God’s Love Never Ends, God’s Love Knows No Bounds

SERMON Epiphany 2019 Matthew 2 1 12

The Magi in the Epiphany story are not the first Magi to show up in the Bible. We’ve seen these guys before in many a royal court!

In Egypt, thousands of years before, when Pharaoh was having troubling dreams, his priests – the Magi, which is the Greek word for magician or astrologer- tried first to interpret the dream with no success. But the cupbearer remembered that he had met a man in prison, Joseph, a Hebrew, who faithfully interpreted his troubling dream. Pharaoh sent for Joseph, Joseph interpreted the dream, and Pharaoh made Joseph his right hand man in all of Egypt, even marrying him to one of the Magi’s daughters. God used this skill of dream interpretation to save Joseph from prison, and ultimately to save all of God’s people and all of the Egyptians from famine!

Four hundred years later, the new Pharaoh began to persecute the Hebrews who had all been living in the land of Egypt since the time of Joseph. God’s people were enslaved and bitterly abused. God heard the cries of the Hebrews, and called Moses from Midian to be their deliverer.

Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and his Magi.  Aaron threw down the staff as God directed and it became a snake. The Magi of Egypt were commanded by Pharaoh to assert their superior divination skills. They threw down their staffs and their staffs similarly became snakes, but the snake that had been Aaron’s staff gobbled up all the other snakes, symbolizing that God’s power is the ultimate power, and God’s redemption of Israel would prevail.

The Magi of Egypt went head to head with Moses and Aaron. When they turned the waterways to blood, the Magi did the same. Pharaoh was unimpressed. When they unleashed frogs on Egypt, the Magi conjured up the same. Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened. But when Moses and Aaron covered every human and animal in Egypt with irritating gnats, the third plague, the Magi representing Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt could not match them. In fact, with the 3rd plague even the Magi turned on the Pharaoh and testified to our God’s ultimate power, saying “Truly, this is the finger of God!”

Thousands of years later, the book of Daniel, set during the time of the Babylonian exile, is full of Magi who serve the will of King Nebuchadnezzar! God’s people are yet again at a low point in their history, carted off from Jerusalem to Babylon in exile. At the beginning of the exile, the king of Babylon gave a command that some of the nobility of Judah, those who were especially wise or handsome or well-educated, should be brought into the king’s palace and taught the Babylonian literature and language so that they could serve the king. One of these who was brought to the royal court was Daniel, who was resolved to stay faithful to God and the teachings of the Torah. Daniel became a vegetarian, refusing to eat the royal rations that had been sacrificed to idols, and at the end of his training period, Daniel was chosen by the king to serve in the royal court. The scripture says, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found Daniel ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” Soon after, King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that his Magi tell him not only the interpretation of a troubling dream, but the dream itself! None of his Magi could do it, and they complained to the king that it was impossible, that only the gods held such wisdom. They were just about to be executed, when Daniel stood up and –by the grace of God- shared with the king both his dream and its interpretation! The King testified to God’s power, saying “Truly your God is God of God and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery!” Like Joseph in Egypt, King Nebuchadnezzar elevated Daniel from simple Magi to ruler over the whole province of Babylon!

Later, after King Nebuchadnezzar’s death, King Darius came to power. Knowing Daniel’s wisdom, Darius made him one of 3 presidents of the whole kingdom! But, the other presidents and satraps –the wise men of the kingdom- conspired against Daniel. They urged the king to make a law that no one could pray to anyone but the king. Daniel, still faithful to God after so many years in exile, continued to pray regardless of the law. His rivals ratted him out to the king, and reminded him that no law made by the king could be undone, that Daniel must be put to death for his disloyalty. Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den overnight and survived, much to the king’s relief! The king himself testified to God’s power and faithfulness, saying, “I make a decree that in all my royal dominion people should tremble in awe before the God of Daniel! For he is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end. He delivers and he rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…”

 

And that brings us to today, Epiphany, the day when God – the revealer of mysteries- made the ultimate revelation to a whole new class of Magi. When we hear that “Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” in Matthew’s gospel, we are supposed to suspect the role these royal courtiers will serve in this story. The Magi of old were self-serving, vying for power and prestige, had the ear of the king, often twisting the political landscape of their time to their own or their king’s advantage, and if they weren’t trying to manipulate the king, they served the king and they king’s will with unswerving loyalty.

So when we hear that these Magi end up in the court of King Herod, we can expect that they will do whatever is necessary to cozy up to the king for their own benefit. The Magi of the ancient world were the original “yes men.”

