Sermon for Epiphany 6 Narrative

Matthew 13:24-43

Today we jump from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over several chapters in Matthew and land on Jesus telling stories, or parables. Both the Sermon on the Mount and the parables are forms of teaching, but different forms: whereas the Sermon on the Mount laid out in pretty plain form what Jesus expects his kingdom to look like, the parables are using metaphors, or word images, to describe what God’s kingdom looks like. And with metaphors, we have to play with them a bit, turn them this way and that, and try to discern what Jesus is telling us about his kingdom. But, before we get to those parables, let’s take a few moments and fill in what’s happened in the life of Jesus in between the Sermon on the Mount and his telling these stories about the kingdom.

After Jesus comes down the mountain, he continues his healing and his teaching ministries. Included in that are the healing of the centurion’s servant; Jesus stilling the storm when he and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee, and the casting out of demons from a man into a herd of pigs. Jesus also calls Matthew, the tax collector, and when the Pharisees complain, he tells them that he has come to call sinners, not the righteous. Jesus then raises a little girl from the dead and heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. He continues his healing ministry, and then, determining that the disciples have learned enough for the moment, he sends them out on their own to proclaim the good news. Then John the Baptist, who was in prison, hears what Jesus is doing and sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one that he was expecting, or should the people be looking for someone else. Jesus responds by telling John what he is doing and how that is fulfilling the Scripture. Jesus then continues his healing and teaching ministry. While Jesus is doing this, the Pharisees begin to conspire against him, to destroy him.

Then, Jesus starts telling parables, beginning with the sower who sows his seed on all kinds of soil. We’re skipping over that one today, but we’re continuing with the images of farming in Jesus’ next parable, the weeds among the wheat. Most of us here today have not grown up on farms, and even though we live near a lot of farms here in central Pennsylvania, we haven’t spent enough time on farms to make these images work easily for us. So, I’m going to try and describe a little of what I experienced in Wyoming with the weeds among the wheat. In back of the place where I lived was a farmer’s field, and the farmer rotated crops in it each year. I loved the years when the farmer grew barley, because when the barley sprang up, it was like a living sea of green waving in the wind. I would walk Otis on the dirt road that ran by this field and it would feel so peaceful as I walked by this waving grass. But, if you looked closely, you could see other plants in among the barley stalks that were tall and green like the barley but were clearly not barley plants. From a distance you could not tell the difference and going in and pulling the weeds up would almost certainly mean pulling stalks of barley up as well. And the barley was a valuable cash crop: it was all sold to beer companies. So, pulling up the weeds before the harvest was definitely not something that the farmers wanted to do.

So, why does Jesus tell this parable? How is the kingdom of heaven like a field that has both weeds and good plants in it? Well, we do hear Jesus’ explanation of this parable at the end of our section today, and it’s a little harsh. Remember, though, that in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story, Jesus is a refugee, having to flee from Bethlehem because of King Herod, having spent his early years in Egypt, and then returning not to Bethlehem but to the strange town of Nazareth. Psychologists say that children who grow up as refugees from violence have a very strong sense of good and evil, and they divide people into those categories a lot. A person does not move from the evil category to the good category very easily, in the mind of a refugee child. And so, we find Jesus telling frequent parables in Matthew of how, at the end of the age, people will be divided into those categories, and the ones who are evil will go where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But I think there’s more that we can gain from this parable than the separation of good and evil at the end of the age. And here it is: just like it was very difficult to tell the weeds from the good barley plants in the field out in Wyoming, it is often very difficult for us to tell who the good people are and who the bad people are here on earth. And so, as we heard last week when Jesus told us not to judge, we are called to leave the judgment up to God and the angels at the end of the age. They will be the ones to separate people, not us. Therefore, we are called to follow Jesus and to love one another while we are here on this earth. And when we get frustrated with all of the evil going on in the world, we are to trust that one day, Jesus will return and will set all things right.

From the parable of the weeds among the wheat, Jesus then talks about the kingdom of heaven being like a mustard seed. Our Thursday morning Bible study has been studying Jesus’ parables, and we had the parable of the mustard seed a couple of weeks ago. When I went to Greece and Turkey last year, we traveled past many fields where mustard plants were in bloom, and I’m going to take a moment and pass this picture around so you can all see it.

