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Blizzard Worship

Blizzard Worship  (Shared by Pastor Stephanie Espanoza

Blizzard Worship

It may be snowy and cold outside, but God warms our hearts!                  Worship at home by following the guide below... 

Blizzard Prayer

O God, our heavenly Father, whose glory fills the whole creation from heaven to earth and whose presence we find wherever we go: Watch over those who travel through snow and on ice; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them safely home to those who love them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blizzard Scripture

Psalm 51:6-7

Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Proverbs 25: 11-13

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold
In settings of silver.

Like an earring of gold and an ornament of fine gold
Is a wise rebuker to an obedient ear.

Like the cold of snow in time of harvest
Is a faithful messenger to those who send him,
For he refreshes the soul of his masters.

Proverbs 31:20-21

She extends her hand to the poor,
Yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.

She is not afraid of snow for her household,
For all her household is clothed with scarlet.

Isaiah 1:18

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

Mark 9:2-4

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.

Blizzard of Generosity

Even if we don't worship in our church building this week, ministry still continues and your ongoing generosity is needed. Please consider give offering this week by mailing it to the office. Wouldn't it be awesome if we had a Blizzard of Generosity stronger than the blizzard happening outside right now? Send your offerings along with the snowflakes!

Blizzard Songs

Help pass the time during the blizzard by singing a snow song:
Let It Go
Let it Snow
Little Snowflake (Great for small kids!)
Walking in the Winter Wonderland
Vintage Winter Songs

Kindness Blizzard

While you are stuck inside make snowflakes out of white paper, lots of snowflakes! On each snowflake, write a special message on it to spread kindness, inspiration, gratitude and the love of Jesus! Give a snowflake with a message on it to a friend, tape one on a neighbor's door, put it in your child's backpack, be creative! See if you can make a kindness blizzard by sharing lots and lots of snowflakes with people all around you! 

 

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Pay Attention

(See Scripture below)

Pay Attention! This is what one of our youth did one year when she was teaching Vacation Bible school to a room of squirrelly kids. And it worked! She got their attention. In our Gospel, Jesus gets the attention of the scribes, Pharisees and everyone else when he literally upends everything in the temple, chases sheep and cattle out into the street, tips over the money box and disrupts everything.

This story is in all four Gospels, but Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it differently. Those three Gospels, called the synoptic Gospels, tell the story of Jesus in a more chronological way and place the cleansing of the temple quite close to the stories of holy week. In those Gospels, Jesus disrupts the market, points out the latent corruption and injustice and calls the temple a “den of thieves,” infuriating the religious authorities which leads to their desire to kill Jesus.

But in the Gospel of John, this story is told in the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry – chapter 2, right after Jesus has turned water into wine and begun his healing ministry. In this telling of the story, Jesus is also upending the money tables, chasing out the sheep and cattle and people selling doves. But rather than just telling the story, John tells us that the disciples --after the resurrection – looked back on what Jesus was doing in the temple and were able to see how their own scripture – Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament – foretold it. The scripture they quote, “zeal (which means enthusiastic love, devotion and fervor) for your house will consume me” is from Psalm 69. And they understand that Jesus is quoting the prophet Zechariah (14:20-21) who decries the use of the temple as a marketplace.1 WorkingPreacher2009  Sarah Henrich John2:13-22

John also provides a narrator to help his first readers and now us, to understand Jesus’ message. Scholars believe the Gospel of John was written around 90 CE – that’s about 60 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and about twenty years after the Roman military destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. 2 Dr. Craig Koester EntertheBible.org

People love their church buildings.  We care for this building, Faith-Lilac Way, as a place where we hear God’s word, baptize our children, attend weddings and funerals and share bread and wine in Christian community. People give money to care for this place as a beautiful testimony to God. And this is true for most congregations and their houses of worship.

But the temple – the temple wasn’t just a house of worship for one congregation. It was a holy place for all of Israel. It was also the only place where sacrifices were done. People traveled for days – on foot – to worship there. They believed it was the place where God lived. And, at the time the Gospel of John was written, people were still trying to figure out how God the almighty, God, King of heaven and earth, the God of power and might–could allow His own house to be destroyed.

In this story, Jesus is saying, “Pay Attention.” The temple of God is not in the blocks of stone in this place but in me. He says to the religious leaders, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." That was both crazy talk and blasphemy to the religious leaders. Destroy the temple – the holiest of holies? Unthinkable! Rebuild in 3 days what has taken 46 long years to build? Ridiculous! Neither the religious leaders nor his disciples at the time could understand that Jesus was making a prophecy of his own death and resurrection. To make sure that we understand, John’s narrator says as if in a stage whisper, “Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.” But, for the disciples, it was only after the resurrection that they were able to look back, reflect and re-interpret both the role of the temple and this story in light of the resurrection of Jesus.

The disciples in John’s gospel give us a model for how to understand our changing world in light of Jesus and God’s mission for the world. Because of Jesus’ resurrection – that wasn’t at all what they thought the messiah would be or do, they needed to reflect and re-interpret what they had been taught their whole lives. And so do we. We need to continually ask, “What is God up to in our lives and in our world and how can we be a part of it?”

As Lutherans, we read and reflect upon the Word of God for direction and guidance for our lives. We believe the Word of God is: Scripture – the Bible; the Word of God is Jesus and the Word of God is proclaimed by us in word and deed.

Most people first think about the Bible when we talk about the Word of God. Today, we read three passages in Scripture – the 10 commandments in Exodus, one of Paul’s letters and a passage from the Gospel of John.  These scriptures are read together because together, they deepen our reflection on the Word of God. 

Jesus’ incarnation – that is, coming to earth as God with flesh on --and Jesus’ death and resurrection transformed the disciples’ and our understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, our “Old Testament”. But while we call it the “Old” Testament, it still speaks to us today. The difference is that we read it through a cross-shaped lens. Martin Luther said that every word of the Bible must be read through the cross, through our understanding of the Good News of Jesus’ love. Luther called scripture the cradle that held Christ and if a word or passage doesn’t proclaim Christ, he called it straw.

There are passages in the Bible that don’t reflect the cross of Christ. For example, in Psalm 137 we read, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” This comes in the midst of a lament psalm that grieves the loss of their own children in war and speaks out of anger and revenge. This passage doesn’t proclaim Christ. Nor do other passages that speak of cultural traditions and norms. Instead of focusing on those passages, we look to the places where we see Christ proclaimed.  

The Word of God is Scripture, Jesus and the proclaimed Word. We don’t always recognize or acknowledge the proclaimed Word of God. But we do proclaim God’s Word in preaching, in study and in our daily lives. And it is to this “Proclaimed Word of God” that we, as disciples, followers of Jesus need to make certain that we “Pay Attention!” We need to pay attention because this is our witness to Christ.

