Longing in the Wilderness

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December 10, 2017

Mark 1:1-8

At some point in all of our lives, there is a longing that resides within us and it can be hard to name. We know that something is calling us to greater things, but we are not sure what it may be. The longing can take on the form of nostalgia as we look towards the past and wish that we were back in a time where things seemed much simpler. Those days when we were children and we did not have too much to personally worry about. We long for that time where we may have felt more secure. That same longing can also bring a sense of pain as old memories are restored and we are confronted with those things that we would rather not approach.

The institutional church is great at longing. Longing for days past. Longing for days when there were a 100 children in Sunday School and the sanctuary was full every Sunday. Yet, when we long for the things that were, we tend to forget God in the present and the trajectory that the Spirit is guiding us.

There is a longing that we can point to this morning within our lessons. First, in Isaiah, the people of Israel are nearing the end of their Babylonian Exile and there is a longing for what they had many years ago. They longed to be back in Israel and the familiar, even though a couple of generations had passed. They knew it was their home and they longed to return to the land of their ancestors.

This is picked up in our gospel lesson from Mark this morning. “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.’ ” There is a longing among the Jewish people that takes place across time. A longing to be in touch with God. A longing to repent of their past grievances and to be found righteous in the eyes of God that had seen them out of exile.

In the longing, they find themselves in the wilderness. The wilderness can be a scary place if you are not familiar with it. You don’t know what is around each bend and each turn could lead to the unexpected. The wilderness does not tell them when it will end. The wilderness can make them forget who they were, or it can help them look toward the future.

Everyone of us could point to some time in our lives when we found ourselves in the wilderness. A time where we felt lost and did know where to turn. A time that all hope seemed to be lost. Perhaps, some of you may even being finding yourselves in that wilderness now. Amid the decorations that we have up in preparation for the Christmas Season, celebrating Christmas may be the farthest thing from your mind.

We may find ourselves longing for days when we felt more comfortable. We even celebrate the days gone past. Richmond has the Good Old Days Festival. My hometown, has a Frontier Days Festival. Now, I am not saying that we should not remember those that have gone before us and helped lay the foundation for our families. These festivals are great for building community and being in relationship with one another. Our Jewish ancestors had several festivals that they celebrated and still celebrate to this day. As we look towards the past, let’s not forget that God is working towards the future.

Those days that we felt comfortable, may have been uncomfortable for others. This is not the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches. The entire world will continue to find itself in the wilderness until we can come together and be reconciled with one another.

In the wilderness the Israelites find hope. While they may have been in the wilderness for decades, Isaiah tells them that their waiting is over and they are being called back to the homeland. It is John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness that proclaims he is clearing the way for someone even greater than him. While John is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, it is merely with water that he baptizes. It is in the hope of the coming of Jesus Christ that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist prepares the way to lead people out of the wilderness. It is in Jesus Christ that those that have followed John will find the true God. The God that forgives all sins and breathes the Holy Spirit upon people, calling them to continue proclaiming the good news. That is the first verse of Mark, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants to let his readers know what they are going to be reading. This is the good news that comes to the people of Israel as foretold in the Hebrew scriptures, This is the good news that they have been waiting for. This is the good news that was with creation at the very beginning.

In the midst of our own wilderness, many of us are still searching. Searching for something that may be lost. Searching for meaning in our lives. Searching for what it is God is calling us to. Perhaps, you have given up searching. It is hard work, that is true. As we find ourselves in the wilderness, Jesus never said it was going to be easy.

The people that began following John the Baptist were searching for something. They were longing for something greater. People today are searching as well. Longing for deeper relationships and yearning to find meaning in a life that sometimes feels overburdened by the negativity of our world. It is in the voice crying out in the wilderness that we find our hope. We first hear of Jesus Christ, in the gospel of Mark, from John the Baptist. He is simply preparing the way.

The way has been prepared for us. Jesus has come into the world and fulfilled the prophecy of the prophets. In Jesus Christ, we find the grace of God in flesh for all people. The grace of God that welcomes in saints and sinners alike. The grace of God that calls us out of our longing and searching. The grace of God that loves beyond compare.

