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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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Word Alone. Faith Alone. Grace Alone.

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Word Alone. Faith Alone. Grace Alone.

In case you haven’t heard, Lutherans and other Christians- Catholics and Protestants all over the world are celebrating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this month. Legend has it that the Reformation began with Luther pounding 95 theses on the door of the church – the bulletin board of the day – arguing the need to reform the church and our lives to mirror Christ’s way rather than our own. The need for reform hasn’t ended. And so, today and for the next two Sundays, we will be focusing on the Reformation that Martin Luther began and that we need to continue so that people can continue to hear God’s Word, and receive God’s gifts of Faith and Grace.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, would you please pray with me?

God of Grace, give us faith to come to you, to hear your word and to act upon them. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Martin Luther spoke simply and in the language of the people. He advocated: Word Alone. Faith Alone. Grace Alone. Now I know that this looks like three things – Word, Faith and Grace and not one thing – but they are bound together.

The Word Alone. As Lutherans, we understand “The Word of God” in three different ways. First, Jesus Christ is the Word of God. As we read in the beginning of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is revealed as the Word of God.

“The Word of God” is also understood as the preached and proclaimed Word of God. As Christians, we need to continue to read, hear and apply the Word of God to our daily lives.

Jesus, in our Gospel, challenges us to do this. He says, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and do not do what I tell you?”

Jesus wants us to not only hear his words and but also to act on them. After all, if you are the body of Christ – and you are – then your words and your actions matter because you – your life and your words and your actions -- are a witness of and to Jesus, the Word of God.

The Word of God is Jesus and is proclaimed by our words and actions. But for most people, the first thing that they think of when they hear “The Word of God” is the Bible. And it is. The written Word of God is how faith is shared from generation to generation. And thanks to Martin Luther – and other reformers before him and since – the Bible, while it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, has been translated into hundreds of languages and dialects.

Translation of the Bible provides access to God’s Word -- but translations always involve choices. For example, if you were trying to translate the word “snow” into Innuit, the language of one group of Eskimos, you would have to choose which of the 50 words for snow you meant. In the same way, Bible translators have to choose whether to translate the Hebrew word “hesed” as justice or as righteousness. We think of different things when we think of “justice” and when we think of “righteousness.” And yet, it is the same Hebrew word.

Another challenge is how words change over time. Confirmands often ask why the Catechism says we are to “Fear and love God.” I explain that it’s because the definitions of the words – and how we use them have changed. Originally, in Old English, “awesome” and “awful” both meant “fearful.” But over time, “awful” came to mean “frightful or exceedingly bad” and “awesome” meant “reverential wonder with a tinge of fear” but now “awesome” is described as “inspiring” or “mind-bogglingly amazing.” That’s quite a change. So now sometimes, in studying the catechism, instead of reading “we are to fear and love God” we read, “We are to be in awe of and love God.”

Yet, for all of its challenges, the Word of God provides a strong foundation. That’s what Jesus teaches in our Gospel lesson. Like the one who builds a house on the solid foundation of rock, the Word of God is our strong foundation. But just as not all of the materials that go into building a house are of the same strength, not all of the words of the scriptures are of the same strength either. Martin Luther describes the Bible as the manger in which Christ lies – and that all of the scripture that does not reveal Christ is “straw.” But… unlike Thomas Jefferson, he did not cut out the parts of the Bible that he did not like. Instead, he focuses on those words that reveal Christ to us – that reveal God and God’s way – and leaves the rest.

Have you ever been asked, “Are you a Bible Believing Christian?” As Lutherans, we can say, “Yes. We believe in the Word of God,” because we believe Jesus is the Word of God, the Word of God is proclaimed by us today and the Bible is the Word of God.

No one would have guessed that Martin Luther would be the witness to Christ that he became. After all, Martin Luther was the son of peasants – who did well enough in their business to send Luther to school. Their plan was for him to become a lawyer. But, as the story goes, in the middle of a severe lightning storm, Luther was afraid and out of concern for his soul he prayed to St. Ann that if he was spared, he would dedicate his life to God.

