Epiphany Sermon from Matthew 2: 1-12

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The light of God’s grace always precedes us,

and leads us to unexpected places.

That is what happened

to the wise men, and what happens to us too.

 

This famous story from Matthew’s gospel

this morning has fascinated and captivated Christians for millennia.

Much of the fascination surrounds

the mysterious travelers to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Who were they?

There are different titles that

varying biblical translations have given them.

Sometimes they are called kings.

The NRSV, which is our translation, calls them wise men.

But these wise men were actually magi.

Magi were a Persian Priestly Caste

who paid particular attention to the stars and astrological signs.

 

And they were led by

the light of a star to the most unexpected place- Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill scripture.

However, for the magi,

being led to Bethlehem must have been strange.

Notice that they came first

to Jerusalem to inquire about Jesus.

After all, this influential and cosmopolitan center

must have been the place where the king of the Jews was born.

But Jesus was not born in Jerusalem

or at the Temple or in a grand place.

He was born in little backwaters Bethlehem.

The magi met this most unexpected king

in an unexpected place.

They found him not in what was powerful and secure,

but in what was weak and vulnerable.

And thus we too are led by the light of God

to find our unexpected Savior in unexpected places.

We follow the light of Christ,

not to where we expect to find him,

but to where we least expect to find him-

in suffering and weakness.

 

We Three Kings is one of my favorite Christmas songs,

even if it is more an Epiphany song.

I like the minor key, eerie kind of sound of it,

followed by the surprisingly bright chorus.

But I really like verse four,

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing,

sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

Doesn’t that aptly describe our own lives

in those deepest moments of loneliness and sorrow?

The sighing which points to a grief

and longing that is beyond words to express?

Haven’t we often felt the darkness closing in around us,

when we live in grip of chronic pain,

when we are still haunted by

the death of loved one, even after many years?

When we feel the meaningless

of life pull us towards despair?

Deep down we all resonate with the lyrics of this verse.   

 

But unless we get too morbid or gloomy, the chorus hits us,

“Oh star of wonder, star of night. Star with royal beauty bright; westward leading,

still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light!”

I love that, “still proceeding.”

Still proceeding in spite of it all.

Still keepin’ on keepin’ on,

even after all the years of grief,

ever after all the pain and failures and setbacks.

Even after all the bumps and bruises along the way,

with weary tear soaked eyes and failing spirits-

we still plead for God to

“guide us to thy perfect light.”

God doesn’t leave us dying in that stone-cold tomb.

But God raises us, leads us,

and at times carries us,

so that we are led ever-closer

to that radiant light which only God can reveal.

For God leads us to the Christ child

by the light of a grace which always precedes us,

precedes our ability to figure it out,

precedes our desire to love or hate it,

or choose it, or grasp it, or reject it.

God leads us by the light of a mercy

which is always before us, leading us onward,

to discover an unexpected God in the most unexpected places-

God in little Bethlehem;

God in the innocence and cry of a poor child and mother.

 

The political powers that be didn’t get any of this.  

They all saw this innocent child,

this perfect love, as a threat.

Herod saw him as a national security threat (Perez-Alvarez),

and wanted to destroy him.

The real wise men of this story,

the chief priests and the scribes didn’t understand this either.

They knew the place where

the Messiah was to be born because of scripture.

But they totally missed the meaning of it.

They and all of Jerusalem were frightened,

rather than overjoyed as the magi are.

They viewed him as a threat to their power,

rather than welcoming him in love.

 

But by God’s grace, we see him as he really is-

this child is the tender mercy of God

revealed for the healing of our broken world.

A child given for us and to us.

“When they saw the star had stopped,

they were overwhelmed with joy.”

I love that- “overwhelmed with joy.”

I imagine the thrill of anticipation the magi felt

as they hurried towards that house that sheltered the Christ child.

And if there is a command from God this morning,

it is to be overwhelmed with joy because of the revelation of this child.

‘Thou shalt have joy, and have it in abundance.’

We have this joy because of the outpouring of love

and grace revealed in the Christ child,

a grace which precedes us wherever we go,

even when we feel hopelessly lost and alone,

because it is a grace which presents us with

our unexpected Savior who meets us in the most unexpected places.

 

My former supervisor told a story

about a strange occurrence that happened while

he was leading the communion liturgy after Christmas.

He said that at their church

they hang a huge golden star around Christmas Eve above the altar.

And during the liturgy,

while he was lifting the cup above his eyes, he said

“This cup is the new covenant of my blood,

shed for you and all people.”

And then he saw the cup aligned with the star,

as if the star had just risen up out of the cup.

Then his vision blurred and he saw

the star and the cup merged into one symbol.

He said he wanted to stop right there and say,

“You people won’t believe this, you’ve gotta come up here and see it!”

But that would have been really awkward.

 

But he reflected on the meaning of this stating,

“I’m not much for mixing metaphors, but it was striking to me to have the star

hanging directly over the cup in my vision. A cup full of stars pouring out light. An

epiphany, a theophany, a manifestation, flowing out from a courageous cup of

sacrificial love. Pouring out your life for the world is the light that shows the way.

Drink up the light of Christ and let it shoot out of your eyes and ears and fingertips

and mouth, and brighten some dark corner of this world.”

 

God’s grace precedes us and leads us here to church too,

to the community of our fellow believers,

to encounter this marvelous light

in one another’s eyes.

