Return to the Lord

February 17, 2021 Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6. 16-21, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

                Have you ever found yourself in a situation you regret?

                Have you ever wished that you could change the outcome of a recent event in your life?

                Returning to the scene of the crime, if you want to call it that, is difficult. To admit we were wrong takes courage and some self-revelation. Yet, there is one person we can count on if we hope to be forgiven and loved unabashedly. Through Jesus Christ, God has revealed a forgiveness and love that flows out to all creation. The Prophet Joel’s call to the Israelites is a call that still is vital to us today:

Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing. 2:12-13

Returning to the Lord and entering right relationship with God is the reason Jesus preached a message of hope.

I do not know about you, but as I contemplated on our gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday, I felt a sense of burden come over me. Within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he seems to be rattling off a to-do list which seems a bit overwhelming. These are things that we should do in regular practice because of our faith, yet Jesus seems to be putting restrictions in place. Especially on Ash Wednesday, during a normal year when we would take ashes and mark the sign of a cross on our foreheads. How can we practice our piety and not be seen by others when we have a smudge of ash on our foreheads?

                At many times, scripture seems to be a mystery as we want to fully understand it and at the same time we are not meant to fully understand. Actor Martin Sheen when being interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being said this about mystery: “How can we understand these great mysteries of the church? I don’t have a clue. I just stand in line and say here I am, I’m with them, the community of faith. This explains the mystery, all the love. Sometimes I’m just overwhelmed, just watching people in line. It’s the most profound thing. You just surrender yourself to it.”

                God invites us into the mystery this Ash Wednesday through our reflection on the scripture. Within that mystery is a call to relationship. The Prophet Joel heard this message long before Jesus came to be born to Mary. His call was to share the same message that Jesus is now sharing with his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount. It is a call to return to the Lord. In practicing your piety, do not to do it in the hope that other people are going to see it and be jealous or think what you are doing is better than what your next-door neighbor is doing. When giving to the church, do not flaunt it. God is grateful for your gifts to the church but does not wish for you to flaunt it in another person’s face. The amount you give does not equate to faithfulness.

                Fasting is a wonderful practice in living out your faith. Lent is a time that fasting becomes more apparent for Christians, but do not do it just to make yourself look good or one-up your next-door neighbor. Lastly Jesus asks us not to horde our wealth in places that will be consumed easily by moth or rust. When we go back to the dust, those riches are not going to mean anything to us. When we put our treasure where our heart is, we will truly come to know God.

                This is what Jesus is attempting to drive home. All these practices are great in and of themselves. If your reason for doing them is to lift yourself up for glory, then you are doing them all for the wrong reason.  On the other side of the spectrum, we could choose not to do anything at all. Thinking that we are not worthy of the love that God has promised to all of creation. If we are not worthy of God’s love, then we can choose to walk away and become distracted by the next best thing that will pull us away from God. We then find ourselves in brokenness and sin.

                God knows that humanity is broken and thus the reason for Jesus to come and walk with us as a human. Jesus gets to experience the many things that we experience, and he grows into right relationship with everyone he encounters. We are all invited to encounter Jesus in one form or another and build upon a life-long relationship.

                The gospel lesson and the lesson from the prophet Joel can be closely intertwined as Joel calls for fasting in the hopes of establishing and maintaining a right relationship with the Lord. From the beginning of creation, God’s desire has been to be in relationship with all people. All we have to do is read the Hebrew scriptures and our history books to learn that we are broken and have failed to live into that relationship. As a society, we have failed to love our neighbors and have even failed to love ourselves. The Prophet Joel’s call to return to the Lord is a chance for the Israelites to turn around and repent as they fast and encounter the living God in their midst.

                Jesus’ call to the disciples and everyone that is listening to his teaching is one of leaving your ego behind. It is not about you. It is what is done in the sight of the Lord. Our desire to be in relationship with Jesus and ultimately our neighbors is the return that God is hoping for. Are we living with a hardened heart, or are we allowing our heart to be open to a loving God? Thomas Merton, in one of his prayers, writes, “I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.” In this desire, God welcomes us with open arms and a big embrace because God’s love knows no bounds.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and a time for us to take inventory. An inventory of our own being and lives in Christ. Are we listening to Jesus when we make decisions? Are we listening to Jesus’ call to repent of our words and actions that lead us away from God? Are we grateful for the love of God that pours out of scripture through a prophet like Joel and the gospels? Are you ready to return to the Lord this Lent? For God is gracious and merciful. For returning to the Lord reveals a love unbound.

The Mountain Top

February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday

Mark 9:2-9

                When you behold a mountain for the first time, there is awe in the beauty and sheer scale of it. Growing up in Mid-Michigan, I never really had the opportunity to see a mountain in person. I grew to appreciate the photography of Ansel Adams and the many photographs he took in our national parks which showcased the beauty and magnitude of the mountains. A respect for nature is nurtured when being in the presence of these towering behemoths. This is some of God’s creation at its finest.

                I recently watched a documentary on Alex Honnold. If you have not heard of him, he is a mountain climber and is well known for free soloing the faces of many mountains. To free solo a mountain means that you are not using any ropes, harnesses, or protective equipment. Imagine climbing the face of a mountain that looks nearly flat to the naked eye without any equipment, simply using your hands, feet and own sure strength. The documentary, Free Solo¸takes the viewer on a journey from the time Alex Honnold decides he wants to be the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Climbing to a height of 2900 feet without a rope, harness, or protective equipment. One bad move and your family and friends would be planning your funeral. Alex had friends and knew of other climbers that had encountered such a fate.

                Alex’s determination guides him, and he scales El Capitan in just a little under 4 hours. While he rejoiced on the mountain top, he came back down and started thinking about his next challenge.  He reached this pinnacle, but there are so many more.  He had friends and family waiting for him at the bottom and there was nothing more to do on El Capitan.