Luther survived the storm and ended up joining a monastery where he attempted to live a perfect life so as to make himself right with God. But, try as he might, Luther could not live up to what he thought that God demanded. Seeing Luther’s anguish, his spiritual advisor and superior, John Staupitz, sought to turn Luther from his negative inward searching to service. The religious order to which they belonged was not one of cloistered monks but rather friars whose mission to the church included service to the world. Wisely, Staupitz sent Luther to Wittenberg to study and teach at the university and to preach the Word at the Town Church.

It was in his study of the Word of God that Luther received what became the cornerstone of his theology, namely that it was the Word Alone – and not human teaching or understanding – that should guide him. No longer was he bound by what someone else taught. Trusting in and delving into God’s word, he discovered that God was not an angry God that demanded perfection. Instead, he discovered that God was gracious, forgiving and abounding in steadfast love. When Luther read passages like today’s reading from Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works,” his whole understanding of God’s relationship to people changed dramatically.” No longer did he have to prove himself to God – or reach as standard of perfection. Faith was a gift! And so was Grace! Instead of proving himself, he could confess his sins and shortfalls – and trust in God’s Grace.

The problem in Luther’s day was the corruption of the church selling access to God and making people feel unworthy of God’s love and grace. We don’t have this same problem today. And yet… people still suffer from feelings of unworthiness or despair or anger at God.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we fall short – every day – of being the people that God would have us to be. We are not as gracious, loving and hospitable as God desires for us. We forget to love one another as Christ has loved us. We are still just as much in need of Grace Writer Anne Lamott described Grace this way: Today, Grace meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow, and tips you out somewhere else, in ever so slightly better shape, which feels like a miracle.”1

God is gracious, merciful and abounding in steadfast love. And for us this means that we have a God of second chances. We still strive to be better, but we can count on God’s grace to see us through. Brothers and sisters – this is Good News indeed! And for this, I give thanks. Amen.


Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
October 15, 2017



1~ Anne Lamott, in Sharpen Up – Lowering the Weapon, an article

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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A Masterpiece in the Making… Needing the Hand of Another

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A Masterpiece in the Making… Needing the Hand of Another

“You are a masterpiece in the making.” ArchBishop Tutu said, “I would say this to everyone: You are made for perfection, but you are not perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.”

We have three very talented Confirmands who are going to affirm their faith this morning. They have each written faith statements and chosen Bible verses and made stoles with symbols of their faith. Confirmands – Jessica, Joey, Merideth: You are a masterpiece in the making. Of course – they are not the only ones. You all are a masterpiece in the making. You have all received great gifts and talents – but since it is their day to shine, let me tell you a little about our Confirmands.

On top of everything else that they do: Joey plays baseball and basketball; Jessica plays softball and volleyball; Merideth is in theatre and choir. But I’m betting if I asked them if they were able to hit a homerun, spike a volleyball, hit a 3 point basket or act or sing a solo when they the first began – none of them would say that they could do it. All of them have a lot of God-given talent – but they would also acknowledge that they weren’t perfect when they started – and still aren’t perfect – but they have grown in their talents. And it’s because of one simple word: practice.

I can’t help but think of that old joke. The young violinist stops a taxicab and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The taxicab driver replies: Practice. Practice. Practice.

Practice is a part of sports, theatre, music and… your faith life. Part of practicing involves learning. You probably aren’t going to hit a homerun if you swing the bat like it’s a golf club. And so, at practice, you learn about swinging a bat. Likewise, it would be hard for you to know much about Jesus – because what you can pick up in the culture may not be true. And so, because your parents wanted you to learn, you attended Confirmation class and Sunday school and worship -- you have been learning about God and what God wants for us – and for you.

In our Gospel reading someone tried to test Jesus about what was the greatest commandment. Although there are 613 commandments to pick from, Jesus doesn’t hesitate: Love God. That’s the greatest commandment because God loves you – and wants a relationship with you. But while he was only asked for one, he quickly added the second commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus actually gets a two-fer in this second commandment because you first have to love yourself in order to love your neighbor as yourself.

So how do you practice loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself?

It starts right here: in Christian community. This is where we practice loving God in worship, learning about God and God’s ways. And this is where we can practice loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. But it doesn’t stay here. We begin learning how to love our neighbor here so that we can go outside these walls and love others too. Remember that, for Jesus, “Neighbor” doesn’t just mean those next door or those who look like you or those who agree with you. “Neighbor” means everyone else. We learn to love one another inside the church so that we can love one another outside the church too.

