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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis on February 2, 2014.  The text was based on Luke 2:22-40.

anna_3Simeon and Anna could have missed Jesus.

A devout, faithful servant, Simeon had been waiting for the Messiah for a long time.  Anna had spent most of her 84 years waiting.  These faithful people responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to be present in the temple when Jesus, Mary and Joseph arrived.

But they could have missed Jesus in the temple that day.

The Law of Moses required the firstborn child of any mother be presented, or consecrated, to the Lord.  This law is established in Exodus.[1]  An atonement concept, a family is redeemed or “bought back” to God through a sacrifice of some sort.

In the book of Numbers we learn that this redemption could have been completed through service to the temple, such as we see with the Levites.[2]  The book of Numbers also tells us that redemption could be obtained through a financial transaction in the temple – paying five shekles of silver.[3]  While Nehemiah tells us that the first fruits need to be given to the temple every year,[4] there is nothing in these laws themselves that says it was necessary for the child to be physically present when the parents presented the sacrifice.

Jesus could have been presented in the temple in accordance to the Law of Moses without actually being there himself.  Simeon and Anna could have missed him.

But they didn’t miss him.  Jesus was at the temple 40 days after his birth, and Simeon and Anna experienced the incarnated Christ in person, with their very own eyes.  There are many reasons why Simeon and Anna could have missed Jesus in the temple that day.  It was because of the Holy Spirit they didn’t.

As a Christ centered church, it can be easy for us to overlook how our Triune God works together to provide us with opportunities to know and experience Jesus.  The magi are led to Jesus through the Spirit.  It is the Spirit that anoints Jesus at his baptism in the river Jordan.  Jesus’ very name was given to Mary and Joseph by the Spirit.  It is the Spirit working through the Word that brings the presence of Christ in, with and under our sacraments.  We are called into a life of faith in Christ through the Holy Spirit, just as Simeon was called by the Spirit to see Jesus first hand.

God our Parent, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are continually working together to provide us with opportunities to witness Christ present within our midst, to live as resurrected people who through Jesus’ death and resurrection are reconciled to God and forgiven for our transgressions.  Our Triune God loves us so completely that through the Holy Spirit Jesus came among us in human flesh, wore our humanity as his own, experienced the pains and joys of our existence so that we would never feel that we have missed the opportunity to be in a loving and whole relationship to God’s self.

anna_1The challenge is that there are times in our lives when we may look around and ask, “Where is God in the midst of this?”  Where is God in the midst of illness, divorce, and financial insecurity?  Where is our Simeon-esque moment, where we can so clearly see Jesus that we could lift the Christ child in our arms?  In times of great pain and insecurity, we may feel we have just missed Jesus, a close encounter of two ships passing in the night.

This past week at the Crossings conference I met a pastor from Michigan named Richard who shared with me an experience he had where he felt that he a close encounter with Jesus, but just missed him.  Twenty years ago, Richard was working as a missionary in Papua New Guinea, a country that is riddled with great violence against women.  He went to work with families, hoping that by proclaiming the love of Christ husbands would find alternative options to family disputes then violence against their daughters and wives.  The work was not going well, and after two years in that community, not one person had become baptized or shared in communion.

Once a week, Richard and another missionary conducted safety patrols along the rocky mountain terrain, looking to stop women from being assaulted.  One evening, he found a woman who had been beaten badly and abandoned.  With broken bones, and suffering from dehydration, this woman was near death.  Richard and his fellow missionary rigged together a stretcher, carried her down the mountain and called for a helicopter to life flight her off to a medical center that offered respite to battered women.

A few months later, Richard brought the woman back to her village, back to a community that had left her for dead, back to a home that was far from safe.  It was his last day in Papua New Guinea.  He described that moment as one of complete despair, one where he felt that he and Jesus had missed paths amidst the trees in the mountain side – so close, but so far apart.

Twenty years later, at a conference in Chicago, a young man came up to Richard.  Heanna_2 announced that he was the son of the woman who had been taken off the mountain.  He had been listening to Richard for two years, and on that fateful day, he witnessed the attack on his mom.  He had remained hiding among the trees, praying to a God he had only heard of but did not yet know, hoping that help would come.  He watched among the trees as his mother was flown away in the helicopter, and was the first to great her when she returned.

On that mountainside, the Spirit came to the son when he needed it most, and in the actions of Richard and his fellow missionary, he saw Christ as clearly as Simeon saw Christ in the temple.  When his mother returned home, a moment that to Richard seemed so much like death, in that moment the son experienced a resurrection that can only come from the love of Christ at work in the world.

