In her latest book, Nadia Bolz-Weber, opens up a topic that many in the church attempt to stay clear from. While the entire basis of our life on earth is contingent upon our ability to have sex, it has often times been a taboo subject within the church. Many times the church has went to extremes to steer clear of the topic or at its worse, to speak of the evils of it.
I did not grow up in the church and therefore was not too aware of the purity movement that happened within it. I heard a few things along the way, but at that time it didn’t affect me so I did not pay too much attention. It is the purity movement that she directly addresses in the beginning of her book and bringing to the forefront the harm that is has caused over the years.
Like many of her other books, she brings in many stories from her parishioners that help support her thesis. She also speaks of the holiness of being with God and each other. As she compares the two she says that “holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from.” I believe that it all comes down from this as we are a holy people that are called to live with union with one another.
To attempt to say what is holy and not holy of others is in direct competition with God. God has created each of holy. Every sing part of our bodies. To be with another person in being welcomed into a holy experience. There is nothing that we should be ashamed of. We should not let others make us feel any less.
There is no shame to be felt in our bodies. “God is made known: in the miracle of our infant bodies, so recently come from God that you can smell God on their heads; in the freedom of our child bodies as they were before shame and self-consciousness entered into them; in the confusion of our pubescent bodies and the excitement of our teenage bodies as they become familiar with desire; in the fire and ice of our young adult bodies as they connect with each other; in the goddamn mind-blowing magic of our baby-making bodies; in the wisdom in our aging bodies; and in the so-close-to-God-you-can-smell-God beauty of our dying bodies.” God wants us to be one with our bodies and to know them intimately as they are created in the image of God.
This is a tough message to share as we have avoided the conversation for far too long. It is about time that someone like Nadia brings it the forefront. She has also included some great resources for individuals and congregations to reach out and learn more.
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.
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.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
This quote from Thomas Merton comes from his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. It provides a vision of what we want to see in a community. The realization of everyone living together as one. In Jesus Christ, we are called to live together in community with our brother and sisters, loving and supporting the other.
We can come to the realization that Thomas Merton does, however, we first encounter brokenness and despair. For the people of Bethany, the people are mourning the loss of Lazarus. Mary and Martha are at a loss because they were hoping that Jesus may come to help heal their brother the same way that he has healed many others throughout the countryside. It is Mary that we hear say to Jesus, “If only you were here!” Mary knows Jesus and the power and authority to heal and if he would have been present at the time her brother died, he would still be alive. In the brokenness that the community of Bethany has encountered, doubt begins to set in and people begin to wonder if Jesus truly is able to do the things he has promised. In a way, they have excluded Jesus from their community and set their sites on the truth that Lazarus is dead.
It is easy for us to exclude people from community. We don’t invite them in. We ignore them. Amid this, we experience brokenness. At times it appears our communities are torn apart. It can happen at any time. It can happen during natural disasters, like hurricane Michael in Florida. It can happen in mass shootings like at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a little over a week ago. We are bombarded with reminders that heaven has not came to earth yet and that our world is still full of evil. From the outside, it appears that communities are easily shattered.
Despite the evil that pervades us, communities are present to raise up those that need a boost. We may quickly hear of the death and destruction, but the community that is quite often raised up from it is even greater. Communities are made stronger as they struggle together and look for a sense of belonging, safety, companionship, and relationship. New communities, or at least new realizations of communities, have arose time and time again out of the death and destruction that we quite often hear of through the news. The communities that come through these struggles are transformed into a new thing as they grow and are challenged. They get better together.
While Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the community rejoices. It is a sign of God’s saving grace that has come to reside in their community. It is a chance to witness Jesus and the healing he is bringing to the world. Jesus does not unbind Lazarus, he calls the community to work together to unbind him. It is God coming to live among mortals as we read in Revelation.
The church is a place of community if we are open with one another and support one another in our struggles and temptations. We can be present for one another when we do not know where else to turn. We can bring love and support in the name of Jesus Christ.
