Sunday, January 26, 2020

God's Kingdom Announced: The Hiddenness of God

Again [Jesus] began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
--Mark 4:1-34 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have a friend who farms with his brother and two adult sons in eastern South Dakota. I may have mentioned them before. It’s a family operation. They farm over 10,000 acres a year, predominantly wheat and soybeans, plus alfalfa as feed crop for the cattle they also raise. The first time I saw them in full operation was about 10 years ago. 

Farming has changed dramatically from the days that my dad farmed. Then, it involved driving a relatively basic tractor, planting seed, praying for rain and for sun at the right times. And, then, harvesting. There was a near complete reliance upon nature. There was really very little that my dad could do to ensure a good crop. Today, farming is truly a science. It has become so technologically advanced that farmers can now view and study their fields through satellite images. They can see where they need to re-seed. Or to add more fertilizer. Equipment is massive and computer-operated. And, although the hours are still as long and the pressure to plant and harvest at the right times remains, a farmer can sit in the air-conditioned cab of his or her massive tractor, turn on the GPS and let the vehicle literally drive itself around the field.

But, there is one thing that a farmer cannot do. He or she can know exactly when the right time is to plant the seed. They can fertilize it perfectly. They can irrigate it and provide exactly the right amount of water. And, although, they can’t always control the sun or the rain or the hailstorms that might come through, the efficiency of farming today far outpaces that of years ago. But there is one thing that a farmer simply cannot do. They cannot pull the sprout out of the seed. 

Today, we have three parables about seeds and farming. In his day, Jesus’ method of teaching through parable was not uncommon. It was a way to use something that was common and familiar to teach a deeper meaning. In the parables today, Jesus touches on farming, something that would have been very familiar to his listeners. But the deeper teaching, for those who were able to hear and understand it, was about the kingdom of God.

This is the point in the section that begins with verse 10. On first hearing, it may be difficult. A little unsettling even. Surely, Jesus wants everyone to understand what he is trying to teach, right? But, that’s not what these verses say. It’s like it’s a secret club, a closed society. Where the insiders get the “truth” and those who don’t remain outside. Yet, as things will unfold in the gospel of Mark, we will begin to see the lines between these groups become blurred. At one point or another, everyone is confused by Jesus. And sometimes even, those on the “outside” seem to understand Jesus more than those on the “inside.”

I want you to think back to the fall. To the beginning of the Hebrew scripture in Genesis, where we first meet a God who creates, who loves, and then seems to become grief-stricken and angry after this humanity that God has created with freewill, rebels. God devises another plan, choosing a people to lead and to teach so that they might begin to reveal to the world the loving and life-giving nature of God. And, they, too, rebel. Over and over God meets Israel where they are, attempting to reach them, to reveal to them God’s true nature that which we first glimpsed at the beginning of creation. Yet, they continued to rebel. God attempts to bring them back into the boundaries established by God, boundaries designed to bring life instead of destroying it. Finally, when this fails, God determines an ultimate plan to bring life to all humanity and to all creation through God’s very own Son. It is in him where the true nature of God is revealed. A nature of love and sacrifice. A nature of forgiveness and grace. 

But, God is not finished. This is the message of, first, John the Baptist and, then, Jesus, through whom the kingdom of God has come near. It’s actually just the beginning. The beginning of a new way of being. A new way of living. A new reign. A reign of peace and justice. And a reign of the continuing revelation of God.

Because God’s work on earth did not end with Jesus. It began with Jesus, through whom this true nature of God was revealed and the hidden nature - the mysterious nature - of God’s reign began. It continues to be unveiled. God continues to reveal godself to us. A few years ago, the United Church of Christ began a campaign where they put up billboards around the country and placed ads on television using the phrase, “God is still speaking.” That's the point here. We are still learning about God and God’s kingdom. The mysteries of God and God’s kingdom continue to be revealed. Much of this still remains hidden and veiled from our eyes, even from those who are the most learned about the things of God.  

So, what are we to do? How are we to begin to understand? Jesus tells us as he tells the disciples: Listen. Look. Pay attention.