The light of God’s grace leads us to this table,

the Lord’s Supper, so that we, like the magi,

encounter Christ’s very real presence

revealed to us in the bread and wine.

Through communion we eat and drink the true light,

and shine it into the lives of those around us,

so that they too may glimpse

the revelation of a divine love guiding them as well.

 

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,

and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Let us be still proceeding, not as kings or as wise men,

but as humble servants overwhelmed with joy

at the revelation of the Christ child,

overwhelmed with the glory of the Lord

which has risen upon us,

as we give him the treasures of our very lives

in a song of praise which illuminates our broken world

with this light which never ends.

Amen.

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Sermon from Second Isaiah

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There are lots of ways to imagine

what God’s love realized on earth will be like,

or what the kingdom of God will look like.

But one way to imagine the world

under God’s reign is as a homecoming.  

 

Isaiah knows about homecoming.

The Judeans were sent into exile after

they were conquered by the Babylonian Empire.

Their homeland was ravaged,

and their defeat was tragic, humiliating and traumatizing.

But around 60 or 70 years later,

after the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians,

King Cyrus let the

Judeans return to their homeland.

And this section of Isaiah we heard this morning

was written around the time they were returning home.

It was a homecoming.

It was hopeful and exciting times.

But it is also difficult times, filled with anxiety.

There were power struggles between

those who were left behind in Jerusalem, and the returning exiles.

And the Temple that had been destroyed was yet to be rebuilt,

and much of the city was a shell of what it used to be.

This homecoming was a time

of change, transition and great anxiety.

 

And times of great anxiety

call for great poetry and a powerful imagination.

From around Isaiah chapter 40 onward

is what is known as Second Isaiah.

This part of Isaiah was written

during this post-exilic period.

And I think these are some of the most compelling

and powerful scriptures in all the Bible.

They are breathtaking in their scope and power.

It is amazing to me how bold

and daring Isaiah is in proclaiming God’s love

to a faint-hearted and anxious people.

It is amazing how much confidence

and command he has over language in proclaiming

God’s power and deliverance.

Walter Brueggeman says that

“Second Isaiah is the supreme example of liberated poetic imagination…”

Brueggeman says this poetic imagination

isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky vision,

but this imagination is powerful

enough to bring a new reality into being.

He says that “the poetic rendering evokes an entirely different perception of

reality… the poet appeals to the old memories and affirmations in an astonishing

way to jar the perceptual field of Israel and to cause a wholly new discernment of

reality… The rhetoric works to deabsolutize imperial modes of reality, so that

fresh forms of communal possibility can be entertained.”  

 

Consider these verses from Second Isaiah

we heard last week, and as you listen,

keep in mind what Brueggeman says

about how the poet jars the people’s understanding of reality,

and causes a wholly new discernment of realty.

“Get you up to a high mountain; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,

herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is

your God!”

And a few weeks from now,

we will hear these words, also from Second Isaiah,

 

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until

her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 

The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall

be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.  You shall be a

crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your

God.”

 

Can’t you feel the power and confidence

of God’s love burst forth and shine in these verses?

Can you feel a different reality

come into being as you hear these words?

These words are so perfect,

clear and true that as a preacher, I can’t elaborate on them.

To elaborate would be to diminish

the clear dazzling light of Isaiah’s proclamation.

My job as a preacher this morning

is to simply lift them up and place these words in your hearts,

so that you hear them and truly believe that this bold,

liberating Word of God is for you too.

 

Because this word is spoken to us in our own exile.

It doesn’t really feel like we are in exile.

As comfortable middle-class white folks,

we don’t feel exiled.

But we are.

We’ve bought into the dominate ideologies of our times-

the ideologies that cause us to fear those different from us,

ideologies that keep us

from welcoming our neighbor in need.

We’ve grown numb and buffered

ourselves from the cries of the world,

so that we’ve failed to see Christ in our neighbor in need.

But God is calling us,

just as God called the Judeans,

out of exile into a true homecoming.

God is calling us to find our way to true home,

true hospitality in the welcome arms of God’s love.

 

So when we hear this poetry from Isaiah,

it compels us live into a different reality.

This poetry isn’t created

from some pie-in-the-sky idealists.

Nor are they texts that point

to some far off heavenly reality realized on the last day.

But this confident and commanding poetry

grounds us in the present in our mission as a church,

so that we live into a different reality,

a reality not formed by the powers

and principalities of this world,

a reality that diminishes us

by diminishing our neighbor in need.

But we live into a new reality that recognizes

Christ in our vulnerable neighbor, a realty created in the life of God.  

 

And this brings us to our banner,

which is up again this morning.

I think even though it was vandalized,

it is important to keep it up through the Christmas season.

Because to remove the banner

is to give the vandal the last word.

If we shrink back from displaying the banner,

then the vandal wins,

and we would be sending the awful message

to the community that we can be bullied

or intimidated to back down

from our message of welcome,

that we don’t really mean what we say.

 

And as we display the banner,

we can ask ourselves ‘what does it mean

to welcome those who do not look like us?’

What does that look like?’

Does it mean that they have

to assimilate into us, and do things

our way before they are truly accepted?

Or does it mean that we love them

for who they are, for their own sake?

Does welcome mean that we say

a quick hi during the sharing of the peace,

or does welcome mean making

time to truly get to know them,

to invite them to dinner, or have coffee with them?

Do we have the poetic imagination of Isaiah?