As you find yourself in your own wilderness, look for those that have prepared they way, and listen to the voice of God calling you and naming you as a beloved child. For as Mark writes, “this is the beginning of the good news.” Do you understand that? It is just the beginning. We find ourselves in a wonderful story that has not come to completion yet. In this story we find hope and grace.

Let us pray. . . .God that fulfills our longing, we come to you in the middle of our own wildernesses. Reveal to us the calling you have placed on our lives as we desire to follow your Son, Jesus Christ. We give thanks for those that have prepared the way and we ask for strength and perseverance as we wait for your kingdom to fully be upon us. Amen.

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Claiming Faithfulness

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Mark 13:24-37

As children, we usually first learn of faithfulness as we enter into relationship with our parents. We begin to learn that they are someone to trust and rely on. When we have needs, we know that it is them that we can seek when we do not know where to turn. This continues through school age and into their teen years, even when we think we know more than our parents. Unfortunately for some, parents are not always present and thus the image as God as a loving parent does not resonate. There is then a struggle to justify what it means to be in relationship with God and the thought of faithfulness flies out the window.

This Sunday we begin a new Church year, and like all first Sunday’s of Advent, we have an apocalyptic image presented and the second coming of Jesus. We haven’t even celebrated the birth of Jesus this church year yet, and we are already speaking of his return. Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching begins at the beginning of chapter 13 (vs. 1-8). Here we have the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, which when Mark’s gospel was written, had already happened.

Perhaps you feel a little rushed in hearing the gospel lesson this morning. Why are we talking about the second coming in the midst of our waiting during Advent? Don’t worry, there is an uneasiness in the midst of the disciples as well. They are not yet prepared for Jesus to leave them, even though that is what he has been preparing them for during the last three years. Again, we have the warning from Jesus to “keep awake.”

If you recall, we heard these words just a few weeks ago in the parable of the ten bridesmaids as they were waiting for the bridegroom and half of them were not fully prepared. This could possibly be something that we should pay attention to. There may be something behind this theme of keeping awake. In the midst of keeping awake, one may wonder how faithfulness fits into our practice.

It is in Jesus’ prophetic voice that he is encouraging them to stay faithful to the ministry that they have been doing. In the midst of his death, to not lose hope. And yet, what did they do? On that Good Friday, they went to the upper room and sulked around and did not know what to do. They were living in fear.

We have the habit of doing the same thing when things do not go the way we expect them to. We go and sulk and we begin to lose any faith that we had. We begin to question everything and we are left wondering where to turn next. Just like the disciples.

We too, like to rush. How long ago did we begin to see Christmas decorations up in the stores. Usually, they start appearing before Halloween is even over. We want to look right past the time of Advent and get right to the presents and joyous family gatherings. We fail to take time to listen to God in our waiting and watching for the Christ child, yet alone the return of Christ.

That is the way we have been taught to function in our society. We saw it just a few days ago with our Congress. They rush a tax bill through a vote without allowing proper time for full disclosures and the opportunities to examine how it will affect the majority of Americans. We have found it hard to delay gratification. We know what we want, and we want it now!

We fail to let God work in God’s time and because of this, that faithfulness that God calls us to as God’s children becomes tarnished.

Fortunately, faithfulness is not a one way street!

Paul reminds the people of Corinth that “God is faithful.” God calls all into the fellowship of Jesus Christ. That fellowship is not exclusive. All are invited to be a part of it. Despite the prophetic warning that Jesus gives the disciples, God is present.

God is present in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, just as God was present in the beginning. God is faithful through the Word, that is Jesus Christ. The Word that is promised to come again. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus tells them, “but [his} words will not pass away.” While the disciples have no clue exactly what Jesus means in these words, they will come to understand. It is in their staying awake that they will encounter Christ and be open to the calling of the Holy Spirit. A calling that will lead them on their own paths proclaiming the Good News of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

While we are called to keep awake, there are times that we fall asleep at the wheel. We forget where we are going and we get distracted by the bright twinkly Christmas lights.  The chaos in our world makes us point to the apocalypse, give up all hope, or truly dig deep and encounter the faithfulness that God has for us. Created in God’s image, we can find hope, knowing that God’s presence is always with us and God’s faithfulness will never vanish.

