Sermon for Epiphany 4A

Matthew 5:1-12

 

Today, I’d like to start out with a poem written by Emily Dickinson.

 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

 

I think that Jesus understood the wisdom behind this poem. It’s a wisdom that is hard for us to understand until we’ve been burned a few times. In the words of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men,” there are times when we “can’t handle the truth”. Our minds are too small or our way of thinking is too narrow, and so, when we hear the truth plainly spoken, we are so astounded by it that we can’t wrap our minds around it, or we are offended by it because the truth goes against everything we think we know or everything we think we believe. That’s why, when the prophet Nathan went to confront King David over his sin with Bathsheba, he didn’t just come out and say, “Hey, David, God knows what you did and he’s really upset with you.” Instead, he told David a story about a poor man with one lamb and a rich man with many who stole the poor man’s lamb, so that David would hear the injustice and end up condemning himself. The fact that we can’t always hear the straight truth is why Jesus spoke in parables that, 2000 years later, still have us scratching our heads trying to figure out what he was trying to tell us. And, I believe this inability on our parts to hear the truth in a straight manner is why Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount with the blessings that we have before us today. They are blessings that have us scratching our heads still 2000 years later, saying, “What did he mean by that, really?” Well, in the words of the apostle Paul in our lesson from 1 Corinthians today, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” So, I’m going to try and tell some stories today to get at the truth behind the Beatitudes in a sideways manner.

A single woman in Powell loses her job. It is a job that pays just enough for her to afford rent and the basic necessities of life. She is now unable to pay her rent, and the landlord evicts her. She begins to live out of her car, and with the help of churches and Loaves & Fishes, she is able to be fed. But she doesn’t know how much longer she can keep living like this, especially with the winter and cold weather getting close. Blessed are the poor in spirit—or, as another translation would have it, “those who have the breath knocked out of them,”—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A family of four is doing okay. The father has a good job, and the mother is staying home with the kids. But then the father loses his job. Even with unemployment, they are no longer able to afford the mortgage on their home. The kids must leave everything they have known, and the family now has no place to live. Too embarrassed to let their friends know what is going on, the parents are grateful for the invitations their kids get to sleep over at friends’ homes, while they themselves sleep in their car most of the time. But the father is still unable to find work, and the mother can only get part-time work to help out. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Last spring, prompted by someone who was homeless setting up camp in her backyard, the Lutheran pastor in town preaches a sermon and writes a newspaper article calling out the town of Powell for believing the myth that “there are no homeless in Powell; they all go up to Billings”. The response is minimal; those who do respond say, “Yes, we should do something, but what can we do?” Last Friday, the same Lutheran pastor hears a story from the Episcopal priest about how a homeless woman living out of her car came to the Episcopal congregation looking for help, and how that congregation did their best to get the woman back on her feet again. The Lutheran pastor and the Episcopal priest lament the fact that there is no homeless shelter either in Powell or in Cody, and they want to do something, but know that neither one of them have the skill set to get something rolling. And they pray for someone to come along who has the energy, the drive, and the skills to help band the churches together and start working on this project. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

I can keep going, but I think you’re starting to get the picture. For too long, these beatitudes of Jesus have been preached as if these groups of people whom Jesus is blessing is something that the rest of us should aspire to. And while yes, it is good for us to aspire to be peacemakers, for example, who really wants to do that? Peacemakers can have it really rough: if you’ve ever tried to make peace between two people who are fighting, you know that you will hear many bitter things said by both sides. And that you have to discern where the truth lies—usually somewhere right in the middle—and then work on getting the two parties to compromise and to admit that maybe each one of them had been in the wrong. That’s no picnic. So none of us really aspires to be peacemakers. None of us wants to be persecuted. And I think that we can all agree that none of us wants to mourn.

But Jesus is not telling us that these are things that we should want to do or to be. Rather, he is telling us that, in the life of both the individual Christian and the community of faith, these things are going to happen to us. We are going to lose someone or something dear to us, and we will mourn. There will be a time when we are called to be peacemakers. There will be a time when we see injustice in our community and we will hunger and thirst for righteousness. And yes, there may come a time when we will endure persecution for righteousness’ sake—I can imagine that if we were to propose building a homeless shelter, there would be protests and misunderstandings all throughout Park County. But these states of being or doing that Jesus names in today’s Gospel are blessed—we are to be happy when these things come upon us. Even more than that, we are to rejoice and be glad, because it means we are doing something right as we seek to follow Jesus and his teachings. And we know that Jesus is God with us, Immanuel, pronouncing his blessing and his love upon us.