In my seminary class on the Lutheran Confessions, one day my professor, who is a noted Lutheran scholar, confessed to us a huge mistake he had made. In the early years of the debate in our church - the very same debate that our Methodist sisters and brothers are going through right now - over the issue of homosexuality, and gay marriage, and, particularly, the ordination of gay pastors, he had come out very publicly in opposition to everything around this issue. Claiming as the church had done for so long, that homosexuality was an abomination and that it was contrary to the will of God.

And then, he had a friend come out after years of hiding his homosexuality. As my professor supported his friend and walked alongside him, he was witness to the transformation in his friend. From darkness to light. From deep despair to peace and wholeness. To joy and happiness. And my professor began to wonder just what new thing God might be doing here. What new place God might be moving the church to. What new aspect of God and God’s reign was being revealed.

If we, like my professor, listen. If we look and we pay attention, we, too, can begin to see the unfolding of the good news of God’s kingdom. It manifests itself in light and love. In joy and happiness. In forgiveness and acceptance. These are the hallmarks of God’s kingdom - the signs for us that God’s kingdom is coming near and is being further revealed. Signs of goodness, rather than evil. Peace, rather than violence, Wholeness, rather than despair and destruction. Life, rather than death. 

And so we continue to throw out the seeds of the good news in what we say and what we do. There will be some seeds that we may not, in our time, see sprout.  This is perhaps one of the hardest parts of our faith. Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a family to try to keep them together and to keep them from being evicted. There have been signs of the seeds of love and support and grace and forgiveness sprouting at times. And, yet, this past week, everything seems to have completely fallen apart. 

It is easy to fall into despair and a sense of hopelessness. Yet, we do not know when the seeds we have planted will sprout. We may never see that happen. But, we trust that God - in God’s time - will grow God’s kingdom. And we continue to listen, to look and to pay attention. Because often there are other seeds that sprout when we least expect them, in people and places we never anticipated. This is the paradox of the reign of God - that it is revealed precisely where it often seems to be most hidden.

Just like the farmer, we can never know when God will bring the seeds that have been planted to sprout. And to take root. All we can continue to do is to plant them. With love. And with grace. And with the trust in God’s promise that the seeds that have been planted will grow in God's time into an abundant harvest that will be gathered at the fullness of the reign of God. When the full nature of God and of God’s kingdom will be revealed and no longer hidden. 

"For now we see in the mirror dimly. But, then, we shall see face to face." (1 Cor. 13:12)  Amen.

Preached January 26, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Mark 4:1-34, Hosea 10:12, Psalm 126

Sunday, January 19, 2020

God's Kingdom Announced: The Reign of God

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
--Mark 2:1-22 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I have a question for all of you. How many of you, when you read a book, before you start, go to the last chapter of the book and read the ending? Come on now, be honest. Let’s see a show of hands.

My sister was like you. It used to make me so crazy! I mean, really, how can you read the ending and then go back and read the book from the beginning. You know how it comes out, then. You miss the suspense, the entire denouement of the book. You know how the major plot line and the minor plot lines will end. What fun is there in this!

I harassed her over and over about this. And, yet, she continued to do it.

It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I had a serious change of heart. So, in seminary, the average pages assigned for reading per class - at least where I attended seminary - was 5,000. Five thousand pages of theological reading. Sometimes, we would have a professor who would cut us a little break. But, usually, by the end of each quarter, I would have read nearly 15,000 pages of theology.

It wasn’t until my last year of seminary that I learned about the Pareto Principle of reading. This method comes from what is called the Pareto Analysis, which comes out of the field of statistics, that tells us that by doing 20% of the work you can achieve 80% of the benefit of doing an entire job. You like this idea, don’t you? I did, too!

So, this transfers to reading with the assumption that only 20% of a book is actually worth reading. And what the Pareto method of reading tells you to do is to skim the book to find out the author’s method to figure out where they put their thesis sentences, whether at the beginning or at the end of a paragraph. Because this is, generally, the model they will use for the entire book. So the practice is to skim the book, but focus on either the beginning or ending of the chapters and of the entire book, depending upon the author’s method. 

