Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Shows Compassion

Good Samaritan” by Paulus Hoffman

Text used – Luke 10:25-37

  • According to …
    • DiSC Personality Profile system (took in seminary): Creative Pattern
    • Enneagram: 1w9 (the Idealist)
    • Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: INFJ (the Advocate)
    • And that’s just a few of the dozens of possible labels that I could wear thanks to the personality test industry. There are all sorts of ways we try to understand who we are and who the people that we’re working with or living with are nowadays. Corporate settings, business retreats, church conferences – any organization that has spent time trying to dig deep into team building has explored some sort of personality test.
      • Part of the call process with our CPM: reams of forms to fill out including 3 separate personality tests (MBTI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory … and one other that I’ve long since forgotten)
      • Personality test industry = $500 million dollar industry![1]
      • We do everything we can to try to get down to the root of who we are. We feel like if we better understand ourselves, we’ll better understand the world around us – how we interact with people, how people perceive us, some of our strengths and weaknesses, some of our triggers, the best ways that we can contribute, and so on. We seek to understand what our role is and how it fits in with the roles of the people around us – what piece of the puzzle we happen to be, and how we fit with those around us and with the larger picture. → always interesting to learn about who other people are, the roles they play, and how those roles affect and inform our lives
        • Extra interesting because each different type of test reveals different facets of who we are Because whether you’ve taken 100 personality tests or zero, we all know that personalities are complex, multifaceted things. We are many things to many people, and we play many roles throughout our lives.
    • So that’s the angle we’re going to be taking throughout Lent this year. I wish we could be getting together so we could do our own personality exploration on the side with this, but what we’re going to be focusing on during our worship is the personality of the One who brings us here in the first place. We’re going to be focusing on who Jesus is by reading some of the stories of his life and ministry (brought to us this year by Luke’s gospel) and letting those stories reveal roles that Jesus plays even to today.
  • Story that we’re encountering Jesus through today = probably one of (if not the) most well-known stories in the entire Bible It’s one of those stories familiar to people who have never set foot in a church in their lives. It’s the story of the Good Samaritan.
    • Definitely familiar “Good Samaritan” moniker used in all sorts of different ways – all involving “helping” in some way or another
      • Good Samaritan charities/organizations
      • Good Samaritan hospitals
      • Good Samaritan churches
      • Good Samaritan Society = senior living/rehabilitation facilities here in southern Minnesota[2]
      • If you utter the phrase “Good Samaritan,” people know what you’re talking about.
    • Confession to make this morning: in my 8+ yrs. of ministry, I’ve never preached the Good Samaritan I’ve never preached on this text before because I’ve always felt like it’s one of the few Scripture passages that, for the most part, preaches itself.
      • All know the basic story, right?
        • Begins with one of the legal experts/Pharisees asking Jesus, “What must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus responds with question about the Law (Pharisee’s area of expertise) which encourages the Pharisee to answer his own question: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” not good enough for the Pharisee counters with another question: “But who is my neighbor?”[3]
        • Jesus’ reply = the familiar story: man traveling alone from Jerusalem to Jericho (notoriously treacherous stretch of highways) gets set-upon by a band of thieves who “stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death” a number of people happen upon this man in his gravely wounded state as they make their own way along the road – priest sees him but passes by, Levite (spiritual leader) sees him but passes by, Samaritan “was moved with compassion” and stopped to help the man bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to an inn, cared for him, and provided funds to the innkeeper for more care to be given to the man until he was well again[4]
        • Passage wraps up with Jesus posing the Pharisee’s question back at him: “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Pharisee responds, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus gives what will become one of his trademark instructions (at least in Luke’s gospel): “Go and do likewise.”[5]