Do we have the boldness and confidence to truly

welcome others as we all travel from exile to homecoming in God’s love?

 

I really think these issues surrounding

the treatment of immigrants and refugees,

as well as the examination of our own privilege

and complicity in a complex system

that is larger than any individual-

these are some of the defining issues of our time.

These are people who are routinely

profiled, stopped, harassed,

separated from family members

and detained without due process,

and deported to places they have never know.

And so this is the time for the church to be the church.

There are a lot of people out there

who are really turned off by the church.

They love Jesus, but not the church.

They see the church as clinging to the status quo,

of being a club more interested in themselves

then in bandaging the wounds of the poor.

And people are watching us.

They are watching us more closely than we think.

They are watching to see if the church will be the church.

Do we have the backbone to be the church?

There is a hunger out there for people to see

the church follow the harder path of Jesus.

And this is our time to show them

that the church is the church in difficult times,

that the church is a true friend to those most vulnerable.

Because the spirit of the Lord God is upon us,

because the Lord has anointed us;

God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives,

and release to the prisoners;

to give those who mourn the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Don’t you feel the power and confidence of these words?

 

Sometimes we feel

like the Israelites returning from exile.

We are anxious.

We want to draw inward, because we are afraid.

We think of church as

a refuge from the world’s problems.

But I’m going to challenge us,

and you challenge me,

and we’re going to walk forward together.

And we’re going to be the bold

and confident and empowered presence of Christ

for all in our community, especially the most vulnerable.

And we’re going to make mistakes, and fail,

and make progress, and take steps backwards.

But most of all, we’re going to believe

that the audacious poetry of Isaiah,

of God’s fierce and tender love for the world,

is addressed to our neighbor in need and to us this morning.

Walter Brueggeman goes on to say that “The central task of ministry is the

formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the

courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of

reality.”

And we are going to live into

that different reality starting now.

We are going to live into our homecoming.  

 

Isaiah declares, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my

God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me

with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and

as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

It is interesting to note that God

clothes the Judeans in garments of salvation,

not so they can hoard God’s glory all to themselves,

but so that they can bear witness to the nations of God’s love.

“Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among

the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom

the Lord has blessed.”

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we here at Ascension

lived into the gospel in such a way that

all who see us shall acknowledge that

we are a people whom the Lord has blessed?

And more than that, that they themselves

would be blessed through seeing the kingdom

vividly at work through our ministry and our welcome?

 

May we have the courage and the boldness

to live into that liberated imagination as we live

into our homecoming from exile, today and always.

Amen.  

Sermon from Mark 13: 24-37 #StayWoke

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Be alert; stay awake!

How does one stay awake in anticipation of the Lord?

What could this mean to us,

and to our understanding of discipleship?

 

This first gospel reading

of the Advent season is strange.

How are we supposed to think

about such things as ominous celestial events,

the Son of Man coming in clouds

with great power and glory,

the angels gathering the elect from the four winds?

What do these things mean,

and how do we deal with these texts

that seem so foreign to our way of thinking? 

 

The first thing to say about this apocalyptic text

is to remember what the word ‘apocalypse’ means.

Remember as I’ve said,

apocalypse comes from the Greek,

and it literally means an unveiling.

Apocalypse uses strange symbols

and stories to reveal a deeper truth behind the veil, so to speak.

So apocalypse isn’t meant to convey

a literal rendering of what will happen on the last day.  

It is meant to convey a sense

of hope to a persecuted church,

to help them preserver when

it seems that the powers of evil have triumphed.

Apocalypse pulls back the veil

on all the false idols of the world,

and helps the persecuted see

that God will ultimately be victorious over all powers of evil.

 

Jesus here in Mark is naming

some serious trials his disciples and others will go through.

He is naming a time when there will be deep darkness,

after all sources of light go out,

the sun and the moon will be darkened,

and the stars fall from heaven.

It will be such a turbulent time that

even the very powers in the heavens will be shaken.

 

And doesn’t that feel a lot like our times?

Doesn’t it feel as though we

are living through some dark and turbulent times?

The prospects of nuclear war feel

more real than at any time since the Cold War.

We see hate groups such

as white supremacist groups on the rise.

There is greater hostility and aggression

towards immigrants and refugees than there has been in the past.

This past week our president has even

been stoking the embers of fear and hatred

by retweeting supposed footage

of Muslims attacking non-Muslim people.

In this way he plays into the most crude

and demeaning stereotypes and fears many have towards Muslims.

As one person put it,

“This is the way ordinary people are convinced

to hate other ordinary people.

This is how people die.”

This type of activity is very dangerous stuff,

and it bears false witness against our Muslim brothers and sisters. 

And no matter where we are

on the political spectrum, either left,

right or center, we are all Christians.

And as Christians

we follow the 10 Commandments,

including the 8th Commandment that

We Shall Not Bear False Witness against our Neighbor.

And this commandment is especially underscored,

when that neighbor is vulnerable to fear and hatred.

 

So we feel that our times are rapidly changing,

and it is scary, and we don’t know what’s on the other side of that change.

We also don’t know when Christ will return,

neither the angels in heaven or Jesus himself knows,

nor we know,

only the Father in heaven knows.

Jesus only tells us to ‘Keep Alert, Stay Awake.’

But does this mean to stay awake?

One thing Jesus’ command to stay awake

reminds me of is the slang term, “Stay Woke.”

