makes to us through his presence with us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. As we eat this bread, and drink this cup, we receive Christ’s physical presence, and we receive the fruits of God’s everlasting love –forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation!

As Lutheran Christians, we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion every single Sunday. Communion practice was a major point of contention in the time of the Reformation. Luther urged the churches of his movement –the evangelical or “grace” churches- to receive the sacrament at a bare minimum every Sunday and every festival day, and not just to give out the bread to the laity as the Catholic Church did, but both the bread of Christ’s body and the wine of the new covenant! Receiving communion “in both kinds” taking both the bread and the wine was so important as a symbol of reform, that people would announce to the world that they had joined the Lutheran movement by getting a Lutheran priest to commune them with both bread and wine. Of course, Luther also taught that the full presence of Christ is available to us in either the bread or the wine or both, so we don’t have to worry if we have some physical ailment that prevents us from receiving one or the other elements, but the church shouldn’t be willfully withholding the wine of the new covenant from God’s people, because it is part of the birthright of the Baptized.

As Christ is the cornerstone of the Church, so Holy Communion is one of the core practices of our faith. It is one of the tangible ways in which God shares God’s grace with us. While sermons and scripture readings and hymns may speak God’s grace to our minds and may help us to understand the character of God. Baptism and Holy Communion imprint God’s grace upon our hearts. When we receive the sacrament we are renewed in the new covenant God made with us, and we are assured that whatever sin we’ve committed in the last week –no matter how grievous or how tiny- that through the sacrament of the new covenant God forgives our iniquity and does what is promised- God remembers our sin no more! Amen.

The Gospel is Alive Through the Lives of God’s People

SERMON St. Luke

We are people of the story, and we are people with a story to tell. When we look around this building, we gaze upon the history and faithful contributions of those who have come before us. There are only a few of us left here today who still remember the very beginning years of this congregation, who walked from Valley View to this newly built building in 1953 with great pomp and fanfare. It’s important to keep telling our story. This church was built because all of these neighborhoods that surround our church were being built at the time, and the synod felt this church was in an ideal location to minister to the needs of our many neighbors. We were built to be a neighborhood church. This mission was such a priority for the wider church that they appointed Pastor Stauffer, while still a seminarian, to come into this neighborhood and knock on doors and invite our neighbors to be part of the Jesus movement here on this hill. Those first members of Luther Memorial began worshipping in the Eisenhart’s backyard on Grandview Rd. The synod then sent 20 families from Christ Lutheran downtown to partner with all of the neighbors who felt called to join the mission through Pastor Stauffer’s evangelistic efforts, and after a few months we began worshipping at Valley View with 100 members. Our name was chosen and we made plans to build this church. This is a story that dear Emilie Anderson told me every single time I went to see her over the years. Every visit she would recall how Pastor Stauffer knocked on her door when they first moved to this neighborhood and invited her to join this congregation. And she then would recall the first time Rose and Bob Snider came to worship here, how they sat near them and got to chatting about how the Sniders were new to the neighborhood, but they lived in a little tucked away corner that nobody knew…. Which just so happened to be across the street from Emilie! That was a cherished God moment they experienced in this church, one of many!

These stories are important. And as more and more of our beloved brothers and sisters have joined their place among the saints in heaven this past year, it becomes ever more important to continue to share about how God used their gifts and their hearts to share God’s love and serve God’s mission during their span of life. When we look around this building, we see the boxes in the conference room full of woolen wear from Stitches of Love and we remember Betty Hoke’s ministry and how her gifts gave birth to a group that is still the most joyful, raucous group that meets here each month! We step into the parlor and we remember Teeny Campbell and the meticulous loving care she provided for our worship wears through her faithful service to the altar guild. And we see Kathy’s Well in the narthex, and we remember Kathy Sarbaugh’s passion for Social Ministry, how she inspired us and challenged us to do all we could to care for the least of these and to truly welcome all people in this community of faith. When we travel to the music room, we remember Duane’s joy and inspirational stories. And to the Sunday School room, we remember all of the ways that Ruth Winemiller loved and nurtured generation upon generation of the children of this church with the love of Jesus. And when we pass by the kitchen, we remember Ruth’s mom, Bertie Winemiller, who I’m told was the queen of that kitchen and used her gifts to nourish God’s people for many years.