Our story from the gospel this morning is one of many mountain top stories in the bible. With our human minds, there is no way we can fully comprehend what has taken place on that mountaintop. It is truly a mystical experience that we are not meant to fully understand at this time, yet Jesus draws his disciples and us into a deeper knowing of who he is. The Transfiguration reveals to Peter, James, and John the full divinity that is within Jesus Christ. Immediately preceding this lesson, Jesus is talking with the disciples in Caesarea Philippi. He has told them of his impending death and resurrection. Peter rebukes him and Jesus tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus’ prediction does not fit Peter’s image of the Messiah. Perhaps Peter would fully understand with a trip to the mountaintop.

                The mountain plays a significant role in the Transfiguration. It is not just about what takes place on the mountain, but also the connections with Moses and Elijah. Two figures in the ancestry of the Jewish people that had their own personal mountain top experiences. If you recall, where was it that Moses had to go to talk with the Lord? Yes, he had to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the tablets from the Lord. However, these first tablets were not enough because Moses descends the mountain to find that the people have made a golden calf to worship and he destroys the tablets in his anger. He returns to the mountain top to talk to God and prepares another set of tablets. The Lord now has the people’s attention as Moses continues his work among the people. Nothing was going to be accomplished on the mountaintop.

                Elijah’s mountain top experience was one of patience. Elijah flees from Jezebel and finds himself on the mountain in Horeb and is told to wait for the Lord to pass by. The Lord was not in the earthquake or the fire but in the silence as Elijah exits the cave and begins to converse with the Lord. Once again, he cannot stay on the mountain top for the rest of his life. After he has spoken to the Lord nothing is really happening there. The Lord tells him to return to the wilderness of Damascus. The work he is called to is among the people.

                I can understand why Peter would want to stay on the mountain top. Not only has Jesus revealed something to the three of them that no one else will encounter, but they are also blessed by the appearance of Moses and Elijah. These are ancestors of the Jewish faith that they have heard stories passed down through many generations. While they were amazed and terrified at the same time, something had to be done to make this moment last as long as possible. Surely, they could build dwelling places or memorials for the three prophets.

                Peter thought they had reached the pinnacle and there was nowhere else to go from there. It is the voice of the Lord this time that breaks into the moment and tells the three terrified and huddled together disciples, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” This is the same voice that made the proclamation at Jesus’ baptism. However, at the baptism the voice was for Jesus and he had not even gathered his disciples yet. This time they are present and hear the voice loud and clear. And just like that, they are left on the mountain top alone with Jesus as Moses and Elijah vanish.  Jesus proceeds to lead them down the mountain while instructing them to tell no one of what they had seen or heard until after his death and resurrection.

                How many times have we reached the mountain top or pinnacle and thought that there was no place left to go? If you have played on a sports team and won a championship you may revel in that for some time. However, that is only one season and you must come down and put in the hard work for the next season. It is easy to get caught up in the destination and lose sight of everything that is happening around us.

As Christians, it can sometimes be easy to get stuck in the notion of heaven being our main focus. In this moment, when we equip ourselves with tunnel vision, we block out all that is happening around us. This is not what Jesus is calling us to when we are called to proclaim the good news. Jesus walks with us down the side of that mountain to be with the people in valleys. How can we care and love people when we have our sights set on something that is not even of this world? By caring for and loving those around us, friend and enemy, neighbor and family, we begin to get a glimpse and have a role in bringing the Kingdom of God to earth.

                Instead of naval gazing, Jesus invites us to set our eyes on the people around us. To care for and love them. We accomplish that in a variety of ways through supporting Gleaners, the local Richmond Food Pantry, and providing bicycles for those in need to just name a few. We do so when we make a phone call or send a card to someone we have not seen in a while. We do so when pray for the health, safety, and wellbeing of our friends and family. We can only do this when we are among the people where life happens and not gazing down from the mountain top.

There is excitement in reaching the mountain top. Just ask Alex Honnold after he bursts through any trepidation to free solo El Capitan. I think it would be safe to say that there are not many of us that would even feel comfortable climbing 20 – 50 feet up the face of a mountain free solo, let alone with the proper equipment. It takes a lot of courage and willingness to be proactive in anticipating what may come your way. It takes grit and determination to reach the mountain top and it is easy to want to stay there and revel in the glory of it all. Jesus does not intend for us to stay there. He walks with us down the side of the mountain because he wants to be with the people. The work that Jesus calls us to is in the valley where life happens. Life happens in our joys and challenges, accomplishments and struggles, freshness and tiredness. Jesus climbs the mountain with us, encourages us to stop and take a breath, and then descend back down because there is work to do where life is happening.

God in the Weariness

February 7, 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31

                Returning to seminary after being out on internship can be a struggle for many soon-to-be pastors. They have walked with the people of a congregation and experienced many of lives ups and downs in the congregation. There is an eagerness to get out and do ministry in a congregation right away. Yet, in the traditional ELCA format, you returned to school for a final year before being assigned to a synod and being called to serve your first congregation. It is a time of anticipation bundled up with nerves and anxiety.

                I was looking forward to that assignment and learned that I was assigned to my home synod. This was not totally unexpected as we hoped to stay within a close distance of our parents. What was shocking, was the realization that my home synod called 5 approved for ordination candidates and at the time there were only two full-time calls open. We were told there would be more coming available in the months to come. Not knowing the specifics was dreadful. I had already moved my family all over the place and now we did not know what the future looked like. Once graduation came and went, I became weary. I returned to what I knew, retail. However, who wants to hire someone that could leave soon for what he really wanted to do?

                I was living my own little exile. At times, the weariness ruled and amid the uncertainty there were times I questioned whether I was truly following the path God planned for me. If I didn’t receive a call would I be a failure?

