You, Child, Will Prepare the Way

SERMON Advent 2 C Luke 1: 68-79, 3: 1-6

 

Zechariah had been silent for 10 long months. At last, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to their long hoped for child. A son! Zechariah was filled with joy, but still unable to speak. Seven days and very long nights passed by, that first week that is always a bleary eyed blur, with their newborn filling their home with screams and sighs and snuggles. On the morning of the eighth day, Zechariah was still silent. The whole community gathered around them to witness the baby’s briss, the ceremony where he would receive his name and his ritual identity as a child of Israel. Since Zechariah was still silent, the religious elders decided on the family’s behalf that this long awaited boy child would be named after his father, as was the custom. But, Elizabeth knew that what was customary was not God’s will.

 

The angel told Zechariah that their baby’s name would be John, and that he would be great in the sight of the Lord, and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit (even before he was born)!

 

Elizabeth defied the elders and said, “No! He is to be called John.” But the elders didn’t listen. They motioned to Zechariah to find out what name he wanted to give him –assuming, of course, that Zechariah would take their side and give him the name that was customary.

 

On a stone tablet, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John.” And the whole community was amazed! And with that act of faithfulness to the message he received from God, Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue unbound. And the very first thing he spoke after 10 long months was the soaring psalm of praise to God, which we read responsively this morning.

 

The community was astonished! Not only had Elizabeth given birth in her old age, and traditional Zechariah named his son a totally unexpected name, but now Zechariah who had been unable to speak finally sang God’s praises after 10 long months of silence! And what amazing good news he sang!

 

Our scripture says, “Then Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

 

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our ancestor Abraham… that we might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

 

Zechariah’s soaring praise to God was first and foremost not for the birth of his long- awaited son, but rather pointed to the coming birth of the long-awaited Savior of Israel. Zechariah’s most amazing news was that the Redeemer we’ve been awaiting for thousands of years is finally on the way! Through the present reality of Mary’s pregnancy, God has already set this ball in motion. They don’t have to wait for the savior to be born to celebrate the good news of salvation! God’s people are already redeemed through the grace and love of God almighty, and through God’s faithfulness to the covenant he made with their ancestors. The first part of Zechariah’s song tells the truth that God keeps God’s ancient promises!

 

Zechariah then continued his song with a prophecy for his son, John, singing,

 

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadows of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

All who hear his song ponder, “What then will this child become?”

 

Zechariah, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, knew exactly what his child, John would become. As we see in the gospel today, John would grow up to be the prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord –the one who would be filled with the spirit of Elijah and who would call God’s people to repentance for the ways they’d fallen short of loving God, and who would mark their newly transformed life with baptism.

 

Out in the wilderness, in the midst of whatever personal darkness his listeners found themselves in, John shone the light of God’s truth and justice, just as Zechariah prophesied.

 

“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadows of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

And this call of John the Baptist to give light to those who sit in darkness, and to prepare the way of the Lord, this is truly the vocation of each and every one of us who follow Jesus today.

 

Even without the angelic miracles, even without our father’s being struck speechless, when each one of us were little, the grown ups who loved us pondered the same question that John’s neighbors pondered about him, “What then will this child become?”

 

My father always told me, “Laura, I always hoped you’d grow up to be something that made a difference, like a doctor…. As for your brothers, I just hope they stay out of prison!”

 

Each one of us have dreams and visions for the children we love. I believe that my daughter –who is passionate about justice and extremely strong willed- will be an amazing human rights attorney someday. I believe that my deep-thinking son will make an incredible scientific breakthrough in his lifetime. Each one of us have dreams and visions for the children we love, and each one of us were those children at one point or another.

 

Just as Zechariah cradled his infant son and spoke those dreams and visions aloud through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so God lovingly cradles each and every one of us and whispers those same heavenly hopes and dreams for each one of our lives. God knows our gifts and experiences that will be used to make this world a better place. God has big hopes and dreams to use each and every one of us to bear God’s light and love into the places of darkness and pain within our world. God will accomplish that in different ways for each of us. But, as Christians we share the same mission from God. We prepare the way of the Lord through our love.

 

Only love has the power to give others a glimpse of salvation.  Only love has the power to genuinely proclaim the forgiveness of sins. Only love has the power to bind up the brokenhearted. Only love has the power to set the captives free. The love of God is poured out through each one of us, and God’s love IS the dawn from on high that breaks upon us each and every day. Our sacred mission as God’s people is to prepare the way of the Lord by pointing out God’s light and love wherever we see it, and by being God’s light and love for others. In places of darkness and despair, God’s vision for us as the Church is to be the dawn who lifts up the Son for all to receive warmth and light and hope for this new day.   Amen.

What are you waiting for?!

SERMON Advent 1 C Luke 21:25-38/1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18

“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Alright, what are we waiting for?!

I asked this question of our catechetics class last month, when we were learning about the Communion of Saints.

We’d just read this text from 1 Thessalonians, and asked, “What are we waiting for? What sound are we waiting to hear?” For a moment, all students were silent.

But then, with exuberant joy, one young lady practically jumped up from her seat and shouted:

“SLEIGHBELLS!!!!!!!!!”

Yes. She said sleigh bells. If that isn’t a metaphor for this time of year, I don’t know what is. While it may only be December 2nd, the first Sunday of Advent, it seems that the whole world has been celebrating Christmas for at least the last few weeks! Everywhere you go it’s Christmas music and wrapping paper and presents and Santa, already, all the time. Everywhere you go outside of these doors, it’s evident that our whole world seems to be waiting eagerly to hear those “SLEIGHBELLS!” Everyone seems eager for Santa’s arrival.

But, as much as we may love Christmas, sleigh bells is not the sound we Christians long to hear. Sleigh bells are not what we’re waiting for.

Our scripture readings on this first Sunday of Advent can be a little scary, these are always Jesus’ most apocalyptic teachings, but these teachings about the end of the world as we know it remind us of the true meaning of Advent.

Jesus acknowledges in this 21st chapter of Luke’s gospel that our world is a messed up place, and that it’s only going to get worse. Jesus says, “nation will rise against nation, there will be great earth quakes and famines and plagues.” Jesus warns us that God’s people will be persecuted, and that families will experience discord and that we will be dragged before political leaders because we’ve been living out our Christian faith to love our neighbors.” This first Sunday of Advent, Jesus paints a sobering picture for us of what we will go through while trying to follow his teachings in the midst of this messed up world.  Jesus says that some people will faint from fear and foreboding. Some people will sink into despair. But as Christians, we do not grieve nor do we live our lives as people who have no faith. Rather, our faith compels us to live with a bold and daring hope! We know that the world as it is is not the world as it shall be! That’s what all apocalyptic scripture means. The world as it is is not the world as it shall be. These warnings are not meant to scare us, but to strengthen our faith. Jesus urges us to endure, to keep on living out our faith and trusting in God’s love and faithfulness, no matter what we may experience.