If we are honestly following the word of God, we are brought to a sense of community as we learn to love our sisters and brothers. The city of Pittsburgh has come together in the aftermath of the shooting last weekend at Tree of Life and the local Islamic center had raised over $70,000 in the first few days following the tragedy. The communities in Florida devastated by Hurricane Michael are banding together to support one another along with disaster relief organizations throughout the country.
In Richmond, we practice living in community by supporting MCREST, and working with our neighbors from other churches. Community comes in many forms. Thomas Merton’s vision of seeing each other as God sees us, is what living into community is all about. As he says, if we did see everyone this way, “There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
It is in the promise of the Resurrection, that Jesus welcomes us to a new life. A life surrounded by all the saints that have gone before us. A life that is brimming over with the goodness of God and we are embraced for eternity.
Let us pray. God, you draw us in to community to be with one another so that we may see Christ in our sisters and brothers. May you continue to be present with us in our brokenness and provide a peace that comes by gathering together. Amen.
Whether you choose to admit it or not, I am sure that many of you have a guilty pleasure television show. A show in which you can escape your life and immerse yourself into television for an hour or two. Many of our current television choices have extended into the realm known as reality television. We live vicariously through watching others live their lives, face their fears, or strive for success.
I admit that I enjoy Survivor and The Amazing Race and have imagined myself competing on them. You may enjoy American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, Big Brother, The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, or one of the many other ones that are too numerous to name. If you think about it, all these shows are competitions and the goal is to determine who is the greatest. It could be the greatest talent, greatest singer, greatest strategist, or greatest dancer. There can be a desire to be lifted above our peers and be selected as the greatest. Of course, this just doesn’t happen on reality television, but also in the Olympics, sport leagues, and even intellectually, like Jeopardy.
Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, but it can lead us away from the teaching of Jesus. Jesus came to serve and through his teaching we are called to go out and be the change we want to see in the world that reflects heaven on earth.
This morning in our gospel lesson from Mark, we encounter James and John approaching Jesus asking that they be able to sit at his right and left hand in his glory. You can imagine that this starts some grumbling among the other disciples. Why do James and John think that they are better then everyone else? What gives them the right to be able to sit in positions of authority once Jesus has reached his glory?
Maybe we have it all wrong. It could be that their intentions are not really that bad. Perhaps their ambition should be applauded. Maybe they just want to show Jesus how much dedication that they have for the mission that they have been called and want to ensure that he is aware of it. In this are opportunities for the disciples to learn and for Jesus to teach. Jesus shares what it will truly mean to follow him into the reign of God.
This attitude did not begin with the disciples, and it did not end there either. All we must do is think back on some of those reality shows, and it is easy to witness the egotistical arrogant attitude of many contestants, hoping to become the greatest. The last thing that is on the mind of many of them is to serve their opponents. There will always be contests and games, but the question that should always be in the forefront of our mind, is how do we treat our opponents, either win or lose? Do we show them love as Jesus would have? Are we willing to serve them in their time of need?
Jesus was not into competition. As he states in our gospel lesson, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus provided many examples for us of what it means to love our neighbors and serve them when they are in need. Jesus was always welcoming the stranger and those that were on the outskirts of society, as he talked and ate with them. Along with this, he lifted up the children and their open minds as something to model. He reached out to heal those that were sick. He was endlessly teaching the disciples and those that would gather in their midst to hear what it was he had to say. He washed the disciple’s feet. He ultimately went to the cross to show the love that he had for all of humanity. Through his death, he gave up his life and saved us from our sins. In his resurrection, we are reminded of the grace of God.
In the endless service that Jesus did, there was a love that flowed from him to all of those that he touched. Encompassed in that love is the same love and kindness that we can share with our friends, neighbors, and even the stranger. The sharing of that love starts in our own neighborhood.
This short video is a great example of what it means to serve those in our own neighborhood.
This video was also a reminder that we do not have to be the greatest. If we care for others and reach out when they are in need, we will encounter the reign of God here on earth. Christian service is about loving one another well, and as people serve others the world gets a glimpse of God.[i]
There are many ways that we have an opportunity to get that glimpse of God here at Trinity. We glimpse God through the mission trips our Mission Team makes to Haiti, the food packing event through Kids Against Hunger, our Bicycle Ministry, donating food to the food pantry, and especially through MCREST which begins this evening as we welcome 30 homeless gentlemen into our congregation for a week.