                I spent seven months working a retail job and had even been offered a management position. I was weary from the not knowing and I know my family had the same feelings if not greater. After interviewing at one church, interviewing for a year-long Chaplaincy residency, and the talk of possibly moving to Montana, I received my first call. Was it ideal? No, but I was going to get to serve in the church and become ordained.

                In my faith, God lifted me up from a time I felt faint and gave me strength in a time when I needed it. I am not special. God has promised to lift all from their weariness and give strength to the powerless.

                The fortieth chapter of Isaiah is just the beginning of the Israelites coming to terms with where they are and not-knowing what their future holds. The generation that hears these words of the prophet are many generations removed from their ancestors who were first sent into exile. They know little of Jerusalem and have forgot about God. Somewhere along the line, stories were not shared as frequently and with not having their own personal experience, they slipped into a complacency in their current residence of Babylon.

                They needed to be reminded of God’s love by the prophet in the beautiful poetic verses of Isaiah. They needed to be reminded God is present in their lives in Babylon. It is not a ruler or other authority that they should be turning to for comfort. It is not an idol or different god that seeks their attention. It is the God of their father Abraham. It is the God that accompanied them from Jerusalem into their exile in Babylon.

                From the beginning of their exile to now, their community has gone through a myriad of emotions. Currently they find themselves being settled. They do not know any other home. They fear leaving Babylon because that means leaving everything they know behind. The prophet is preparing the way for them to return to Jerusalem and the home of their ancestors. There is some excitement in the opening verses of today’s lesson:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is [God] who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
23 who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Isaiah 40:21-23

This is an incredible story that should have been passed down through the generations. Distance in time has created a sense of apathy and this current generation has failed to listen. The current generation has little feeling for what happened over a hundred years ago and thus their emotion wrapped up in the thought of returning is more fear than joy.

                The prophet has been called to share the hope of returning to Jerusalem and what that means for the Israelites. In the meantime, the promise of God present with them in this moment is one that gives power to those that are faint and strength to those that are weakened. God breaks through the weariness with the promise that they will be lifted on wings like an Eagle. In their running and walking they will not tire and will endure for the time to come.

                These words in the Hebrew scripture come to us today to provide hope amid any pandemic exhaustion we may be experiencing. These words of the prophet can speak to this era as weariness has become synonymous with daily life. Like the Israelites, the words of the prophet remind us that we are not alone. God is present with us.

                This is the story that we have been following from Christmas. Jesus born incarnate of Mary: Immanuel, God with us.  The presence of God with humanity has came to us in human form and we get to rejoice and celebrate. Life happens though and there are many things that we do not understand or simply know.

                For some reason, we think we need to know everything. Isn’t that how everything went askew in the Garden of Eden? When we do not know everything, we try to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations and make things fit together when many times they do not. For many, there is a fear of resting in the knowing of what you do not know.

                God meets us in this not knowing. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and surrender to God’s presence in our lives, we can begin to see more clearly. It is a letting go of control. Currently, amid the pandemic there are many things that we individually have no control over. For instance, we cannot control how many vaccinations are getting distributed and how quickly the population can be fully vaccinated. We must wait in the not-knowing.   

                St. John of the Cross refers to this time of not knowing or unknowing as he calls it, the dark night of the soul. He spoke to this time when he wrote, “I entered into unknowing / Yet when I saw myself there / Without knowing where I was / I understood great things; / I shall not say what I felt / For I remained in unknowing / Transcending all knowledge.” The time of not knowing is a mystery and yet peace can be found in it as well. 

                Hope is found in God’s presence in the not knowing. Not knowing what the next week will bring. Not knowing what the rest of the year will look like. Not knowing how the pandemic will change the mission and ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church for the future. We can have a role in shaping this, but it is God that calls us and opens our hearts and minds to a new creation. God is present in all of this with the light of hope illuminated in Jesus Christ. God is greater than any of our fears. God is greater than anything we have encountered, and God reassures us in knowing what we do not know.

It has been a long ten months. Many of us feel us though we have lived several years in those months. As we approach Lent, I am reminded how everything that seemed normal at this time last year ground to a halt. We have become weary. Hearts have become faint and strength has weakened. In our weariness God will lift us up and give us strength. We have waited in hope of life returning to a familiar point, and yet we do not know when that will happen. God’s presence with us in the waiting can comfort us in knowing what we do not know. Letting our faith guide us invites surrender and sacrifice. Surrendering to knowing what we do not know and personal sacrifices for the greater good. Will you let God sit with you as you wait?

Jesus Heals!

January 31, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

                I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the church.

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

I hope these words are familiar to you. We hear them every time we affirm our baptisms or celebrate a baptism in our congregation. As the presiding minister asks these questions, the expected response following each one is, “I renounce them.” The liturgy of the baptism reminds us of the saving grace found in God and that Jesus Christ has authority over all things that pull our attention from God. When we come to the affirmation of baptism with weary souls, Jesus can heal us and liberate us from anything luring us away from God. We get to witness such a healing in today’s gospel.

Immediately following the call of the first disciples, Jesus and the disciples travel to Capernaum. For many of us, moving into a new house, starting a new job, or becoming part of a new community, requires time for adjustment and to get our bearings, Jesus has no such thing in mind. His ministry has been laid out for him from the very beginning and he is prepared to teach the Word of God and heal those in need.

                Jesus’ words in the synagogue stop people in their tracks. They are amazed. They are astonished. They are in awe of the teaching that Jesus is laying out in front of them. Even before the man with the unclean spirit enters the scene, we are told that he teaches with authority, not like the scribes. Now, the scribes were intellectual folks and prominent teachers in the synagogue. However, when listening to their teachings, it was probably more like a lecture as they referenced scripture quite often. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke with an authority that no one had witnessed before. No other prophets had taught like this. He was teaching from his very being and with such emotion and passion that people were drawn into every word coming from his mouth.

