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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

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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

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church of St. Louis, MO on November 17, 2013.  This message is based on Luke 21:5-19.

Convo-2013-LogoThis past week Pastor Bill and I traveled to the Ozark’s to participate in the Central Synod Bishop’s Convocation.  Together we explored the theme of “What From our Past Will God Use in the Future”, particularly in light of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

One of our speakers was Susan McArver, a professor out of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina.  Like myself, Dr. McArver is a narrative theologian.  Narrative theology involves noting where God is at work in our personal and cultural narrative, as well as identifying how the narrative of our modern lives weaves, reflects, and informs our reading of scripture and church history.  As we enter into the complex future Jesus outlines for us in our Gospel, one of Dr. McArver’s arguments kept floating through my mind.  She proposed that when we are in the present, we can only look at ourselves in the mirror dimly – meaning, the full light of the reality of our situation has yet to shine upon us.

This is particularly helpful when looking at the Gospel of Luke.  When this gospel was written, the authors were writing about the future that was dimly lit.  While we can look back through the eyes of history and see how the early church played out, the authors did not have that sort of data.   Luke and Acts are frequently accredited as being written by the same author, and when read with that in mind, it was apparent these early Christians were prepared for Jesus to return at any moment.  We in our modern context are far more comfortable entertaining the thought that Jesus may not return for a long while.

When we see Jesus address his followers about being persecuted, we need to bear in mind that Jesus was preparing them to establish the early church, and that early Christians believed that once that church was established Jesus would quickly return.  Jesus’ address is both a foretelling of how this post-resurrection shift will alter the lives of the disciples, as well as serving as a reassurance that Jesus will return.

This can prove to be a conundrum for us as we look at our own narrative and see how it weaves with scripture.  While we acknowledge that Christ can return at any moment, we often operate under the model that history speaks for itself and settle in for the wait.  Weaving our narrative with that of scripture, when we read that our future is filled with nations fighting nations, betrayals by family and friends for our faith, and natural disasters like earthquakes, famines and plagues, we may feel less reassured than our early church counterparts that these are signs of Jesus’ hasty return.

Perhaps the biggest challenge with this passage is that it highlights that we are living in the reality that salvation is upon us and not quite yet.  Throughout the gospel, Luke points to this paradox.  The only one to refer to Jesus as Savior, Luke shows time and again how Jesus brings salvation today.  He heals the sick today, mends the lame today, and empowers the outcast today.

The majority of these actions, however, take place after he set his face toward Jerusalem.  Across the narrative, Jesus brings salvation today, all the while pointing that it is still not quite yet.

We are resurrected people whose salvation is here all the while living into the possibility that it make take a while for Jesus to return.  We live as resurrected people where through Christ we have been redeemed and reconciled to God, unbound to live a full life and strive for peace and goodness on the earth.  Yet, we are a part of this world.  We are affected by earthquakes, famines, typhoons and plagues.  We face limitations because of our sexual orientation and identity, our marital status, age and gender.  Our children fight in wars we do not understand, whether in some far off land or at the school playground.

gap_1Through Christ our relationship with God has been restored despite the complexities of this world, but we still feel the world’s weight and limitations none-the-less.  This is the challenge of living as resurrected people.  We know that salvation has come, but there is still a great deal of waiting that needs to be had before we can see the new heaven and earth where the wolf and lamb will share a meal together.  We live in the midst of the schism of here and not yet.

The schism can feel quite wide, but there is hope.   Jesus tells we gain endurance to see how God bridges the gap by testifying.

Our opening hymn today is the story of how God’s love bridged the schism.  Thomas Dorsey was a prolific gospel and blues musician from rural Georgia.[1]  Like most musicians he struggled to make ends meet, splitting his time playing in both churches and clubs.

In 1932, Dorsey traveled from Chicago to here in St. Louis as one of the featured musicians at a revival.  After the first night, he received a telegraph that his wife had died while giving birth to their son.  He raced home, where his son died the next day.

