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Archive for December, 2012

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, December 29, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH.  This message is based on Luke 2:41-52 and 1 Samuel 2:18-26.

It was a dark time in the kingdom of God.  The earth was calling for a new ruler, one that would bring peace to a struggling nation.  Through divine interaction, a woman who shouldn’t be pregnant suddenly gave birth to a child who would change the nations.

In the wake of this miraculous news, his mother glorifies God and she says: “My heart exults in the Lord, and my strength is exalted in my God.”

Every year, the boy and his parents travel in honor of the yearly sacrifice.  He studied in the holy place, increasing in wisdom and growing in stature and favor both in the eyes of the people and God.

The name of this is שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל (shem’el).  Samuel.

streetsofjerusalemThis morning as our Gospel takes us to the streets of Jerusalem, frantically searching for twelve-year old Jesus, we are introduced to a side of our Savior that we are not familiar with.  Luke shows us the only text of Jesus in his teenage years and invites us into a confusing moment between parents and child.

How are we to react to this scenario of the Holy Family?  How are we to respond to the apparent obliviousness of Mary and Joseph preventing them from realizing that Jesus would be studying in the temple?

What do we think of the fact that Jesus abandoned the safety of the caravan and left his parents without letting them know where he was going?  The streets of Jerusalem were known to be dangerous during the Passover festival days, where lone travelers were often abducted or harmed.  Jesus leaving the caravan was not solely just a quest for knowledge, but appears to be at total disregard for the safety of himself and his parents.  Each day they were farther from the safety of the caravan the risk of abduction and robbery grew and grew.  How do we reconcile such a seemingly ill-conceived plan from our Christ child?

The seasons of Christmas and Epiphany give us opportunities to explore the notion of incarnation in a unique way.  Each season looks at the human embodiment of God on earth through its own specific lens.  Lent and Holy Week have a strong focus on the physical pain and suffering of Jesus – the hunger in the wilderness, the crown of thorns, the weight of the cross, and the unquenchable thirst.  The long season of Pentecost has an emphasis on the Spirit.  It begs us to ask how we as members of the body of Christ can use the example of our incarnated Lord to care for the sick, feed the hungry, and build a better tomorrow for our church.  Advent shows us the future of incarnation, how Christ will return and complete the restoration of the earth.

It is here in the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany that we see the incarnation in our relationships.  In other lectionary years during this time period, we learn that Jesus was circumcised, an event that maintained the covenant made between Isreal and God.  We see how his parents and community hid him from the slaughter of Herod’s homicidal reign.  We see Jesus turning water into wine while he is a guest at a couple’s wedding.

Incarnation, God in the flesh, has a different feeling during these seasons, and today, as we approach the temple doors we are invited into yet another way of understanding what that looks like.  Here Jesus studies, growing in wisdom so that he can live into his calling.  We also are privy to a unique view of his relationship with his earthly parents, and where that relationship falls in context to his purpose on earth.

The steps of teenage Jesus strongly echo that of Samuel, the bringer of change to a different time.  Samuel was among the last of the judges before kings were appointed to bring stability to Israel.  It is Samuel who appoints Saul as king, ultimately leading to the reign of David.

Samuel’s mother Hannah was barren when she conceived him, much like Elizabeth was when she conceived.  Hannah agreed to give Samuel over to God so that he would not be corrupted by the sons of her husband’s other wife, Peninnah.  Knowing he would be a man of great faith, she named her son Samuel, שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל (shem’el), which in Hebrew means “He who is with God.”

jerusalemSamuel was a great judge and a wise leader.  He brought change to Israel and hope for the future.  But there is a difference between being שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל (shem’el), “he who is with God” and being Emmanuel, “God with us.”

There is a difference between the ruler who follows the steps of God and God actually ruling on earth.  There are limits to human power and limitations to human strength.  These barriers do not exist for Jesus.

Three days wandering the streets of unsafe Jerusalem for a human would have been the source of great danger.  Three days lying in a cold, darkened tomb after dying would have meant no more life for a human.

At the end of each of these three days, where we would expect a human to be lying dead, we instead find Jesus alive.  Still with us, still studying our customs and conversing with the people in the temple.

We are now a few days outside of Christmas, and while the world moves forward from the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we may feel that we have lost Jesus.  We look and look and we can’t find him.

He’s no longer in the stores.  He’s no longer ringing out from our local radio stations and the movie specials have long since ended.  Much like the caravan that brought Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Jerusalem, our family has all gone home or will be leaving soon.