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What I discovered in that Bible study session is that we all know mustard as the yellow stuff that we see in bottles in the grocery store, but we don’t know that it actually comes from this plant with yellow flowers. Mustard is good for more than stuff that we eat, too. It’s also used for medicine. But what’s even more interesting about this parable is this: mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds, as Jesus says, nor do the mustard plants grow into trees. So, what’s Jesus talking about? Is he simply a lousy botanist, or is there something more going on here?

Perhaps the kingdom of heaven grows like a mustard seed does: from something small into something big, that overflows the boundaries of the fields and turns into something unexpected. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven provides healing for people, just as the mustard plant was used in a plaster to provide relief for chronic aches and pains. Perhaps we get a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven when one person starts something small, like helping another person to find work, and that gradually turns into something big, like an organization that helps many people in need by preparing for interviews or training for jobs. Or perhaps the kingdom of heaven is simply found in ordinary things of nature, like a mustard plant growing, and in the ordinary work that ordinary people do. Any and all of these interpretations are good ones; and perhaps in prayer and devotion, you may find another interpretation that the Holy Spirit suggests to you. This is the way that metaphors work, and as long as the interpretation is a good and healthy one, then I think Jesus would be pleased.

Lastly, we move from the parable of the mustard seed to the parable of the yeast. And when Jesus is using this image, he is not talking about those little packets of yeast that sit in our refrigerator. Have any of you made sourdough bread from scratch? If you have, then you will know that there is something called sourdough starter. This is a fermented mixture of flour and water, containing a colony of microorganisms that include wild yeast and lactobacilli. It doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it? This is most likely what the woman in Jesus’ parable is mixing into flour in order to make bread. So, is the kingdom of heaven like this disgusting-smelling and -looking stuff that, when mixed into flour, turns into something that tastes delicious? That’s an odd way of describing it.

But what about the amount of flour the woman is using? Three measures does not mean three cups. Three measures of flour means between forty and sixty pounds. That’s more bread than any one family can eat in one sitting. So, does this mean that the kingdom of heaven is going to have more than enough food for everyone who comes in? Perhaps, but here’s another question: the woman in the story is not mixing the yeast into the flour. Rather, the Greek word is the word for “hiding”; the woman is hiding the yeast in the flour. So perhaps this means that the kingdom of heaven starts out as something that is hidden, and then it is revealed just as the flour is revealed to have yeast in it when it becomes bread. Again, any of these interpretations are possible.

The weeds in the wheat; the mustard seed; the yeast in the bread. There is one thing that these images of the kingdom of heaven have in common, and that is this: waiting. With the weeds in the wheat, the servants must wait until the harvest comes before they can reap the wheat and separate the weeds out from the grain. When the person sows mustard seed in his field, he must wait for it to grow and take over the field, and he must let it alone until it is ready to be harvested. And when the woman hides the yeast in the flour, she must wait for the dough to rise and to become bread before it can be eaten. This is the encouragement that we can take from these parables. When we get frustrated with the evil that we see in the world; when the efforts that we make to spread the kingdom don’t seem like they will ever be enough; when numbers are few, God tells us to wait. Because right now the kingdom of heaven seems very small, but one day—in God’s time, not ours—the kingdom of heaven will come to fulfillment, and everyone will then find shelter, security, and more than enough to eat. That’s a hope that’s worth waiting for, and worth participating in. Amen.

 

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Sermon for Epiphany 5 Narrative

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

It was the fall of 1992, and I was a freshman newly arrived on the campus of Middlebury College in the small town of Middlebury, Vermont. I was taking classes and getting to know new people, and I’d already gained a boyfriend. Life was exciting and full of possibilities. But then, something happened that was a challenge for me. You see, I’d been brought up in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which is a more conservative Lutheran church body. Among one of the things that had been drilled into my head as I was growing up was that homosexuality was wrong, and I knew all the Biblical texts used to support that statement. The challenge during my freshman year was this: many of the friends that I had gotten to know since I had arrived on campus started coming out of the closet, and declaring that they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual. I didn’t know what to do: I loved my friends, but here I was with this belief about homosexuality that I had been brought up with. It seemed like I would have to either give up my faith or give up my new friends, and I didn’t want to do either. The technical term for this situation is cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory ideas, beliefs, or values. How could I reconcile my belief that homosexuality was wrong with the belief that my new friends were good, creative, cool people?