But these Magi, most likely a caravan of Zoroastrian priests from the royal courts of Persia, do not play along with their expected role.

Unlike the Magi of old, the Magi from the Epiphany story obeyed the will of God and rejected the will of the unjust king. Instead of serving their own interests, these Magi put their own safety at risk to bear their gifts and worship before Christ –the true king and deliverer of our world!

They served God and God alone, by keeping the home of the holy family a secret. They foiled Herod’s plan to find and murder the child, Jesus, for they travelled home by a different road. And, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus soon travelled to Egypt, fleeing for their lives from the evil of Herod whose malice and selfishness knew no bounds. The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh provided for the holy family’s needs while God provided a place of refuge for them in Egypt –the same land God once used to provide a safe home for God’s people in the midst of famine during the time of Joseph.

While there are still Herods and Magi in this world whose cruelty and selfishness know no bounds, what is revealed to all of us through the Epiphany story is that God’s love knows no bounds. And this is beautifully reflected in our appointed verse from 1 Corinthians this week:

Love never ends.  But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.”

More important than status or wisdom or skill or any other thing in this world which we vie for is love. God’s love never ends! It never fails! God never gives up on us. And God will go to the ends of the earth to find us and call us into relationship. No matter how dire or bleak our odds may seem, God and God’s love for all people prevail! We see this as we look back at the whole course of history. God’s people have not been the only ones to acknowledge God’s power and to worship our Lord. From Magi in Egypt to the Kings of Babylon, Gentile outsiders with bizarre rituals and customs have seen and testified to our God’s redeeming power! God didn’t wait for them to learn the Torah, but God spoke to them through their own customs of magic and astrology and dream interpretation. God has spoken not just through the prophets, but God has spoken God’s redeeming love into our world through the least likely of heralds, in the most extraordinary circumstances! From the shepherds in the fields on Christmas night, to these Magi whom God called to Bethlehem through the stars, God revealed and continues to reveal God’s self to the whole spectrum of humanity! God’s love and God’s promises and the hope we have for our world in Jesus Christ is for ALL people, and God welcomes and calls out to every kind of person to bow down and worship Christ as our one and only God and King.

God’s love never ends, and God’s love knows no bounds. And because of this truth revealed to us through the Epiphany story, our Christian vocation is to embody God’s endless, boundless love for one another. Amen.

The Not So Silent Night

SERMON Christmas Eve Luke 2 1 20

What would Christmas Eve be without singing Silent Night? I know that I have sung this hymn every single Christmas Eve of my life. The words and melody usher in the overwhelming sense of the heavenly peace the Christ child himself brings to our world! Tonight, this beloved Christmas carol turns 200 years old.

“Silent Night” was written first as a poem by Father Joseph Mohr in response to the unrest that the Napoleonic wars had caused for the whole region surrounding Austria. According to legend, St. Nicholas Church, where Father Mohr was serving in Oberndorf, Austria, was facing some significant building maintenance issues –their organ had broken down just in time for Christmas! The young priest wanted to ensure that there was at least one hymn sung at the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, so he asked their minister of music, Franz Gruber, to write a melody for his poem that could be played on the guitar. Yes, one of our most beloved Christmas carols was written in response to the chaos of war and in the midst of a liturgical crisis at St. Nicholas’ church.

Today, it’s hard for any of us to imagine not singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve.

But I wonder, given our Christmas scripture reading from Luke’s gospel, was it REALLY a “Silent Night” on that first Christmas Eve?

Bethlehem was bursting at the seams with people who had been forced to travel there for the census. The crowds overwhelmed the small city. Every comfortable bed in town was occupied! With so many people frustrated that their plans for the month had been interrupted by the inconvenience of this edict handed down by their oppressors, I doubt there was much silence in the inns of Bethlehem.

Was it REALLY a “Silent Night”?

Amid all the irritation and frustration, no one seemed to notice that a teenage girl labored in one of the barns. She had no comfortable bed to rest on. She had no doula. She had no experienced midwife. She had no Lamaze classes or soothing music or hot showers for her aching muscles. She had no scrubbed and sanitized environment, no monitors giving the peace of mind that all is well…

Birthing is a dangerous business.

Her fiancée paced around the barn, fetching hot water and preparing to play midwife –a role he’d never imagined himself in, a role in which he had no training, a role better left to the wise women of the village than a carpenter.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and her primal screams. In the throws of fully human childbirth, even the mother of our Lord, strong, and brave, and bold as she was, would not have labored in silence.

