Sunday, January 14, 2018

14 January 2018

John 2:1-11
14 January 2018


There was an anniversary on January 1 of this year which we didn’t publicly mark in worship ... even though it affects and involves each and every one of us here.
January 1, 2018 was the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the denomination of which Nativity ... and the other 90 plus congregations of our NW Washington Synod ... are a part.  Thirty years ago, the congregations of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church ... predecessor church bodies founded primarily by immigrants from Germany and Sweden ... merged with the American Lutheran Church ... another predecessor church body founded primarily by immigrants from Norway. 
Now, it’s been 30 years, and those old dividing lines ... and the alphabet soup of abbreviations which demarcated them ... ALC, LCA, AELC, ULCA, NLCA, ELC ... even though those have largely faded into distant memory ... I’d guess that the vast majority of people here don’t even know what they stand for ... but questions still arise now and then ... primarily when someone new to the Lutheran church discovers that there are quite a few different Lutheran churches around ... but if you travel to the Midwest or East Coasts, where Lutherans are, ahem, denser, you really see this.
And so we get questions ... “What’s the difference between Lutherans, anyway?  Why so many different churches?” 
There are a few different directions I can take in answering that question.
But the easiest one goes like this.

It’s a story about two very hot summer days, two different congregations where I’ve served, and the beverages which were set before me.
Story number one – a hundred degree Fourth of July day on Long Island.  Sticky, windy, nearly unbearable.  Ray and Gail Bosch, members of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Rockville Centre, NY ... a congregation founded in the Philadelphia-based, largely of German ancestry, United Lutheran Church in America ... the Boschs had invited me down to their cabana at Long Beach for a barbecue.  Several others from our congregation joined us there.  I had no sooner sat down when plunk! Ray had set a cold bottle of Heineken down before me.  “Hey, cool off, pastah,” he said.  Fine. So I did.
Story number two – an equally hot August afternoon in South Dakota.  Kathleen and I were packing up the U-Haul truck to move back to seminary after internship.  Oscar Isakson, a member of the Colton Lutheran Parish ... made up of two congregations which had their start in the Norwegian Lutheran Church in America in the late 1800’s ... had come over to help us get things loaded up.  The heat was stifling, everybody was sweating.  About two o’clock, Oscar said, “Well, Palma ought to be here shortly with refreshments.”  And sure enough, shortly after that, she appeared at the door, with a tray of cookies, cake … and a pot of steaming hot coffee. 
And that’s one difference ... not very theological, but certainly, significant.
Now, I must admit, growing up with a German-Russian mom and grandma, and spending some time in one of those German Lutheran-founded congregations in Portland, alcohol was never a big deal.  My great grandpa Richter brewed his own beer and paid my mom a nickel to bring him a bottle on a hot day while he was working in the fields.  My grandma used to take in ironing to make ends meet, and one of my favorite pictures of her has her slaving away in her kitchen, a rack of neatly pressed shirts hanging next to her, and a stubby of beer on the end of the ironing board.  We always had wine at Easter and Christmas, and small glasses for my brother and me from when we were 5 and 6.  The pastors would join my dad and his friends in a glass of beer at the choir picnic or other church get togethers. 
But over the years I have learned to appreciate that there are other Lutheran customs, practices and understandings about beer and wine that are just as long standing as the ones I grew up with.  I married into a Scandinavian Lutheran family where alcohol was never allowed.  It’s been that way with them for as long as anyone can remember, going back generations.  Our wedding reception was in the basement of the church in Longview, and we had punch and coffee, that was it.  The pastor was never seen having a beer or a glass of wine, and if he was going into the liquor store, he better only be coming out with the communion wine!
Two very different traditions, with two very different ideas about alcohol – beer, wine, whatever.
And maybe that’s why our Gospel reading today, the story from John about Jesus turning the water into wine … maybe that’s why this story has made some Lutherans uncomfortable for so long.  I don’t think too many pastors care to preach on it – I only remember hearing one sermon on this text ever, and I’ve only preached on it four Sundays of the past twenty-five years (it’s come around in the lectionary seven or eight times in that period).  
For, on the one hand, the party animals among us could see it as license to continue their free-wheeling ways.  “Well, man, y’know, even Jesus liked a good party, remember that story in the Bible where he made all that wine?  I’m only doin’ what Jesus did…”
And on the other hand, the tee-totalers might be offended at even the thought of Jesus being near all that booze.  
I must admit … at first glance, it does look bad for Jesus.  Here he is, right at the beginning of John’s gospel … he’s just been baptized, called his first disciples … and where does he go but to a wedding party!  And this is no ordinary wedding party by our standards ...we’re not talking about a couple of hours at a local club or ballroom, but more like a two or three day affair, with people coming, and going, and eating, and drinking.  And this party was so big and so long, that they ran out of wine.
So what is Jesus doing in the middle of all this anyway?  And all that wine he makes...six jars, holding twenty or thirty gallons each?  That’s 180 gallons of wine!        
But, before we go off with the wrong idea about what’s happening here, we need to realize that this kind of a wedding party … which would really be exceptional today … was really, nothing out of the ordinary for Jesus’ time.  A two or three day wedding celebration was perfectly normal for the Jewish people of Jesus’ home area.  And Jesus was a perfectly normal Jew of his place and time, with a family and friends, someone who liked to be around people.  His mother was there.  Jesus and his disciples had been invited to come.  It would have been more exceptional – not to mention rude - if Jesus had turned his back on his friends, his family, indeed who he was, and not accepted the invitation. 