Learning this method of reading literally cut my reading time by 75% in my last year of seminary. If only I’d known this at the beginning of seminary, rather than the end… :/

So, what’s the whole point of this conversation? Today, in our reading from Mark, we move into
learning about Jesus and Jesus’ ministry, and what the reign of God - the kingdom of God - looks like...because, after all our entire theme for this year has been “Living Out the Kingdom of God.” So, it’s necessary for us to know what this kingdom looks like so that we can actually live it out. In today’s reading, we have three scenes or stories, three pericopes, that seem to have no real relationship to each other. We, first have the story of the healing of the man who is paralyzed and the response of the scribes to Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. The second scene takes us to dinner. At Levi’s house. Levi, who is a tax collector. Who is extremely wealthy. Who is hated by the Jewish people. Viewed as an outcast. As a sinner. And then we have the third scene - again with the scribes of the Pharisees, the theologians - who challenge Jesus’ eating with “sinners” and that he isn’t fasting like they and John the Baptist’s disciples are. And to whom Jesus responds with three little, micro parables, that don’t seem to really make much sense. Three little parables about a wedding banquet. About a piece of clothing. And about wineskins.

But, my friends, it’s at the end of this story, where we find our beginning. Just as in seminary!

In the first micro parable, Jesus invites the scribes into a thought experiment about fasting at a wedding. Now, We have to remember that Jesus’ listeners didn’t know the end of the story, as we do. They don’t see how this could be interpreted as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ later arrest. Our mini-parable opens on a wedding banquet. And the celebrating and feasting that is happening. Jesus asks the scribes this question: can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is present? The answer has to be “no.” Why would you fast when the bridegroom - central to the feast - is present. But, then, suddenly the bridegroom is abducted. It is then that the fasting begins. 

The second small parable is about a coat. We don’t really patch clothing much anymore, so it might be a little hard to understand this parable. But, when you’re patching an old garment, you never want to use a patch made of material that hasn’t been pre-shrunk. Because the first time you wash it, it will shrink. And it will pull the rest of the material towards it, making it pucker and not lay flat. Making the patch especially noticeable.

The third parable is similar. But, this time it’s about wineskins. I don’t have much experience with wineskins. But, it makes sense to me that, if you were making wine, you would not want to put your new wine into an old wineskin. Because, the old wineskin has already been used and stretched to its capacity thanks to the fermentation process. If you put new wine into an old wineskin, as the new wine begins to ferment it will stretch the old wineskin, which has already been stretched. And the result will be that the old wineskin will burst.

What these micro-parables teach us is that what is at stake in the dispute between Jesus and scribes is clearly the relationship between old and new. About the past and the future. About time-honored ways and uncharted territory.

But, do you notice that, particularly, the parables about the coat and the wineskin do not make value judgments. That old is better than new. Or vice versa. These mini-lessons do not suggest that old things are bad and new things are good, or that old things are good and new things are bad. No, in fact, if you look closely, the old coat is to be repaired so it can be used. The old wineskin is to be preserved. Even, in the parable about the wedding and fasting, the practice of fasting is not rejected out of hand, but is reserved for a later time and purpose.

These are not texts that tell us to abandon traditions or older expressions of faith out - that those things of faith that we inherit are not necessarily bad things. Likewise, those things that are new are also not to be rejected out of hand. New thinking, new theology comes out of the old. Both are to be looked at. As one Lutheran theologian says, they are to be tested against scripture and against Jesus’ teaching. Those that do not fit are to be discarded, new and old.

All of this takes us back to the opening scene and the forgiveness and healing by Jesus of the man who is paralyzed. Did you hear the first thing that Jesus did for the man who had so cleverly been brought before Jesus for healing? Did you hear that the first thing Jesus did was to forgive this man?

Over many years in the church, we have, perhaps erroneously, distilled the gospel down to one little nugget. That God loves you. But, this story pushes us to take it further. To both hold onto the old, but embrace the new. Yes, God loves you.  But, God forgives you. Because it is forgiveness that brings transformation. Forgiveness that brings healing and wholeness. Forgiveness that brings life and that, then, allows us to bask in that amazing love that God has for all of us, both as individuals and as a community. 

If you doubt the power of forgiveness or, using this week’s Pub Theology topic, if you are skeptical of the transformational power of forgiveness, I invite you to watch this video clip, a film clip of Brandt Jean, brother of Botham Jean, who was so tragically killed by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger in 2018. This is from her sentencing hearing last October. 

There is nothing you can do or that you have done that will separate you from the love of God in Christ. God loves you. God forgives you. Amen.