These are just a few of the many, many, many stories we hold in our hearts as God’s people in this place, these are not just stories of our history, but these are gospel stories –stories of the ways in which God has used God’s people to actively share God’s love in our world today. The gospel is alive through the lives of God’s people. And it’s our sacred responsibility as Christ’s church, to preserve these and other stories, to continue passing them down to those who come after us, and to live our lives in such a way that our descendants will share stories of how our lives inspired them and helped them to know God’s love in real and tangible ways. We are people of the story, and we are people with stories to preserve and stories to tell.

And that’s what St. Luke is doing through the writing of his gospel. At the time of his writing, it’s been 50-60 years since the time of Jesus, since the founding of the Christian faith. Not unlike the place we find ourselves in today as God’s church, it’s been 70 years since our own congregation was founded. Those who were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus are becoming fewer and fewer with each passing year. Mark has already written down his short and to the point story of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection… though his resurrection narrative ends with the women running away terrified and saying nothing to anyone! That hardly captures the life changing beauty of all the amazing stories God’s people remembered about how Jesus came back to share food with them, to instruct them, and above all to give them peace! And then of course, both Luke and Matthew, who was writing for a different community around the same time, would have had copies of an unnamed compilation of the sayings of Jesus. In fact, according to Luke “many had undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that had been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…” But each of those other accounts that were circulating in the early church at that time felt like they were missing something. Luke wanted to record as complete an account as possible of the events of Jesus and what they meant so that all future generations of the church would have this most important story of all times preserved with as much accuracy and narrative beauty as was possible to produce at the time.

 

There are many theories circulating about who St. Luke was and what his role was within the early church. As he writes part of the book of Acts in the first person, it’s believed that he was at the very least a travelling companion of St. Paul. He may have been a medical doctor. And based on his language usage he was definitely an educated Greek convert to Christianity or a Jew who grew up in Greek culture. There are a lot of things we can’t say for sure about St. Luke, but one thing we do know based on his introduction, is that St. Luke was a nerd! He took great pride in his rigorous research methods. He chose every word with intention. He cross referenced his resources. He connected the story of Jesus with the greater story of God’s promised redemption of Israel through the Messiah. St. Luke cared about accuracy because he cared about the truth and its preservation.

Kim Kimmons was the first among the saints here to record an orderly account of our Luther Memorial history. He recorded the gospel stories of our first 46 years as a congregation. Then, after him, Barry Arnold and Barbara Holley sat down to add another decade to our church history. And most recently, I had the pleasure of watching Turk Pierce fill in the last 10 years or so of our history. Now as you know, Turk is meticulous. He went through our archives, he cross referenced with council minutes for each month of each year. He was passionate about recording as thorough and accurate a recording of our history as he could, and he highlighted all of the things that were truly important about our ministry at the time. How was God acting in this place among us in any given year? And that, I believe is how St. Luke the evangelist proceeded with his task of compiling what we know today as his gospel, and its sequel “the Acts of the Apostles.”

St. Luke was passionate about sharing the truth, because the truth of what happened through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ changed St. Luke’s life forever. He dedicates his gospel to Theophilus, which was a very common Greco-Roman name at that time. Theophilus could have been a Gentile convert who had been baptized and catechized but was still confused as to what it all meant. Theophilus could have been the wealthy patron who paid for Luke to travel around researching what he needed to. Theophilus could have been the leader of a large house church, the church who would be the very first to read and share the stories contained within Luke’s book. Theophilus may have been all of those things. But, Theophilus is also each and every one of us who hears these treasured words of grace and comes to know the truth. For Theophilus means “God’s beloved one.”