We also need to remember that the wine, in and of itself, is not evil.   Like money...it's not MONEY that's the root of all evil, it's the LOVE of MONEY that causes problems...when everything a person does and thinks about revolves around how much money they do or don't have.  The same with wine.
There is nothing inherently wrong with wine...for those who are of the legal age to drink it...and for those whose bodies can properly process it.  When we use wine in moderation...that's OK.            
Some people can't or shouldn’t drink wine because their bodies react to it differently.  So they must stay away from it.  Alcoholics must avoid wine … beer … those kinds of drinks.  We all know what happens when they don’t.  Families are shattered … careers destroyed … life itself may be threatened … all because of alcoholism.
But that doesn't make the wine evil.  Some people can’t eat peanuts – their bodies react in a bad way to them.  But that doesn't make peanuts evil.  Nor does it make the person evil who made the mistake of eating the peanuts, when they shouldn’t have.           
We use wine in communion because Jesus used wine when he instituted the sacrament at his Last Supper.  Today we make accommodations for those who can’t have wine, by offering juice, and that’s fine ... in much the same way we now offer gluten free wafers for people whose bodies can’t process wheat flour bread.  But please know, if you don’t want to or can’t have juice, either, that the full benefit of the sacrament is there for you if you only take the bread.  Just as the full benefit of the sacrament is there for those folks in hospital or nursing home who can only have the wine, because the bread presents a choking hazard. 
The first sermon I preached on this gospel text … was about this subject.  The five congregations we served in NW Pennsylvania were in the “grape juice belt” and had assiduously avoided using wine for communion for over a hundred years – only grape juice and wafers, like the neighboring Methodists and Presbyterians.  They had only recently – just before we got there – and at the insistence of the bishop – made the switch to wine.  I knew that there was still some strange feelings in those congregations about wine being used in communion, so in my sermon, I tried to break through that mystery, that "evil" sense...in the middle of the sermon I pulled a bottle of communion wine out from behind the pulpit, and started to read all about the wine from the label … where it came from, where it was made, and so on.  I wanted to make sure people understood that there was nothing inherently wrong or evil about wine.
So why does Jesus use wine in instituting communion?  And why is there so much wine at this wedding in Cana?
It's because wine, when it's used responsibly, by those whose bodies can process it properly, adds pleasure...to a nice meal, to a gathering, to a special evening.  The wine is a symbol for all of the good things in life that this life has to offer us, joy and warmth and celebration and happiness.
If your body processes wine differently, and you should not or cannot drink it, or if you aren't old enough yet to drink wine, then when you hear the word “wine” in this story, substitute another food or drink ... pizza or chocolate cake; ice cream or a big juicy steak...a good cup of coffee or tea.  When we responsibly enjoy any of these good things, we feel good.  Life is good.  It's a pleasurable experience.
And now I hope you begin to see the point of this story, of what this miracle that Jesus does at the wedding at Cana is all about.  For in this act, Jesus shows how lavishly God wants to bless us...here, the wine is a symbol of all those good things which God wants for us, that God has in store for us, through Jesus.  The wine is a symbol ... a symbol for all the blessings of life in Jesus which God wants to give us … forgiveness, life, salvation.  An end to the ways of sin and death forever.  Did you notice the mention of this being on the “third day?” ... so a pointing toward ... resurrection. And an attitude of abundance; love, and time, and blessings overflowing, to be shared with our neighbor. 
God is not stingy, only sending a little bit of blessing, a little bit of wine, NO...God sends gallons of wine, a flood of blessings … a huge, extravagant amount!
So what to do with all this wine?  All these blessings?  Well, if we keep all these blessings to ourselves ... it's like drinking alone, and that is not good.  Wine is intended to be shared with others; it adds to our enjoyment....the same as a good cup of coffee, or cake, or a pizza with friends, or a good movie.  If we keep all the wine to ourselves, and never enjoy it, it will go bad.  If we drink it all ourselves, bad things will happen to us.  The wine...the pizza party, the coffee, the ice cream...they are all meant to be shared with others.
So please, don’t be offended by this story – either way.  The Bible stories of Jesus we receive during this Epiphany season ... this winter Ordinary Time ... are here for us, to show us that Jesus is neither a weekend binger off to tie one on, nor a self-righteous do-gooder. 
His Epiphany ... his showing forth in these texts ... is that Jesus is the Lord – a man, fully human, a son of his mother, and a friend to his companions; but also, he is the Son of God.  Here, at the outset of this Epiphany season, we receive this story of how Jesus works this miracle at the wedding at Cana, as an Epiphany ... a showing forth of himself ... to show those present, and those reading the story at a distance of thousands of miles and thousands of years, that when it comes to blessings, God is a spendthrift. 
God blows it all … God spares no expense … God stops at nothing … not even death on a cross … for you and for me.   
Here, God’s word for us is this simple:  look at all the blessings I have for you!  Won't you please enjoy them?  And won’t you please share them with others?  Our God says, this is how much I love you ... Come, see and hear ... receive my love, take it, enjoy it, live in it … and then, go out and tell others, so they may also share in all that I want to give to them. 

So how can we refuse an invitation such as this? 


