Preparing the Way

December 6, 2020 (Advent 2)

Mark 1:1-8

            Earlier this week we received one of our first snow accumulations for the season, although if you look outside now, you couldn’t really tell. As December ushers in the snow, we are used to the month also ushering in many other activities. Preparations are usually underway for Christmas office parties and arrangements are being made for family to gather and celebrate the season. It is a joyous time of the year for many. That is not the case for everyone. For some, their preparation may mean gathering enough courage to face each day because this is the first holiday without a loved one.

            The pandemic we currently find ourselves in, means that many of us fall more into the category of dealing with loss instead of looking toward the joyous aspects of the holidays this year. Our lives have been turned upside down. Instead of making preparations for family to gather in person, we are exploring ways we can connect online. Instead of inundating the stores on black Friday, online shopping has went to new levels to the point that we better allow at least a couple of weeks for a package to ship if you want to have it in time for Christmas. Our preparations may look different this year. Amid our current situation, we have learned to adjust and prepare in different ways.

            The gospel of Mark is one of four stories that introduce us to Jesus Christ. And Mark starts out with stating the very focus of his writing. First, Jesus Christ is the center of what is to come. Second, Jesus is the Son of God. Third, this is the good news. While in the gospel of Mark, the birth narrative is skipped over and left to the other gospels, it still points to Jesus Christ as the beginning of the Good News. The gospel points to Isaiah as paving the way for this good news, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”

            John the Baptist is the messenger Isaiah is referring and a messenger that Mark chooses to highlight as he begins sharing the good news. John the Baptist has come to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is the forerunner to what is to come. He is the opening act to Jesus’ main stage. Quite often, these forerunners get little attention and are overshadowed by those whom they have prepared the way. For instance, did you know that Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus during the Civil Rights Era. Both Sarah Evans and Claudette Colvin refused to give up their bus seat to a white person before Rosa Parks. They were the forerunners to Rosa Parks and the movement that would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jan Hus was a forerunner to Martin Luther and helped shape some of his thoughts. What set Martin Luther apart was his timing and the fact he had the marvel of the printing press to his advantage. Just think, we could have been Hussite’s instead of Lutherans.

            These forerunners prepared the way for those that are more well known. To prepare the way does not come without sacrifice. The forerunners to Rosa Parks were arrested. Jan Hus was burned alive at the stake. John the Baptist would eventually be beheaded!

            Right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we experience his humility. He honors John the Baptist and if you recall is insistent in being baptized by him and not the other way around as John thinks it should be.  We are getting a little ahead of ourselves though.

            John prepares the way for Jesus Christ by preparing the people. I am not sure how many of you are familiar with the musical Godspell. In one of the opening scenes, John the Baptist, sings “Prepare Ye;” it is wonderful and joyous. Set in the 1970’s, he calls people out from their current jobs. Sounds a lot like Jesus! John the Baptist was a forerunner. The people John calls come running to the park and dance around in a fountain, symbolizing their own baptisms. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is what John the Baptist says he is going to do.

            Baptism is just one step on our way in the preparation for the Lord. While we are baptized in the Holy Spirit as John states, we are also washed clean of our sins through the wonderous water. We need a constant reminder of that baptism as we stray from the promises we make in baptism through our daily sins, both known and unknown.

            Struggling with repentance is not new and we all fall short of the glory of God. It can be difficult to repent and own up for the mistakes that are made in life. To admit that we are wrong and took a misstep requires courage and vulnerability. Making preparations for Christ calls us out of the status quo and into something new and wonderful. John the Baptist is the messenger and forerunner to the good news that Jesus Christ is going to reveal to the whole world.

            This particular season of Advent is unlike anything we have ever experienced in our lifetime. You are probably getting tired of hearing that as it has been referred to many things over the last several months. However, it is the truth. In our Advent Book Study, we are talking about what is making us weary. For some, the Christmas season may bring a weariness every year. For others, it may be a new feeling this year. I could almost guarantee that all of us are experiencing some form of weariness is this long drawn out pandemic, especially as we approach Christmas.

            In the midst of it, we can still make preparations. We can prepare to meet with family differently; we can make our purchases all online and pick them up curbside or have them delivered; we will also be preparing to worship in a different manner this Christmas. Those are the outward preparations.

            What are you doing to prepare your heart this Advent? Are you opening yourselves up to conversations with God and Jesus as you seek comfort and peace among the weariness? Are you turning to the story of a little baby born in Bethlehem and finding hope?

            It is that hope that Mark points to as he opens his gospel for us to hear, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is not a better time than this Advent to come to the manger with an expectant hope as we look for Jesus in our midst to guide us and walk with us through these past months and whatever the new year may bring.