The agony of such grief caused the well of Dorsey’s spirit to run dry.  He withdrew from his family and friends.  Not only did he stop performing at revivals and clubs, he stopped composing and playing all together.  He had reached a spiritual famine, and remained there for a very long time.

One day, Dorsey suddenly felt compelled to sit at his piano.  Once he took a seat, he suddenly felt a peace like he had never experienced wash over him.  Suddenly a melody played in his head that he had never heard before.  There, in the midst of the famine of his suffering, he wrote his testimony of being totally reliant on God – the hymn we just shared, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Dorsey experienced a resurrection at that piano.  He had felt the schism of here and not yet, waiting to be sated from his spiritual famine.  With abundant love, God bridged that schism at the piano, resurrecting Dorsey when he needed it most.

bridge_waterAs people who live in the midst of here and not yet, it can be easy to forget that there is a bridge between the salvation that accompanied Jesus’ death and resurrection and when Jesus will return.  We are not alone in this time of famines, earthquakes, typhoons and wars.  Our lives are filled with countless resurrections.

This is the true majesty of the cross of Christ.  It is not rooted in one time or one place.  The cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.  The cross of Christ is the grace filled waters that come down to fill the dried wells of our spirits.  It is the food from the altar that sates the hunger we can never put into words.

Jesus urges us to testify not solely so that we can gain our souls, but to give us and others the endurance to see the resurrection that happens daily within our midst.  In times of great trial and turbulence, it can be hard to see how Jesus continues to build the bridge between the salvation that is here and not yet.

As we think about our brothers and sisters affected by Typhoon Haiyan, we may only see the schism.  It can be hard to find the hope in this story, and so we testify to the grace that we cannot bring ourselves.  As pastor Nancy Lynne Westfield writes, “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering.”[2]

bridge_winterWe testify how Christ continues to resurrect the world because it can be hard to see the hope of renewal in the midst of typhoon media blitzes.  It can be hard to see the hope of renewal in typhoons within our own lives.  We testify that we are totally reliant on God because each of us has or will experience our own Thomas Dorsey moments of grief, where we await the peace to descend to us on our piano benches.  United together, we share our testimonies to help each other see the grace filled water in the well that appears to be dry.

We testify because the schism between the cross and the new heaven and earth is not as barren as we think.  Christ’s cross is not a stagnant of what was and what will be.  It is the continual restorative and transformative action of God in our everyday life.

We are always being made new in Christ, granting us the endurance to recognize what was, is, and is to come.

Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, vol. 4, Season After Pentecost 2 (propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 312

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., page 311

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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church of St. Louis on September 29, 2013.  This message is based on the the festival of St. Michael and All Saints; Daniel 10:10–14; 12:1–3, Revelation 12:7-12, and Luke 10:17-20.

Angest-michael-slaying-the-dragonls and dragons and snakes, oh my!

A first look at today’s lessons, the former children’s librarian in me thought for a moment that I had put down my Bible and picked up the latest best seller in the teen fiction department.

This morning our scripture is flooded with imagery that can surely be described as fantastical.  Satan falling from the sky like lightening.  The dust of the earth awakening.  Jesus telling his disciples to tread on snakes and scorpions.   Angel’s fighting dragons for the cosmic redemption of the world.

This is the stuff summer blockbusters are made of.  Someone call J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon so we can get the studio booked for next season’s box office hit.

As engaging as these texts are, I must admit that I struggled a bit to make sense of their meaning.  Yes, I understand that liturgically we celebrate Michael and All Angels a few weeks before All Saints Day so that we can help make a clear distinction between the two honored beings.  Angels are mighty and celestial beings who fight against evil, protect God’s people and serve as God’s messengers.  Saints are people who through the grace found in Christ are equipped to follow God’s message and strive for peace and justice.

Angels aide and protect the saints.  Angel’s speak to saints to help them understand the mystery of God, such as when the angel’s spoke to the women outside of Jesus’ tomb.  We continue to connect with these beings each week at the table when we “with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven[i]” praise God’s name and join their never ending hymn of “Holy, holy, holy…”

The knowledge of why we celebrate this feast day and where the angels fall in our weekly liturgy is all well and good, but that information aside, we are still left with texts filled with angels and dragons and snakes.  Oh my.