And so, there is another thing that Jesus implies when he teaches us about these blessings. If these things aren’t happening to us, then we may need to examine what we are and are not doing and see if we are truly following Jesus, or if we’re just giving our faith lip service. Again, it’s not that we are to deliberately seek out sorrow and mourning, as an example. Instead it is that, in the course of truly living out our faith, these circumstances will happen to us, and we will know God’s blessing upon us as we experience Jesus in our midst during these times. And so, this may be a time for us to reflect, as a congregation, on where we are in our faith journey with Jesus, and whether Jesus may be calling us to a more difficult vocation than that which we have already walked.

I know that I’ve been speaking a lot lately about poverty here in Powell and about those who are homeless. It may seem foolish that I’m doing so. After all, we as a congregation are already doing a lot to help out. We’re good at contributing food, money, and time to Loaves and Fishes. We have contributed regularly to Backpack Blessings in order to help children who live in poverty eat over the weekends. And I’m really proud of how we have all stepped up to contribute to the Good Samaritan Fund, which makes it easier for me to help people in need as they come to the door of this church. But over the four years that I have been here with you, I have seen this little congregation do some pretty amazing things. And I think that we are capable of doing more to participate in the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

And the fact is that there are homeless people here in Powell, and throughout Park County. Meg Nickles, the Episcopal priest, did tell me that her congregation helped a woman living out of her car to get back on her feet. A counselor at Yellowstone Behavioral Health has told me stories of homeless people in the area sleeping on the floor of a local laundromat and hanging out in the Walmart in Cody to stay warm. And I have heard stories of homeless people being sent to Billings and then turning right around and coming back to the area, which seems counterproductive until we remember that, even if they have to live out of cars or camp out in someone’s back yard, that still might feel safer for them than being in a big city where they have no connections. And I believe that this congregation has the gifts to begin tackling this issue. We have the gift of making good food and of generosity, for example. We could start by hosting a meal once a month for those who are homeless and who are living in poverty. And the movement could go forward from this simple start. All we need is someone to take leadership and get the ball rolling.

Jesus’ beatitudes are more than just blessings, they are a call to action. And they are also a promise that God will always be with us when we move forward into the life that the Holy Spirit is calling us towards. And so, as further food for thought, I’d like to end with this story that I think Jesus, being part of the Jewish tradition, would have liked:

 

Some followers go to the rabbi and ask him, “What is heaven like?”

“In heaven,” answers the rabbi, “they sit at a table with delicacies and sumptuous treats of every kind. The only problem is their arms do not bend.”

“And what is hell like?”

“In hell they sit at a table with all sorts of treats and sumptuous delicacies. The only problem is their arms do not bend.”

“Then, Rebbe, what is the difference between heaven and hell?”

“Ah, my children,” said the rabbi, “in heaven they feed each other.”

 

Let us help people to see the kingdom of heaven by feeding one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon for Epiphany 3A

Matthew 4:12-23

I love teaching Bible studies and other classes, because I always end up learning something from my students along the way. And in our Thursday morning Bible study, I’ve learned that having visual aids helps us all to understand the material that we’re talking about. And so today, I’d like to start with a visual aid—and that visual aid is a map. Both our Isaiah text and our Matthew text talk about the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and reference the sea and the Jordan River. Most of us have probably heard these Isaiah verses being read in the church at some point or another, and we always focus on “the people sitting in darkness have seen a great light”. But where in the heck are these lands of Zebulun and Naphtali anyway? And why are they sitting in darkness? And how does Galilee fit into this? So, with the help of my computer people back there, I’m going to get a map up on the screen for you.

When we read the story of the conquest in the book of Joshua, we can see that the land was divided up so that each tribe of Israel got a part of the land to call its own. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of those tribes, and as you can see from the map, this is where their allotted land was: on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. As time went on and ruling powers came and went, this area of Zebulun and Naphtali was renamed Galilee. And Capernaum, which Jesus made his headquarters during his ministry, lies right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a central area in this territory that first Isaiah, and then Matthew, names.

So, what was it about this place that made the prophet Isaiah say that its people were sitting in darkness? During Isaiah’s time, this area was facing an invasion by the Assyrian empire. The people were indeed sitting in darkness: things around them looked bleak. The Assyrians had much more power than the little kingdom of Israel, and the people did not know how, or even if, they would survive. Isaiah prophesied a king who would save the people and thus, shine light into their darkness. This king would break the yoke of their oppressors, and the people would not be burdened any longer, but would live under the rule of a good and benevolent king.