                Jesus was preaching a message that the people were longing to hear. They not only heard the words coming from his mouth, but they also sensed the divine nature of Jesus before the man with the unclean spirit even called out and said Jesus was “the Holy One of God.” At this moment, Jesus takes his teaching to an entirely different level as he addresses the man and the unclean spirit within him. “Silence,” Jesus speaks, and Jesus’ words are enough for the man to be healed.

                What was this unclean spirit or demon that Jesus ordered to leave? I encourage you to let go of the images in your mind from any movies or television shows you may have seen that depict demons or unclean spirits. It is our tendency to equate these images with scripture. However, the man with the unclean spirit may have most of the time seemed fine. Perhaps in this interaction, he was letting his anger get the best of him as he cries out to Jesus. The man may have had a deep-seated fear that Jesus was going to stir things up and make life extremely uncomfortable for the people in Capernaum. Remember, the area was under Roman rule, and at any time Rome could decide that their patience had worn thin with the Jewish people.

                Jesus is not concerned with this notion, because he knows the ministry which he has been called and he is using this first teaching in Capernaum to set the tone for his and the disciples ministry over the next three years. It is a ministry that will proclaim the Word of God and bring healing to the oppressed. Jesus is emphasizing his ability to provide healing to weary souls.

                Many of us can empathize and/or relate with those having weary souls. We are now well into our tenth month of a pandemic that has changed the way we do everything. For the love of our neighbor, we have maintained physical distance and donned face masks. Many businesses are still finding new ways to stay afloat in this time of COVID. Our restaurants are excited that they will once again be able to open their doors to limited capacity this next week. It is nearly impossible to visit friends and family in the hospital at this name and that makes not only us weary, but also the individual under care in the hospital. This is just naming a handful of things that are currently making our souls weary.

                In that weariness our lives can seem void of purpose. It is also weariness that can open the door to the demons and evil that pervade our society. Remember, a demon or a thing of evil is anything that has power over us that is not of God. It could be depression that is brought on by isolation over the last ten months. It could be the unhealthy use of alcohol or drugs being used to mute the outside world. It could be the anger and resentment that has built up when realizing some things are out of our control. These circumstances can lead us further from the liberating word and healing of Jesus Christ.

                To breakthrough the weariness, we get to acknowledge Jesus for his healing and being the Holy One of God. The man with the unclean spirit did not have it wrong. Jesus was just trying to slow the flow of information coming out of Capernaum so that he could reach more people before the authorities confronted him. To acknowledge Jesus as the Holy One of God, means that we have to give up some of our own control. Coming to terms with the knowledge that we do not always know better is not an easy talk to have with ourselves.

                Yet Jesus invites us into his teaching. It is a new teaching that opens our hearts to the wonder of God that is bound in love for each and every one of us. A God that wants us to renounce the evil in our lives and be vulnerable to God’s unending love. We do this by renouncing the evils in our lives. By naming our fears and demons which have entangled our very being, we begin to unbind the evil that has infiltrated our lives. By naming these evils we acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and we can fully experience the healing brought to our weary souls.  This is a process that takes time and transformation as we continue to sit in God’s Word and listen to how it is calling us personally. It is a healing which takes place from the inside out and begins to liberate us from those forces that pull us away from God.

If only we could allow ourselves to be astonished and amazed at the teaching of Jesus, as those gathered in the synagogue were nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus’ new teaching ushers in a reformation for those whose hearts are moved to follow him. May you be open to the vulnerability of naming your personal evils and those forces that have power over you which are not of God. May the Word of Christ liberate you from any bondage you may find yourself in as you renounce the evil in your life. May you be healed by the presence of Jesus Christ.

Change Reveals God

January 24, 2021

Mark 1:14-20

                Well, John was arrested, however, let us carry on in the work that needs to be done. Mark quickly glosses over this mention and we are immediately immersed in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is asking a lot of his new followers in the gospel lesson and they do not disappoint. Whatever fear may arise, they follow. The time has been fulfilled and Jesus has brought the kingdom of God near so that all may witness and be changed.

                What is happening this morning in our gospel lesson? Mark is so excited to share the story with us that only 20 verses into his gospel, Jesus is calling his first disciples. There is no birth narrative like we find in the Gospel of Luke. Mark invites the reader right into the story. We are splashed down into the waters of the Jordan with Jesus as he is getting baptized, and then we find ourselves along the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him.

                What astounds me is that they are able to just drop what they are doing without question. As far as we know, they do not even know who this Jesus guy is. Yet, there must be something they sense, an aura about him, that pulls them into the mystery and wonder. Perhaps word of his baptism has made it up shore to the Sea of Galilee and with everything they are taking in with the sights and sounds, they know Jesus is not a false prophet. Yet, to still drop everything and leave requires courage and commitment. The courage and commitment that we see within those first disciples accompanies them through change.

                Change is necessary in God’s beautiful creation. The changing of the seasons in Michigan may bring dormancy and cold winters, then we have the hope of spring and those first crocuses pushing their way through the dirt and signaling that warm weather and more sun is on the horizon. The life stages of a caterpillar is nothing but change. Caterpillars must go into their own dormancy period to become beautiful butterflies, an incredible change which points to the miraculous creation we live in. Every once in a while, I am able to experience change in nature in my own household as our 4 year old gecko sheds his skin. Usually, he does this overnight when we are sleeping. He sheds his old, dead skin and once again becomes a vibrant orange and yellow; a necessary change which reveals not only the wonder of creation, but the need for us to shed the dead things in our lives and become new. We are reminded of this through the waters of baptism.  