After chewing on these lessons for a few days, I went home and did what I always do when I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and want to get a break from reality.  I watched Die Hard.

An action flick kind of girl, I have watched the Die Hard and Jason Bourne series more times in my life then a person should ever watch any amount of movies, ever.  There is something really relaxing to see a fairly unremarkable guy take down the system of oppression that is before them.  Add to it that these characters are just off-colored and imperfect enough to be relatable, and suddenly I can see myself in their struggles as they take down the bad guys.

I love that it is clear that these characters don’t want to be fighting the battle they are in, but are so overcome with a sense of justice they do it anyways.  Time after time they get knocked down, yet somehow they get back on their feet to go after that evil that is just beyond their grasp.  While that evil is usually personified in some great character played by Alan Rickman or Javier Bardem, the evil they are fighting is systemic.  The dragons they face are greed, corporate abuse, irresponsible fiscal behavior, overzealous governments.

The hope these movies bring is almost apocalyptic.  They keep hope alive thatLionsDen the little man can make the difference and that a new world order is just around the bend.  They are the hope that we are only a few car chases away from the end of systemic evil.  It is the hope that the earth shall awaken to a new day where righteousness is the brightness shining in the sky.

The apocalyptic promise of hope where good reigns victorious over evil is at the heart of our passage from Daniel.  This book was written in the midst of a great period of systemic injustice – the reign of Antiochus IV.  He was a successor of Alexander the Great who decided that the countdown to ignite the age of Hellenism had begun,[ii] forcing faithful Judeans to abandon their beliefs for fear of persecution.  The first half of the book of Daniel is a character building narrative of Daniel and his companions standing against this political regime, being heroes of faith against lion’s dens and fire pits.

The second half of this book takes a hard swing to apocalyptic prophesy, where the angel Gabriel helps Daniel understand the certain downfall of this unjust system.  By the time we reach Daniel in today’s lesson, our hero had already gone on an epic journey, one that could easily fill a few screen plays.

Daniel had seen the vision of the four creatures destroying one another – creatures representing Alexander the Great’s empire battling against the Babylonians, Medians and the Persians.  As the symbols of these kingdoms destroy one another, suddenly hope appears.  Known as the Ancient One and the Son of Man, this Being of victorious hope takes the throne and puts a stop to the warfare, violence and pain rooted in systems of injustice.

Daniel’s vision continues, time and time again showing different and various systems of oppression.  Each time the Ancient One appears, providing the victorious hope that can only come from the Son of Man.

It is here that we meet Daniel this morning.  The vision he is witnessing has left him as beaten and exhausted as the most choreographed of battle scenes.  This prophesy is overwhelming, demanding a faith that could crumple even the strongest of spirits.  The change that Gabriel promises is almost too much hope to bear, literally crumpling Daniel to the ground.

Who among us has not been crumpled by the evils in the world that make it hard to hold onto our faith?  It is not hard to imagine that each of us has had a moment when the strength of our spirit began to crumple.

We have seen the systems daniel-and-arangel-gabrielof evil around us.  We have experience persecution because of our race, our gender, our sexuality.  We have felt the pain as our own bodies have turned against us in illness, and have mourned the loss of our former health and agility.  We have seen selfless people struggle and selfish people flourish.  Our marriages have suffered infidelities of body and spirit and our single selves have ached for that illusive other half.  We cry out when war is conducted in our name, and weep with the loss of innocent life.

We are no stranger to the dragon that lurks right around the bend.  We know the systemic evil that lives in this world.  We crave to see if fall from the sky like lightening.  It is hard to find the victory when the weight of evil surrounds us, and even harder when we recognize our role in it.  Each of us has had moments when the possibility of hope knocks us to the ground.

“But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees.  He said to me, ‘Daniel, greatly beloved, pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.’”[iii]  Hope lives.