Now, here’s the tricky thing about prophecy: the prophet himself doesn’t always know who he’s talking about. When Isaiah made this prophecy, he was probably thinking about the current situation of the people, and he was probably talking about the current king, Hezekiah, and that he would be victorious over the Assyrian forces. He probably wasn’t thinking that the words he uttered would also be about a future king who would come to bring light into the darkness of the people of Galilee. But Matthew, as he writes the story of Jesus and seeks to express to the people that Jesus is the one they’ve been looking for, interprets this prophecy of Isaiah’s to be about Jesus. In other words, he tells us that Jesus goes to Galilee to begin his ministry, and, as he seeks to understand why Jesus went there instead of staying in Judea and confronting Herod over his imprisonment of John the Baptist, he runs across these words spoken so long ago by Isaiah. Well, of course, Jesus went to Galilee! The people there are under Roman occupation; they are sitting in darkness just like the people who lived there long ago who were facing an Assyrian army. They, too, are waiting for their new king to come and shine light into their darkness, and here is that new king: it’s Jesus! Jesus is the one who brings light to a people desperate for hope.

And so, Jesus begins to proclaim the message that John the Baptist had been proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven has come near, but are the people ready for it? Now, we tend to think of repentance as being sorry for our sins; for the bad things we’ve done and the good things we’ve forgotten to do. And that is part of what repentance is all about. But the Greek word that gets translated as repentance carries much more meaning than that. Metanoia carries the idea of a complete change of mind; a 180 degree turn from our present way of thinking. That’s not an easy thing to do. We like to think that our own point of view is the correct one. Then we surround ourselves with friends who think the same way that we do, and we become entrenched in our way of thinking, and less and less open to a different point of view. The idea of a complete change of mind, a complete repentance, becomes less and less plausible to us.

But, here comes the light: here comes Jesus, with the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near. Much more powerful than an earthly kingdom, the kingdom of heaven is where complete peace, justice, and tranquility reigns. This kingdom is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before: it is not like the ancient kingdom of Israel, it is not like the Assyrian Empire, it is not like the Roman Empire, and it is not like our government here in the United States. This kingdom is one where everyone, no matter their skin color, gender, nationality, or anything else that we humans use to make categories, can live in peace. It is a kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb, and they do not harm one another. And this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is such good news, such blessed relief from the burden that is on our shoulders, that we cannot help but greet it with repentance, with a complete change in the ways that we think.

Perhaps that is why Peter, Andrew, James, and John abandoned their boats and their families to follow Jesus. Perhaps they had heard Jesus preaching this kingdom in the synagogue and, when he called them, they immediately jumped up out of their boats and followed him. They changed their way of life, and followed after Jesus to learn more about this kingdom that was so much better than the Roman Empire. They were eager to participate with Jesus as he brought in the kingdom of heaven, and they ran after Jesus to find out more. And, imperfect and flawed as the disciples were, they became fishers of people, and they became part of that light shining first in Galilee, then in Judea, and then around the whole world. They became part of the story of the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven.

Are we ready to be fishers of people? Are we excited when we hear Jesus’ call? Do we drop what we’re doing to follow him? Do we change our way of thinking 180 degrees in order to be part of the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven? On Friday evening, I went to see the movie, Hidden Figures, which tells the story of a group of African-American women working for NASA in the 1960s, in Hampton, Virginia, which was still segregated. It tells the story of the battles these women fought in order to be accepted as intelligent, competent mathematicians. Having been born after the 1960s, the concept of segregation is both foreign and appalling to me, and as I watched, I cringed in horror at the separation, and how African-American people were treated as inferior to white people simply because of the color of their skin. When the boss of the group of scientists working on calculations for astronauts to orbit the moon asks his star mathematician, who is one of the African-American women, why she is gone for 40 minutes every day, she breaks down and tells him how she has to run ½ mile to the other side of the NASA campus because there is no “colored” bathroom in the building where they are working. Full of righteous anger, the boss goes to the building, knocks down the sign on the bathroom that says “colored” and declares that there will be no more segregation of bathrooms, and the women can use whatever bathroom they want. While there was nothing overtly religious about this scene, I believe this was an illustration of repentance: a 180 degree change in the way of thinking of the people at NASA, and it was a shining of heavenly light; an inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven.