                The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, is credited with the one thing that most of us have become fully aware of as we move through life. He said, “Change is the only constant in life.” We are constantly moving forward and evolving in life, with our locations, relationships, and beliefs to just name a few. Change is a scary thing! The thought of change can keep us from moving forward. It can also be reassuring. I found hope in the words of one of my seminary professors when he said that his theology (or thoughts about God) have constantly changed over his 40+ years of ministry and it is a good thing. To have a stagnant God, would mean the possibilities to grow and evolve in our own beliefs would be stunted.

                This past year for the church has required a multitude of changes. Worship in-person has turned to worship virtually. Our usual face-to-face conversations transitioned to Zoom and phone calls. We pray for the day when we can safely gather without face masks and sing boldly. Yet, these changes have ushered in a new era in the church that has been longing to break through. To approach them faithfully required courage and commitment.

                The four disciples invited to follow Jesus in today’s gospel took a giant leap of faith to leave everything behind and change. There was a desire within them to grow closer to God and they could sense something in Jesus that was going to lead them. The Holy Spirit came down to Jesus in his baptism and this could very well be what was driving them to follow and leave the fishing and mending of nets to those in the boats and on the shore. They were going to have to change from fishing the sea to fishing for people as Jesus proclaimed.

                As we look back at the Hebrew scriptures, the image of fishing often carried negative connotations. Therefore, as people were listening to and reading Mark’s gospel there may have been some hesitancy. The prophet Jeremiah uses the image of fishing as he speaks of God catching people and bringing them to judgement (16:16). The prophet Amos warns the people that they will be taken away with fishhooks (4:2). This is not the type of fishing for people that Jesus is referencing when he is talking to the first disciples. This gospel text has become one of the most common referred to text when we talk of our mission in the world to proclaim the good news and make disciples. However, it is not a contest and we are not tracking to see who can rack up the most lives “saved” in the win column. Jesus is calling us to a discipleship that is much greater.

                To follow Jesus Christ means that we must be open to transformation. A transformation that happens within our own beings. A transformation that looks at people for who they are in being created in God’s image and not simply as someone to win over to our side.  A transformation occurs when we begin to listen to one another and allow the divine into the conversation. This thought of change can bubble up the fear we are holding deep within. The fear of not meeting someone else’s expectations. The fear of not making everyone happy. The fear of having to face confrontation. The fear of leaving behind what was for what is to come.

                The disciples knew this fear. They knew that to follow Jesus was not going to be an easy task. Our gospel lesson is prefaced, “After John was arrested.” There would most likely be consequences in following Jesus. The first four disciples quickly decided that to follow those consequences would be worth taking the plunge to be transformed and changed. ELCA Bishop Brian Maas writes of the consequences of living faithfully, “arrest, repudiation, condemnation, even death—including the death of biases and prejudices, privilege and the insistence on one’s way, one’s ego and one’s facades.”

                Now, this is the type of death that Jesus speaks of when he says we first must die to ourselves.  The death of those notions that Bishop Maas refers to, bring us in closer relationship to God and the community we surround ourselves.

                Jesus has invited us into change. A change that will bring us into deeper relationship with him and our God. It is a change that the disciples stepped boldly into as they dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus. It is a change that we encounter when we make Christ a central part of our lives through prayer, devotion, and the loving of not only our neighbors, but also the stranger.

                Fears can prevent us from experiencing many of the wonderful and mysterious possibilities that make up a lifetime. What if the first disciples had said no to Jesus because they were fearful of leaving everything behind? What if the caterpillar refused to become a butterfly because it was fearful of what was on the other side of the cocoon? Jesus comes to alleviate those fears preaching the reign of God has come near. In Jesus’ preaching, each one of us is invited to follow him and change. As we open ourselves to change, God is revealed in our transformation.

You Belong

January 17, 2021

John 1:43-51

                The next two weeks we hear from both the gospels of John and Mark. They both share with us how Jesus calls his disciples to come and follow him. He is inviting the first disciples to share with him in his journey that will ultimately end at the cross. One purpose for him in the next few years is to prepare the disciples so that they are ready to continue sharing that same good news once he has ascended into heaven and his physical presence is no longer with them. Jesus invites the disciples into a place where they belong and as followers of Christ, we receive that same invitation to be in a relationship which God has intended since the beginning of creation.

                As the twelve disciples begin to gather as one, I have wondered, how many of them knew each other? If they were fisherman, were they ever out on the same boat, or were they competitors going for the same catch? How uncomfortable were they around Matthew, a tax collector? Did they ever get an uneasy feeling around Judas?

                Now, I have managed several stores and held positions of leadership in a few churches. There are many different personalities that one encounters daily and to be able to interact on a personal level with each one can be a challenge. It is not only interacting personally with people, but also guiding those interactions among others and encouraging peace when sometimes there is animosity. Jesus knew how to interact with people. He had to be stern at times, like those times that Peter keeps sticking his foot in his mouth or he is questioned about Mary pouring perfume on his feet. At other times he had to stand up to the questioning of the chief priests and pharisees and be persuasive and to the point. At other times he had to be vulnerable in sharing his love for others, for instance, when Lazarus is dead, Jesus weeps for him.

                Jesus has proven he can relate to others, but how did he ensure his disciples interacted with each other in a friendly manner and even treat each other like family? I wonder if Jesus introduced a few ice breakers to them so that they could get to know one another. As a natural introvert, I always cringed when a teacher or leader said, “let’s do an ice-breaker.” Ice breakers forced me out of my comfort zone. Maybe he had them play bingo, where each square may represent a quality, property, or story of a person. You then had to find another disicple to sign that square if it could represent them, like having 2 sisters, or a dog, or if you enjoyed olive oil. Maybe he had them play “Would you rather…” He may have asked, “Would you rather walk across the country to Jerusalem or spend several days on the Galilean Sea?” Or maybe, they just had to share something about themselves that no one knew.