This is just the beginning of the good news as we await the coming of the Lord. In the meantime, let us prepare the way for our hearts to be opened and make preparations for others by being the hands and feet of God in our community today.

A Weary World: Reflections For a Blue Christmas by Kathy Escobar

This year is nothing like we anticipated. Who would have guessed back in January at the turn of the calendar, we would be distancing from one another and learning to live our lives in new ways? Kathy Escobar’s newest book, A Weary World: Reflections for a Blue Christmas is balm for the soul in such a time as this. We have lost out on many opportunities this past year, had plans upended, and have forgone not seeing family for months at a time. If you have a loved one in a senior living community, you may still have not been able to give them a hug, settling for talking to them with a pane of glass separating you. This year, it may not sound unreasonable to say that everyone is probably carrying a bit of weariness in their hearts. There is a lot of lost which has occurred in the past year and to celebrate Christmas like nothing has happened, would be denying the reality that we witness in our neighbors, friends and family. The entire world is weary amid the pandemic and talking about it could begin the healing as we move forward.

For those that have participated in Blue Christmas services around the longest night of the year, it can be somber and also reassuring to know that you are not the only one suffering amid a time of year that the majority of people think must be joyful. To venture into the entire Advent season with these reflections could seem like a bit much. However, Escobar writes, “It’s about honoring our weary hearts in a weary season in a weary world and traveling the road of Advent together as honestly as we can on a quest for encouragement, hope, and strength in the places we are currently living—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” She does suggest that if you are currently finding yourself in a moment of extreme happiness, joy, and everything seems to be coming to you, this is probably not the Advent devotional you are looking for. There are countless others to choose from that may not seem quite as in the gut.

The foundations of this book grew out of her own weariness and sorrows following the suicide of her son. They did not witness any of the signs that he may be considering suicide and it left her and her husband battered and bruised as they tried to move forward, while unsure of what the next day will bring. She dreaded the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas knowing that it would be difficult, yet she knew that she was not alone, and many people suffered during this time of year. Her experience as a Pastor had revealed many of these same situations to her and now it was her family personally experiencing it.

The structure of the book is similar to that of many devotionals you could read to guide your prayer time. It covers the four weeks of Advent, beginning on the first Sunday. Each week has a theme which shapes the week to come. These are themes that call the reader into action and interaction with those around them. The theme for the first week is “Honoring Reality.” If you are aware of the holidays bringing about sorrow instead of joy, it is helpful to acknowledge that reality of where you find yourself.

The following three weeks of Advent follow with “Practicing Honesty,” “Embracing Paradox,” and “Borrowing Hope.” These are all actions that we desire to live up to for ourselves and in our interactions with the greater community. Practicing, embracing, and borrowing are actions that we can commit to as we journey in Advent. The idea of “Borrowing Hope” is a reality that may require permission. When you come to times when you struggle with hope, where can you find it around you? Where can the littlest bit of hope fan the flame for your own hope? The practices that conclude each week invite the reader to explore their relationship with God and what it can mean in their lives.

The devotional concludes with Christmas Eve and resting in the knowledge of Emmanuel, “God with Us”. This may be a hard concept to grasp when you are struggling, yet through the four weeks of Advent, Escobar desires to encourage others in their own suffering. Just maybe, as Advent concludes and you find yourself on the cusp of Christmas Eve, this devotional will allow you to start seeing the sign of hope that was missing at the beginning of the Advent season.

This is not simply a devotional. Escobar also includes resources for family and friends and ministry leaders that can be used to assist others walking through a Blue Christmas season. Providing some great questions to ask, it can open the opportunity for others to share their story and create a stronger sense of care and community. There are also Blue Christmas resources located at the end of the book which would allow a worship community to shape their own Blue Christmas service if they do not have any experience of doing so in the past. One last resource for groups, along with those included weekly in the devotional, is the publisher providing downloads on their website to guide a group discussion.

While this devotional may not be for everyone, I believe everyone could relate to aspects of it as we have ventured through this past year of uncertainty and not knowing what was going to happen next. These are great discussions that we must have and ones that draw us closer to the Kindom of God.

Thanks to the Englewood Review of Books for allowing me to review this titled and the publisher, WJK, for providing a copy. The original review can be found here.

God Wakes Us

Wake up of a girl stopping alarm clock

November 29, 2020 (Advent 1)

Mark 13:24-37

            As we sat down at the dining room table Thursday, it was quite different from past Thanksgivings. We chose to have Thanksgiving this year with just our household while also reaching out to family through the wonders of Zoom. I am thankful for opportunities to be able to see loved ones through the power of the internet. It also reminds me of the opportunities to be thankful for the things we were able to do this past year.

