Posts Tagged ‘Hebrews’

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.



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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis on September 1, 2013.  This message was based on Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1,7-14.

This past January I had the great privilege of going to India to learn about world religions in a pluralistic country.  To say that India was a bit of a culture shock for 16 US seminary students would be as understated as saying that water is wet.  Between the lasting impacts of the Hindu caste system, the overt religiosity, the population and the pollution, it was as if we had entered another world.

One day, my class went to meet with a Muslim woman named Najma to learn how the secularization of the Hindu caste system impacted the experience of Islamic women.

I13_Charminar1dTraveling in India is a bit complicated, for there are no address or street signs.  To find a new location, our driver would head to a general part of town, get out of the van, and ask for directions.  In a country where there are 800 national languages, it was complicated to find someone who spoke the same language as our driver.  Very often translating between multiple strangers on the street corner was essential to acquire the next set of directions.  For several hours, our motley crew of seminarians drove in a non-air-conditioned van under the glaring Indian sun from one spot to another, waiting for another set of directions.

Finally we reached Najma’s father’s house.  Narjam’s father saw that we were overheated and exhausted and quickly ushered us into his lavish living room.  He surrounded us with sandwiches, cakes, and treats.  At one point someone even ran out to the store to get us our preferred bottled water.

After our tummies were well fed and our thirst was quenched, Najma’s father turned to my professor and asked, “Who are you and why are you here?”

It turned out Najma didn’t live with her father.  Najma was waiting for us at a different house in a different part of town.  The correct directions to our appointment got lost in one of the several exchanges by our driver on the street.  Najma’s father had no idea his daughter was meeting with students from America. Yet he welcomed us into his home and extended lavish hospitality without knowing why we were there or what we were looking for.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine that if a bus load of tourists pulled up to my front door, I would let them in my home, offering them food and drink, without first asking, “Who are you and why are you here?”  Talk about culture shock!

This morning as we peer into the dinner party of Jesus and the Pharisees, we may be experiencing our own level of culture shock where some information seems to be a bit lost in translation.

Today’s gospel opens, sharing that Jesus had arrived at a dinner party hosted by a Pharisee.[1]  Our lectionary skips several verses of Luke, fast-tracking us to heart of a passionate parable about banquet guests.

Aside from weddings and state dinners, it may be hard for us to imagine exactly what we are stumbling upon in this story.  We no longer live in a culture where someone would be openly disgraced by taking a seat that was above their societal station.  It can be challenging for us to fully relate to why this experience is such a big deal.

The missing verses give us some insight.  In them we learn that after Jesus arrives at the dinner party, he encounters a sick man who has an intestinal illness called dropsy.  Jesus takes one look at this man and cures him.  Like Pastor Boardman shared with us last week, it was scandalous to cure someone on the Sabbath.  Working on the Sabbath was in direct violation of religious law.  Just as the caste system in India expands beyond Hinduism into the secular world and societal customs, so did the Jewish laws affect both the secular and religious circles.  When Jesus heals the man, he stands in direct contrast to both the secular and religious normative, establishing a new precedent for glorifying God.

To say that the guests were not pleased would be another “water is wet” understatement.  This is the fourth time Jesus worked on the Sabbath in direct violation of all that was culturally appropriate.  Previously Jesus and his disciples picked grain, cured the man with the withered hand, and last week’s lesson of the woman who was bent over.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

It is a south Indian custom to cover places and objects of honor with flowers and color.

Jesus had initially been invited to this dinner party as an honored guest.   When Jesus cured the man with dropsy, the party goers had just about enough.  The guests needed to put Jesus back in his place, to shame Jesus for crossing the line.  They took the seats of honor in his place,[2] moving him to the back of the proverbial bus.

Instead of rebuking the guests for their behavior, Jesus responds nonviolently, both embodying and speaking of humility.  Honor is not something that one takes, it is something that is given.  Honor does not occur when we uplift ourselves.  One can only be lifted to a place of honor by another.

Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, our lives have been lifted to a place of honor and we have been extended the greatest gift of hospitality.  No longer will the stations of our life, the color of our skin, the gender of our bodies, or the brokenness of our mistakes prevent us from having a deep relationship with God.  When he was lifted on the cross, Christ uplifted us from the back of the bus, out of our caste systems, and past the Sabbath laws that would prevent us from experiencing God’s grace.

Through Christ we have been lifted to a place of honor where we are empowered to tend the poor and lame, speak against oppression within our communities, and strive for peace and justice throughout the earth.

This is not something that we can do for ourselves.  It is something that has been done for us through Jesus Christ.  And it was done for us through the ultimate act of humility.

Jesus humbled God’s self and became fully human, sharing in our human experiences to be in intimate relationship with us.  Jesus our God incarnate was born in the humblest of settings, the most royal birth in the most ordinary of mangers.  Jesus completed the ultimate act of humility when he suffered and died upon the cross for the redemption and restoration of the world.  As he shared, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[3]

Jesus is exalted in resurrection because he lived and died in humility.  Through God’s inexplicable gift of hospitality, we have been resurrected in Christ and are emboldened to live a life in response to the place of honor we have been given.  We have been empowered to let mutual love continue,[4] so that we can fulfill Jesus’ guidance to invite all to the banquet of life – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.[5]

For the past two years that I have lived in Chicago, I worked for a church in the Logan Square neighborhood.  At the start of the summer, St. Luke’s began hosting Community Dinners on Wednesdays in response to a local support shelter closing.  The goal for Community Dinners was to live into its name, providing an opportunity for the whole community to gather around the table.  Inviting both the well-fed and under-fed, the privileged and the impoverished, each week a local chef from a nearby restaurant prepared a gourmet styled meal from what was donated from the local food depository.  To help ensure that these meals were viewed as a symbol of hospitality instead of charity, food was served family style instead of through a cafeteria based line.

One Wednesday after Pastor Erik gave the blessing, he sat down next to a man without housing.  The man reached forward for the spoon, and with dirt under his nails and weeks’ worth of street smells on his skin, turned to Erik and said, “May I serve you, Pastor?”

Living a life of humility opens us to accept gifts of hospitality.  It is in our self-effacement that we receive generosity, and in our generosity we are able to live a modest life.  Humility opens our hearts to the banquet of life provided by Christ.

Najma's father's house.

Najma’s father’s house.

The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a stranger inviting 16 tourists into their home.  The hospitality found in Christ is as surprising as a man without a home wanting to serve the local pastor instead of be served himself.  In Christ, both the privileged and the impoverished are empowered to both serve and experience grace.

The bounty of our humble Jesus breaks through the barriers that would keep societal boundaries in their place.  Christ’s generosity broke through those barriers with his outstretched arms on the cross, uplifting all people to a place of honor.  The Spirit-filled waters of our baptism breaks through the barriers of our trespasses and mistakes, resurrecting us to new life.  Jesus continues to break through barriers at the table in the humble majesty of bread and wine.  We place our trust that the Holy Spirit will break through the barriers of conflict in Syria, guiding leaders to follow Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus humbly breaks through barriers with generous hospitality, sanctioning us to complete God’s work with our hands.  It was with the modesty of Christ that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers marched onto Washington, changing the world with a bold message of hospitality where children of every race could be treated as one.

In continued humility, Christ works through our efforts here at Bethel to support each other with our Stephen Ministry program, to support our schools through our connection to the Lutheran High Schools and Lutheran Campus ministry, and to send support to our brothers and sisters in Africa.  Next week as we journey to Project COPE in celebration of the ELCA’s birthday, it will be Christ humbly working through our hands as we clean our neighborhood.

We have been given a place of honor through our exalted redeemer Jesus Christ.  As Jesus continues to humbly welcome all people to the banquet of life, let us sing praises for God’s never ending hospitality.

[1] Luke 14:1

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary.  Year C, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010),  page 20

[3] Luke 14:11

[4] Hebrews 13:1

[5] Luke 14:13

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