Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 21

John 3:1-21

Today’s text includes that famous verse that Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,”; the one that gets flashed up on signs at sporting events: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. This verse has taken up such a place in our culture that many people don’t always remember the story that surrounds it: Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus by night to try and find out who this Jesus is. So, before we dive in to today’s text, I would like to start by reviewing what John the Gospel writer has told us thus far.

In the first chapter, we get a beautiful prologue that starts with, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word of God now walking among those whom he created. John tells us that Jesus came to bring grace and truth. From there, John the Evangelist tells us about John the Baptist, who testified to those around him about who Jesus was. We then hear about how Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael came to be followers of Jesus. From these stories of Jesus’ first disciples, we move to the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and finally, last week, we heard about Jesus getting angry and turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The Gospel writer describes the act of turning water into wine and the act of turning over tables in the Temple as “signs”—they are signs pointing to who Jesus is and the kind of authority he has.

And so, in chapter 3, we have a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus coming to check this Jesus out. He comes by night, presumably so that his fellow Pharisees don’t hear that he is visiting Jesus, so we can surmise that there is already opposition building to Jesus within the ranks of the ruling parties. But he comes, not with the spirit of condemning something without a hearing, but rather with the spirit of seeking knowledge and an open heart. Too many interpreters of this passage condemn Nicodemus either for daring to ask Jesus questions or for willfully not understanding what Jesus was saying. But that’s not what’s going on here. Which one of us, when confronted with someone who was doing things that upset the normal pattern of living, would not want to ask that person questions? And let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of Nicodemus: if someone said that we needed to be “born from above,” wouldn’t we all scratch our heads and say, “Huh? What in the world are you talking about?” Good students ask the teacher questions when they don’t understand something. And when the teacher responds with something that they still don’t understand, the good student will probe with more challenging questions. This scene with Jesus and Nicodemus is simply a scene between a student and a teacher: someone willing to question what he hears and to learn from the response. Nicodemus is a man who is using the intelligence that God gave him to determine who Jesus is.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus. And, there’s a lot in there: being born from above and what that means; being born of water and Spirit and what that means; and the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. But what I want to focus on today is that verse that we all know so well: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And the reason that I want to focus on it is this: Many times, we Christians want to use this as a “clobber verse”. And what I mean by a “clobber verse” is this: we use it to hit non-Christians on the head and say that the only way that someone is going to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus. That’s why well-meaning Christians flash it up at sports games, after all: in the vain hope that someone might just read it and be convinced enough to believe in Jesus. But that’s really not the emphasis that we should be using when we tell others about Jesus. I think that what we should be focusing on instead is the first part of the verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

I would like us, for a moment, to focus on the Greek word that gets translated as “world”: kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.

So, what kind of practical implications can we take from this? How do we strive to follow Jesus’ example and love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for the kosmos? I would like to share a story from my own life in order to help us with this. My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and about a year or so ago, decided to do the DNA test available on www.ancestry.com to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.

What people are finding when they have their DNA tests done is that they have ethnicities in them that they never thought they had, and even ethnicities that, until that point, they absolutely hated. And I think that is the value of having your ethnicity detected through DNA: not so that you can prove that you are superior to others, but so that you can understand this: there is no such thing as them and us. There is just us, the human race. And if more people understood that, and if more people understood who their ancestors were and where they came from, then they might not be so hostile to other groups of people. We might be able to be kinder to immigrants, to refugees, and to the dreamers in this country, because they are no different than we are. Our ancestors, too, came to these shores—many of them “illegally”—looking for the same things that immigrants and refugees today are looking for. How can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps in showing the kind of love that Jesus showed for each and every human being on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from?

Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We will probably not be called to show our love for the kosmos by dying on a cross. But we may be called to advocate for a more just immigration system than what we have now. Or, we may be called to help a local immigrant who has been living in the country for 40 years, who has contributed to his community, and who is now suddenly facing deportation for no good reason, as in the case of Polish immigrant Lukasz Niec, a doctor in Michigan. The love that God showed the world by giving up God’s Son, Jesus, to death on the cross is a costly love. The love that we are called to show the world and all of the people in it is a costly one as well.