            One instance was our annual camping trip. I am thankful for our growing family as our children find significant others and we were able to spend some time together enjoying the wonders of God’s glorious creation. This year it also happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor shower. Several nights as a family we were able to go out to the beach and lay down to look up at the sky filled with so many stars.  The view is unimaginable to think of when we live within the city. Looking up at the countless stars, I was reminded of how great and wonderful our God is to place all of them in the sky. There is a wonder in that view, and it gives a glimpse into the mystery of our God. The sky is so vast that it is always impossible to have the entirety of it in your sight, so you keep scanning the stars waiting for the next meteor. Because of the massiveness of the sky, I would miss one or two meteors while someone else was able to catch a glimpse. The connectedness when we all had seen the same one was awesome as we reveled in its glory. Staring up at those stars also reminds us of how small we are compared to the rest of the universe.

            Jesus sets out in the gospel lesson to provide an apocalyptic image of his return. He is preparing the disciples for what lays ahead of them. He begins with darkness and the stars falling from the sky. It is quite the image and one that often will generate fear in some people. However, this is not the purpose of apocalyptic literature. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to inspire hope and not sow fear.

From Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures to Revelation in the New Testament, we read of a promise and hope in the promise which points us to an unflappable God that reigns down with mercy and love.

            It may be difficult to find the mercy and love that God promises to all of creation in the past eight months. From a pandemic that seems like a plague, to an election that divided many Americans,  to wars around the world, and civil unrest in our own country, it may seem as though we are living out the last days that much of the apocalyptic literature writes about. Yet, Jesus reminds us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will return.

            If we look at the history of Mark’s Gospel, we will find out it was the first gospel written and provided a basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, thus the similarities. It was written thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to this time everything was shared through stories and word of mouth. It was written around the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and was most likely shaped around those events. Mark encouraged his community not to get involved in the revolt of the Jewish people against the Roman Empire.  This is a time of high tension for the followers of Jesus as they witness the destruction of a community in which they grew up. As Mark reflected on Jesus’ words, there is the thought which the day of the Lord must be near and surely not a generation will pass away before seeing that day.

            And yet, here we are. Still waiting with an impregnated hope and living in the promise of Jesus Christ. As we enter this Advent season, we come bearing deep wounds of events that have been cancelled and lives turned upside down as we face struggles and challenges which the majority have never had to even think about. God’s creation continues to groan and limp forward as we await something greater to come.

            As Christians, we are set apart by our faith, placing our hope in the promise that has echoed throughout the millennia. As we hear these words from Jesus, it is not a time to panic or to be set on edge. It is not a time to fear and bury our heads in the sand or snow depending upon where we live. It is not a time to fret.

            It is a time to be stirred. A time to be fully present to the season and contemplate on what Jesus’ birth means not just for us personally, but for all of creation. A time to be alert to those wonderous sightings of God in our world, like viewing a sky full of stars and witnessing meteors streak through the vastness of that sky. This past week in one of my morning devotions was the refrain:

Wake us to your presence, Lord: that we might not waste our times of trial.

            The trials we have faced for much of this past year have been debilitating. There are mornings that it is just enough to get out of bed and take a shower. We are in unfamiliar territory and it is easy to get tired when confronted with the unknown. Our bodies are so incredible in telling us what we need, and at times we also need to push ourselves to move forward. Our relationships are more important now than ever before, even if that means we cannot reach out and give someone a personal greeting face to face.

            It is times such as this that God invites us into the mystery. A mystery that has shaped our faith for the last two millennia. A mystery of God incarnate. God has come down to us in the form of a newborn baby to lead the way and give us a sign of hope. A sign that shows up in those very same stars that Jesus says will come falling down. A star that shines so brightly announcing the birth of a new reign of God. A time that God in Jesus walks among creation and is one with us in humanity. A time that we are invited to participate in the mystery of Christ’s reign in creation.

            As we are awakened and become alert, we learn about ourselves and the place of our community in the greater aspect of creation. The trials that we face today are only a step along the way to that glorious new creation that will come down to earth. We participate by meeting our friends and neighbors where they are. We stare up at the stars together and are reminded of how connected we truly are and how God’s creation is limitless. A creation that invites us to be an active part of the welcoming of a soon to be newborn baby.

            I leave you with a prayer from that same devotional I mentioned earlier:

What would you teach us today in our trials, Lord? Make us receptive. Help us to see your victory and compassion rather than look for every answer to our troubles. So make us expectant, Lord, and patient. AMEN

Book Review: Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell

“My Grandma kept cash in her bra.” What a way to start out a book on spirituality!

Rob Bell is at it again with another soul searching book that encourages the reader to look inside themselves and see the spirit within them. He writes of quarks and molecules and all things that make up our very beings. His work reads like the reader is listening to him think aloud for all to hear. Yet, there is something intriguing about this that encourages one to continue reading. At times you wonder where he is going and then you all of a sudden end up at a point you would have never expected.