Jesus gave us three ways to proclaim Christ in our daily lives: 1) Love God; 2) Love your neighbor; 3) Love yourself. First: Love God by paying attention to God through worship – which you are doing; through prayer; through including time for reflection, to listen to God. The first three commandments in our lesson from Exodus speak this: Remember that God, the great IAM is God, nothing else.

Jesus’ second commandment teaches us to love our neighbor. We do this through both words and actions. Martin Luther’s catechism is a great example of interpreting scripture through the lens of Christ. For example, he extends the commandment to not murder to helping your neighbor rather than just refraining from killing him or her.

Finally, when Jesus says, love your neighbor as yourself, he is also telling you to love yourself. God does. So we need to be gentle in the words we speak to ourselves. Stop beating yourself up when you make a mistake. Instead, confess it to God. If you hurt a neighbor, ask for their forgiveness too. And then… once you have received God’s forgiveness – forgive yourself too.

God is continuing to act in our world. God is doing something new here and now. So “Pay Attention!” God’s work is not done and God is calling you and me to be a part of sharing God’s love with our friends, family and the world.  Amen.

John 2:13-22  13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." 18 The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" 19 Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken

 

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I am the Gate. I am the Door

I Am the Gate. I am the Door.

Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. The Good News of our Lord

Knock Knock. "Who's there?” That is a very good question because the answer - if this is a real door and not just a knock knock joke - may determine whether or not you open the door.

We use doors all the time. Just think: how many doors did you go through in order to get here tonight? Starting with the door of your house, you maybe then went through a garage door, a car door, drove here and then went through the car door again, the outside church door, the narthex door and then the sanctuary door before you could sit down in a pew. If you went to school or work or a store or the soup supper after leaving your house and coming here you went through even more doors. Doors provide access.  Sometimes we put locks or use passwords or codes on our garages or computers or lockers at school because we want to control access.

 

Jesus, living in a rural community, used the image of the gate of sheep pen. The purpose of the door - or the gate — of the sheep pen is to keep robbers, thieves and predators out, and to care for and protect the sheep.

 

Gates and doors - in Greek and Hebrew it’s the same word. All of Jesus’ listeners could understand the importance of the gate to protect the sheep and… if you’ve ever accidentally left a door open and a cat or dog got out… you too can relate to the importance of the gate. But Jesus isn't just giving good advice. He’s using what John’s gospel calls it a "figure of speech." Throughout the Gospel, Jesus uses ordinary examples to teach a bigger point.

 

In this case, he is using the story of the sheep and the gate to help his disciples and us learn from a blind man.

 

Remember this story? Jesus heals a blind man by spitting on the ground, making a mud paste, putting it on his eyes and sending him to the pool to wash it off.  The man, with sight restored, comes home - but his neighbors don't believe it is him. They ask how it happened - he tells them. They still don't believe him and so they ask the to investigate. The Pharisees  question him. He tells them what happened but they don't believe him either. So they ask his parents. The parents are afraid to answer. The leaders had already told them that anyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. So they said - ask him. The Pharisees go back to the man who used to be blind and asked him again. Frustrated, the formerly blind man says, "All I know is this: I was blind but now I see." They keep questioning him but he finally says, "Look. You don't know where he came from but he opened my eyes. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!!"  Enraged at the formerly blind man's words, the Pharisees threw him out of the temple.

 

 

 

The Pharisees threw him out the door. Denied him access to the Lord's house.  As a man blind from birth - it was assumed by everyone in the culture that SOMEONE - his parents or he - had sinned. That was their explanation for his blindness. And so he had never been allowed in the sanctuary. He was "unclean" - which meant "not worthy."  So after Jesus healed him, he should have been allowed to enter. He should have been welcomed into the community with open arms. But instead... They threw him out...again.

 

I'd like to be able to say that such a move - excluding sinners and judging who is or who is not worthy - is just something that Pharisees did in Jesus' day.  But...that wouldn't be true.

 

Just about every church fight, every church fracture has something to do with the question of who is worthy.  Who is allowed in the gate, the door.... And who is not? Who can speak? Who can vote? Who can preside? Who can partake of the wine and bread? Who can be part of the body of Christ?

 

Over the last month I've been using an online tool called Indeed to generate candidates for the Communications/Administrative position.  We got quite a few responses, some highly qualified whom I contacted with an invitation to further conversation and others whose gifts didn't quite match up and so I sent them a polite rejection note indicating that while they had many gifts and skill, they weren't the ones we were hiring for at this time. Most people who use a service like this scatter their net - and their applications -- widely and so don't take a polite rejection personally. But one man.... I'll call him Bob, sent me back a scathing email asking why I dared to be a pastor - and citing various (and somewhat unrelated) scriptures. I haven't been challenged as unworthy to be a pastor for quite a while now. But it reminded me of just how exclusive we can be. I thought about responding - either to him or to the group of people that he copied. But I didn't. He wasn't open to hearing that God had made a way for people like me to serve. He wasn't open to hearing about how Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene at the tomb, telling her to "Go and tell."

 

Although it was tempting to respond, I decided to take the high road. He did not have ears to hear me.  So I reminded myself that Bob was not the one who got to decide my call -- or anyone else's. Jesus said, "I am the door. I am the gate." It is Jesus who people must go through. So often, our squabbles in the church is about who gets to decide who is "in" and who is out."  But it's not my job - or yours. Jesus is the door. Jesus is the gate.

 

Who does Jesus welcome? It's not just the ones that you would expect. I sit on the candidacy committee of the synod and I get to hear people's call stories - and how people have welcomed them... Or not. Some of them are people like Vicar Joe. He's immensely likable- and has good theology too.  But others are less traditional - a Latino man,  a retired woman, a gay African man, a pregnant woman. After hearing all these call stories - and more. They had one thing in common: they loved Jesus - and Jesus loves and welcomes and calls them. Jesus welcomes all sorts of people; He even welcomes people who are afraid — like the disciples.

 

They were afraid. They had heard that Jesus' was alive - but they didn't know what to think or do.  Did they even dare to believe it? Sounded like crazy talk…. besides… it came from the women. They barricaded themselves together in a room and locked the doors and barred the gates - because they were afraid. And yet... Jesus appeared to them. You see, nothing can keep Jesus out because Jesus is the door, Jesus is the gate.

Jesus has come that we — all of God’s children — may have life and have it abundantly.

Knock. Knock. Who's there? Check the door. It might be Jesus. Thanks be to God!

 

 

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The Way of Jesus is the Way of the Cross

The ways of God are different from the ways of the world.

In the prophet Isaiah we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8,9).

The ways of God are different from our ways; Jesus calls us to follow God’s way.

But it isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Peter. Imagine, the disciples had been following Jesus, listening to his every word. And then…Peter “got it”. This was the Messiah – the one that the people of God had been waiting for – here he was! The Messiah would heal the lame and the blind. Jesus did that. The Messiah would teach with authority. Jesus did that.  The Messiah would lead the people.   Peter and the rest of the disciples assumed that this was Jesus’ next move – to stage a revolution and become king.  They had been taught in their Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament of our Bible -- said that the Messiah would come and lead them into Glory!   They had big hopes for the future. Now was their time!