All Mary had were her silent prayers and primal screams until the instant when our Lord took his first breath. As his newborn lungs filled with oxygen, God himself let out a tiny primal scream to match his mother’s. God himself had been laboring with her, struggling to be born into our world through pain and hope and humanity at its most basic level. God himself let out a tiny and persistent scream, and galaxies quaked across the universe. God himself screamed and screamed until he was lovingly swaddled in bands of cloth by his mother, and placed upon her chest for nourishment. At last, the barn in Bethlehem was silent as Jesus ate the first of many meals he would share with us. He shared his first meal with his mother, as they both recovered from the difficult and dangerous work of bearing God for us.

It may HAVE been a “Silent Night” for the shepherds who were watching their fields by night. Their sheep had all nestled down for the night and the shepherds lay in the fields, gazing up at the stars, pondering “Why do you think the sky is shining so brightly tonight?”

It may have been a “Silent Night,” but then an angel of the Lord appeared before them and the glory of the Lord shone more brightly than the dazzling stars overhead. The angel proclaimed the very best news that any ear has ever heard,  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Then one angel’s voice turned into a thunderous, joy-filled chorus as every angel in the heavenly host sang Happy Birthday for the holy infant and Joy to the World, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to all people.”

The shepherds who had once been silent, ran at once into town to find the newborn Messiah and his mother. They came bursting into the barn, never a wise thing to do when a family has just settled their newborn for the night. They told Mary and Joseph everything that had happened in the fields, every word that the angel had said, and then they ran out, waking up the whole town as they praised God all the way back to their field!

It was anything BUT a “Silent Night” that first Christmas in Bethlehem, but it was the holiest night the world has ever known. And because of all of those screams and songs and shouts of jubilation, our hearts are now able to rest in heavenly peace. This message of universal peace is why the carol “Silent Night” has such enduring spiritual value. Christ risked a perilous birth in a barn in Palestine to make true peace possible in our world. God’s desire for us and for our world is for all people to hold peace within their hearts. This is the gift God gives us through the birth of Jesus Christ. God’s gift to us is lasting peace, not someday, but now, one person at a time. As we adore the humanity and divinity contained within that barn in Bethlehem, as we remember the chaos and grumbling that filled the town around him, we know that Christ comes to us today in the midst of crisis and frustration. Christ comes to us and dwells with us and swaddles us up in his love, feeds us, comforts us, and gives us the peace we need for whatever we find ourselves enduring. Heavenly peace is our gift from God, not just at Christmas time, but every day of this joyful and challenging life.  Whether you find yourself in silence this Christmas, or surrounded by noise, whether you find yourself resting in the fields or singing along with the angel’s song or unleashing anguished screams or bitter frustration, because of that first “Not So Silent Night” Christ is born, and Christ is with us, and Christ gives us his peace forevermore. Amen.

Blessed is She Who Believed

SERMON Advent 4 C 2018 Luke 1 39 55

The angel Gabriel has just made the baby announcement to Mary: “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. And now, your Auntie Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God!’ And Mary said, ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let this happen just as you said.’”

I imagine she didn’t sleep a wink that night! And the very next day, Mary packed her bags, kissed her parents goodbye, and tried to explain that somehow she just knew that her Auntie Elizabeth would be needing some help. And Mary, full of Advent anticipation, set off to the Judean hill country. If what the angel said was true, then Elizabeth would be the only person who would understand just how crazy this thing was that happened to her. Elizabeth would be the only person who would rejoice with her. The only person who would protect her from public stoning when her pregnancy began to show. At the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary would be safe from the assuming eyes of her neighbors. Perhaps they would even talk to her parents and figure out how to make this work so that she could return to Nazareth one day. The angel did say that nothing would be impossible for God… and if God could make a virgin conceive, and if God could make her gray haired Auntie conceive, then surely God would keep them safe.

I wonder what Mary was thinking as she traveled? Was she genuinely excited for the adventure? Did she really believe that she’d been visited by an angel or did she question her sanity? Did she spend the whole trip saying, “This is crazy, this is crazy, this can’t be real!”

Did she have her doubts, saying, “I’m gonna get there and she’s just gonna be the same old Elizabeth she’s always been, how can my Auntie be pregnant after all these years? How could any of this be real?”

