Sermon for Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-23

Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the coming of the Wise Men to see the infant Jesus. If you were here on Christmas Eve, you’ll remember that I said that the shepherds and the Wise Men did not both arrive on the night that Jesus was born. In Luke we heard that the angels told the shepherds about Jesus the same night that Jesus was born, and they responded by running to see the child that had been laid in a manger. Today we hear from clues that Matthew gives us that it was some time after Jesus had been born that the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem, asking where the new King of the Jews had been born. The church has known for a long time that these two things did not happen on the same night, and therefore designated Christmas as the time to celebrate Jesus’ birth and the arrival of the shepherds, and Epiphany, 12 days later, to celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men. It is only in recent times that Epiphany only gets celebrated in the church if it falls on a Sunday, and so Christians have felt the need to squeeze the shepherds and the wise men together in Christmas pageants, in order to make sure that the wise men are included. And so, this year I’m very happy that Epiphany falls on a Sunday, so that we can focus our full attention on the story that the Gospel of Matthew tells.

So, who were these Wise Men from the East? Well, let’s start by talking about some common misconceptions about them. First of all, we don’t know how many wise men there were. Tradition names them as three because they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But Matthew does not give us a number, which means there could have been two wise men bearing the three gifts, or there could have been fifteen of them, each bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Next misconception: the wise men were not kings. They were astrologers/astronomers: the two terms were synonymous in those days. They tracked the movement of the stars and planets as astronomers do today, but they also believed that the movement of those stars and planets influenced the personalities and fortunes of human beings. So, when they say, “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,” it means that the star they saw rising moved in such a way and came to such a position in relation to other stars that it meant a king of the Jews had been born. It’s the equivalent of an astrologer saying today that because a certain star moved to a place relative to a constellation that you were born under that you will have bad luck in the coming year. These wise men were guys who scientifically tracked movement of stars and planets but also, not so scientifically, predicted fortunes based on those movements. The final misconception about the wise men is that they came from the Orient. They didn’t, or at least they didn’t come from what we consider the Orient today. Scripture tells us they came “from the East,” most likely the area of Persia or Babylon, which we know of today as the countries of Iran and Iraq. If you remember from our journey through the prophets, the Jewish community was exiled to this area in 586 BCE, and many stayed there even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem in 539 BCE. It’s possible that these wise men thus had contact with the Jewish communities there and heard their stories, including their prophecies, and incorporated that into their own astrological lore.

Now that we’ve examined who these wise men were and where they came from, the next question is, what do we do with their story? Because, even though it’s fun to imagine who these guys were and to celebrate their coming to worship Jesus, there is a dark side to their story. And the first question that many of us ask is this: Why, if they were following the star, did the wise men stop in Jerusalem and not go directly to Bethlehem? Well, as Matthew tells us, the wise men were unaware of Micah’s prophecy that a leader of Israel would come from Bethlehem, and they knew from their contact with Jewish people that Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jewish people. So, where else would they find the one who was born King of the Jews? And where else would they inquire about him except at the palace of the current king, Herod? And although that makes sense, in so doing these supposedly “wise” men alerted a very dangerous, paranoid, and cunning king that there was a potential new threat to his power.

Usually on Epiphany, we get only the first part of the story: the Gentiles come to worship Jesus, the newborn king, and they bring him rich gifts. We like this part of the story. We hear sermons on how all the world, symbolized by these strangers, will come to worship Jesus. Or, we hear sermons on how costly the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were, and how we should always give the best that we have to Jesus. Those are good messages to hear, and I believe that I have preached those messages at one time or another. But we almost never hear the aftermath of the visit of the wise men: they go back to their country by another route; an angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus; they run to Egypt; Herod, enraged that he has been tricked by the wise men, orders all of the baby boys 2 years old and younger to be killed. And don’t think that the soldiers only killed the babies; remember that the mothers and fathers would have fought to protect their children and would have gotten themselves killed in the bargain, too. Remember, also, that in this little town of Bethlehem lived many of Joseph’s family. Jesus would probably have had aunts, uncles, and cousins who were killed in this massacre.

The definition of the word “refugee,” is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country”. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph become refugees in Egypt. Scripture is not clear on how long the family lived in Egypt. Depending on when in Herod’s reign this happened, it could have been one year or it could have been several. The family may have used the gifts the Wise Men brought to get established in their new country. If Jesus was around two when they ran to Egypt, his earliest memories would have been of that country. His parents would have told him that Egypt was not their home, and when he asked them about their extended family, Mary and Joseph may have just shaken their heads with sadness. And then, just when Jesus would have gotten used to life in Egypt, Joseph takes the family and returns to Bethlehem. Only, when they get there, they find out that another member of Herod’s family is ruling, and, again fearful for their lives, they flee to Nazareth. Think about the effect all of this instability would have on a young child, even one who was the Son of God.

The Gospel of Matthew paints Jesus as the Messiah and as the Son of God, but also paints Jesus as a refugee. Jesus’ family fled violence; they left their extended family behind in Bethlehem to face Herod’s soldiers. As Christians who follow this Messiah who started his life out as a refugee, this should make us mindful of those who are fleeing violence in their own countries, whether it is those on our southern border or those who are fleeing violence in Syria, so close to where Jesus, Joseph and Mary were from, or those who are fleeing violence elsewhere in the world. Most of them do not want to leave their homes, but feel they have no choice if they want to survive. As Christians, we are called to welcome them as we would welcome Jesus, and not to use them as pawns in political games of power.

But more than that: because Jesus knows what it’s like to be a refugee, he can identify with the suffering that we human beings go through. When our children in our schools are shot at, Jesus knows—intimately—the grief that we experience, and he mourns with us. When evil things happen in our lives, Jesus knows what that feels like. He is with us through it all; he mourns with us, he rages with us at the injustice in the world, he knows what it’s like to feel frightened and insecure, and he is there beside us to encourage us to keep going and to give us the vision that one day, the kingdom of heaven will come in its fullness and all will be well once more. Jesus truly is Emmanuel, God with us.

Epiphany is about the revealing of Christ, first to the Wise Men when they found him in his family’s home in Bethlehem, but even more so, to all of those who seek him. It is about seeing Christ not only in the church building (as I talked about with the children this morning), but it is about how Christ reveals himself as being in and with those who are suffering: the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the stranger, those who are sick, the immigrant, the refugee. Epiphany is also about letting the light of Christ shine from within us as we go about our daily lives. So in all of your interactions, remember that Christ is both within you as well as to be seen in those around you. And remember also, when you are overwhelmed by the bad things that are happening to you, to those you love, or in the world around you, that Jesus is Emmanuel: God with us. Always. Through both the good and the bad. Amen.

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Christmas Eve Sermon

Luke 2:1-20

This year, I’ve been paying attention to Nativity scenes. I have several that have been given to me over the years, and what I have found fascinating is this: with the exception of a Nativity scene that I inherited from my grandmother, which has both shepherds and wise men, the rest of my Nativity scenes feature only the wise men surrounding the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and assorted animals. I find this rather odd, because if we read the birth stories in Matthew and compare them to Luke, we’ll find clues that the wise men actually did not show up the night that Jesus was born. And, the church has known that for the thousands of years that there has been a church, and they dealt with that by having two separate feast days: Christmas, to celebrate the night when Jesus was born and the shepherds came, and Epiphany, twelve days later on January 6, which celebrates the arrival of the wise men. Over the many years and the changes in culture that have happened since the church established this, the feast day of Epiphany does not get celebrated anymore unless January 6 falls on a Sunday (which it does next year!), and so we tend to skip over the wise men in Sunday morning worship. My theory is that this is why the stories from Matthew and Luke have been meshed together, so that we crowd in the wise men with the shepherds: to make sure the wise men are not left out of the story. But that doesn’t answer the question of my Nativity scenes with only wise men and no shepherds.  And I’ve been wondering why the wise men generate more fascination for us than the shepherds do. Is it because our society is more fascinated with wealth and privilege than we are with ordinary people? Is it because most of us have no connections to farming anymore and therefore relate better to the wise men than we do to the shepherds? Or is it because we want Jesus to be that person who is due to receive rich gifts and be recognized as a true king at his birth, when he was only mockingly recognized as a king at his death? I think these are all possibilities, and very likely it is a combination of these and other reasons that the wise men are now squeezed in to Christmas with the shepherds.