Because the light that Jesus shines on us is not just a spiritual light. It is a light in line with the prophets, who called on the people of Israel to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. After all, people don’t want to hear talk about spirituality while their physical needs are going unmet. Freed by Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins—the wrong things we have done and the good things we have failed to do–we want to be part of his bright light shining into the places of darkness. We want to change our selfish lives around and bring healing, love and compassion into this world, just as Jesus did. And we do this not just in religious ways, but also in secular ways. Our faith should be shining through all of our actions in this world, whether or not those actions appear to have anything religious about them.

Someone once said that we don’t drown out darkness with darkness, but rather, we drown out darkness with light. Let us be that light in every dark place that we are called to follow Jesus. Let us change the way we think and listen to the points of view of others. Let us learn how to have constructive dialogue with those with whom we disagree. Let us speak out for those who suffer injustice and who cannot speak for themselves. Let us be kind to all whom we meet, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they believe. And let us learn to be humble, and to walk humbly with God. In short, let us be part of that light of Jesus shining in the dark places of both this country and around the world. Amen.

 

Sermon for Epiphany 2A

John 1:29-42

I have climbed the highest mountains
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run, I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for

            These are some of the lyrics to the U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Has there ever been a point in your lives where you have felt like this? Maybe it was several years ago. Maybe it’s now. Or maybe you’ve always known where you’re going in life and have done what you felt was the right thing to do in each situation you’ve been presented with, and then one day in the future you will wake up and suddenly think that you don’t know how you got where you are and you no longer know what you’re supposed to be doing in life. Have any of us truly found what we’re looking for?

            John’s version of how Jesus gains his first disciples is fascinating. Everybody’s just kind of milling around the Jordan River, and then John the Baptist (not the same John as the writer of the gospel) sees Jesus and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” and John’s two disciples just leave John and go after Jesus. So, Jesus’ first disciples were actually following John the Baptist first, and simply on John’s word that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and on no other evidence whatsoever, Andrew and the other disciple start following Jesus. Remember, these two men had not seen the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove at his baptism. Only John the Baptist had seen it, and Andrew and the other guy trust John’s word enough to say, “OK, John, we’ve had a great time with you and everything, but we think we’re going to follow that guy over there who you said is the Lamb of God.”

            Then, there’s the conversation between Jesus and the disciples: it’s really strange. Instead of saying, “Oh, hello, my name is Jesus. What are your names?” Jesus asks them what they’re looking for. It’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? They’re looking to see who this person whom John just named the Lamb of God really is and what he is all about. And then this seemingly stupid question on Jesus’ part gets answered by an equally inane question on the disciples’ part. It’s like the two of them got star-struck and tongue-tied and the first thing they blurted out is, “Um. . .um. . .um. . .yeah. . .um. . .rabbi. . .um. . .where are you staying?” And then Jesus just invites them to “Come and see”? Really, what is this conversation all about? This is one of many reasons that I struggle with the Gospel of John. Things that seem stupid, or that seem simple, really aren’t. And there’s a reason for this conversation as well.

            Let’s start with the translation issues. Our Thursday morning Bible study this week discussed what can happen when we try to translate from one language and culture into another language and culture. Something always does get lost, and as someone who has loved to learn languages, I am fascinated by translation issues. Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel could perhaps be better translated, “What do you hope to find?”  What did these two disciples of John the Baptist hope to find in Jesus that they perhaps hadn’t found in John? And their response with the question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” could be better translated, “Rabbi, where are you dwelling?” or “Rabbi, where are you abiding?” This refers back to John’s first chapter, “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us,” and it refers forward to Jesus’ discourse later in John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” And Jesus invites the disciples to come and see where he is staying, and to abide with him just as he has come to earth to dwell with us.

            Jesus is still asking us today, “What are you looking for?” And the answer to the question depends on where we are in our lives. When I posted this question on Facebook, my brother answered, “My cat. We just learned she’s been sneaking out of the house and now we’re both freaked out.” There’s a whole long story behind that answer, and it might seem, at first glance, that my brother was being overly literal when he answered the question that I asked. But, you know, Jesus did tell stories about looking for a lost sheep to make a greater point, so let’s go with my brother and sister-in-law looking for their lost cat for a moment. When we look for someone that we love who has been lost, there is a sense of gnawing emptiness, a sense that life won’t be complete until we find that person. When we lose a loved one to death, we may know intellectually that the person is gone and is not coming back, but we still feel that sense of incompleteness. And we know that, even though we may adjust to a new “normal,” our lives will never be quite the same again. On some level, we continue to look for that person, or, at the least, someone to help fill that gnawing sense of emptiness.

