Called and Named

January 13, 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7

The art of the handwritten note is one of those practices that has been diminished by easier, quicker options to communicate. I know that I am guilty of it, even though I set the intention to send personalized notes. When we can email, text, or contact through social media, we are able to express our thoughts in an array of quicker, more immediate options.

There is just something about a handwritten note though. It is the next best thing to having the person that wrote it standing right next to you. It can convey a simple message in the voice of the person writing it. It reminds us that someone took the time to reach out to us and remember us. It is something you can keep.

One of my most prized Christmas gifts is an ELW. Yes, you heard me right, an Evangelical Lutheran Worship Hymnal! Just like the ones in the pews in front of you. Why does it mean so much? It is because it was from my pastor a couple years before I started seminary and I was in the midst of starting the candidacy process. It is a prized gift because he wrote a personal note in the front cover. Reminding me that where ever the Spirit may lead me, I am blessed and am a blessing!

I have another note that I have kept for nearly 25 years that I received at my high school graduation from my fourth-grade teacher along with a dictionary. In it, she reminded me that I am part of a very special family. God does the same for us through scripture as we are called and named by a loving God that has come down to earth to accompany us in our daily walk.

Notes like these can touch us and help guide us in times of uncertainty and fear. They give us reassurance when self-doubt creeps in. As we are reminded this morning of Jesus’ baptism, we also rejoice in ours. However, let’s be honest, it is often easy to forget those words that were spoken to us in our own baptisms and as we reaffirm them on different occasions. When we look at the world around us and the evil that persists, we can easily be baptized in fear. A fear that drives us away from everything that Christ stands for. We forget everything in those moments that we are baptized in fear. We forget our heritage. We forget our names, who we are called to be. We forget our purpose. We even forget those resources in which we have been entrusted.

The people of Israel that the prophets spoke to also were no strangers to fear. In Isaiah we are presented with a story of our ancestors living in exile and anticipating a return home, if not for themselves, at least for the generations that follow. They are gripped by fear and a feeling of isolation. Wondering where to turn next and wondering if things will ever get any better. The story in Isaiah spans a couple of hundred years from the time they are taken into exile in Babylon until the time they return to their homeland. They went from an independent people to ones that were conquered. No wonder, they are living in fear and uncertainty.

Amid their exile, they are reminded that they are loved. The beginning of this chapter in Isaiah can be read like one of those personal notes. It reminds them that they are special and that they are very much a part of God’s glorious creation and are personally called. This passage from Isaiah brings hope to a nation that is in turmoil. It gives hope for the time to come.

It not only speaks to those living in exile, it also reaches across millennia and is an incredible reminder for today. We too, are called personally into a life with God. We too have been created. We too have been formed. We too have been redeemed. We too have been called. In these actions by God, we are reminded that we are precious and honored. These are all words that we should be reminded of and listen to daily. Each one of you has been created and called by God and are worthy of the love of God. In this love, you are called to live into a relationship with God that has come down to earth in the form of Jesus Christ.

We should not be overly concerned about what happens when we die. We should be concerned about how we are living our life today! Isaiah reminds the people who they are and whose they are despite their sins. We too should remember who and whose we are when we are confronted with the fears of society and be reminded of the love of God that came down to earth for us in Jesus Christ.

In his baptism, Jesus hears the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  In the water of our own baptisms we too were reminded that we are children of God and we are loved, now and forevermore. May these words wash over you every chance they get, so that you remember you are beloved and with you, God is pleased.

Let us pray. God of the waters, we fall prey to shortsightedness every time we let fear guide our thoughts and actions. May you guide us with your love as we affirm our baptisms and walk in your light. Amen.

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Seeking the Light

January 6, 2019 Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

My family likes to play games. From card games, board games, and even more recently role-playing games. Doing so, we have the opportunity to enjoy one another’s company, share in laughter, and grab bragging rights for the next time that we play.