There is no them and us: there is just us. Each one of us is a part of this beautiful, orderly kosmos that God created and that God loves. Each one of us: Mexican, Salvadoran, Polish, Arab, Jewish, Russian, American—we are all human beings, and, if you go back far enough with the DNA, we are all related to one another. And God loves each one of us so much that God gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for us on the cross, so that we might have eternal and abundant life. And that eternal life does not start when we die and go to heaven: it starts right now. While we cannot fully understand this kind of active love that God has for us, we can strive to show that love for one another. Resting secure in the knowledge that God does indeed love us, let us find ways to show that costly love for one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 20

John 2:13-25

There is a meme that goes around Facebook whenever the text describing Jesus chasing the merchants out of the temple comes around in our lectionary. It is a picture of Jesus doing just that, and the words describing this picture say, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” I laugh every time I see this meme, but it points to an important consideration of who Jesus was and is. We like to think of Jesus as a sort of “fluffy cuddle bunny” as one person put it; someone who loves everyone no matter what. And of course Jesus, as the revelation of God, is just that: he does love everyone. But there is another side to his personality as well. When we say that the Son of God became a human being in the person of Jesus, we mean that he became a real human being. And what that means is this: not only did Jesus have those emotions that we consider to be good and right and true: love, compassion, happiness, and all of that, it also means that he had those emotions that we consider to be more negative. The gospels record that he got frustrated with his disciples numerous times when they simply didn’t get it. And, as we have in front of us today, Jesus got angry when he saw what was going on in the temple. Perhaps it was a righteous anger, but it was still anger, and when he acted out on that anger, he disrupted many people’s lives. Those people that he was supposed to love no matter what, and who were just trying to live out their lives as they normally did. So the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: Why did Jesus get angry, so angry that he felt it was necessary to make his point by turning over tables and driving out sheep, cattle, and doves?

Well, let’s start out with what this wasn’t: it wasn’t a protest against the sacrificial system of the Temple. Most of the people going up to the Temple were Jewish people. The Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were full of descriptions of how God’s people were supposed to come before God with sacrifices. The merchants who were there the day that Jesus drove them out were helping people get the appropriate sacrifices so they could come before God in the Temple. Jesus himself was an observant Jewish man, and the Gospels talk about how he came up to the Temple for Passover and other Jewish holidays. The setting of this story today, in fact, is the Passover. This may be the first time Jesus comes up to Jerusalem for Passover, but it won’t be the last. So, if Jesus was not angry at the sacrificial system itself, then what caused him to drive out the sheep and the cattle and overturn the tables of the money changers?

In her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests that Caiaphas, who was the high priest when Jesus lived, moved the merchants selling cattle and sheep for Temple sacrifice, and the money-changers, off of the Mount of Olives and into the Court of the Gentiles, which was the outer court of the Temple. Now, this would make good sense in that the animals would be right at the Temple, and the people who bought them wouldn’t have to drive them all the way from the Mount of Olives into the Temple. But, there’s a problem with this: putting these merchants in the Temple prevents the Gentiles from worshiping God. Remember that Gentiles were anyone who was not Jewish. Those who were not Jewish, if they were drawn to worship God, could not go any further into the temple than the Court of the Gentiles. But, if you move all of the merchants into this area, it crowds the Gentiles out of the only place in the Temple that they are allowed to approach the mystery of God. It would make sense, then, that Jesus would be outraged by this. He cries out, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” All parts of God’s house should be used for worship, including those parts designated for those who were considered to be outside the boundaries of God’s people. It’s no wonder that Jesus was angry enough to take matters into his own hands.

I don’t know if we have a similar situation in the church today. I know that when the church has bake sales, or bazaars, or some other kind of fundraiser, we don’t usually hold those in the sanctuary and by so doing, prevent any group of people from worshiping. I don’t know that Jesus would come into our churches today and tell us to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace, although maybe there are certain places where he would. And so I have struggled with this text this week. I want to boldly proclaim God’s word to you, but I also want to be true to the text. And so, we may have to stretch the story a little bit in order to make it meaningful for us. So, this is what I think God is telling us today. We have a tendency, especially in the Lutheran church, to make Jesus, and therefore God, into a loving God. So many of us have been burned by the church in the past, especially those preachers who have made God into a God who is angry with us all the time, that I especially want to convey to you all how much God truly loves you. But, here’s the thing: to truly love someone is to open yourself up to pain when that person fails your expectations. And, just as we get angry when that situation happens, so God gets angry when God’s children sin and let God down.