That’s what Paul was urging in his letter to the Philippians in the church in Philipi. There was a big fight going on. Paul doesn’t say what it was. But clearly, two leaders in the congregation –

Eudia (You-O-dea) and Syntyche (Sin-toe-chee) had a disagreement. It’s clearly a big issue - but Paul doesn’t take sides nor does he try to solve the problem. Instead, he calls upon the two leaders to reconcile, to be of the same mind in the Lord.

And then he tells them to “Rejoice.” “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.” And just in case they missed it, he repeats it: Again, I say, “rejoice!”

Now the Philippians may have wondered, “Paul – how can you tell us to rejoice at a time like this?”

There are times – or there will be times when you wonder that too. How can I “rejoice” when innocent people – random concert-goers -- have been murdered in Las Vegas? How can I “rejoice” when people in Puerto Rico are still trying to find enough food and water to survive? How can I “rejoice” when people I know and love are hurting, sick, ill or injured? How can we rejoice?

It’s as if Paul anticipates the question because he tells the Philippians – and us, “The Lord is near.” God is here, with us, in whatever suffering comes our way. Because… God loves us and wants relationship with us…. God is with us – in the midst of our pain and suffering. And for that…we can rejoice.

Paul goes on to say, “Do not worry about anything.” That’s hard too. Don’t worry? About anything? In our world it’s hard NOT to worry. But Paul insists, that rather than worry about it – pray about it. It’s a good practice…

Paul tells us to pray and to remember God’s presence is with us ALWAYS. And yet, Paul is not advocating that we ignore the challenges around us. Instead, he writes, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen”. In other words, keep practicing loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. And loving God and loving your neighbor is anything but passive. But it takes practice. It takes doing it.

Sometimes loving our neighbor means a listening ear. At other times it means delivering a meal. At other times it may mean making a donation. At still others it means simply showing up – you may not realize it but your presence at church for worship may encourage another. Showing up at a Bible study, at the foodshelf or on your neighbors doorstep when it snows with a shovel in hand – all of these, and more -- can be a part of loving our neighbors.

What we do as we seek to fulfill Jesus’ commands to love God and love your neighbor as yourself may be changes depending upon the need. But God’s love for us, for you, never changes.

You are a masterpiece in the making. God has given you gifts and talents and wonderful resilience to help you become the masterpiece that God has created you to be.

As I was thinking of this sense of being “a masterpiece in the making” I was reminded for Michelangelo’s unfinished statues called “the captives.” Parts of them – a hand, a leg, a torso, a head – emerge as if trying to break free of their marble prison. But… as one writer reflected, "When I looked at those partial figures, they stirred up in me a deep longing to be completed -- an ache to be set free … But as with those statues, I cannot liberate myself. For that I need the hand of another."1

You are a masterpiece in the making. You are talented and resilient and strong. And yet, at the same time, you – we- are fragile, mortal and in need of others, of the community and in need of God.

Joey, Merideth and Jessica – and all of you, brothers and sisters in Christ, You are a beloved child of God, a masterpiece in the making – both called to serve and called to receive the hand of Christ … which is often found in the hand of the neighbor. And because of this… we can rejoice! Thanks be to God.

 

Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
+Affirmation of Baptism Sunday

1 Theodore Roder

 

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God is generous – and invites us to be generous too

Jesus tells stories. They are stories with a purpose. But how you hear the story often depends upon which character in the story you identify with.

Picture yourself as one of those who has worked all day – through the heat of the day. Finally it is time to get paid and all the workers line up according to how long they have worked – and those who worked the least – get to go first. Ah…you say to one another, he’s saved the best for last. And then… peaking over their shoulders and seeing the surprise and joy of those who worked – just an hour – you say to one another: “$10 for an hour?! This is a generous man. I wonder what he will pay us?!” But then you get to the front of the line and you receive: $10. The daily wage. “What! It’s not fair!”