Twenty years later, the once little boy has now become a pastor.  He shared with Richard that the weekend before, he had celebrated over the rite of baptism for the 300th time.

The son could have missed Jesus.  He could have been anywhere else but the mountain top on that formidable morning.  Through the Holy Spirit, he didn’t.  The son experienced Christ working through the actions of Richard and his fellow missionary, and knew God for the first time.

anna_4Simeon and Anna could have missed Jesus, but they didn’t.  Through the Holy Spirit, they were present when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple.  They experienced Christ in person, shining brightly as a light to the nations.

Richard could have missed Jesus.  He could have been anywhere but that conference, continuing to feel grief over the woman from the mountain.  Through the Holy Spirit, Richard encountered her son, and learned how Christ brought resurrection to a community that Richard only knew as death.

There may be moments when we think that we are missing Jesus, wondering where God is in the midst of the hardships in our lives.  We may wish that we could see Jesus so clearly before us like Simeon in the temple, but in faith we cling to the certainty that through the Holy Spirit, we never will miss Jesus resurrecting us from the challenges of our lives.  Like Richard, that realization may not come as quickly as we’d like, but Christ is there, working in ways that we do not yet know, in ways that our beyond our comprehension.

Even when we think we have missed it, we will never be without the blessings and redemption found in Christ.  Let us give thanks that the Holy Spirit calls us to a life of faith where we can witness and proclaim Jesus present in our midst.

Amen.


[1] Exodus 13:2, 11 – 16

[2] Numbers 8:14-19

[3] Numbers 18:15-16

[4] Neh 10:35-36

The following sermon as preached on January 26, 2014 at Bethel Lutheran Church.  This text was based on Matthew 4:12–23.

“I will make you fish for people.”

There are some phrases in our scriptures that are somewhat iconic, phrases that bring images to our mind and people can quote with ease.  How do you remember this passage?  When you hear this phrase, what images or feelings come to your mind?

“I will make you fish for people.”

fishing_3For some, perhaps we envision the disciples casting large nets into the Sea of Galilee.  Maybe our minds flash to the Jesus fish found on back bumpers of neighboring cars during rush hour traffic.  I have a friend who got her doctorate in contemporary Christian music, and this phrase reminds her of a Christian Rock station called “The Fish.”

What image does this phrase bring for you?  For me, I am reminded of my home church pastor, who takes off the first day of every hunting season and fishing season and goes on a spiritual retreat in the wilderness.  Over the years these retreats have proved to be restorative moments in his ministry and the ministry of our church, even if that restoration is accompanied by pictures with his largest catch of the weekend.

As a church, this phrase is strongly associated with evangelism, the ministry of going out into the world and telling people about the good news found in Christ Jesus.  Just as this phrase brings up our own images, our Gospel author Matthew also was trying to draw an image to mind of his audience.

Matthew is deeply invested in the Jewish tradition, proclaiming that Jesus has come to fulfil what has been spoken through the prophets.  Jesus quotes the other prophets frequently and uses prophetic imagery throughout his ministry to help emphasize this message.

Just before we enter today’s lesson, Jesus has been baptized by John in the river Jordan and anointed by the Holy Spirit.  These images of anointing is once again a connection to Jesus and prophesy, as prophets in our Hebrew Scriptures were frequently anointed with oil before they began their public ministry.

Soon after his baptism, John is taken by Herod, a somewhat prophetic foreshadowing to Jesus’ own public trial before the crucifixion.

“I will make you fish for people.”

Matthew tells this story with purpose, forsaking the backstory of the disciples we find in other gospels.  This brings us to the iconic phrase faster. “I will make you fish for people.”

While perhaps images of Jesus fish bumper stickers, radio stations, and pastors fishing may float to our mind, Matthew’s version of this story is for a specific purpose.  He is once again making the bridge between Jesus and the prophets, this time using fish as the bridge.

fishing_4In prophetic literature, fishing imagery is all about discovery, about uncovering what is hidden beneath the waters.  Amos talks about communities finding the faithful in a sea of dangerous figures, like a fishhook draws out the fish from the water.[1]  In Jeremiah, God sends out fisherman to catch those who are hidden in communities filled with inequity. [2]

Fishing in prophetic literature is about finding, it is about unveiling, it is about discovering what is lying deep within the waters, beyond what the eye can see.  Fishing is about seeing how God has faithfully stood beside humanity throughout the ages of time, working to draw us out of the dark depths into an intimate and compassionate relationship.  Fishing is about reaching deep into the wells of our souls and seeing God waiting at the bottom.