Today we celebrate the life and contribution of St. Luke the evangelist, which is to say “the gospel writer.” But, the gospel is so much more than what’s written down in this book… The gospel is alive through the ongoing lives of God’s people. The gospel is all of the ways in which the good news of God’s love has been and continues to be lived out among God’s faithful people. We are each living, breathing witnesses to God’s work among us today. We are each evangelists, with good news stories of our own to tell about how God has healed us and changed our lives through the love and worship we experience together as the church. And we are each Theophilus, we are each most dearly beloved by God, and we are the ones to whom God’s good news stories are sent today through the love we experience in this place. Amen.

Healing One Layer At a Time

SERMON Pentecost 18C Luke 17 11 19

What’s the worst thing about being a leper? It’s not the symptoms themselves, as leprosy in the biblical text could mean anything from eczema to psoriasis to heat rash to actual leprosy. No, the worst thing about being known as a leper is the stigma, and subsequent isolation. To be known as a leper means you cease to be who you are as a person, and are instead defined only by your disease. While most skin conditions which would have fallen under the umbrella of leprosy are not contagious at all, and even actual leprosy is not contagious by touch, to have a skin condition in biblical times would make one ritually unclean. People would be afraid of you, just the sight of you would make the rest of the community uncomfortable. If you are a leper, you are cast out of polite society, to exist at the margins with all of the other outcasts.

And this is where our story from Luke’s gospel today takes place. As Jesus prepares to enter a village, out here in “no man’s land” in the region between Galilee and Samaria, 10 lepers call to him from afar, they dare not get close to him, they dare not offend him with the sight of their rashes and sores, but they know who Jesus is and they are bold enough to beg him for healing, as they’ve heard he’s healed others. They cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

And Jesus does not reply with, “You are healed”, or “Your faith has saved you,” or anything else that he normally says to those whom he heals. He simply says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”

Whether Jesus healed them or not, the priests were the only ones who had the authority to announce that these lepers were now ritually clean, and thus allowed back into polite society. And, the lepers, they trust Jesus and obey Jesus. They all begin heading toward the priests in Jerusalem, BEFORE they actually see signs of healing in their bodies.

And the scripture says, “And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”

The nine faithful Jews continued on to Jerusalem, to the Temple, which was exactly where their faith –and where Jesus himself- told them to go. The Temple was where the faithful Jews were called to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to God. The Temple was where they would get what they needed to be reconnected with their community.

But the Temple in Jerusalem was not a place of healing for this lonely Samaritan. The Samaritan was accepted in the band of lepers while they all still had leprosy, but now that they’d all been healed of their diseases, this one man was still an outsider. Samaritans had been hated by Judeans since the 8th century BC, when the northern kingdom of Israel had been hauled away by the Assyrians, and other Mesopotamian cultures had settled in that region and brought their foreign religions and customs. The Galileans in the northernmost region eventually did convert to Judaism in the 2nd century BC, but the Samaritans -between Galilee and Jerusalem- remained religiously and culturally distinct. While both groups worshipped the God of Abraham, Samaritans believed that the true place for worship of God was at their Temple in Mt. Gerizim, rather than at the Temple in Jerusalem. There was such hostility between the two groups that Judeans destroyed the Temple at Mt. Gerizim in 128 BC. Galileans often avoided Samaria entirely, adding days onto their journeys to Jerusalem just to avoid bumping into Samaritans.

While Jesus told the 10 lepers to go and show themselves to the priests, that was not the religious custom of the Samaritan. He knew that worship and thanks to God was the appropriate response to such an incredible gift of healing, he knew he wanted to share his joy with someone else, though he no longer felt welcomed in the group of Judeans he’d been travelling with. So this Samaritan runs back to Jesus, the source of his healing, to offer his sacrifice of worship and praise. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet, that’s an act of worship and love, and he thanks him for a gift which can never be repaid.