But they forgot that, “The ways of God are different from the ways of the world.”

So when Jesus talked about suffering, rejection, death – crucifixion even, it was perhaps understandable that the disciples were confused and dismayed. We know the end of the story. With 20/20 hindsight – we can see just how different the way of Jesus is from the expectations of the disciples.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that there is a healing story of a blind person on either side of this scripture. The disciples were blind too. All they could know was what they had been taught from Moses, the scribes and Pharisees and the scriptures. And it all pointed to the Messiah as a kingly leader.

Peter dared to speak out. Maybe he thought he was encouraging Jesus. Maybe he thought that since he had gotten the Messiah question right, Jesus might listen to him and start acting like a Messiah.  But Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” Those are hard words but Jesus made it abundantly clear – God’s way is not the way of glory and power and might.

Instead of glory, Jesus invites his disciples – and that includes us -- to a life of discipleship: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Although sometimes I hear people wish that they could have seen Jesus face to face, I think we have the distinct advantage of living after the resurrection.  With 20/20 hindsight we can hear of Jesus’ suffering and death but  with the knowledge that three days later, Jesus rose from the dead.  We get to hear the story that God has done a new thing in the resurrection of Jesus.

After the resurrection, two of Jesus’ followers walking to Emmaus were looking back and recounting all that Jesus did. But they were still blind to his presence until Jesus came, explained the scriptures and broke bread with them.  Then they were able to see that God’s way is a new way, a way of surprising Grace.  It was only after their eyes were opened that they were able to go back to Jerusalem to tell their story. And so it has been throughout history.

Discipleship is about following Jesus. Discipleship is not about glory. It is about service. It is about following Jesus’ two commands: Love God and love your neighbor as Jesus loves you.

So how do we do this?  It’s tempting to tell stories of amazing people like Mother Theresa who served lepers in Calcutta or Dr. Martin Luther King who loved God and loved his neighbor so much that he led non-violent marches to shed Christ’s light on the injustice to the African American people. Or of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer who was sent to a prison camp and hanged for his efforts to stop Hitler. These are inspiring people.

But Jesus doesn’t just call the most inspiring of God’s children into discipleship. Jesus is calls ALL of God’s children into discipleship and that includes you and me. But, even with our 20/20 hindsight, moving forward as disciples of Jesus still isn’t easy because God’s way is still not the way of the world – and we live in the world.

In fact, we live in a broken world. The school shooting in Florida on Ash Wednesday in which seventeen high schoolers, teachers, coaches – innocent people all – shot by a kid who was kicked out of school is just the latest example. There’s been at least six others, plus accidental shootings, one or two suicides and the list goes on. And this is just since the beginning of the year. It’s easy to get discouraged about the world we live in. My heart breaks.  

How are we, as followers of Jesus, to respond?

The high schoolers are demanding change. Their cry is: Never Again. And who can blame them? They want the deaths of their friends, teachers and coaches to not be just one more statistic in a long line of tragic deaths. But, once again, people are divided in pretty predictable ways.

Of course we can begin with prayer. Pray for those in Parkland Florida, those in Columbine and Sandy Hook and all of the other places who are reliving their horrible story once again. We can pray for our legislators, for those who want to make changes – and that the changes make a difference.  We can pray for less violence.

We can listen to those who are hurting. We live in a really small world and it doesn’t take much to make a connection with someone from Parkland, Florida or the surrounding area. And then we can engage locally with our schools and our legislators.  For we are called to care for our neighbor.

The gun violence that is killing students is just one area of need, one area in which our broken world needs love and care. There are others –the hungry, the lonely, the immigrant and the disabled…just to name a few.

The list is long and the needs are great. Jesus calls us to follow, to pick up our cross, to serve others, to love God and our neighbor. And… sometimes the needs seem more than a little overwhelming. But… in the midst of it… God is with us. And God calls us to not sit by and watch – but to engage.

For when the way seems tough and we get discouraged, then we are reminded of the words of Isaiah, God says, “.. my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, … For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  And God makes a way…where there was no way… and God softens hard hearts and God opens the mouth of youth to speak and God opens possibilities where there were no possibilities…  For NOTHING is impossible for God. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Mark 8: 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

 

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Baptism of our Lord Sunday

Beginnings – I like beginnings. Beginnings are full of hope, wonder and promise. A new year 2018 has begun – not so long ago. What do you hope for in this new year? What do you wonder about? What have you promised to do or to be? Maybe in the spirit of this newness some of you made New Year’s resolutions, hoping and promising yourself to start or make something or become a better you. Don’t worry - I'm not going to ask how you are doing on those New Year resolutions.

Today’s lessons are about God beginning something new. In the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, a book whose very name means “Beginning,” we read: “In the Beginning…” In the beginning, God spoke a word into the darkness, into the void and said, “Let there be light” and there was “Light”. With those words, creation begins.

This year we are following the Gospel of Mark. The first verse literally proclaims: “beginning the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God!” But, unlike the Gospels of Luke and Matthew in which we hear the story of Jesus as a baby, Mark begins with Jesus as a young man, going to be baptized by John.

John - John the Baptist – was doing a new thing. Dressed in all natural materials – camel’s hair and leather – and eating locusts and wild honey – John must have been a wonder to behold. But John didn’t leave people wondering for long. He called people to repentance – to change - to make not just a New Year’s resolution but to make a transformation of their life, to be made new so that they would be prepared, be ready for the One who was coming into the world. John washed them clean with water so that they could wash off their old ways and begin again. But John says: this is just the beginning. I baptize you with water but the One is coming who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John knew that he could wash people clean and they could leave with good intentions – and maybe those good intentions would stick. But, they might not.

I went to the gym on New Years day – and it was FULL…. I didn’t ask.. but it looked like a lot of people made New Years Resolutions. The next week…the gym was back to being pretty empty with only a couple of people there. We have good intentions – myself included – but sometimes… good intentions aren’t enough. Good intentions don’t get the job done.

John preached the need for people to repent, to literally turn themselves and their lives around. His was a baptism of repentance… a reminder that people have not lived up to being the people God made them to be… and a reminder that they could act better.

According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized too. But when Jesus is baptized, God does something new. The heavens are opened and a dove – the sign of the Holy Spirit – comes down and God’s voice proclaims: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is a new beginning. This is an epiphany – a revealing of God in Christ Jesus. God makes it known – no need to wonder - God knows Jesus, claims Jesus as God’s child and loves Jesus, calling him, “my beloved son.”

Today, you will be witnesses of a new beginning as Louie is baptized. You will hear Louie called by name. You will hear Louie claimed as a child of God. And you will hear that God loves Louie as a beloved son of God.

You are witnesses. But not only witnesses. You are also brothers and sisters of Louie – and of Jesus Christ. For, you too are God’s beloved child. You too have been washed clean – not with John’s baptism of repentance so that you can try to make yourself better but with the baptism of Jesus Christ in which God names you, claims you and loves you – no matter what.