Amen.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018

7 January 2018

Baptism of our Lord
John 1:29-51
7 January 2018


Well, here we are … 2018.  The 71st year in ministry for this congregation, and our fifth year of ministry together. 
It’s Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  With John the Baptist, and Jesus, in the wilderness, the start of Jesus’ ministry as well.
And yet, it’s like, I have a feeling that there was some unfinished business, back there, in 2017, something we started to discuss but then it was Christmas … hmn …
Oh yes.  That’s right.  EXILE.
Exile.  The death of Christendom.  The end of the world as we know it.  We built it, but they don’t come anymore. 
Exile.  We’re in a new world, a new space and time, of which we have no knowledge, the old ways don’t work, and the new ways are … unknown.
Exile.   When all the old landmarks are gone, and what we see ahead is … ????
It can feel a lot like being in the wilderness …
The wilderness …
… where John the Baptist meets us, this morning, as we also begin the second half of our year in the Narrative Lectionary, this Epiphany season, with longer texts from John’s gospel …
… and today, this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, we come upon John, seeing Jesus, approaching him, and he – John – is testifying about Jesus.
He’s telling others about Jesus.
But wait a minute.
Where’s the baptism?  The water?  The dove?  The voice from above?
It’s not here.
And that’s because John’s gospel is the only one which doesn’t include a narrative of Jesus’ baptism.
What?  No Baptism of our Lord?  On Baptism of our Lord Sunday, no Baptism of our Lord?
Nope.
(For that matter, John’s gospel is also the only one which doesn’t include a narrative of Jesus giving the disciples the meal which we now call Holy Communion.)
It’s like, for John the Gospel writer, narration of these events simply isn’t that important.
Not important?
No, not important.
Even when it’s about the two sacraments – what we Lutherans call “the means of grace?”
Yes.  Even when it’s about those … Baptism, and Holy Communion.
Well, how come?
How come, is because, for John, the telling of those events, the personal, one on one, testimony of how those present were affected by these events … in their sharing with others, to John, this is the most important thing.
For John, faith comes through hearing.  Hearing the story of God’s work, through us, told … by us.  To others.
The very beginning of the Gospel – which we heard proclaimed on the fourth Sunday of Advent – Christmas Eve morning – establishes this, for us:

In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

And testify is what John does, today, here, as we continue in the first chapter of the gospel.

 "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."  And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit     
descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

It’s true, we don’t have a narration, from the Gospel writer, of the Baptism of our Lord itself.  But, in so many ways, we have something better.  We have the testimony of one who was there, who saw and heard and experienced this earth-shaking event, the coming of God’s Spirit upon Jesus, filling him and preparing him and sending him forth, into his ministry to the world, to us.
And as the text continues, there is more testifying to be heard.
Once again, John gets an opportunity to proclaim,

“Look, here is the Lamb of God!" 

And see and hear what happens.  Two of John’s disciples hear, and go and follow Jesus … who invites them to “come and see.”  So they do.
And what follows is more testifying, and more invitation.

We have found the Messiah.
We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.
Nathanael would like more proof.
So he gets … another testimony, an invitation.

Come and see.

How much more simple can it get?
Here, my friends, here, is the beginning of the Jesus movement.  How the Jesus movement started, and was built.
With simple testimony, and invitation.

We have found the Messiah.
Come and see.

Faith, quite simply, comes through testimony.  And invitation.
Now, you’re probably saying, well, duh.  We’ve heard this word in a few hundred sermons over the years.
Well, yes, we have.  Yes, we have.
But somehow, some way, it hasn’t taken.
Because what we’ve been proclaiming, in our Christendom-captured ways, is, most often, anything, everything, other than “We have found the Messiah … come and see.”
What do I mean by that?
Well, our proclamation to the world in Christendom has been more, well, couched.  Come and see … our beautiful church.  Our music.  Our programs.  Our youth stuff. 
Which, of course, worked in Christendom, when we expected “if we build it, they will come” because that was the cultural norm and expectation.  When we could promote the church as the first and best place to begin and keep our social circle.  Like a country club, or a civic organization, with a cross on it.
But this isn’t the norm of the culture anymore. 
Today, there are a lot more attractive options for peoples’ time.  Travel.  Entertainment.  Sports.  Social media.  Time passings, organizations, happenings, which, frankly, do the social connecting stuff way better than we – the church – ever could. 
In comparison to what else is out there on Sunday mornings, clamoring for people’s attention, we look like quaint, clunky, stale throwbacks to a former era.  Museum pieces.  They can point at us, pat us on the head, say, “well, isn’t that nice,” but just pass us by.
And they do.  And they do.
So it shouldn’t be any wonder that people don’t come anymore. 
Because what we’re inviting them to be a part of …when we start with our stuff, our buildings, our programs … well, it is, simply, done better, done more attractively, by others.
Just think, for a moment, if John the Baptist had chosen to testify this way, instead:

Come and see a zealous hair shirted guy ranting and raving in the wilderness!  Eat locusts and wild honey!  Give up all your possessions, and live the ascetic life of a desert wanderer!

Yeah.  That’ll preach.
No, in these days of exile, our proclamation, our testimony, must, MUST, be that which we see and hear, here, in John’s gospel this morning.

We have found the Messiah.