However, there have been times when we have played that someone has joined us that does not like to lose. They attempt to change the rules midstream so that they also end up on top and will never be the loser. The desire to win often times brings frustration and confusion to the other friends and family that are attempting to play the game honestly. Even when this is brought to the attention of the arrogant player, they still seem to be in the dark. In their desire to remain on top, they alienate themselves and wonder why they are left in the dark as everyone else moves on to have a good time doing something else. Where does the joy come from when one must trick others to guarantee yourself a winner?

The magi have no desire to be left in the dark as they transcend their role to pay homage to the newborn king. The magi are a reminder for us that Jesus, the newborn king, brings light to the world for all to see.

The magi are a living example of what it means to live in the time of Advent. In the gospel this morning we are told of the gifts that they shared with Jesus, but they have also been able to utilize the gifts of waiting, seeking, and discovery. They were waiting for the light to appear, and the star that has risen in the sky is a sign for them to seek out the newborn king. With this new information, they are able to venture out into the vastness that lies between them and Jesus to discover the light born into the world in the form of a child.

Herod, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Advent. In the story of Herod, we receive a message of rejection, fear, and refusal of the light. While Herod is Jewish himself, he was made a client king by the Roman rulers, so that they could appease people in the hopes that he would connect better to the people of Judea. By the time word of Jesus’ birth comes to his ears through the magi, he has been ruling for nearly forty years. His time ruling has been plagued in fear of losing the kingship and the executions of his own family to ensure that he remains in power. In the magi’s message, Herod is once again gripped by the fear of a change that could come to Judea. A change that could result in him losing his authority as king. We can nearly sense the refusal in Herod’s reactions to see the light that has come to the world in which the magi are now seeking.

When we become fearful of change, loss, and even comfort, we can be hindered in our daily lives from opening our eyes to the light of Christ all around us. At times we struggle with putting our fears aside so that we can experience the light that God offers to us. We much rather cling to false hopes and self-preservation instead of seeking the light in others. When we refuse to see Christ in our sisters and brothers, we walk the same line as Herod!

There is an incredible message waiting for us in Matthew today. It is a message of welcome. It is a message that God does not stop at any barrier. God breaks down stereo types and reaches out to shine the light far and wide. The shepherds were sent an angelic choir to sing the praises of the newborn king. To the magi a star appears in the sky to guide them to the light of the world that illuminates the darkness. Even Herod is given the sign of the magi that are going to share gifts worthy of a king; only his jealousy blocks the light for him to see.

Jesus’ ministry will be one of reaching out to those that are on the outskirts of society. Those that have been frowned upon and those that others will not give the time of day. He chooses to eat with the poor, the excluded, the sick, the lonely, prostitutes, and even tax collectors!

In the bearing of gifts worthy of a king, the magi and all of humanity receive something much greater, the light of the world. That light is revealed to us through our own epiphanies. Perhaps, we see it in the eyes of our significant other, in the first cry of our own children when they were born. Perhaps we have even seen it in the last breaths of a loved one as they have come at least to peace in the hands of a loving God. Do we share these experiences and spread the good news?

The magi receive word in a dream that they must not return to Herod and report what they have seen. Instead they go a different route. What route has Jesus called us to follow as we listen to the Word today? We have moved through Advent into Christmas and now Epiphany to experience and be the light. May you all find the route Jesus is calling you to follow as you enter this new year with hope and a promise of the Light that has come into the world.

Let us pray. God of light, may we be guided as the magi were guided to find and pay homage to your newborn son. May we be bearers of this same light in our lives so that others may experience the love of Christ through our words and actions. Amen.

Love Drawn Here

Special Thanks to Sanctified Art for their Advent and Christmas Themes

December 24, 2018 Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

This evening we are ushered into the great story of Christmas. Luke welcomes us into the story by sharing what it was like in “those days.” Time was tracked by the time of the current ruler, as in Jesus’ case, it was Emperor Augustus. It would be like me stating today that I was born in the time Gerald Ford was President of the United States, or my children were born in the time of George W. Bush being President.