But the story that the Gospel of Luke tells, that we hear tonight, is not the story of wealthy strangers from a far-off land. We are putting that story aside until January 6th. Tonight, we hear the story that Luke tells: of an ordinary Jewish couple caught up in the machinations of the government, forced to make a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, arriving at their family home to find no room for them, and having to bed down with the animals. It is the story of a very pregnant woman having to give birth to her firstborn among the animals and laying that child in the animals’ feeding trough. And it is the story of ordinary people doing their ordinary job of watching sheep out in the fields at night, when suddenly they see angels in the sky telling them about the newborn Savior, and then quickly going and crowding themselves in to this place with animals, new parents, and a newborn baby to see. There is nothing glamorous about this story at all, except for maybe the army of angels that appears in the sky. And that, I believe, is truly the good news for us, because, in the end, we really do have more in common with those shepherds than we do with the wise men.

Just think about it: the shepherds were ordinary guys, no one special, minding their own business, and watching those pesky sheep in the middle of the night. Remember that sheep are not the brightest of creatures, but they are of great value both for their wool and for their meat. The shepherds were outside of the circles of power. They had no connection with the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus or even this guy named Quirinius who was governor of Syria. And yet: God chose those shepherds to hear the message of the angels that night. Here was God’s Son, born in the home of ordinary peasants and laid to rest in an animal’s feeding trough. Even though Jesus was born of the line of David, David’s family had no more political power in the land of Palestine. Right from the start, God was signaling that God’s kingdom come on earth was not going to be a direct challenge to the reign of Caesar, but that it was going to be a different kind of kingdom: one where the poor and the ordinary were valued above the rich and the powerful, and one where, as Mary had sung earlier in Luke’s story, God was going to throw down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly; one where God was going to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. Right from the moment when Jesus was born, God was signaling that God’s kingdom was going to be the reverse of all human expectations for what that kingdom would look like.

Just think about it: the shepherds brought no gifts for Jesus. They probably had nothing that they could give. The sheep that they were watching might not have even belonged to them. So, as Mary lies in the same area with the animals, recovering from having given birth, a bunch of shepherds suddenly crowds into this small area with her, Joseph, and the baby, telling a fantastic story of angels who came and told them that the Messiah had been born and was lying in a manger. To Mary and Joseph’s credit, they did not throw these strangers out, but rather, the Scripture tells us, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Perhaps Mary was thinking about how, in this new kingdom that was being ushered in by her newborn son, those who have nothing to give but themselves, like the shepherds, would be welcomed and loved by her child. And perhaps, just perhaps, Mary allowed these strangers, these rough shepherds, to hold her new baby and coo over him, and wonder at him close up.

And so, you see, we ourselves are like the shepherds: we have nothing of our own to give Jesus, our Savior, because everything we think we have actually belongs to someone else: God. Even our very selves belong to God. And yet, God wants to be in relationship with us so much that God sent Jesus, God’s son, to be born of a woman into this sinful world, to live among us and to eventually die for us to show us fully what God’s love truly looks like. The baby Jesus looks at us from his manger and says, “It doesn’t matter that you have no rich gifts to give me. I love you as you are, and I invite you to come and look upon me, for I have given myself for you.”

Luke tells us that the shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. I can’t imagine that they glorified and praised God in silence. I imagine that they were loudly talking about this experience both among themselves and anyone they might have met as the new day was dawning. And that’s something that the shepherds have to teach us each Christmas Eve: we should not be silent about praising and glorifying God. Some of you here this evening may not be Lutherans, but for those of you who are: we Lutherans have been too silent about Jesus for way too long. We need to be out there telling people about this Savior who welcomes us just as we are. Our social ministries, such as our community meals and such, are very important as we do what Jesus has taught us to do. But too often, we don’t include telling people explicitly about Jesus as part of these social ministries. And that’s really too bad, because, how could we not? Here is our God, who came down to earth as a human being, in the form of a baby boy, because he loved us so much. Here is our God who asks us not to come with tribute to him, but to come just as we are so we can see and understand how much he loves us. Who among us doesn’t want that kind of love? We should be telling everyone about this Jesus and how much he has done for us and how much he loves each person on this planet, no matter what.

So, come as you are to worship the baby in the manger. Come as you are. It doesn’t matter what sins haunt your life. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, Hispanic, straight, gay, rich, poor, or somewhere in between all of this. Come and experience the love of God made manifest in this baby in the manger. And then go, and tell everyone about that love and that they, too can experience it for themselves. Glorify and praise God as you go from here back into your everyday lives, just as the shepherds did, but knowing that now everything has changed for the better. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 3 Narrative

Isaiah 42:1-9

Today we move from the book of Esther, written in a time when the Jewish community was figuring out its identity as they lived in foreign lands, back to the prophet Isaiah. Even though we have only one book named Isaiah in our Holy Scriptures, scholars believe that chapters 1-39 belong to the prophet named Isaiah who lived in the time of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, before the Babylonian exile, and that chapters 40-66 belong to a different prophet who lived at the time that King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Israel and rebuild the temple. They call this unknown prophet Second Isaiah. The reason they believe that it’s two different prophets is because each of these sections in the book speaks to the different situations that the Jewish people found themselves in during two different periods of time. But, because the later chapters were attached onto the scrolls of the book of Isaiah, we don’t know any biographical information about this prophet we call Second Isaiah, other than that he lived during the Jewish return from exile. This unknown prophet’s words start in chapter 40 with, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” In other words, the prophet is announcing that the exile is over, and that God’s people are now free to return to their home.

Today’s text comes two chapters later, and is the first of the “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. There are four passages in Second Isaiah which describe what God’s servant looks like and what that servant will do. We as Christians hear these passages, especially the passages about how the servant suffers, and we automatically think, “Jesus!” And in fact, that is how our Gospel text from Matthew today interprets the Servant Song that we heard from Isaiah 42. But, in our Bible study this past Thursday, we talked about how, when we interpret texts from the Bible, we need to think about how the text’s original audience heard it. And, if you remember from way back when we started talking about prophets this fall, a prophet’s primary task was not to predict the future, but was instead to tell the people what God wanted of them. So, just for a moment, let’s put aside our belief that Isaiah was talking about Jesus and try to imagine how the people who lived in the 530s BCE might have heard this particular prophecy.

Remember, first of all, that the prophet is part of a community that is just returning to their home from exile in a foreign land that lasted roughly 50 years. That’s enough time for the older people in the Jewish community, the ones who had been taken into exile, to die off. The ones who are in their older years now were children when they went into exile, and may or may not remember what it was like in the country of Judah. The young children in the community were born in Babylon and know nothing of what Judah was like. They may be uncertain as to why they have to leave Babylon, other than the stories their parents have told them. This is the situation into which the prophet speaks God’s message. And so, when the people of this Jewish community hear this first servant song, they may be hearing the story of their people. As God’s people, God has called them to be God’s servant: they have God’s spirit upon them; they are called to not quench light that is struggling to burn; they are called to bring forth God’s justice on the earth, and they are called to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, and to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon. This is their identity as a Jewish community, and God is calling them to fulfill that identity by giving up their life in a foreign country and returning to their homeland. By so doing, God’s purposes will be fulfilled among them and they will be God’s witness to the rest of the nations of the world.

Now that we have an idea of what this prophecy might have meant to the first people who heard the prophet speak it, let’s fast forward from 539 BCE to around the year 30 CE. Jesus is walking through the land of Galilee, teaching the people and healing them. Just before the lines that we heard read from Matthew’s Gospel today, Jesus has disrupted synagogue worship by healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. After he hears that the Pharisees are upset by this, he leaves that place and continues his healing ministry. As Matthew writes down this story somewhere in the 80s of the Common Era, he sees Jesus as fulfilling the prophecy of the servant song that we heard read today in Isaiah. Jesus is God’s servant, whom God has chosen, proclaiming justice to the nations and bringing hope to the world. As Christians, we can see both the Jewish community returning from exile as well as Jesus as fulfillments of the prophecy of second Isaiah.

But, beyond describing both the way the Jewish community was experiencing the return from exile and the work of Jesus, what meaning does this servant song have for us in the 21st century? Well, if we claim to be Christians, that is, followers of Jesus the Christ, then we want to behave as Jesus behaved. If this servant song describes Jesus as faithfully bringing forth justice, then we, too, want to do what we can to bring forth justice on earth. If the coastlands are indeed waiting for the teaching of Jesus, then that means we can speak the teaching of Jesus into a world that desperately needs to hear it. In a society where the church is losing its privileged place, perhaps God is using that disruption to call us back into a renewed covenant with God, so that we too can be a light to the nations, giving sight to the blind and bringing out from their prisons those who sit in darkness.