Preached January 29, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany 2
Readings: Mark 2:1-22; Isaiah 42:6-9, Psalm 103:6-14

Sunday, January 12, 2020

God's Kingdom Announced: Good News

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
--Mark 1:1-20 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re going to do something a bit different today. Over these past few weeks of Christmas and Epiphany, we taken a slight detour from our lectionary. Mostly, we’ve done this because this is the year of the gospel of Mark. And, because Mark has no nativity or epiphany story, we’ve had to bounce around a little bit between Luke and Matthew and, even, on Christmas Eve, a little bit of John. But, today we begin Mark. 

We do not know who wrote Mark. There is a lot of speculation among theologians, but the truth is that no one knows for sure. We believe it was written sometime around the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, around 70 CE. It may have been slightly before or slightly after. This was a time of conflict - conflict within Judaism and conflict outside of Judaism, between the Jewish people and the Roman empire. 

Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. There is early historical evidence to suggest that the author of Mark wanted to make sure that all of what Jesus did and said was written down. Because, up to this point, all of these stories had been shared orally. By word of mouth. At this point, though, the eyewitnesses to Jesus and his ministry were dying, because they were being persecuted and martryed. 

In these opening verses of Mark, there are important words and themes that we will hear as we move through this gospel during these next months. So, today, the different thing we will do is to dig deeper into the text to better understand these words and themes, so that we might build a good foundation for our reading of Mark and for a deeper understanding of the message of this first gospel.

Mark opens with these words: the beginning. Does that sound familiar to you? Where have we heard those words before? 

If we go all the way back to the start of the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis, we hear similar words. “In the beginning.” This phrase is an important signal for us. It’s a sign that God is doing something new. In Genesis, that new thing that God was up to was forming an ordered and beautiful creation out of darkness and chaos.  Here, at the beginning of Mark, we do not yet know what this new thing is that God is doing. Yet, in the very next few words, we are about to get a hint.

The next important word (or words) is the phrase “good news.” Now, in the Greek, the word used for this phrase is euangeliou.  It’s a form of the word euangelion.  Have you seen this word before? Does it look a little familiar to you: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? Perhaps this will jog your memory: Grace & Glory Evangelical Lutheran Church? 

The Greek word euangelion means "good news." Or "gospel." But this good news that we are about to hear is not a reference to a physical book, to the written “gospel” of Mark. Instead, it refers to the word of salvation as it is carried out in the acts of salvation. In Mark, the saving word is not separated from saving action.  Good news, or the gospel, in Mark is always in motion. 

We will see this good news acted out in the preaching and teaching, and in acts of mercy and healing by Jesus Christ. Jesus, the now roughly 30-year-old man, son of Mary and of Joseph. And the Christ, meaning the Anointed One. The Messiah. The One promised by God to come and save God’s people.  The first half of Mark’s gospel will focus on identifying Jesus as this promised Messiah. The second half will begin to unfold the stunning truth that, not only is this Jesus the Anointed One, the one who will both announce and initiate the good news of God’s reign. But, that this Jesus Christ is also the very Son of God. That he is both human and divine.

But, first, we must meet the one who will prepare the way for this Jesus, the Anointed One, the Son of God. 

This one who will prepare the way is none other than John the Baptist or John the Baptizer. Son of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Who we met just a few weeks ago, on the very last Sunday of Advent, before Christmas. It is John who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah. The one promised who will “prepare the way of the Lord.” We're also reminded of Exodus 23, where the prophet has the very difficult, yet very necessary, job of making a course correction. And of bringing a wayward people back to the right path. To the right way. This is John’s job in Mark. To prepare the way for Jesus by returning people to the right path. 

In his camel’s hair clothing, with his leather belt and his diet of locusts and honey, John has claimed a life of poverty. One who lives off little. Who has chosen to be poor. But, the people coming to see John are not poor. They come to him from places that enjoyed comfortable living standards. They are people living in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, an island of wealth and power in the midst of Galilee, a rural place. A place of poverty. 

John invites them into this wilderness. To reflect on their history and their complicitness in the economic divide. He calls them to repent. To repent in Mark is to step out of one’s mindset and adopt a new and different mindset. It is to have one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed. To adopt a radically different world view. To relate to the world in a new way. It also means to make a U-turn. To change course. To turn one’s back on the status quo. On one’s former life. To envision a new reality. And then to endeavor to bring this new thing to fruition. For those coming to see John, entering into the wilderness is a time of reflection and reckoning. A time intended to bring them back to God and to God’s ways. To ways that will lead them through the wilderness to Jesus Christ and to the in-breaking reign of God.