So then, what are the things that God gets angry about? Now, I do want to be careful here. I am trying not to fall into the trap of saying that God sends natural disasters as punishment for people’s sins. But I think that we can get a general idea of what God gets angry about from what is taught to us in the Scriptures. When people mistreat and abuse one another, as in the case of the parents who abused their thirteen children that came to light this week, God gets angry. When the federal government shuts down because politicians are using people, needy people like immigrants, refugees, and poor children who need health insurance, as pawns to make political points, God gets angry. When we misuse and waste the resources that God gives us, and when we are not as generous with our material gifts as we could be, God gets angry. I have a feeling that if Jesus were physically present and teaching us today, he would be overturning a lot of our tables, and in places where we would least expect it.

But I think the good news in this is the way that the Gospel of John interprets Jesus turning over the tables and driving everyone out. When asked for a sign that showed that he had the authority to do this, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, the people who heard this didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them, and the disciples only understood much later. When Jesus said this, he was talking about himself, and he was talking about how he would go to the cross, die for us, and then three days later, rise again. This kind of passion, this righteous anger, that Jesus had against something that was blatantly wrong, would drive Jesus, out of love for us, to die a horrible death on the cross for our sake and then to rise again, so that we might have hope. This is a hope that things will not always be this way and that Jesus will one day return and turn all of the injustice in the world back into justice.

As a people of hope, there are times when we may be called to get angry and turn over some tables of injustice. And there is plenty of injustice in the world to get angry over. But this is not a call to be angry for anger’s sake; it is a call to love someone or something so passionately that you channel that anger into making this world a more just place. Are you angry because so many people in this world suffer from hunger? Then get involved: donate to ELCA World Hunger, donate to the local food bank, learn about why so many people in the world go hungry, and then advocate for ways to fix the system. Are you angry because so many people suffer when natural disasters hit? Then channel that anger into helping groups like Lutheran Disaster Response, into learning about why hurricanes are so devastating, and by advocating for things like conservation that will make these natural disasters less devastating to the lives of people when they hit. Do you get upset when people misuse the natural resources of the earth and exploit them for personal gain? Then channel that anger into helping organizations that work to restore the earth.

There are so many problems on this earth that we could get passionate about. But the emotions of passion and of anger show that we care about what is going on around us, just as Jesus showed that he cared about the injustice of what was going on in the Temple on that long ago day. Find those causes that you’re passionate about and channel that emotion into doing something good in the world. Now, there will never be complete justice in the world until Jesus returns. And we are not responsible for bringing in the kingdom of God: Jesus is. But, that does not mean that we cannot participate in that coming of the kingdom. As people of hope, we do not sit around and shrug our shoulders at the injustice that we see around us. Hoping in the return of Jesus means that we do what God is calling us to do, while we are waiting for Jesus to return, to show others that injustice will not have the final word: God will. So while we wait, we actively hope, and we actively participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 19

John 2:1-11

 

If you’re writing a really good story, you want to have a great opening line so that your readers remember it and take it with them as they continue into the book, movie, or TV show, so that they know what the story is going to be about. So, for example, here are some famous opening lines, and I want to have a little quiz this morning and see if you know where they’ve come from. This will also help me to see who’s awake and who’s not! So, here we go:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . Star Wars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . Genesis 1:1

This last line was so memorable that John the Evangelist chose to base the opening of his book on it: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is John’s statement of who Jesus is: the Word of God come down in flesh. The rest of his Gospel tells us what that means. And today’s story from his second chapter begins to flesh out, if you’ll forgive the pun, what it means for Jesus to be the Word of God made flesh.

So, let’s step back a moment and do some review. In between John’s beautiful poetic opening to his gospel and today’s story, we heard John the Baptist testifying that Jesus was both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, and his proof was how he saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. We saw Jesus inviting his first disciples to “Come and see” him. And now, we have Jesus’ first public act declaring who he is. Each of the Gospels has a different “first public act” of Jesus to show what Jesus is all about. Matthew has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, setting forth the theme of Jesus as a teacher. Mark shows Jesus driving out a demon as his first public act, thus setting the theme of Jesus as a worker of miracles, bringing order to a creation that has gone off kilter. Luke shows Jesus giving a sermon in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth and being rejected by the people there, putting forth the idea of Jesus as a prophet, in line with the Old Testament prophets, whose message, like theirs, was rejected by his people. And now we return to John. In John, Jesus’ first public act is attending a wedding and turning water into wine. What kind of Jesus is John trying to show?