And how is God calling us to be a light to the nations? Well, let’s review our journey through the prophets this fall. We started out with Micah, who called us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. We talked about how we can advocate for people to have a right to a civil lawyer when they are faced with evictions, and we talked about how we can advocate for a higher minimum wage so that people can actually live on what they earn. Then from first Isaiah we heard the call to be peacemakers, to genuinely listen to one another and make true and lasting peace in our families and communities. From Jeremiah we heard the call to defend the widow, the orphan, and the alien, and we talked about the fact that we can disagree on how to fix our broken immigration system, but how we must treat immigrants as human beings, remembering that we ourselves are descended from immigrants. Then we heard from Habakkuk, who told us to hold a vision of peace in front of us, to work to prevent violence, and to cling to the faith that tells us that God is good, even when everything around us seems to be disintegrating. And then finally, last week we heard from Esther, who told us that now is the time to speak, and to not be afraid, for God has brought us to this time and place in order that we may speak up for God’s justice. All of these ways, and even more than I could name, are ways that we can imitate Christ and be a light to the nations.

In Advent, we focus on hope: hope in Christ, hope in his return, and hope that he will bring God’s justice to earth. We also talk about waiting during Advent, and how waiting is not just sitting around and looking for something to happen, but how we actively wait. While we wait and hope for God’s justice to fully appear on earth, we can participate in bringing that justice about, all the while knowing that our efforts by themselves are not going to bring God’s justice fully to earth. But as we participate in bringing God’s justice to earth, we also participate in shining God’s light to all of those around us—we shine a light in a dark world that so desperately needs to see that light, and that so desperately needs the hope that Christ will come again.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters just finished celebrating Hanukkah, a festival that remembers, in part, how just a little bit of oil kept the candles in the Temple lit for eight days. As our Jewish brothers and sisters light candles in remembrance of this and of the rededication of the Temple, they use one candle to light all of the others, and that candle is called the shamash. When Hanukkah comes around, there is a message that goes around that calls us to be the shamash: to be the candle that lights other candles, to bring that much needed light to the world around us and to cause other people to shine with that light in the darkness. As we are in the last days of Advent and approaching Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus who brought light into the world and continues to do so, let us be imitators of Jesus. Let us be the shamash and shine the light of Jesus into a world of darkness. In so doing, we, too, can be a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that God’s servant will be a light to the nations. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 2

Esther 4:1-17

Today we are jumping over many years to get from the time of Habakkuk and Jeremiah to the time of Esther. The Babylonians did come in and conquer Jerusalem, destroying the temple, as Jeremiah had said they would, and took the Jewish people into exile. Many years went by, and the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persian Empire. In the year 539 BCE, a Persian king by the name of Cyrus came to power, and he decreed that the Jewish people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, including the temple. If you want to hear more about the story of those who returned to Jerusalem from their exile, you can read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. But our story today, the story of Esther, deals with questions that the Jewish people who chose to remain where they were instead of returning from exile, were dealing with: Who are we? How much of our identity as Jewish people do we retain in this foreign culture? And how do we deal with threats to our existence?

Many of you are probably not familiar with the story of Esther, or perhaps you may vaguely remember it from Sunday school lessons as children. And since we have a chapter right out of the middle of the story, I will take some time now to summarize what has happened before the chapter that we heard read today. The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, gave a banquet for everyone in the city of Susa. On the seventh day of the banquet, when the king was very drunk, he commanded his queen, Vashti, to come before him, so he could show everyone that he had the most beautiful queen in the world. Vashti refused to come—hooray for an early form of feminism! But her refusal had consequences, because the king deposed Vashti as queen. Well, now he had a problem, because of course a king needs a queen. So, his advisors counseled him to have a beauty contest where all the most beautiful young women in the land were brought to him, and he would decide which one would be his queen. There was in the city of Susa a young Jewish woman by the name of Hadassah, an orphan, who was living with her cousin Mordecai. Hadassah was taken up into the palace as one of the beautiful women that the king could choose from, but on the advice of her cousin Mordecai, she hid the fact that she was Jewish and called herself Esther instead, which at the time did not sound too Jewish. Long story short: the king chose Esther as his queen.

After this, a man named Haman rose high in the favor of the king. When Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman as he passed by in the streets, Haman not only hated Mordecai, but he decided to hate all of the Jewish people, and convinced the king to issue an order to have all of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire killed on a certain date. When this edict was proclaimed, there was much confusion and mourning among the Jewish people. And now we arrive at the portion of the story that we have heard read today. When Esther hears that Mordecai is weeping and wearing sackcloth, she sends a messenger to find out what is wrong. When she hears what Haman has done, and that Mordecai is asking her to go to the king to entreat him to call off the genocide, Esther is afraid. If anyone goes into the king’s presence without him first summoning them, the penalty is death, unless the king makes an exception and extends the golden scepter to that person. And for whatever reason, the king has not asked his queen, Esther, to come to him in a month.

Mordecai then makes his final argument to Esther, through the royal messengers. “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” This is what persuades Esther to literally take her life in her own hands and go to the king on behalf of her people. It does not matter if she dies, for she will die in service to God and to God’s people. But it is time to remember who she is and where she comes from, and try to avert disaster on her people’s behalf.

I think this is the message that Esther has for us as Christians today. It is a message to remember who we are, whose we are, and what God has called us to do. So, let’s take a look at those questions of identity today. Who are we? We each have different identities in relation to the people around us in our lives. Martin Luther called these different identities our vocations, or callings. We are Americans, and in that identity, we have certain responsibilities: to pay taxes and to vote in elections, as well as other duties and obligations. We have different identities in our families: we are daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins, etc., and as such, in each of those roles and depending on the customs and traditions of our families, we have certain responsibilities. But, even more than all of this, we are Christians: we are followers of the one known as Jesus, the Messiah, both God and human, and as Christians, we also have responsibilities: those things that Jesus has called us to do. The question that we wrestle with is this: Which of these identities comes first in our lives? If we put our American identity above being Christian and above our family, that is going to shape who we are and how we act. The same thing happens if we put family first, and if we truly do put Jesus first. Each choice that we make in life reflects the identity that we have chosen to put first.

So, as we ask ourselves which identity we choose first, as Christians, we need to start by remembering whose we are. We do not belong to ourselves in any of our identities. But, as Christians, we make the claim that we belong to God. And not just any god, but a God who loved us so much that God sent God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah, to earth, to be one of us, to truly understand what it means to be human, to teach us about God’s love, and then to show us what God’s love looks like by going to the cross and dying for us. And then, he showed us that death has no power over him by rising from the dead, giving us hope in the promise that God loves us so much that, like Jesus, we too will one day rise again, and we will live with God forever. This is the God that we belong to, and this is the identity that I want to choose above being an American, and above even my family, who I love very much. I want to love God more than all of the rest, because God loves me with an incredibly deep and wondrous love.

And out of this love for God comes a response: I want to show God’s love to the world. Not because I think this will save me; Jesus has already done that. But because I want everyone in the world to understand what this love is truly about. But if I’m going to come close to showing the world what kind of love Jesus has for me, then it’s going to require some hard choices. Love in the Scriptures is not a feeling; love is an action word. There will be times where I will have to put my money where my mouth is, just as Esther does in our story today. There will be times when I will be called upon to live out my identity as a Christian, even when that looks foolish to the world around me. And there will be times when my Christian identity may come into conflict with my other identities, and I will have to choose which action I am going to take which best expresses how God wants me to live out my life.

That means that sometimes a Christian response to some issue is going to be in conflict with something that the government is doing. We are lucky: we live in a country where we have freedom of speech, and speaking up in protest against something the government is doing is not punishable by death. For example, if I believe that God is calling me to speak up against how the government is treating immigrants, or how the government is not stewarding our environment as it should, then I have the ability to write to my legislators and demand action without being thrown into jail. If I feel, however, that God is calling me to do something more than writing, I have the ability to go out on the streets and protest. If I violate laws in the process, I may be thrown into jail. But, I would still have my life. For many of our brother and sister Christians in different areas of the world, following God’s call to proclaim justice may well mean taking their lives in their hands, just as Esther did. So why do we sit silently by when we have it comparatively easy?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, just as Mordecai says to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this,” God is calling us to the place we are in for just such a time as this. We are sinful human beings, and as such, we have made a mess of things, both locally and throughout the world. But, as Christians, we are called to be the light of the world, as we heard in our Gospel reading today. We are called to shine the light of Christ into a world badly in need of the hope that God’s justice will bring. We are called to shine the light of a love that would sacrifice our very lives and selves so that the world can see what that love looks like. And, most of all, we are called to shine the light of Jesus into a world that desperately needs him.