Jesus is a little bit disgusted that only 1 out of the 10 people he healed came back to thank him, for thanksgiving is the appropriate response to receiving such a gift from God. But rather than condemning the 9, who were observing what the law required by going to the Temple, Jesus celebrates the spiritual giftedness of the Samaritan.

The 9 other lepers received physical healing, but by returning to Jesus, this Samaritan received a holistic kind of healing. Jesus finally says to him, “Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.” And that word that’s used for “well” could also mean, “your faith has made you whole,” or “your faith has saved you.” By offering thanks and praise to God, by prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet, the Samaritan was made whole in his mind, body, and spirit.

In this story –and so often in our own lives- healing happens while we’re on the move –one layer of skin at a time. The lepers in this story did not receive an instant miracle cure. In fact, I wonder when I read this just how long they’d walked before they started to notice they were in the process of healing. Did they notice it as soon as their rashes began to shrink? Did they notice when their scabs were replaced with fresh, pink skin? Did it take a guy’s finger growing back to signal that God’s grace was indeed at work within them? Occasionally we experience God’s healing as an instant miracle, but more often than not we are healed one layer at a time, sometimes so slowly it’s almost imperceivable.  Sometimes, as God heals us one layer at a time, it happens so slowly that we start to lose hope that we will ever feel whole or well again!

That’s where faith comes in. Faith is our trust that God is working healing in our lives, even when that healing seems to take FOR-E-VER! Faith is acknowledging that healing is a process, and being gentle with ourselves and others while we wait on the Lord and his agents of healing in our lives. Faith is acknowledging that God works healing in us through doctors, nurses, therapists, and pharmaceuticals. Faith is being honest with others about our struggles, so that they won’t feel so isolated and alone in their struggles. And faith is returning to the source of holistic healing –Jesus Christ- to worship him and give him thanks and praise for all that he does accomplish in and through us, one layer at a time, and to lay before his feet all of the things that we still struggle with, all of the things that make us worry and weep and cry out in frustration. Faith is laying all of that at Jesus feet and trusting in his presence and his love to accompany us through all of our ongoing struggles. That kind of faith is the faith that makes us whole, the faith that makes us well, the faith that saves us. Amen.

St. Francis

SERMON St. Francis 2019

As many of you know, I delight in my garden. I find great peace sitting on my patio and observing the nature that walks, flies, crawls, hops, or flutters through my yard. My family and I have planted our garden with great intention to provide nectar for pollinators and berries and seeds for birds. But I have noticed unsettling trends in my garden in  the last few years. There seem to be fewer and fewer bees on my lavender. And there seem to be fewer and fewer fire flies lighting up my lawn in summer. And fewer and fewer birds at my feeder, despite my best efforts to attract and provide for the wildlife around me. Now, these are simply my casual observations and concerns, but in recent years science has confirmed what I have noticed in my own small span of nature…. A recent study by Cornell University found that there are 3 BILLION fewer birds in North America today than there were in 1970. That’s 1 /3 of the total bird population in North America, gone in less than 50 years.

Similarly, the Monarch Butterfly, who migrates miraculously each year from Eastern Canada to Mexico, has declined by 80% since 1996.

Forty percent of all insect pollinators are now facing extinction. And we’re already losing 2.5% of the total mass of insects on this planet every single year. That means in just 10 years, 25 % of the total mass of insects on this planet will be gone. Now, if you dislike bugs, perhaps this may sound like good news. I know we could certainly do with fewer mosquitos around my house! But, these tiny creatures play integral roles in whole ecosystems around our world. The lowest creatures on the food chain, inevitably impact the highest creatures on the food chain. Pollinating insects, like bees and butterflies, literally provide our daily bread by making our crops reproduce and flourish.

These are dire times for this world God loves. According to a 2014 study of biodiversity, up to 1 million plant and animal species face extinction in the coming decade.