The victorious hope found in the Ancient One, the Son of Man, our Jesus Christ lives.  Hope lives.  The grace found in Jesus is not limited by the powers of evil.  It is not limited by persecutors, illnesses, or complicated relationships.

When the brokenness of our humanity would limit us from being in intimate relationship with God, Jesus grants forgiveness.  When the stations of our life would prevent us from rectifying systems of oppression, Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit overcomes that limit and equips us in our baptismal vocation to strive for peace and justice.  When our hearts are empty and the well of our spirit has run dry, Jesus crosses that limit and fills us with his physical presence of the bread and wine found in Holy Communion.

We can trust that the victory in Jesus cannot be limited because even the cross was not a limit to Jesus.  Only through the grace of Christ can an instrument of death be the avenue to resurrection.

Greatly beloved, the angels beckon us to pay attention.  We are living in the midst of victory, in an apocalyptic world where the grace of Christ equips us to face the systems of oppression with faith and hope.   Where the evils of this world would cause us to stumble, the hand of Christ remains outstretched before us, and lifts us to the promise of the victory realized and the victory yet to come.

Amen.


[i] “Holy Communion, Setting 1,” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leader’s Desk Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 166-209.

[ii] Daniel Patte, Global Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), page 253

[iii] Daniel 10:10 – 11

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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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The following sermon was preached on Easter Vigil, Saturday, March 30, 2013 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH.  The message was based on Luke 24:1 – 12.

holyspiritWhen I was in High School, I was in the play “Godspell.”  A group of my friends attended Parma South Presbyterian, and their youth group was putting on a production of this musical.  Never had remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus been so much fun, and I must confess the passages from this Lenten season has filled my memory with flashbacks to some of the old songs found in that play.

I can hear my friend Greg in the Baptist’s cries, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  I remember lying on a darkened stage playing one of the sleeping disciples at Gethsemane, while my friend Jeff, the person cast as Jesus, prayed to for strength.  And tonight, seeing Mary Magdalene of the tomb, I remember my friend Janessa singing Mary’s sultry number entitled, “Turn Back, O Man.”

Tonight, as the light of Christ turns back the damage of time and brings restoration to the earth in the midst of an empty tomb and dazzling angels, we enter into the ultimate show stopping number – the resurrection of Jesus.

For many of us, the curtain lifts to reveal a familiar scene.  It is morning, just about dawn.  Women come to the tomb of Jesus with spices to tend to his dead body, only to find that the stone to the tomb has been rolled away and the body is gone.  Instead of finding Jesus, they find two men in dazzling clothes, waiting to ask us what we already should know.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

This thought is perplexing.  No body quite gets what has happened to Jesus.  Suddenly a spotlight shines on the women like a light bulb of knowledge.  Now they remember that Jesus taught them this would happen.  He told them he would be handed over to be crucified and on the third day would rise again.  In great amazement and excitement, the women go forth and turn back to proclaim the good news that Jesus has risen.

And end scene.  The story has reached its glorious conclusion.  As Deaconess Judy Hoshek so wonderfully put in her sermon yesterday, it is finished and the whole earth is restored onto God.  Not only has Christ has brought back the earth to God’s glory, as we look into the tomb we can clearly see that Jesus is risen!  Alleluia!  Christ is risen indeed!

What a happy ending!  This moment has all the markings for the final curtain call and for all the actors to come back on stage for their final bow.  Jesus is alive! The work is done, finished.  Our relationship with God is complete.

Or is it?  Is our relationship with God complete?  Has it stopped growing and changing?  Perhaps we should follow the steps of Mary Magdalene and turn back, returning to the question the men in dazzling clothes ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Perhaps another way we could re-frame the angels question is to ask, “Do we really live as if Jesus is alive?

The problem with our favorite plays, movies, books, and let’s face it, even Bible passages, is that they can tend to become these museum moments in our mind.  They can become these isolated flashes in our history that live in a place of wistful nostalgia, sort we look back on the glory day of when we were in plays in high school or when we were on the football team in college.