I encourage you all to read the whole book of Esther; it is a wonderful story. Esther goes before the king, who grants her mercy. She invites him and Haman to a banquet and lays the trap: at the second banquet, she reveals to the king, her husband, that Haman has plotted to kill all of the Jewish people, and that she herself is a Jew. The king is enraged that he has been tricked, and orders Haman to be executed. And in the end, the Jews are saved and Mordecai and Esther become heroes. Because they remembered that they were God’s children and that they belonged to God, they were able to risk their lives in order to save God’s people. If we claim to be God’s children, can we do any less? I pray that God would grant us the courage to speak when necessary, and shine that light of Christ into the world. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 1

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Habakkuk (selected chapters and verses)

Today we hear from a prophet who has a hard name for us to pronounce: Habakkuk. And either way you want to pronounce it is okay. We don’t really know anything about who this prophet was. From the context of what he says, when he references the Chaldeans (which is another name for the Babylonians) we can guess that he is a contemporary of Jeremiah, who we heard from last week, which would put him in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. But other than that, we don’t know anything about who Habakkuk was or where he prophesied, that is, whether he was a prophet in Jerusalem or in the country. But for such limited knowledge about who Habakkuk was, he had a lot of things of profound importance to say, which still resonate with us centuries later in a completely different context. Which is probably why he ended up in our Holy Scriptures.

So, as we look at the first section of our reading today, we see the prophet Habakkuk crying out to the Lord, saying that there is violence all around him in his society. There is an abundance of wrongdoing, of destruction and of violence. The law of the land seems to be doing nothing to curb all of this, and if there is an attempt by the law to do something, justice never wins out. So Habakkuk is asking the Lord how long this is going to keep happening. Can’t God do something about all of this? The answer is more disturbing than we think: God is going to do something about this, but it’s not what we think God should do. Instead of swooping in with a superhero cape, knocking some sense into the evildoers, and putting the good people in charge, God is going to send in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and wipe the slate clean, so to speak. Um, okay God, maybe we’d rather live with things the way they are after all.

Regardless of this answer, Habakkuk continues to wait for God’s answer to his question: how long shall he cry for help, and God will not listen? Or cry to God, “Violence!” and God will not save? Habakkuk stands and keeps watch, and the Lord answers him with a vision. And the vision that God gives is to be patient and wait. OK, well, that’s not much of an answer, either, but God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” As Lutherans, this verse should sound familiar to us. The apostle Paul quotes it in his letter to the Romans, and it is the verse that Martin Luther happened upon when he was struggling with how God could love him when he was such a sinful human being. So we’re familiar with the idea that the things we do in this life are not what saves us; but rather it is faith alone that saves us. That idea came from this verse. But I’m going to say here that this idea of salvation by faith alone is not quite what Habakkuk had in mind when he originally received this vision from God.

And this is why I say that: in our last section from Habakkuk today, he talks about what living by faith looks like. When the crops fail, in Habakkuk’s case, the fig tree does not produce fruit nor does the olive tree, and when there are no animals to help feed the people, and when all hope seems to be lost, yet Habakkuk will still rejoice in the Lord and will trust in God. It’s the kind of faith that looks around at the world and sees all of the problems: the violence, the people going hungry, the people who are homeless, the immigrant families being shot at with tear gas, the corrupt politicians, and all the rest of it and says, “Even in spite of this, I still believe that God is good, and I will trust that God will one day bring peace and cause everyone to live well, with adequate food, shelter, and love from one another. I don’t know when that day will come, but I believe and trust that God will one day bring it about.” What Habakkuk was talking about what slightly different from how the Apostle Paul and later, Martin Luther, interpreted him.

Usually on the first Sunday of Advent, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we would have heard a text from Matthew, Mark, or Luke where Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple and the signs to watch for when it is time for him to return to earth. That is a good text to hear for Advent. But more than that, Advent is about waiting, and hopeful anticipation of what is to come. And I think Habakkuk captures that spirit just as well as any of Jesus’ end times talks. In Habakkuk, God promises a vision, but God tells the prophet to wait for it. And Habakkuk describes the life of faith as one of waiting for God’s promised future to arrive. And that’s what Advent is about: waiting. Not so much about waiting for Jesus to be born, because Jesus has already been born, lived, died, and risen from death. Advent is rather about anticipating God’s promised future and waiting for that promised future to arrive. And it is about trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises in spite of all of the violence, death, and destruction around us.

So, how do we wait for that promised vision from God to arrive in the flesh? Well, we don’t twiddle our thumbs and stand around staring up at the sky. Our waiting is an active waiting, and that means that we live with hope so that those around us can see what we are doing. While we wait for the vision of peace and justice to come and violence to end, we live as though it were already here. Now, I know that’s a little confusing, so I’m going to repeat it: While we wait for God to bring about the vision of peace and justice on earth, with violence ending, we live as though that vision were already here. And that means that, while we know that vision won’t fully come until Christ returns, we have that vision in front of us and we participate in making that vision come to reality. This means, for example, that instead of hunkering down in place and living in fear that someone could come into this space of worship on a Sunday and start shooting, we instead go out boldly into the community and work to prevent such violence in the first place. And that may mean advocating for sensible gun control laws. But, it also may mean working to understand what those mental health issues might be that may cause people to commit violence. And it may mean advocating for better access to mental health care services.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News ran an article on November 20th saying that waits for access to mental health care in Pennsylvania can be up to a year or more. The problem seems to have begun with the closure of state hospitals to treat those who are mentally ill, and rulings by the courts that said a mental illness or intellectual disability is not enough to keep someone in an institution. In theory, this is a good idea, as people who are mentally ill need community around them just as much as those who are not. But in practice, some people need greater supervision than what their families can handle, and funding for community living for the mentally ill falls short. For those people who need long-term residential care, the wait can be over a year. And what happens while they are waiting? Their families struggle to care for them, and they don’t receive the care that they need, and they slip through the cracks of our system.

As a church, we are called to have no fear, but to boldly proclaim to the world that those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities are God’s children as well. As a church and as people of faith, we are called to live in the hope that one day all of God’s children will have all that they need, and we are called to work towards that hope. That means speaking to our legislators about finding more funding and creating other ways for people who need access to mental health services to get it. It means finding out what the needs are for mental health services in our community and partnering with other local organizations who may be better equipped than we are to get people to those mental health services. It means hard work, and it may seem like what we do won’t make much difference. But that’s what hope is: it is anticipation of that vision where all human beings are loved, wanted, and treated as God’s children, no matter what their situation is in society, and it is working towards that hope even as we wait for its final fulfillment in Jesus’ return.

Theologians call this time that we’re living in “now and not yet”. We know the kingdom of God has come in Jesus’ first coming to earth, and we also know that the kingdom of God has not yet come to complete fulfillment, and won’t until Jesus returns. Living in this paradox requires waiting and patience. It requires that faith that Habakkuk describes as trusting in God even when everything around us seems to be violence, destruction, and ruin. It requires the faith that holds the vision of new life in front of us even when we are faced with death. That is what the season of Advent is about. I pray that in these four weeks, you would join me in this paradox of waiting and working, holding that vision of God’s love and peace for all in front of us. Amen.

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Today we go from the prophet Isaiah, who prophesied in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, to the prophet Jeremiah, who also prophesied in Jerusalem but in the 6th century BCE. The northern kingdom of Israel is now gone, destroyed by the Assyrian Empire and its people scattered. The southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem still remains, having survived Assyria’s attempts to conquer it. But now, the new empire of Babylon has arisen and is threatening Judah and Jerusalem. Judah’s status was that of a vassal state at first, retaining some of its independence but being required to pay tribute to Babylon. But in the year 597 BCE, Judah revolted, causing Babylon to invade, carry off the nobles and the well-to-do families of Jerusalem to Babylon, and install a puppet king named Zedekiah. But Zedekiah in his turn revolted against Babylon, and in 587 BCE, Babylon again invaded, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and either killed or deported the remaining people to Babylon. God called Jeremiah to prophesy in Jerusalem during these turbulent times.