Now… picture yourself as one who has sat waiting for work all day. You aren’t the strongest person. The young strong men were picked first as they always are. Next chosen were the older but still strong people. One by one they were picked off. You were left there with the same people who were always left – the weak, the disabled, the sick. You did not want to have to go home empty-handed…again. You were about to give up and go begging. You thought about going to check to see if there would be some day-old bread that the bakery was tossing out. Or maybe the foodshelf would still be open and have an odd job that you could do in exchange for a little food. But then… the landowner came and said, “Come. All of you!” You were so excited to be chosen. When you got to the field you worked as hard as you could – despite your gnarled fingers and shortness of breath. You assumed that you and the others who were chosen last would be paid last – and receive a little bit – whatever was left over. But you were grateful to receive anything. But then… the owner called you to the front of the line to receive your wage first! And it was the whole daily wage! Glory Hallelujah! Your family would have a food tonight – and tomorrow.

Do you see what a difference it makes on which character we identify with? One feels as if he’s being ripped off – even though he is getting exactly what was promised – and the other –feels like he has received a gift of grace.

This story comes right after Jesus has had three conversations about discipleship and money. Jesus told the rich young man who wanted to follow him to sell everything that he has – and follow. The young man went away saddened. Then Jesus says, “it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” Amazed and perplexed, Peter asks about who can be saved? Jesus replies, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.”

And then he tells this story. It’s a story of a landowner who seems incredibly generous to those who worked only an hour but who doesn’t seem fair to those who compare the amount of work that they had done with the amount of work that the latecomers had done – and expect that the pay would reflect the amount of work that each had done. That after all, was the way the world worked.

If we look at God with the eyes and the standards of the world, then we must conclude: God isn’t fair. But God does not operate under the standards of the world. Instead, God chooses to be gracious and generous. And this is Good News for you and for me, because every one of us needs God’s grace. Not one of us deserves it. But all of us can receive it – because God’s grace is a gift – freely given for you… and you… and you… and you… and me.

The American myth “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is just that – a myth. The term was originally used in a story depicting something that was impossible. But somewhere around the time of the depression it began to represent hard work, determination and a rugged individualism that proclaimed, “I did it all by myself.” But… it’s not true. You may have worked hard – and I support that – I have a pretty strong work ethic too. But whatever I have and whatever I have done – I have not done it by myself – and neither have you. Because everything we have – is a gift from God… including the gift of community.

As we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in October, we realize, as Christians, we are not independent. Somebody told you about Jesus. We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us from the first Christians who suffered persecution for their faith to the Reformers who challenged authority to those who have gone before us here in this congregation. Compared to the work of all of those who have gone before us – it’s 5 o’clock and we are just getting started.

So what does it mean to be generous? Generosity is about sharing what God has given you. Generosity is joyful. Generosity is about making mission happen. Generosity is about sharing the gifts God has given you. Generosity is about the spirit in which you live.

Perhaps you have heard of “Pay it backwards” generosity. A woman decided to stop at a drive through for coffee one day. She was really stressed that day but needed some coffee. But when she got to the window to pay, the attendant handed her the coffee and said, “It’s already been paid for by the person ahead of you.” She accepted the coffee gratefully – and yet couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the day.

The next day, she decided to return the favor. She ordered her coffee – and then said, “I’d like to pay for the order for the people behind me.” She was happy all day thinking about how she had affected someone else’s day.

She decided to stop back at that drive through on her way home. The attendant there was pretty excited. She told her: your act was contagious! We had a record 29 people pay for the person in line behind them as a result of your one act of generosity.

We have received a gift – Jesus has given us that gift. The early church passed it forward. The reformation leaders shared the gift and then.. in this place, people have been sharing the gift of God’s love for 75 years. The question for us as we look forward towards celebrating our 75th Anniversary and beyond is this: how can we act as God acts – being generous to one another and to the neighbor and to those yet to come… How can we pass it forward?

We began last week by talking about vocations – the gifts of time and talents that God has entrusted to us and the many ways that we can share those gifts inside and outside our doors.

Now it is our turn to be generous – to give more than it takes just to keep the doors open but to go out in mission – to find new ways to reach out to others so that they too can hear the Good News of Jesus… so that others may hear that God is generous – giving us not what we deserve but so much more….

Today we will be asking you to prayfully consider how you can be financially generous in our upcoming anniversary year. We plan to invite former pastors and interns back to tell their stories – and we also plan to look forward to ways that we who have been recipients both of God’s generosity and the generosity of 75 years of faith in this place can, in turn, be generous contributors to the mission of this church and the church of the future.