The origin of this term came about

in African-American Communities,

and became even more

popular in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Its exact meaning differs based

on the context in which it is used.

But Stay Woke can mean that one

is aware of the issues of systemic injustice

and racism that black and brown communities know so well.

It can mean to,

“Stay conscious of the apparatus of white supremacy.”

Stay Woke signals that one

understands systemic injustice and racism,

are in solidarity with those who suffer,

and are determined to act to see justice realized.

 

Jesus said, “And what I say to you

I say to all: Keep awake.”

Or ‘Stay Woke.’

What does it mean to Stay Woke in times such as ours?

What does a woke church look like?

In the perilous times we find ourselves in,

how do we stay woke to the pain and suffering of others?

How can we be allies in the quest for greater justice?

How can we be partners in this effort-

not as people who figure everything out and fix problems- 

but how can we show real friendship

and solidarity and equal partnership with those who suffer?

How can we bear the light of the Son of Man

in places to the ends of earth and the ends of heaven?

For we are called to be the church here and now,

not when times are easy and good,

but when times are hard and people are afraid.

That’s when discipleship really matters.

That’s when discipleship really counts.

Preacher Martha Simmons once said that,

“eschatology is where the sweet bye and bye

meets the nasty here and now.”

And this is a nasty here and now.

But this time and place is

where God has called us to be church.

And God has empowered us

with the Spirit to bear witness to love,

merciful justice and peace.

 

Advent is a time of deep reflection for us,

much like Lent is.

I think these two seasons kind of go hand-in-hand.

It is a time as we wait for the Lord,

and reflect on the nature of discipleship.

It is a time and season where

in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas Season,

we slow down, catch our breath,

and travel deeper into the heart of God. 

Here in worship we find rest, peace,

and are fed the bread of life.

Thus we are transformed

and given the power to go into the world,

to be a light of his presence in a world

that feels as if the sun been covered and moon failed to give light.

 

Jesus says, “Stay awake!”

So we as a church stay woke.

Turn away from the flat screen TV,

lift your face from your handheld device, and look around you.

Don’t let your possessions insolate you

from the pain and suffering of the world,

and cause you to fall asleep.

Reach out to those you don’t know.

Reach out to other communities.

For the Spirit of God will give you

a moral imagination that reaches beyond

your own little sphere of community.

As followers of Christ,

we stay woke to the injustice, pain, and suffering of the world.

We stay woke to a world that cries out

for God’s justice to be realized, for his kingdom come.

Yet, we also stay woke

to the coming of Christ’s gracious presence.

We stay woke to the hope of his merciful justice

which will transfigure the world in his glory.

We stay woke to the love that

has claimed us and the world, and will lead to the redemption of all.

 

Even though the hour has yet to come,

in Christ the future has already come to us in the present.

He has already claimed us as we are.

Even now, Christ comes to us as we are,

in all our flaws and brokenness,

and gathers us together and redeems us.

Even this morning Christ comes to us as we are,

not as what we wish we were,

but claims us, his elect,

for eternity in the love of God.

Even now, we are empowered

to share the hope of his kingdom with others.  

 

So let us stay woke to the cries

of injustice and pain in the world.

Let us stay woke to this steadfast

and powerful love we have received.  

Let us stay woke to him in whom both suffering and

sufferings ultimate undoing are united.

Amen.

Sermon from Matthew 14: 22-33

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When I grew up in my 

little fundamentalist church in rural Ohio,

we used to sing a lot of songs about heaven,

what it was like, or about getting there.

I remember singing a song called,

“When we all get to heaven.”

And the chorus goes, “When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be,

when we all see Jesus

we’ll sing and shout for victory.”

There were lots of songs like this.

I get a little nostalgic for them now and then.

But there was this peculiar piety

that had a fixation on all things heaven.

So I kind of grew up thinking

that the meaning of life was

to be a good boy

and stay out of trouble

and just kind of wait for the day

when I would die and meet Jesus in heaven.

There wasn’t much to do in this life,

because this world and much of life

was evil and beyond redemption.

So there was nothing to do

except wait for either the Day of Judgment to come,

or wait to die

and go to heaven, whichever came first.

It seemed like the point of this life

was to try and rise above the problems

of the world and look forward to heaven.

 

And I wonder if that is what

Peter felt as he walked on water.

In our gospel reading this morning,

Jesus is out walking on the water,

and Peter asks Jesus to command

him to come to him on the water.

Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly

what Peter’s motivation is in leaving the boat.

Perhaps he was afraid,

and wanted to save his own life by reaching Jesus.

Maybe he just wanted a challenge,

to see if he could do it.

Or perhaps he wanted to rise

above the storms of the world,

the cares and concerns,

and meet his Savior in the

sweet bye and bye of an otherworldly faith,

just as those old-time hymns state.

 

A kind of straight-forward lesson

to draw from this story is to say that

Peter had great faith to take a risk

and step out of the boat and walk on water.

But he felt the power of the storm

and took his eyes off of Jesus, so he sank.

Thus, we too should take a risk

and get out of the boat

and have great faith like Peter,

and if we lose faith,

Jesus is there to rescue us.

When this text came up

three years ago in the lectionary,

I probably implored the people

at my first call congregations

that we all needed to do was

get out of the boat

and show great faith and take a risk for Jesus.

 

And this kind of sermon probably

would follow the intent of Matthew’s story,

and would be a fine sermon.

But I’m just not in that place today.