Through this prophetic understanding of fishing, we discover that what is necessary to share the good news of Christ with others is to uncover what is already lying beneath, to uncover how God is already working in places and in ways that may not be obvious when standing on the river bank.

Through his death and resurrection, the blessings found in Jesus have been given to all of creation.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the waters of our baptism, we are each called to unique ministries and opportunities.  We have been resurrected in Christ, freed from the restrictions of sin and brokenness that would hinder our ability to proclaim God’s gift of reconciliation and love.  As resurrected people, the Holy Spirit works through our shortcomings and limitations, transforming obstacles into opportunities.

fishing_2This is what happens with the disciples.  While in a secular world, the lowly occupation of fisherman would seem like an obstacle, through Christ this same occupation becomes an opportunity to serve God.  That transition from obstacle to opportunity is immediate, propelling the disciples from the jobs they had to the vocation of following Christ.  “Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.”   Through Christ’s affection, they instantaneously discovered that God had equipped them to be disciples.  “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

We are empowered to fish for people because through the cross, Christ first fished for us.

This weekend Bethel has been supporting the students of Lutheran Campus Ministry through Trivia Night and other fundraising efforts.  In a few weeks, many of these students will head to Guatemala, and there they will live into their vocation to fish for people.  They will be fishing in the prophetic sense of the word, exploring how God is already at work in the community they are going to serve.  They, like other mission ventures in the ELCA, will join the efforts of an already existing ministry to help strengthen and support how God currently tends to that context.  In seeing how God blesses and resurrects the Guatemalan people, our students will delve deeper into the waters of their faith and discover in new ways how God blesses and resurrects their own lives here in St. Louis.

Fishing for people is not about telling others what they need to do to be better followers of Christ.  It is about talking with others, hearing their resurrection stories, and sharing our experiences in return.

Fishing for people moves beyond assuming that what motivates someone’s involvement is based on their age, education, or financial status.  Instead it is about uncovering the gift that God is already nurturing within that person and helping them join a mission that suits that gift.

Fishing for people is about serving as a witness to the wondrous and endless ways that God is present within the midst of every person, and then sharing what we witness as proclamation of how the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Fishing for people is about uncovering ways that we can work together to glorify our God who loves us beyond our understanding.

fishing_1When we fish for people in this prophetic sense, the kaleidoscope of our faith shifts and we are nurtured to spread the message of Jesus’s love and reconciliation to others.  Our relationship with God strengthens when we see how strongly God supports others.  We more fully understand how we are forgiven when we witness how Christ’s forgiveness transformed another.  We have hope for our own healing when we see how the Spirit has unexpectedly brought life to someone who lives in their own health battles.

The beauty about being called by Christ to fish for people is that there is not an expectation that we will do it perfectly.  The likelihood is high that we will make mistakes, yet God calls us anyways.  As a member so wisely pointed out in our Bible study this past week, the disciples called at the river bank are the same disciples that will deny Jesus and send him to his crucifixion.  These same disciples that denied him are the same disciples that 50 days later are resurrected in Christ and given the task to tell the world about Jesus.

This ability to move forward and proclaim Christ after we so epically fail is a gift that has been given to us by the resurrected Christ.  That we can be advocates for all of creation all the while we pollute the earth can only come from the love of a creating God.  That we can be given the privilege of seeing how God works in others when we ourselves make choices which limit that work within ourselves is a blessing that can only be given to us by the resurrected Christ.  That the tragedies of our life stories can be transformed for compassion to serve others is only a gift that comes from a life-giving Spirit.  Christ calls us to fish for people, and we can do so boldly because no matter the joys and sorrows along the way, our Triune God continues to resurrect us from our mistakes, trust us and stand by us.

We are empowered to fish for people because through the cross, Christ first fished for us.

Amen.


[1] Amos 4:2

[2] Jer 16:16

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on January 12, 2014.  The message was based on Baptism of Our Lord texts, Acts 10:34-43  and Matthew 3:13-17. 

Every year, we encounter the baptism of Jesus early in the season of Epiphany, which means “manifestation” or “striking appearance.”  It is in this season between now and Ash Wednesday where our lessons will have a strong emphasis on the striking appearance of Christ in human flesh, revealing the various ways that God is indeed with us.

magi1Last week, had weather permitted, we would have gathered together to retell the feast day of Epiphany, where the magi encounter the manifested baby Jesus.  That day is celebrated on January 6th, and is affectionately referred to as Twelfth Night.