As people of faith, we know that our salvation is at hand, and not just ours, but the redemption of the whole entire world! Jesus compels us to live with hope and eager expectation of his return, saying, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near!”

Though he doesn’t fill in all of the gaps for us, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what his return –what the end of the world as we know it- will be like! Jesus tells us not to let our hearts be weighed down by the worries of these days, but instead to pray for the strength to keep the faith. He says that the whole entire world will be able to see Christ as he returns in glory. And 1Thessalonians says we’ll not only see Christ, but we’ll also hear the sound of the archangel’s call and the sound of the Lord’s victory trumpet. We’ll see Christ Jesus call our blessed dead up from their graves, and all of us together –the whole Communion of Saints- will meet Christ together in the air.

Now some traditions understand this verse to be talking about the rapture, but that’s not what this scripture means. Jesus is not beaming us all up to heaven- but rather these scriptures describe Jesus Christ bring heaven down to us here on earth! It was common in the time of Christ for servants to run out to meet their Lord halfway when they saw him returning from a long journey, this is what this passage describes. The whole communion of saints, as Christ’s beloved, running to greet their Lord and process down to earth with him. Revelation and the prophet Isaiah talk about God creating a new heaven and a new earth right here for us all to live forevermore with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Though our world has been through hell and back, our loving God promises to redeem it, heal it, and create it anew to enjoy eternity with Christ and all of us. Even our world itself will experience resurrection. This ultimate cosmic event –Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead- THIS is what we’re truly waiting for. THIS is what we long for in Advent, and always.

We are not waiting for sleigh bells or packages or Santa Claus to make all of our dreams come true on one special day. We are not even waiting just to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. We are waiting for the fulfillment of Christ’s incarnation. Yes, Christ was born, and that was important. Christ died and is risen, also essential to our faith. But, during Advent we pay special attention to the most important aspect of our faith –the hope to which we cling, the day for which we all long when Christ WILL come again, just as he promised.

So, what are we truly waiting for? I know what I’m waiting for.

I’m waiting to finally be out of debt. I’m waiting for my student loans to be paid off. I’m waiting for our world to be a kinder, more peaceful place. I’m waiting for all people to be treated equally, with love and respect. I’m waiting for an end to gun violence… I’m waiting for the day when “mass shooting” will cease to be in our collective vocabulary!  I’m waiting for the day when no one’s child will know hunger ever again. I’m waiting for the day when racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and everything else that divides one human being from another will be no more, for the day when we will all stand arm in arm and raise our heads together, as fellow human beings to look toward our world’s redemption drawing near! I’m waiting for that trumpet sound. More eagerly than for anything else in the world, I’m waiting for Jesus!

So, what are you waiting for? Amen.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary: A Legacy of Active Love

SERMON St Elizabeth of Hungary

1st John 3: 14-18, Luke 12: 32-34

St. Elizabeth’s life modeled our scripture today from 1st John, which says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Elizabeth was born a princess of Hungary in 1207. When she was 1 year old, she was betrothed to the future Landgrave of Thuringia in Germany, Ludwig IV, just a few years her senior, to solidify a political alliance between Hungary and Germany. When she was 4 years old, she was sent to the Royal Court of Thuringia in Wartburg Castle to be raised and educated alongside her future husband. She was a serious child who was deeply empathetic and deeply religious, always giving to those who had less than she. When she was 14, when Ludwig IV ascended the throne, she was married. The young couple shared a happy, loving marriage, and over the next few years they had 3 children together.

As the new Landgravine of Thuringia, Elizabeth had all of the wealth of the kingdom at her disposal, and dispose of it she did to the local poor. In 1225, while Ludwig was away, he left Elizabeth in charge of the kingdom. A severe famine struck the land and she gave away most of her own fortune and supply of grain to the poor of the area.  She even gave away state robes and ornaments from the castle to the poor. Her husband’s family criticized her for this radical act of charity, but upon Ludwig’s return he gave his approval of his wife’s outlandish generosity. She and her husband not only gave generously to the poor, but created job opportunities to lift the poor of Thuringia out of poverty.

Elizabeth founded two hospitals during this same time, one at the foot of the steep rock on which the Wartburg castle was located. Elizabeth was not just the financial patroness of these hospitals, but she herself regularly visited the hospital and tended the patients, feeding them and washing their wounds. In one famous story, she even welcomed a man with leprosy into her own home, making him comfortable in her own bed in the castle. When Ludwig came home to find a man with leprosy in their bed, he was appalled, this seemed to be a step of charity too far even for him, but when he pulled the sheet off of the suffering man he saw Jesus Christ himself lying in their bed. He realized that through Elizabeth’s radical service to the suffering, she was serving our crucified Lord.

In 1221, Franciscan brothers entered Thuringia, and Elizabeth was compelled by their preaching of simplicity and care for the poor. She placed herself under the spiritual direction of Brother Rodeger.

In 1227, when Elizabeth was just 20 years old, her husband died of the plague while travelling, just weeks before their 3rd child was born. Upon hearing this news, Elizabeth is reported to have said, “He is dead. He is dead. It is as if to me that the whole world died today.”

Following Ludwig’s death, Elizabeth officially became a Franciscan and took religious vows of obedience and celibacy under the guidance of her confessor, Conrad of Marburg. At Conrad’s insistence, Elizabeth sent away her three children to be raised by the royal court, and she left the castle. She left the royal court out of obedience to her confessor, but also out of necessity to uphold her vow of chastity. As a young widow, her family insisted that she remarry to solidify other political alliances. She refused, even threatening to cut her own nose off so that no one would find her attractive. She left the castle and used the last of her dowry money to build a small house for herself and a hospice for the sick, the aged, and the poor, and devoted the rest of her short life to their care. Elizabeth died just a few years later at the age of 24.

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us- and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

St. Elizabeth devoted her life to lifting up the poor and healing the sick. She stands as a faith hero for us all, and was a special inspiration to Martin Luther who some 300 years after her death spent a year in hiding living in her same Wartburg castle while translating the New Testament into German.