We have all experienced birth in some form or another. Whether it be yourself or a family member. It can be scary and raise levels of anxiety. Yet, more often than not, it brings times of great joy and quite often a shift in lifestyle. It does not take long to learn that there is something different about the birth we are rejoicing tonight. In all of its ordinariness, we are illuminated by the glory of angels singing and a great light shining all around. Love drew nearer to humanity over two thousand years ago than it had ever been. In the birth of the Messiah, the light reaches to the darkest recesses to share the good news with all people.

We are reminded in our first lesson from Isaiah that there was disharmony among the people. The people of Israel were being oppressed by Assyria, and in First Century Israel, the oppression came from the Roman Empire. There is a darkness that overshadows everything, and the people are just waiting for something great to happen. They are seeking freedom from their oppressors. There is a pervasiveness that comes with the darkness that seems to extend through time; from the very beginning of creation to the world in which Mary and Joseph find themselves trying to find a place to stay.

You would think that Joseph returning to the town of his family, Bethlehem, there would still be some relatives around that would welcome in Joseph and Mary. At the least, there would have been other family members that had to make the same trek. However, is the obvious pregnancy of Mary, due any day now, turning his family away? It is possible that they were ashamed of what they saw, knowing that Mary and Joseph had yet to be wed.

The hospitality that they are hoping to find leaves them on the outside. On the outside of a warm meal. On the outside of a warm bed and a comfortable place to sleep and prepare for the birth. On the outside of the love of family that they were probably longing for. This is the darkness that they were experiencing.

We feel that same darkness when we are not welcome and are left on the outside looking in. We crave to be part of something and yet it seems out of our reach. We long for a hospitality that will embrace us where we are and as we are.

While Mary and Joseph are looking for a place to stay, the plans for them are not yet complete. While no one welcomes them, they will soon be the ones to welcome others into the glory that has been proclaimed to them. The shepherds hear of the great news and come to see for themselves. Mary and Joseph are stunned to find out what they know. In their hospitality, they have allowed others into the great wonder that is now part of their story.

We are told that, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She knew what was to take place as the angel had told her before she was pregnant. It is in the words of the shepherds that she is affirmed, and their words bring a reality to the whole thing. Those words she held dearly, as she knew that her son was destined for something much greater than she could ever imagine. As the love of God drew near to everyone close to the manger that evening over two thousand years ago, it is a love that has never left us. That love is drawn here in our very hearts and welcomes us into something great and mysterious at the very same time.

That love is here when we wonder. That love is here when we seek the truth. That love is here when we reach out to the neighbor and stranger alike in justice. That love is here this very night as we draw nearer to one another. This love that is drawn here extends out to all of creation as we welcome the birth of the Messiah, and we ourselves are welcomed into the great love of God.

Let us pray. Prince of Peace, we rejoice in your birth and the love you brought from all corners of the earth. May the light that you bring to the darkness comfort us and bring us peace. Amen.

Draw Near to Justice

Image Credit: Daily Theology dailytheology.org

December 16, 2018 Advent 3

Luke 3:7-18

This is the time of year that many people live for. The festivities and parties. The lights and the pageantry. The giving and the receiving.  While we may be in the season of Advent in the church, many others are in the season of indulgence. Spending beyond their means so that they can attempt to bring joy to a friend or family member.

It is in light of this that we continue to wait in Advent. We wait to rejoice in the birth of a baby that is going to change the world. We wait for the light that is to be born into the world that calls out the darkness. We wait with bated breath for the hope promised to us by our ancestors.

With this,we find ourselves in the third week of Advent. How wonderful it is to be greeted by the insults of John the Baptist, “You brood of vipers!” Wow, he know show to wake us up from our complacency. He continues to call us out of our comfort zone and into the reality of this world. He attempts to pull our attention away from the office Christmas parties and the twinkling lights. Through John the Baptist we are called to live alongside our neighbors and draw near to the justice found in Jesus.

John the Baptist was the voice crying out in the wilderness. He causes us to sit up straight and pay attention because the message he must share is so much different then others we have been hearing. He speaks with a voice of resistance. A voice that is not afraid to proclaim the message he has been given to share. This resistance will eventually get him killed.

While John resists those in authority, our society tends to resist the gospel message in parts.I will be bold to say that many live lives of apathy. It is much easier to just sit back and worry about yourself then it is to step outside of your comfort zone and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or welcome the stranger. We may know we need to repent of this apathy, yet it is so much easier to sit down and relax.