I have a little confession to make.  Before my church work days began, I was a children’s librarian in Northeast Ohio.  During that time I fell under the spell of a great occupational hazard – I became an avid Shakespeare buff.

Shakespeare wrote a play entitled “Twelfth Night,” and every year between Christmas and Epiphany, I pull out my well-loved copy and re-read the story.  My all-time favorite work from Shakespeare, this comedy is a complicated love story where duplicity is the name of the game.  The play’s setting is during a carnival-style celebration of the Epiphany.

When reading Peter’s affirmation of faith in today’s reading from Acts, I was reminded of one of my favorite “Twelfth Night” quotes:

In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; None can be called deformed but the unkind.[1]

Our second lesson is one of those examples in Scripture where context adds a great deal to the message.   Peter is at the home of Cornelius, a Roman officer.  It just so happens that Cornelius’ home is in a very pagan city, dedicated to Augustus Caesar.  Up to this point in Luke and Acts, neither Jesus nor his followers had taken their ministry to such a pagan location.  Jesus had even healed the centurion’s servant from Capernaum outside the city because of the dangers associated with entering Gentile territory.[2]  Before Peter came to Cornelius’ house, he and the other disciples traveled quite a bit.  They baptized Jews and Samaritans, but no Gentiles.

peter_vision1One day while Peter was praying he became very hungry and fell into a trance where he experienced a vision.  In the trance, the heavens open up and a four legged creature appeared.  This creature looked like the reptiles and birds that were considered to be unclean by Jewish custom.   A voice from the heavens told Peter to kill the creature and eat it.  Peter replied that he would never eat something so profane or unclean.  The voice returned, saying three times, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”[3]

When Peter awoke from his trance, he went back to the other disciples, where he learned that a man named Cornelius had sent three men to bring Peter to him.  Now Peter was still experiencing that blemish of the mind Shakespeare wrote about.  He hadn’t unraveled the vision of the four-legged creature and wanted to ignore Cornelius’ request.  The Spirit came to him saying, “Look Peter, I was the one who sent these three men to come get you.  Go to Cornelius house.”

So Peter went to Cornelius’ house, but still didn’t understand why he was there.  He listened as Cornelius shared how the Spirit came to Cornelius in a vision and told him to call on Peter, for Peter would bring him a great message.

Finally, things clicked in place for Peter, and we join his story this morning at this Oprah-esque “ah-hah” moment.  Here, Peter realizes the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all people – Jew, Samaritan, Gentile – everyone.  What had been considered profane had been made clean by God.  The light-bulb over Peter’s head has finally lit.

Now that Peter gets the picture, he says “I truly understand that God shows no impartiality.”  A more accurate translation reads, “By truth I understand.”  By the truth of God’s inclusive love, Peter understands that Jesus’ official ministry began when Jesus was anointed by the Spirit in the river Jordan.  In God’s truth, Peter recognizes the unique testimony that comes from witnessing Jesus’ death and resurrection first hand.  Peter acknowledges the responsibility that comes from having known Jesus, and responds to the call to preach and teach the good news of Christ to all people.

peter_baptizing_gentilesThrough Peter’s own baptism, he was called to serve others and expand the church.  The Spirit continued to call to him throughout his ministry, guiding his steps to Cornelius’ door, leading him to a moment of understanding that deepened his faith and that of the Gentiles.

In the verses that immediately follow today’s message, we read that while Peter was recalling the ministry and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell upon those who were gathered.  As Peter baptized the Gentiles, the Spirit was set upon them, forever connecting them with manifested Christ.

In our own baptism, we are connected to Jesus and have had the Spirit set upon us.  Through baptism, we enter the water as profane four-legged creatures awaiting slaughter, and leave the waters cleaned, whole and alive.  We enter the water as victims of the blemishes of our mind, inflicting unkindness to our surrounding.  We leave the water as proclaimers of the peace and mercy found in Christ, healing the hurt found in this world through the authority that has been anointed unto us by the Spirit.

The transformation we receive in baptismal waters is not something we can bring to ourselves.  This transformation comes to us because God continues to manifest God’s self in our sacraments.

