Solidarity with our Jewish Sisters and Brothers

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This past weekend we have seen hatred in action. The massacre at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburg is horrific beyond words.

In times such as these, we stand with our friends of the Abrahamic faiths, Jews and Muslims, recognizing that an attack on peaceful worshippers is an attack on God’s beloved people. We remember that God first made covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites. We Christians are a branch that has been grafted into the original root or branch of Israel (Romans 11). We renounce the view that the God of the Old Testament is a ‘wrathful God.’ Rather we affirm that the Hebrew scriptures bear witness that God’s suffering love for all humanity is steadfast, tender and unending.

We remember the Hebrew scriptures contain some of the most moving, beautiful and poetic expressions of God we find in the Bible.

“He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11).

and

“For thus says the LORD: ‘I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem’” (Isaiah 66:12-14)

At times such as these, it is tempting to turn away, to put our light under a bushel basket and shrink back rather than renounce hatred and risk love. Yet, like it or not, we have been baptized into the depths of Jesus’ death, so that we can reveal his risen presence to our fractured world. This is what we are called to do, no matter how difficult the witness is.

It’s in times such as ours that the church is called to step up and be the church, especially for those who are most vulnerable to acts of hatred and violence. We are called to share our piece of the light, along with the lights of our Abrahamic sisters and brothers, in a united flame that illuminates God’s fierce and tender love towards all.

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Knowing Jesus

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Mark 10: 32-45

Following Jesus doesn’t lead to the glory of a greater knowledge of God, or even a greater knowledge of Jesus himself, but to an ever-deepening mystery. The further we are led by him into the suffering of the world, the deeper the mystery of who he is looms. This strange man who would embrace the cross, bids us to pick up ours and follow him. And yet the more closely we follow him, the deeper the mystery grows, the greater our need to trust him grows.

Jesus cannot be known in knowledge, but only through suffering and love.  

The Promise

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Feeling a little bored in my Ohio hometown, I decided to hitchhike across the country. So I threw a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in my backpack along with a few extra clothes, made a Bruce Springsteen playlist on cassette tapes, and left. The freedom of the road was exhilarating. Yet there were days when things got a little tight.

One day in particular I was stranded in the rain on a deserted stretch of I-74 in Illinois. I looked at the drenched fields that surrounded me as I held out my fist and thumb to the passing traffic. I didn’t see any sign of a town or truck stop that would offer shelter from the rain. I felt the rain soak through my hooded jacket and thought, “You are so screwed, Rick.”

However, I didn’t walk too long before a car passed me slowly and pulled over and stopped. Some people say grace is the unmerited love and favor of God. This is true, but grace is also the broken glory of standing in the rain and seeing a beat up car with its right blinker on, pulled off the side of the road to rescue. I ran up to the car and got in.

It was a lone woman driver, which surprised me since most of the time it was men who picked me up. As she pulled back onto the interstate, I thanked her profusely for stopping.  “No problem,” she told me. “I hate seeing people stranded in the rain like that.” She said her name was Mary, and asked me where I was going. I told her I was headed to a small town in Nebraska that I used to live in when I was nineteen, and then to Arizona to see my cousin.

These things were true, but I was too embarrassed to tell her I had no real destination in mind.  The larger truth was I really had no idea where the hell I was going, that I was a lost and desperate young man drifting across the country without any sense of direction in life, searching for something I couldn’t name.

I noticed Mary was wearing sunglasses. I thought this was odd considering it was a rainy day, but I didn’t say anything. We talked for a long time and the conversation turned in many different directions, as conversations with strangers on the road always do. We eventually talked about her husband. She told me he was unstable. That’s when she looked over at me and raised her sunglasses. I saw that her left eye was black and blue and swollen. I was startled. She told me that her husband was in Vietnam and had PTSD. He had nightmares and hit her in bed. I didn’t know what to make of that. I felt the urge to say something that would help her, but I didn’t know what to say, so we talked about other things.

Mary told me she was on her way to see her son at college. She asked me if I wanted to come with her. She said she had to drop some things off for him, and it would only take a few minutes. I was in no hurry so we drove to the town where her son lived.

It was an awkward meeting, at least for me. She introduced us and I felt like saying, “Hi, I’m the complete stranger your mother picked up on the side of the road.”  But he didn’t show any signs of suspicion. He seemed as kind and generous as his mother.

When we left we got something to eat at a Subway restaurant. Mary tried to look at the menu above the counter but couldn’t see it through her sunglasses, so she lifted them from her eyes for a brief moment and read the sign. There were two employees behind the counter, and when they saw her black eye, they both snuck a quick glance at me.

After we ate, Mary went out of her way to drop me off in a larger town. But before I got out of the car she wrote her phone number on a small scrap of paper. She said, “Now when you get to a safe place tonight I want you to call me and let me know that you’re all right. Please Rick, call me.” She expressed many times during the trip how dangerous it was to hitchhike, and she was genuinely worried for my well being. I grabbed the number and promised her I would call. I thanked her again and said good-bye.

It rained off and on as I caught a few more rides that day. I eventually made it to Galesburg where I split a cheap room that evening with a guy who had picked me up. Something was bothering me that night. I don’t remember what it was. I hastily looked through my belongings for Mary’s number, but couldn’t find it. It was written on a tiny piece of paper, but I think if I would’ve looked hard enough, I probably would have found it, but I didn’t feel like looking very hard.

The next morning I continued hitchhiking west towards Nebraska. I never found her number.

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.

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.