These museum moments become a beautiful example of something that is over, a time that has ended. Sure, they were experiences that shaped who we have become, but they no longer continue to shape who we are going to be.

It can be easy to look with amazement on the glory of the resurrection and get a bit stuck remembering what Jesus has already been done without recognizing on what Jesus continues to do.

After spending a week journeying on the last days of Jesus’ life and death, we can assuredly look back and boldly state, “Never again will I be held captive to sin.  Never again will the choices of my past keep me from being in relationship with God.  Those days are long gone, those days are finished.  I have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.”

While unshakably true, those statements can quickly turn into a museum moments.  Saved can feel like it is past tense.   They can serve as the final curtain call, failing to carry us into the reality that the grace of Christ is alive.

Tonight, with the new fire still burning on our paschal candle, we celebrate that our salvation is not past tense, it is all tenses.  Past, present, and future.

Paschal candles are marked with images of God – the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end.  Those marking and this candle are introduced every year into our present.  We first carry the flame of the new fire on this candle to serve as a visual reminder that the grace of God was found in our past, it lives in our present, and will continue to live into our future.

There is a momeoceannt in Exodus when God speaks to Moses and says, “I am that I am.”  If you’ve ever looked at the original Hebrew, you would agree with me that this particular passage is a translator’s nightmare, because that passage doesn’t claim a tense.  When God says to Moses, “I am that I am,” it can also be translated, “I was who I was,” or “I will be who I will be,” or “I am who I was,” or “I was what I will be,” or “I will be who I am”…the list goes on.  In that simple, un-declined word, God tells Moses that that God is the past, present and future.

The Gospel of John tells us the same thing,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2He was the in the beginning with God.  3All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being 4in him as life, and the life was the light of all peoples.  5The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Past.  Present.  Future.

The restoration we find in our Triune God is timeless.  It reaches forward into and beyond our present from the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It stretches behind us to the dawn of time, back through the valley of the dry bones, back through the parting of the Red Sea, back through the flood, back to the garden where creation was first formed.

God has always been working to restore the world, to turn back the consequences found in our fallen humanity.  God continuously has claimed us as sons and daughters, giving us signs that God is committed to being in relationship with us despite our shortcomings.

Those signs have been witnessed in the covenants made in circumcision, the rainbow, and when we were given the Ten Commandments.  That commitment that we are claimed as God’s own is witnessed in the fulfilled promises made to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Moses, Aaron, Ruth, Daniel, Joseph, Elizabeth, Mary, and countless others.

God is so invested in restoring our relationship that God came in human form as Jesus, to live among us and to teach among us.  Christ our God was so committed to our relationship that he died upon a cross to ensure our restoration.

In Christ, we witness the accomplishment of God’s tireless work throughout all time.  But that accomplishment is no museum moment, it is not this finished thing that no long has an active voice in our lives.  This accomplishment is alive.

This accomplishment is alive because our Triune God loves us and continues to claim us as sons and daughters.  We belong to God the Parent, who nurtured us in the conception of our mother’s womb and called us through Sacred Word.  We belong to Christ, marked with his sacred cross at our baptism.  We belong to the Holy Spirit, who lives among us in our relationships with one another and the authority we are given by God to carry the light of the new fire into the world.  In the light of the resurrection, we witness how God had claimed us in our past, claims us in our present, and will continues to claim us throughout all ages.

The tense-less God is with us when we gather at the font.  As we witness the baptism of others, we remember what occurred at our baptism, but it God does not stop at a memory.  God’s Holy Spirit moves over the waters, being present both in the particles of water and the community of believers who were cleansed by their embrace.  The grace found at our font provides us the strength to complete ministry that will go forth and forward into the world.

The tense-less God is with as when we gather at the Table.  In the words of Holy Communion, we remember Jesus’ words to us to eat and drink at the table of our salvation.  We recite his sacred prayer.  But God does not stop at a recitation.  Christ comes among the elements, being physically present in bread and wine, existing in, with and under the elements.  This meal nourishes us and propels us forth and forward into the world as we strive to bring peace and justice to the earth.