Give up the marketing strategies of the culture, rearranging the furniture, polishing the old apple, and simply, honestly, TELL OTHERS ABOUT WHAT THE FACT THAT WE ARE NAMED AND CLAIMED AS BELOVED CHILDREN OF GOD MEANS TO US, FOR THE SAKE OF THIS WORLD THAT GOD GIVES, AND LOVES, AND SAVES THROUGH JESUS THE CHRIST.
That’s it.  That is all we have to tell. 
But it is enough.   Because no one else is proclaiming this word in the world right now. 
Not popular culture.  Not business or political leaders.  Not even, in many cases, those who fly under the flag of “Christian.”
In our post-Christendom world, we are, indeed, what Luther called himself and all Jesus-followers, in his last word.  Beggars.  Beggars who have been found first by God’s living Word, Jesus the Christ, and then, called to be sent to tell others about … Jesus.
Nothing else matters.  Nothing else matters.

So, here we are … 2018.  The 71st year in ministry for this congregation, and our fifth year of ministry together. 
It’s Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  With John the Baptist, and Jesus, in the wilderness, the start of Jesus’ ministry as well.
What will Faith Lutheran be about this year?  More polishing the old apple?  Rearranging the furniture?  Clinging to crumbling Christendom? 
Or … simple testimony?  Proclamation?

We have found the Messiah … who first found us.

What, indeed.
Amen.