Jesus comes to John to be baptized. We read in the 10th verse that just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

“Just” or “immediately. We will see this adverb 42 times in Mark! Because there is an urgency in Mark. There is no time to waste. Immediately, Jesus sees the heavens being torn asunder. This is not a gentle descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus. In Greek the word used is a form of the word schizo. It is a violent word. A word of division. This ripping apart of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism will be echoed in the ripping apart of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death. The public ministry of Jesus beginning here, with his baptism, will not only bring words and actions of healing and salvation, but they will bring violence and conflict and division. 

This baptism is an event between Father and Son. Jesus alone sees the heavens being torn asunder, his baptism by the Spirit, and hears the words of his Father. Words that express the relationship and love of this father and son. We will hear these words again at Jesus’ transfiguration as he prepares to face the conflict his ministry has created. And to be crucified by those who have rejected not only him, but the entire reign of God. 

It is this reign of God to which you and I, sisters and brothers have been called, just as the early disciples. You and I, beloved of God, who have been called to repent and be baptized. To step out of our comfort and our complacency. To turn around. To adopt a new mindset and a new way of life. To step onto the wilderness path. To believe in the good news - good news that is understood in both word and deed. 

In our baptisms, we have been given a new birth. We have been cleansed from sin. We have been raised to life forever. But, at the same time, we have promised individually and communally to live out the kingdom - the reign of God. We have promised to live among God’s faithful people. We have promised to hear the word of God and to share in the Lord’s supper. We have promised to proclaim this good news of God in Christ through what we say and what we do. We have promised to serve all people by following the example of Jesus. And, finally, we have promised to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

So how far along are you in keeping your covenant with God?

Dear church, ours is not to be a life of comfort and complacency. Ours is to be a a wilderness life - a time of constant reflection and remembering and repentance. A time of faith lived out with urgency and action. It is a life that may bring us into conflict with the powers that be, with the status quo, with those who defy or deny God’s reign, as it should. Because we are not to be passive people of God. The reign of God is not some nebulous thing that we wait passively for in the distant future. It began with Jesus’ baptism and public ministry. And it continues with us at the present time. The reign of God - the kingdom of God - is now. Right. Now. And we are called to live it out.

This is the good news of the gospel of Mark. May it jolt us into motion. Amen.

Preached Sunday, January 12, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Baptism of Our Lord (Epiphany 1)
Readings: Ezekiel 36:25-27; Psalm 91:9-12; Mark 1:1-20

Sunday, January 5, 2020

God's Kingdom Announced: Calling and Conflict

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 
--Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I need to begin today with an apology. If you believe that there were three wise men, then, I apologize to you. If you believe that their names were Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, then, I apologize to you. If you believe this is a lovely story about kings from a foreign land who have come to pay homage to Jesus and be converted, then, I apologize to you. I apologize to you, because I am about to burst your bubble around the romanticized and sanitized version of this story that has been perpetuated upon us. (I’m well aware of the irony of the church blessing we just did with our children and our use of some of the romanticized elements from this story.) 

So, what do we have here in this story?

First, we have the magi. There has been much speculation who these magi were and where they were from. Current scholarship places their origin from Persia. Present day Iran. (The irony of this story on this very day also does not escape me.)

It is believed that these magi were followers of Zorastrianism, which was a predecessor religion to Islam. They were pre-Muslim. They were also astrologers. Our Matthew text portrays them as men. However, it is well known that in these caravans both women and men were present. Both women and men were practitioners of this religion. It’s a reminder for us, once again that, in these times in which scripture was written down, male voices had privilege and predominance.

So, have I burst a few bubble for you, so far?

We know that this was not a short trip that the magi were on. There were weeks and months between the different elements of the nativity story. We know in the very next verses - verses that have conveniently been left out of today’s lectionary because they are so horrendous - that, by the time the magi reach Bethlehem, a likely 2 years has passed since Jesus’ birth. Along the way, there has been a detour to Jerusalem. Because, while these astrologers have discerned that the star will lead them to a new king, they know little else. So, they, naturally, travel to the place where kings reside in Israel. To Jerusalem. To inquire about who this king might be and where he might be found.