Peter’s act in leaving the boat

and walking on water,

although a courageous step of faith,

reveals a disregard for the safety of those he left behind.

When Peter left the boat,

he was leaving behind his fellow

terrified disciples to fend

for themselves in the midst of the storm.

Perhaps a greater test of faith

would have been to stay in the boat,

to stay with his fellow disciples

in the time of their greatest vulnerability.

Perhaps the greater act of

faith would have been to say,

‘I will stay and bear the darkness with you.

I will endure the terror of the storm with you.

We are all in this together,

and if the whole thing capsizes,

we’re going down together.

And if we’re rescued, we’ll all rejoice together.’

 

Because what good is faith,

if it is not faith lived for the sake of loving our neighbor?

What good is faith if it not a faith

that willingly bears the darkness with another,

in solidarity and love?

Peter, at least for a short time,

had the faith that could take

the first steps across the water.

He could see Jesus with outstretched

hands open to welcome him.

He had great faith, but little regard

for the protection of those he was leaving behind.

 

And yet, I don’t think Peter

is a heartless, bad guy here either.

Peter reveals his true heart

and love precisely in his sinking.

When Peter started to sink,

‘Jesus immediately reached

out his hand and caught him,

saying to him,

‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

Our word here for doubt

could also mean ‘waver,’

or literally it means ‘to stand in two ways.’

So it could be,

‘You of little faith, why did you waver?’

So it’s not so much that Peter doubted,

but that he wavered in some way.

And I find this intriguing.

I wonder if he wavered because,

on the one hand, he saw Jesus ahead of him,

and yet on the other hand,

he heard the cries of his fellow

friends behind him,

lost, frightened and struggling to survive.

He was caught between his

desire to draw near Jesus,

and on the other hand,

his love and compassion for his friends.

Perhaps it was then that he

noticed the strong wind and became frightened,

because he was alone.

 

And so Peter wavered.

He wanted to stand in two ways.

He wanted to be with Jesus,

but then his heart was also with the disciples.

And so he began to sink.

But then Jesus immediately

grabbed hold of him,

and led him to the boat with

the rest of the disciples, and the wind ceased.

So if there is a ‘lesson’ to be

drawn from this story, consider this:

If the choice is between waking on water,

and rising above the storms

and waves of life to be with Jesus,

or to ride out the storm

and the darkness in solidarity

with your neighbor in need without Jesus,

Jesus would have us choose

our neighbor in need, rather than him.

This is the most Christ-like thing to do,

to turn from the radiant vision of Jesus

hovering over the waters,

in order to turn towards our neighbor in love,

just as Jesus left his Father in heaven

and came down to earth in the flesh

to share our burdens in suffering love.

 

Perhaps our greater act of faith

is to stay in the boat, so to speak,

to bear the darkness with others.

It is to bear the storms of life

with our neighbors when they are alone

and vulnerable because we are all in this together.

As far as the church goes,

it means we all stay in the same A-Frame boat

of Ascension together as we

navigate the uncharted

and choppy waters of this post-Christian age.

We hang in there together

and bear one another’s burdens

as we do powerful ministry

together in the name of Christ.

In our personal lives,

staying in the boat could mean

hanging in there with your spouse

through a difficult spot in your marriage,

and navigating hard waters together,

rather than taking an easier way out.

It could mean being patient

and loving with a child or grandchild

who is growing up and making poor life choices,

or who is suffering from mental illness or addiction.

It could mean taking turns and keeping vigil

and praying with someone who is near death,

so that they don’t have to die alone.

Or as we see in the riots in Charlottesville,

staying in the boat is risking the darkness with others,

speaking out loudly and fearlessly

against white supremacy in whatever form it takes,

getting out of our little tribe

and forming relationships with those

of different racial and ethnic heritage,

and becoming peacemakers as we seek

and yearn for the merciful justice of God

to be realized fully here on this earth.

 

I think this is so important.

What form will our faith take?

Do we have a faith that walks on water,

that yearns to rise above the storms of life,

above the wind and waves

and concerns of this world

in order to meet Jesus in an otherworldly faith?

Or will we double-down here on this earth,

and risk casting our lot with those

who are braving the storm

and the demonic chaos of hate,

risking their own lives for the sake of the kingdom?

 

Bearing the storm and suffering with

another is an act where we voluntarily

go into the darkness with

someone more vulnerable than us,

so they know they are not alone,

so that they may have relief from the pain they feel.

Rather than rise above our problems

and the storms of the world to be with Jesus,

we enter more deeply into the chaos

in order to share the light of Christ

with those who are suffering and vulnerable.

Staying in the boat is the greater act of faith,

because we bear the darkness in solidarity with others

as we all await the life-giving

presence of Christ and his kingdom to arrive.

 

We do this because Jesus rides out the storm with us.

When we feel overwhelmed,

when the waves get too high and turbulent to endure,

Jesus comes to us and says

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When we feel ourselves sinking

in fear and despair and hopelessness,

Jesus immediately grabs us

and pulls us into the fellowship of the Spirit,

not just with him,

but with each other,

our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.

God removes our fear

and transforms our hearts in the Spirit

so that we grow more

and more into the fullness of Christ himself.

We are all in this together.

So may you have the faith to stay in the boat,

endure the darkness and storm

for the sake of our suffering neighbor,

as the whole hurting world

awaits the glorious light of his kingdom come.

Amen.