Monday, December 25, 2017

24 December 2017 Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve
24 December 2017
5 and 7 pm

It was on top of a pile of papers which our predecessor had left on my desk, as he prepared to move on and turn things over. 
The homebound visitation list.  Holy Trinity Lutheran in Rockville Centre, Long Island had a long list of people who couldn’t get to worship anymore, but Pastor Eggars had been very good about regularly getting around to them and bringing communion.
I glanced down the list … each person had a few words typed in next to their name, so I would be properly introduced to them and their situations before I visited.
But about halfway down the sheet, one entry stood out from the rest.  “Drives caring people away,” Pastor Eggars had noted.
The person he was writing about was Rose, a woman of about 80 who lived with her husband Fred in an apartment not too far from the church.  Pastor’s Eggars’ notes said that Rose was “very demanding” and “unable to understand” that she was not the only one who he had to visit on a regular basis.  She would often call the church office to ask the pastor to come over at a certain day and time to give her communion … and wouldn’t understand when her schedule couldn’t be kept, for whatever reason … so she’d yell at the church secretary, Carole, over the phone, chewing her out even though Carole had nothing to do with keeping the pastors’ schedule.
Rose had to have everything just so when receiving communion at home – so Pastor Eggars had developed a special, typed out sheet, just for Rose, to follow along when he took her communion. 
It turned out that Rose knew very few people in the congregation … she did have one regular visitor, who happened to be the congregation’s president, Susan … so we visited with her about Rose before going over there.  Susan said that yes, Rose was “quite a handful, and not always the most pleasant person,” … but she wished me well in my visits with her!
So, thus prepared and forewarned, I called to schedule a visit with Rose.
“Hello, Rose, this is Pastor Bob.  Can I come over to bring you communion?”
“Now?”
“Well, no, on Friday afternoon.  Would that be alright?”
“Can’t come any sooner, huh?”
“No.”
“Well, alright.”
Friday came and I walked the two blocks over to Rose and Fred’s apartment.  I pushed their buzzer, the front door of the building opened, and I went down a dark hallway.  A woman in a nurse’s uniform stood by an open door, and ushered me in.
Rose sat in a wheelchair in the kitchen, at the table, finishing up her lunch.  A man, her husband Fred, sat in another wheelchair in the living room.  Fred wheeled over and greeted me warmly.  I went in and tried to greet Rose, but she told me in no uncertain terms that she was still finishing her lunch and please leave her to do that, she’d be done in a few minutes.  So I sat in the living room and talked with Fred.
Fred filled me in a little on their life.  He had been a salesman; Rose had been an executive secretary in Manhattan; they had met and married fairly late in life, when they were in their 40’s.  They had both grown up in Queens, and had lived in a house in the Richmond Hill neighborhood all their married lives.  Their church and everything they knew was there.  But the neighborhood changed, and became dangerous for them to live in, so they had moved to this apartment in the suburbs when their health no longer allowed them to stay in their house.  They had no children, no relatives around; they chose this community because it had a good hospital; two, actually.  Although they had lived in Rockville Centre for nearly 10 years, they knew few people in the community, since their health had prevented them from getting out, except to the doctor’s or the hospital.  They had few visitors except for the pastor, and Susan, and Fred’s Eucharistic Minister from the Cathedral – he was Roman Catholic and received the Sacrament about once a month.   
By the time Fred had finished telling me their story, Rose had loudly announced to us that “she was ready” and was berating her nurse for not moving fast enough to get her cleaned up for communion.  I thanked Fred for talking with me … only to hear Rose start yelling at him for “taking up too much of the pastor’s time;” so I moved to the kitchen for communion.
As I sat down at the table Rose thrust a sheet of paper at me.  “Follow this,” Rose said.  It was the little order of service Pastor Eggars had created just for her.  So I did, to the letter.  After inviting Fred and the nurse to receive communion too … they politely said no … Rose and I communed. 
I expected that we would visit a little after we had communion.  But Rose put an end to that.  “Well, it’s time for my bath,” she loudly announced. “Good bye.  I’ll see you next week.”  As Rose yelled for her nurse to come and get her, and Fred called from the other room, telling Rose that she was on her way, I said my goodbyes and left.
Our visits continued that way … though not every week, as Rose had demanded, but as often as I was able to get there.  Rose never seemed to understand that I had other things to do, there were others on the homebound list, lots of other that needed to be visited too, plus it was Advent and Christmastime, with all that meant.  Still, I got to her apartment every other week or so.  I enjoyed talking with Fred … he was a very nice, friendly man who had good stories about life in Queens in the earlier years of the last century.  I wish I could say the same about Rose … except she never gave me a chance to visit with her.  Indeed, she did “drive caring people away.”  Once she got what she wanted, she didn’t need me around anymore, and I knew it was time to leave.   
Then one afternoon a call came to the church office.  It was Fred.  Rose had died, quite suddenly.  I went over to their apartment.  Rose’s body had already been taken away by the funeral director.  Fred was devastated.  Frankly, I was quite surprised.  Though Rose had been a grumpy, negative, demanding, abusive presence in that apartment and in Fred’s life, Fred still mourned her loss.  Together, we talked, and later, we got together again, to plan the funeral. 
We gathered a couple of days later, a cold, clear New York morning, right before Christmas.  Fred and his nurse, the funeral director and the ladies of the altar guild, about 8 of us total, were all that was there.  We had a brief funeral and then went to the cemetery in Kew Gardens, Queens, where we laid Rose to rest.  Fred, even though his pension was quite small, he barely got enough to get by, Fred had purchased a huge spray of roses, and we placed them on Rose’s casket, there in that tremendously deep and wide hole, a hillside grave, and Fred wept.      
You see, Fred loved Rose.  Despite the fact that she “drove caring people away.”  In spite of her caustic nature, her demanding ways, her self-centeredness, her ill temper.  Fred loved Rose in spite of and despite all that.  She was all he had.  She was his one true love.  And his love broke through all that other stuff, maybe blindly, maybe irrationally – who was I to say - but it still broke through, and created a relationship which Fred treasured, and would treasure, forever.  And I believe Rose treasured it too, in her own peculiar way.
That was almost twenty years ago.  And I have thought about Rose, and Fred, every Christmas since. 
Not just because this is the time of the year when Rose’s earthly life came to an end.
No, I think of Rose, and Fred, as we gather here in worship tonight, singing those beloved carols, looking at the beautiful decorations, hearing those familiar words from the Prophet and the Christmas story … I think of Rose and Fred because they remind me … of me, and of you, and of our God, and the relationship we all share.
I mean, well sure, it’s easy to come here tonight, with all the feeling and memories and beauty washing over us, and go away believing that things really are pretty good with us, each other, and God.  ”God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” don’t cha know.
I mean, we’re here, it’s Christmas, we sure must love each other and we sure must love our God, and isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be.  The lights, the candles, the tree, they all make us feel so warm and fuzzy and good about ourselves and each other, and God, yeah, God too. 
But don’t let the feeling and emotion of the Christmas tree obscure another tree that’s always in our midst, that reminds us of the reality of our relationship with each other, and our Creator, and the rest of creation.  The cross may be small in the sanctuary tonight, but it always looms large in our lives.  The beauty of Christmas may create a fantasy, but the starkness of the cross brings us back to reality.
For our reality is a lot less tinsel and glitter, and more, as we will sing during Communion,  ”Nail, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”
It’s not that we don’t want to be better people, to love others, be all warm and fuzzy with God.  Of course we do.  It’s just that we can’t.  We can’t be the perfect people we would like or that God expects of us.  We don’t always live for others.  We don’t always put other people and their needs first.  We don’t even let other people care for us the way they should.  We, like Rose, drive caring people away.  And in and with that, we do our best to drive our God away.
We can delude ourselves into believing that things really aren’t that bad, that the world is actually a lot more like Christmas Eve than Good Friday. 
But in the course of human history, what we’ve seen happen this year isn’t the exception … it is the rule.  People do act that way, do treat each other that terribly, are bent on destroying each other and all of creation.  That’s not just them, that’s us. 
And yet … despite and in spite of how badly we treat each other, and we treat our God … despite the mess we regularly make of our lives and all of life …
our God still cares for us.
In spite of our caustic natures, our demanding ways, our self-centeredness, our ill temper … our God still loves us in spite of and despite all that. 
So much so that our God became as one of us, came here, right here, went through the agony of being born a baby boy, and pitched his tent in our rotten little camp. 
And God’s love broke through all that garbage, maybe blindly, maybe irrationally – but who are we to say -- it still broke through, and created a new relationship with us in Jesus, a relationship which God treasures. 
Even when we rejected Jesus the first time … he treasured us.  Even when we reject him now … as we, his beloved, created in his own image, as we do what we do to each other, every day of the year … he still treasures us.
Because we are all God has.  We are God’s one true love.
And in Jesus, our God has, and will continue, to go to the end of the earth and the end of time, for each and every one of us, pursuing us … not in anger, but in love, searching us out, calling each of us by name, to turn, to come into and be part of this love story which began so long ago – its ending coming to us not in a wide open grave but in the wide open arms of our Lord.

May you find rest, renewal, and real hope in his embrace … hope which will get you through your Good Fridays, your Christmas Eves, and every day in between ... hope which will send you out to share this Good News with someone else, too – not just on Christmas, but always.  Amen.