Our faithfulness, on the other hand, is not as consistent. Because of this, we have the reminder of Jesus Christ breaking into this world to walk among us and encounter the same pain and suffering that we do throughout our lives. In this time of Advent, we wait and watch. We keep awake for the sign of hope found in Jesus Christ. In Jesus we find life and are called to live it abundantly.

Rowan Williams, in Being Christian, writes, “The new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, “Where might you expect to find the baptized?” one answer is, “In the neighborhood of chaos.” It means you expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured, and needy.”

This is the faithfulness of God that shines through the darkness for all people, but especially for the lost and forgotten. The hungry and the poor. Those that society has cast away. Through our actions as people of God, we can share that same faithfulness with those that we serve. Those that we help when we support mission trips, welcome the homeless during MCREST, collect food for the backpack ministry and the food pantry, prepare gift bags for the children of Macomb County, and much much more.

As we begin our Advent Season, let us claim our faithfulness and keep awake, not only for the coming of the Christ Child, but for the return of Christ to this world to make all things right.

Let us pray…Expectant God, we struggle and are challenged when it comes to keeping awake. May your faithfulness in us, guide us to claim our faithfulness in you. May we be embraced by your love this season of Advent as we wait and watch. Not just this time of year, but until the kingdom of heaven has finally come into view. Amen.

When did we…

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Matthew 25:31-46

Let’ admit it, Jesus is much easier to see in some people than he is in others.

I got to know David while I was serving in my last congregation. Some would have said that he was a bit odd and hard to approach. He would amaze me though as I would see him out in the flower beds of the church cleaning them out, or sweeping the walnuts from the parking lot. Half of the time, he would be using crutches to assist his movement. He would come into the office and let me know that he had a box or bag of food that he would like us to donate to the food pantry, or he would simply give us money to support the pantry. David was not a member of my congregation, but lived in the Samaritas Senior Living Apartments located directly behind the church.

It is easy to see Jesus in the people that give freely of their time and talents without expecting anything in return. Do we choose to see Jesus in the people that come asking for money or get in line at the soup kitchen?

This is where we run into trouble in the gospel text. Jesus continues to share with the disciples what the kingdom of heaven is going to look like. This is the last story that he will share with his disciples before they sit down together for the Passover meal and his arrest and execution on the cross.

Once again, hard words to hear, coming from the one that we now know is suppose to be the Messiah. We do not have the opportunity to hear what the disciples response is to this last story. I have a feeling that their response is probably not too different from ours. The judgement talk seems to be a little different from the Jesus we know that would sit down with sinners, tax collectors, the sick and outcasts of society. There are also some inklings of the idea that there is a tinge of works righteousness present. Do we really have to treat everyone the way Jesus describes? What about grace? The judgement here seems to tell us otherwise.

As we come to the last Sunday of the church year, Matthew has taken us on quite the arch this past year. We have walked through a gospel that brings us the good news of Jesus’ birth and his ministry with the disciples. We have heard of the miracles that he performed, and the openness that he showed to all that came to him.

While we listen to Matthew’s gospel, we also get caught up in our own stories. Our lives have pulled us this way and that way during the past year and we at times forget the gospel good news that we hear residing in the words of Jesus. The more that we forget the words of Jesus, the more self-centered we become and can be seen as naval-gazers. As we turn the attention to ourselves and our own little world around us, we become critical and judgmental of the other. Especially those that we do not understand. We become fearful and thus seclude ourselves even further.

We do not see Jesus in our midst, because we fail to look. We look beyond the opportunities to reach out an outstretched hand to help someone up. We walk past the beggar sitting or standing on the sidewalk. We cannot wait until the light changes so that we do not have to look at the person standing on the corner looking for any type of assistance.

We build walls instead of opening gates of welcome for those that are being persecuted and oppressed.