And we see what God calls Jeremiah to do in the first part of our reading today: “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” This is not an easy calling, and Jeremiah did not have an easy life. Like Isaiah, he had access to the kings of Judah, but unlike Isaiah, the kings and their courtiers did not always want to hear what Jeremiah had to say. In fact, at one point in Jeremiah’s story, those who were in power got so annoyed with him that they threw him down a dry well and left him there to die. And what was the message that Jeremiah was preaching that the people did not want to hear? Well, in contrast to Isaiah, who counseled King Hezekiah to trust in the Lord and the Lord would save them from the Assyrians, Jeremiah was prophesying that Babylon was indeed going to invade and conquer Jerusalem because the people had not been following the covenant that the Lord had made with them.

And this is what we see in the second part of our reading today. I want you to picture this: you’re coming in to our church building for worship on a Sunday, as you usually do. But this Sunday is different. On your way in, you are confronted by a street preacher who loudly cries out that all of our worship of God is meaningless because we are not practicing what we preach. For instance, we might say that we welcome all people, but if we look around, we see only people who are white sitting in our pews. Or, even while we may give food and clothes to the hungry and the poor, we are not working for God’s justice, which would mean people would not be hungry and poor in the first place. So, what would you do if you were confronted by a street preacher like that on your way in to worship? Would you talk to the person? Would you try to get him to quiet down so you could worship God in peace? Would you send me as your pastor out to talk to the person—hopefully with the president of the congregation! —and see if we could ask him to leave?

Basically, that’s what Jeremiah is doing in the scene that we have before us today. He is standing in the gate of the Temple and telling the people who are coming there to worship that they should not trust that God will protect them and the temple just because it is the temple of the Lord. He says that all of that is meaningless unless the people are willing to amend their ways when they leave the Temple. They need to not only say that they are children of God’s covenant, but they also need to live out that covenant in their daily lives. And that means that their responsibilities are to “act justly with one another . . . do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow . . .”, to “not shed innocent blood in this place,” and to “not go after other gods to your own hurt.” Only when the people repent and start living out this covenant will God truly dwell with them in the temple.

We’ve been talking for the last couple of Sundays about prophets, and what prophets do. We talked about what Micah means when he proclaims God’s call for us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. In that context, I talked about a couple of justice issues facing us today: the evictions crisis in this country and the minimum wage. Last week, we heard from Isaiah about beating our swords into plowshares and learning war no more, and I talked about how we can be peacemakers in our own lives. Today, we hear about the need not just to worship God with our lips, but to also live out that call to justice by acting justly with one another and not oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow. So, how would Jeremiah say that we are to live that out in our American context today?

I’m going to approach this question by first telling a story. Once, there was a young couple who decided to come to the United States to try their fortune here. They were here for several years before they decided that they just couldn’t handle the U.S., and they decided to return to their country of origin. But while they had been living in the United States, they had a baby girl. When they returned to their homeland, as they raised their child, they told her that she had been born in the United States and therefore was a citizen, and that she should hang on to that citizenship in case she ever decided to return. When the girl turned 20 years old, she applied for and received an American passport, and she said farewell to her parents and returned to the United States, where she stayed with relatives and eventually got married and had a family of her own. That girl was my great-grandmother, an immigrant from an area of central Europe called Prussia, which is now part of Poland.

All of us sitting in this room, unless you have 100% Native American blood, are children of immigrants. Maybe you know some of the stories of your ancestors. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you think you know their stories, but if you were to investigate further, you would find some surprises. Maybe our ancestors came here legally. Maybe they came here illegally. Maybe some of our ancestors were even brought here as slaves or indentured servants. Maybe they came by a very roundabout route: one of my great-great-grandfathers came to the United States from Germany via Australia and New Zealand! My point is, even if our families have been here in the United States since before the beginning of this country, all of us have stories of immigration in our histories. And these stories form the foundation of our families.

Jeremiah tells us that one of our duties as Christians is to defend the alien. I know that immigration is a hot button issue in our society. There are many parts of our immigration system that are broken and need to be fixed, and we can discuss what the best ways to fix the system are, and we can disagree on how best to fix it. But in the meantime, we as Christians are called to treat those who are immigrants in our country as human beings. There are many verses in the Old Testament that say the Israelites are to treat foreigners in their midst compassionately, because they should remember what it was like for them to be foreigners in Egypt and how they had been used and mistreated as slaves. An updated version of that command to us would be: treat immigrants kindly, because remember that your ancestors were also once immigrants, strangers in a strange land. Treating immigrants humanely means not separating families. It means giving special consideration to how long immigrants have been in their communities here in the U.S. and thinking about what kind of effect deporting them might have on their communities when they have been making positive contributions. And it means also giving consideration to what it would mean for parents to be deported when their children are here in the United States legally, and it means helping those children who have their parents ripped away from them.

The vast majority of immigrants who come to our country today are continuing to act out the stories of our own ancestors: fleeing from violence in their home countries, which my ancestors and probably some of yours were doing when they came from Europe; they are looking for a better life here in the United States. Jeremiah and many of the other prophets tell us that we are to defend the alien in our land, and that if we don’t, we are not living as God’s children. But, Jeremiah tells us, if we repent and we truly amend our ways, then God will be gracious and forgive us.

Today we are observing Christ the King Sunday. If we indeed claim Jesus Christ as our king, then the way that we behave as a society should reflect that. We think of Jesus as meek and mild. Jesus loves everybody no matter what, and this is true. But as we heard in our short reading from Matthew today, Jesus could get angry, too, when the people were not truly behaving as God’s children ought to behave. We, too, should get angry when immigrants are not treated as human beings. So, let us repent and let us amend our ways. Let us discuss why our immigration system is broken and urge our legislators to fix it. But more than that, let us work to defend the basic humanity of those immigrants who are coming into our country, remembering that once, our ancestors here were also immigrants. When we do, then we will make a beginning at living as if Christ truly is our king. Amen.

Sermon for Youth Worship

Note: Once a month, the Harrisburg Area Youth Initiative gathers for worship using Holden Evening Prayer. Yesterday, I was invited to tell the Gospel story and preach the sermon at this service. Here is the printed version of that sermon:

Luke 17:11-19

When Deacon David asked me to come and tell a Biblical story to you all today, and that the worship would be themed around giving thanks, since it falls so close to that holiday, I began to think about what Biblical texts would be appropriate. And, I landed on this one from Luke because it seemed obvious that Jesus was commending someone he had healed for returning and giving thanks for that healing. But, as I learned this story, and as I began to dig deeper into it, I found that there was a lot more going on here than just a short story with a moral that we should always thank Jesus for all the blessings that he has given us.

And the first thing I noticed was this: how many of you actually know what leprosy is? Leprosy, or more precisely named, Hansen’s disease, is a bacterial disease that manifests itself on the skin and in the nerves, respiratory tract, and eyes. It can cause a lack of ability to feel pain, which sometimes results in loss of limbs. It was thought to be highly contagious, although recent research has shown it is not as contagious as once thought, and so those who were diagnosed with leprosy were cast out into groups away from those who were healthy. But, here’s another interesting thing: the Hebrew term and the Greek term that get translated into English as “leprosy,” did not necessarily refer to this particular disease, but included a variety of skin diseases. And so, since I have an autoimmune disease called psoriasis, which is not contagious but which manifests on my skin and itches dreadfully, I think that, had I lived in Biblical times, I may have been relegated to one of these outcast groups. It is humbling to think that, really not all that long ago, I may not have been able to live in society because of a non-contagious skin disease that freaked people out.

And that’s what I want us to be thinking of today before we get to this idea of giving -thanks: in-groups and out-groups, because they shift in this story. We start with the lepers being the out-group. They have a pretty nasty disease that everyone else is afraid they’re going to get, and so they are cast out from all of their families and friends. But, since human beings are social creatures and need other people, especially when they’re sick and outcast, they form a group where they support one another. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’ve come from. The most important thing they have in common now is this disease. And when Jesus comes along and meets them, they stand as a group and cry out to him, asking him to have mercy on them.