Did she wonder about the specifics of what was going to happen to her? Did she know she was pregnant at this point or did she assume it would happen sometime in the future? “What does it feel like to be pregnant? Aren’t I supposed to feel nauseous? I just feel like me, nothing feels different. Have I already been overshadowed? What does that even mean anyway? When will it happen? I should have asked more questions.”

As soon as Mary arrived at their house, some of her many questions were answered. She swung open their door with her unexpected visit greeting, “Hello Auntie, it’s me, Mary! How I’ve missed you!” And as soon as Auntie Elizabeth turned around, Mary knew that God was up to something radical! Auntie Elizabeth was obviously with child, proof that God’s promises would happen for Mary as well! And Elizabeth, who had always been so calm and quiet, held her belly and doubled over as her unborn baby did a somersault in her womb. When she looked up, she was not the calm and quiet Auntie that Mary expected to find, Elizabeth was transformed into God’s prophet. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with a message of affirmation for Mary, a message to give her the faith and courage she needed for her new vocation as Mother of God. Without Mary saying so much as “hello,” Elizabeth proclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy! And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Whether she knew it before she swung open that door or not, Elizabeth’s prophecy confirmed that Mary is already carrying the Lord. While this new reality is unexpected and unfamilar, Mary is indeed blessed beyond measure- blessed because she is the Mother of our Lord, and blessed because she believed!

I’m sure Mary had lots of questions on the road to Elizabeth’s house, perhaps she even had some doubts, or questioned her own sanity. But, the most important part of this tiny chunk of scripture is that Mary believed enough to go and see if what the angel said about Elizbeth was true. Mary believed enough to move forward in this faith journey – in this journey of God at work in her life!

She could have woken up the next morning and assured herself that she’d dreamed the whole thing up! Who ever heard of an angel visiting an unimportant girl in a small town like Nazareth? She could have waited around to see if any morning sickness started, or to wait until she started showing before truly believing and travelling to her Auntie’s house. But, Mary believed enough to go with haste to the Judean hill country, immediately. Even with perhaps some questions and doubts, Mary believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Through the angel Gabriel’s words and Mary’s faith, God brought these kinswomen together as a gift to one another in their hours of greatest need. God sent Mary to Elizabeth to help her with the challenges of carrying a child through the 3rd trimester and bearing a child in her old age. And God sent Elizabeth’s words of strength and affirmation to Mary to comfort and support her as her life took an unexpected, unfamiliar, and unimaginably blessed turn, as she came to terms with the new reality that she was the mother of the Messiah.

This Christmas season, God may send us to friends and family near or far. We will find ourselves greeting and gathering with many of our loved ones. I pray that their presence is a balm of comfort and support for each and every one of us, and that we in turn offer love and support to all of those we gather with this season, for like Mary we carry Christ with us wherever we go.

As the Church, we are pregnant with our Lord Christ right now.

Even though we can’t see him, we feel his presence within us. We see ourselves growing and changing. We see the stretch marks his new life within us has caused, our badges of honor for a life transformed. We see how he makes us glow with love and joy and peace.

We know that our lives will never be the same because of this Christ that we carry.

We know that our calling now is to carry him, love him, laugh with him, and cry with him all the days of our lives.

The Church is heavy with child. We groan under the weight of the responsibility we bear, and yet, we set to work nesting for him. We get our house in order –tidying up that which is a mess within ourselves, making right that which is wrong- as we prepare to welcome Christ when he comes.

We do not know the day nor the hour, nor even the ballpark estimate of the due date! We have no idea when he will arrive. But we do know that we cannot wait to hold him, to look into his eyes of love, and to hear his precious voice. We do not know when to expect him, so we must be ready now.

Our hospital bag sits packed and ready at the door in eager anticipation! For the day of our deliverance draws near!

Christ IS coming!

He will be born for us, to relieve us of all groaning and strife, and to replace our pain with relief and joy.

Christ will be born every year at Christmas time, and Christ will one day come again for us –this body which has so faithfully and lovingly carried him all these years. Amen.

We’re Always Home for the Holidays: the Lord will be our home and lead us home

SERMON Advent 3C Zephaniah 3: 14-20

“Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays….”

What exactly IS home?

For some it is a very specific building full of memories and smells and sounds. It’s the smell of your grandmother’s house –old books and wallpaper and flowers. It’s the sound of the creaky floorboard at the top of the stairs. It’s the furniture that’s been in the house for generations, and the kitchen sink that drips if it isn’t turned off just right.