This doesn’t mean that we are suddenly perfect. No, we still need repentance. We still fall short of living up to being the people that God made us to be – and that is why we begin our worship with confession and forgiveness. But we also know that we are forgiven and that we are named and claimed and loved by God – even if we break our New Years resolutions in record time.

Once during a children’s sermon about baptism, I told the children about the cross that was put on their foreheads, and that the cross would last forever. A little boy looked at me and said, “Can you see mine?” I told him – we cannot see it – but God sees it always.

I heard a story once about Karl Barth, a renowned German theologian whose writings are complex and not easy to understand. He was asked by a student, “what is the most import thing you have learned?” The student waited – and others gathered around pencils at the ready to take down his words of wisdom. But Barth apparently paused for a moment and then looked at this eager student and said, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”

If you remember one thing from this morning, remember this: Jesus loves me, this I know. Parents and godparents of Louie – teach him this: Jesus loves him. There are no if only he does this.. or if only he says that... No. Jesus loves him. There is nothing that can change Jesus’ love for Louie – or for you.

There’s even a song – a song that I am guessing most of you know: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

I heard a variation on youtube that I really liked because it lifts up a second truth. The song begins “Jesus loves me this I know.” But the second line is: “Jesus knows me, this I love. “

Jesus knows me. Jesus knows you.

Jesus knows that all of your - and my -- good intentions do not come to fruition. Jesus knows that we sometimes mess up. We say things we shouldn’t. We do things we regret. We hurt one another – and ourselves. Jesus knows. And loves you anyway…

"Jesus loves me; this I know. Jesus knows me, this I love."

So… if you can only remember one thing, remember:

Jesus loves me this I know..

And if you can, expand it to include the second line: Jesus knows me this I love.

But if you can remember one more thing, remember that you are a part of the family of God. When you are baptized, it’s not just you and Jesus – no it’s you and the whole family of God.

And this is a good thing! For as the Family of God, we pray for one another, we care for one another, we show up for one another. When Louie is baptized, his parents and Godparents will stand up and make promises to him and to God to raise him to know and love Jesus. But they are not the only one making promises.

We ask the whole congregation to respond when asked the question, will you love and care for this newly baptized child of God? And the congregation does. We love and care for one another because we are God’s family – together. Amen.

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EPIPHANY! JOY!

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EPIPHANY! JOY!

It’s coming! It’s coming here! It was all over the general media and the web. A solar eclipse would be over the US, summer of 2017 and scientists – and lots of other people – were going wild with excitement.

We were on vacation the week before – backpacking in the wilderness of Montana – and it would be a 12 hour drive to get to the “zone” – where---for 2 and a half minutes --- we could watch the moon block out the light of the sun… as long as no clouds came overhead. Sounded a bit crazy… so of course we had to go.

There had been so much buzz in Wyoming about the eclipse – and some of the locals were not excited about being over-run with people from “outside”. News media warned about police patrolling the highways – and fining anyone who stopped along the roadside. Others worried about a shortage of gasoline in the sparsely populated parts of the state that were going to be over-run by hoards of people. Scanning the websites of the various small towns -- we didn’t think we could handle a big city whoopla after our wilderness trek – we found a small town, Shoshoni. It was on the outskirts of an Indian reservation. It’s website simply said, “Come to Shoshoni. You’ll be welcome here.” We decided to check it out.

We hadn’t made reservations soon enough so none of the nearby small towns in the “zone” had any room left in the inn. Even the parks – both Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and local campgrounds were full. Finally, I ended up making a reservation at an overpriced motel at what they said was the last room in Cody. We made plans to get up at 4:30 to make the journey… not knowing what we would find.

4:30AM came early. But, we climbed into our car… got some gas at the local gas station and helped some people from England navigate the gas pumps. We then joined a trickle of headlights on a canyon road seeking a place to see our big star, our sun, go dark for two and a half minutes.

We were seekers. We had been told what we would see – and yet… we wanted to see it ourselves.

Perhaps that’s what the astronomers of ancient days – we call them magi – or wisemen were wanting too. They knew the night sky. They had studied it. So when they saw a big new star in the sky, to them it signaled something new – the birth of a new king. And they wanted to see it themselves.

Although many legends and stories have been told about the wisemen -- we don’t know much about them. The only report we have is this one from Matthew. They travelled a great distance – probably at considerable expense. And while they had no guarantee of finding what they sought, they persisted. They asked for help from one that they assumed would know, King Herod. They asked: "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Herod didn’t know – and instead became anxious. But, perhaps because he was curious, or perhaps because he did not want to appear ignorant, he sought help from the religious leaders of the day.

Bethlehem, they said. According to scripture, the king was to be born in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is only about five miles from Jerusalem. But even today, it is small by comparison. At that time, it was a pretty small place – not a place that one would guess would be the birthplace of a king. And yet… they headed that way.

Traveling the canyon road from Cody to Shoshoni Wyoming, the scenery was magnificent. Following the lights of the line of cars in front of us, we made our way up and down deep valleys and around wind-swept red rock mountains. We were tempted to stop. But all the food we had left were some energy bars and snacks that no one could stand the sight of anymore after eating variations of them for the past week. So we pushed on to Shoshoni.

Shoshoni was in a flat dry area away from the riverbed. The town’s Main street was also the county road in and out of that town. Half of the stores were boarded up. It looked pretty bleak and desolate. But there were handmade signs pointing towards “Free Eclipse Parking.” We followed the signs. The town was ready. There was a tiny community park with satellite bathrooms– and one small old drive-in with a flashing sign: Welcome Eclipse watchers!

We parked our car in a still almost empty field by the park. There were others there too – but nothing like what we had imagined. We went to find some food at the drive-in. The owner, a middle-aged Native woman, her daughters and her mother were all behind the counter. She welcomed us with an eager voice, “What can I get you?” We’ve got… and then she went into a list of all of the special items she had prepared for this day. We ordered, but she kept on going…make sure you come back. They said there would be lots of people so I’ve ordered tons of food, I’ve got my sons and grandsons and uncles in the back making pancakes and frying ribs… we’ve got Bar-be-que and smoothies and..” she kept going.

My heart went out to her. She sounded as if she had risked her future on this day. And, at that point, there weren’t many of us in that little half-ghost town. I promised we would be back to pick up lunch after the eclipse.

After the reception they got in Jerusalem, the wisemen could have gotten discouraged. After all, no one there seemed to think that a new king had been born. But they continued on. And… outside the gleam of the city of Jerusalem, they followed the star again… When it stopped…they were full of joy. They were just where they were supposed to be.

As for my family… we settled into our spot with camp chairs and our special eclipse viewing glasses and waited. And as we waited, more and more cars came. People came from the surrounding area – and from far away both East and West. People started to greet one another, asking “where are you from?” and a community began to be formed – gathered to witness this one astronomical event.