Sermon from Matthew 5

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A few weeks ago we witnessed the inauguration of a new President of the United States. And the country is still coming to terms with a Trump administration. Already we are seeing plans to build a boarder wall. And already there is a ban on refugees coming from predominately Muslim countries, including an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

But before this inauguration there was another kind of inaugural address 2000 years ago. The Sermon on the Mount could be seen as Jesus’ inaugural address as the Messiah of the world stepped onto the scene in a very public way and addressed his disciples and the crowds who had gathered. And what an address it was. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes some very strange, counter-intuitive claims about blessedness and who is blessed. The blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the peace-makers, those who hunger for righteousness, those who are reviled. These are God’s people. They are beloved by the God who created them, and they are blessed.

Yet, how laughably strange these words sound in such a consumeristic culture as ours. In our culture the blessed ones are those with power over others, those with wealth or wisdom or symbols of status. The blessed are the boastful, those who are well-fed and content with the status quo. It seems foolishness to think that the poor, whether in spirit or in actuality, would be blessed. Or peacemakers. Or the meek. Or those who mourn. Or those who are reviled.

We say ‘God bless America.’ But what does that mean today, when we see immigrants and refugees detained at airports around the country just yesterday morning, after an executive order was signed on Friday? Some of these are people who had worked as interpreters on behalf of the United States, or a grandmother in Dallas, Texas whose family was waiting for her at the airport with signs saying ‘welcome home.’ What does it mean when we idolize our own perceived safety and national security at the expense of families who flee from war and violence in desperate search for shelter and safety for their children?

So Jesus turns the wisdom of the world on its head in his sermon. He declared the counter-intuitive ways of God, and the counter-intuitive blessings of God. He lived out the beatitudes by blessing the poor, by blessing those who mourn and the meek, by blessing those who were despised and marginalized by his society. His ministry lifted up those who were overlooked, forgotten and persecuted. He took those who lived at the margins of society, and drew them into the center of God’s kingdom. May we take Jesus at his word when he says that these are the blessed of God.

But it is not just our culture that thinks of blessing in terms of good fortune. The Corinthians too, thought about blessing in worldly terms as well. Rather than being united in Christ, they wanted to divide themselves into factions based on the leaders they followed. Some of them may have thought that their ecstatic spiritual experiences made them superior to others. Or that a noble birth brought blessing.  They may have thought that wealth or power were the hallmarks of blessedness.

But Paul counters all this by proclaiming Christ crucified. He wanted to know Christ only, and him crucified. For Paul, following the crucified Christ meant letting go of all claims to privilege, power, righteousness, status and boasting. This is because God in Christ became a humble servant, and gave up his life for the sake of the world. Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross and sacrifice his life for the world’s salvation showed the wisdom and love of God. In Christ, God chose not power, wealth, status, or security. He followed the way of humility, the way of vulnerability, non-violence and love. Christ crucified is a sign that God is united to those at the margins, as Paul states, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

This puts to rest any claim of blessing that connects good fortune with God’s favor. Jesus’ beatitudes points to a reversal in the order of things in God’s kingdom. Paul’s claim that God chose what is foolish and weak, low and despised, and things that are not, points to this reversal too. For God’s blessings are counter-intuitive. God’s blessing in shocking to the world. God’s voice declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.”

God calls us to a different way. In Micah, we hear that “the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” Through Micah, God reminds the people of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness throughout their history. He reminded them of God’s blessing over them as a nation. But the Israelites had lost their way. They lost their way from being a people who followed the merciful justice of God.

And today too, I think the Lord has a controversy with the church. God is contending with us too. We have lost our way as a church, (and I’m not talking about Ascension here, I mean the American Church, American Christianity in general). We have chased after the false blessings of power, glory, wealth, relevance and security. The American church has settled for a Christianity devoid of discipleship or prophetic witness. We have lost our voice as we market our faith to the general public in the cheapest, most crass ways in order to satisfy the demands of our consumer culture, rather than live more boldly into the prophetic witness of the scriptures.

Yet, God calls us back again. God has told us what is good, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” These are the hallmarks of blessing. To do justice is to draw near the poor and meek, refugees and Muslims, and any who are persecuted, in order to be an ally with them in the struggle for justice. To love kindness is to offer compassion and mercy to our suffering neighbor. And to walk humbly with our God is to renounce the idols of power, wealth, status and security.

This is one of those Sundays where the readings just kind of weave together into one message. In them we see the counter-intuitive ways of God, the counter-intuitive blessings of God. God’s blessing is found where we least expect it- with the poor, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn or are marginalized, those who are persecuted. Christ crucified further demonstrates the counter-intuitive ways of God, as the wisdom of the world is turned on its head, as God’s wisdom is made manifest in the foolishness of our proclamation, and God’s strength is made manifest in weakness. But as we learn through Micah, God calls us to repent, to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

We are also the blessed of God. Even when we don’t feel blessed, or the ‘facts’ would say otherwise. We have received the blessing from Christ which is made manifest in through our baptism and faith. And may this blessing permeate throughout our lives, not just here at church, but at your work place, in your home, out in the margins of the world. May we renounce the wisdom of the world, and our own claims to status, security, wealth, and power. May we be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the peacemakers who draw near the suffering of the world for the sake of Christ and his light. May we actually become such a vocal and ornery prophetic voice that we are reviled and persecuted and slandered for proclaiming the gospel.  May we boast only in Christ crucified, the one who became a servant, and poured out his life for the sake of the salvation of the world. Amen.