            “What are you looking for?” Jesus asks us. And Jesus is not just asking us who come to worship him on a regular basis. Jesus asks everyone in the whole world, “What are you looking for?” Mainline congregations across the country are worried about how they are declining. We worry about the lack of young people. Study after study has been done, basically asking the question, “What are you looking for? And how can we as the church provide it?” Have we here at Hope thought to ask this question of the young people in our lives? Rather than dismissing our children and grandchildren as lacking commitment to coming to church, rather than just throwing up our hands and saying, “Kids these days!” have we asked them, “What are you looking for? How have we as church met that need in the past, and how have we failed? What can we do better?” And then, once we’ve heard the answers, have we reflected on how we can change what we’re doing so that those who are not with us can truly see Jesus in our midst? Have we truly made space in our midst for people to come and be a part of the body of Christ in this location?

            Jesus invites us to “come and see”. Do we see Jesus when we come to worship him on Sunday mornings? And where do we see him? I hope and pray that sometimes you catch a glimpse of him in the words that I speak from this pulpit. And even if you have a clearer vision of Jesus in the children’s message than in the regular sermon, that’s okay! When Jesus shows up more in the simple words that I speak to the children than in the words that I speak to the adults, it keeps me humble and it reminds me that it’s not about my eloquence, but about how Jesus chooses to reveal himself to you. And of course, I hope that you see Jesus when you come up for communion, because Jesus is always present in the bread and the wine, as well as being present among all of us as we come to the table—binding us together as one body even though we are different from one another. And when we leave this place after worship on a Sunday, I hope that what we have experienced of Jesus gets us excited enough to invite others to “come and see,” just as Jesus invited those first two disciples so long ago.

            And when we invite people to come and see Jesus, we receive a new vision of how Jesus wants us to be at work in the world. Later in this chapter, when Nathanael sees Jesus and puts his trust in him, Jesus tells Nathanael that he “will see greater things than these”. When we come and see Jesus present, binding so many different people together through his word and his sacrament, we see one great thing. When so many of us come together despite our differences, and, inspired by the gifts that Jesus has given to us, go out into the world to help the world to “come and see” Jesus, then Jesus enables us to see even greater things than what we see in worship on a Sunday. We start to see what we thought was impossible become possible. We see that Jesus is what we, and the world, are looking for. We see that Jesus is who gives us the sense of completeness, the sense of peace, and the sense of wholeness that we have been looking for.

            So, have we found what we’re looking for? My brother and sister-in-law did find their cat and have found a way, for the moment, to keep her safely inside their house. We may find community that seems to fill the emptiness in our hearts. But, if this is all we look for, we will eventually find that we are still restless, and we are still looking for something. In his Confessions, St. Augustine addresses God and says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Jesus invites us to come and see him, to experience his love for us, to experience that rest, and that sense of wholeness and peace that we are lacking. He invites us to come and worship him each week, and then to go out into the world, with our hearts full, and invite others to come and see him. And he invites us into an amazing adventure of discipleship, where we will see things that we thought impossible become possible. Are you ready to come and see what following Jesus is all about? Are you ready to make room for people that you never thought would come and be a part of the body of Christ? Then keep speaking and keep inviting, and let Jesus show you and all who come how truly loved you all are. Amen.

 

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Matthew 3:1-17

In last year’s Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, we are brought in to the Star Wars story many years after the defeat of the Empire. But not everyone lived happily ever after: in place of the Empire, the First Order has arisen and is trying to bring the galaxy under its control. Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, has succumbed to the dark side of the force and is under the control of the First Order, trying to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader. And Luke Skywalker has gone missing. But the good has not disappeared. Many of the people who took part in the Rebellion when the Empire was in control have gathered together and are working to find Luke Skywalker. Princess Leia, now a general, is one of the leaders of the Resistance. And while the Resistance may seem outnumbered, like the good usually is in a Star Wars movie, they still have a few tricks up their sleeve, and we expect to eventually see the good win out.