Enter Herod. Our text reads that, when the magi made their inquiry and Herod heard it, he was frightened. As was all of Jerusalem. Frightened. Because a new king is a threat to Herod’s power. It may be a threat to those in Jerusalem, who reside in this seat of power. It may also simply be the fear that arises from among the people because they know of Herod’s empirical ways.  They know how he responds when he feels threatened. How he responds when someone tells him that he is not the center of the universe. They have experienced the pain of living under imperial rule. Perhaps the people of Jerusalem live in as unstable times as we are living in at this very moment. 

Herod inquires of his scholars and theologians. Who is this king? Where is he to be born? Do you find it as interesting as I do that these people in Herod’s own court know the answers to the questions he asks. And yet, they have not sought this new king. Instead, it is foreigners, coming from a different religious tradition who are seeking this king. 

Herod shares the information and then sends them on their way. But before he does, he asks them. No, truthfully, he orders them to return once they have found him so that Herod can go and pay homage. Likely story. We can see through Herod. Because we know the Herods of this world. This is not a Herod who will bow down to another king and pay him homage. This is a Herod who, in the very next verses, will order the slaughter of innocent children 2 years old and younger. 

This Herod is very different from these foreign astrologers. They go on their way and, as they leave Jerusalem, once again see the star that leads them to Bethlehem. To the young Jesus. In their joy and then in their humility they kneel down and worship him. Bringing gifts - gifts that seem so appropriate. Gold, meant for kings. Frankincense, used by priests. And myrrh, an embalming oil and symbol of death.

Then, they return home by another way. Transformed. And disregarding Herod’s order.

This story, this story of the journey of the magi reminds us of many things. It reminds us, first, that we do not have exclusive claim to the revelation of God. This revelation is given to and can come from persons well beyond our ethnic and our religious boundaries. God is generous with revelation and with salvation. God calls us into places of discomfort to encounter others with different experiences and beliefs. To discover and to grow from these encounters, trusting that through them God is further revealing godself to us. I have a dear friend - a dear friend who is Wiccan - who tells me that each of our different religious and faith traditions give us a broader understanding of who God is. This God who we want to keep in a neat little box, because that is so much easier and less disruptive for us.

This story also reminds us that God is at work in the world despite the existence of true evil. There is no guarantee for us that bad and evil things will not happen. But God promises that we will not walk through these dark valleys alone. God is not naive about the evils of the world. We should not be either. And we should not, in our privilege and our ability to read and then close the newspaper and put it neatly away - we should not understand that our life of faith is to be a comfortable life. We should understand that we are called by God to places of discomfort. To times of confronting evil. To challenge the powers that seek violence, instead of love and understanding. That divide instead of uniting.

And, finally, this story reminds us that the birth of Jesus Christ is of cosmic and astronomical importance for all people. It is good news for all who wish to participate in God’s kingdom - a kingdom of radically inclusive love and grace. And bad news for those who desire power over and against others.

It is these characteristics of love and grace that are the mark of a believer of God. One who puts God at one’s center. Who seeks God daily and weekly so that God is at the center of our lives, rather than our own self. A believer of God is one who is called to places of conflict and discomfort, to speak out and to challenge leaders that do not follow God’s kingdom - those who don't seek justice. Those who don't seek mercy. Those who seek to walk humbly with God. It is the mark of a believer to seek others out - others with different beliefs and experiences - that, they might be transformed. And, mostly, that we might be transformed. It is a mark of a believer of God, a believer who has been freed by God, to live into radical grace and love. These are our markers. Markers of lives of calling and lives of conflict. Who we are to be as we live out the kingdom of God.

So, I’m sorry this morning. I’m sorry if I’ve burst any bubbles you might have had about this story. But, it’s in the bubble-burst version where we find the real truth. Where we find God.


Preached January 5, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Epiphany of Our Lord
Readings: Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Low Places

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. --Luke 1:1-20 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:  Emmanuel, God with us. The Word made flesh. Amen.

Over the season of Advent, it’s a tradition here at Grace & Glory to read through a devotional book - something that puts us as a community literally on the same page each day as we wait for this night.