The people that are listening to John are thirsty for instruction. They want to know what they should do. This has not changed much over time. The early Israelites were also asking for a king and someone to guide them and tell them what to do. It continues in the Israel of John’s time as they want to know what they should do when he calls them out of their complacency and desire to stay where they are at.

It is easy to look in the past and think that it was better then and want the same thing today. However, as John cries out in the wilderness, it is a reminder for us that we too are called out of our complacency and our drawn near to the incarnate God. The Son of God was born human so that we could connect in relationship and get a glimpse of the great mystery.

John’s message comes as a sign of grace for us in a world that is broken and needs the love God has promised to all of creation. A love that John points to in his proclamation.A love that is born into the world so that all will come to know God and be baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Bearing good fruit is part of the message that John shares. We all want to bear good fruit. When those that chose to follow John the Baptist ask, “What then should we do?” he pulls his answer from the law that came before him. You must share a coat if you have two! You must not over-tax people and only take what has been prescribed!You must not extort through threats or false accusations! We too, should be following these instructions of John the Baptist.

However, our redemption does not hinge on these actions. The promise of Jesus following John the Baptist to baptize in the Holy Spirit connects us with something much greater. It is here that we encounter the grace of God that washes over us regardless of our actions. God’s love for us was made clear in the death of Jesus and we are given hope through the resurrection.

We are drawn near to justice this advent season because of Jesus. Through the grace that we receive in baptism and being fed at the table, we should desire to bear good fruit, not because we have to, but because we want to. Because we desire to encounter God in our neighbors and the stranger. The awesome thing is that Trinity does a fantastic job of this through our various ministries, including MCREST and the bags we recently filled for the Detroit Rescue Mission. By doing so, we speak boldly to the voices of injustice and proclaim more boldly with love. May you continue to be bold in your proclamation of love this holiday season.

Let us pray. God of justice, you raise up the sinner and fulfill the promise of resurrection. May we continue to be embraced in your love this season and respond in acting in justice for all of creation. Amen.

Book Review: Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde

“…the room went from tears to laughter at the drop of a snot.”

It is quips like this that make Caleb Wilde’s book so real. I had purchased it almost as soon as it came out last year and I am sorry that it took me so long to read it. 

As a pastor, I too see death on a regular basis and hear all of the misleading phrases that are meant as comfort and honestly do more harm than good in the long run. As he states in the book, death is real, and grief is real. The narrative that we place around death and dying is really what shapes us as humanity. To be healthy, we must approach it from a positive narrative, however, we are more prone to approach death from a negative narrative. 

The funeral director and the pastor both have a vital role in shaping this for families of the dead, and unfortunately, not all look at death as something to embrace. The stories that are shared are real. They are situations that I have personally experienced as well. They are not unique to Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. They are the stories that we live as humans and ones that are repeated time an time again. 

Overtime, our view of death has been shaped by faulty theology and ill-conceived intentions. I agree with Wilde that death is a sacred experience and not something that we can bring closure to. It is real and our family and friends that have died surround us daily in a great cloud of witnesses. His book is a way into the conversation the breaks us open to love and learning how to just be.

The book reveals how he has found life in the midst of death. How he has grown into his family business and how he has learned to walk with families at their most vulnerable moments. It is a read that may reshape your own preconceived notions of death and the life that emerges from it. 

You can follow Caleb Wilde on his blog.

Book Review: Thirst by Scott Harrison

I had first heard of Thirst, while listening to Rob Bell’s podcast, The Robcast. The author, Scott Harrison has a great story to share with his readers which speaks to our own broken human nature on multiple levels. First, it speaks to the individual brokenness that Scott does not try to hide. Second, it speaks to the brokenness of our own world and the inability that we have claimed to be able to get everyone a clean glass of water to drink. If you are looking for something to stir your soul, this book will fulfill that need.

Scott Harrison starts by sharing his story of the good Christian boy gone bad. He became a club promoter, but realized that there was something more to life that drinking all night and sleeping in until late in the afternoon. He would spend money nearly as fast as he could make it. 