Jesus was baptized in the river not because Jesus needed to be absolved of sin.  Jesus entered the waters without blemish – clean, whole, and holy.  Jesus entered for us, to demonstrate his connection to humanity.

jesus_baptismWhen the Spirit set upon Jesus in the Jordan, it was a moment similar to the anointing of David and other leaders.  Being anointed and partaking in John’s baptismal ministry, Jesus affirms that God is indeed incarnate, humbly sharing in the breadth of our faith heritage.  Just as these actions assert Jesus’ humanity, the dove appearing in the sky asserts his divinity.  His divinity is emphasized as God the Parent’s voice claims Jesus as his beloved Son.  Through his humility in the river, Jesus unites humanity with the privilege of being claimed as God’s own child.

There, in the waters of the Jordan, Jesus changes baptismal waters from being merely a cleansing rite into a way for us to experience God manifested within our midst –present in, with and under the element of water.  This presence comes to us as we celebrate baptism.  When water meets the Word of God, when we recount the times throughout generations God has saved humanity through the water, Christ becomes present in, with, and under the water.

jesus_baptism2This manifestation is what happened with Peter and Cornelius after Peter’s amazing “ah-hah” moment.  The Spirit worked through the water and the Word claiming the Gentiles as God’s chosen people, just as the Spirit claims us in our baptism.

Peter speaks of the privilege and responsibility that comes with having been a witness to Jesus.  He understood that God calls those who have experienced the presence of Christ to serve others and proclaim how the fulfillment found in Jesus is for all.  He understood that the Spirit his ministry to grow into something new at Cornelius’ house.

Through our baptism, we too are called to serve others and proclaim the goodness in Christ. Like Peter, the Spirit calls us to explore new ministries we had never imagined.  God has equipped us to follow when the Spirit calls us because we experience the presence of Jesus through our sacraments.

Every time we gather at the table to share in Holy Communion, we experience Christ manifested in, with and under the elements of bread and wine.  In that sacred meal, the hunger that comes from the brokenness of our sin is sated and the Spirit nourishes us to go out into the world and serve others.

jesus_baptism3Every time we witness the baptism of another, remember our own baptism, or confess our sins, God returns us to the moment where we were anointed by the Spirit in our baptism.  Luther said that we return to the blessings of our baptism every time we wash our face.

Jesus humbled himself to unite our Triune God to the whole of our human existence.  Jesus was anointed as our ancestors were, and as we continue to be today.  Jesus was washed, cleaning the stains of former generations, and giving us a clean slate to strive to bring Christ’s peace to a weary world.  Just as we share in the blessings and ministry opportunities of Jesus’ baptism, we share in Jesus’ resurrection.

Through baptism we have been united to Christ and anointed by the Spirit.

Amen.


[1] William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”, Act 3

[2] Luke 7:6 – 7

[3] Acts 10:15

The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 29, 2013.  This message is based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23.

bassinet“Do you think Jesus ever ate applesauce?”

I looked over at Sheila as she peered down at her daughter lying in the crib between us.  She was twirling a little paint brush in her hand.  We were in a New Hampshire hospital Intensive Care Nursery where I was serving as chaplain.  Sheila and her daughter Star had been in the hospital nursery for the past seven months, since they day Star was born.  We were gathered around Star’s crib as the hospital staff prepared to remove her life support.

“Applesauce?,” I asked.

“You know, when Jesus was a baby.  Do you think he had baby food, like applesauce, or squash, or sweat potatoes?”  There was a long pause.  “Star always loved applesauce,” she said.

Star was born with a genetic disorder that caused her organs to grow at different speeds.  While the rest of her body had grown to a normal size for her age, her lungs had barely developed.  As a result, Star breathed through a trachea in her neck, and for the most part was fed through a tube in her belly so that eating wouldn’t interfere with her breathing.  Star could the swallow teeny-tiniest amounts drops of food or water.  Every day, Sheila would come to the hospital and paint Star’s lips with applesauce.  Star’s eyes lit with delight as she licked the applesauce off her baby lips, experiencing the briefest pleasure from the limited food she could taste.

The memory of watching Sheila twirl that applesauce paintbrush roundmoore-lamb and round in her hands as she asked me about the baby Jesus has filled my mind this past week as I have pondered this morning’s complex and stark gospel lesson.

We know very little about the infancy of Jesus.  Our gospels contain perhaps a handful of passages about Jesus’ entire youth and childhood.  While there are other writings that appeared in the second century that speak of Jesus as a five year old and teenager, these writings are widely regarded as unauthoritative, similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels.  Even our fiction, like Christopher Moore’s novel, Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, neglects to imagine Jesus’ life as an infant.