God is generous to us – and invites us to be generous too. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Community in Christ – with Christ

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Community in Christ – with Christ

Matthew 18:15-20

A few years ago a congregation was having a conflict – the person who told me the story couldn’t even remember what the issue was – but people were taking sides and it was threatening to split both the church and the neighborhood. The pastor called a meeting and invited the bishop. The bishop said he would come – but that he was coming from coaching his daughter’s softball game so he might be running late so to start without him. The game went into overtime so the bishop decided to not take the time to change but to go straight to the meeting – in his team jersey. By the time the bishop got there, the room was packed. He found a spot in the back. The man next to him was clearly agitated and said to him, “They never listen. Now they’ve called the bishop – that won’t do any good. He won’t listen either.”

“Really,” said the bishop, “Why do you think that? Have you ever met him?”

“No. But why would he listen to someone like me?”

At that moment, the pastor caught sight of the bishop and called him forward. The bishop – after explaining his outfit – looked straight at the red-faced man who had been talking to him – and called for a listening campaign for the sake of community.

The bishop hadn’t intended to be a spy. But he was there – unannounced and with ears wide open.

In the same way, Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."  Jesus is with us. Is that a promise – or a warning? To those who are hurting, anxious or afraid, it is a promise. To those who are seeking shelter or relief from Hurricane Harvey or Irma or an earthquake or a storm – it’s a promise. But whenever we are agitated by conflict, whether it be someone else’s bad driving, politics or hurtful comments, or something else – it’s easy to forget that Jesus is in the car with us; Jesus is in the room; Jesus is present where two or more are gathered. Jesus is with us – always -- with ears, eyes and heart wide open.

Jesus is with us. But…notice that Jesus doesn’t say – “It’s me and you.” Instead, Jesus says, “where two or more are gathered in my name – I’m there.” Jesus desires us to support us as we live in community, loving and caring and supporting one another. But Jesus also knows that we are sinners… all of us…

Sin is a bit of a churchy word – but it includes all the times we mess up, we say things before we think; we hurt one another.

And so Jesus says, when – not if – when your brother sins against you…. Whether he borrowed your tools and doesn’t return them or your sister steals your clothes or your friend cheats at poker or at taxes…or any other number of things… then … Jesus gives us a powerful tool for working together through the conflict so that we can be community together.

It’s simple – but it isn’t easy: it’s face to face communication, knowing that Jesus is in the room.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t suggest social media – not facebook email, texts or tweets nor does he recommend the old-fashioned version: gossip. But while hurtful communication has been around since people learned to speak, it is so fast today that it is easy for it to go sour. One therapist said that most of her work comes from email mis-use. And I’m not surprised.

It happens to all of us – even pastors. We do a lot of our work together with the aid of email but we too can get sideways of one another – without intending to do so. It happened this summer… emails can get missed, someone gets left off the chain, a note gets misinterpreted, the reply gets a bit defensive…. and we find ourselves on the edge of conflict soup. It wasn’t my issue but I could see that the e-conversation wasn’t going well and so I suggested: “let’s talk after text study” -- Because the best communication happens face to face, knowing that Jesus is in the room. The communication problem was resolved in 2 minutes – with everyone satisfied.

Jesus desires community for us – and Jesus promises to be with us in that community.

So the question becomes, what kind of community do you want? What kind of community are you willing to work for?

Being in any kind of community takes work. Healthy communities need open and honest communication. But as an intentional Christian community we acknowledge Jesus is with us – and so we can dare to be vulnerable – to share our joys and sorrows. Because Jesus is with us, we can be a “third place” – a place that is not your work or your home – and yet a place where you know that you are welcome and you know that you belong. We can be a community in which people pray for you and care for you. And while we can’t guarantee – like in the old show “Cheers” that everyone will know your name, we can promise that Jesus does. And that any friend of Jesus, and that includes the tax collectors and Gentiles by the way, is welcome here. (Tax collectors and Gentiles were considered outsiders – but Jesus reached out to them, healing them and restoring them to the community).

All are welcome. For Jesus desires community for us – and Jesus promises to be with us in that community. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
September 10, 2017

Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev on Unsplash

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