As Christians, we have a holy responsibility to care for and preserve the plants and animals and habitats of God’s world. Since the time of Adam and Eve, we humans have been called and equipped to be stewards of the earth and all of its creatures. The problems in our world are overwhelming today, but we must not lose heart, we must take up this mantle of creation care with renewed fervor and joy, following in the footsteps of St. Francis himself.

We are called to care for creation, for Creation itself sings praise to God just like we do! According to Psalm 148, “Sea monsters and all deeps, mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds…” all praise the name of the Lord whose glory is above heaven and earth. All creatures praise God through their own distinctive voices. And as we lose biodiversity on this planet, we lose voices in the chorus of creation all around us, the chorus that is intended to praise God. Creation’s song is surely less sweet today than it was 50 years ago, with 3 billion fewer birds joining in the collective melody of praise.

Our world was created as a delight, not for us as human beings, but first and foremost for God’s own enjoyment. Our natural world is a treasure, and as human beings our special vocation is to humbly and gently care for and preserve the treasure of creation as a gift we offer to God. The prophet Micah teaches us that the very greatest gift we can offer to God is “to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”

And Jesus teaches us the very same thing, urging us first and foremost to draw comfort and strength in him when we face a daunting crisis, and to live our lives in ways that reflect his life –with gentle and humble orientations toward the world.

There are many ways Christ calls us to be humble today. To live with humility means to not consider ourselves more worthy of life on earth than any of God’s other beloved creations. Humble can mean simple –to be content with what one has. Humble can mean lowly, or self-sacrificial, putting the more pressing needs of others before our own wants and desires. Ironically, the word “Humble” comes to us from the latin “humus” – which is to say, the earth or soil. Jesus calls us to be gentle and humble as we care for this world which nurtures and sustains us through God’s grace through the work of all the plants and animals which provide our nourishment.

Justice, kindness, gentleness, and humility. These are the marks of followers of Jesus, and these certainly were the virtues St. Francis embodied throughout his amazing life and ministry.

Francis died on October 4, 1226. He was born to Italian nobility in 1181 and by his teenage years was famously spoiled. He didn’t really want to work as a merchant and carry on the family business, he just wanted to wear nice clothes, eat rich foods, and party with his friends. After an indulgent youth, he went into the military and fell seriously ill, after which his demeanor changed and he began to live more simply and to search for the answer to God’s calling for his life. He made a pilgrimage to Rome and emptied out his wallet, as a sign of giving over to God his formerly extravagant life. When he returned to Assisi, his behavior became more and more extreme as he sought to give to the poor and to live as the poor. His father was enraged by his radical generosity and summoned him before the city square to strip him of his family inheritance. There, Francis famously stripped off all his clothes and gave them over to his father, saying “Up to now I have called you my father on earth; henceforth I desire to say only ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’.” Standing there, naked before the whole town without a penny to his name, Francis took a vow of poverty and began his new life, wandering the hills and valleys around Assisi creating hymns of praise to God, nursing lepers, and communing with nature. He travelled from town to town urging people to live in peace and brotherly love. Eventually, Francis gained quite a following of others who wished to leave their earthly possessions and join him in his ministry of peace and simplicity. Their joy was contagious as they wandered from place to place singing hymns and rejoicing in the simple gifts of God which no money could buy.

Francis’ message of humility was embodied in the way he related to all of God’s creatures. He taught the world about God’s brotherhood and practiced true equality, showing respect and love to every single person he met –whether they were a beggar or the Pope.

His sense of Christian kinship extended beyond humanity to Creation itself. Rather than thinking of himself as a higher being than the animals of the Earth, Francis saw himself as brother to the animals and everything that God created and declared good. He believed that God had created every creature to be family on Earth and to provide mutual care and joy to one another.

And that is our mission in this time and place, to provide care and joy to creation itself so that it can continue to praise God as God intends. We draw our comfort and our strength for this work from Christ Jesus, who says “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”

 

St. Francis believed in the impossible grace of God to accomplish incredible things in our world! He said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible!” May God accomplish impossible goals through us. Amen.