Historically, we know that Bethlehem was a small town, and that around the time Jesus was born there were probably no more than twenty children under the age of two.  Add the scriptural passages about the naming of Jesus and his presentation in the temple to today’s passage, and in a few brief words we have summed up about all we know about the incarnate infant.

A question beckons us, “With so much left unsaid about Jesus as an infant, why is the story of Herod and the murder of innocent children one of the few stories we do tell?”

In many ways, this story is a retelling of the Passover, one that unites the life of Jesus to the vulnerability and pain of the exodus from Egypt.

When we dig deep, we can see rich parallels between Moses’ ministry and the beginning years of Jesus’ life.  Both Jesus and Moses were forced to leave their homes when they were infants – Jesus with Joseph and Mary, and Moses in the MosesBasketriver.  Both were forced to flee from Egypt and to live in exile.  Both advocated for the under privileged, the captive and the abused.  Both brought new commandments to God’s people.

Matthew works really hard to help emphasize that Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites to new life.  This morning’s message is peppered with imagery pointing to this notion; Jesus fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet, “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  An angel told Joseph twice to “get up and go into the land of Israel.”  The image of Rachael weeping, the same Rachel who was married to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) is another vibrant association.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites into new life.  But Jesus is also so much more.  Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus is more than a sequel to the Moses story.

A challenge to this passage is that there is a part of us that wants to know why God the Parent saved Jesus but not the other children.  We want to know why Jesus didn’t save the other children.  We want to know why Jesus doesn’t save us from the violence of this world.

More than a sequel to the Moses story, as God incarnate Jesus didn’t need to be a vulnerable baby born among animals, forced to flee with his mother and Joseph and live as a refugee.  He could easily have descended from a cloud as described in Daniel, or appear heroic and stoic as prophesied in Revelation.

Instead, Jesus put on our vulnerability and our humanity, calling us brothers and sisters, living as susceptible as any infant child.  Jesus humbled himself to live in the fullness of our existence in every respect, sharing in our joys and sorrows so that we will never have to question if our Triune God understands the complexities of our realities.

In the vulnerability of the incarnate infant, we can trust with a certainty that our through Jesus, God will stop through nothing and has stopped at nothing to be in deep, meaningful relationship with us.

hole-earthMany of you may have seen the Ted Talk that has been floating around social media about empathy verses sympathy.  It says that in order for a person who is in despair to feel that they are not alone, they do not need to be sympathized with, they need to be empathized with.  That when we are in our lowest moments, when we are living in a pain so deep and dark that it haunts us and terrifies us, the only way we can get out of that deep, dark hole is to have someone else come down into the hole with us.

Sympathy is when we stand above that hole, seeing someone deep inside, and offer them a rope.  Empathy is getting into the thick of it, walking step by step as the one in pain finds their way toward the light.

God throwing us a rope of sympathy is not enough to bring us to the light.  Jesus coming among us, into the deepest, darkest pit of our experience and sharing our lives step by step is empathy, and is the light that shines upon our path.

We may want the quick fix of the sympathy rope.  We certainly seek it when tragedy strikes.  We wanted to know in Newtown, Connecticut why our children were slaughtered.  We want to know why some people are plagued with illness and others with senseless persecution.  We want God to in the blink of an eye fix our infertility, to cure us with our battles of addictions.  We want God to reset the clock on our crumbling relationships.

God does more than sympathize with our pain.  In humbling himself to our humanity, Jesus comes down and joins us the deepest, darkest ache of our lives.  Jesus empathizes with our vulnerability and fragility he experienced the fullness of our humanity.  It is like our lesson from Hebrews shares, just as “the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things.”

Jesus’ early life echoed the history of the Israelites so that their history became his own.  Jesus continues to share in our human experience.

When our children were senselessly murdered last December in Newton, Christ experienced the grief of their parents and our nation.  When we are plagued with illness, Jesus feels the prick of every needled and the adhesive of every bandage.  When we yearn to grow our families, Christ experiences our parental instincts.  When we long to reset the clock on our relationships, Jesus shares in our feelings of despair and hopelessness.

In the infant Jesus, God moves from sympathy to empathy, forsaking the rope and crawling down into the darkness to walk with us step by step.  But Jesus does not stop at empathy.  Just as Jesus shares the experiences of our humanity, Jesus moves past empathy so that we share in his resurrection.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ transforms the empathy of our shared human existence into the fulfilled promise of new life, a life that is available to all.

Through the miracle of resurrection, we rise from our grief like a phoenix from the bassinet_2ashes, building new relationships and holding onto hope.  In resurrection, Jesus moves past empathy and helps us discover the new possibilities that come from understanding how we are more than the limitations of our bodies.  In resurrection, we build deeper connections with our loved ones from the intimacy that comes with forgiveness.