I have also witnessed glimpses of God in you, our confirmands as we have had some great conversations in class; I have seen you interact with others at camp; and as you have served in many ways over the past couple of years. You do not have to be the greatest, because you have deemed great in the eyes of Christ. I pray that you continue to extend that same love to others.
Let us pray. God of love, you have called us to acts of service so that we may reach out to our communities with love. May we continue to serve our sisters and brothers alike, with the same love you share with us. Amen.
[i] Enuma Okoro, Animate Practices video series, Augsburg Fortress, 2014.
This question alone could keep us in thought and prayer for a long time. I have been confronted with this question, or similar ones, several times in the past few months.
Twenty years ago, as a non-church goer. My answer would have been simplistic and secular. Of course, I knew who Jesus was as a person. I knew he was connected to God in some manner and I knew that he was the part of the reason that Easter and Christmas were celebrated. I believed in him as a historical person and I knew that he did not look anything like the famous Warner Sallman painting, which Trinity has a copy of hanging in the front entryway.
I connected the cross to Jesus and I knew that where there was a cross I would be able to connect with a community of Christians. The cross has been depicted in many ways as you can see around the sanctuary this morning. May of you are probably wearing a cross.
Who do you say I am?
Since joining the church, I have gotten to know Jesus Christ, and I am still striving to know him on an even deeper level. We can never fully know Jesus Christ until we are willing to carry our own cross and put up our own lives. This is a tall order and not easy. I have gotten to know Jesus Christ through a point of grace since the first time that I walked into a Lutheran Church. A grace that welcomes all people, saints and sinners alike.
While grace is abundant for all of God’s people, another challenging question was asked of me this past week, “When is it as a pastor, do you remind people of God’s grace and when do you remind them of Christ’s request that they die unto themselves?”
It is easy to go heavy on the grace and look completely past your own sins, and possibly even the sin of the neighbor or family members. Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this same concern in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, when he talks about cheap grace. Do we take grace for granted, and think that we can do anything that we want and yet still be forgiven for it? Do we fully understand the measure of what Jesus means when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me? For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
We don’t like to suffer. We want to be as far from it as possible, whether it be health, finances, or temptations that pull us into a pit of despair. If I could give up my high-blood pressure medication I would jump at it. If I could find a way to pay of the church mortgage and ease some our financial stress, you bet I would in a heartbeat. To bear a cross is really the last thing any of us would want to do. Yet, that is where we find ourselves day in and day out as Jesus challenges us with the gospel.
Do not think for one minute that the disciples had any clue what they were doing either. Peter even begins to rebuke Jesus as he makes the first of his three predictions of his upcoming death on the cross. The death that Jesus speaks of is not something that they are expecting. It definitely is not something that they want to see happen.
When Jesus instructs them that they are going to have to take up their own cross, they are left slack-jawed. The cross that they know is a device of torture. It represents shame and death! The cross is nothing that they want to associate with. Like us, the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is saying at that moment. They have encountered a lot with Jesus as they have walked throughout the country and now it seems as Jesus is telling them to take it even one step farther and possibly give up their own lives.
Their image of Jesus coming to save them from the Roman Empire has been shattered. They were hoping for a conquering warrior to go against the Roman Empire, and now Jesus tells them that he is going to be killed. Yet, the second part of what Jesus tells them seems to fall on deaf ears. He will be raised in three days. Perhaps they looked over this, because they did not know what that means either.
While the cross represents torture and shame for the disciples, it will soon come to mean something even more. In the cross they will begin to understand what Jesus has been talking about. In the cross, they will find transformation and triumph. G.K. Chesterton says, “But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing. … The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travelers.”
It is here and, in his questions, that Jesus asks the disciples, that they begin to understand his true calling in the world. It is here in Jesus’ teaching that their formation as disciples is progressing. While Jesus still shy’s away from wanting the rest of the countryside to know that he is the Messiah, he is beginning to open himself up to those that are following in his footsteps.