In the judgement that Jesus speaks of, there is both blessing and punishment. The blessing that is encountered comes in the form of those that reach out and quench the thirst of those feeling parched, feed those that have hunger pains, gave someone the shirt off their back, welcomed in the stranger, took care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned. We read that the punishment comes to those that do none of this.

In this, the grace of God is at work. How can that be, you are probably thinking. Jesus is not going to condemn us to a life in hell. We do that ourselves! God is present in all places, even when we feel that we are encountering hell here on earth.

Jesus uses this last story as a wellness check. It is an opportunity for the disciples to prepare themselves for the ministry that is laying ahead of them once Jesus has died. He will be resurrected, yet they will be empowered to go out and begin proclaiming the gospel good news of Christ. In this wellness check, they are brought to question their own roles and if they are living out the faith that Jesus has instilled in them during the last three years. Are they ready to quench the thirst of the the thirsty, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick, visit and even possibly be imprisoned themselves?

The grace of God works throughout their living out the gospel that Jesus has bestowed upon them. In this grace, Jesus is holding them accountable to his teaching.

It is a good thing to be held accountable. We are able to accomplish much more when we are working towards a common purpose or goal. When others know what we are hoping to achieve, they can stand by and cheer us on and possibly even help us change course when we have been blown in the wrong direction.

We should not have to ask, “when was it…” or “when did I… .” Our faith is not met to be stagnant. From the time we are born to the time we reach the end of our lives, our faith ebbs and flows. In our struggles and challenges, we are tested, and also reassured by the love of God. How we care for those around us and if we reach out to those hurting and in need, is a reflection of our faith. We should not have to ask, “when did we… ,” because we should be living out the gospel truth that is taught to us in Jesus Christ everyday.

David Lose, in his weekly blog, refers to this call from Jesus to care for the least of these as a third sacrament. It is called for by Jesus himself, and God is present in the midst of it. How incredible would it be if we were to care for others in this manner and treat it as a sacrament as we do baptism and communion?

Our love for our sisters and brothers should be no different than our love for that new iPhone or that new car. Richard Rohr says, “How you love God is how you love everything. And how you love everything is how you love God.” God is present within you at all times. Are you loving God and sharing that love with all around you, or are you choosing to be judgmental when that is not your place?

It is tough. I am sure you can find yourself on both sides depending on the day. It is the reminder of being sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever that we find grace that is never ending and a hope that moves us beyond despair.

Let us pray…Ever present God, be with us in our earthly journey as we try to live out the gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ. When we falter, pick us up. When we reach out in love, rejoice. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our days as we try our hardest to do your will and love the least of these. Amen.

Waiting…

Bread Queues

November 12, 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

We spend a lot of our lives waiting.

Waiting in lines at the grocery store, for amusement park rides, in traffic on the highway, for a doctor’s appointment. Yet we get very impatient when things do not come to us as fast as we would like them to. Waiting is not easy.

There is a song from the recently deceased Tom Petty titled, The Waiting. Here is the refrain, “The waiting is the hardest part. Every day you see one more card. You take it on faith, you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part.”

As we enter into these last few weeks before the beginning of a new church year and Advent, we receive a gospel lesson that tells us we must wait. People two thousand years ago were no better at waiting than we are. They were impatient and were especially concerned with what would happen with their ancestors that died before Jesus had a chance to return.

Matthew’s gospel was written about fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of his coming again to a world that was awaiting his return. The purpose of this parable that Matthew has included in his gospel is to reassure people that waiting is a good and necessary thing. There is much pain and suffering that is happening in Israel after Jesus’ resurrection. Pain and suffering that has been experienced in the fall of Jerusalem to Roman soldiers, and the persecution and death that has came to many of the followers of Jesus. By the time that Matthew’s gospel was written, there were not many eye witnesses alive that had seen Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his trial, and his death on the cross. They have been told of his resurrection, and are still waiting for his coming again. Their faith led them to believe that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Perhaps this may sound a little familiar.

So, what are we to do with the bridesmaids from our lesson?

Where do you see yourself in the story? Are you one of the five that thought ahead and brought along extra oil just in case you were left waiting? Or are you one of the five that had just enough to fill your lamp and realized that it was starting to run low and had nothing to refill it? Thus, going out at the last minute to find a 24 hour oil convenience store.