Well, let’s look first at the setting of this story. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are at a wedding. A wedding, even though it’s a special occasion, is a part of ordinary life. At some point in all of our lives, most of us will have the opportunity to go to someone’s wedding. And, if we’re really lucky, we will have the opportunity to be a part of the bridal party. Jesus has been invited to this wedding, not because the people know that he is the Son of God—they don’t—but because he is their friend and they want him to take part in this joyous occasion. But then, at this wedding, the unthinkable happens: the hosts run out of wine. Can you imagine what that must be like? In today’s society, if we’re hosting a party and we run out of alcohol, it’s embarrassing, yes. But usually we can send a friend or a family member out to the store to buy more of it. It wasn’t quite the same in this time and this place. For the host to run out of wine showed poor planning on his part, and in the little village of Cana, everyone would find out about it. The host would have lost status in the eyes of the rest of the village, and that stigma would have followed him around for a very long time.

But in this story, it seems as though when Jesus’ mother points this problem out to Jesus, only a few people knew about the potential impending doom for the host. There was no great outcry—just a few people starting to whisper that the wine was gone. And after Jesus’ mother prods him a bit, Jesus changes water into wine. And it’s not just Mogen David or Manischewitz. This is the good wine, the richest wine, the best-tasting wine possible. I’ve always wondered about this, because I am not a wine drinker—I really don’t like the taste of most of it. And there are some people who prefer a sweet wine, while others prefer a dry wine. I like to think that the wine that Jesus provided that day in Cana tasted different according to the taste of each person who drank it. For some it was the sweetest wine, and for others it was the driest. But whatever it tasted like, for each person there it was what they needed the most, and was the best-quality wine there ever was.

So, what does all of this say about Jesus in John’s Gospel? It says that Jesus is present in the ordinary times of life, the everyday rituals, and it says that Jesus provides what we all need—but not just a little bit. If you notice, in this story, there were six stone water jars, each holding around twenty to thirty gallons. That comes out to 120 to 180 gallons—gallons!—of the best-tasting wine there ever was. Jesus provides what is needed, and even more than that—Jesus gives to us abundantly. And he does it freely. Most of the people at that wedding had no idea where this wonderful-tasting wine had come from. But they drank of it and it gladdened their hearts, regardless. This is an example of what John means when he says, in the first chapter of his gospel, that “From his fullness, we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the gift of Jesus, who abundantly gives of himself all that we need, and even more than that.

Where have you seen Jesus give grace upon grace in your lives? In our congregational life, I have seen this grace upon grace as St. John hosted Family Promise this week and Salem, Trinity, and St. Peter’s supported St. John in this ministry. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we have gotten to know the people who are in the Family Promise program. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we had an abundance of food with which to feed the people. I have seen grace poured out upon us as our members cuddled a newborn baby and played with the older children. I have seen grace poured out upon us as what we originally thought was a fire in the basement turned out to be a burst pipe that caused water damage, but did not interfere with Family Promise coming to stay with us. I have seen grace poured out on us in the form of the people who came to clean up the water in the basement, and I have seen grace poured out on us that this accident did not interfere too much with the operation of the day care. I have seen grace poured out on us in the fact that, despite our ugly winter weather, no one was hurt in driving the van back and forth from Lemoyne. And I have seen grace poured out on us as the people in the program have seen God’s love and grace through us this week. God has indeed been gracious to us, and has given to us abundantly, much more than we have deserved.

And that’s the thing: we don’t deserve any of God’s grace. We are sinful human beings, and the Son of God becoming flesh in Jesus is pure gift to us. And when the Son of God came, he did not come to the people who were well-off and on top of the world. He came instead by being born in a little town on the outskirts of Jerusalem; he was not even born in that great city where a mighty king ruled. And then he was brought up in a little town in northern Galilee, a backwater, a place where we heard Nathanael say last week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A place which today, the president of this country would call a vulgar name. And yet, Jesus gives us, too, those who are well-off in this world, grace upon grace, and that love and grace comes in such abundance that we cannot even understand how much it truly is. That love and that grace of Jesus comes abundantly to all people, and all means all: not only to Americans, but also to Haitians; not only to those of European descent, but also to those people who come from Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador, and Mexico. God’s grace, poured out in Jesus, the Word become flesh who would die on the cross for us, is for everyone. No exceptions.