We look for Jesus, and it can be hard to find him.  He slowly slips in our mind from Emmanuel, “God with us” to Samuel, “He who is with God.”  We know if we find Jesus he’ll tell us about God because he is holy and righteous.  But do we still expect him to be our Savior, our Prince of Peace?  Do we still have the hope of restoration and resurrection?

We are challenged this morning to broaden our understanding of incarnation.  Jesus may not be where we expect him to be, lying down in a lowly manger or hanging up upon a wooden cross.  Those things are vital, those actions more sacred then the collective steps of any king or ruler, but they are a portion of the incarnated puzzle.

Jesus lied in that manger and died upon the cross to be in relationship with us.  To be near us.  To know us.  To show us love in an intimate and vibrant way.  To eliminate all barriers of brokenness and shame from our human condition that would keep us from experiencing the full breadth of the grace of God.  Jesus did these things not because he needed them for the glory or for the fame.  Jesus did these things because we needed them to happen in order to truly understand the gift of unconditional love.

Incarnation is a gift God has given us, a sacred and holy relationship that God continues to work at even when we drop the ball, when we mistreat our family, when we misuse our resources, when we forget what Christmas is all about five days after we sing “Silent Night.”

Through the gift of incarnation, Jesus studied at the temple so that he could speak to us on a human level, not speak down to us from a divine one.  Jesus was born to human parents because whether we like to admit it or not, our family context shapes who we are.  Jesus followed the traditions of his time to help us understand that his authority is grounded in our reality.

There is a difference between the ruler who follows the steps of God and God actually ruling on earth.  There is a reason we sing Emmanuel instead of Samuel.  The gift of the Word made flesh speaks to us and supports us, giving us the grace of unconditional love.

Amen.

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Church Girl

A few candlesnufferweeks ago my four-year-old niece was in town and was playing with my candle snuffer.  I have several large votive candles on the mantle of my fireplace, and have splattered wax more times than I would like to admit, hence the snuffer.  It very much resembles the candle extinguishers used on a church altars.  My niece was super excited to douse the candles, and kept giggling as she said, “I’m going to be a church girl! I’m going to be a church girl!”

My niece and nephew both love church, which is somewhat surprising because they are at church all the time.  Their mother is a music and youth director, their dad teaches music at a Catholic high school and I am in seminary training to become a pastor.  Between the three of us, they are in church more hours in one week then some people attend in a year.

advent-wreathWhere I would think they would be bored of church by now they love it.  They were super excited to help light the candles on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  My niece was going to start the prayer with my sister finishing i.  Before the service she practiced and practiced, her soft child voice repeatedly saying “Blessed be God, Blessed be God.”  She was ready to take being a “church girl” to a whole new level.

But when the time came to speak into the microphone from the lectern, my niece panicked.  She tucked her face into my sisters neck, shying away from the assembly.  When she came back to the pew and my sister returned to direct the musicians, my niece crawled into my lap and began to cry. “I was too scared to be a church girl.  I’m so sad I didn’t do it!”

A few days later on Christmas morning, I stood upon the altar and sang the liturgy for the first time outside of worship class.  Like my niece, I was terrified.  It is hard to stand before a community of people and share your faith in a new way.  It can be intimidating to want to do it right, to make sure you don’t make a mistake, to try to remember the right words at the right time.

When we sat down at the dinner table that afternoon and my sister asked for me to lead grace, my niece said, “Can I pray?”  With her strong, brave voice, she started us off, “God is great, God is good…”  Throughout the meal she kept turning to her two-year old brother, the two of them saying to one another, “God is great.  God is good.”  “God is great. God is good.”

I don’t think my niece will ever know that she was more of a “church girl” at that dinner table then she ever would have been by speaking into a microphone in worship.  It is one thing to say words of faith at the right time in the right place, at the perfectly orchestrated section of a worship service.  It is something else to take the reigns and lead others in an intimate way, being so over joyed with the day that you cannot stop yourself from saying “God is great.  God is good.”

My little church girl knows what matters and the reason for the season, and is a teacher to me in more ways then she will ever know.

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The following sermon was preached on Christmas morning, 2012 for Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH.  This message was based on the Christmas narrative found in the Gospel of Luke. 

Refugee.  Migrant worker.  Hearing voices and seeing visions.

These are not positive words in our culture.  These are not characteristics any of us would use to describe ourselves and they don’t exactly scream “Merry Christmas.”  Yet it is precisely these images we find within Luke this morning.