Bell makes many leaders in the church uncomfortable as he addresses many of the topics that we as pastors are afraid to discuss in our own congregations. The interconnectedness that he writes about in all of creation is the very essence of spirituality.

He shares the journey from his time growing up to starting his own mega church, which he despises that term, to his current life in Los Angeles. The journey that God has led him on has shaped who he is and the Rob Bell that interacts with the reader in Everything is Spiritual.

Stop and think about the title for a moment. Everything is Spiritual. That is an incredible thought that plays out in a quick reading book of 300 pages. If you know Rob Bell books, it is not like your 300 page novel or typical memoir. It is written in though strands with no chapters. I leave you with this observation by Bell to contemplate:

We’re made of thingness,

we have life,

we have minds,

and also we have

souls.

As soul is real,

just as real as your skin and bones.

The mind thinks,

the soul knows.

Going Upriver

November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

There is a story of a town named Downriver. Some of you may have heard of this town. It was quaint and the people living there were very pleasant. They knew the happenings of their town and they enjoyed working together. There was no time more important where they needed to work together then when they discovered a body in the river struggling against the current to keep their head above water. Working together, they found a way to help the individual out of the raging waters.

       The next day, they discovered another body struggling in the water and since they devised a plan the day prior, it didn’t take them nearly as long to get the individual out of the water. This became a constant for the town of Downriver as they continued to rescue people from the river. We are now talking about several people a day that were in need of being rescued. This went on for years and it became such a common occurrence they were no longer surprised by those that were struggling against the raging water.

       The question was asked on occasion as to what was happening in the town of Upriver where the town of Downriver was having to rescue people from the raging waters. While the question was asked, there was so much to do that no one ever fully investigated. They accepted that there were people in the raging waters needing to be rescued.

       Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

       This morning I would like to turn our attention to the Hebrew scriptures and the lesson from Ezekiel. For hundreds of years, the people of Israel had been struggling with their kings. No one could match the prowess and leadership of King David. He was a great warrior and grew the empire of Israel. It would be continued by his son Solomon, but eventually Israel would struggle and lose their importance; being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Israel would experience kings that cared little for the people and were more enticed by the power and riches that came with being king.

If we read chapter 34 of Ezekiel in its entirety, we receive the background of our lectionary lesson, as well as the promise God makes to the people of Israel.

       Ezekiel uses the familiar image of the shepherd. It was common for the king at the time to be referred to as a shepherd because of his responsibility to oversee the kingdom. The image of the shepherd was political. No wonder the authorities in Jesus’ time knew they had to deal with him swiftly so that he would not upend their political system. Ezekiel is called to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, because they have been feeding themselves and not caring for the sheep. They would be the goats which Jesus refers to in the gospel lesson this morning.

       The shepherds of Israel have left the people in despair as they find themselves in exile, separated from a land that they have called home for centuries. The shepherds have fed themselves and have become fat and strong while the people of Israel have been weakened. They have counted the riches of the flock, such as the mutton and the wool, while giving no heed to the needs of the flock. The shepherds have not cared for the people of Israel as they should. As this has happened, the people have failed to look to the cause of their desperation, the immoral and unethical conduct of the shepherds. They have failed to look upriver to see what is causing their demise.

       The same can happen to humanity in any time and place. Whenever one’s personal needs are above the needs of the community an imbalance results where care and justice are not given equal measure. The Reign of God calls us to a place where we serve those in need and our needs are cared for as well. It is this Reign of God that Ezekiel reveals to us in his prophesy. It is the same Reign of God that Jesus promises to us in our gospel lesson.

       Ezekiel comes bearing a promise in the oracle he shares. Ezekiel reminds the people of Israel who God is. A God that will seek the lost sheep and return them to the flock. A God who will bring them back into a community from far scattered places.

A God who will feed them with good pasture and they will be comforted in being able to lie down in that pasture and take rest.

       God reveals a love of God’s very creation in the relationship with the people of Israel. It is also a relationship that embodies justice. It is the same justice and care kept in balance which we see reflected in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

       This Sunday we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday to recognize Jesus as the ruler over all creation. This is our bridge from one church year to the next as we prepare for the coming of Advent and wait to celebrate the birth of the newborn Christ. It is today that we honor Jesus Christ as Lord, or shepherd, over all creation. As we rejoice in Christ’s Reign, we are invited to partake in the Reign of Christ here and now.

       Jesus invites us to go upriver to care for and seek justice for those that are struggling and in need. Those that are fragmented and broken need to know that they are loved and cared for by a loving God. We go upriver to find out why people hunger and thirst. We go upriver to sit with those hurting and in emotional distress. We go upriver to ensure that no one else falls in and struggles against the raging waters of an unforgiving river. We go upriver because Jesus has come to us to let us know that we too are loved and what God reveals to Ezekiel also rings true for us,  “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God.”  