For some, home is the rituals and traditions –knowing to take your shoes off when you come in the house, baking and decorating a gingerbread house with your mother and siblings, getting all dressed up to worship together on Christmas Eve and opening just one gift when you arrive home –your hearts warmed by the love and light of the Christ child.

For many, home is not just the building or the traditions, but most importantly home gathers together the people we are closest to –those whom we love and have history with. Home is the smiles, the inside jokes, the hugs that comfort like nothing else.

For many, the thought of being at home with dear friends and family is the most joyful thing we can think of.

But, for some “There’s no place like home for the holidays” evokes longing and deep sadness.

Where is home when your childhood home has been sold? Where is home when your loved ones live too far away to visit for the holidays? What does home even mean after a loved one, who was always there, has died?

This 3rd Sunday of Advent is JOY Sunday, and it may seem strange to be dwelling on such sadness on JOY Sunday, but Joy is not the same as happiness. You may be happy this holiday season, or you may be very sad indeed. Happiness and sadness are emotions, and such they are fleeting. Happiness and sadness are temporary, and are determined often by our external life circumstances.

But Joy is not an emotion. Joy is an orientation of the heart. Joy is our response to the grace we have experienced from God. And joy is not determined by our external circumstances. When St. Paul penned “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice,” he was sitting in a jail cell, unsure if he would live or die in the days to come.

The prophet Zephaniah, who wrote our first reading today, wrote during a time of great corruption, oppression, and idolatry in Judah. He spent the first two chapters of his oracle, warning the people that the day of the Lord, the day of judgment, was coming, and that God would wipe everything they knew away because of the injustice of their society and the way they put their love and trust in everything but God. Twenty years after he shared these warnings with God’s people, the day of the Lord did indeed come in the form of the Babylonian exile. Everyone was carted off to Babylon, and everything they knew and loved they had to leave behind. Words cannot describe how disruptive and shameful the experience of the exile was for God’s people. A whole generation never saw their homes in Judah ever again.

Whatever you find yourself struggling with this time of year, whatever sadness the concept of home may evoke, God’s people in Judah faced similar loss and longing.

It is into the painful experience of the exile, and the painful experiences we ourselves face today, that God speaks these words of joy and hope and wholeness:

“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!…

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18as on a day of festival…

I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you HOME…”

 

“If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.”

According to scripture, our loving God offers us something better than happiness- even a million ways of temporary happiness. Our loving God offers us enduring joy!

God calls us to rejoice –even while still in exile- for the day of salvation is surely coming! God rejoices over us! God loves you and delights in you so much that God breaks out in festive song at the sight of you. Imagine that. God sings festive carols for YOU this time of year, for you are God’s pride and joy!

And God promises to renew you through the comfort of his loving, gentle presence.  The Lord is in our midst, and that is the very best news. While we wait for the day of salvation, for the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, we are not abandoned. The Lord is in our midst and exults over us.

Our Christian joy bubbles up from this knowledge of God’s faithful promises. The God who created the heavens and the earth delights in us and dwells within our midst –wherever we are!   God promises to BE our home and to LEAD us home to a sense of familiarity, joy, and peace, no matter what we’re going through.

A powerful example of this comes to us from saint and martyr Dietrich Bonhoffer. While sitting in a prison cell –much like St. Paul- in Nazi Germany, seventy-five years ago tomorrow, he wrote this letter home to his parents:

“Of course you can’t help thinking of my being in prison over Christmas, and it is bound to throw a shadow over the few hours of happiness which still await you in these times. All I can do to help is to assure you that I know you will keep it in the same spirit as I do, for we are agreed on how Christmas ought to be kept. How could it be otherwise when my attitude to Christmas is a heritage I owe to you? I need not tell you how much I long to be released and to see you all again. But for years you have given us such lovely Christmases, that our grateful memories are strong enough to cast their rays over a darker one….

For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn- these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For the prisoner the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And that faith gives the prisoner a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance. On Christmas Eve I shall be thinking of you all very much, and I want you to believe that I too shall have a few hours of real joy and that I am not allowing my troubles to get the better of me….

It will certainly be a quiet Christmas for everybody, and the children will look back on it for long afterwards. But for the first time, perhaps, many will learn the true meaning of Christmas.”

Trusting in God’s promises of love, no matter what circumstance we may find ourselves in, we are already –and always- home for the holidays. For the Lord will be our home and will lead us home, and that is worth rejoicing! Amen.

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.