Sermon from Matthew 1: 18-25

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Grace and peace be with you from our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.

It’s hard to imagine, but when Matthew recorded Jesus’ birth, there weren’t any Christmas trees, or eggnog, or shopping malls, or Santa Clauses. There wasn’t any of this. But Jesus’ birth has been associated with such things. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for us to think of Jesus’ birth narrative apart from the rosy hue of what has become the Christmas season.

But the birth of Jesus has become so sentimentalized that Christmas has come to mean almost the exact opposite of the story which Matthew and Luke told. We’ve come to associate Christmas with holiday shopping specials and family gatherings and eggnog. Christmas has taken on a life and momentum of its own, apart from the birth of Christ. These markers of Christmas have a special place in our hearts, as we have grown up with them, and have many fond memories associated with them. We can celebrate them with joy.

But let’s not for an instant mistake our Christmas nostalgia for the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Matthew and Luke. For the story of Jesus’ birth told by the gospel writers is a dangerous and daring story. It is the story of how God’s love is born in the midst of suffering and oppression, evil and death. It is a story of God’s very presence and holiness residing in a small, insignificant refugee family. This story is so dangerous that the dominate meta-narrative of the all-powerful and glorious Roman Empire, an Empire with dreams of world conquest- this narrative would be completely undercut by the birth of this child to a poor family, in a backwoods providence, in the coldness of a manger.    

Even our most chartable understandings of Christmas obscure the dangerous and daring message of the birth narratives. We often hear people say that Jesus is ‘the reason for the season.’  That is, apart from all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, we need to remember that Jesus is the real reason we celebrate Christmas. But I think we even get the reason wrong. Or, maybe we don’t get it wrong, but we don’t see the birth of Jesus in the same way that Matthew and Luke do. Even when we view Christmas as a time to be more charitable, or a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we miss the way Jesus’ birth narratives undercut the very ways of life we have become accustom to. For Jesus’ birth narratives aren’t meant to prod us to become better people. Rather, these narratives point to the radical reversals of the societal order we have become so cozy with. Mary declares in her Song of Praise, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Matthew, in our gospel reading this morning, dares to proclaim that Emmanuel has been born, not to a rich and powerful family, but in the desperation of this poor, refugee family. The Christmas story is a dangerous story indeed.

I can’t help but think of the sharp contrast and disconnect between the rosy Christmas season of good cheer, and the birth narratives of Jesus. When we see, for instance, what is happening to the people of Aleppo, Syria, this contrast is especially bitter. Thousands have been crushed and killed under the rubble of collapsed buildings that have been bombed. Many have been executed. Families and children are displaced, sick and sleeping in the cold. They are desperate to escape. There are reports that women are committing suicide rather than face rape and execution at the hands of the Syrian Army. The devastation is unfathomable.

But this is Christmas.

Aleppo is Christmas.

Aleppo is truly Christmas because the Christ-child has been born in the midst of such devastation and rubble. The birth of the Christ-child is not a triumphant, lest we turn his birth into a sentimental hope that instantly evaporates when it comes into contact with suffering and evil. The cry of the Christ-child on Christmas is tragic. The cry of the Christ-child is bound to the cry of the children of Aleppo, to the cry of the incarcerated, to the cry of the poor, hungry and oppressed around the world. The paradox of Christmas is that Emmanuel, God with us, is most truly most with us in the vacuum of God’s absence. Emmanuel is born into the world precisely at the place where the world feels most abandoned by God. It is only when the God of our hopes and dreams recedes, that the vulnerable God who saves the world from its sins comes into birth.

If we can look past the fuzzy gauze of the holidays, and allow the Spirit to bring our vision into sharp focus on the face of our suffering neighbor in need, then we have truly seen Christmas. If we can hear past the clamor of Christmas ads and Jingle Bells, and listen to the desperate cry of the Christ-child in the cry of the hungry baby, then we have truly heard Christmas.

Christmas is desperation. Christmas is the cry of Mary in labor, in the bloody messiness of a painful birth. Christmas is born in the ashes of the dying and suffering, in the tears of the poor and forgotten. Christmas is in the cold huff of breath of the homeless. Christmas is grace to sinners. Christmas is our own struggle to believe, to hope against hope that our own sin and suffering, failure and pain isn’t the last defining word of our lives. But if there is such a thing as Christmas hope, it is a hope which is born in the midst of what is humanly impossible.

A child born of a virgin.

A Messiah born to a family of refugees.

A Savior born from the womb of a peasant girl.

The birth narrative is a dangerous story. In the midst of our broken world, God chose to draw near to us in, of all things, the frailty of a child, in the teeth of oppression. The fullness of God’s love flows from this child out into our lives and into the world. The presence of Christ shelters the pain of the world in the arms of his love. For as Christ was born to Joseph and Mary, so too, he is born in the world today, for us and for the life of the world. He is born in Aleppo, in refugee camps, among the hungry, the dying, the homeless. In Emmanuel, God has rescued us from our sins, even the worst ones, and claimed us and the world as beloved children of grace. He is the one who was, who is, and who is yet to come to make all things new. O, that God would rend the heavens and come again!  May the birth of Christ’s love be as powerful and profound and unexpected in our world today as it was 2000 years ago. Amen.  