St. Elizabeth’s legacy of authentic love and care for the poor inspired Luther’s development of the Common Chest Ordinance for every community that accepted the teachings of the Reformation as a means of collectively caring for the poor because it was the right thing to do. Left on its own, the new theology of being saved by grace alone through faith alone created a problem for the poor. The Reformation introduced Germany to the freeing good news that God gives us salvation because of God’s love for us, not because of how many points we have earned through good works. Up to this point, however, those with means in the community would give to the poor generously, but only because they believed that generous giving to the poor secured their salvation. They cited scriptures such as our gospel text today, where Jesus urges his followers to store up their treasures in heaven. But, Jesus never intended for this teaching to be interpreted as the need to buy one’s way into heaven. Heaven is not something money can buy. Salvation is priceless, and as such is a free gift from God. Jesus expects us to put our whole selves and everything we have into following him, Jesus expects us to pour ourselves out for the sake of others, just like St. Elizabeth did.  But investing in God’s mission through generous giving to the poor, because it’s the right thing to do, is not the same thing as using the poor and our works of charity to make ourselves look good.

As Lutherans, our good works and acts of love are our joyful response to God’s goodness in our lives. Giving is integrally linked to our love of God and our relationship with God.

In the social welfare vacuum created by the reformation not requiring people to work their way into heaven, Luther insisted that in every town there be a Common Chest, in which those with means would contribute generously, and  from which the Church would distribute generously to those who had any need. Rather than just being the responsibility of the super wealthy, the whole community now had the responsibility and the privilege of caring for the needs of the poor and the sick.

Today, we Lutherans are still loving the world in truth and in action. Love is not just something we say, but it’s how we live out our faith in Jesus Christ. Our love is active! From the inspiring life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, to Luther’s development of the Common Chest, today Lutheran Services in America –the pan-Lutheran organization that oversees Lutheran Social Care agencies such as Spiritrust, touches the lives of 6 million people in the United States every year, that’s 1 in 50 people in the United States who are touched by this legacy of love and care for the sick and the poor every single year. And right here in York, almost every single one of our congregations is actively engaged in some kind of feeding ministry to provide for the needs of our local neighbors. Active love is always what it’s meant to be a follower of Jesus, and active love is what it looks like to be a Lutheran Christian today. Amen.

St. Martin of Tours -As You Provide for These Veterans Who are Members of My Family, You Provide for Me

SERMON St. Martin of Tours Matthew 25: 34-40

Today we commemorate St. Martin of Tours, who was buried on this day in 397. Martin Luther was named after St. Martin of Tours, for he was baptized on this day in 1483.

St. Martin was the son of a Roman Legionary. He grew up in Hungary to a pagan family, but by the age of 10 he heard the gospel and decided on his own to become a catechumen –a  person who would spend several years learning about the Christian faith before being baptized. When he was 15 years old, because his father was a soldier, St. Martin was drafted into the Roman army. He was remembered as an excellent soldier and was popular among those with whom he served.

“One winter night, when he was stationed in Amiens, France, Martin saw a poor, old beggar at the city gate, shivering in the cold with nothing but the shirt on his back. Having nothing else to give him, Martin drew his sword and cut his own cavalryman’s cloak (part of his own uniform) in two, and gave half to the man to wrap himself in. The next morning, Martin dreamed of Christ in heaven wearing his half-cloak and saying, ‘Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.’”

After this powerful spiritual experience, Martin decided to take the next step in his spiritual life and be baptized as a Christian. After his baptism, Martin felt that he could no longer kill. As he was likely a member of the Emperor’s body guard and willingness to kill was in his job description, he left the army when he was around 20 years old. Martin lived a hermit’s life, and set up a hut outside the city of Poitiers where others joined him in his mission to live out the gospel. He established the first French monastery, which became a hub of charitable and missionary work in the city. In 371, the people of Tours insisted that Martin become their next Bishop. He eventually agreed, but led a most unusual life as Bishop. Rather than enjoying all of the privileges and trappings of prestige that usually accompanied the office, Martin lived in a cave two miles from the city. His office space for the work of the diocese was a hut nearby his cave. Because of his humble lifestyle and approachable personality, Martin succeeded in spreading the gospel to the rural areas of Gaul, where many other bishops had failed. He travelled all over the region, sharing the Christian faith with the peasants and tribespeople and setting up centers of Christian life to support these new Christians in their faith formation. St. Martin is remembered as a gentle, peace-loving man who lived out his faith by living out our scripture from Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 

Today marks 100 years since the Treaty of Paris was signed, ushering in a temporary peace. It’s been 100 years since the “war to end all wars” came to an official end. The horrors of World War I killed 11 million service members, and 11 million civilians. When our ancestors signed that treaty, they really believed that our world would never see such horrors again. But sadly, the “war to end all wars” was only the beginning. Over the last 100 years our world has invented more and more horrible ways to kill one another. Millions upon millions of innocent people, beloved by God, were murdered in the Holocaust, and the world responded with another “war to end all wars.” If ever there was a justified war, it was the fight against the evil of the Holocaust. Even Dietrich Bonhoffer, an avowed Lutheran pacifist, joined the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler for the greater good of the world. Following World War II, we Christians have debated amongst ourselves the justice of every war that has emerged since. Our Christian faith teaches us not to kill and to love our enemies, and also Jesus tells us there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

We have debated about what constitutes a just war, and what our Christian participation in war should be. But, what is absolutely not up for debate is our moral obligation to care for our Veterans who have served in these numerous wars of the last century. Our Veterans have laid down their lives and their physical and mental health for the sake of our world and our society. Our Veterans have returned from these wars scarred by the horrors they witnessed, physically maimed, poisoned slowly by chemicals of war, and suffering traumatic brain injury and PTSD. Our Veterans need our support and care to address their distinctive physical and emotional needs, so that they can live their best lives once returning home. Yet, in our country today 20 Veterans a day die by suicide. Three times as many Veterans have died by suicide since returning from Vietnam as died during combat. And an estimated 40,000 Veterans are homeless on any given night in America. These are the costs of war that are spoken of far too infrequently.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus calls us as his disciples to provide loving service to all of the most vulnerable members of our society. To live out a Christian life is to care for and provide for those in the most difficult, most dangerous situations: the hungry, the homeless, the outcast, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned.  Jesus tells us that as we provide for those in our society who are experiencing the most difficult struggles, so we provide for our Lord himself. Every human, made in the image of God, is part of Christ’s family. Every person is loved by God and every person’s struggle is seen by God. Our mission as the church is to share that amazing good news with those who most need to hear it and feel it.