But when the group follows Jesus’ directions and starts running to show themselves to the priests, it fractures into nationalities that separated them before they came down with this disease. And we find that there are nine Jewish people and one Samaritan. The nine Jewish people are now the “in-group,” and the Samaritan is the outcast. You may know that throughout the Gospels, there are some references to Samaritans, and how they didn’t get along with the Jewish people. Part of the reason they didn’t get along was because their faith was a bit different. One of the things that the two groups disagreed on that’s relevant to this story was where to worship. Jewish people believed that the place to worship was Jerusalem, while Samaritans believed that it was Mount Gerizim. So, picture this: Jesus tells the group to go and show themselves to the priests, which was what you had to do when your leprosy was cured so they could certify that you were healed and you could rejoin society. They start off towards Jerusalem to find the priests, and they look down and realize that they have been healed. And the Samaritan stops and says to himself, “Why am I headed to Jerusalem when I don’t believe that that is the right place to worship God?” And then he thinks to himself, “Hey, not just anybody can heal someone from leprosy. Wow. Since I don’t need to go to Jerusalem after all, I should turn around and thank this guy.” And that’s what he does.

But what’s puzzling is Jesus’ reaction to this guy coming back and thanking him. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” This is one of those times—and there are one or two more in the Gospels—where Jesus sounds a bit racist. Besides this, there is the fact that the other nine are doing exactly what Jesus told them to do—go and show themselves to the priests. How were they to know that Jesus expected them to turn around and give thanks first? After all, maybe the healing wouldn’t be permanent until they made it to see the priests. So, what is going on here?

I think that what Luke is trying to tell us here is that faith doesn’t always look like what we think it looks like, and that maybe it even surprised Jesus, too. I think that Jesus did expect the lepers to follow his directions and go and show themselves to the priests. After all, that’s what good Jewish people cleansed from leprosy were supposed to do, and Jesus was a good Jewish person. I think that Jesus expected the former lepers to give praise and thanks to God in the temple. But when the Samaritan was the one who returned to give thanks, Jesus was surprised that this “foreigner,” who didn’t worship in the “right” place, could still recognize that God was present in Jesus, who was Jewish, and was able to say that nationality didn’t matter—all that mattered was that God had healed him and that he needed to find a way to thank God. Which the Samaritan did, at the feet of Jesus.

So, I’d like us to consider what our “in-groups,” and “out-groups,” are, and why they are that way. From what I hear, high school hasn’t changed much from when I was there eons ago, and there are still all sorts of “in-groups” and “out-groups”. I was part of the “academic” group: the kids who were in Advanced Placement classes, who were all geared towards going to four-year-colleges, usually those small, pricey, liberal arts schools. We were different from the group that we labeled nerds or geeks, although there was some overlap; the nerds and the geeks really didn’t have social skills even though they were smart, and they usually helped with the audiovisual equipment. Then there was the “popular” group—that group of guys who were on the football team and girls who were the cheerleaders; the ones that the rest of us would never be as pretty as and who thought they were too good to talk to us. And generally speaking, we all stayed in our groups and never crossed those boundaries at all.

Our story today tells us that God crosses all sorts of boundaries all the time. Jesus himself is crossing the boundary between Galilee and Samaria as he travels to Jerusalem. The Samaritan, once he is cleansed from his leprosy, crosses the boundary between Samaritan and Jew and throws himself at the feet of a Jewish man to thank him. And Jesus himself realizes that God knows no boundaries when a Samaritan is healed and returns to give thanks for the miracle of healing which God has given him and finds that Samaritan humbling himself at the feet of a Jewish man.

So, let’s look for God in unexpected and surprising places. Look for God in the groups that you consider to be “out groups,” because God will be there. Look for God in the faces of people that you normally wouldn’t give the time of day to, because God will be there. When you do something nice for someone else, look for God, because God will be there. When someone else does something nice for you, or comforts you when you are in distress, and that person is someone who you normally wouldn’t talk to, look for God, because God will be there. Cross the boundaries that you wouldn’t normally cross, because God has gone ahead of you and God will be there. And when you do see God at work, don’t be afraid to praise the goodness of God with a loud voice and give thanks for the wonderful things that God has done, even—and especially—when God surprises you with whatever it is that has happened.

And I think that, when you start looking for God, you will see God everywhere. You will see the mercy that God has for us every day, and you will see the love that God’s Son, Jesus, has for all of us—the love that made him cross the boundary between heaven and earth to live with us, and the love that sent him to the cross to die for us. With such a wonderful, loving, and merciful God, how can we not give thanks for every person and everything that God has given to us? So, as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, let us remember to praise God and thank God with loud voices, just as the Samaritan did. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 26

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4

Today we move from the prophet Micah to one of his contemporaries, the prophet Isaiah. Like Micah, Isaiah prophesied in the 8th century BCE, but while Micah was more of a country prophet, based in the small towns of the country of Judah, Isaiah was the big city prophet, based in Jerusalem, and one of the prophets who had access to the king. Just a note that the book we have in our Bible today named “Isaiah,” is most likely a combination of a few different prophets who lived at different times and spoke to different concerns going on with the people of Israel and Judah. Scholars believe that chapters 1-39 belong to this first man named Isaiah, who prophesied in Jerusalem and had access to the kings of Judah; in today’s story that king was Hezekiah. In December, we will return to a latter chapter in the book of Isaiah, and at that time will speak of who we believe that prophet to be and what concerns he spoke to.

As we can see from the texts that have been read today, this was a time of great political upheaval. The empire of Assyria was on the move, conquering countries around it, including, as we mentioned last week, the northern kingdom of Israel. King Hezekiah was trying to do what was best to protect his country, and he tried to form alliances with other countries instead of trusting in the Lord for guidance and for protection. Isaiah consistently spoke against trusting in the protection that alliances with other nations might offer, and he had several reasons for speaking in this way. First, relying on an alliance with a world power meant trusting in that world power for protection rather than God. Second, if the country of Judah came under the protection of one of those world powers, they might be forced to accept worship of that country’s gods rather than the one true God. Third, if Judah were allies with one of these world powers, they would be forced to participate in that power’s military operations.

So, with these things in mind, we turn to today’s selections from the prophet Isaiah. Assyria has captured many of the fortified cities of Judah, and they think they are going to be victorious. The Assyrian army comes to Jerusalem, but before they fight, they send out messengers to meet with the officials of Jerusalem, as armies often do, to see if they can work something out before they engage in battle. The Rabshakeh is a servant of the king of Assyria; the word translates to something like “cup-bearer,” so it is possible that the Rabshakeh was a close adviser to the king of Assyria and a trusted spokesperson. And the Rabshakeh delivers an ultimatum: Look, we’ve captured all of these cities. We can do the same to Jerusalem if we have to. It’s better if you don’t rely on your God. Just surrender to us, and we’ll let you stay on your own land for a little bit. And then we’ll come and move you, but the move won’t be so bad. The land that we move you to will be just as good and fertile as the land you’re living on now.  Your God can’t save you, so just surrender to us and it will go much better for you.

Now, Hezekiah the king hears this and tears his clothes. He’s been trying to govern and protect his people for a long time, and he wants what’s best for them, but he’s also been listening to Isaiah’s words about trusting in God alone. He doesn’t know what to do, and so he sends a message to Isaiah asking him simply to pray for the people of Jerusalem—because he can’t think of anything better than that. But the prophet surprises the king and says, “Don’t be afraid. There’s going to be a rumor of something that, when these army commanders hear it, will cause them to return to Assyria and leave Jerusalem alone. Trust in God.” And, although we don’t have this part in our reading today, the prophet’s words do come true: the angel of the Lord came and struck down a good portion of the Assyrian army, perhaps with a plague, and the remainder returned back to their country. Jerusalem was safe, for the time being.

And beside this story that we have from Isaiah today, we have one of Isaiah’s visions, part of which we have heard before: the prophecy about how the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; how nation will not lift up sword against nation; how we shall not learn war anymore. What a vision that the prophet puts before us! I think we all long for the day when there will be no more war and our swords will be beaten into plowshares. But this is one of those prophecies where I just wish I could take the prophet Isaiah aside and say, “Really? And when is this going to happen? Because the world continues and nation still threatens nation and there is no sign of an end to war.” What do we do with this vision today?

Last week, we observed Veterans Day. This was originally called Armistice Day, and marked the end of World War I, which this year was 100 years ago. World War I, by the way, was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It wasn’t. Only 20 years later, due to various circumstances, some of which arose from the way World War I was ended, Adolf Hitler rose to power and the world was plunged into a Second World War, one that in many ways was more horrific than the first. Since World War II, there have been many more conflicts around the world, with many more people serving and dying or being injured in these conflicts. Some of you here today are veterans of those conflicts, like the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and we appreciate your service.  But after every conflict, when we count the cost in human lives and in trauma that veterans deal with, we cry out, “How long, O Lord? How long until the vision you gave to your prophet Isaiah comes true?”