We can follow in those same footsteps that the disciples walked.
We do experience grace from a loving God. However, this grace would not have been possible without the cross to show us the way. Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez speaks of the cross in terms of spirituality when he says, “Christian spirituality begins with the cross; The cross of Jesus Christ, our own cross, and the crosses of our neighbors, especially the poor and the marginalized. The cross is encountered and embraced as a paradoxical sign of salvation. That which often seems bitter and fatal can be sweetness and life.”
By taking up our own cross, we begin to die to ourselves. When we do so, we begin to let Jesus into the recesses of our heart. As we welcome Jesus into those places that we have a hard time letting others see, we can begin to answer the question, “Who do you say I am,” in a way that opens up the reign of God for us to experience in the present.
What is your cross you are called to take up? Or better yet, how are you called to follow Jesus in the world today? How do you choose to share the Gospel that is just as alive today as it was nearly 2000 years ago? How does it affect your relationships with others and are you as open as Jesus was?
May you begin to discern this for yourself as you meditate on the various crosses in the sanctuary. May you encounter life in the cross that once represented death.
Let us pray. God of Glory, you changed the meaning of the cross for all of us as Christians. May we continue to experience the change that you work in our hearts and lives daily as we come to the cross and in repentance and seek love. Amen.
 Cavazos-Gonzalez, Gilberto. Beyond Piety, The Christian Spiritual Life, Justice, and Liberation. pg 26.
I have heard time and time again from churches that they want to change and become more relevant. They wonder why they lose members and cannot attract the younger generation. The fact is, many churches are hypocritical to the message of inclusion that Jesus preaches and practices in the Bible. From the moment that the Christian way was co-opted by Constantine, the church has been ruled by the patriarchy. This has not changed much over the last thousand years and as Brandan Robertson states in his new book, True Inclusion, to become truly inclusive, we must move beyond the patriarchy to a point of egalitarianism. The first disciples practiced this extremely well and as humanity always seems to do, overtime, we lost track of what it meant to love our neighbors as ourselves.
While ordained in a denomination that puts up the image of being inclusive, there are still many of our congregations that are not! The ELCA is the least diverse of all denominations on any given Sunday. Unless we truly begin to embrace the inclusiveness that Jesus speaks of, I do not see how the ELCA or any given number of denominations will move into the future. The message of Jesus Christ has been abandoned and we must do what we can to once again proclaim that message for all to hear, not just a select few that think they are privileged.
The message that Brandan shares in his book is one that all congregations need to hear because as he says, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is the most radical message ever heard across the face of the earth, not because of its moralistic or dogmatic claims, but because it subverts the very way that humans are programmed to think, to live, and to love.” This is the message that must be broadcast, and yet some people will still choose not to hear it. All we have to do is look at the political spectacle today to know this truth.
Brandan’s definition of inclusion is “about following others to live into their full, divinely created humanity, not degrading them, stripping them of their dignity and personhood.” How can we argue about this in the church? This should be what we strive for, yet we are quick to make exceptions. Jesus’ love, knows no exceptions.
The inclusion that is spoke of in this book will make many people uncomfortable. It will make them uncomfortable because it questions their power and places their fears right in front of them. Yet, how can we call ourselves the church when we do not uphold to this most basic teaching of Christ?
This book is a short quick read, yet it is an extremely powerful call to live into God’s creation. Within this call, he also addresses intersectional inclusion in which two paths must work together, such as the equality between races as well as inclusion of the LGBT+ community. We can help each other in the path towards inclusion because the groundwork has already started to be paved.
He admits that this call to inclusion will not be easy because it requires a change of theology. God is moving within our world and if we fail to heed to the movement of the Spirit, we neglect those that we should have been loving and at times could even exclude ourselves.
A wonderful chapter in the book is when he brings in a panel to ask questions and dig deeper into what true inclusion means. These varied voices add integrity to a book that is already teeming with a call to follow Christ as he called us to love one another. This book is well worth the investment and could be a helpful tool in helping your community embrace a true inclusion where the diversity of God’s creation is fully welcomed and loved beyond capacity.
Thanks to Chalice Press for a copy of this book to review