Too often over the last 100 years, our veterans have not been cared for in the loving way that God intends. Those who laid their lives and health down in loving service to their neighbors have returned home from war to face many of these same difficult and dangerous situations. As Christians, our responsibility is to care for our Veterans as we would provide care to Christ himself. Perhaps today Jesus might add to this list, “for I was homeless and you took me downtown to Mr. Sandy’s Veteran’s Helping Hands homeless shelter or helped me find an apartment. I was unemployed and you took a chance and hired me. I was in the hospital and you supported my family until I came home. I was hungry, and you paid for my groceries. I was in psychiatric distress and you helped me get a doctor’s appointment, you told me I could call you anytime I needed to talk, you put me in touch with the Veteran’s Suicide Helpline, you helped me check myself into the hospital. I was overwhelmed by the mountains of paperwork I had to fill out to apply for benefits, and you sat down with me and helped me fill out the forms required…. Truly, as you provided for the needs of these Veterans who are members of my family, you provided for me.”

Amen.

All Saints 2018 Jesus Makes Holy All Our Tears Until We No Longer Need Them

SERMON All Saints 2018 John 11

Growing up, I was always ashamed to cry in front of people. I feared how others might view me. I thought, “They think I’m weak, they feel sorry for me, I look ridiculous…” For years, I put my guard up and swallowed my feelings –which is not healthy. Worship was the one place where my guard came down and where I felt safe to cry. I wasn’t weeping in front of others, I was weeping with the Lord. Everyone else’s attention wasn’t on me, it was on Jesus. And we were all free to worship, weep, pray and praise God without fear. I have said for years now, “If you can’t cry in church, where can you cry?” I’ve cried more in worship over the years than anywhere else. Tears of joy, tears of sorrow, tears of thanksgiving, tears of frustration, tears of solidarity, tears from being overwhelmed by God’s majesty and goodness. I know I’m not the only one who cries in church.

Today, I am not ashamed of the tears I’ve shed. Weeping is not a sign of weakness, but rather of emotional strength. I am no longer ashamed because Jesus Christ makes holy all our tears by shedding his own for us.

In our gospel story from John’s gospel today, we see that even our Lord Jesus experienced grief when his dear friend Lazarus suddenly died. When Jesus arrived in Bethany 4 days after Lazarus had died, and when he spoke with his dear friends Mary and Martha as he accompanied them in their grief over the loss of their brother, our scripture says, “Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The Greek word for “greatly disturbed in spirit” points to a sense of raw, gut-wrenching emotion. As Jesus witnessed their weeping and their anger and their pain –as Jesus experienced all of Mary and Martha’s raw, gut-wrenching emotion at the death of their beloved brother, Jesus asked to see Lazarus’ tomb. And even though he knew all along what he was about to do, he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead- so moved was he by the grief of his friends, and by his own grief, that Jesus began to weep. Jesus wept, and in so doing, Jesus hallowed every tear that we have ever shed. Every time we’ve felt punched in the gut by grief, every time we’ve found ourselves overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, every time we’ve been numb for weeks after our loved one’s death and all of a sudden crumble on the bathroom floor. Jesus has been there, and Jesus is with us each and every time we cry, each and every time we grieve.

Jesus went with the crowd to the tomb. Martha tried to warn him that it would not be a pretty picture. Lazarus had already been dead and buried 4 days, he’d already began to decompose. The tomb reeked of death. But, Jesus would not be deterred. He told Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus prayed and let out a bellow to wake the dead, “Lazarus, Come out!” And Lazarus, who had been a corpse, a memory, but a moment ago, shuffled out of his tomb with his hands and feet still wrapped in his burial clothes. And Jesus declared, “Unbind him and let him go!”

Jesus sits with each one of us in our grief and pain, and in due time, Jesus calls us out of the tomb of mourning and into the light of hope for tomorrow. Jesus himself unbinds us and sets us free so that we can go on living. Just as a resurrected Lazarus would never be quite the same as he was before death struck him, so we are never quite the same after experiencing the death of the one we love. We are never quite the same, but in Jesus Christ, we are unbound and set free to find new life even after a lengthy stay inside the tomb.

Mourning and crying and pain are a part of what it means to be human. Indeed, mourning and crying and pain are part of life for anyone who has ever experienced the sublime gift of love. When our loved ones die, we mourn, we cry, and we hurt -even though we have hope through our Lord Jesus Christ that the dead will not stay dead. Today, on All Saints Sunday, we tend to one another in our grief, we remember those whom we have loved and lost, and we give thanks to God almighty for the hope in which we share. God is drawing us all together into God’s gracious will for our world, as described by Isaiah and Revelation.

The end of the world as we know it is the beginning of the Resurrection of the Dead. The end of the world as we know it is the end of all mourning and crying and pain for the end of the world as we know it is the end of death itself.

 

 

God alone knows what we’ve each been through, and God will gently wipe away every tear we’ve shed to make way for the endless joy of the new heaven and new earth. Our Lord Jesus makes holy all our tears until the day comes when we will no longer need them.

Until that day comes, we gather with all the saints in heaven and on earth when we share memory and love and Christ’s own presence at this feast of bread and wine. We share in Holy Communion with the whole Communion of Saints until we meet one another face to face around the feast of rich foods with marrow and well aged wines strained clear. Amen.

Luther was a Saint and a Sinner: A Reformation Response to Ongoing Anti-Semitism

SERMON Reformation 2018 John 8 31 36

Today is our Lutheran high holiday- the day we celebrate all things 16th century and German, right? Well, not exactly. A lot has happened since Martin Luther affixed his 95 grievances to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. And, the Lutheran church that evolved from all of that important history and rich theological tradition is SO much broader today than just German culture. According to the Lutheran World Federation, there are as many Lutherans today in Africa and Asia as there are in Europe. The global face of the Lutheran Church today is not so much German as it is Tanzanian or Ethiopian or Pilipino.  So why do we have this festival devoted to remembering Martin Luther and the movement that followed his critique of the Church? On Reformation Sunday we remember where we’ve been so that we can understand who we are and where God’s moving us today.

Martin Luther never set out to break the Church apart, rather his deep love for the Church drove him to attempt to fix what human sin had broken within the Church. He considered himself a faithful Catholic his whole life through. He saw first hand the injustice of selling indulgences, and the spiritual abuse perpetrated on his parishioners by the likes of John Tetzel. The Bishop of the territory was corrupt and owed stiff fines to the Vatican. And so the selling of indulgences, while casually common in many places, was  rampant in Germany. Luther saw the poor giving away all the money they had to put food on their tables in exchange for a worthless piece of paper which they were told was Grandpa’s “Get out of Purgatory Free” card.  The people –even Luther himself- understood God to be wrathful and terrifying. They were weighed down by the law which they had been taught by the Church. They lived in constant fear of God’s punishment. And the Church manipulated that fear to sure up its own wealth and power.