This year, we’ve been reading a devotion entitled, “Low,” by John Pavlovitz. He’s a contemporary writer and pastor who writes about the gritty reality of life. One look at the titles from some of the days give you a sample: Twisted Bowels, It is Not Well With My Soul, Sorry and Sorrow, A Messy Nativity and Low Places.

It’s that title - Low Places - that has really stuck with me over the past few days. In fact, as I reflected on this phrase, I must admit that this is the first thing I thought of.

Now, the themes in this song are probably not the best material on which to preach on Christmas Eve. Yet, there is real truth and honesty in this song. And, with the Christmas story, we've so romanticized that we've forgotten the truth of the story. The gritty reality. That it’s really about a lowly teenage girl. Who is pregnant. And unwed. And about a carpenter, who in his broken-heartedness keeps their engagement, even with the knowledge that the child she’s carrying isn’t his. And knowing that, if he breaks off their engagement, the possibility of her being stoned to death in their time and their place was very real. These were people in “low places.”

But, my focus tonight actually isn’t on Mary and Joseph. It’s not even on the baby, helpless and small as he was. My focus tonight is on the lowest-of-the-low characters in our story. So low, in fact, that they are unnamed, even though they show up in nearly every single nativity scene we see. 

Who are these lowly, unnamed characters? They are the animals.

Now, we assume that there were animals present, because, even though they are unnamed, the story tells us that Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable, because there was no room for them in the “inn.” 

Now, to be honest, a more accurate translation is that there was no “guestroom” available for them. Joseph was from Bethlehem, which meant that he had family there. And a place to stay. So, when they arrived at his relatives’ house and found that the guestroom was already full, they settled into an animal stall. In Palestine, these stalls were usually adjacent to human living quarters, on a lower level. It’s where families would bring their domesticated animals in for the night - animals like oxen, and donkeys, and sheep, and chickens. This must have been such a noisy place. At least until all of the animals settled down for the night. 

It was here in this stall where Mary went into labor, which is a noisy thing, too. And a messy thing. One has to wonder what the animals in that stall were thinking. Birth was nothing new to them. But, one wonders if they had ever been witness to the birth of a human baby. And, particularly, a one like this.

In the famous verse, John 3:16, which is the Gospel in a nutshell, but which is so often used to beat people over the head, we hear these words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” Human-centric as we are, I would suggest that when we hear the word “world” we think only of us. Of humanity. Of human beings. 

Yet, in the Greek, the word is used to refer to the entire cosmos - to all of creation. That Jesus came not just for humankind, but for everything. Animals, birds, fish, insects, dirt, clouds. In Romans 8, Paul writes that “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed..that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

That night, as the animals witnessed Mary’s pains of childbirth, one wonders if they were wide-eyed with the possibility that this baby, helpless and powerless, much like they were, might be the beginning of their own redemption as well.

Near the end of our service tonight, we will light candles and listen to the opening verses of John. That the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Greek word here translated for “flesh” once again describes not only human flesh, but all flesh - both human and animal. 

Now, I’m not saying that as Jesus, the Word, became flesh, he took on animal characteristics. But, I am suggesting that in taking on “flesh,” Jesus was coming alongside all of creation - creation formed by him at the beginning of time in love. 

And, that night, as these animals watched this baby being born, one can only believe that they knew they were witnessing something profound. That they were witnessing the in-breaking of God and the unfolding of God’s cosmic plan for their redemption, as well as for ours.  

Perhaps this is why, as we play with and love on our own animals, we get such a sense of profound love and commitment. Because they know. And they are just waiting for us to get it. To get that God loves us and all of God’s creation. That our believing and living in response to this love is what leads to abundant life. That it is abundant life - a life of peace and wholeness - that God desires for all creation. And that what we do - our own believing and our own living - affects the work of God for the good of all.  This is why God comes to us and all creation. This is why God comes to the low places. That all of creation might experience redemption and life. 

May you hear this tonight. May you hear God’s profound love and desire for you. And may you hear that, just as God seeks redemption and abundant life for these animals, God seeks the same for you. You, who are loved, called, and claimed as a beloved child of God.

All this. All this from a collection of unnamed noisy animals in the lowest of the low places that night in Bethlehem. Amen.

Preached December 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Christmas Eve
Readings: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-20.