      • I mean, the end of the story really preaches itself. It’s a full sermon in two short verses: [Jesus said,] “What do you think? Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”[6]  Done and done, right? It’s clear. It’s concise. There’s a faith lesson involved as well as a directive to go and do (literally). What more do we need?
  • Except that it’s not that clear cut. I mean, it must not be … because here we are 2000 years later, and we still can’t get this right.
    • 2020 has proved that to us in spades
      • Violence done to black and brown bodies over and over and over again while the rest of us look the other way or look for pointless and baseless excuses
      • Politicization of something as simple as wearing masks as a way to protect others during a worldwide pandemic that has killed millions
      • Willfully ignoring and denying systemic racism that has perpetuated poverty, desperation, and an oppressive lack of opportunities for communities of color
    • Beyond just this past year, the last few years …
      • Immigrant families literally torn apart at our southern border
      • Flagrant violation of treaties with indigenous tribes who made their homes on this land millennia before we ever arrived
      • Violence done to the bodies and souls of LGBTQ+ people
      • General villainization of “the other”
        • Anyone whose skin isn’t white
        • Anyone whose first language isn’t English
        • Anyone whose passport doesn’t say “United States of America”
        • Anyone whose faith practice isn’t Christian
    • Not only have we forgotten how to listen to the voices of those who are different from us. We have actively denied and disparaged and attempted to silence those voices. With our words and our intentional silences. With our actions and our inactions.
      • Dr. Mitzi Smith (prof of NT at Columbia Theological Seminary): Disinterested, dehumanizing distance and ignorance makes no demands and takes no risks for others. … When do our class, race, gender, ethnic, ideological, cultural, and religious differences promote dehumanization of ourselves and of others? Dehumanizing others dehumanizes us.[7]
  • But still we have our story for this morning staring us in the face, and we hear again Jesus’ call to compassion. Let’s look a little more closely at our story again.
    • 3 people that encounter the injured man = priest, Levite, and Samaritan
      • Priest and Levite = presumably same ethnic and religious background as the injured man Jews from the area
      • But the Samaritan is another story. Samaritans = technical Jews from the northern kingdom of Israel BUT their ancestors weren’t deported during the time of the Babylonian exile These were the people left behind in the conquered city and surrounding area.
        • Resulted in Jews intermarrying with Assyrian conquerors Jews thought of the Samaritans as half-bloods and “second-class citizens”[8]
        • Resulted in a different form of religious practice Jews thought of the Samaritans as “untrustworthy heretics”[9]
        • Needless to say, Samaritans were despised and actively discriminated against.
    • And yet Jesus makes the Samaritan the example in this passage – the example of being a true neighbor, the example of right action, the example of compassion.
      • Scholar: As a way of illustrating where the center of gravity lies within the story, consider which actors are related to the nearly thirty verb forms in the parable. The victim of the mugging is the subject of two verbs. The robbers are the subject of four verbs. The priest and Levite are the subject of three verbs each, enough to walk the road, see the man, and pass by. The innkeeper is the subject of two verbs. The Samaritan is the subject of fifteen verbs.[10]  Clearly, it’s the actions of this “other” that we’re supposed to pay attention to and learn from. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the one who crosses all of those arbitrary, societal “other” lines is the one who is acting as God desires.
        • Smith’s description: [This is] a parable narrative about human beings and how they respond to traumatized, violated, unsheltered, and/or marginalized others. This parable is about men—a priest, Levite, and Samaritan—who must make significant decisions at the intersection of ethnicity/race, gender, human victimization, and desperation.[11]
  • Friends, the reality of history is that Jesus was a dark-skinned, curly haired, Middle Eastern Jew. In circumstance, he was about as far from you and I as he could possibly get. And yet he came for us. He came for all of us. He came to show compassion in ways that continue to challenge and astound us. In his ministry, Jesus himself showed compassion in some of the most unlikely, unexpected, and unwelcomed circumstances: sinners and screw-ups, outcasts and misfits, those who had been labeled unclean and unwanted, tax collectors and even Pharisees – those whom he knew would one day take his life. But his compassion never waivered. How often can we say the same? Amen.