The waiting is the hardest part. Especially when you are ill prepared for whatever may come your way. As the five foolish bridesmaid are off trying to find that oil store, the bridegroom comes and ushers in those that came with enough oil. The five foolish bridesmaids return to find that the party has started without them and they are left on the outside looking in. Jesus concludes the parable with instruction to, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

We can relate with the bridesmaids. Most likely, we can find ourselves in both those that are considered wise, as well as those that are deemed foolish. We live with pain and suffering all around us, in our country and in our world. We live in fear of what may come to threaten life as we know it. The news reports of trucks running over and killing multiple people in the streets and even on the sidewalks. We have people suffering from mental health issues that have access to guns and can rain bullets down on unsuspecting crowds in Las Vegas injuring over 500 and killing close to 60; and walking into a baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas and opening fire and killing 27. These are just our most recent examples.

People are quick to jump to conclusions and respond in ways that they may think are helpful. Yet, are we talking with one another and listening, or are we talking at each other? Are we so bound with fear that we are afraid to step foot outside of the house?

I honestly do not have any answers to this. I wish I did. This is the pain and suffering that we are living in our world today. In the midst of it, we are left waiting for answers. We can pray for those that are directly affected by the violence, but is that enough? Will “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream,” as we read in our first lesson from Amos?

In the meantime, we wait. We wait for what has been promised to us in our baptisms. We wait for those words to be fulfilled that we recite during communion, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

We have the same struggle that our ancestors had going all the way back to 1st century Israel. Two thousand years later, we are still waiting. And keep awake we should.

The five wise bridesmaids were prepared. They were prepared to wait. They brought enough oil to last them until the bridegroom came. The waiting is made much easier when you are prepared for what comes your way, or in the wise bridesmaids case, being prepared for a delay.

Are we expected not to get any rest since we are told to keep awake? None of the bridesmaids followed these instructions. They had all been sleeping when the bridegroom had arrived at midnight. In the delay they fell asleep, and when they awoke and trimmed their lamps, it was only the wise that were prepared to go out and greet the bridegroom because they still had oil left.

It is in this preparation that they are called to keep awake. Be ready for the bridegroom, or Jesus Christ, at anytime. It was in these words that those hearing the gospel of Matthew for the first time, fifty years after Jesus death, would find words of hope and encouragement. While Christ may not have returned yet, be prepared as you wait.

How do we prepare as we are left waiting amidst the pain and suffering of our world?

Many of the social justice movements of the present time speak to staying “Woke.” Be aware of those things that are happening in your neighborhoods, communities, states, and country. Be bold enough to speak out against the injustice that you see happening around you. Stay woke to those things and issues that affect the lives of your neighbors and greater humanity. Stay woke to the injustices of racial  and sexual inequality. Stay woke to the injustices that happen to our environment. Stay woke to the legislative issues that are affecting a large number of Americans that do more harm than good. Stay woke and listen to the conversations that are happening among the younger generations as they are the ones that will be caring for the world as we know it in the next twenty, thirty, and forty plus years.

In the midst of all of this, we wait. We must wait in the midst of refugee crisis, mass shootings, and many other injustices of the world. The waiting is the hardest part.

Ed Stetzer, discussing the Sutherland Springs church shooting, wrote in a CNN article:

“Earlier today I asked Kevin Cornelius, pastor of neighboring church First Baptist Church in Karnes City, TX, about the situation as he and others are there, on site, dealing with the pain. He said: The church still works. We don’t have a plan, but we have a community. We don’t have answers but we have grace and peace. We don’t understand, but we’re present. Our hearts are breaking, but we have hope and we’re giving it away as quick as we can.”

We wait, as a community of God. We wait with each other in solidarity in the gospel promise that has been given to us through the grace of God. We wait with each other in community as believers and questioners alike. We wait with each other in fellowship as we break bread together in the hope that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.

Let us pray, Risen Lord, we give thanks for the hope that you have infused in our lives. In the midst of our waiting, we look towards the promise of salvation and the grace that comes to us abundantly. While waiting is the hardest part, we find that hope and love in our communities and your word have the ability to sustain us. Amen.