It seemed we waited for a long time. But then, suddenly, we noticed that it was getting colder… and darker. The moon was beginning to cover the sun. We put on our eclipse glasses to watch. The birds began to sing and it was twilight… we looked and the colors of the sunset surrounded us in every direction…a complete 360 degrees. A hush came over the people and then a cry… “look!” But it was dark.

We took off our glasses and we could see the outline of the sun. The light of the corona danced around the edges of the moon and filled me with inexplicable and yet indescribable joy. It was beautiful.

Epiphany. Epiphany means: the revealing of God in Jesus Christ. The first epiphany happened when the wisemen followed the star. And when it stopped, they were filled with joy. They responded by worshipping Christ and leaving kingly gifts.

That Epiphany was unique. And yet…God in Jesus continues to be revealed to us. I felt the wonder of God’s presence in the light of the eclipse of the sun. It filled me with awe and wonder. But I also felt God’s presence in what happened afterwards.

We went back to the driveway – and people were lined up to support the woman running the little drive- through. It was the most expensive meal that we bought on that trip – but I was happy to do it. It seemed right to support this woman and her family.

As we drove back through the town, I noticed there was much need of help in that little town…and opportunities to do so. But we couldn’t stay… Like the wisemen, we had a long journey home ahead of us. But.. we were filled with joy. This little Epiphany reminded me that God continues to reveal God’s self in creation and in our neighbor. And so as we left. I felt filled up with beauty and light and life… and ready to go home to serve our neighbor here.

May God fill you with joy – for Christ has come! And may your cup be filled with little Epiphanies so that you can joyfully serve Christ in your neighbor. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Photo by Justin Dickey on Unsplash

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Take My Hand: Together we will follow the light of Christ

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Take My Hand: Together we will follow the light of Christ

The Christmas Story - Luke 2:1-20

Have you ever been in a really dark place – maybe the power went out in a storm one night or you were out in the countryside on a cloudy night…it can get really dark. And because we are so accustomed to light of some sort always being on –your phone, your clock or radio, outside street lights– it can be really disorienting when all the lights go out and it is completely dark.

That’s how Gary Finnigan felt when he was in the underground subway concourse between the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. Gary had been working as an undercover transit policeman and was walking past a brightly lit gift shop when the plane hit the first tower. He heard a low rumble that turned into a constant explosion. As the buildings came down, everything underground went dark. Completely black. The air filled with smoke and dust and the walls began to crumble.

There was rubble – everywhere. Gary could hear people crying out for help – but he couldn’t see them. Even though he was a trained policeman, Gary felt helpless. He had none of his equipment on him – and he had lost all sense of direction… He didn’t know which way to go or even which way was up. He – and the others were all caught in the rubble, dust and darkness underneath a crumbling tower. They were…in a word… stuck.

It was probably only a few minutes… but it seemed like forever when a beam of light shone on him and a voice called: “Take my hand.”

You would have thought that his first impulse would be to grab the hand and go but Gary said, “Wait, there are more” and he reached out his hand in the darkness and said, “Take my hand… there’s someone who can lead us out”. Someone grabbed his hand and called out the same message… “Take my hand”. The message continued… “Take my hand”… there’s someone to lead us out… “take my hand”.

Finally…the man with the light whose hand he was grasping tightly…began to move…slowly, carefully and with him, a long line of people were led out of darkness into light.

Gary Finnegan said that they counted when they got out: 36 people had held hands and followed the man with the light out of the darkness and into the light that morning.

When I heard this story, it reminded me very much of what the prophet Isaiah said to God’s people thousands of years ago when they were in the darkness of exile, wondering if God had forgotten them, and feeling very “stuck.” Into that darkness and despair Isaiah proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

At the time, it was a bold prophecy, a promise for the future. But that promise has come true!

Friends, just as the angels – God’s good news messengers -- proclaimed to the shepherds, tonight, let me proclaim to you: Jesus Christ is the Light of the World. Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight, is the light that shines in the darkness. Jesus is the one who calls to you and to me: take my hand. Jesus leads us from death to life.

Gary Finnegan’s story illustrates it well. Gary saw the light, heard the voice and grasped the hand… and then called out to those who were behind him. And that’s all it took to lead 36 people out of darkness and death into light and life. Gary later recalled that when he turned to thank the man with the flashlight… he was gone. He never knew his name or saw his face.

You can try to explain it some other way, but that’s how I believe Jesus works. Jesus, the light of the world – shines a light into our deepest darkness – and then uses ordinary people like a man with a flashlight and Gary and people like you and me… to encourage one another, to hold one another’s hand, to follow the light.

And we need the encouragement because it is really easy for us – for you and me -- to get stuck in the darkness. There is much darkness in our world over which we can be filled with despair, sorrow or fear – global concerns about our environment, war, terror, hunger, fires and earthquakes. And then there are the pains and sorrows that hit closer to home: family and friends who are sick, dying, in trouble or somehow in need of help. It can be overwhelming. It’s easy to feel “stuck.”

But… again.. it is into the darkness of our lives, into those places where we feel “stuck” that Jesus shines a light and calls out to you and to me: take my hand.

Take my hand. You see God did not come into our world as superhero with light shooting from his palms or as a cosmic bolt of lighting or even in the wonder of an eclipse… God came into our world as a baby…a vulnerable human baby – like us. And because Jesus came as one of us… he can call to you and me and offer his hand and lead you and me out of darkness and death into light and life.

The prophet Isaiah called the coming Savior “Emmanuel” which means “God-With-Us.” God sent Jesus to us to be God-With-Us so that we would know that we would never be alone. Even in the darkest moments of our lives, even in the dreariest places, we find Jesus Emmanuel is with us, Jesus who is the light of the world.

Jesus is shining a light on you… and calling out to you… “Take my hand.”

The invitation is “for you.” Receive Jesus’ offer as a gift because living with the light is so much better and brighter than remaining “stuck” in darkness and despair or trying to somehow get “unstuck” on your own. We all need a hand. Jesus offers us the gift of a light to see, a hand to grasp and a savior to follow. This gift is given “for you.” There are no strings attached. It’s free – and it’s “for you.”

But maybe… you will choose to respond as Gary did and turn to another and say… there is someone with the light who can lead us to life and light… take my hand….and she can say to the next person…take my hand… and he can say… take my hand… and so on… so that together… we can follow the one who is the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Together, we can become bearers of the light of Christ – letting Christ’s love and light shine for all to see.

Amen.

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Jesus is Coming… Ready or Not!.. and this is Good News!

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Jesus is Coming… Ready or Not!.. and this is Good News!