24 December 2017 - 4th Sunday of Advent

John 1:1-18
24 December 2017 – Fourth Sunday of Advent


We live in a time and place where there is an oversupply of words.  Television, radio, text messages, and especially the internet have left us awash in a sea of words. 
It’s hard to imagine what the world was like before the mass duplication of words, through print, broadcast, and other electronic media.  It was much quieter, to be sure. 
Words are in overabundance today.  And as any first year economic student knows, when things are in oversupply, they get cheaper.  Not many would argue that words are cheap, much cheaper than they have been in the past. 
Words have less effect on us.  Some of us can actually remember when people liked songs for their words, rather than just the music.  But those days are gone.  Political speeches, major addresses, even talk radio used to carry some weight.  Now, how often do we keep the audio player on in our cars while we’re traveling, not to hear the news, but to fill the void and keep us company with … words? 
“Being a man or woman of their word” used to be a high complement … it meant that your words could be trusted, your promises were true and were kept.  But even this has fallen in the massive onslaught of words.  We don’t take people at their word anymore … you’re considered a fool if you do …  we have to have it in writing, signed and notarized in triplicate … and then, we still feel like we need to check up on people, and make sure they’re doing the job right.  One’s word is kept, it now seems, only when it’s convenient and profitable to be kept. 
We are inundated with advertising, saturated with email messages, drowning in a sea of words … and they all look alike, sound alike, everything is given equal weight – that’s the positive spin – or equally held in contempt …”well, that’s your opinion…” meaning that what I think, what I feel, what I say, carries just as much weight as what everyone else thinks, or feels, or says.  The authority of words is gone, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of verbage and print, electronic and paper, and leaving dull, boring, flat, lifeless relativism in its wake.
Still, though, there are some words that have not been swamped by this sea of speech, the torrent of type and print and broadcast noise.  There are some words that are heard above the din … that are held onto, treasured, which become one with the hearer, which effect change and growth in them, in us, if we allow ourselves the time, and the space, to hear them, and allow them to sink in, to take effect.
Such as?
Such as the old, new song that is our Gospel reading for today.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

A Word, The Word.  The Word spoken by God at the beginning of time. 
So what makes this Word so special … what are its distinguishing marks or characteristics that make it stand out above the rest?
This Word from God is the pre-existing Word, the Word that was there before all other words were spoken and, indeed, caused all of them to be.  In the original Greek, En arch hn o logos -- this is the logo, the visible sign from God, of God’s truthfulness, of God’s faithfulness … the sign that God stands behind his Word because this God, our God, IS his Word … quite literally.   
There are many words which God has spoken to the world from the beginning of time – commands, rules, codes, directions … there are the basic words of the Ten Commandments, from which all the rest of the rules, codes, and regulations flow, but even they can get lost and be relativized in the sea of words we know today. 
But John’s gospel speaks about The Word – the logos, the sign.  And that is important.  Because now we are lifted above the flood of words, called to hear One Particular Word.  And of all the other words that would come forth from God, this One, this Logos, this sign, is the Word For Us.
This Word is an active Word.  This Word is not just a printed or spoken word but a living and breathing Word, a Word become as one of us, God as one of us, Jesus Christ, in the flesh, born to be just like one of us, a Word that became human and quite literally pitched his tent in our camp, so that God would more perfectly understand what it’s like to be us.  Baby, youth, teenager, adult, living, breathing, caring, suffering, dying … human.  
But more.  This Word isn’t just an old, dead word, smelling musty and from the past.  It did die once, but again, that was so God could be just like us in every respect – living our life, suffering our pain, dying our death.  But this Word lives – he rose again from the dead and lives now, and promises to each of us that we who have been bathed in this Word and fed the bread and wine of this Word shall also be bathed and fed in the promise of eternal life.
This Word does not lie flat on a page, in black or white type, demanding to be memorized, seared into our very consciousness as another law – no, this Word has kept the word of the Law perfectly so that when we do not keep those other words, those rules and regulations by which we are called to live … now, we may be forgiven.  Forgiven to have new chances, new starts at life. 
And this Word, our living Word, asks us to speak the same Word to others – a life-changing Word, full of hope and promise.  A life-giving Word, to those drowning in a sea of bad words, or ill-bearing words, or nothing at all words.
This Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, is God’s Word of Life For Us.  For the world.  For all of God’s creation. 
May this Word cut through the din and clutter of your life this day, may this Word rescue you from drowning in a sea of meaningless words or sinking in a mire of killing words, may this Word lift you up and change your life today … and always.  
And more … may your voice be raised up, to join the chorus who sing and live this Word to the world, so that others may come to hear, and feel, and know, and live it, live him, as well.
  
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 
And we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

Seen … and known … not just this Fourth Sunday of Advent … but every day, in all ways.  In and through you.

Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

17 December 2017

Second Isaiah
17 December 2018

Last week, we gathered here and worshipped as the choir led us through a choral setting of the O Antiphons – those eight verses, most usually sung in the Advent carol “O come, O come, Emmanuel” – which, here, during the season of Advent, surround us as we worship together during these four weeks of the season of expectation and hope.
Those Antiphons, as I shared last week, were originally written as the introductory, processional song, sung by the choir, one for each day of worship during the octave of Christmas – the eight days prior to Christmas Eve.
So today – December 17 – we actually begin that octave of Christmas – and the antiphon for this day is this – in the words of the carol:

O come, O Wisdom from on high, embracing all things far and nigh:  in strength and beauty come and stay; teach us your will and guide our way.