As I was praying over this and trying to figure things out, I landed on this verse that today’s Gospel lesson starts out with: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” I clung to this verse as a lifeline; a way out of the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” After all, I had my own issues that I had to deal with, and who was to say that my friends’ issues were any worse than mine? So, when I decided to leave the judging up to God, that meant that I could keep my faith and get to know my new friends better, to understand where they were coming from, and to hear what they had to say about who they were. I can’t say that my beliefs were changed overnight. But gradually, as I got to know my friends better, I came to understand that their sexuality was part of who they are, and that God had created them as much as God had created me. When I gave up the need to judge in this instance, God broadened my horizons and let me experience a part of creation that was much different from anything I had known beforehand, but that was just as beautiful.

Now, I’m not saying this to sound “holier than thou”. I think that’s an implicit danger in preaching on this text: I can say don’t judge people in one case without realizing that I am still judging people in another case. Judging is something that we do daily when we look at other people. We judge, for instance, whether someone might be a threat to us. We make judgments about people based on the type of clothing they wear: we know about what kind of income a person has based on whether they’re wearing jeans and a top versus a nice evening dress. Or, if not income, at least where they might be going or what they might be doing. But even then, our judgments are not always right. For example, someone might be carrying a bag with a Bloomingdale’s imprint on it, but instead of items purchased from that department store, they may be reusing the bag to deliver clothes to a local community aid organization. Sometimes the judgments we make are correct, and sometimes they are not. And Jesus is warning us about how we make those judgments and why.

Remember that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is his inaugural speech, where he is laying out what life in his kingdom, with his followers, should look like. And his kingdom is not going to look like any earthly kingdom. Those who are considered blessed by God are not the ones who are wealthy and famous, but rather those who have had the breath knocked out of them; those who are meek, and so on. The commandments of old are tightened up, so that people genuinely care for one another beyond the words of the law. Prayers are centered on God first, and then on the needs of the community as a whole rather than our individual needs. We are not to worry about anything, but we are to seek God’s kingdom first and trust that the rest will be given to us. And now the community is told that we are not going to flourish if we sit in judgment upon one another for things that are not important.

Things that are not so important in the Christian community may be the way that someone who comes to worship dresses, or if they dye their hair a strange color, or if they dress as a woman, introduce themselves as a woman, but sound like a man. In these cases, we should put aside our judgment and be thankful that they have come to worship the Lord God who made them, and God’s Son who died for them. Other things can be more difficult: for example, the people who only seem to come to church events for the things they can get, like free food or clothes, but who don’t participate in the life of the congregation. But even then we are called to not sit in judgment, for which one of us has not come to a church event with mixed motivations? And how would we feel if our motivations were laid bare and someone were to sit in judgment on us? This is the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about: we should not be sitting in judgment of others without first being honest with ourselves over how we have fallen short of the commands of the Law. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will find many, many ways that we have not done what Jesus has commanded us to do.

But this then presents another problem: are there to be no standards in Jesus’ kingdom at all? If we are not to judge others, does that mean that anything goes? On the contrary. Jesus’ next teaching helps his community to figure these things out: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. One of the problems that the English language has is that we have the same word for “you” regardless of whether it’s a singular you or a plural you. Our American Southern dialect gets around that by saying “y’all,” but most Bibles are not printed that way. And so, we look at a passage like this and think that Jesus is talking to each of us as an individual. Not so. In the Greek, the “you” in this section is a plural you. Jesus is talking about the community of believers who call on his name. When we, as a community, come to God in prayer, genuinely seeking God’s will and wanting to know if there is a certain behavior going on that we need to criticize, then God will be there for us and give us the answer that we need, so that the community can continue to flourish.

And finally, Jesus does give us, his beloved community of disciples, a standard to which we can cling: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It’s easy for us to frame this in the negative, and some people have done that: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” said a famous rabbi by the name of Hillel. So, if we do not like being hit, then we don’t hit other people. If we do not like being shoved, then we don’t shove other people. This is the kind of thing that parents teach their 2-year-olds. But how do we frame this in positive terms, as Jesus did? How about this: a family has just lost everything in a house fire. Let’s put ourselves in that situation and ask what we would want to happen if that were us. We might appreciate help from friends in getting back on our feet. OK, so maybe invite the family over for meals. Maybe offer for them to stay in our house for a while. Perhaps give them gift cards for local stores to help buy them clothes. And it doesn’t have to be an emergency situation like that. Perhaps you have a new neighbor who isn’t familiar with the city. Knock on her door, introduce yourself, see if there’s anything she needs or any questions you can answer for her. A positive interpretation of the Golden Rule gives more opportunity to actively care for one another and even to expand Jesus’ beloved community-kingdom.