A Multitude Gathers

All-Saints

November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-19

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God. We’ll gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God. The imagery that we receive from our opening hymn this morning as we remember the saints that have lived among us is wonderful. The river of life. The flowing water that we find in our baptismal font. The water that flows over us and cleanses us of our sins. The water that joins us to those saints we now give thanks for.  It is a familiar hymn.

The familiarity does not end there. The gospel lesson should sound familiar as it was read just over six months ago during the season of Easter. A return to the Beatitudes is never a bad thing as we are reminded of those that are blessed among us and what the kingdom of God looks like.

You may have even connected the Revelation reading to our entrance into Holy Week earlier this year. An entrance in which Jesus is paraded into Jerusalem, and only him and possibly us, on this side of the story, are aware of what is about to play out in the days to come. If you recall, Jesus was paraded into Jerusalem as people were shouting, “Hosanna” and waving palm branches.

Once again, we have palm branches in our midst. “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

I find it unusual and amazing that suddenly the author of Revelation forgot how to count. Earlier he counts that there were seven churches and seals. There were twenty-four thrones and elders. In the preceding chapter, we read of 144,000 of Israel being sealed with protection amidst the catastrophe. That is 12,000 from each tribe of Israel.

He is then shocked with such a multitude of people that the number at the throne of God could not be counted. This multitude comes from every nation, tribe, and race. How big could this number be? Everyone that had lived on the earth up to that point? Did you know that today, that number would be well over 108 billion people.

The book of Revelation has been used to scare people into doing. It has been used as a threat. If you don’t follow the law of God to each word, then you will not be among those 144,000. Books and movies have ran with these themes, like the Left Behind series, and left people in fear and an impression of God that does not reflect the God that we witness in Christ Jesus.

When we begin to use the bible as a hammer to try to nail in certain points against those we fear as our opponents, we do not leave much room for God. We do this to ourselves and those that we feel think differently than us. We are quick to raise our palm branches to celebrate what we think is good, and when we are later let down we find it hard at times to get back up.

This morning we remember those saints that have left us in this earthly world this past year. These losses that we have experienced have come expectantly due to long term health issues. Others have been more sudden and we are left wondering and have had little to no chance of getting to say our final goodbyes. That one last, “I love you,” before they died.

Some of us may be still mourning the loss of a friend or family member. Some of you may still be grieving the loss that you have experienced more than a year ago. While the person we have said goodbye to is no longer suffering, we may be suffering in our own hearts. God did not promise that there would be no suffering. God does not promise us an easy life where we receive everything we want and then some.

We seek answers for all of our questions and are still left wondering. People try to comfort us with words from the Bible, which at times are taken out of context and leaves us with even more questions. It is impossible to put God in a box when we do not fully understand the mystery ourselves. It is in that mystery that we find hope and ultimately love.

Salvation belongs to our God as Revelation says. It does not belong to anyone else. It is not something that can be given to us by someone in power. Salvation only comes to us through the love and grace of God and the son, Jesus who came to us incarnate and walked along side us to experience the same suffering that we experience.

It is this same salvation that is revealed to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection on Easter Sunday. The promise of life that we witness is given to us and the believers that are gathered around the throne of God. It is the white robes that have been washed in the blood of the lamb that symbolizes their death in the waters of baptism and the new life that is found there.

This is the reason that we too give thanks for those that have been baptized this past year. They have died their first death to the sins of this life and have been washed clean and now stand side by side with all of the saints of the world. The saints that have gone before us and the ones that are still alive. This is what a saint looks like today. Just like you and me. There is nothing special, just the grace of God that has washed over us in the waters of baptism.

Does the grace of God end there?

I can’t tell you. That is the mystery that is our God. A mystery that we will not fully experience until the kingdom of God comes into our own view. The Beatitudes that Jesus preaches this morning speaks to not just a time to come, but the time that we are presently in, and the time that was. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” and on and on.