Every day that I drive to work, I go past a stop where migrant workers wait for day and seasonal labor jobs.  I live in a predominately impoverished African American community in the Southside of Chicago, where classicism exists even among minority groups.  Local businesses rarely give preferential treatment to the Spanish speaking immigrant when hiring new employees.  As a result, many of the Spanish community in my neighborhood are unemployed, leaving these migrant workers to stand at corners waiting for offers of day or seasonal jobs.

It’s an interesting phenomenon to watch how the migrant workers are hired.  They stand outside in the rain, freezing cold, and blazing heat, hoping someone will offer them work.  In the midst of city smog and fumes of gasoline, short term employment agreements are made between two people over a rolled down car window.  A handful of words are exchanged and suddenly a few of the migrant workers hop aboard a truck.  They are off to complete a task where they will be overworked and underpaid, completing the work no one wants to do but that needs to be done.

The exchange between the worker and employer is brief, one I can view in time it takes for the stop light to change.  Day after day, I see twenty or thirty men standing outside a run-down gas station waiting for work, living a life that I cannot begin to imagine.

Starry-Night-OverIn a starry night just outside Bethlehem angels appeared to migrant workers of a different age, sharing with them the good news that Christ was born.

It is challenging in a context where we associate Jesus as our shepherd that we can look at shepherding as anything other than an admirable vocation.  Thanks especially to the Gospel of John, the image of a “good shepherd” is one that brings peace to a weary world.

The word shepherd evokes images of Christ leaving the 99 to go after the one lost sheep.  We see ourselves being safely guided by a loving leader with a gentle staff.  Our Shepherd will feed the flock and heal the lame.  Shepherd to us means teacher, companion, deep wisdom and friend.

This is not how Luke understood the role of shepherds.  They were the migrant workers of their day, among the lowliest of the low.   Shepherds were seasonal workers, doing the work no one wanted to do but needed to be done.  They were looked upon with the same sort of sadness and shame as those men jumping into truck beds outside of run-down gas stations.

Nevertheless it is to the shepherds that the angels first appear.  Not to the educated.  Not to the magi. Not to the kings, or Pharisees, or chief priests.  The angels don’s speak of the coming of the Messiah to the lawmakers, the person with the clout, the people who are trending and have a huge Twitter following.  They appear to the migrant worker, the societal outcasts, the people asking for money at the corner that we pretend not to see.

It is the least among humanity that experience the good news of Jesus first, and the least among humanity that are empowered to worship God and share the grace of Emmanuel.  God is with us, and this is the ultimate good news.

If we were the angels charged with the celestial task of broadcasting such a blessing, would our first thought be to find the least among us?  Would we go to the field workers, those begging for work at gas stations, the homeless, the societal outcasts?  If so, would we then appoint them with the responsibility of sharing the blessing?

We are fortunate that we are not given the responsibility of the angels, the ones assigned to make such decisions of who gets to hear this miraculous news first.  We are fortunate that through our baptism we are charged to tell all people about the grace of God, both those considered to be the lowliest among us and those considered to be the greatest.  The good news of God on earth is not limited to one class above another.  The good news of Christ is for everyone and each one of us is empowered to share it.

But there are times when it is hard to share the good news.  In the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook, the Oregon shootings, and Hurricane Sandy, it may be hard for us to explain exactly how God is with us.  It can be challenging to publically share our faith when we don’t have answers to the question, “how could this terrible thing happen?”

We may struggle to know how to speak of the strength of God when we look around the tragedy of broken marriages, terminal illnesses, and violence within our homes.  We could look at the story of the shepherds and wonder how did they do it?  How were they able to have such deep faith when the world around them seems so bleak?  How do we share the good news when the frosty winds of our lives make us feel so weak and vulnerable?

There are few things as weak and vulnerable as that of a newborn child.  Yet this is how Christ entered the world.

starrynightchristmasBorn in a time when children rarely survived past infancy, our God put on flesh and was born as a baby.  Our Triune God could have come to earth in a million of ways.  Jesus could have descended from the clouds as prophesied in Daniel.  Jesus could have just appeared on the road as he did in Damascus.

Instead, Jesus was born as a human infant, taking our most vulnerable traits as his own.  Not only that, but Jesus was born while his earthly parents journeyed to prove their citizenship.  This is the same demoralizing task we ask of refugees.  Politically, Jesus was born into a societal role as vulnerable as the shepherds, a subclass among the poor.

Taking our flesh as his own, Jesus came into the world as a fragile being in one of the lowest social classes.  In this unexpected, unprecedented and miraculous moment of incarnation, Jesus transformed human vulnerability forever.