Furthermore, this rule is the standard for us to fall back on when we wonder if we’ve become too judgmental. If we find that we are worried about someone or something in our community, and we find ourselves gossiping about it and causing more strain, then the first thing we need to do is to step back and ask ourselves if we are treating the person involved as we would want to be treated. If the answer is “no,” then we need to ask forgiveness both of God and of the person involved. Then we need to go to God in prayer, as a community, and ask for God’s wisdom in dealing with the situation. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives us guidelines for handling those difficult situations as well; please read Matthew 18 to see how Jesus suggests doing that. For now, it is important to say that even then, Jesus says we should handle problems in a communal way with prayer and discernment.

Jesus closes out his Sermon on the Mount by telling us to not just hear his words, but to put them into practice. This includes all of his teachings, not just the ones that we have talked about today. As sinful human beings, we know how difficult this is. Even when we do our best, our best often falls short. Jesus knows that, and that is why the most important part of his kingdom involves love and forgiveness. Jesus gave his life on the cross to show us how much he loves us, and through that death, we know that our sins are forgiven. Life in Jesus’ kingdom involves the same kind of love for one another and forgiveness of one another for our sins. So let us be slow to judge and quick to pray, and let us be quick to love and forgive one another as Jesus has loved and forgiven us. Amen.

Sermon for Epiphany 4 Narrative

Matthew 6:7-21 [25-34]

This week, we hear another portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. After opening with blessings which describe who will be considered blessed in the kingdom of heaven, and describing how the community of people who follow him will be considered the salt of the earth and the light of the world, King Jesus continues his inaugural speech by talking about how he has come to be the fulfillment of the law, and then tightens up those commandments that were given to the people of Israel in ancient times. We have skipped over that section of chapter 5, but I encourage all of you to take a look at it, because that is the section where Jesus tells us things like, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; and then try and reconcile it with that image of a loving Jesus that we all have. It’s not an easy thing to do, and so in your prayer life, I encourage you to wrestle with God about that. And perhaps that’s why the next thing Jesus turns to, after he tightens up all those commandments, and after telling us to love our enemies, and to not proclaim our generosity in the streets as the hypocrites do, is to turn to prayer, and to teach us how the community of those who follow him should properly pray. This is the Lord’s Prayer that we say every week in our worship services; that we say to conclude our council meetings, and that we say in our private devotions. In fact, we say it so often, it has become rote: something that we don’t examine very deeply. But today, that’s what I hope to do: to actually look closely at the words of the Lord’s Prayer and ask ourselves what it is we are saying when we say these words.

So, the first thing I’d like to do is to ask what prayer is. And, to help us with that question, I want to refer to an episode of The Big Bang Theory that aired a few years ago. Sheldon’s mother is in town visiting the gang and goes with some members of the group to tour churches in the area. When they enter a Catholic church, she decides that they ought to stop for a moment and pray. Sheldon’s mother starts the prayers off by thanking God for the gift of her son, Sheldon, and thanking God for giving her the patience to deal with his many quirks. But then, when each of the rest of the group speaks, they ask for help with their problems: Penny asks God to help her brother to stop dealing drugs; Leonard asks for help with his girlfriend; Howard doesn’t say anything at all, and Raj asks for help to lose some weight. When Sheldon’s mother remarks that maybe Raj should have asked for help in talking to women, and Raj starts to do that, Howard says, “No, you only get one wish.”

Now of course, a remark like that gets a lot of laughs. But, how often do we come to God with a laundry list of the things that we wish God would do for us? I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Bruce Almighty,” where the character of Bruce, taking on God’s job for a little while and inundated with all of the prayer requests, simply says yes to all of them. And it creates chaos because, for instance, everyone wanted to win the lottery, and so they all won—but got a dollar apiece.