As he began to listen to where he was being called he served on a Mercy Ship and out of that experience started Charity:Water. The lives that Charity:Water has touched and changed is incredible as they reach out to those that do not have access to clean water. The ups and downs of the non-profit industry resonate in the book and it is amazing how quickly it grew. 

Charity:Water is not a Christian organization, but it’s heart reflects that of Jesus Christ’s as they reach out to bring a better life to as many people as possible. This book brought me joy and a greater sense of my own call.

Draw Near to Truth

December 9, 2018

Luke 3:1-6

My previous career as a sales rep introduced me to a lot of people. Each of these people had their own personalities that ranged from mellow to off the wall. A man atone of the accounts that I called on would share stories that were so off the wall, you would think that he was making them up just to see if you would fall for it. I would start to question whether or not he was telling me was the truth. Of course, wanting the sale, I would just nod along with him in agreement.

I am sure that you have all encountered someone like this. Someone that bends the truth so much that there is no resemblance to the facts. I imagine that John the Baptist had many people questioning him. If you remember Matthew and Mark’s description of John the Baptist, they described him looking more like someone you would associate as homeless. He wore a coat of camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He also was most likely not the first one trying to foretell the coming of the Lord. Now, his image in this drawing may make you pause. He may not be the first person you would walk up to if you had a question.

However, he knew what he was saying was true. He drew many people near him in his proclamation.And in his bold proclamation, he points to the truth that is revealed in our true Lord, Jesus Christ. In John preparing the way, we are drawn near to that truth.

Not everyone was amused with John. Can you imagine the push back he received from some when he proclaimed that he was preparing the way for the Lord who was to come after him? I am sure that he was mocked and ridiculed. I am sure that some people turned their backs on him because what he was saying they did not want to hear.They already had their way set in front of them and there was no way that they were going to follow him down the detour that he was instructing they take. There was no way this man that looked like he was probably better left out by himself was going to call people to follow him and surely, he was not talking about the long-awaited messiah.

John the Baptist was calling people out of their comfort zones. He was naming their fears and telling them to face them straight on. While we know he did have some followers, I am sure that he made just as many, if not more, very uneasy.

When someone comes to us and tells us something that we do not agree with, quite often we put up some type of boundary and block them out. We pretend that we do not hear them because we “know” our way is the only way. Please don’t re-route us,because the path we are on is the one with least resistance. We don’t want to be challenged to go over the higher mountains and through the deepest valleys. We would much rather take the easy road, not the road least traveled.

That is the problem. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to go against the grain.However, this is where Jesus found himself through his entire earthly journey. Today,it seems that Jesus is the road less traveled. If we were to truly follow Jesus words today, we would truly be living counter to our current society.

In the midst of what was happening in 1st Century Israel, John the Baptist had no reservations of calling out to those that were willing to listen. He did not care about the Roman authorities that ruled or the temple leaders that at times seemed distant from God. His voice spoke boldly and proclaimed the great things that were about to happen. He cried out in the wilderness to ensure that everyone heard the wonderful news he was about to share. The beginning of the good news of Jesus.

We too are called to listen! There is a voice crying out in the wilderness still today. It is a voice that calls all of us into God’s loving embrace. An embrace that meets us where we are at. The voice that cries out is present when we take time to sit with God in prayer. It is also present in and among our daily actions as we live out our lives. Have you heard the voice that calls you into love? Have you heard the voice that calls you to reach out and help your neighbor? Have you heard the voice that breaks through the barriers to share the gospel?

In Jesus,the crooked roads that we find ourselves on are going to be made straight and the rough roads are going to be paved over. In Jesus, our old ways are washed clean and we are refreshed and given a new road map. We are called to a new way of living. We are called to a new way of being.

The awesome thing is that when this happens, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” With every step we take this Advent season, we are being drawn near to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

Let us pray. Jesus, you are the way, the truth, and the life. May we find our way in you and be less distracted by those things on our peripheries. And may you guide us in preparing the way for others. Amen.