                As much as I cringed at the thought of ice breakers when I was young, and I admit I still do to some extent, I always have our youth do them, especially when we go to camp. It is a great way to get to know one another, especially when you are going to be spending an extended amount of time with one another. I am sure there were struggles among the disciples. We read that they argued over who was the greatest. Yet, Jesus is encouraging them to live in communal relationship as God has called all of humanity to live together in creation. They were an example of this relationship that Jesus was living out for everyone to witness and experience for themselves.

                Jesus wanted the disciples, and honestly everyone he interacted with, to know that they belong. They belonged to the group of first disciples. They belonged where they were learning to share the Gospel, even if they were feeling inadequate. They belonged in the presence of God because they were loved, and Jesus wanted the best for them. Jesus’ invitation extends to all of creation, letting us know, we too belong to God and one another. We desire to belong and be a part of a family, community, or group that reflects the love that is found in God.

                Unfortunately, that love can sometimes be found in the wrong places. When I was in junior high school, I remember having a former student come and speak to one of my classes about being in a gang. That desire to be in a gang stemmed from his wanting to belong to something. The gang made him feel welcome and they watched out for him, even though many of the things they asked of him required breaking the law. It took him being arrested and having a tough conversation with his family that he was able to focus on himself. His family welcomed him home and was more open in expressing their love and he found other groups to positively support him when he needed it the most.

                The same occurrence is played out in the functions of other groups. Individuals are quite often first drawn in by a charismatic leader that makes promises that may be completely false. It could be religious, like the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones’, The People’s Temple. It could be ideological in which we can witness daily in various social media outlets where false facts and misleading claims are harder to proof and a lot of people believe that whatever they read on the internet must be true. They are drawn into a group in which they feel a part of something. Once again, it is a sense of belonging they desire.

                One can also be drawn away from a sense of belonging after having negative experiences and being nervous to join anything else.  There is then a different reaction as the pendulum swings the other way, making self-isolation appealing at first glance and in turn separating themselves from the love of others and Christ. When one doubts themself, it is easy to be convinced and persuaded by others. When one doubts a community as a whole, it is easy to isolate.

                The people of Israel had been waiting for a Messiah and there were many false ones before Jesus started his ministry. After they encountered Jesus and knew that he was the real thing, they wanted to belong. Whatever hesitancy the first disciples had, they quickly dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus. He welcomed them and ensured them they belonged in the family of God, as did all of humanity. The invitation from Jesus to those first disciples would be a sign of what was to come and an example for all to follow.

Jesus has reached out his hand to invite us into his family. When we were first invited to the church, the hand of Jesus may have reached out to us through a friend or family member, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Jesus has lovingly welcomed us and let us know, we too belong, through his words in scripture and the love shared with us by others. As the disciples continued to share the good news with others following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called to share the same good news today. And sometimes, we need to hear that invitation again, letting us know that we are loved, and we belong. You belong here! You are loved! You are a vital part of this community.

Who can you reach your hand out to at this time? While not meeting in person, it may be a phone call or an email. It may be a text message or a note on Facebook. Who are you letting know today that they are loved, and they belong to this beautiful community? Jesus invites us to the waters of baptism and the table to break bread and be filled with the Holy Spirit. May you share that invitation to those you encounter because the Lord’s table is open for all and there is a seat for everyone because we all belong.

Holy Spirit in the Chaos

Jordan River from visit in January 2020

January 10, 2021

Mark 1:4-11

The Holy Spirit is a mystery we quite often relegate to just a few Sundays a year because she does not take human form and thus makes it difficult to relate. Because of this, it is easy to ignore the Holy Spirit and simply focus on Jesus. However, the Holy Spirit amazes and surprises when we least expect it. The Holy Spirit can guide our everyday actions if we open ourselves to her mystery.

                I am not sure if the people of first century Israel fully knew what was in store for them in the hoped-for Messiah. It is the Holy Spirit John the Baptist pointed to over three different Sundays since the beginning of Advent. It is the Holy Spirit that makes a difference between his baptism of the people for repentance and the baptism that begins with Jesus and the descending of the Holy Spirit onto the scene as heaven is tore open and the promise of God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit instills and reveals our deep seeded faith in the Lord, our God. The Holy Spirit cheers us on and directs us to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit is present at all times in our struggles and successes, challenges and achievements, sorrows and joys, heartbreak and jubilation. The mystery of the Holy Spirit is challenging and miraculous all at the same time.

                I would be remiss if I were not to address the events of this past week in light of our gospel lesson for this week. I do not recall another time in recent history when so many were sitting in front of the news in utter disgust and disbelief since September 11. What we witnessed on television Wednesday is not a true representation of the United States, but a highlight of the racism and personal desires that are prevalent in our nation. It was nothing less than domestic terrorism. The resolve shown by the majority of our elected leaders to move forward with their duty was a true representation of democracy at work and a step in the right direction of healing a divided and battered nation. I will admit I found it hard to accomplish anything Wednesday afternoon as I filled with anger and teetered on the brink of tears for what was taking place in our nation’s capital.  

                Where was the Holy Spirit at work this past week as we all had front row seats to what was happening in our nation’s capital? The Holy Spirit was with each one of you as you watched in stunned awe. The Holy Spirit was looking over our nation’s capital with her own tears and providing a presence of comfort and restored peace. The Holy Spirit was with our elected leaders as they sought safety from the chaos only to return later in the evening to finish the job that has happened regularly every four years for centuries.