It’s an appropriate verse to lead us into our Scripture readings for today, from Isaiah and John’s Gospel.
Yes, today we return once again to the prophet Isaiah … but in a different place than when last we read from this largest book of the Bible.
Back on November 19 – still in the Pentecost season – but the text was decidedly “Advent-y” –

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders;
And he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Though, as we heard then, these words, proclaimed during the reign of King Ahaz, in the middle of the 8th century BCE, they heralded the birth of Ahaz’ son, Hezekiah … and yet, we hear those words as ultimately pointing to Jesus … and thus, their Advent connection for us.
Now, today, though, we have moved far from this scene, and are in the 55th chapter of Isaiah, over 40 chapters and 200 years later.
We call this section of Isaiah – chapters 40 through 55 – Second Isaiah – because these words were NOT written by the original Isaiah.
That prophet, he was the one who like the other prophets before and after him, proclaimed a word of judgment to God’s people … judgment, because they had not just neglected, but flouted God’s commands, commands to honor and worship God alone, commands to particularly honor and care for the poor, the powerless, the downtrodden, the widow and orphan, the aged, the stranger and alien in their midst.
Because God’s people had disobeyed, Isaiah proclaimed judgment … that God’s people would be taken away from the land of God’s promise, taken into exile in a far off land. 
But that Isaiah also proclaimed the second word of the prophets … hope … that despite their disobedience, God would remain faithful.  In those words we heard last month, there was a word of hope in the person of the infant king Hezekiah, a continued sign of God’s faithfulness … and a sign pointing to Jesus, God’s ultimate child-sign of hope.
Now, here, today, the words of Isaiah before us are from another one bearing that name … a follower, someone of the same prophetic “school,” if you will … a prophet who proclaimed words of hope to the people of the land of God’s promise, some two hundred years later, as they were in exile, far from their homes.  This Isaiah encouraged them, with a word that God would remember God’s promises to God’s people … and that they would return home once again.
There are three parts to this word of Second Isaiah before us today.
The first five verses are given as encouragement to the returning exiles, to be full participants in the restoration of the land of God’s promise.  There would be much work to do, repairing and rebuilding after decades of occupation and neglect, so the people would need to hear that this enterprise would be “real” and part of God’s continuing work for and through them.
The second five verses are a call to repentance, which is forever and always the place where God calls people to begin in their relationship with God.
And the last two verses are a short song of praise … it will be such a happy and blessed time, as God’s people return, that all of nature will rejoice in it … mountains and hills shall burst into song, trees shall clap their hands, and nuisance plants will be no more, replaced by trees of beauty and standing … like God’s repentant, forgiven people shall be as well, to their friends and neighbors … a sign of God’s blessing to them, and to the world through them.
But the heart … the heart … of this text today, lies in just one sentence:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

Certainly the Exile into Babylon, judgment for God’s people’s sins, were not their thoughts … even though the prophets had proclaimed that it was coming, because of their disobedience, for hundreds of years … still, when it came, it came as shock and surprise to them.
Now, the word that they would be returning to the land of God’s promise, this, too, couldn’t have been farther from God’s people’s reality.  Oh, yes, they had hoped and prayed for it, but still, given their circumstances, and being so far away from home … how could it ever be?
But it would.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

Home they would go, and God would be with them in this new enterprise, going back, renewing, rebuilding, their promised home once more.
Now, in contrast, our Gospel reading seems to have little to nothing in common with this reading from Isaiah.  There’s no exile … no return … or is there?
Surely, one could say that the sick man was in an exile of sorts.  Thirty eight years of illness had exiled him from friends, family, work … everything that would make up a “normal” life.
Jesus brings this man back from exile.  And all hell breaks loose.
Because the man was healed on the Sabbath.  And the religious people see this man walking on the Sabbath, and carrying his mat … which they considered work … and started interrogating him.  “It’s against the law for you to carry your mat on the Sabbath.”  “But the man who made me well told me to do it.”  “Who made you well?” 
He didn’t know.  But soon enough, he did.  And then, everyone did.  Including those religious people.  Who now brought all their anger to bear on Jesus, because he was telling people to do things THEY said he couldn’t do.
THEY, of course, being the religious people, who made the rules, and held the power … not Jesus.
Or so they thought.
And so we find that connection between our texts today.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