So this week, I would like to ask us to keep our eyes open for instances of God’s grace in our lives. Let’s look for that love and that undeserved grace in every ordinary detail of our lives, and when we see it, let us give thanks to God for it. And let’s also do a spiritual house cleaning this week. Any time we are tempted to think that we are superior to someone else, whether that is because of race or class or circumstance, let’s put a check on ourselves. Let’s remind ourselves that God gives grace and love to another person just as much as to us. And then let’s also make an effort to show that grace and love to another person, especially those who we don’t know. If we see someone struggling, let’s find a way to help them—even if it’s just offering to help them get their groceries in from the car. We don’t have a corner on God’s grace, and there is more than enough of it to go around. So let’s show that grace to other people. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 18

John 1:[19-34], 35-51

Welcome back to our journey through the Bible! Right before Christmas, we finished up a series of readings from the Old Testament prophets. At Christmas, if you were at St. John’s [here] for the Christmas pageant, you may remember hearing me read a passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John talking about Jesus as the Word of God become flesh. In those verses, we also got a glimpse of John the Baptist, who we’ve heard more about today in the section of the first chapter of John that I’ve just read for you. From now until the Sunday after Easter, we will be hearing readings from the Gospel of John. So I’m going to start us out today with some background information on John before we dive in to today’s text.

We have four Gospels in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are all accounts of Jesus’ life: how he was born (in Matthew and Luke only), where he lived, what he did, and what he taught. All four Gospels also tell of how Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and on the third day, was resurrected from the dead. Apart from that, the Gospels are all different in the details. Think of it this way: when we tell a story of some big event in our family history, each person who was there is going to remember different things about how it happened. Just because one person remembers that Grandpa slipped and fell on the icy path while another person remembers that Grandpa tripped over a rock doesn’t negate the fact that Grandpa fell and broke his hip and needed a hip replacement.  In the same way, we can look at each of the four gospel writers as members of the Christian family telling the same basic story about Jesus, but remembering different details about what he said and did, and the events that happened around him. Having said that, there is something else that we need to know about these Gospels: even though they were inspired by God, they were not written in a vacuum. Each author was writing to a particular group of Christians and wanted them to know something about Jesus that would speak into their particular situation. This also accounts for the differences in the stories that they tell.

Now, let’s look at the Gospel of John in particular. Scholars think that John was written much later than the other three Gospels, and so it was a very different situation that this early group of Christians was facing than were the other three congregations for whom Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. What we’re going to find as we go through the stories of John, aside from the many beautiful passages about Jesus, are some not so beautiful things. There will be repeated references to “the Jews” in unflattering terms. What we’re going to see reflected in this gospel is a separation between groups of Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus and groups of Jewish people who did; in other words, the first Christians and our ancestors in the faith. This Gospel reflects an internal argument over which group was right, and these unflattering references to “the Jews” should not be carried over from the first century into the 21st century. I will leave it at that for now and will be reminding you of that when it comes up in this gospel. Another thing that we should know about John is that he has a different definition of sin than the other three Gospel writers do. In John, sin is not a moral failing, but rather it is a failure to believe in Jesus, the One whom God has sent. Keep that also in mind as we journey through this gospel together.

And so, let’s look at this first chapter of the Gospel of John that is before us today. Here we see John the Baptist—who is not, by the way, the same John who wrote the Gospel—testifying to what he saw when he baptized Jesus. He says that he saw the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus when he baptized him. John says further that Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Son of God. John the Baptist is proclaiming this about Jesus to anyone who will listen. And then, one day, two people do listen. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And two of John’s disciples immediately leave John and start following Jesus. And Jesus invites them to, “Come and see.” Come and see where Jesus is staying. Come and see what Jesus is doing. Come and find what their hearts have been searching for and yearning for.

And then, the next day, Jesus gains more disciples. One of them, Philip, goes to Nathanael and tells him that they have found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathanael’s response? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You see, Nazareth was a backwater town. I went to college in a small town in Vermont called Middlebury, but up the road a ways from Middlebury, in the Green Mountains, was an even smaller town called Ripton. We used to make fun of Ripton because the people who lived there tended to be what we would call hicks, and this was exemplified by the ice machine in the front of the general store which had the word “ice” misspelled “i-e-c”. So Nathanael saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” would be roughly equivalent to Middlebury folks saying, “Wait a minute. You found the Messiah in Ripton? Yeah, right.” But in response to such skepticism, Philip responds in the same way that Jesus had, “Come and see.” And what Nathanael sees of Jesus wins him over.