Throughout his life, in his frail and breakable body, Jesus continued to suffer under the burdens of human vulnerability.  Jesus was vulnerable as he hungered in the wilderness.  Jesus was vulnerable when his friend betrayed him.  Jesus was vulnerable when the crown of thorns was forced upon his head.  All of these things pale in the stark vulnerability found while he hung dying on the cross.

While Jesus was indeed vulnerable in these moments and countless others, these experiences were rooted in strength.  This strength was so rich that it led to our salvation, allowing us the grace of living into our vulnerability.  This strength is what has forgiven us from our sin and brokenness.  This strength is the hope that is found in the darkest of hours.

Today, on this holy and sacred morning, we may feel we are like the shepherds, astounded that God has appointed the seemingly most unlikely people to spread the message that our Messiah is with us.  We may wonder how we can stay strong in our faith in our times of adversity, how we can bring this good news to a weary world.

We may never have the answer to why bad things happened, and why other things will happen in our future.  We will most likely never be able to tie tragedies, challenges, and hardships up with a sensible and reasonable bow.

But there is an answer that is stronger than all of those questions.  This answer is what caused the angels to sing in the dead of night, and what equipped the shepherds to proclaim and glorify God despite their social standing.

We are not in this alone.  Our Triune God loved us so much that God came to live as a human, putting on our flesh, and transforming our vulnerability into the strength beyond our expectations.

Amen.

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christmas_musicThis past December I caroled more than I remember caroling in a really long time.  First there was a Lessons and Carols event at my seminary.  Then a friend had a carol-sing-a-long at her house, where we lit sparklers while singing “Silent Night”.  The international students caroled in our courtyards sharing tunes from their home countries.  Finally I went caroling with the church that I work at, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.

As I have become more involved in the church and my awareness of the church year has grown, I’ve noticed that Christmas has fallen to the back of my mind during the month of December.  The season of Advent is what reigns supreme.  I truly have come to love living in a season that celebrates Christ’s future return to the world, meaning more to me than any Christmas present.  But living so deeply in Advent has made me forget a bit about Christmas.  Add to it that there was no snow on the ground before the big day and my holiday decorations are back in Cleveland, without the carols this Christmas really could have slipped through my fingertips.

It has literally been since my childhood since I last caroled, and I had forgotten how this simple act serves as a beautiful demonstration of what Christmas is about.  We celebrate Christmas because there is no gift greater than Christ coming into the world, allowing us to experience God’s grace in an earthly way. It is because of Christmas we can share in the love and grace of God forever.

This year, as I caroled around the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, I shared the love of God.  Sometimes, people received that gift by singing along, like the little girl who kept singing “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle bells” no matter what tune or words were sung.  There was one family who received our gift by inviting us in their house around the piano, transforming our gift of chorus into an instrumental melody. There were others who couldn’t quite handle the gift, turning away from their window.  Their reaction reminded me that we each have a unique journey of faith that is on it’s own time table, and our job as Christians is to sing boldly to drawn curtains and darkened doorsteps.

Christmas comes so quickly and leaves even sooner.  As we enter into this new year, as we move well beyond Advent and wrapping paper, let us not forget to spread the Christmas message – that God loved us so much God came to live among us as human, dying on a cross for our salvation, and empowering us through a love that is beyond our understanding.

This was an article written for Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, Ohio, originally published in December of 2012 for the January 2013 edition of the “Divinity Digest.”

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Sermon: Budding Forth

The following sermon was preached on December 1, 2012 at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Wilmette, IL.  This message was based on Luke 21:25-36 for the Advent 1, Year C. 

There is much reason to be excited this morning.  Today marks the beginning of Advent, the first Sunday of our church year and the first steps as we journey toward the birth of our Savior.  Today marks the beginning of a miraculous journey, and yet our texts today speak of the end of times.  Instead of hearing words of excitement, we hear words of fear so strong that it can take a person’s breath away.

I would imagine that fear that strong is a feeling many of us have had at one moment or another in our lives.

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a city that prides itself in being the home of rock-and-roll and blue collar families.  When I was in high school, my hometown lived in the fear of a crumbling economy when multiple factories all closed within a year of each other.  When word spread that the only independent alternative rock station was about to be bought out by a national company, our community realized that all signs pointed to the end of an economic era.

The radio station buyout prompted such fear in the local economy that people wrote countless letters to the editor, students held rock-a-thons in their schools, and protest bumper stickers covered almost every car on the street.