The ordinary Christian of the time had no choice but to believe and accept what the Church taught as doctrine, they could neither read the Bible for themselves, nor understand the words of the mass. But Luther was a professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. From 1510-1520 he lectured on the book of Psalms, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, and he became convinced through his close study of these scriptures that the Church’s teaching on several central tenants of the Christian faith were not in line with the Biblical witness. While his ire over indulgences began his dispute with the Church, his most important theological legacy lies with the doctrine of justification. He stated in no uncertain terms, that in light of the truth revealed in scripture, Christians receive the gift of salvation by God’s grace alone by faith in Jesus Christ alone. There is no cause to live in terror of God, for God loves us and wants us to give each one of us the gift of salvation. God comes to us in love through no work of our own doing. Through God’s grace, God imparts upon each believer the righteousness of Christ Jesus, so that as God looks upon us, God sees the light of Jesus, which covers our every sin. Yes, we are sinners. But there is no need to live in fear, for God makes us saints through his grace.

It’s important to know where we’ve come from so that we can understand who we are and where God’s leading us.

In our gospel passage for today, a small group of Jewish religious authorities who have actually come to believe in Jesus as a prophet, seem to have forgotten their fundamental history.

Jesus has just spent the last 7 days preaching and teaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem for the harvest festival, Sukkot, the festival of booths. Some of the religious authorities have taken great offense at what Jesus has been preaching, some are calling for his arrest, but others sit listening intently to him along with the rest of the crowd.

And Jesus says to those who are listening, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And at this statement, the authorities who had believed in him finally took offense, saying, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!”

These religious authorities think so highly of themselves that they’ve divorced themselves from a fundamental part of their history and from the essential meaning behind many of their religious observances and festivals.

“We’ve never been slaves to anyone!”

What about those 400 years in Egypt?

The festival of booths, which they had just celebrated for 7 days, commemorates the 40 years their ancestors spent living in tents while sojourning in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. What did they think they were having a camping party at the Temple? The point of the festival of Sukkot is to remember God’s providence for God’s people who were newly freed from slavery.

Jesus sets the record straight, saying not only were their ancestors slaves in Egypt, but these religious authorities –and every other human being who commits sin is enslaved to sin.

We are all sinners. That is the truth.

But…

Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free FOREVER!”

There’s no need to live in terror because of our human propensity to sin. There’s no need to sweep our flaws under the carpet, or to live in shame.

Christ Jesus, and Christ alone, sets us free from all that weighs us down! Christ Jesus sets us free from sin, covering us with his own righteousness! Christ Jesus sets us free from fear and shame, lifting us up with God’s own grace and love forever!

On Reformation day, we remember God’s providence for all of the Reformers who put their lives on the line for the sake sharing this liberating gospel far and wide. And most importantly, we acknowledge that this work of Reformation is never ending.

We need this message of God’s expansive grace and love for all people. As Lutherans in the 21st century we sometimes forget our history and our identity. And we sometimes try to set limitations around God’s grace. God’s grace is a gift for all people. And all means all.

Being saved by grace means that we own our sin, we don’t have to sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen, but we seek forgiveness and trust that God’s grace alone is what heals us. I was going to end this sermon differently, but in light of our history as Lutherans, yesterday’s anti-Semitic attack on the synagogue in Pennsylvania’s largest Jewish community in Pittsburgh demands an address. Eleven people, beloved by God, were gunned down during Shabbat worship, by a gunman who shouted out “All Jews must die!” This heinous act of hate was the work of one man, but the prejudice bred in his heart runs centuries deep.

 

As Lutherans on Reformation Day, in light of the continuing anti-Semitic violence in our society today, we need to continue to own our historical sin. We’re not going to be like the Pharisees forgetting that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. As Lutherans, we were once Anti-Semites.

While Luther wrote many wonderful, liberating works of theology, and while his actions as a reformer are to be celebrated, we need to remember today that toward the end of his life he wrote some particularly horrific anti-Semitic writings as well. These anti-Semitic writings were in line with the status quo thinking of the Church of the 16th century, but Luther’s writing them down gave these hateful positions an air of authority. These writings laid the foundation for ongoing persecution and prejudice against Jews throughout Europe and the United States, throughout the centuries since the Reformation. While the ELCA officially condemns and rejects these writings, many so-called Christians who have expressed prejudice against Jews have done so citing Luther’s writings as their license to hate.

Luther was a saint, and a sinner. We can celebrate his noble contributions, while decrying his sinful prejudice. As Lutheran Christians, we are continuously reforming so that God’s Church on Earth may come to reflect God’s gracious will. As 21st century Lutheran Christians, we mourn and confess the ways in which our historical church contributed to prejudice against the Jewish community. We wholeheartedly reject anti-Semitism and prejudice of any kind, toward any minority group. And our work of reformation today is to be on the front lines, standing up for the oppressed and the marginalized and embodying the inclusive love of God wherever we go. God loves our Jewish neighbors, and so do we.

Luther was a saint and a sinner. But, the bedrock of our faith is not Martin Luther, but Jesus Christ as revealed to us through scripture. On Reformation Sunday we remember where we’ve been so that we can understand who we are and where God’s moving us today. Where humans fall short, where human sin causes harm for many generations, Jesus Christ will never fail us. Christ and Christ’s love alone is our strength, our motivation, and our healing balm to carry on the work of Reformation in our world today.  Amen.

Sts. Nicolai, Herrmann, and Gerhardt: Let the WORD of Christ dwell in you richly as you sing to the Lord

SERMON Colossians 3 12 17

My worship professor in seminary began one of our classes by saying, “There’s a special circle of hell reserved for music teachers who tell children they can’t sing.”

By this shocking statement, my professor explained that one of the greatest sins we can commit is teaching people that they shouldn’t use the tools God gave them for worship and praise. Psalm 98 urges, “ Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” Notice it says that we should make a joyful noise unto the Lord, it doesn’t say anything at all about making a perfectly in tune melody to the Lord. We human beings were created to worship and praise our creator, along with all of the rest of creation that sings and chirps and barks and clucks and roars praises unto the Lord.

Barring rare medical conditions, almost every person CAN sing! And our scriptures say indeed that since we CAN, we should. You may not be on key, you may not like how you sound, but God loves how you sound. Your praise is music to God’s ear, and your voice is an important part of our collective worship as the Church.

Our scripture today from Colossians 3: 12-17 is one of my favorite chunks of the whole Bible. It is a blueprint for Christian living. How does God will for us to live in community as God’s children? We are to be clothed with compassion, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to bear with one another and forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Above all, we are to clothe ourselves with love –which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let Christ’s peace rule in our hearts. And we are to be thankful.