In our Gospel lesson today, we have a resistance going on. John the Baptist has appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As we listen to his preaching, it would be easy for us to dismiss John as the stereotypical fire and brimstone preacher; you know, the one that, when we see him on the street, we cross over to the other side and walk quickly by, hoping to put him and his uncomfortable message out of our minds and go on with our daily business. Except, John really isn’t your typical fire and brimstone preacher. Instead of crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him, people from Jerusalem and all over Judea and all along the Jordan are seeking John out, confessing their sins, and wanting to be baptized by him. So, what’s going on here?

In short, this is the resistance movement of 1st century Palestine. The Romans had just gained control over the Jewish people not so many years before this. The Sadducees were the people who accommodated the empire by working with the Romans to maintain control over the Temple. The Pharisees, although much admired by the people for their call to maintain faithful living even in this time of Roman occupation, were still part of the elite members of society. The people who were coming out to John to be baptized wanted to be part of the resistance to the Roman occupation. They were frustrated with business as usual. They longed for Israel to have control once more and to worship their God freely and for God to rule over them. And so the sins that the people confessed to John were not necessarily individual sins, but the sins that they saw in their society and that they had taken part in. The people saw John as a prophet in line with their prophets of old, the ones who had called the people of Israel to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. They saw John as calling them to recognize their part in the sins of their society and to act for change, so that God would send the Romans away and come and rule over them once more.

And into this line of people coming to be baptized by John and to join the resistance movement comes Jesus. Jesus has traveled from Galilee, by foot, about 70 to 80 miles, to be baptized by John. Why? Even John says that he needs to be baptized by Jesus; why on earth would Jesus travel this far just to have John baptize him? Well, let’s consider where we left Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew. He and his family have just returned to Israel from Egypt; we don’t know how long they were living there. They can’t return to Bethlehem because King Herod’s son, Archelaus, is ruling in his place, and he’s just as bad as his father was. So Jesus and his family go to Nazareth and live as refugees. Jesus grows up hearing the story of why they had to flee from Bethlehem, why they had to live in Egypt, and why they were now living in Nazareth. He grows up knowing that many of his cousins died in Bethlehem when Herod sent his soldiers to kill the baby boys who lived there. I’m guessing that Jesus may have harbored some anger at the government which occupied his country. Picture Jesus, then, arriving at the Jordan to be baptized by John as part of this resistance movement, in solidarity with his people who were longing for God to come and rule over them.

But then, as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are opened to him, the Spirit comes on him in the form of a dove, and a voice speaks, telling Jesus that he is God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. The imagery that Matthew is using here goes back to Genesis 2, when God created a man out of the earth and breathed life—or spirit—into him. In this scene, we see Jesus as the firstborn of God’s new creation. He is given an identity and a purpose: God’s beloved Son, the anointed one: the Messiah. God is taking everything that Jesus has learned from his time on earth with his family, first in Bethlehem, then in Egypt, and then in Nazareth, and God is accepting and loving everything that Jesus is and saying, “I will work through you to accomplish my purposes.” And as we go through the gospel of Matthew, we will find that God will work through Jesus to lead the resistance to the world, not with anger and hatred, but with love. That love will not look like what the world thinks it should look like. That love will be an action verb and not a state of being, and that love will include people that the characters in the Gospel don’t think it should include. Jesus’ baptism not only reveals who Jesus is, but it sets him on a course of action: teaching, healing, and finally, showing us what true love looks like by dying on the cross.

The baptism that we undergo is not exactly the same as Jesus’ baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We receive God’s promise of eternal life when we are baptized. And yet, there are similarities. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Baptism is not a “once and done” kind of thing. It is a reminder that we are at the same time saint: loved and forgiven by God, and sinner: we still do wrong things and don’t do things that we should. We are called to daily repent of our sins, and that means turning from them completely and changing how we live our lives. And, that also means repenting of how we participate in the sins of society as well as of our individual sins, and working for change in how our society does things.

As an example of the sins of society, I’d like to state some statistics that I have taken from the website of ELCA World Hunger. In the United States, nearly 16 million children are not certain where their next meal will come from. About half of all adults in the United States aged 20-65 will need federal assistance to buy food at some point during their lifetime. And yet, the world produces enough food to give every living person 2,868 calories per day. There is something wrong with our society when the world produces enough food to feed everyone, and yet people are going hungry. How then do we live out our baptism in response to this sin of society? First, we recognize that, individually, whether we realize it or not, we have participated in the system which enables this type of sin. Once we have recognized that, then we need to repent of it. And repenting of it doesn’t mean just saying that we’re sorry and going on with our lives. Repenting means to make a 180 degree turn away from that sin; to change our behavior and work so that everyone has enough to eat. This could mean giving to ELCA World Hunger, Loaves & Fishes, or Backpack Blessings, three worthy programs that work to address hunger nationwide and here in Powell. It could also mean contacting our representatives in the government and urging them to keep funding going for food stamp programs, so that people can eat. It could also mean looking into what causes people to go hungry: the reasons can range from lack of work to problems with addiction to even climate change, and, once discovering what those reasons are, working to address these societal problems.