The tense-less God is with us in the Word.  In scripture, we remember the history of our people, and recount the ways that God has continued to be gracious and faithful from age to age.  But God does not stop at a recollection.  God is present in the words as they seep into our heart and mind and guide us on the path of righteousness.  These words go forth and forward, opening doors and opportunities from the example we find within them.

The empty tomb is not final curtain call.  It is no final role of credits.  It is no place to look for the living among the dead.  It is a sign of life.  The empty tomb is an invitation to be in relationship with our God who loves us so much that God will stop at nothing to be in relationship with us, not even dying on a cross.

The accomplishment found in Christ is alive.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Alleluia!

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached on March 29, 2013 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH on Good Friday.  The message was based on Luke 23:39-43.

crown_thorn_cross“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

With his arms stretched wide, bloody and pounding from the pressure in his palms and the gravitational force pulling on the nails that keep him suspended in the air, Jesus makes a statement that will change the world forever.

Jesus welcomes the criminal into paradise.

We can easily see ourselves in the role of either of these criminals.  The two figures that surround Jesus are almost like the angel and devil figures we see surrounding cartoon characters when they are about to make a tough decision.

On one shoulder is the cartoon devil, the one who scorns and doubts the power found in God.  In life filled with pain, illness, financial uncertainty and turmoil, it can be easy for us to embody the example of the mocking criminal, the one who says to Jesus, “Okay, Messiah, let’s see what you got.  Save yourself from this cross.  Save me from that speeding ticket.  Stop that school from closing.  Prove to our satisfaction that you have the power.”

On the other shoulder is the wisdom of the angel.  The part of our self who recognizes that God provides in ways beyond our satisfaction and ways we could never expect.  We are the criminal that says, “I understand, Jesus, that you sacrificed yourself for me.  Forgive me for the times I neglected to help my neighbor.  Guide me to remain strong in a life of service and prayer.  Remember me and hold me solid.”

These two criminals, while represented as two separate beings, show the whole of our human nature.  They represent the part of us that is the victim of a fallen humanity, casting our fair share of lots against those around us.  They also represent the person who seeks redemption from the limitations and shortcomings that comes with this humanity.  They represent the fear and the trust, the saint and the sinner.

What makes this penitent man criminal remains unclear.  We never learn about the crimes either man committed.  While it can be easy to see our spiritual limitations and possibilities in the examples of these criminals, one thing is certain.  They were not crucified for their lack of piety or failing to uphold the Ten Commandments.  Rome, Herod and Pilate were not concerned with spiritual laws.  These two criminals were crucified because they broke a law of the state.  They must have committed some crime so heinous that it would warrant a painfully unspeakable death.

It begs the question, who exactly is Jesus welcoming into paradise?

I recently read the transcript from Nelson Mandela’s 1964 trial.  He was arrested and sent to trial for encouraging people to go on strike when basic human rights were violated.  Over and over throughout the transcript, Mandela stated that these rights were so important he would be willing to die for it.  He was a criminal about to be crucified, and he would have gone to the cross to defend those rights.

His example reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and other civil rights activists who in the same way were persecuted and imprisoned for advocating for similar rights of equality.  Committing a crime for the sake of advancing human society is a tale as crown_of_thronsold as time.

Just this Wednesday the pastor I work for in Chicago was arrested for civil disobedience at a rally speaking out against upcoming foreclosure of 54 Chicago schools located primarily in African American and Latino communities.  He was willing to go to prison to help speak out against the injustice toward 30,000 children belonging to minority groups.  His crime, like so many others, was a crime rooted in peace and compassion.

Could the criminals hanging beside Jesus have committed the similar sort of crime, crime of civil disobedience speaking for peace and justice?  At first I thought that was doubtful that such a crime would warrant a crucifixion, but then again, many of those supposed crimes were what brought Jesus to trial before Pilate.