This vision that Isaiah has given us is a vision of hope, and, I haven’t said this in a while, but here it is again: As Christians, we are a people of hope, and it is our business to be spreading that hope to everyone that we meet. We know that we live in a sinful world, and we know that Isaiah’s vision won’t fully come to pass until Jesus comes again. But Jesus tells us this: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” What are some ways, then, that we can be peacemakers, that we can let our light shine before others, that we can be that people of hope and bring hope to a despairing world?

Well, first, let’s look at this concept of peace. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, because, even when there is no physical conflict, resentments can still simmer under the surface and break out into conflict at any time. Peace comes when people truly listen to one another. And that means listening not to reply and to tell the first person that they’re wrong and why. It means valuing and respecting that person enough to listen to what they are saying and to affirm them. We can show that we’re listening by saying something like, “I hear what you’re saying,” or “What you went through sounds really terrible, and I understand why you feel the way you do about this issue,” or “I didn’t understand this particular thing that you said. Can I ask you a question about it?” When we listen to understand the other person’s point of view, valuing that person as a child of God, and then respectfully share our point of view, that is the beginning of being peacemakers. And not just making a peace that is an absence of conflict, but a peace that brings understanding and respect, even when we don’t agree with one another.

When we think of making peace, we tend to think of what governments do on a grand scale, such as the peace treaties made after World Wars I and II. But there is a song whose lyrics go like this: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Even though our country is not technically at war, as we all know, our society is polarized between Republican and Democrat, conservative and progressive, in such a way that the two sides cannot even talk to one another anymore. In my own family, we have a rule that we’re not allowed to talk politics, most especially with my mother, because the fights get really bad and feelings get hurt. So, as we strive to heed the call of Jesus to be peacemakers and to let our light shine, let’s practice some of that deep listening to one another. If someone at the Thanksgiving table this week says something political that makes you angry, take a deep breath and try to understand where that person is coming from. And then, if there is an opportunity, express your opinion in a respectful way, without attacking the other person. This is one way that peace with one another can begin with you and with me.

Making peace is not easy, but as Christians, Jesus never told us that life would be easy just because we believed in him. We’re not going to get it right. True peace, the kind that Isaiah saw when swords would be beaten into plowshares, will not come until Jesus returns. But that vision haunts us with hope, even after all these years. And we are a people of hope, in the business of spreading that hope to all that we meet. So, go forth, let your light shine so that all may see that hope that you have in Jesus. Make peace where you can, knowing that Jesus calls you blessed. And trust that God will lead you in that way of peace, for the sake of Jesus, God’s Son. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 25

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Micah 1:3-5; 5:2-5a; 6:6-8

 

With today’s reading, we leave the narratives of the Old Testament behind and enter into the world of the written prophets. And I want to start by reminding you all what a prophet is and what a prophet is not. A prophet is a person who speaks for God and tells the people what God wants. A prophet is NOT a person who tells us what is going to happen literally in the future, like a Nostradamus, although some of what the prophet says may include what God is going to do in the future. Instead, the primary purpose of the prophet is to tell the people what they are doing right and, more often, what they are getting wrong and what God is demanding that they stop doing. We have already met some prophets in the stories that we’ve heard thus far this fall. In the story of David and Bathsheba, for example, we encounter the prophet Nathan, who comes to David and tells him a story about a rich man taking a poor man’s lamb for himself, and when David condemns the man, Nathan tells him that the man in the story is David and that God is not happy with him. Last Sunday, we met the prophet Elisha, who was the means for God to heal the Syrian general Naaman—prophets did sometimes perform miracles as well. And so, with those two examples in mind, and a general idea of who prophets were and what they did, let’s take a look at our text from the prophet Micah today.

Micah operated in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE, during the reign of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. He witnessed the end of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire and its people scattered. Some of Micah’s themes in his preaching to the people are: (1) contrary to the idea that Jerusalem is indestructible because of God’s covenant with David, Jerusalem will fall to the enemy because the people are not obeying God’s covenant that was delivered through Moses; (2) even though God will punish the people of Israel and Judah because they have disobeyed God’s Law, God will remember God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and will eventually restore Jerusalem and the rest of the people of Israel, and (3) in both the judgment and the restoration of Israel, the Lord stands alone; the Lord is God.

In our selected readings today, there are a couple of verses which I know that we have heard before: the one about the ruler who comes from Bethlehem, which gets a lot of publicity in the upcoming Christmas-Epiphany season, and the one that is printed on the stole that I’m wearing today: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? It is the latter verse that I want to focus on today, and especially the part about doing justice. We in the church understand loving kindness and walking humbly with God better than we understand doing justice. We love kindness when we engage in acts of charity, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. We walk humbly with God when we pray and when we seek God’s will, and when we come to worship God on Sunday mornings. But what is justice, and how are we to do it?

Growing up, when my brother or I complained about something not being fair, my father would always tell us, “Life isn’t fair.” And while that is very good wisdom and very good preparation for living a life in a sinful world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to make life more fair. Simply put, that is what justice is: making sure that each human being that God has created has the same opportunities and the same benefits as every other human being. Justice is seeking to make life as fair as possible for each person on this earth.

Here are a couple of examples from the book of Micah about what justice looks like. In chapter 2, Micah condemns those who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them. And in chapter 6, after today’s portion, Micah condemns those who have “dishonest weights”; in other words, those merchants who cheat the people by having scales that weigh either too much or too little of something.

These might seem like issues that are long ago and far away to us. Yet, just this week, I read a piece in The Washington Post where the author says that, here in the United States, while we have a right to an attorney if we are accused of a crime, we have no such right in civil cases (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-have-a-right-to-counsel-in-criminal-cases-why-not-in-evictions/2018/11/06/bbdb8600-d879-11e8-83a2-d1c3da28d6b6_story.html?utm_term=.c8973a23488e). Now, picture yourself as a low-income family struggling to pay rent with the income you have. You have a car breakdown or a large medical expense, and you’re not able to pay the rent. The landlord decides to have you evicted. And, since you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, you don’t know what your rights are. For example, you don’t know that it’s illegal for the landlord to throw your belongings on the lawn. This article stated that there is an eviction crisis in the United States: 2.3 million evictions were filed in 2016. There is a lack of affordable housing and rents are skyrocketing. And, once you have an eviction on your record, it’s very difficult to find someone else who will rent to you. This is our modern version of people who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them.

So, what does it look like for people of faith to do justice in this situation? Participating in Family Promise is one way to begin. We find out the stories of the families who are without a home and how they landed in that situation. We help to house them as they receive assistance and education to get out of the situation that they’re in, and to not land in that situation again. We learn to empathize. But doing justice doesn’t stop there. Doing justice means that we find out what the laws regarding landlords and renters in our state are. Doing justice means talking to our lawmakers and advocating for them to change the law, so that those who are in eviction proceedings have the right to a civil attorney just as they would to a criminal lawyer.

Besides talking about grabbing land, Micah also speaks of dishonest weights that cheat those who are poor out of what they need by weighing things at not the right weight, but either too heavy or too little in order to benefit the merchants at the expense of the poor people. We don’t have an exact equivalent of this that I could find. But there is such a thing as economic justice, and one form that takes in our society today is the minimum wage. The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. According to the state Department of Labor, 190,800 people earn the minimum wage or less. I guarantee you that you have seen many of those 190,800 people in the neighborhoods surrounding our 4 Lutheran congregations. Of those workers, 65 percent are women, 74 percent are white, 58 percent are under the age of 25, and 60 percent do not have a high school diploma. People cannot afford to live on their own if they are only earning a minimum wage, and so they will do things like work two or three minimum wage jobs in order to make ends meet, or live with aging parents who can care for their children. This is part of the reason that I see the people I do coming and looking for help, and if they’re not able to earn enough to live on, they can’t break out of that cycle of poverty no matter how much they may want to. Doing justice in this case would be to talk to our state and federal legislators and advocate for raising the minimum wage to something that people could live on. Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, or LAMPa, recommends raising that minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Doing justice means that we take risks in order to make the world a little bit more fair for our neighbors around us. Sometimes the things that we advocate for are not very popular. Sometimes doing justice means that we need to take part in protests in order to make our voice heard by legislators who don’t seem to be listening to us. Sometimes it means that we need to explain our positions to people who disagree with us. Doing justice is not easy. In fact, doing justice is meant to disturb us from our comfortable lives in order to experience the discomfort of those who do not experience justice. And that is neither easy nor convenient. And yet, this is what God is calling us to do through the prophet Micah, alongside of loving kindness and walking humbly with God.