Being Entrusted

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

           Who among you remember having class pets when you were in school? Perhaps your class had fish, a rodent of some type, or maybe a reptile. What happened to those pets over breaks? Quite often it was an honor to be able to bring the class pet home and care for it during this time. My older brother earned such an honor when he was in middle school. He was in the sixth of seventh grade I believe, and his class pets consisted of a pair of hamsters. How awesome it was going to be to add these pets to our home for a couple of weeks. They would be an addition to our home that already consisted of a couple of dogs and cats. One lesson we learned out of this experience was that cats and hamsters do not get along that well! While attempting to put one of the hamsters in its ball to run around, it managed to squirm out of my brother’s hands and one of the cats decided to reenact a Tom & Jerry cartoon. However, we’ll just say that the hamster was not as lucky as Jerry!

           Being entrusted with something valuable to someone else is an honor. It means they have placed faith in you to care for something that is close to them or the community. Such as a class pet. The parable that Jesus shares this morning, known as the Parable of the Talents, is part of a collection of parables he shares in this chapter which leave us scratching our head as we try to decipher Jesus’ words. If you recall the parable from last week, The Ten Bridesmaids, it was about being prepared and waiting, yet it ends in darkness as does this week’s parable. These parables are at times tough to listen to because the resolution does not fit into our concept of who God is. A God full of grace and mercy and not one that sends us into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

           Who do we find ourselves relating to in the Parable of the Talents? Are we like the first two servants that have been entrusted with a lot and have managed to double their investment to please the master? Are we like the third servant that buries the talent received to ensure that none of it was squandered? It was the third servant that was living out the rabbinic maxim of the day, which was to bury your money as a way of protecting it. Honestly, I would like to know a little more. When the master hands over the talents, we hear of no instruction to invest it. Were the servants given more instructions than we heard? Were the servants just expected to safeguard the money, or was it a gift from the master?

           If it was a gift, we are talking about a lot of money. One talent is roughly equal to 6000 denarius which equates to 15 years’ worth of income! This was a lot of money that the master was entrusting to his servants. Remember, Jesus likes to make his parables outrageous enough to ensure that his listeners are truly listening to his teaching; getting them to think. It is also pointing to the abundance of grace and mercy God has for humanity.    

           What if we were to look at the talents as one’s ability. Jesus says that the master gave to each according to their ability. The master knew what all three of the servants were capable of doing.  In his trust, he expected the servants to care for the riches he had charged them. However, it is the third servant who questions his motive. According to the rabbinic maxim, he was being faithful. However, if we look at one’s ability, we could ask whether he was living up to his full calling.

           We have all been gifted with various abilities and skills and have also learned some along the way through education and experience. I do not know about you, but I am glad that most professionals are required to participate in continuing education. They are not allowed to just sit on the knowledge and skills that they have. They are required to further their knowledge and keep up to date on new skills. I am glad that health professionals are always in the process of learning and growing. I am glad teachers are always learning new and exciting ways to interact and teach our children. I am glad my pilot on my last flight was required to participate in continuing education to ensure their skills and knowledge were up to date. A musician, while not usually required to do continuing education, must practice and continue to take lessons if they want to get better.

           As a pastor I am required to complete 50 hours of continuing education every year. While the stories in the bible do not change, there are always new interpretations. More significantly it is important that I learn more about relationships and other areas that affect my ministry. Currently, I am participating in a sermon mentorship program because I want to improve my preaching.

           It is easy to just sit back and do nothing at times. Especially when we are asked to limit our movements and quarantine. It is easy to flip on the television or scroll through your social media, and by the time you know it, several hours have cruised by. Not that I speak by experience! In a way, this is what the third servant accomplished! He buried his abilities and just sat!

I believe one thing Jesus is teaching us in this parable is to not bury those abilities we have been gifted, but to reveal them to help others. It is in our continual growth that we come to know ourselves and who we are as children of God. Each person has a different set of abilities and God has entrusted us to use them to care for one another and share love in ways that create strong communities in Christ. Communities that reflect the love of God. We are called to grow in our faith and knowledge of God through the abilities we have received.

           While the first two servants managed to double what their master had given them, the third turned away from the risk. Sometimes we need to “Sin Boldly” as Martin Luther said, so that we can grow and accomplish what at times seems impossible. We do this by stepping into the uncomfortable. We do this by reading and seeking to grow ourselves. We do this by praying for strength and perseverance. God entrusts us to grow, and as we do, we come to know ourselves better and open our beings to experience God in our lives. While our teachers may have entrusted us with the class pet, God entrusts us with creation and the ability to care for and love our neighbors. What good news it is!