In Revelation, hear the hope of the kingdom to come and the promise that God has made. “The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Jesus will indeed wipe away every tear from every eye. Indeed Jesus is there in the present as well as the grace of God bringing us to the multitude that worships and praises God. As we join in the multitude this morning, we are surrounded by the saints, both living and dead. We gather for communion in the promise that we are communing with all of the saints of heaven. It is here that we find comfort and love.

Let us pray. God, our savior, we give thanks for all the saints. The saints that have guided us through our lives and continue to do so today. We pray for those still mourning, that you may bring peace to them and the love you share abundantly. You are the God who was, is, and is to come, and in this we receive your grace and are gathered into the multitude. Amen.

Keeping Church Weird

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October 29, 2017

John 8:31-36

What if I were to tell you this morning that someone has created the quintessential painting that redefines perfection as we know it? Even better, we do not have to worry about painting anymore because there is nothing more to achieve. What if the same thing was said for music? Or poetry or novels? Or a television show, or a movie? Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

We are created ourselves in the image of God, and as such, we ourselves are called to use our creative abilities in sharing with the world. Part of this, is the premise for the introduction of Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis. He writes, “Times change. God doesn’t, but times do. We learn and grow, and the world around us shifts, and the Christian faith is alive only when it is listening, morphing, innovating, letting go of whatever has gotten in the way of Jesus and embracing whatever will help us be more and more the people God wants us to be.”

Rob Bell lifts up Martin Luther as one of these innovators. Luther and his contemporaries did not use the word reformed. They believed that there was a constant reforming that must take place. It is in this means that we commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation today.

This does not come without trouble. Humanity has a tendency to not act in our best interests or those of our neighbors. Throughout time we have forgotten God and what it means to be people that follow the way. This is seen and read through the Old Testament and also in the Jewish leaders that Jesus is talking to in John’s gospel this morning.

The Jewish leaders have seemed to forget their past when they tell Jesus that they are descendants of Abraham and they have not been slaves to anyone. Perhaps they are so focused on themselves that they have forgot that time in the past that they were slaves to the Egyptians. Or even the Persians and Assyrians. One could even argue that the Romans have them under their control at the time Jesus is having this conversation. They seem to be selective in what they choose to recall and the truth that they are living in at the moment.

Apparently, we have learned little from our ancestors as well. We choose to remember what we want and we disregard those things that may reflect negatively in our current lives. The freedom that we seek in our own country and especially in our lives is one that benefits only the individual. At the same time, we take the freedom that we have for granted when the majority of people in the world do not nearly have the same kind of freedom that we enjoy.

As a society, we tend to focus on personal well-being and how we will benefit the most from the decisions that we make. We witness this throughout all of society, from celebrities, all-star athletes, our own government, and if we are brave enough to admit it, in our own personal lives. The marketing and advertisements that we see, promote this very way of being. How can you help yourself get ahead. How can you keep up with your best friends and neighbors so that they do not look upon you as though you do not fit.

This freedom that we we tend to seek, and that is promoted today, is not the freedom that Jesus speaks of in his conversation with the Jewish leaders. The freedom that Jesus speaks of can only be known as you seek the truth.

That truth that Jesus speaks of can only be found in him. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In following Jesus place to place, the disciples begin to understand that the truth is being revealed to them. As they come to know the truth, they realize it is the only truth they need to know. It is in this truth that is Jesus, that will make them free. It is this same truth that Martin Luther came to fully understand as he read and studied Romans. It was in our lesson from Romans today that Luther began to fully understand who he was in God and the role God plays in our salvation.

Paul writes, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). These verses are the ones that set the Reformation into motion. It is here that Martin Luther began to fully understand the grace of God that comes to us sinners with no doing of our own. While the leaders in the Roman Catholic Church were trying to figure out how they could best benefit from people giving to the church, Luther realized that the truth can only be found in Christ, and Christ alone. It is here that he found the truth that had been slowly buried over the years.

While we are now 500 years removed from the reformation, are we still reforming? Or, have we become complacent and comfortable in the familiar. Do we perceive change as a negative? Are we holding on so tight to our ideals that we are not allowing the Holy Spirit and the truth to shine through?