When Jesus teaches his disciples the proper way to pray, though, he turns the idea of prayer around. Instead of asking God to give him something, Jesus begins by centering the prayer on God. He begins by saying, “Our Father in heaven.” Now, I would like you to notice two things about this profoundly simple opening to the prayer. First, the word, “Father.” In the Greco-Roman world, the gods were to be approached with fear and trembling and sacrifice. They had the power to do you good and the power to do you harm, and there was no personal relationship with them—what they did to you was entirely dependent on how they were feeling that day. For Jesus to call God “Father,” and to tell his disciples that it was okay for them to call God their father was to tell them that, as Martin Luther says, we can talk to him just as loving children do to their loving father. We have a personal relationship with God. The second thing that I want you to notice about the opening to this prayer is the little possessive pronoun “our.” God is not just my father, but he is your father and your father and the father of every single Christian in this world, from those of us who live in comfort to those who are homeless; from those of us who are citizens to those of us who are refugees. God is our Father, which means that every single Christian in the world, even those we have never met and never will meet in this lifetime, is our brother and sister. And that means when we talk to God and address God as “our Father,” we should not only be thinking of what we need, but also what our brothers and sisters in this country and around the world need as well.

After the address to “our Father,” the first petition of the prayer asks for God to hallow God’s name, or in modern English, to make God’s name holy. In Lutheran fashion, we ask, “What does this mean?” Well, let’s look around. Because of our sinful human nature, we have not made God’s name holy. As one example, the thing that has been in the local news and has caused a scandal is the revealing of the widespread child abuse perpetrated over many years by Roman Catholic priests. But lest we think this is exclusive to Roman Catholicism, it does happen across all Christian denominations as well. Any time there is an instance of child abuse or any other kind of mistreatment of God’s children, it causes a scandal and people have their trust in God severely damaged. We human beings cannot make God’s name holy, and so therefore, we pray that God would make God’s name holy: that God would be God and would reveal Godself in our lives and the lives of everyone here on earth.

The next petition is one which is very powerful, but which rolls off our tongue in three little words, that, if we stopped to ask ourselves what it means, we might be frightened: Your kingdom come. In the words of James L. Bailey from Wartburg Seminary in Iowa, “God is called upon to bring the fullness of God’s reign here on earth as the manifestation of divine love and justice that will sweep away all evil and injustice and be acknowledged by all peoples” (Contrast Community, 96). Well, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want evil and injustice to be swept away? Who doesn’t want all people to acknowledge God’s reign? But what happens if we are the ones who are perpetrating that evil and injustice? Even if we are doing it unknowingly, because we might be swept up in a system that perpetrates evil and injustice? Then that petition for God’s kingdom to come becomes frightening. Bailey further writes that when we say these words, we are also “pledging [our]selves to welcome this coming kingdom and be transformed by it, a reign of God that [we] are already experiencing—though in a veiled way—in the ministry of Jesus Christ” (ibid.,96). In other words, believing in Christ is not just something we say with our words. We also want to be transformed by everything that Jesus did and taught, so that as we live out our lives, we participate in the coming of God’s kingdom. This means things like speaking out against the evil and injustice we see around us and working to change broken systems. Martin Luther writes, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” This is what God’s kingdom coming looks like.

The next petition, “Your will be done,” is one that we say but we’re never quite sure what it looks like. What does it look like for God’s will to be done? What is God’s will? On an individual level, talking to God in prayer on a regular basis is the way to see what God’s will for your life might be. When we pray on a regular basis, God opens our minds and hearts so that we can see God at work in the world: both in our individual life and in the community around us. In a world full of evil and injustice, we start to look for those stories of people’s lives changed for the better, of a once-broken system being repaired so that more people can flourish. We begin to see that God’s will includes everyone on this earth having the abundant life that Jesus came to bring and flourishing together in harmony. And we begin to surrender our own lives to God’s will so that God might bring peace and harmony to us and to all of those around us.

Only after the prayer centers itself on God: God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will, does Jesus turn to requests for our needs. And if you notice, the needs expressed here are not for winning the lottery or a fancy new car. “Give us this day our daily bread.” Notice again the plural here: God, please provide not only for my needs, but also for the needs of all of my brothers and sisters in Christ. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We’re going to spend more time on this in an upcoming Sunday where Jesus tells a story of a servant who does not forgive as he has been forgiven. For right now, it’s important to note again the plural pronoun—us—and that God’s forgiveness of us seems to depend on how we’ve forgiven those who have sinned against us. This is something for us to pray on and ask ourselves: Is there someone in our lives who we need to forgive, or to ask forgiveness of? And finally, we ask God to not bring us to the time of trial, or testing, but rather to be with us and to rescue us from the power of the evil one. Perhaps here Jesus is remembering his time of testing in the wilderness with Satan, and praying that, just as God was with him during that time and saw him through it, that God would also be with us and see us through times of trial.