 

 

 

 

Sermon from Luke 6: 20-31

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20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. Luke 6: 20-31

Preacher Sarah Henrich says that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is like his inaugural address. He picked his staff, so to speak, his disciples, and this sermon is like his first major speech.  And what an appropriate time for Jesus’ inaugural address, with our election just a few days away.

And what an election season it has been. It has been vitriolic and hostel, and it reflects a dark mood in the country. No matter who wins the Presidential Election, or who wins the State or Local Elections, I think a kind of dark shroud will be cast over our country for some time to come. I don’t think the hostility will end. I think there are some ominous forces at work and we are in for some rough times long after the election is over.

But this is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is especially vital today. During this election season, we desperately need to hear Jesus’ inaugural address. It is a source of hope for us, and life for the world. For it is by embodying Jesus’ ethic in the Sermon on the Mount that we bear witness to the life and love of God. It offers us a counter-cultural way to live, a way that marks us as a distinct and unique community. For it is through embodying Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that we reflect the light of Christ in times of such darkness.

And it is by living into Jesus’ prophetic vision that we bear witness to a different kind of politic. For make no mistake, Jesus’ message is political. It’s not political in a narrow sense that Jesus is like a Democrat or Republican. But it’s political in a much broader sense. Jesus’ ministry was a public ministry. And he cast his ministry against the politics of Rome, claiming that God’s kingdom was greater than Rome’s. And Jesus’ political vision continues today through the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus reveals the political values of God’s kingdom to the world. He asserts a vision of the future of our world, and our collective life together under God’s love. And these values are counter-intuitive. In one short sermon, Jesus upends everything we think about the ways of God and the divine economy. We tend to think of God’s blessing in terms of freedom, safety, and prosperity. But Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head. In God’s kingdom, it’s not the happy, rich and well-fed who are blessed. It is the poor and hungry and those who are reviled who are blessed. It is the marginalized and little ones who are blessed. How’s that for a political platform? No wonder Jesus was crucified.

But what separates the politics of Jesus from ours is that Jesus’ is life-giving, compassionate and inclusive. Jesus’ politics is welcoming of the stranger the vulnerable and poor. We are part of this body politic, this beloved community of God, as we live the way of Jesus. In these dark times, we bear witness to the light of Christ by blessing those who curse us; by loving our enemies, and by doing good to those who hate us. Thus, we bear witness to a different type of community, a different type of society. In this way, Christians can “claim the power of life together precisely at the site of threat and fear.” (Willie James Jennings).

We also bear witness to Christ by actively engaging in the political process ourselves. Many believe that faith is a private matter of the heart, that people of faith shouldn’t get involved in the public square. Others believe that because there is a separation of church and state, we should leave our faith at the door when engaging in politics. But how could we leave our faith at the door? We were baptized in the love of God, and God’s claim on our lives is the deepest part of us. God is closer to us than we are. God’s Spirit is intertwined with our DNA. So our faith informs everything we do, including the way we think about justice, and the best ways to organize our collective lives together.

So we Christians are called to engage in the public square, not so that we may impose our beliefs on others, but so that we may persuade our fellow citizens with love. We shine a spotlight on those who are normally left out of the political discussion.We persuade others creatively, to embrace greater expressions of justice and compassion towards the poor and most vulnerable. We may not agree on the best way to do this, or which candidate or policy to support. But we are called to engage in the political process, because God loves not just about the church, but about the world, and God cares about how we treat and care for the widow and orphan and poor. For we are blessed as a nation only in so far as we live into the prophetic witness of Christ by caring for the least of these.

But make no mistake, no matter who wins on Tuesday, God still governs the world in vulnerable, sacrificial love. God is still the God who comes to us in Christ, who invites us to participate in this love as well, through countless means, including the political process. Our political life as a church is organized around the cross, the sign of God’s forgiving, sacrificial, non-violent love.  It is preciously in these dark and turbulent times that our country needs the witness of the church. It is in times like these the world needs the church to embody exactly the kind of love described in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, by loving our enemies, by blessing those who curse us, by giving to all in need, by doing unto others as you would have them do to you. By embodying this radical ethic, we bear witness to the light of Christ to a world.

And this witness stretches back across the generations, across the centuries and millennia. This is All Saints’ Day, and it is a time when we remember all the saints of the church, and our own saints who have been claimed by God in the baptismal waters. In the challenges of their own times they were a powerful witness to the light of Christ. Our saints inspired us. They left an indelible imprint on our soul through their love. We are forever changed through their love. They did this so that we too can inspire the next generation, leaving a legacy of love for those who follow us. Our saints live on in our hearts, and our souls are filled with the light of their love.

During the sermon hymn you are invited to come forward with a picture and memento, place it on the table, and light a candle in memory and prayer for your deceased loved ones. Even if you’ve forgotten to bring something, you are still invited to come forward if you wish, and light a candle. But this is a time in the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our death denying culture, to pause, to mourn, and to remember, and give thanks to God for those who went before us. It is a time to thank God for those whom we have loved dearly, and who dearly loved us.

And in doing so, we give thanks to the God who has claimed us in the waters of baptism. We are all saints, not through our own merit, but through God’s mercy and love which has claimed us for resurrection with all the other saints. So let us give thanks today by embracing Jesus’ radical love ethic in the Sermon on the Mount, even as we look towards the day when we will be reunited with our saints in the perfect love of God’s kingdom. For in the midst of a heavy heart, we can remember that those who mourn are among the blessed. Blessed are you mourn, for you will laugh. Let us thank God for that. Amen.