Local business bought commercial ad time and donated it to the station.  For the last 48 hours, the station played one song; R.E.M’s “It’s the End of The World.”

No matter where you went, the overly repetitive refrain filled the air. “It’s the end of the world as we know it….It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  For two days, those steady lyrics seeped into our ears and hearts.  That song was in the air we breathed and the words we spoke.  Through the words of that song, many of us were finally were able to accept that the world as we knew it would be changed forever.

The day after the changeover, I flicked on the radio.  To my surprise I found that the new corporate station was still playing alternative rock.  The world of music and industry within our community as we knew may have changed, but that change was indecipherable.

advent-wreathIn many ways, the arrival of Advent is not unlike that radio changeover.  We enter this season celebrating that we are facing the end of the world as we know it.  We enter this season knowing that while Christ changed the world forever, many challenging realities of our human experience remain the same.  We are still waiting for the Son of Man to descend from the clouds upon the earth and bring the final redemption.

We enter this season knowing very likely December 25 will not be the beginning of the end.  Next year at this same time we will be in a very similar place, caught in the midst of yet another Advent.

It is the end of the world as we know it, yet it can be challenging to decipher the changes.

This is the quandary of Advent.  It can be as frustrating as hearing the same haunting refrain over and over again.  This end of the world song sings, “Christ is coming!  Christ is coming!  Christ is coming!”  We wait for Christ to come and bring change, for the refrain to end.  We wait for the cold winter air of our fear to turn into the warm summer air of excitement.  Instead we just keep on keeping on.

Better to skip Advent all together.  These four weeks can be a prolonged Christmas, focusing on the memory of the babe in the manger instead of the coming of the Son of Man.

While we want to focus on the Christmas holiday, Jesus tells us to remain alert.  The Son of Man is coming.  Jesus challenges us to be on guard, keeping our hearts free from the weight of distractions that prevent us from noticing Christ in our midst.

It can be tempting to limit our lookout for the Son of Man, watching out only for dramatic signs like the skies opening up, the earth trembling, and roaring waters.  Signs such as these are as noticeable as hearing the same song being played for two straight days.

Jesus tells us that while those are important signs, not every sign will be delivered on such a large scale.  Signs will also appear in something as simple as the budding of a fig tree.

We are caught between advents of when Jesus changed the world and when the world will change again.  Being caught in this place does not mean we are in the midst of a drought, devoid of evidence that the Son of Man is coming.

Jesus shares that we will see the leaves on the fig tree and all the trees, sprouting to show that summer is near.  An image of Israel, the fig tree represents God’s people.  In our gospel today, Jesus warns us against looking for the presence of the Son of Man only among our own communities.  The Son of Man will appear in all the trees, both in the familiar fig and in unexpected forests.

The Son of Man is made known in the here and now through the actions of people.  Our steps towards reconciliation and redemption reveal that through Jesus’s death and resurrection the world as we knew it came to an end.  Through the gift of the cross, Jesus empowers us to bear witness as the Son of Man continues blossom and bloom in the here and now.

The Son of Man blooms in the here and now when we pass the peace to one another in worship.  Christ blossoms when we make sandwiches for the Night Ministry, and with each stitch of the prayer quilts.  Our Savior nourishes the soil of our future as our children participate in confirmation and Sunday school.  Every time we remain alert by studying Scripture or be on guard by participating in Holy Communion, we open our hearts and minds to opportunities of seeing the Son of Man budding forth in our midst.

During Advent, we are challenged to be on the lookout of what is to come, and we continue to remember what Jesus has done for us.  We remember that because of a deep and unconditional love for us, by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus was born into our humanity to live with us and walk our path.  We remember that Christ trusted us to be the breath of peace and justice to the earth, and taught us face-to-face ways to honor our neighbor and support one another.  We remember that because the Son of Man lived, our Triune God died upon a cross, relieving us from the burdens and limitations of our brokenness.

In remembering all these miraculous things, we see how the Son of Man continues to bud forth in unlikely places and times.

Christ buds forth with seeds of forgiveness when we have hurt a loved one.  He shelters us with leaves of grace when we struggle with doubt that redemption is near.  The Son of Man buds forth in the forest of community that grieves with us when we mourn the loss of our spouse or parent.  He transforms our ill intentions as easily as plants purify our air.

This is the beginning of the end, a time for us to be filled with an air of excitement and thanksgiving.  It is the end of the world as we know it because every day the grace and love of the Son of Man buds forth, transforming our world into something new.

Amen.

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