I continue to think about Sheila and her question if Jesus ever ate applesauce.  While I will never have an answer that that question, I place my trust in the fulfilled promise that Jesus was right beside little baby Star as she was filled with joy from the taste of applesauce.  I place my trust that Jesus in his vulnerability was with Star step by step as she struggled to grow, and was the light that guided her from this life to the next.  I live in the resurrection hope that through Jesus, Sheila’s life was shaped for the better for having been Star’s mom, even for a short while.

The infant Jesus lives in the light and darkness of our lives, journeying with us step by step.

Amen.

The following sermon was preached for the children of Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis, on December 24, 2013. 

Many years ago God createdchristmas the heavens and the earth, forming woman and man from God’s own image.  God loved the earth and all its creatures very much, and gave all living things a very special gift – his love, protection and faithfulness.  This gift was so special that its light shone upon the earth, and the world was at peace.

The man and woman really liked God’s gift, but wondered if there was anything better than the gift.  So they climbed up a tree in the garden and ate some fruit that God had said was off limits.  God was sad, and put some rules in place on how the world could receive God’s gift of love, protection, and faithfulness.

For many years, people did their best to follow God’s rules to get this most special gift.  Abraham and Sarah welcomed many guests, Isaac was bound on the mountain, Ruth cared for her mother-in-law Naomi.

At one point, there was a group of people who thought that they could live without the gifts that God gave to the earth, and they turned their back on God’s rules.  Darkness fell over the earth, where people did bad things to one another and no one looked out for each other.  This made God very sad, because God knew he needed to punish the people for their bad behavior  so that they would learn from their mistakes.  God sent a great flood, protecting Noah and his family because they were people who followed God’s ways.  After the flood, God was even sadder because our God does not like to punish people.  So God made a promise to the world that he would never again bring a flood to punish people for their bad choices.  God gave the world a rainbow as a sign to help remind people of that promise, and of the gift of love, protection and faithfulness that God has always been trying to give the world.

giftboxGod really wanted to help people receive the gift of love, protection, and faithfulness, so he came up with a list of 10 special rules that would help people get the gift.   Moses shared those rules, called commandments with the people.  While the commandments are helpful, sometimes it was hard for the people to follow them.

Throughout the years, over and over again, God kept coming up with new ways for people to receive that most special gift of love, protection, and faithfulness.  People tried to get the gift for themselves, but a gift this special we cannot get for ourselves.  It has to be given to us.

God really wanted the world to have this special gift.  God gave the most special gift to the world through his son Jesus.  When Jesus was born on Christmas and placed in the manger, the gift of love, protection and faithfulness came to earth to be shared among all people.  There are no more rules or commandments required to receive this extraordinary gift.

When Jesus came to earth, he showed the world how special this gift really was.  Jesus spent his life helping people who down on their luck, healing people who were sick, and helping people make friends with others.  When Jesus went to the cross, he took the struggles and hard times of our life and wore them as his own.

Jesus is with us when we have good days, and when we celebrate special occasions like birthdays and holidays.  Jesus is with us when we have bad days, like when we get bullied in school, struggle with homework, or fall down and get a scratch.  Jesus is with us when we make bad choices, forgiving us so that next time we can make better choices.  Jesus is the strength within us to make good choices, and is the spirit that helps us do nice things for our family and neighbors.

God has always wanted us to have this special gift of love, protection and faithfulness, so God brought it to earth through Jesus so that that every person can share this amazing gift.

poinstettiaOn Christmas we give gifts to one another not because we need more things, but we give gifts because when we do nice things for others, we show God that we are thankful for the gift of Jesus.  In a few moments our church family of Bethel will give each of you a poinsettia.  When you look at it, remember that Bethel gave you this gift as a way to show God how thankful we are for the gift of Jesus.

This is the true meaning of Christmas: God loved us so much that God gave us the greatest gift of all time – Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas.

Godspell1As we prepare for our final midweek Advent Vespers lesson of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1 – 18), I cannot stop a memory from my youth to float through my mind.  When I was in junior high, I was in a production of Godspell with my sister’s high school friends.  Several of them had attended the same church, and they were one singer short of a full ensemble.  Thanks to my sister vouching for me, I was admitted into the production, an event that exposed me to my first ecumenical effort and created the foundation for friendships I still hold dear today.  As a result of that musical, I will never be able to think about John the Baptist without the song “Prepare Ye” ringing through my mind.