My father is right, you know. Life isn’t fair. And it won’t be completely fair until Jesus, the one whom Micah prophesied about in chapter 5, returns. When Jesus comes in his glory, then everything will be made right once more. All will have enough to live on, and not just enough, but more than enough. Until that day comes, we are called to do the hard work of the coming kingdom, knowing that we won’t always get it right, but trusting that Jesus is there with us, walking beside us, urging us onward. Therefore, let us be bold as we strive to follow God’s directive through Micah: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Amen.

 

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

2 Kings 5:1-15a

With today’s story, we are leaving behind Kings David and Solomon and the united kingdom of Israel. After Solomon died, the kingdom split into the northern kingdom, which was called Israel, and the southern kingdom, which was called Judah. We have skipped over the many stories of Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, and his battle against King Ahab and Queen Jezebel for the soul of the northern kingdom and who the people would worship: the gods of Jezebel or the one God, the LORD. Elijah has ascended into heaven, and Elisha is carrying on in Elijah’s footsteps, being a prophet for the LORD. Elisha, like Elijah before him, is operating in the northern kingdom of Israel. It’s not clear from the text who the king of Israel is at the time today’s story takes place; the last king named in a preceding chapter is Jehoram, the son of the wicked king Ahab, so it may very well have been him. But we can see from the context that Israel is not on good terms with the neighboring country, Aram, which covers what is now Syria. So, it is a time of political tension for Israel, which includes skirmishes and raids from one nation into another.

Today, I want us to first take a look at the slave girl that clues Naaman in to the fact that there is a prophet in Israel who could heal him from his leprosy. Our text says, “Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria [the capital city of Israel]! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Think about that for a moment. This was a young girl who had been ripped from her family in a raid and taken to serve the enemy, and not just the enemy, but the wife of the commander of the army of the king of Aram. If that had been one of us, would we have said anything that could help our enemy be healed from a disease? Or would we have prayed to God for the leprosy to cause our master a slow and painful death?

While we sit with this discomfort for a while, I want to offer up another, more recent, picture for us. Last week, a gunman entered a synagogue on the Sabbath, during worship services, and killed eleven people there, all the time shouting out anti-Semitic words. This man was injured as law enforcement came and took him down, and his injuries required healing at the hospital. When he was brought to the hospital, the man was still shouting anti-Semitic slurs. The doctor and some of the staff who worked to heal him were Jewish. And when asked, the doctor said that he was proud to offer medical care to a human who was wounded. These are just two examples of what loving your enemies looks like. Would we who are Christians, whom Jesus taught to love our enemies, do what the slave girl and what this doctor did? Give our enemies hope for healing? I think that’s something for us to sit with, to meditate on, to pray on, and then perhaps to repent and to ask forgiveness for. And then, ask God to help us to do better at loving our enemies.

But let’s move on to the rest of the story now, for there is more that this Scripture text has to teach us today. Naaman hears about this prophet in Israel who can cure his leprosy, and he goes to his king, probably to ask permission to go to Israel, with whom his country, remember, was not on the greatest terms, in search of healing. But here’s the interesting thing: Naaman and his king hear the Israelite girl say “prophet,” and they think, “king”. Because, in their world, kings are the ones with all the power, including, apparently, the power to heal. And when the king of Israel receives this distinguished guest from the enemy country, he has no idea what they’re talking about. So of course he’s going to think that the king of Aram is trying to pick a quarrel with him and start a war. As I looked at the chapters that came before our story today, it seems that the prophet Elisha has had prior contact with the king of Israel, so I’m not sure why the king did not think to summon Elisha. Maybe he did not think that healing leprosy was among Elisha’s many gifts from God.

But, Elisha hears about what has happened and tells the king to send Naaman to him, “so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel”. And what Naaman discovers, when he arrives, is that prophets are not like kings. Elisha does not even deign to come out to see Naaman. Elisha is not interested in all of Naaman’s wealth, pomp and circumstance. Instead, he tells Naaman to simply go and wash in the Jordan River, and he will be clean. And Naaman, who is used to great displays of power and who is used to people bowing before him, is angered and disappointed. He thinks, “I came all this way to simply be told to go and wash in the Jordan River? What’s wrong with the rivers in my country? Why didn’t the prophet at least come out and say, ‘Abracadabra!’ and wave his hand over me and heal me that way?” But, his slaves persuade him to give Elisha’s prescription a try, and when Naaman washes in the Jordan, he finds that his leprosy is gone and he puts his faith in the God of Israel.

We tend to look for miracles, healing miracles and other kinds, as big and flashy events, too. We all want to be the one whose disease seems incurable, and then when the doctors say that there’s nothing more they can do, something happens and our disease is miraculously gone. We want to be the one who gets their 5 minutes of fame, the one who says, “Oh, those silly doctors couldn’t do anything, but look! Here is what I did, and I’m healed!” Or, we want to be the one who gets credit for solving a huge problem in the community, or even to be that one congregation who was on the brink of closing and then, miraculously, revived and renewed and is thriving. We want those flashy miracles, just like Naaman wanted a flashy cure for his leprosy.

But what God teaches us through the prophet Elisha is that miracles come through the mundane, the everyday routine, and the ordinary things. By washing in a muddy stream, Naaman’s leprosy is healed. Healing from an autoimmune disease comes in the form of an injection that the patient must learn to give to herself over the course of many months, even though she is deathly afraid of needles. The work of healing and renewing a congregation comes in all of the little things, the seemingly small ministries that it does, that work out over a long period of time, in spite of conflicts that come along the way. God works miracles through the ordinary and the everyday, through the research and efforts of doctors, through the simple acts of kindness and love that the people of the church show to the community. And God works salvation through a baby born in a manger and through a man dying on a cross. And if we are not paying attention, we just might miss these ordinary, everyday miracles.

But there’s even more to this story than just looking for the miraculous in the everyday and the ordinary. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is speaking to his hometown people in Nazareth, he says, “There were also many lepers in Israel at the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” First of all, Jesus’ reference reminds the people that God chooses whom God wills for healing, regardless of nationality or status as enemy of God’s people. That’s a reminder to us today, when we are wrestling with the question of why some experience healing and others don’t, that we don’t know the why behind God’s actions. But second, it is yet another reminder to us that God loves all people, even those we consider our enemies, and that we are to pray for all people and to act in love towards all people.

We’re not going to get this living as Christ taught us to live right. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, when we remember all of those who have gone before us in the faith. And we remember that, just like Naaman, who didn’t understand at first that healing could come through following a very ordinary command, those whom we honor on this day did not always get everything right. My paternal grandmother, as an example, was ornery. It seemed like she wasn’t happy unless she was complaining about something. The words that I remember that she said to me shortly before she died were, “Never marry an engineer, because you won’t get anything new.” But I knew that she loved me and she loved all of her family with a fierce protectiveness. She even overcame her phobia of snakes one day to chase off a snake with her cane that was going after a bird family living in her back yard. My grandmother didn’t always get it right. But I am confident that, right now, she is resting in the arms of Jesus and that I will see her again one day.

One day, the kingdom will come in its fullness, and we will be reunited with those whom we have loved, our family and our friends. And, we will be reunited with those whom we did not know, but who died trusting in the Lord. We may get to meet Naaman the Syrian, and hear his firsthand account of how God healed him from leprosy by washing in the Jordan. And we may get to meet the Israelite girl who became a slave in Naaman’s household, and ask to hear more of her story, and how she found it in herself to wish for healing for her enemy. You may have a list of people you want to meet and talk with one day; I know I do. But in the meantime, today, you can get a foretaste of what it’s going to be like by coming up to receive Holy Communion. In many churches, the altar rail has been designed in a semicircle, with the idea that the rest of the circle is in heaven, with people there sitting at the banquet. So today, and any day you receive communion, remember that you are feasting with your loved ones in the heavenly kingdom, who complete the circle. And that the Lord Jesus is present with us, even as he is present with them. Amen.