To fulfill your curiosity about the hamster situation, it was deemed a good idea to replace the hamster with one that looked remarkably similar. However, there was just one little anatomical difference. Needless to say, my brother was like one of the first two servants that had doubled the amount he was entrusted.

Waiting & Preparing

November 8, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

Now, I don’t know about you and your family, but we learned fairly quickly when our children were young, to not tell them of any upcoming plans because the waiting was excruciating for them and we would get tired of the same questions, “is it time now?” or “how much longer?” We can always point to something that we are waiting for in life. We wait in line at the store. We wait to have our car repaired. We await being accepted into a college we want to attend. We wait and wonder when this pandemic is going to be over. We awaited the outcome of a presidential election that has magnified the divisiveness of our nation. We wait for our dreams to come true. I am sure you can imagine at least a dozen other things you are currently or have recently waited for.

            In Matthew’s gospel, we hear the familiar parable of the ten bridesmaids that are awaiting the bridegroom. They were not told when the bridegroom would appear and thus half of them prepared for an extended wait and the other half were left in the dark! Now, we could argue that the first half were not very Christ like in sharing their oil. We could also say that the unprepared half should have known better. When we start arguing about the specifics, about who is good or bad, smart or foolish, we do not find ourselves far from the arguments we see today in our politics. Regardless of for whom we voted, it is important to realize that we are not in this alone and the presence of God is with us in our waiting and in preparing for whatever may come. However, we are often unprepared for what may come next in life. Who, other than some of the scientists, would have predicted that our world would be upended by a pandemic this year?

            One reason for Jesus sharing this parable is the issue of preparedness. Yes, one group of the bridesmaids were thinking ahead and had brought an extra flask of oil. The other group had just enough in their lamps, and it sounds like they probably went out shortly before the bridegroom arrived. Being caught short is not a great feeling and they have to run off to see if there is a merchant open at such a late hour. I am sure there was a 24/7 oil dealer then! Most likely, probably not. They thought of this at the last minute, when they could have checked in when they all arrived to ensure that everyone was prepared.

We can look at the oil as a metaphor. What is it that we need when we expect Jesus to come anytime? A lamp with oil? I do not believe that is a necessity. The oil that keeps our light going is our faith! Our faith helps shine a light to guide us and even for others to see as we wait for the time to come. The five bridesmaids that ran out of oil could have had a lack of faith that the bridegroom was ever going to show. In their waiting they all became drowsy and fell asleep. We can recall this happening in the garden when Jesus was praying shortly before his arrest. The three disciples that were with him got tired and fell asleep. They were not prepared for what was going to happen next.

            When we find ourselves waiting, we get frustrated and bored. No wonder they fell asleep, right? It is not easy to wait because we want to be able to have answers right away. It is easy to get antsy in the waiting and try to force things to happen when we would have been better off if we were to wait and let the circumstance play itself out. We have become accustom to immediate gratification and waiting seems like cruel and unusual punishment! In the wise words of Tom Petty, in response to wondering when and if his dreams would come true, he sung:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

            Jesus is calling his disciples to be alert and awake in this parable. He wants us present to experience what is happening in our family and community. He wants us present, because he is present to guide our path and help shine a light for us to see where his Word may be guiding us next. The one thing of note in our parable is that the bridesmaids were not alone. Yes, some of them may have been stingy and others unprepared, but they were not alone. They were gathered together in a small community awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. Whatever it is that we are awaiting, we do not have to do it alone. Whether, awaiting the news of a scholarship, the outcome of the latest CT scan, or waiting and wondering when struggles or suffering are going to be over, we can surround ourselves with friends, family, and community.

            The same goes for awaiting the official outcome of a national election. I can guarantee you that there are members of this congregation that are happy with the projected outcome and there are members that are upset. It would be the same if the projected outcome were reversed. Yet, the important thing to remember is that we are a community. We are a family that supports one another through times of struggles and times of joy. In our waiting, we are encouraged to prepare.

What does this look like for the church? First, it is important to remember that regardless of who serves as president the next four years, we turn to Christ as our Lord and Savior, and Christ alone. Second, let us be reminded that we are all gathered as community through the waters of baptism where we were marked with the cross of Christ. In those waters, we are united, and nothing can separate us from the truth that we are siblings regardless if we agree on every issue or not. Third, in the waiting, some of the most important work is done. It gives us the opportunity to look inside ourselves and grow our relationship with God. We can only imagine what the disciples were doing in that upper room following Jesus’ death on the cross. I am sure there was a lot of prayer and self-examination taking place. Finally, we are called to live out the Word of God, especially from Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Wherever you find yourselves in this time of waiting, remember that you are not waiting alone. You are surrounded and loved by a community in Christ. You are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses that have died and gone on to eternal life. And no matter what comes of our waiting, we are still united in a community that is called to share the Good News of our Lord, Jesus Christ, through caring for one another with respect and love.