As part of this blueprint for Christian living, Paul continues with HOW exactly we’re supposed to learn how to live as God intends. He writes, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The WORD of Christ is one of the means of grace, it’s one of the ways God showers us with grace and nurtures and grows our faith. Paul says that we are to “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Christ himself is the embodied Word of God. And Christ himself comes to us and touches our hearts as we listen to the scripture readings, as we listen to the proclamation of the gospel through the sermon, AND Christ the living WORD of God comes to us as and grows our faith as we listen to and participate in singing the hymns of the Church. The hymns of the Church are not just transition music or for passive entertainment, they are a means of grace, they are one of the ways in which the Word of Christ comes to dwell in us richly.

Paul says, “with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” The music of our worship is a key form of liturgy –it’s our work as the people of God in the worship that’s happening. And our voices are an outward expression of the joy and gratitude that bubbles up from our hearts to God’s ear. Music is our joyful response to the grace of God in our lives, and in worship our individual reasons for singing join together into one collective voice of praise.

As Lutherans, good music is an important part of our theological heritage. Hymns matter, because it was through the singing of hymns that Luther originally taught the reformed faith to the vast majority of people in his pews who could not read at the time. Luther was the original contemporary Christian artist. He took bawdy bar tunes, and set those well known drinking songs to the words of scripturally sound theology. Through the Reformation –which we’ll celebrate next weekend- not only was the Bible translated into German, and the mass was celebrated in German so that people could finally understand what the priest was saying, but the hymns were now jaunty and singable (for the time) and helped the people understand and remember the Word of God and the theology of grace through which Luther and the Reformers sought to transform the Church.

Luther wrote in his preface to the Wittenberg Hymnal, “I am not of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave them and made them.”

Today, we remember the legacy of 3 artists and theologians who are commemorated together as the Fathers of Lutheran hymnody, who served the Church in the generation or two after Martin Luther.

Philipp Nicolai was first and foremost a pastor. He was ordained in 1583, during a time of ongoing Reformation turmoil as the Holy Roman Emperor was still sending Spanish troops to restore the Roman mass to Germany. Nicolai had to flee from his first post as pastor, and then served secretly as a Lutheran pastor while hiding in Cologne, holding worship in members’ homes. In 1596, when it was safe to come out from hiding, he became the pastor at Unna in Westphalia. However, between 1597-1598 the plague struck their town, killing 1500 of his parishioners in just one year’s time. In just one week in August, 170 of his parishioners died. Nicolai’s parsonage looked out onto the graveyard for the town, and he felt overwhelmed, constantly surrounded by the presence of death. To comfort his people and work through his own grief whiling clinging to his hope in Christ, he wrote a series of meditations called Mirror of Joy, and in this volume he included what became the two most famous of all Lutheran chorales “Wake, O Wake, For Night is Flying” which we sing at Advent, and “O Morningstar, How Fair and Bright” –the Epiphany hymn which we sang as our gathering hymn today.  Nicolai died in 1608 at the age of 52.

Johann Heermann nearly died in childhood, and as his parents’ only surviving child, was dedicated to serve as a minister. He became a pastor in 1611, but continued to face one physical affliction after another. One sickness rendered him unable to preach for 4 years. Not only was he poor in health, but Heermann and his ministry was caught up in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. He too had to flee his home over and over again, was nearly killed on numerous occasions, his village was plundered again and again and also suffered from the plague. This life of constant turmoil inspired him to write hymns of confident faith in Christ alone and a tender love for God. These include our two Communion hymns today, as well as the beloved Holy Week hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Heermann died in 1647 at the age of 62.

The last saint we remember today is indeed the most famous and prolific of all Lutheran hymn writers. Paul Gerhardt was ordained as a pastor in 1651, and became famous as a preacher. But he was adamantly involved in the doctrinal debates of the time with fellow Protestants, and he refused to sign a pledge stating that he would not talk about the doctrinal discussions in his preaching, so he was kicked out of his church in Berlin. He was welcomed back the next year, but refused to return. During this same time his wife and son died. Amid both his personal trials and the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War, Gerhardt penned 133 hymns of faith and confidence in God’s grace above all else. He translated dry doctrines into heart moving music, truly helping the Word of God to dwell richly in those who sing his music. Today, we will be singing Gerhard’s most famous hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” after the sermon.   Gerhardt died in 1676 at the age of 69, but like Heermann and Nicolai, he is remembered among the saints and honored every time we sing and allow God to deepen our faith in Jesus Christ through his music.

Now, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly… and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Amen.

St. Teresa of Avila, Shine with the Light of Jesus

SERMON Matthew 5 13 16 St Teresa of Avila

Of the 35 Doctors of the Church, only 4 are women. In the Catholic Church, specific saints who have made significant contributions to Christian theology through their research or writings receive the posthumous title “Doctor of the Church.”  Today, we commemorate the first woman to receive this honorific, St. Teresa of Avila, whose quest to reform the Catholic Church’s monastic system, and whose prolific writing on prayer and the spiritual life contributed greatly to our understanding of how we are called to let our light burn brightly and bring glory to God alone.

Teresa was born in 1515 to a noble family in Avila. After her mother died when she was a teenager, she was sent away to an Augustinian boarding school, where she began to sense a call to monastic ministry. She joined the Carmelite monastery against her father’s wishes and took holy orders when she was 20 years old. As a young nun, Teresa was seriously afflicted by a mystery illness that caused violent stomach cramps, vomiting, heart palpitations, and partial paralysis. Doctors today believe she may have suffered from severe anxiety and experienced panic attacks while trying and failing to achieve perfect contemplation in prayer.

She longed for a life of deep spiritual connection with God, but felt spiritually dry during the first 20 years of her service.

The convent was not what she expected, with a constant flow of wealthy visitors and politicians stopping by asking for spiritual favors. There was so much distraction, so much meaningless talk and gossip, Teresa could not focus on the life of contemplative prayer that she had devoted to God. Her prayer life felt flat, and life in the convent felt like a sham.

In 1554, Teresa began experiencing mystical visions from Christ, and had a vivid awareness of God’s presence within her. After this, she aspired to lead a perfectly spiritual life, desiring to take up the cross and follow Jesus’ own example. However, the lavish monastery was not suited to the simple life she felt called to live.

In our reading today, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but to be thrown on the sidewalk and provide good traction.”  Salt’s purpose is to enhance flavor, to make tastes shine! Jesus says if it’s not serving its true purpose to flavor food, then it’s missing the point of its existence. It has no choice but to serve the far less interesting purpose of being trampled underfoot. That may still be a practical function, but it’s not salt’s intended purpose. The same is true of us as Christ’s church. As the community of believers gathered in this place, our purpose is to share the good news of God’s love with the world. Our purpose is to feed, shelter, and nurture one another and our neighbors.  If that’s not our primary reason for being here, then our existence as the church is bland, uninteresting, unfulfilling, and unfaithful.