Jesus went up from his baptism in the knowledge that God loved him to be tested in the desert and from there to begin his ministry. And his ministry carried on that resistance that was in what John was preaching, but in a very different way. Jesus resisted the occupying force, and the forces of evil, with love, with teaching, and with healing; by acknowledging each person that he met as a beloved child of God. We who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus are also baptized into that ministry of love, teaching, and healing. We are called to resist the forces of evil not by returning hate for hate, but by acting with love and acknowledging each human being in this world as a beloved child of God. And then we are called to resist evil by acting in love to see that each person has what he or she needs to carry out their own ministry. Will we always succeed? No, because, unfortunately, sin is still rampant in the world. But, we can rest in the promise that God makes to us in our baptism: You are my children, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas 1A

Note: To get the full story, the congregation heard Matthew 1:18-25 and 2:1-12 before hearing Matthew 2:13-23, which is the text I preached on today.

The year 2016 has been a bad year for celebrity deaths. One after the other, beloved musicians and movie stars have fallen prey to the Grim Reaper. The latest one that has been doubly sad is Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars saga. Only 60 years old, she died in the hospital after suffering a heart attack on a plane. And while the country was still in mourning for her, a day later, her mother, Debbie Reynolds, a well-known actress herself, died from a stroke. Some people have been saying that Reynolds died from a broken heart; after all, as some of you here know, one of the most wretched pains in life is to lose a child. It’s something that goes against all of our instincts: it’s important that our children outlive us and continue on after we are gone. Having our children outlive us gives us hope that the world will continue and our legacy will live on after we die. And when, against the natural order of things, a child dies before we do, our grief multiplies tenfold. I have heard a mother wailing once for her child who had died, and I pray that I never have to hear that sound again.

This is one reason why I think it’s important to hear this text from the Gospel of Matthew when it comes up every three years. As difficult as it is for us to hear, as much as we don’t want to hear about sad things, especially in church, it is important for us to acknowledge that hard things happen in life and to ask those hard questions of God. In the movie The Princess Bride, when Princess Buttercup accuses the Dred Pirate Roberts of mocking her pain, he answers back, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And after the high point of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, with the arrival of the mysterious wise men from the East, Matthew tells us that it is needful to return to the real world, where the power-mad King Herod rules, and to remember just what kind of a world Jesus has been born into.

And make no mistake, King Herod was one bad guy; even the historical sources outside of the Bible tell us this. Herod was power-hungry and absolutely paranoid that someone was going to steal his power from him. So paranoid, in fact, that he had members of his own family killed. That list included his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his favorite wife, Mariamne, and his three favorite sons. And so, even though there are no sources outside of Matthew’s gospel that tell us that Herod ordered the baby boys of Bethlehem killed, it would not be out of his character to do so. The Wise Men weren’t so very wise, in the end: they told a paranoid and power-hungry king that a new King of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, putting him on the path to wipe out any possible perceived threat to his rule.

And so God sends his angel to Joseph in a dream, telling him to get Jesus and Mary out of Bethlehem immediately and to flee to Egypt. This is not how we expected this story to end. Just last week, we gathered at the manger where Jesus was born and sang songs about how he was born to save us from sin and to bring light into the world. Isn’t everything supposed to be all right now? The Messiah is born, after all—isn’t he supposed to turn the world right side up? Why now does he have to flee from a murderous king? Why doesn’t God send angels to defend him and all of the other baby boys in Bethlehem? For that matter, why did the magi take a wrong turn at Jerusalem in the first place? Wasn’t it clear that the star was leading them straight to Bethlehem? They could have gone there and completely avoided King Herod in the first place. At the risk of being sacrilegious, it seems like God was asleep, at best, or at worst, that God colossally screwed up.

Well, I don’t have the answers to the why questions. No one does, not even the seminary sitting at the top of a hill. The world is not always a safe place, and not even the birth of the Messiah seems to be able to change the basic character of the world. And that’s one reason why this story from the Gospel of Matthew speaks to me: it tells me that Jesus was born into the real world, as a real person just like any one of us, and that he truly has experienced human life as real human beings experience it.