The Saint’s Good Trouble

November 1, 2020 All Saints Sunday

Matthew 5:1-12

This morning we remember not only the saints that have gone before us, we also remember the saints among us. Saints that have caused Good Trouble and saints that have left many questions. As baptized believers in Jesus Christ, we are all saints following the Way, called to serve and live out the Good News. When we hear the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes as they are known, it is easy to become weary. We become weary because we have a long way to go to receive those blessings. We become weary because our circumstances do not fall in line with the blessings Jesus promises. We become weary because we do not know where to turn next. Amid our current uncertainty with the pandemic, racial tension in the country, and a national election, it is easy to become weary. It is easy to fall into self-isolation amid all of the unsettling news and therefore the weariness feels multiplied.  We are not the first to encounter this weariness in life. All Saints Day is a reminder amid the weariness of watching the news and a weariness we heap upon ourselves, our ancestors have trod this road before and with all the saints gathered, we are not alone.

Now, one of my projects this summer became exploring my family tree. I began to dig deeper specifically into the history of the saints who had gone before me. I was shocked when part of my findings took me to cemeteries in Allenton and Romeo. Finding the headstones of your family can be an exhilarating experience. It is like solving a puzzle. The stories behind those names on the headstones are just as meaningful. As I traced one branch of the tree back to fifteenth century Bavaria Germany (which I did not realize I had that much German in me), I discovered my 14th Great-Grandfather was Jacob Luther. The same Jacob Luther whose father was Hans and whose brother was Martin. Yes, that Martin! This incredible discovery left me in awe.

It can be powerful knowing your ancestors and the saints that have gone before. Some of you may have similar stories of finding ancestors. There are things our ancestors have done which we do not like to bring to light. I will admit that having that link to Martin Luther is pretty amazing and empowering at the same time. For not growing up in the church and now being a Lutheran pastor, you have to think the Spirit was at work. In my own weariness and not knowing where to turn next, I can think of my ancestor Martin Luther and his steadfast faith and willingness to say, “Here I Stand.” In those words, Martin Luther stood firm in his faith and spoke boldly the Word of Christ. Like Jesus, he was far from favored by the leaders of the church. Martin Luther liked to, in the words of the late Senator John Lewis, cause Good Trouble.

As Revelation reminds us this morning, we will gather as a multitude of nations encompassing all people when we fully experience the kindom of God. We are shaped by our history, and while you may or may not have notable people in your ancestry, you still have a story to share. Honestly, I don’t believe it matters who your 14th Great-Grandfather is, because we are all children of God. Yes, it is cool to stake the claim of certain people in your family tree. There is someone that has a larger claim on us. God has staked a claim on us in our baptisms and it is in the waters we are marked. We are all siblings in the kindom, and it is there where our brokenness is made whole.

In the saints, we get glimpses of the blessing Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes. We can name various leaders throughout the centuries, from Martin Luther to John Lewis, who spoke and stood up for their believes, empowered by their faith. We need these leaders who caused “Good Trouble.” It is a Good Trouble that is upside down from the practices of a society so devoted to itself. Martin Luther raised Good Trouble when he addressed the corruption in the church and raised concerns over the dissemination of the Word of God. Thus, translating the Bible into German so the everyday person had the opportunity to read it and live God’s Word.

John Lewis, one of the many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, coined the term Good Trouble. It is Good Trouble that we find ourselves in when we begin following and believing in the Beatitudes of Jesus. It is Good Trouble that speaks up for those that are oppressed and are not being heard themselves. It is Good Trouble that pulls us up and out of our own brokenness to be made whole in the love found in Jesus Christ.  

So, what would it mean if we started to bless people as Jesus blesses us this morning as we hear his word? These blessings are not conditions Jesus is setting up for the future. They are blessings in the very moment. The very moment the words roll off Jesus’ tongue for the disciples circled around him and the crowd gathered on the hillside to hear his words of hope in midst of the desperation of an empire that has held them in check for too long. They are blessings for us today. Causing Good Trouble means walking with our neighbors in the midst of their hunger and thirst. Causing Good Trouble means speaking up for those that are oppressed. Causing Good Trouble means attempting to make the broken whole.

Who likes to admit that they are broken and in need of help? Perhaps it is even the system that is broken and needs to be repaired or even replaced. Martin Luther sought to repair what he witnessed as broken and here we are today worshiping in the Lutheran Church. John Lewis with the other Civil Rights Leaders knew that the system needed to be fixed if they expected the voices of Black Americans to be heard.