We must admit that we are in an unusual spot in history. Church affiliation is declining and we are left wondering why we do not have as many people in the pews as we did fifty years ago. In this understanding, church is now seen as kind of weird. Flannery O’Conner wrote that, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” We are truly in the minority today and left wondering how to work in the midst of it. Being odd may not be such a bad thing.

Rachel Held Evans writes, “Making the church relevant and hip is not what [growing the church] is about. It’s about keeping the church weird.” It is our traditions that make us weird. Baptism and communion is what makes the church different from any other gathering of people. Being weird is about opening up the church as a place where discussion and openness can happen. Rob Bell speaks to this weirdness. Martin Luther was weird 500 years ago when he was bold enough to raise his questions and begin reforming the church as he knew it.

It is in this weirdness that we find the truth that so longs to be with us. This truth is Jesus Christ. It is this truth that brings us a light in the darkness, hope amidst despair, and a promise of eternal life.

What are we doing to thrive in being weird, or odd today? Is being justified by grace through our faith enough? Yes and no. While we find the truth here, how do we help others come to know the truth that is found in Jesus Christ? The church today must be continually reforming as we come to listen and be in relationship with one another. We must be open to God working in the most unusual ways in and among us.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was bold enough to print his 95 Theses and send it off to his superiors. Martin Luther was not much different from us. Today we are starting to realize that where division began, all of God’s people, which means all of humanity, must be working together as one. It is the freedom that comes to us in the truth that is Jesus Christ that allows us to open our hearts to a reforming church that will usher in the Kingdom of God.

Let us pray, Christ, you are the truth. In you, we learn what it means to be open to a grace that is of no doing of our own. We thank you for guiding our brother, Martin Luther, 500 years ago, and we give thanks to those that are bold enough to continue to make the church weird today. Guide us as we repent of our missteps and reconcile with our sisters and brothers in the future to come. Amen.

Rejoicing and Lamenting Together

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October 24, 2017

1 Corinthians 12:26

A homily on the Commemoration of the Reformation; Preached alongside our sisters and brothers of St. Augustine Catholic Parish

Once again, welcome to Fr. Joe Mallia, Joe Agosta and our sisters and brothers of St. Augustine Parish. We are blessed to come together this evening to lament our separation 500 years ago, and rejoice in the fruitful dialogue our churches have had with one another in the past 50 years.

Since we are sharing the pulpit this evening, I’ll try to keep it short. I’ll preach for only twenty minutes instead of my usual forty. That of course was a joke.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I will admit right from the beginning that my perspective in our relationship with one another is not skewed by long held beliefs, or anything for that matter. I did not grow up in the church and was therefore not subject to the differentiation that was placed upon Protestants and Catholics. Honestly, the only reason I joined the Lutheran church was because of a family connection my wife had within the Lutheran church. Yet, it is the Lutheran church where my faith blossomed and I entertained a call from God to ordained ministry.

Our service of prayer began this evening with a reading from 1 Corinthians, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” I am glad that we are moving more towards the rejoicing as we renew our relationship with one another. Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Well, that has not gone that well in the past, has it? Our past disagreements have truly shown that as humanity, we are a broken people living in a broken world. We cannot live fully up to the path that Christ has set out for us, or can we fully live into the hopes and dreams that the Apostle Paul wrote about in his letters to the communities he ministered.

On paper it seems all nice and easy, that is of course, until we get in the way of God working in our midst. While 500 years ago, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, it stirred up many questions that had been festering for some time. The Lutheran church has grown significantly since the beginning of the Reformation. We are careful to be aware that the Reformation is not something that we celebrate. We are aware of its significance and we commemorate our doctrines that were born out of it. However, we also lament at the divisions that were made and the suffering that has taken place.

It is good to be reformed. We come to Christ in the hopes of our own transformations. The church has witnessed many transformations throughout the centuries.

We are transformed as we continue to pray and listen to where God is calling us to be in this world. Our reformation at this point is calling us back together. Calling us to rejoice in those things that we have in common and continue to walk together in our differences. Hopefully, this will lead to a point where we will one day be fully reunited.