Throughout Luke we see countless examples of Jesus civilly disobeying the laws of society while reaching out to the disenfranchised and the outcasts.  Jesus heals the sick, cures leprosy, casts out demons, and raises people from the dead.  Jesus dines with women, fishermen and tax collectors.  No matter where he went, Jesus preached and taught a message of grace and acceptance so strong that societally bordered on the absurd.  The examples of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son increasingly with each tale become more gracious and fabulous with grace filled acceptance, all the while disobeying society’s status quo.

Perhaps our criminals hanging next to Jesus are justice advocates.

Or maybe they were criminals who merely the victims of their environment.  Between currently attending seminary in the SouthSide of Chicago and formerly working in Cleveland, I have met many children who joined gangs at extremely young ages, sometimes in elementary school, because the protection of the gang was more consistent then the protection of local law enforcement.  I have worked with homeless teenagers who have turned to a life of prostitution so they could have enough money for food and clothing.  In the cold of winter, I have several friends who have had their cars broken into by people looking for a place to sleep that would shelter them from the rain, sleet and snow.

Maybe the criminals on the cross are these kinds of criminals, the down on their luck, committing crime for survival sort of criminal.  Of course Jesus would welcome them into paradise and be so generous with that sort of crime.

But what if they are not?  What if they are the sort of criminal who committed crime for the sake of pure evil?  What if they stole for fun, or hurt for sport?  What if they were sex offenders, or murderers?  What then do we do with this welcome from Jesus?

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ use of the word paradise tells us a great deal.  Paradise was often associated with the place where the righteous Jewish souls would go to at the Day of Judgment, like heaven.

Paradise also meant a new beginning.  The same word in Greek that Jesus uses on the cross is also the same word that is used to describe the Garden of Eden.  This new beginning is the ultimate new beginning, the formation of a new way of being human, a beginning of life that is as fresh and fertile with opportunity as the garden itself.

When Jesus tells the repentant criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he is not merely talking about some afterlife experience.  He is giving this criminal the opportunity to start a new life, to restart what it means to be human, to operate in a way that is fertile with potential for a better existence.

This new beginning happens now.  Today.  Jesus extended paradise to the criminal the moment the criminal repented on the cross and acknowledged his wrongdoings.  Jesus extended that paradise to us the moment he died on the cross.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus created a revolving door of new beginnings for us.  No matter what crime we have committed, what spiritual law we have failed to uphold, what thing we left undone, Jesus welcomes us into paradise.

In this paradise every criminal and law abiding citizen is welcomed.  No one is excluded.  The limits that we place on one another; single, married, divorced, straight, gay, the 99%,the 1%; these limits have no standing in paradise.  Jesus welcomes us if we are the ones committing crimes of spiritual or civil disobedience, or when our crime is purchasing illegal narcotics to feed our addiction.  Jesus welcomes us into paradise when we hurt others by accident and welcomes us when the right and just choice is obvious and we choose the other option instead.

This sort of welcome is absurd in our society.  It is outrageous in its generosity and faithfulness to us.  This sort of extreme, totally unwarranted welcome is as foreign to us as searching for a lost coin or sheep.  Society would never get on board with it.  Then again, throughout his ministry Jesus has shown us repeatedly that he cares little for the living into society’s expectations, and instead welcomes us boldly in a way that is truly paradise.

This welcoming into paradise does not absolve us of our responsibility or suddenly make the challenges of our life disappear.   The penitent criminal was granted paradise today, but not abruptly removed from the cross at the sound of Jesus words.  We are still accountable to one another for the actions that we take.

In Christ, however, the future of our lives is not determined by one moment from our past.  Thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus, the gift of paradise remains before us.  As Jesus welcomes us into paradise, we are welcomed into a new way of thinking, welcomed into a new way of being.  We stand in a garden of hope and possibility so strong that we can be courageous in redefining what it means to be criminal.

Welcomed into paradise, we are empowered to change the laws that perpetuate systems of oppression.  We are emboldened to share the love of Christ to the stranger.  We are strengthened to follow the counter cultural example of Christ.

No matter what our crime, Jesus welcomes us into paradise, inviting us into the possibility and freedom of a new beginning.

Amen.

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