We live today in an age of skepticism, where many people believe that the church is simply not relevant to society any longer. There are many reasons for this perception in society, and some of those reasons are justified. And yet, here we are. There are still some of us who come to worship faithfully on Sundays and who participate in the life of the church. So, my question to you is this: Why do you come? Is it something that you think you should be doing even if it doesn’t mean much to you anymore? Or is there some deeper meaning involved in coming on a Sunday? Jesus continues to ask us the same question today that he asked his first disciples so long ago: What are you looking for? What do you hope to see?

From my perspective as a pastor, this is what I hope to see when I come each week to lead you in worship: I hope to see Jesus. And, there are many possible ways to see Jesus in a church. Last week, when I was in Florida, I had a choice of where I wanted to worship. I could go with my parents to their church, which is part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, or I could go to the local ELCA church. I made my decision based on worship times and nothing else: my parents go to the 8:00 a.m. service at their church, while the ELCA church started worship at 10 a.m. I was on vacation; I didn’t want to get up early. When I entered the doors, I was promptly greeted and directed to where the restrooms were and the sanctuary. The worship service was nice, but the pastor was very soft-spoken and low-energy, and the sermon that day didn’t speak to me that much. But Jesus made his presence known to me during communion, when both the pastor and the assistant asked what my name was, and then said, “Tonya, the body of Christ given for you. Tonya, the blood of Christ shed for you.” In that simple act, I knew that Jesus loved me and was present with me.

Now, each person is different, and each week is different. Jesus is always present in every part of the service, but each person in the congregation will perceive Jesus in a different way. My human ego gets really excited if you see Jesus in the sermon that I preach, but if you instead see Jesus in some other part of the service, such as the Scripture reading, or the children’s message, or Holy Communion, that is wonderful. And, you know what another important part of the church is? It is the people. Jesus makes himself known in the community that is gathered. Every time you comfort another person when they are sad, lonely, sick, or in despair, Jesus is present. Every time the community comes together and works to make the outside world a little bit better, such as with the Family Promise hosting week that starts tonight [at St. John’s], Jesus is present. Every time an argument is resolved and the people involved forgive one another, Jesus is present. All of these things contribute towards an authentic worshiping community where Jesus comes and makes himself known.

So now, here’s the hard part. When you speak to someone outside of the congregation and invite them to worship with you, what do you do if they respond by telling you about some way that the church has hurt them in the past? Or, what if they want to debate on some social issue that they think the church has taken the wrong side on? I would like to suggest to you that engaging in debate or argument with the person will not bear the fruit that you would like to see. Instead, I would suggest that you respond as Jesus responded, and as Philip responded, and invite the person to “Come and see.” Invite them to come and see Jesus in our worship service and in our community. Invite them to come and see the one who can give their restless hearts peace. Simply invite them to come and see why you return to worship each week in a culture that thinks church is irrelevant. Invite them to come and see.

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 Christmas Eve 2017

Note that this is a “repeat,” with some editing, of a sermon I preached two years ago in Wyoming.

Luke 2:1-20

 

Nativity scenes are beautiful, aren’t they? And they often have such special meaning for us. I have several Nativity scenes at home. One of them belonged to my grandmother and was given to me after she died. It comes complete with shepherds, wise men, animals, and some other random characters, but does not include angels. So this year I placed it under my tree and hung angel ornaments around it to make it complete. Oh, and by the way, the wise men have been relegated to the hallway, because they don’t arrive until Epiphany. Tonight is just about the shepherds. Another Nativity scene that I have is the one that I grew up with, and it would be placed under our Christmas tree each year. When my mother decided that she wanted a new one, she let me have that one because she knew that I liked it. I placed that one on one of my window sills this year. Nativity scenes give us a sense of the holy at Christmas time, with a serene and beautiful Mary gazing in wonder at the new baby Jesus, and a fatherly Joseph looking on, ready to protect his wife and her child from anything that might threaten them. And then, of course, there is “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” lying in the manger, looking out at those around him with curiosity.

But, there’s just one problem with these beautiful, perfect-looking Nativity scenes. And that is this: while they give us the sense of something holy at Christmas time, they also give us the sense of something that is not real. These perfect looking human beings don’t seem to have much relationship to the real world. The plastic or porcelain figurines don’t give any indication that Mary has just given birth to her baby, her firstborn, without the benefit of any pain medications. I’ve never given birth myself, but from what my mother tells me, it’s not a pleasant process, and pain medications help a lot. Our stable scenes don’t remind us that, with animals around, there is going to be a mess and it’s not going to smell very good. If any of you here tonight have grown up around farms, you can vouch for that. A Lutheran pastor colleague in Cody, Wyoming, was telling a group of us pastors a few years ago that someone in her congregation wanted to have a Nativity scene in the church building complete with a baby donkey, and seemed unaware that a baby donkey would not only make noise, but would probably make a mess because it was nervous. She had to tell that person gently, but firmly, that there would be no baby donkeys in the sanctuary that Christmas.