Jesus wasn’t going to let some silly religious-people’s rule about sabbath-work stop him from doing his work, his Father’s work, which he was called to do.  Just as God’s people in the book of Isaiah, this exiled man needed to be brought home … home to health, and wholeness, and community.  So Jesus did just that.
Exile.
I’ve been thinking a lot about exile lately … feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
I had coffee with our new assistant to the bishop, Pastor Shelley Wee, you might remember her from being here on All Saints’ Sunday a little over a month ago.  And I was talking to her about how ministry these days often feels like work in exile.
I told her how skill-less and utterly empty I often feel in this new paradigm we call the “post-Christendom church.”  How we – she and I were seminary classmates – how we were trained for “Christendom,” that thinking and praxis that ruled the church and society up until the past couple of decades.  Yes, it’s still hanging on in the Upper Midwest and the South, but on the Left and Right Coasts it’s on its last legs, or gone. 
Christendom meant “if you build it, they will come.”  “Lutherans having babies, making more Lutherans.”  Full Sunday Schools, Confirmation programs, youth programs, and pews on Sunday morning.  Lots of willing participants to do “the work of the church,” going to meetings, serving on committees and councils, planning events in and for the church.
But those days are gone; out here, long gone.   We might build it, advertise it, promote the heck out of it, and still, few, if any, will come.  Congregations are shrinking, growing older and getting tinier.  There’s lots of room in the pews and parking lots on Sunday morning.  
And it’s not just us.  It’s many churches, in this new paradigm. 
This is not a time and place to just go on applying more technical fixes. We’ve tried that, it doesn’t work.  More programs, more new stuff … it doesn’t matter.  We’re not going to “grow our way out of this” by changing this or that, taking away something or adding something new.
We are in exile.  We are in the place of what Professors Heifitz and Linsky of Harvard Business School call the “Adaptive Challenge,” where we are face to face with a situation, where we don’t know what we don’t know.  All around us, the landmarks have changed, and we can’t find our direction.  We have never not been in Christendom before.  And we simply don’t know what to do.
I was at lunch this week, with another colleague, and we were talking about this, too.  (This is what most pastors do these days when we get together, talk about the decline of our congregations and what will become of the future, our future … whether or not we’ll be able to make it to retirement, or if we’ll have to take on some part time work outside the church before we get there.)  And he said something profound … which is most consistent with the words of our texts today.  It went like this:

But isn’t this precisely where Jesus wants us?  Not grasping and grabbing any of our “tools” so that we might say we’re dependent on anything but him?  Simply, prayerfully, worshipfully, expectantly, waiting, and in that waiting, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

There’s a quote from Martin Luther, in our “By Heart” material we are using for the Adult Ed class these days, that sounds a lot like my friend’s words:

The holy Christian people … must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evils from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.  Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian Church is there.

So there is something.  Instead of trying and promising more programs and activities, more new, this and that, polishing the old apple, we should change our public advertisement to … Come and be a follower of Jesus here with us at Faith Lutheran Church!  Suffer inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, and become like our head, Christ!
I’ll put that up on the electronic sign tomorrow and let you know how it goes.
Well, we laugh … but we shouldn’t.  Because that’s precisely the point.  In the face of this new paradigm, our adaptive challenge … the end of Christendom … we built it, but they don’t come anymore … as we are now in exile … the only place, the only thing, the only way ahead for us is not our thoughts, our ways, but God’s thoughts, God’s ways.
No more just one hour a week church.  No more “American Express” Christianity, where “membership has its privileges,” in country clubs under the cross.  No more coming each week just to have the pastor and paid staff fill our buckets to “make us feel good for the week ahead,” and that’s the limit to our faith engagement … until we come back to get “filled up again” next Sunday.  No more, in the words of our confession during this season of Advent, living casual lives, where faith is but an ornament or a window dressing.
No more, no more working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Instead, everything must be about working out our salvation with fear and trembling. 
During this season of Advent, this should be crystal clear for us.  We are called to gather, as Luther said in his dying words, as beggars, beggars who expectantly await our Savior, who make the most of this time of exile in readying ourselves for Jesus’ return …
Here, in this land of exile, we live as those exiles in Babylon of long ago, not knowing what lies coming ahead, but we follow our Savior’s call to spiritually deepen ourselves, to become deeply spiritual people, people whose hallmark is confession and prayer and study of Scripture … the spiritual heavy lifting of our faith … and our hunger for faith active in service is obvious, as we get out in our communities and serve … deployed into our blocks and neighborhoods and communities, not to tell and speak, but to hear and listen to our neighbors, and in their voices, hearing the call of our coming Savior to … something. 
What?  I don’t know.  You don’t know.  But we’ll never know, unless we try.
Yes, we could keep on keeping on like always for a while.  A while. 
Do you remember that batter for the Mariners years ago, named Mendoza, who could never get above .200?  We call that barrier “the Mendoza line.” Well, I’m told that 70% of our NW Washington Synod congregations have less than 70 people in worship every Sunday.  That’s OUR Mendoza line … the conventional wisdom is that it takes 70 active worshippers to support one full time staff member … usually, that’s the pastor.
(So that means that in a few years, it's likely that most pastors in our synod will be part time - although, how they'll be able to afford that, God only knows ... and the full time ones remaining will probably be in yoked congregation/parish situations.)
Add to that, that the average age of the active worshippers in most of our congregations … financial givers, tithers, active supporters … is about 75, maybe a little more, maybe a little less; and you see that the “little while” we can keep on going status quo is growing quite short.
But – keeping things status quo isn’t about faith.  It’s not salvation.  It’s not Advent. 
That’s our thoughts, and our ways.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

So the challenge is clear … we can cling to the crumbling spires of Christendom in the Pacific NW for a while longer … polish our apples, apply more duct tape and band aids, try new technical fixes or adjustments here and there in our vain efforts to “grow the church” …  or, we can humble ourselves as Advent people, people who admit we are in exile, and totally, utterly dependent on our Savior to lead us to where he’s guiding us next.
There are no guarantees of “success” either way. 
Just the assurance that God is with us, in this exile, and God’s promises are true, and everlasting.
As Jesus says,

My Father is still working, and I also am working.


For beggars, that will have to be enough … thanks be to God.  Amen.