So, what can we take from this sad and terrifying story that Matthew tells us? One thing is this: Jesus was a refugee, and he was the child of refugees. If you notice, Matthew tells his story with Joseph and Mary already living in Bethlehem when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant. Whereas Luke tells us that they started out in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem because of a census, Matthew says that they’ve been living in Bethlehem all along. And, when Herod orders his soldiers to kill all of the boy babies in Bethlehem, he gives the age as two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. This does not tell us definitively how old Jesus was, but it does tell us that Bethlehem was all that Jesus had known in his young life. To be roused by your parents in the middle of the night and told that you are in for a long trip to Egypt (it would have taken them over a week to make the journey then) has got to be frightening, to say the least. Then to live in a foreign country for a while—probably at least a few years—and wondering when you might be able to go back home, where people speak your language and where things are familiar. And then, finally, one day your dad says that it’s okay to go home, only, somewhere along the way, he says no, we’re not going back to Bethlehem but to a place called Nazareth instead, because Bethlehem is still not safe. This is a journey very much the same as what many refugees today take: fleeing for their lives from a country not safe to a neighboring country, where they live in a strange land waiting to see if it will ever be safe to go home, only to find out that it won’t be safe and to apply for resettlement in a new country. Jesus knows what it’s like to be a refugee.

Besides noting that Jesus was a refugee, it is also interesting to note that the Gospel of Matthew itself takes on the viewpoint of a Messiah who was a refugee. I am indebted for the following insights to Professor Richard Swanson of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Professor Swanson speaks of how he has difficulty with the Gospel of Matthew because of the passages where Jesus very clearly says that the good will go to eternal life, while the evil will go to the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. While Matthew isn’t the only Gospel to speak of heaven and hell, he is the only one where Jesus talks about the whole “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in “outer darkness”. As Swanson was studying Matthew, he spoke to professors on campus who taught psychology and early childhood development, and found that children who have lived through trauma of some kind, like children who have had to flee for their lives and who have endured violence, have a very “good vs. evil” mentality. And, they categorize the people that they meet very clearly into “good” and “bad” categories. And there’s no room for any gray: if such a child perceives that an adult has betrayed him, that adult gets immediately moved from the “good” category to the “evil” category, and cannot easily go back to the “good” category. Swanson suggests that Jesus, in Matthew’s viewpoint, is a refugee, living most of his life in Nazareth but always having first memories of Bethlehem and then Egypt, and knowing that Nazareth is not really his home. His parents would have also told him, while he was growing up, why they had to leave Bethlehem and what happened to his aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived there after they went to Egypt. This would explain why Jesus, in Matthew, very clearly delineates the people that he meets into the “good” group and the “evil” group.

So, as this year our lectionary readings focus on Matthew, what does this all mean for us today? What does it mean for us that Jesus, our Savior and Messiah, was a refugee? First, I hope that this story will help us have more empathy for refugees in the world today. During this year, I encourage all of us to learn the facts about who refugees are, what they are fleeing from and why, and to let Jesus’ story shape how we respond to news reports of refugees. There is a reputable Lutheran agency called Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services that has been working with refugees and immigrants since 1939, helping them to get settled here in the United States. You can google their website for more information. Secondly, and this will be a repeat for those of you who read my article in this week’s Powell Tribune, this sad story is meant to give us hope. Yes, those baby boys in long ago Bethlehem were murdered by Herod’s soldiers, along with their family members who gave their lives in an attempt to protect them. This world is violent and always has been. But, we have hope. Matthew’s gospel tells of the angel naming Jesus, “Immanuel,” God with us. Jesus is with us even in the dark hours that come to us today. He is with us, pointing to the efforts of people who work good even in the midst of evil. And Jesus gives us hope, showing us that, in the end, his kingdom will come and will finally triumph over all the evil that the world will throw at us.

As we begin a new year, a new trip around the sun, this is what we can hang onto: Jesus is with us in the good times and especially in the bad times. He knows what it is like to suffer. He is with us to bring us hope that the glimpses of the kingdom of God we see now will one day become a full breaking in of that kingdom, when all will be set right and justice will prevail. Jesus is with us, urging us not to give in to despair when we see death and other evil things happening around us, but always to cling to the hope that he will come again. In that promise we continue to trust. Amen.