[1] Emma Goldberg. “Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office” from The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/personality-tests-office.html. Published Sept. 17, 2019, accessed Feb. 21, 2021.

[2] https://www.good-sam.com/.

[3] Lk 10:25-29.

[4] Lk 10:30-35.

[5] Lk 10:36-37.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Mitzi J. Smith. “Commentary on Luke 10:25-37” for The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/good-samaritan-2/commentary-on-luke-1025-42-3. For Feb. 21, 2021, accessed Feb. 21, 2021.

[8] Mary Miller Brueggemann. “Luke 10:25-37 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 298.

[9] Douglas F. Ottati. “Luke 10:25-37 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 298.

[10] Mary Hinkle Shore. “Luke 10:25-37 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 299.

[11] Smith.

Sunday’s sermon: Love You Forever

Texts used – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and John 17:20-26

  • You all know just how important children’s books are and always have been to me. No surprise when your Mom was a children’s librarian for 40 yrs!
    • So many lessons to be learned alongside compelling storylines and fantastic illustrations! → describe Galena Sunday school lessons (taught Sunday school as a part of my church internship and created curriculum out of “regular” children’s books paired with Scripture and some crafts/activities): I was very particular about picking out “non-churchy” children’s books. You see, it was really important to me that these books be ones that the kids could easily come across in their everyday life – at home, in their library time at school, and so on. By connecting those everyday children’s books to a lesson about faith, it was my hope that their encounters with those books outside of our Sunday school class would give them a flash of God in the midst of their ordinary days. I guess you could say I wanted the books to continue teaching them about faith long after our Sunday school lesson was over.
      • Believe it or not, the passage from Deuteronomy that we just read actually talks about this. Well, sort of … it can be interpreted that way, anyway.
        • Text: Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up.[1]
          • Heb. word translated as “recite” could also mean “repeat” – some other translations say “impress on your children” → Anyone who’s been around kids – their own or someone else’s – knows that the more ways and opportunities you can find to present an idea to kids, the more likely it is that that idea will stick! It’s just like my intentions with using “regular” children’s books for our Sunday school lessons.
            • Text: talk about it when you are sitting around your house → having dinner or at bath time
            • Text: talk about it when you’re out and about → in the car or while you’re grocery shopping
            • Text: talk about it when you’re lying down → before they go to bed at night
            • Text: talk about it when they get up in the morning
          • So what’s the “it” that this passage wants you to repeat? It’s simple: Love God!
  • Now, this may sound a little counterintuitive, but there’s actually a problem with this message: you’ve probably heard it at least a million times before, especially around Valentine’s Day weekend. You’ve heard it so many times that maybe it’s past the point of “repeating for the sake of learning” and reached the point of “in one ear and out the other.” So this morning, I’m going to present it just a little differently. After all, we aren’t really all that different from kids sometimes, are we? We like hearing important messages expressed in a variety of ways. This morning you all get to be kids again. You get to sit back and just relax while I read you a story. This book is called Love You Forever.
    • Author: Robert Munsch, illustrator: Sheila McGraw, publisher: Firefly Books → read book[2]