When we look at it more closely, we see that this prayer that Jesus taught so long ago is actually a very radical prayer, with its focus first on God and not on what we need, and then phrasing our needs in terms of community rather than individual needs. And this should be the model for all of our prayers: we should ask first what God’s will is; ask first that God’s name be made holy; ask first that God’s kingdom come, and then ask for the things we need and for the things that our neighbor needs. Our focus should not be only on what is going on in our individual lives, but also on how our lives intersect with others, and what others need. And the beauty of it is this: while we may be praying for someone else, that person may just be praying for us. And so God knows what all of God’s children need, and responds to us all because God loves each and every one of us. And that is good news for us indeed. Amen.

Sermon for 3 Epiphany Narrative

Matthew 5:1-20

Whenever the Beatitudes come up on a Sunday, I always think of my internship supervisor. The year that I was on internship, there was one week where we got hit with several deaths in the congregation, and we had several funerals to plan. My supervisor, the senior pastor of the congregation, sat down with our deacon to plan out one of the funerals. One of the relatives of the deceased was going to read the Beatitudes at the funeral, but for some reason, the senior pastor thought he was supposed to read them. As they were discussing the funeral, the senior pastor said to the deacon, “OK, and then I get up and read the Beatitudes.” The deacon gently reminded him, “No, pastor, the family member is going to read them.” The pastor said, “Oh, right, OK.” The discussion continued, and again the pastor said, “So, I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” The deacon again reminded him that the family member was going to read them. Then, right before the funeral began, the pastor once more said to the deacon, “I’m reading the Beatitudes, right?” And the deacon replied once more that the family member was going to read them. The deacon later told me about this, and we both thought it was hilarious, and it became a running joke during my internship year. But as I remembered that this week, I think that’s how we all approach this text from Matthew today: we all love to read the Beatitudes. They’re beautiful poetry, and some of these blessings are very comforting. We see them in embroidery that’s framed and hung up on our walls, and it’s a pretty reminder for us of a gentle and loving Jesus. But rarely do we stop and ask ourselves what these blessings mean and why Jesus said them. So that’s what I would like to do today: examine some of these blessings more closely and ask what they mean.

The first thing we need to do, though, since we’ve had some weather incidents that have prevented us from worshiping the last couple of weeks, is to refresh our memories on the context of these blessings that Jesus speaks, by summarizing Matthew’s story up to this point. Matthew begins his story in chapter 1 with Jesus’ genealogy and an account of how Jesus was born. Then, Matthew tells us in chapter 2, wise men came to honor Jesus, in the process alerting King Herod that a new king had been born. The wise men returned home; Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt; Herod massacred the infants of Bethlehem; Jesus’ family returns to Bethlehem when King Herod has died, and then they go up to Nazareth and settle there. In chapter 3, Matthew tells us about John the Baptist and his ministry, and then how Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In chapter 4, which we would have heard last week if not for the snow, Matthew tells us that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days, and then was tested by the devil. Jesus then begins his ministry in Galilee with the same message that John spoke: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Next, Jesus calls his disciples from their fishing to follow him and fish for people, and then Jesus goes around and begins to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to heal people from their diseases.

This sets the stage for the blessings that Jesus speaks. When he sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and begins to teach. And this is what I think Matthew is doing: Matthew has told us in the opening chapters of his gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the new king that everyone has been anticipating. Jesus has been baptized and received the affirmation of God the Father that he is God’s Son. He has passed the tests in the wilderness that the devil put in front of him. He has announced that the kingdom is near. He is showing in word and deed that he is a king, but not quite the king that everyone was expecting: not an earthly king at all. The Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is Jesus’ inaugural address, where he tells everyone what this new kingdom of heaven is going to look like. And he begins his inaugural address with a description of the people who are going to be blessed in this new kingdom—and it’s not the people who the world would say are blessed. So as we now turn our attention to these blessings, this is the important thing to remember: Jesus is not telling us that we need to strive to be in these conditions in order to be blessed. Rather, he is saying that when this stuff happens to us, then we can remember that God is with us, God loves us, and God blesses us.