Teresa believed that her monastery had lost its original flavor, so she set out to reform the convent system. She faced strong opposition and a series of lawsuits from those who benefitted from and were perfectly happy with the status quo. She even came onto the radar of the Spanish Inquisition, who confiscated and banned the reading of her autobiography. But, through persistence, she successfully opened her first reformed Carmelite Monastery in Avila in 1562 with just 21 nuns committed to live according to the old ways of simplicity and discipline, and she founded 14 more reformed Carmelite monasteries before her death in 1582.  In The Way of Perfection, which she wrote as an introductory guide to prayer for the nuns of her new convent, she writes:

“Strive to walk with love and fear, and I guarantee your safety. Love will quicken your steps; fear will make you look where you are stepping so that you do not fall. If we have these two things, we will not be deceived. Those who really love God love all good, seek all good, help foster all good, and join forces with good people and help and defend them.”

And in Interior Castle, her masterwork on contemplative prayer, Teresa says that every human being is like a castle made of shining crystal. Within the castle of each person are 7 rooms, arranged as concentric circles. God dwells at the center of every person’s castle, and the light of God’s presence should fill the entire castle. But, our crystal is becomes clouded by sin. The goal of each person’s spiritual life is to journey from the outermost room in our castle to the innermost room where God dwells. Here, we achieve the union of our love and our will with the love and will of God. As we achieve this union with God through the practice of prayer, God’s love brightens us, and God’s light shines brightly from the center of our selves out into the world.

Jesus says in our gospel lesson for today, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

You are the light bulb God shines through to illuminate a darkened room. Everywhere you go, every conversation you have, in everything you do, as baptized children of God, your special vocation is to shine with the light of God’s love for the world.

As the church, we experienced this first hand yesterday as we participated in the NAMI walk and represented Luther Memorial – and most importantly, Jesus!- in fighting the stigma of mental illness. As a sponsor for the event, we set up an information table and shared stickers and candy with anyone walking by. We were the only church represented at the walk, which made me so especially glad that we were there to share God’s love and light.

Some tables had items like Tupperware or Tastefully Simple for sale, other tables shared information about mental health and addiction recovery services in York County, others about how to cope after the loss of a loved one to suicide and how to prevent suicide. And in the midst of all of that, was us. The Church. The light of Christ present and available for ALL people, in all circumstances. Our signs shared God’s unconditional love and welcome. And several people shared with us what a blessing our congregation has been to them over years as NAMI has held meetings and trainings in our building. One man said he was so delighted that we represented Jesus at the event, because he has surely experienced God’s healing through the group sessions he’s attended at Luther Memorial. He said that when his wife was diagnosed with Bipolar, he began attending the family meetings, which inspired him to attend NAMI’s free training, so now he leads those groups to help others. He said, “These groups mean so much, they give us so much strength and support. A guy in our group was away on business and came back specifically so that he could attend our monthly session. But, on his way back he got word that his daughter was in such crisis that was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient facility that same day. He came to our NAMI meeting to find the strength and the comfort he needed, to go and support his daughter in the hospital. We can’t thank you enough for being here for us. ”

You are the light of the world. You are the lamp that gives light to the whole house. And that light grows brighter and brighter as we share time with God in regular prayer. As Christians, you represent Jesus wherever you go. Let him shine through you, and let him heal the world through you. Amen.

Preaching the Gospel to All of Creation

SERMON Matthew 11 25 30 Psalm 148 St. Francis

Today we remember the life and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi, who is remembered for his humility, gentleness, and love for all Creation. 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. Instead of the luxurious garb he wore in his youth, Francis took upon himself the attire of the community’s poorest peasants: a coarse wool tunic with a rope around his waist. 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. He famously bought two lambs who were on their way to slaughter and set them free, and those lambs followed him around everywhere he went –even into worship. They were his pets for the rest of their lives. Francis was even known to stop on the side of the road and preach the gospel to the birds. Our scripture says in psalm 148, “Praise the Lord from the earth you sea monsters and all the deeps… wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds… Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.”  And Francis lived out this call for all of creation to praise the Lord and to sing the glory of God. Francis believed that all of God’s creatures had a joyful responsibility to hear the gospel, preach the gospel through their deeds, and to sing praises to God in their own way.

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. In the gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of St. Francis, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden, but rather a joyful responsibility. The image of the yoked oxen in Jesus’ time was a metaphor for a commitment to live in obedience to the law, the Torah. The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden, but is rather a way of discipleship, a lifestyle of gentleness and humility.

Creation is deeply burdened, and we humans through our arrogance, greed, and over consumption, have sinned against this beautiful world God placed within our care.

The weather becomes more extreme and unpredictable with each passing year. Our oceans are filled with miles upon miles of plastic waste, our fish and creatures which eat the fish are filling up with micro-plastics. On land, the polar bear’s natural habitat is rapidly disappearing as the sea ice melts from excessive carbon emissions. The bees which pollinate most of our food are becoming sick and dying off from common garden chemicals.

I know I feel heavily burdened when I stop to think about how damaged our world is. We humans have used and abused her by thinking of ourselves as her conqueror, rather than as her family.  To all of this, Jesus speaks words of hope and healing to us and to our world as he says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

As numerous as the problems of our planet are right now, there are also numerous bright sparks of innovation and renewal. There are many people around the world today who are on a mission to bring healing to Creation, who follow in Jesus’ footsteps of gentleness and humility to care for this world God loves:

To decrease the use of harmful garden chemicals, all across the country individuals have opened up companies allowing you to rent a herd of goats to help clear yards of brush, weeds, and poison ivy! In France and China, there are farmers who use flocks of ducks to clear weeds from their rice paddies instead of traditional herbicides. The ducks enjoy a happy, free-range life as they eat every single weed, but do not touch the rice itself!  In African, twenty countries have been working together on planting a Great Green Wall of trees 8000 km across the Southern Sahara desert since 2007. The Great Green Wall will stretch from Senegal to Djibouti, and combat desertification, drought, and food insecurity, as well as removing 250 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere. Boyan Slat, a Dutch scientist in his early 20s, started the Ocean Cleanup Project, whose technologies use the ocean’s natural current to capture plastics and to send them ashore for recycling. This will eliminate half of the 600,000 square mile Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 5 years’ time.  And in India in 2006, Dr. Vasudevan patented a new technology creating a stronger, more flexible, water repellant paving material from a mixture of molten recycled plastic and bitumen, which to date has paved over 10,000 km of roads in India! Pot holes have become a thing of the past! Imagine how much plastic would be saved from the ocean if PennDot shifted to a similar construction material!