First lines can be memorable. “Call me Ishmael” – brings to mind Moby Dick and an image of a whale. “Fourscore and seven years ago” reminds us of the Gettysburg address. And, I’m guessing that you can say the next line if I were to say, “Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house…not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Today we begin the Gospel of Mark – and the first line is incredibly important: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This verse gives us the lens to look at and understand the rest of the book. Some scholars think it should be the title of the whole Gospel rather than just a verse. I decided to try that today. Instead of introducing this Scripture as “The Gospel according to Mark, I said, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” according to Mark, the first chapter. For everything in the Gospel of Mark – from the cry of John the Baptist in today’s first chapter to the frightened women at the tomb at the end -- should be understood as part of Mark’s telling of “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

So… with that in the back of your mind, we turn to today’s lesson. Here’s comes John, dressed in all natural materials – camel’s hair and leather and eating a naturalist diet, living on the edge of society and preaching repentance and forgiveness. Mark sees John as the fulfillment of scripture, the one who is coming out of the desert into the world crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

“Prepare” We do a lot of preparation in Advent. Whether it is decorating your home, buying presents, making cookies or putting on a concert – don’t miss tonight’s Gospel Gathering– or a Christmas program – don’t miss the youth program next Sunday – or whatever you do to get ready for Christmas… it takes preparation. And sometimes… we worry that we won’t be ready.

Several years ago – 21 to be exact – We were preparing for a baby. We had never done this before and there was so much to do! Plus – I was in Seminary, trying to finish tests and papers and all sorts of work before the baby came. At about this time, I went in to see the doctor for my check-up. “Well”… she said, “the baby looks good.” I was happy, relieved. But then she said, “The baby could come at any time. Maybe I’ll even see you this weekend.”  “WHAT!” I said. “But I’m NOT READY!” She just smiled.

Ready or Not – here I come! Those are not only the words a pregnant woman anticipates her baby saying but also the words the person who is chosen to be “it” says in the game of “Hide and Seek”. How many of you have ever played “Hide and Seek?” Most if not all - so you know that the goal in Hide and Seek is for the person who is “it” to find those who go off to hide. Now it probably would not be so popular a game if you were to ask children to just go and sit in a dark space and don’t say anything – what would be the fun of that? Frazzled parents might appreciate it… but really, the fun comes in the knowledge and the promise that someone is looking for you… seeking you. And if you have ever played this game with little children, you know that they can hardly contain themselves when you come into the room, maybe pretending not to see them. It is all that they can do to stay quiet – and sometimes, giggling, they may shout out, “I’m here!” They want to be found.

Like little children…. we too want to be found! We want to be found by Jesus. John the Baptist’s message is meant to be heard as fantastic news: “Jesus is coming!”

But… sometimes…we don’t hear it as good news. Sometimes… we hide from God…. and are not sure we want to be found. Maybe we are angry with God for not answering our prayers the way we wanted. Maybe we have been hurt – and wonder why God wasn’t there to protect us or to keep bad things from happening. Maybe we are questioning or…wondering or… maybe we don’t even know… OR maybe we don’t believe that God is looking for us…

That’s the promise in Hide and Seek – right? The promise is that the seeker won’t give up and start a new game. The promise is that they will keep on looking until they find you. That’s the promise of Jesus. He continues to seek you and never gives up. That’s the Good News of Jesus’ coming. That’s the Good news of Jesus that Mark proclaims.

John said to the people of his day and ours, “Prepare the Way of the Lord!” He’s not threatening: Get ready or else... Nor is he saying: “Jesus is coming - look busy.” No, John is saying, “this is fantastic news! It’s what we’ve been waiting for!”

Imagine the anticipation and joy of hearing that a loved one stationed overseas is coming home for Christmas – or a friend or relative who lives far away is coming home. Or…. You are having a baby…. You are excited and so you do everything that you can to get ready, to prepare for their coming. That’s what happens with Jesus... both his first coming at Christmas… and each Christmas since. Ask Mark proclaims: “this is what the people of God have been waiting for - this is good news!” This is: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

So how can we prepare? John says the way to prepare is this: “Confess your sins. Get baptized. Receive God’s forgiveness. John literally invites people into the river to wash away the old ways – a little house cleaning for your heart and life -- to make room for Jesus – and for God’s way of living. In just a few more verses Jesus adds – Believe the Good News!

So how do we prepare? How do we make room for Jesus and God’s way of living in our lives today? Like John’s first listeners, we too need to confess and receive forgiveness, and as Jesus said, we too can believe this Good News. Because Jesus is coming – Ready or not! So do not worry about your “to-do” list. Instead, enjoy the wonderful music of concerts. Let it put a spring in your step and fill your heart with gladness. If you enjoy the decorating, the gift-giving and the cookies and the holiday festivities – wonderful! Relish the time with family and friends.

But what if we don’t prepare? What if we get distracted by all of the other parts of our life? I was talking with a young mother this past week who was simply overwhelmed with the “pressures” of what our culture expects “Christmas” to be.

And…so for her – and others who are either unable or unwilling or too frazzled to “prepare” or “get ready” in the ways that they think that they should – I have good news. Jesus is coming – ready or not and is bringing Good News of forgiveness, healing and salvation. Jesus comes to make things whole.

Luther reminds us of this in the catechism saying that God’s kingdom will come – with or without our help. God’s kingdom will come – Ready or Not. That’s a promise – not a threat. God will come and seek us whether we have done everything on our “to do” list – or not.

So let us pray that God’s kingdom will come so that we can be a part of the joy of Christ’s coming. But do not be afraid or worried or anxious or let the “pressures” of Christmas overwhelm you. As Mark writes in his Gospel: Jesus is coming –ready or not -- and this is GOOD News. Amen.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” according to Mark, the first chapter.

Glory to you Oh Lord….

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' " John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." The Gospel of our Lord.

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Hope Not Fear

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Hope Not Fear

What are you afraid of? Let me ask it this way: What are things that just from reading the newspaper – or hearing the news – or talking with friends and neighbors that are cause for alarm? What do people worry about?

  • Global warming?
  • North Korea?
  • Myanmar – ethnic cleansing
  • Taxes?
  • Christmas?

All of these are things that can cause great concern.

The first few sentences in our Gospel sound like the apocalypse – the second coming. There are cosmic signs – a Solar eclipse, comets, and the Son of Man coming with the four winds. And whenever you hear apocalyptic language like this, it often induces fear. The unknown can be a bit scary.

One of the ways that people deal with fear of the unknown is to try to explore it, explain it and demystify it. They want to understand it, assuming that if they understand it, if they can get their head around it, it will no longer be frightening. It will no longer cause fear. But Jesus says, basically – don’t bother to try to figure out the “when.” It’s not for you to know. And yet…people want to know… and somehow… thinking that if they know, then they can be prepared and if they are prepared then they will be ready and they do not need to be afraid. And so… throughout the years there have been declarations made about the “END OF THE WORLD” … only to have the date come and go with the wind. And so the date of the apocalypse continues to be elusive… and hence… frightening.

And yet… for the people who were first listening to Mark’s Gospel, this is what they were waiting for… this is what they were hoping for… they were waiting, expecting Jesus to come back soon. This was not a cause for fear – this was a cause for hope, for rejoicing!