The technical theological term for God becoming human in the person of Jesus is incarnation. And incarnation is not a beautiful, perfect process, because to become human is messy. We are messy creatures, both physically and spiritually. God could have chosen not to deal with our mess. God could have chosen some other way to save us from our sinfulness. But no, God, the perfect and holy, loved us so much that God chose to become one of us messy human beings. He chose to go through that untidy birthing process, to live and to die as one of us, in order to understand us completely and fully. So, yes, I’m willing to bet that Mary screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus. Jesus himself probably looked like a typical newborn and wasn’t very pretty when he was first born. And that line about “no crying he makes”? Please. Jesus cried. Because healthy human babies cry and get hungry and make messes. That’s what being human is all about, and that’s why God came to earth in the person of Jesus—to be one of us, with all that being human means.

Now, I’m not saying this to ruin anyone’s Christmas. Quite the contrary. What I want is to bring you the good news: God became one of us when he was born in the person of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was part of a real human family, with real human problems, and was not in some stylized, perfect, static picture that we have in our Nativity scenes. And because Jesus became human, because he entered into our messy lives, we know that we ourselves don’t have to be perfect to become his followers. We don’t have to “clean ourselves up” and “get our lives in order” before we come to worship. We can come with all of our sinfulness: our broken relationships, our broken dreams, our bad habits, our addictions, and so on, and know that Jesus loves us for who we are in all of our messiness. And as we lean over the manger and look at the baby Jesus, we might feel an odd sensation. And that sensation is God embracing us, and kissing us, saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a mess. I love you for you. But I won’t leave you in your mess. I will be the one to wash you and make you clean.”

Isn’t that wonderful news? God, the holy one, comes to us in our mess, but doesn’t leave us there. God is the one who washes us and makes us clean. We don’t have to do it ourselves, because we are quite unable to clean ourselves up. But you know something? The messiness of the human condition doesn’t make Jesus dirty. Instead, somehow, Jesus makes the messiness, the ordinariness, holy. Just in case you didn’t hear that, let me say it again: Jesus doesn’t become sinful by taking on our humanity. Instead, he makes us holy. Somehow, in the stinky mess we make of our lives, Jesus is still with us and makes us holy. And as his beloved and holy people, we are called to broaden that circle of Jesus’ love for us. We are called to tell all whom we meet about this baby in the manger, God come down to earth to show us how much he loves us.

And with such great love, how can we keep from telling all we meet about Jesus? The shepherds understood that.  The angels had come down to them in their messiness: unclean because they could not keep all of the religious purity laws, outsiders in society, and told them about the Savior of the world. The shepherds heard the news—not the Pharisees, not the rulers of the people, but poor and lowly shepherds. They saw the baby and “they made known what had been told them about this child” and then returned to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”.  The Gospel tells us that all of the people whom the shepherds told about this were “amazed” at the news. But then we don’t hear any more. Did the people of Bethlehem go to see the baby? Or, did they brush it off, saying, “Oh, those crazy, unclean shepherds,” and go back to their daily lives? Perhaps there was a little bit of both. It still happens that way today, when we tell others about Jesus. Some people listen, and the Holy Spirit brings them to trust in Jesus, while others continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. When that happens, we should not be discouraged. Instead, we should continue telling all those we meet about the miracle of God loving us so much that he became one of us, making us holy and making us his beloved children.

So, let us go from here to spread the good news about this baby in the manger. Let us tell everyone that Jesus knows us, and knows us intimately, because he was one of us. He was born, just like we were, he cried when he was hungry or when he fell down and hurt himself or when a friend of his died. Let us tell everyone that they don’t have to clean themselves up and make themselves right before coming to worship Jesus, for Jesus loves us as we are, in all of our human messiness and broken relationships and broken dreams. Jesus is the one who comes to us, who speaks his love for us, and who makes us holy. Isn’t that great news? Now, let’s go and tell it out to everyone we meet. Amen.