  • Power of love, right?! → Not surprisingly, love is obviously a concept scattered all throughout the Bible. In fact, the word love in all its various forms – love, loved, loving, and beloved – shows up 757 times in the Bible!
    • And this message is extra clear in the New Testament. Today’s text from the gospel of John sheds a little light on the reason for that clarity.
      • Context for John passage = subsection of much longer intercessory prayer that Jesus prays toward the end of his time on earth – today’s subsection entitled “The prayer for the church” in most Bibles → This is a very intimate moment between Jesus and God. In the other gospels, we’re told that Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane at this point, though John doesn’t actually say that. By now, Jesus has already said farewell to his disciples and dismissed Judas to carry out his betrayal. In fact, directly following this passage is John’s account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. So that means that in his last unrestrained moments, Jesus decides to spend that precious time praying … for us.
        • Think of what else Jesus could have been asking for
          • Freedom
          • Strength
          • Spared from pain
          • Instead he’s interceding on our behalf
        • Self-sacrifice reminds me of the mother at the end of Love You Forever → she knows the end of her life is near, but she still tries to sing her song to her son
      • In the gospel passage that we read today, Jesus is praying that the message of his ministry will continue.
        • Just prior to today’s section = prayer for the disciples → important for understanding the lead-in to our text today – text (began with): “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.”[3] → Jesus is transitioning the subject of his prayer from the disciples to those who will follow the disciples –“those who will believe in me through their word” … that’s us! We are the ones who believe in Christ because of the words of those who have come before, but we can also be the ones speaking words of witness, conviction, and faith. We can be part of that chain – a living, breathing continuation of Jesus’ prayer from centuries ago. We can be the ones continuing Christ’s ministry.
        • Jesus even gives us the major emphasis of that ministry here – text: I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.[4] → Over and over again throughout this passage, Jesus says that we are in God and God is in us. This is what gives us the power and ability to reach out to others in faith. But how can God be in us?
  • Read 1 John 4:7-19 → It does seem pretty clear, doesn’t it? God is LOVE! It says it 23 times in this passage alone!
    • Stated explicitly – vv. 8 & 16: God is love → Three small, simple words that mean so incredibly much! God lives in us in the truest and purest form of love imaginable.
      • Ties back to the life and ministry of Jesus – from 1 Jn: This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.[5] → “God sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love.” You see, friends, God knows our sins even more completely than we do. Yet what does God do for us?
        • God: Continues to love us → to long for that deep connection with us even as we wander farther and farther away
        • Book: It’s like the mother in the book. Even as her son was growing older – more independent and sometimes more distant, both emotionally as a teenager and physically as an adult – she still longed for that connection.
        • God: made the effort to reconnect with us through the loving life and ministry of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ → God couldn’t stand the separation any longer! God created us out of love in God’s own image – an image that is first and foremost recognizable in love itself, in that we have the capacity to love because that capacity to love existed first in God and came first from God.
          • 1 Jn text: If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.[6]
        • Book: That mother crawled across floors. That mother drove across town. That mother hefted her son into her lap long after he’d surpassed her in size. It all stemmed from love – an outpouring of love so powerful, so strong, so undeniable that even when we aren’t aware of it (like the boy while he was sleeping), that love wraps us up and reassuringly rocks us back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
          • 1 Jn put it about as simply as possible: We love because God first loved us.[7]
  • Friends, this is the gospel message! As God’s children, the Holy Spirit abides with us, enveloping us always in God’s love, so when we’re loving others, we’re offering them the love of God and all that it entails. Sharing love is sharing God. And truly, friends, hear me today: God loves you! Whether this is something you’ve been hearing all your life or something you’ve never heard before, it never hurts to hear, “I love you” one more time. God will love us forever. God will like us for always. As long as we’re living – and even longer – God’s children we will be. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Deut 6:5-7.

[2] Robert Munsch. Love You Forever. (Richmond Hill, Ontario: Firefly Books Ltd.), 1986.

[3] Jn 17:20.

[4] Jn 17:22-23.

[5] 1 Jn 4:9-10.

[6] 1 Jn 4:12-13.

[7] 1 Jn 4:19.

Sunday’s sermon reflection

Text used – Luke 7:1-10

This week was our annual meeting. In our congregation, we intersperse the annual meeting with worship because it helps us remember that all that we do and say as this church – even the business stuff – we do for the glory of God. On annual meeting Sunday, we have a lot going on: meeting elements, installation (and sometimes ordination) of new ruling elders and deacons, and communion, so I write more of a short reflection than a traditional sermon. So here’s this week’s mini-sermon:

He was a centurion, the commander of a small, local Roman military unit in small fishing village – a town no bigger than Oronoco. Did he have a lot of power outside Capernaum? Nope. To be honest, he didn’t even have that much power inside Capernaum. He was just the Roman’s placeholder – someone to command the local troops in case of any skirmishes, someone to quell any potential uprisings. He didn’t have enough clout with Rome to warrant any special assistance. There were no strings to pull. No favors to call in. And his most trusted and important servant was ill and wasn’t getting any better. In fact, he had gotten worse. He got sicker and sicker. And before long, the centurion could tell that his servant didn’t have much time left.

But then Jesus came to town. The centurion had heard about Jesus from the local Jews talking about this Jesus guy and all the miraculous things he’d done – healing people, banishing demons, and all sorts of incredible things. And the centurion believed the stories. There were too many of them to dismiss them as just rumors. So the centurion believed. In fact, the centurion believed in Jesus more fully and more humbly than anyone else had up to this point. The locals had gone to Jesus to urge him to help the centurion’s servant, telling Jesus what a good man the centurion was. Scripture said, “When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. ‘He deserves to have you do this for him,’ they said. ‘He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.’” And so Jesus goes, but before he can even get to the centurion’s house, the centurion himself sends one of his friends to Jesus to say, “I don’t deserve this. I’m not worthy to even have you visit me. I believe in you enough that I believe all you have to do is say the word, and my servant will be healed.” No need to lay hands on his servant. No need to breathe on him or take his hand or anything else. Just a word.