Do any of you have spring bulbs -Tulips or Iris or lilies at your house? They are often the first to poke their heads out of the soil in the spring. After the cold of winter, I am so happy to see them. It’s like the fig tree in Jesus’ sermon. It’s an early indicator of summer – and if you are like me, it gives you a bit of joy when we see these signs of Spring each year pushing up from the ground. They are a sign of hope, not fear.

But..after telling us that no one knows the day or the season, Jesus says in our Gospel, “Beware, keep alert.” Beware. What do you think of when you hear the word “Beware” Hope or Fear? The word “Beware” instills fear – or at least high alert right? Probably because we were created with strong survival instincts, our fight or flight reactions are strong and so I think we move to fear quickly.

However, at our text study this past week, one of the pastors questioned, “How is that word ‘Beware’ translated? What is the origin of that word – or what is a synonym? One of our colleagues quickly looked it up in his Greek online Bible and surprised us all. Another translation of the word “Beware” in this sentence is “Look!” or “Be aware”. “Look” or “Be aware” doesn’t sound nearly so ominous as “BEWARE.”

“Look.” Pay attention. That’s what Jesus is inviting his disciples and us to do. “Look. Be aware. Be alert. The kingdom of God is coming… That is not a message of fear. That is a message of hope and expectation.

Earlier I asked, “What are you afraid of?” And then… more generally, what are people afraid of? And you mentioned…….

It was easy to generate a big list. To our fears – those “real” and “imagined” let me say, Emmanuel – God is with us in the midst of it all. And Jesus calls us to pay attention – to see the word of Jesus and to join God in caring for the world and God’s people in it – so that it does not need to be a place of fear and anxiety. God is with us – Emmanuel – in our fears.

Now let me ask: What are you hoping for? What does the world need?

Again, let me say, Emmanuel – God is with us in this too. The king of creation is here in our midst.

Earlier, I handed you a piece of playdough as a reminder that, as we read in Isaiah, God is the potter and we are the clay. It is a good to be reminded that God is God… and we are not. But it is also good to be reminded that God is not done with creation – and God is not done with you and me.

I’m going to ask you to do something that may seem odd. Take a big breath in…. Let it out. Breathe in. Breathe out. As long as you can breathe in – and out – the Holy Spirit – Spirit also means “Wind” or “Breath” - is present and working with you.

God does not simply put our piece of clay on a potters wheel and come out with a finished product. God invites you to be engaged in molding and in shaping your life, to be a co-creator with God. Some of you may have found ways – while listening – to mold your little piece of clay. That’s good. You see God our potter invites us to pay attention, to “Look!”; to be alert to the way that God is active in our world and then to join God in that creation, in God’s activity in the world, in our neighborhood and in our church.

Today we sing: “O Come O Come Emmanuel” Emmanuel means God with us. God is with us, present with us – always. God is with us as a potter, molding us, shaping us, leading us and walking beside us – even when we do not see God’s presence. Even in those times or maybe especially in those times that seem more fearful than hopeful, those times when we are anxious rather than eager, God is with us – Emmanuel.

And God is with us in those times in which we wait in hope and expectation for the blessings of God. God is with us, Emmanuel.

So brothers and sisters in Christ, “Look. Pay attention.” God is With Us.

Let us pray: O Come O Come Emmanuel, God be with us, bring us out of fear and anxiety and into hope and joy. Amen.

 

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

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Seeing Jesus…

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Seeing Jesus…

When have you seen Jesus? In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us: you have seen him – and helped him…or not – whenever you have encountered the least of these who are members of my family”

In Jesus’ story, both groups of people were surprised. Those who had cared for the “least of these” asked incredulously, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'

Neither group realized that in caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, those in prison or anyone else that would be considered “the least of these,” they were caring for Jesus.

Where have you seen “the least of these”? At the food shelf? By the side of the road? At the bus stop? At school? At the hospital ER? Jesus still shows up unannounced – in the form of strangers and neighbors who need our care. We know this – and yet we are still surprised when we see Jesus in places we don’t expect him.

Perhaps you saw the story this past week of Kate – a young woman who ran out of gas on the freeway in New Jersey. She pulled off on the closest exit –her heart pounding – got out of her car to find a gas station. But instead, she met a homeless man with a sign at the end of the exit. He told her to get back into her car and lock the doors. He then walked to the gas station and bought a can of gas with $20 – the only money he had. Here was a homeless man – and yet – Kate was the one who was in need.

Kate decided to give back. For a few weeks she would drive back to the spot where the homeless man – his name is Bobby – would sit with his sign. She gave him some food, bought him a jacket, hat and gloves – some socks. Bobby was grateful – and honest that the reason he is homeless was because of some bad decisions that he made. But as Kate got to know Johnny, she decided she wanted to help him get second chance. So she and her boyfriend started a Go-fund me page and they raised seven hundred dollars, for which Bobby was really grateful. But Kate wanted Johnny to be able to get an apartment and a fresh start and knew he would need a bit more to do that and so they made a youtube video, telling the story of Bobby’s generosity – and her wish. The funds started pouring in. They have raised over $300,000 to give Bobby a second chance.

Who was the “least of these”? Who was the person in need? In this story, Bobby’s compassion and generosity led to Kate’s gratitude and then her compassion and when she shared their story, it lead to even more generosity. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama explain in The Book of Joy, compassion, generosity and gratitude are essential for living meaningful lives filled with joy.

Archbishop Tutu tells the story of a mother in South Africa who could not stand to see all of the orphans who were on the street - abandoned after losing their parents to HIV Aids. So she started bringing them into her home. She had about a hundred street children in a three-room house. But soon people started to notice. One group offered to build housing. Others began to collect food. This woman’s generosity inspired others. Tutu says, “One shouldn’t pretend that people don't get overwhelmed…but do what you can where you can.”

See your neighbor’s need – whether that neighbor be the person you live next to or the person at the food shelf or the homeless person on the street or the person who runs out of gas on the freeway. Do what you can where you can - knowing that in serving your neighbor, you are serving Jesus.

Where have you seen Jesus? Maybe you have seen Jesus in the face of a woman telling her “Me too” story. Vulnerable women and girls have begun to share their stories of being sexually abused or harassed. Or maybe you have seen Jesus in the eyes of another vulnerable people. The Star Tribune recently reported on seniors in care centers who have been abused and their protests ignored – or silenced. Where have you seen Jesus? How can you respond? It depends. Sometimes what is needed is a compassionate, listening ear. At other times…we are called to respond with action – be that a letter, intervention, a youtube video or maybe a glass of water to someone who is thirsty. As Bishop Tutu says, “Do what you can where you can - knowing that in serving your neighbor, you are serving Jesus.”

What about us? How can we, as a church in Robbinsdale celebrating our 75th Anniversary, how can we do what we can where we can to serve our neighbor and to serve Jesus?