                The actions of those gathered to lay siege to our democracy lead us further away from the good news of Jesus Christ and clouds the view of the work of the Holy Spirit. When we follow our own way and dig our heels in, we get buried in the muck and grime of the world and that muck and grime will often times block out the light of Christ. We can be led astray by misleading and false facts, which distorts and can lead us further away from the Truth that is Jesus Christ. And there are times when we simply refuse to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. As mysterious as the Holy Spirit is, we are invited to follow its lead with open hearts and minds. In the Holy Spirit our faith is fostered for the challenges that ensue when following Jesus Christ. The promise of the Holy Spirit begins with our ancestors and it written in the Hebrew scriptures:

  • For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground;
    I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
    and my blessing on your offspring. Isaiah 44:3
  • The days are surely coming. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ezekiel 36:26-27
  • Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
    your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
    29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my spirit in those days. Joel 2:28-29

The Holy Spirit is the power of God coming to reside within us. In Jesus’ baptism, he is revealed as the Son of God, whom God loves dearly. This is the very sign and promise that is made to us when we are baptized. The Holy Spirit comes to reside in our own very beings to wash over us and lead us. Are there times where we ignore the Holy Spirit and stash it in the closet or attempt to bury it under the rug? Most definitely! 

Yet, the purpose of our community in Christ is to live out the calling of the Holy Spirit and be guided in the way of Christ. God invites us to be open to the mysteries of the Holy Spirit. We open ourselves up through prayer, contemplation, and the constant reminder of our own baptisms. Every time you are in the shower, take the water and make the sign of a cross on your forehead. Every time you are doing dishes, take the water and make the sign of a cross on your forehead. If you have young children and you are giving them a bath, make sure that they are reminded that they too are a blessed child of God and make the sign of a cross on their forehead with the bath water.

We have been challenged this past week in many of our thoughts and beliefs.  We have struggled with what to make of the actions that have happened in our nation’s capital. No matter what, may you know, that whatever comes to you, the Holy Spirit is present to lead you in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord.

My Octopus Teacher

This documentary is a wonderful example of how creation is drawn into relationship. We are created in the image of God to be in relationship with one another and the creation that surrounds us.

The filmography left me in awe as it takes the viewer to the wonders of the ocean. The majestic nature of the filming is a beauty that cannot be simply viewed above the water. Craig Foster’s revelation of the life in the depths of the water is one that few will see in a lifetime. There is a respect that is built and you can see his deep abiding love and care for the world that surrounds him.

The gift of being able to learn from creation in the most unlikely of creatures is an opportunity that can draw one closer to the divine. Foster, referring to the octopus, says, “What she taught me was to feel. . . that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.” Isn’t that what we all want? To feel part of something and to be alive and whole. For Foster to welcome us into his world requires vulnerability and he does it magnificently. The realization of this world also speaks to the call for action on climate change.

This documentary will leave you in awe and pull on some of your heartstrings. It is one to return to time and again to realize the connection of all in creation.

Hope Born on Christmas

December 24, 2020

Luke 2:1-14

​            Like many people, I grew up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a staple for the season and one that my family looked forward to watching again and again. As I reflect on that time in my early childhood, it was also probably the first time I had heard the Gospel. Linus, stepping boldly out onto the stage and dropping his security blanket, revealed the true meaning of Christmas. A gospel first revealed two thousand years ago to startled shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. In that manger on the first Christmas, a hope was born into the world bearing a light for all.

           In this story of Christ’s birth, we have much in common with the shepherds. We, personally, are part of Christ’s family and called to the manger in a hopeful remembrance of that night when the angels brought the good news of the Messiah to the shepherds. Like the shepherds, we have the opportunity to leave this scene and share the good news with others as we glorify and praise the name of the Lord for all to hear.

            Unlike the shepherds, we know what to expect. This is a story that we have been sharing since the beginning of time. A prophecy that is foretold in Isaiah, that is revealed in the birth of Christ. While the shepherds knew the story from Isaiah, they most likely did not expect to be the recipients of such world changing news. To them it was an ordinary evening in the fields with no expectations of being led to such glory and wonder. Why the shepherds? Surely, there were others worthier. Why not the religious in the temple praying? Why not the devout that followed the law of the prophets?

            The shepherds, while Jewish, could not make it to the temple because of their commitments to the flocks in the field. Their responsibility to the sheep outweighed for them any other practices. Being a shepherd was an entry level job. Quite often it would go to the youngest son in the family to care for the flocks. It was a thankless job, yet the shepherds were responsible for their family’s well-being. If you recall, David was the youngest son of Jesse and when Samuel told Jesse to bring him in from the fields, the Lord told Samuel to anoint David as the next king of Israel. David was a shepherd. Jesus’ lineage is traced back to David and the reason that Mary and Joseph have returned to Bethlehem for the census. And here we find other shepherds, multiple generations later, being the first to hear of the glory on this wonderous evening. As much as others have talked down the image of the shepherd as being dirty and of bad moral character, I am not quite buying into that image. The shepherds leave the scene of the manger going home glorifying and praising God. They were now messengers of the Good News!

            It is no mistake that Jesus will take on the image of the shepherd when he begins his ministry. The responsibility, care, love, and longing for all to see the light and experience hope is what drives his ministry. It is what will bring the world together in peace. These shepherds out in the field the night Jesus was born had these same qualities. God honored these shepherds by the appearance of the angels, and it was God that wanted to bring the message to all people. Time and time again, God is welcoming the unlikely into the story.

            It continues in Luke’s gospel with Mary, a teenage mother who was not prepared to have a child but said yes. Joseph, a reluctant father who nearly left Mary, but was reassured by God that everything was going to work out as planned and said yes. Shepherds in the field going about business as usual and while startled by the angels, say yes to going to see the child lying in a manger. These are reminders for us as God’s faithful people to be prepared and say yes when we hear God calling us to the wonderous possibilities established for all of humanity in this beautiful creation.

            It did not take much to get the shepherds attention as they were surrounded with sheep in the field. This is where we encounter a difference between us and the shepherds. We have so much coming at us today from various social media channels and news sources that for us to be impressed really takes a lot. Our attention span has dwindled, and the scene of Jesus’ birth could easily be overlooked.  Once God grasps our attention a struggle with the notion of worthiness can ensue. Yet, this is precisely what is revealed for us in the birth of Christ.