There are many who question if this passage can indeed be labeled the Song of John the Baptist.  While it may sometimes miss our notice, John is considered a prophet.  In Hebrew literature, a prophet fulfills a minimum of one of the following distinct roles; 1) to speak towards the future of what God will be doing in the world, 2) to give a message from God to the people (like an intercessory or messenger), 3) to experience a mystical act from God, like a vision 4) use mystical abilities on God’s behalf, such as healing someone.  Very often, prophets would prepare the way in battle, similar to the role of a town crier.  A refrain from their vision would be sung repeatedly in a liturgical fashion.  Frequently, these cries were repeated seven times while circling a territory and carrying a sacred object, such as the arc of the covenant.  The prophetic cry or song would become a liturgical ritual, helping to prepare for the battle ahead and serving as a reminder of God’s faithfulness to the people.

Luke strongly emphasized that John the Baptist was a prophet, speaking on God’s behalf about the future of the ethical renewal in Israel and how God was bringing salvation to all peoples.[1]  John’s prophetic voice is strengthened as he echoes the imagery found by another prophet in Isaiah 40: 3 – 5.  Isaiah’s image of “the way of the Lord,” references a Babylonian liturgical rite of a festival procession of idols.[2]  Isaiah explains that one will come who will “make straight” (correct) the roadway from celebrating false idols and instead reveal God’s glory.

While we may never know for sure if this passage was indeed sung, it is not a far leap to assume that John enacted the liturgical practice of the sung town crier as he prepared the way for Christ, especially in light of the Isaiah imagery.  We explore this possibility of song as tomorrow, December 18, at 7 pm.  A reception will follow the service.

As I continue to hum “Prepare Ye,” I find myself surprised that a musical with disciples dressed as clowns holds so much liturgical history.  In Godspell, the refrain of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is repeated over and over again in town crier fashion, providing us with an avenue to imagine how John may have sung his prophetic refrain throughout the city streets.


[1] Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (volume 9), a ed. (Grand Rapids: Abingdon Press, 1996), page 81

[2] J. J. M. Roberts, The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, Fully ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2006), page 961

It is interesting that we will explore Hannah’s Song at our Advent Vespers just one day after the globalized day of prayer against hunger on December 10.  Before we reach Hannah uplifting her prayer of thanksgiving about her son, we learn in the book 1 Samuel that Hannah had been rebuked for reaching for more food at dinner one night by her husband’s second wife, Peniniah.

hannahs-prayerEven in a prosperous household, food can be used as a weapon.  It is presumed that Elkanah’s household was affluent, which was why he could accommodate having both Hannah and Peniniah as wives.  Hannah was barren where Peniniah had many children.  Peniniah scolded Hannah for reaching for more food, stating that the extra food should go to her own children.  At that table, food was used to shame Hannah for the barrenness that was beyond her control.

It was this encounter that prompted Hannah to go to the temple and plead with God for a son.  She made a bargain, vowing that if she is blessed with a child she would give him over to God to be a Nazarite.  Soon after, she gave birth to Samuel, whose name translates “name of God.”  When Samuel was about 3 years old, the family journeys to Shiloh where Hannah gives Samuel over to the priest Eli, fulfilling her promise made in the temple.  It is here in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 we encounter her prayer of thanksgiving.

It was common for prayers of thanksgiving to be sung aloud.  Add that ritual with the literary structure and strong symbolism, Hannah’s prayer often referred to as a psalm or song.  Since Hannah was heading to the temple as she proclaimed this prayer, many traditions sing this song in advance to worship as a pietistic preparation.

Hannah’s song strongly parallel’s the style and structure of Psalm 113, a song of thanksgiving that is accredited to David.  The structure and style of songs of thanksgiving are somewhat formulaic in structure – they tend to begin with an word of praise, refer back to how God has acted on behalf of the people in creation in the past, and look to the future at how God will bring glory in the future.  Such a structure was useful when used corporately in an assembly, as it leads to natural breaks for call and response between the congregation and the cantor.

This structure for songs of thanksgiving is so strong that we see it repeated in numerous psalms, including Mary the mother of Jesus’ psalm of thanksgiving at the annunciation.  The similarities between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song are so strong that some scholars believe that Mary’s song was an adaptation of the familiar song from Hannah.

We explore Hannah’s song at 7 pm on Wednesday, December 11.  Dinner will be held at 6 pm for those interested.  Join us next week as we encounter the song of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-18.

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