Our bishop, Bishop Ann, gave us – and all of the congregations in the Minneapolis Area Synod -- a challenge.

One of our “new starts,” Tapestry, has a need. Tapestry is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual Latino and Hispanic gathering place, a place in the midst of the city where the community could explore what it means to be church. Its pastor, Melissa Melnick, is particularly gifted in seeking out people that others consider “the least of these” and not only hearing their stories but also providing resources and opportunities to know the love of God first hand. At Tapestry, they gather people together to care for one another, creating a tapestry of lives woven together – both in their own community and with their band which not only plays for their own worship service but also for other churches. Some of you may have heard them last year when they came last fall to kick off the Wildfire Confirmation program. They were doing what they could – where they could to serve the neighbor and serve Jesus.

Then last April, tragedy struck as news came that Melissa’s son, Chris Stanley, had been swept into the Mississippi. You may remember hearing or reading about this story. Chris, a young college student, and a friend had climbed a fence to sit and watch the falls. They had no idea just how dangerous it was. One of them was able to swim to safety. But Chris could not be found. Melissa, her family and friends and the people of Tapestry gathered at the river to watch and pray, wait and hope…for 10 days before Chris’ body was found.

Now Melissa, her family and the ministry of Tapestry – people woven together by God’s love – are in need of care. The service and mission committee will be meeting to see how we can answer the question of what we, as a church in Robbinsdale celebrating our 75th Anniversary, can do to serve our neighbor Melissa and Tapestry and to serve Jesus?

These are just a few stories. Jesus shows up – in surprising places and in surprising ways. We never know where we will next see the face of Jesus. We only know that Jesus invites us to serve our neighbor – especially those in need – and promises that by doing so, we will be serving him.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus has commissioned us and sent us out to be ambassadors saying, “Let your light shine before others that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” This is the message that we will be embracing this year for our 75th Anniversary. This is the message that the saints who have gone before us – Gertie Dumont, Linda Swanson, Betty and Harry St. John and so many others --- have proclaimed with their words and deeds. And this is our mission too.

Brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s not only do what we can where we can to serve our neighbor and to serve Jesus, let’s let our light shine. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

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You Are Blessed

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You Are Blessed

You are blessed. Jesus said so. You are blessed. But, what does it mean to be blessed?

People often say, “I am so blessed to have… a healthy child” … …a job… good health… a beautiful house or something else that is good or desirable. But these blessings sound like being “successful” or “rich” or “living the good life.” And that sometimes implies that people are blessed with success, riches and a good life because they did something to deserve it...and then… does that mean that those who don’t have healthy kids or a good job – are not blessed?

No. As Lutherans, we believe that God has blessed us – all people – with gifts of time, talents and skills and resources. As the Bible says, the sun shines and the rain falls on the good and bad alike. We believe that we are blessed – not because we did anything to deserve it - but out of God’s great mercy. And because we are blessed –we can be a blessing for others. We have been blessed – to be a blessing.

In today’s Gospel Jesus proclaims blessings to people who are in situations that don’t sound like the good life. They don’t even sound like something to give thanks for. Who wants to mourn? Or be meek? Or persecuted? How is this blessing? Or “Good News?”

To put it in context, I’m going to read just a few verses of Matthew before our Gospel reading: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. “ (Matthew 4:23-25).

Jesus is not talking to those who, in his society, were considered “successful” or “rich” or “living the good life. He’s talking to those who could not afford medical insurance, those who were disabled, sick and hurting. They showed up because they were in need. They needed to hear the good news of Jesus – and they were hoping – despite everything – that Jesus could heal them. They came from all over - Jews and Greeks – immigrants, foreigners and locals too. Into this unlikely crowd, Jesus brings healing – and then he does something more transformative still – he proclaims blessings on those that society did not consider blessed – pitiable maybe – but no one would have considered them “successful” or “living the good life.”

But Jesus called them, Blessed.

In the height of the Great Depression, circuses would travel from town to town, often with a “sideshow” – an exhibit of people who in that day were considered “freaks” – a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a painted man. In the short film, Butterfly Circus, the sideshow master urges the crowd to gather around to see a man “whom God himself has turned his back upon” and then dramatically pulls back the curtain back to reveal Will, a man without arms or legs.

Will escapes the cruelty of that circus and circus master and by stowing away in the Butterfly circus truck, hoping to find work with them. But he is surprised to find that they don’t have a sideshow. He is about to despair that he will be thrown out. But this circus master tells Will he won’t allow him to be displayed and laughed at for what he lacks – but he also urges Will to not just sit on the sidelines feeling sorry for himself but instead to find his gifts, saying, “You are magnificent…. If you could only see the beauty that can come from ashes.”

With his new community at the Butterfly Circus, a community built of people who also had experienced challenges, Will discovered that God had not “turned his back on him.” Instead, he found that what he had been taught was a weakness, a deficiency, could be used as a blessing, a unique gift, and that by using this gift, he could be a blessing to others.

Jesus proclaims surprising blessings – to Nic V., the Australian man the character Will portrayed – and to you. But sometimes, like Will, we need to be reminded that we have been blessed.

Sometimes hearing God’s Word in a new translation can give us new insight – especially in familiar passages like today’s Gospel. So, for example, the first blessing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is translated by the Message Bible as: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

Ever been at the end of your rope? I have. Jesus knows that it is at those times that we are often more open to hearing God’s Word and God’s way for our lives. It is at those times that we realize that we can’t do it on our own that our ears are open to hear the Holy Spirit saying, “I’m here! I’ve been here all along!” Jesus is there with blessing and love even in those times when you don’t feel particularly worthy or confident or capable, even when your spirit feels weak, tired, distraught or in pain.

Today is All Saints Day, a day in which we remember and mourn the loss of our loved ones. We hear the words: “Blessed are those who mourn” translated by the Message Bible as: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”

When we mourn the loss of those that we love our emotions can range from angry, to sad, to thankful, to bitter, to glad, to out of control and sometimes all at the same moment. But Jesus blesses us in the midst of our grief, bringing us comfort and hope and the knowledge of his abiding love and care.

Throughout these blessings, Jesus turns the world’s expectations and understanding of what it means to be blessed upside down. Because in those times when we are hurting, mourning, and filled with heartache and everything seems to be going all wrong… it is then that Jesus reminds us that we are not alone. God is with you… and this, in itself, is reason to call you blessed.

You are blessed. But, again, sometimes we don’t feel so blessed. So let me remind you of the time in which you were first claimed by God as God’s child.

Someone - maybe me – stood before a bowl of water and proclaimed, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and as each name of God was spoken, water was poured on your head. You were already loved by God, but on that day, with the water and God’s Word spoken, you became an official part of God’s family, a brother or sister of Christ and heir of all of God’s promises.

You are blessed. Jesus says so.

But sometimes we need a reminder. That was the case for the people in Rome. And so Paul reminded them – and us – that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

That’s God’s promise. That’s God’s blessing for you. Thanks be to God. Amen

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