And both, Martin Luther and John Lewis, were surrounded with the Saints to ensure them that they were not in their struggles alone. With the help of the Saints, they would cause Good Trouble.  A Good Trouble that allowed them to stand firm in their faith for what they believed in. Jesus for sure caused a lot of Good Trouble walking through the Israeli countryside. We are called to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, going as far as enduing our own suffering. We do so as we are gathered with all the saints. As we do so, where are we willing to cause Good Trouble?

What is Holding You in Slavery?

October 25, 2020

John 8:31-36

As Lutherans, one of the staples of our liturgy is the Confession and Forgiveness. While we practice individual confession and forgiveness, it is much more common to partake in the corporate confession and forgiveness when we gather as an assembly, either in-person or virtually as we have learned to do over the past several months.

As Lutherans, one of the staples of our liturgy is the Confession and Forgiveness. While we practice individual confession and forgiveness, it is much more common to partake in the corporate confession and forgiveness when we gather as an assembly, either in-person or virtually as we have learned to do over the past several months.

While the words of the confession and forgiveness may change over time, they point to the redeeming grace found in God; It evokes not only our sin, but the sin of the world and how we are, as humanity, not complete until we are redeemed in that grace and mercy. There is a comfort in reciting these words as they are combined with the forgiveness. A forgiveness we need to hear every week.

In the beginning of the confession we recited this morning, we acknowledged we “cannot free ourselves.” Reformation Sunday is a day for us to reflect on such things as we contemplate scripture and the writing of Martin Luther. The freedom found in Jesus Christ was a revelation for Luther and it became the foundation of his arguments against what he thought was wrong teaching by others in the church in the sixteenth century. Jesus Christ bears our burdens and, in this action, we are given the freedom of grace.

Yet, as Jesus speaks to those gathered in our gospel, there is still the notion of slavery. As Americans, the mention of slavery can bring up many thoughts and emotions as we contemplate its definition given our context and personal experiences. As a mostly homogenous group of white Americans, slavery is not going to bring about the same feelings as it does for our siblings of color. Slavery is still very much with us today and we are all held in it is some form or another.

It is easy to forget one’s past when it is not convenient to remember. This can be witnessed in the words of the Jews that are listening to Jesus when they say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” If I am recalling correctly, wasn’t there that time our Jewish ancestors were enslaved in Egypt? How about the time the Babylonians conquered Israel? It sounds like there may be some selective amnesia taking place here.

We are prone to the same. Given the scope of time, it was not that long ago that the Americas were under British rule. And while proudly stating that “We live in the land of the free,” that has not always been the case and one could argue there is still work to do. Our early ancestors on this continent took land from the Native Americans and enslaved and killed them; they enslaved African-Americans; and even our ancestors of different nationalities and faith traditions were looked down upon, such as Irish siblings and Roman Catholics. Today slavery occurs in the form of racism and many others ‘isms, and even more physically in human trafficking. These are just some of the sins that Jesus refers to and the ones we confess.

We also sin in our own thoughts on a daily basis, thus the need to continually return to confession and forgiveness. We can be slaves to our own thoughts. We can become fearful of making mistakes or even sinning (trying to focus on perfection). In these instances, we are held in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. In a familiar quote, Martin Luther writes

“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says [2 Peter 3:13], we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells …. Pray boldly – you too are a mighty sinner.” (Luther’s Works, Vol 48, p. 281-282, boldface added)

We will be slaves to sin. Jesus reminds us that his presence frees us from forces around us that are vying for our attention and focus. Quite often, Jesus steers us in a different direction than society. Martin Luther was trying to re-steer the church back to the Word of Christ. The powers of both the 1st and 16th Century were focused on empire and control.  We live in a society in which power is what makes society move and it is the political capital of choice. In Jesus, we are freed from that. We are freed from the power grabbing and scheming. The only claim on us that we need to be concerned with is that we are children of God. A God who is gracious and merciful.

One commentator sums up Luther’s quote on sinning boldly in this manner, “Get off your butt and do something — even if it’s wrong. God can forgive it.” We cannot worry about perfection. For there was only one person that can claim that designation. Jesus knows that we are going to sin and fall short of the glory of God. Each of us are held captive by sin, and we are redeemed by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus’ love poured out for us on the cross.

Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers

Are you looking for a resource to introduce your children to some wonderful people that have made a difference in humanity? Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints is an incredible collection of saints that are familiar and not so familiar.

I was astounded by the vast array of Saints that Akers has included in this edition, and rumor has it that she is already working on volume 2. The book is quite inclusive and lifts up those that have fought for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. You have your classics, such as Saint Francis included, and people from the past centuries including Fred Rogers and Rachel Held Evans.

This collection reveals that to have closer relationship with God and to carry out your calling in the world does not mean you have to fit a mold. I would recommend this to anyone that has struggled with the conservative views of the church. This book projects love!

Thanks to Speakeasy for the review copy.