            We are all worthy of the good news that is born for us this Christmas. We celebrate it time and time again because we need the reminder of Christ born into this world.  Knowing that God knows what it is like to be human, encountering struggles and challenges that come with living, is reassuring. The struggles and challenges of the past year have brought life to a standstill for many of us. As the church we are attempting to be innovative in sharing the Good News this Christmas Eve while ensuring that those we love are kept safe. Regardless of how we come to the manger, Christ is the same as he was yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

            While we celebrate the birth this evening, we are also being invited into the greater story.

Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds all said yes to the glorious news that broke into the world in that miraculous birth. We are invited to say yes to Christ that comes into the world bearing hope and good news for all. It is here that God’s love for the world is fully envisioned. May our hearts, minds, and souls be open to the invitation and embrace the opportunities that this evening reveals.

  • The opportunity to say yes to something that we do not fully understand yet sense the pull and tug on our hearts.
  • The opportunity to witness the herald of hope which turned the expectations of the world upside down in a Messiah that comes bearing love and a willingness to suffer and die for all.
  • The opportunity to be messengers ourselves and to continue sharing the good news of the Christ we find in the manger.

            We find ourselves this evening, as we do every Christmas Eve, reflecting on a newborn baby. Despite any fear that may arise from the unknown, let us go with hurried anticipation like those shepherds did over two thousand years ago. Let us give thanks and rejoice in the glory of the Messiah born on Christmas to bring God’s outpouring of love and hope to this broken world.

Who Are You?

December 13, 2020 (Advent 3)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

                If I met someone on the street fitting John the Baptist’s description in the Gospel of Mark last week a few thoughts would come to my mind. Dressed in clothes made of camel hair would single them out right away. It’s not too often you see someone wearing camel hair on the streets in Michigan, though in our winters, I can imagine it would keep you nice and warm. Second, his diet of locusts and honey does not sound appeasing by themselves and surely, he must be some sort of hippy or naturalist.

                We meet a different John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel. To clairfy, John the Baptist is not the author of the Gospel of John. Both individuals just happen to have the same name and were probably born at least a generation apart. John and Mark’s John the Baptist is busy preparing the way for the one who will come after him. In the Gospel of John, he does not stand out so much and his interaction with the priests and Levites clarifies who he is not. Both point to the Christ as being the light of the world and for people to follow him.

                The priests and Levites from Jerusalem long to know who John the Baptist is and what he does. His actions are outside of the realm of their expectations. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest himself, and John’s actions are not befitting of a priest’s son. You better watch out for those pastor’s kids!

                The questions that are asked of John remind me of the conversations we have with others when we first meet them. Isn’t one of the first questions always asked, “What do you do?” This is an easy go to and conversation starter. I have been asked this too many times to count and I know that I have utilized the question myself. It is easy. It doesn’t require any thinking on our part. I give credit to those individuals that come up with an off the wall title when someone asks them this question. Such as, Beverage Dissemination Officer for a bartender, Digital Overlord for a website manager, Wizard of Light Bulb Moments for a marketing director, or Retail Jedi for a shopping assistant.

                By learning what people do, it helps us categorize them. We can determine roughly how much their salary is and probably their education level. We do the same when we see a person’s house, the clothes they wear, or what they drive. Is this healthy? NO! While a job can reflect a person’s values and interest, that is not always the case. While one of my previous careers was an adult beverage slinger, or more precisely, a sales representative, it did not necessarily reflect my values and interest. Yes, I do like beer, but honestly, I think I drank more beer after I started seminary. The values of the owner and the company itself were far from my values. However, it was a job and it put food on the table for my family.

                While the priests and Levites are busy questioning John, he keeps responding in the negative. He is not the Messiah. No, he is not Elijah. No, he is not the prophet. If he would have answered yes to any one of these, they would have been satisfied and could have reported back who he was.

                The title which should truly make a difference for us and our lives, is Jesus Christ being the Light of the World. We should not be so much concerned with the titles that we are given or the ones that appear on our business cards. What Jesus wants to know, is whether or not we are following his call to be the light for others in the world that have not encountered him yet. Are we letting the light of Christ shine through and illumine our lives so that we too can be a beacon of hope for others that may need it?

                I know that for many of us, the light has been dim over the past several months. It is tough to stay positive and rejoice in the Word of the Lord when it seems that so many things in our world this year have been upended. Advent is a time that calls us back to the beginning of it all for us as Christians. While our gospel lessons so far this Advent have pointed to a time after Jesus’ birth and before the start of his ministry with John the Baptist, we are still awaiting to celebrate and recognize the incarnation that breaks open God’s gracious love for a world that is so much in need of hope and light.

                Hearing Mary’s words of praise in the Magnificat reminds us of the one that John the Baptist is pointing. While Mary finds the words of the Angel Gabriel difficult to comprehend, her praise, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” starts a litany of the wonders of the Lord and all God has done for creation. It is a crescendo into a birth that will forever change the nature of the world.

                When we get caught up in the details of what someone does for employment, what type of car they drive, the size of their house, or whether they wear designer clothes, we are stepping farther from the Light of Christ. The message John the Baptist witnesses to, reveals the light of Christ. His witness to the light is a reminder to us that nothing else matters. Instead of asking one another “what do you do?”, it would be better in serving Christ by asking, “what are you passionate about?”

                What is it that draws you to the light of Christ that is revealed to us in a newborn baby? And how is it that you are being illuminated by that light and in return sharing it with others?

                Relationships are beginning to matter more than ever as we dive deeper into this pandemic and we can grow spiritually and, in our relationships, as we ask who we are and not become focused on what we do. Let us not get caught up in the material entrapments of the world. Let us come to the manger and discover our identity in the hope found in the light of Christ.