Let’s take a look at the first blessing: the poor in spirit. Have you ever stopped to ask what this means? We understand what poor by itself means, in fact, the Gospel of Luke has Jesus simply saying, “Blessed are the poor.” So, why does Matthew add “in spirit”? Is he saying that a person’s material needs are not as important as spiritual needs? Well, I suppose that’s one interpretation, but here’s one that I like better. The Greek word for spirit, pneuma, also means “breath”. It’s the root of words like pneumonia, which is a disease affecting the lungs, where the breath comes from. So perhaps “poor in spirit” could mean “poor in breath,” or, in other words, having the breath knocked out of you. Think of one of those bad weeks that you’ve had where everything just seems to go wrong, and you feel like you just can’t go on any longer. Or perhaps you’re someone who works for the federal government and, up until this week, you didn’t know when you were going to get paid or how you were going to make rent, and you’re at your wit’s end. That, I think, comes close to what Jesus means by “poor in spirit”. Jesus says those who are at their wit’s end and who think they can’t go on any longer are the ones who are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Some of the beatitudes that Jesus speaks are easier to understand than others, so I’m going to skip over some of them and go to one that may require a little more thought, like the poor in spirit. Let’s look at this one, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” “Meek” is a strange word, one that we don’t use very much, if at all, in our everyday language. It implies quietness, even to the point of letting other people run roughshod all over you. If that is what “meek,” means, then most of us Americans want nothing to do with it. But that’s actually not what the word means in this context. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” he is talking about what we as Christians should be modeling to the rest of the world: gentleness, and not returning evil for evil. Nonviolent resistance would fall in this category. This week, as the government shutdown dragged on, air traffic controllers and TSA agents started to call in sick to work because they were not being paid. This was a form of nonviolent resistance that finally clogged the wheels of society enough to get a breakthrough so that the government reopened—even if it is a temporary breakthrough. Blessed are the meek—those who persist in gentleness and nonviolence in spite of the injustices in the world—for they will inherit the earth.

The next beatitude that I want to look at briefly is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” When I was discussing this particular beatitude with someone this week, he asked me, “What is righteousness, anyway?” And I think that’s a good question. When we say the word “righteous,” that brings to mind moral righteousness, or in other words, what we think we need to do to be a good person: we follow the rules, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t sleep around, we help other people who need help. Righteousness can include these things, but I don’t know anyone who actually hungers and thirsts for them. It was St. Augustine who once said, “Give me chastity and give me constancy, but do not give them yet.” Here I think we need to go back to what the Greek word says. The word dikaiosyne can be translated as righteousness, but it can also be translated as justice. So Jesus here might be saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” This makes better sense and fits in better with the other blessings that Jesus speaks. In God’s kingdom, those who are blessed are those whom society doesn’t think are blessed: the ones who have the breath knocked out of them by their circumstances in life; the ones who mourn; the ones who are gentle and nonviolent; the ones who cry out for justice to be done; the ones who are merciful, and so on. The kingdom of heaven is much different from any earthly kingdom.

And after speaking these blessings, Jesus talks about this community being salt and light for the earth. The kingdom of heaven does not yet exist in its fullness here on earth. But the community of those who follow Jesus are a foretaste of that kingdom. Therefore, in communities of people who follow Jesus, that is, our congregations and the wider church expressions, we are called to model these blessings that Jesus speaks. In our Christian communities, we give special care to those who are poor in spirit and to those who mourn. In our Christian communities, we are to hunger and thirst for justice and to do what we can to help bring justice about in our wider society. And so on and so forth with all of these blessings. That is how our Christian communities are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, shining brightly to all of those around us.

This is a description of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. We are not to try to be poor in spirit so that we get blessed, for example. But if we are living anything close to a Christian life, there will be some point in our lives where we will be poor in spirit, where we will be mourning, where we will be meek, and so on and so forth. And when that happens, we will be blessed: loved and cherished by God, and, if our Christian community is acting as followers of Christ should, loved, cherished, and helped by the other people in our Christian community. And then, when we come out of that place, it will be our turn to help those who are in that place. This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. This is how we are to be a community that is different from the society around us. And this is how we are to let our light shine before others. Secure in the knowledge that Jesus loves us, let us strive to be that foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

 

 

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.

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.