We may not all be scientists, but each and every one of us, learning from Christ’s gentleness and humility, can make a few small changes to our lifestyle to care for this world God loves. Seeing ourselves as interconnected and in mutual relationship with all of God’s Creation is where our human transformation begins. Since God so loves and delights in our world, since God created our world to sing God’s praises and to declare God’s glory, it is our good and holy work of discipleship to care for and restore this world, to approach it with humility, and to treat it with gentleness, to see in each animal and bird and plant the sacred spark of life, which our Lord calls us to treasure and preserve.

Like St. Francis before us, we still preach the gospel to the plants, animals, waterways, and air every time we make choices that provide for their health and well-being. And, as St. Francis understood, creation preaches the gospel of God’s steadfast love right back to us, delighting and inspiring us as it reminds us of God’s own glory. Amen.

Steward Heroes: Paul and the Participatory Partnership of the Churches

Steward Hero Paul and the Church 2nd Corinthians 8

“We’re standing by for your call! Our goal this hour is $10,000, will we make it? It all comes down to you! The sooner we reach our goal, the sooner we can stop talking and turn the music back on, call now! For the love of the music, call now!….. Have someone in your life who loves coffee mugs? Call now, for a donation of $75, this fabulous WXTG coffee mug could be yours! For a gift of $150, we’ll even throw in a pound of coffee!”

I have to be honest, my greatest fear in stewardship ministry is sounding like the radio’s annual pledge drive. I can’t stand the sales pitch, even if it’s pitching something I happen to enjoy. It feels insincere.

As we all know, there are many other non-profit entities in our world, many of them quite noble, who fundraise through annual pledge drives. As Craig mentioned earlier, pledging is a vitally important tool, it helps the church leadership to plan ministry for the next year in a financially faithful way.

But, I’m not up here with a pitch. I’m not here to get you to get me to STOP talking, I’m up here to preach the gospel.  As the Church, our reason for giving is very different from any other secular non-profit in our lives.

All month long we’ve been meditating on stewardship, which is HOW we live out our discipleship of Jesus Christ. There are a lot of ways in which we Christians steward the gifts of God for the care of the world. Stewardship is not synonymous with financial giving, but how we care for and share the money God has given us is a fundamental principle of Christian discipleship.

Jesus taught about money way more often than any of the major moral issues we Christians dwell on today. Why? Because living in right relationship with God and with money is a core spiritual issue for human beings. A lot of times talking about money, especially in church, can make us feel anxious. We either feel guilty because our finances are a mess, or we feel guilty because start to get the sense that Jesus doesn’t love or is angry with those of us with wealth. Take heart. Jesus loves us all with all his heart, regardless of our financial situation. And because Jesus loves us so very much, he wants to make sure that we love God and use money, not the other way around. Money itself is never the problem, but our human devotion to it that gets us into trouble.

God uses money to accomplish amazing things in our world. God uses money to accomplish his mission. And in our reading today from 2nd Corinthians, we recall how God used money to unify the early church, bringing both Jewish and Gentile congregations together as partners in God’s mission.

Our steward hero today is St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and the congregations who partnered with him in ministry.

The earliest following of Jesus Christ was based in and around Jerusalem, and comprised entirely of Jewish Christians. This congregation was led by James, the brother of Jesus, and the likely writer of the letter of James which we’re reading in worship all this month. With time, the Holy Spirit grew the early church in amazing ways, sending the apostles out “to the ends of the earth” to share the good news, just as Jesus promised them they would go.  But, “the ends of the earth” came with a whole lot of people who were different –ethnically, culturally, linguistically, financially, and religiously.

As with any major change within the Church, it took the congregations YEARS to come to celebrate the new diversity that came with the mission to Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia. Everyone agreed that letting the Gentiles into the faith was indeed God’s will, everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do to follow God’s will, but still it was a hard pill to swallow. They sent Paul as the missionary to preach and teach and plant congregations in the Gentile territory. And Paul worked tirelessly sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. The universal Church grew and grew, but the problem of prejudice and division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians remained.

Paul knew that God wanted the Church to be the one, unified, body of Jesus Christ. And God laid on Paul’s heart the plan to accomplish this mission. Paul started up a collection for the saints in Jerusalem among the predominantly Gentile congregations in Macedonia, Turkey, and Greece. He dubbed it the “koinonia” or “participatory partnership” collection. Why? Because the Jerusalem Church was struggling to meet the needs of the members of their community. It was in an urban area, and the message of Jesus was especially comforting for the impoverished neighbors, not to mention the frequent famines and natural disasters in Israel. They needed financial help to support the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. And there was no system through which to do this at this time. The Jerusalem church was desperate for financial help. The Gentile churches were desperate for spiritual depth. And Paul was desperate for his precious Gentile congregations to be accepted as full members of the body of Christ. So, partnering together, Paul encouraged all of the congregations that he had planted to set aside special offerings for the saints in Jerusalem. He traveled around to all of the churches to teach the spiritual importance of generous giving for the mission of the church, and he laid out the plan for their opportunity to partner with Christians they’d never met in places they’d never been. They were all a part of God’s mission together, and they would all work to care for the needs of the poor in Jerusalem. Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 16, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week (Sunday), each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that special collections need not be taken up when I come.” Paul and his companions then traveled around to all of the congregations, collecting their generous gifts, and took them to Church wide headquarters in Jerusalem. And using the financial gifts of the Gentile Christians, and the spiritual gifts of the Jewish Christians, God made of us together the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that we are today.

The legacy of St. Paul and the early Church is one of generosity and partnership. Paul writes in our reading today, “[The churches in Macedonia] voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints… Now as you excel in everything –in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in love- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”

Discipleship is a journey, no one becomes a faithful Christian overnight. We’re all saints and sinners, we all have spiritual gifts and spiritual growing edges, and God uses a variety of means to grow our faith throughout the course of our lives. The opportunity to give generously to God’s mission is one of the ways God takes us out of ourselves and puts us in partnership with one another for the sake of sharing the gospel with the world. Giving should never be out of guilt or compulsion (Paul says as much in 2nd Corinthians chapter 9), but out of overflowing gratitude for all of the grace God has first given us. Generosity is a fruit of the spirit, it’s the fruit that God activates within us when we notice God at work in our midst. Generous giving is a core practice of discipleship, for it helps to reinforce our love of God above all else. Giving to God begins the work of untethering us from the emotional allure of money, it reinforces for us that money is a tool for mission, and that God is truly our God.

Amen.