The faith of the centurion is so complete – so full and whole and strong. It’s the deepest faith we’ve seen expressed so far, and to be honest, I think it’s one of the deepest faiths we see expressed in all of Scripture. There is humility and honesty in the centurion’s faith. And an all-in trust that Jesus is who he is and can do with a simple word what no one else has been able to do. And Jesus names this: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’ When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.” The fullest, most genuine form of faith in Jesus Christ … from someone who is about as “other” as it could possibly get in the gospels. A Roman. A Roman soldier, no less. An oppressor. A pawn of the Empire. And yet, his faith in Jesus impresses even Jesus himself. So here’s the question: Where do we least expect to find genuine, life-changing expressions of faith in the world and the people around us? And what can we learn from those unexpected expressions of faith?

Sunday’s sermon: Fulfilling Sabbath

Text used – Luke 6:1-16

  • The sun was setting and the dark of night was beginning to creep across the land. The priest was readying the synagogue for the evening vigils when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He figured it was another beggar or a widow coming to seek help. But when he looked again, he recognized the young man approaching. It was David – David, the warrior who had slain the Philistine giant, Goliath. David, who had since become a powerful and renowned commander of many troops in Israel’s army. David, who it was said had befriended King Saul’s son, Jonathan. David, who it was said had caught the eye of King Saul’s daughter, Michal. David, who it was also said had stirred the fierce jealousy of King Saul himself.[1] There, in the waning light of dusk, this same David stood there before the priest. He looked all around as though anxious that anyone would recognize him which sent a jolt of fear into the priest’s heart. With a quaking voice, he said to David, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?” The priest saw David hesitate for a moment, again glancing quickly to the right and left before answering, “The king has given me orders, but he instructed me, ‘Don’t let anyone know anything about the mission I’m sending you on or about your orders.’ As for my troops, I told them to meet me at an undisclosed location.” Something about the way he said it made the priest wonder. But David wasn’t finished: “Now,” he asked hopefully, “What do you have here with you? Give me give loaves of bread or whatever you can find.” At this, the priest balked a bit, for he knew the only bread he had on hand was the holy bread – the Bread of the Presence, the 12 loaves representing the 12 tribes of Israel whose precise baking instructions were laid out in the book of the Law, the bread specifically made for God and God alone, also designated by the book of the Law.[2] The priest knew all of this – the exact letter of the law and the utter sanctity of the bread. He knew that there was something about David standing here before him tonight that felt off. And yet deep in his heart, he knew there was something else about David standing here before him – something that overrode his misgivings, overrode his strict interpretation of the Law, overrode even his fear. The priest felt God’s presence in that moment and in David himself. So he took the Bread of the Presence and gave it to David.[3]
    • A story that the Pharisees who accused Jesus that Sabbath morning would have known well
    • A story that Jesus himself clearly knew well, too
    • A story of needing food and compassion and a bending of sacred Law → Or, more like fulfilling of sacred Law.
    • Like our Gospel story this morning, it’s a story of two worlds colliding
      • The world of the old Law and the world of the new gospel
      • The world of the letter of the Law and the world of the root of love behind the Law
      • The world of “already” and the world of “not yet”
  • Understanding of the Sabbath from the Pharisees’ point of view[4]
    • Observing Sabbath = cornerstone of Jewish religious practice
      • Quite possibly the earliest practice → set by God in in very beginning with Genesis 1 creation story when God rested on the 7th day[5]
      • Rules for Sabbath laid out in many passages throughout the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) → In fact, the commands for properly observing the Sabbath touch every one of those first five books.
        • (As we’ve said), Sabbath = established in Genesis with creation
        • Sabbath = given to Moses as part of the 10 Commandments in Exodus → fully 1/3 of the entire text for the 10 commandments is devoted to the 5th commandment: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.[6]
        • Other specifications for how to observe the Sabbath laid out in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy → one such specification is what initially gets Jesus into trouble in our story today: prohibition against people gathering food on the Sabbath
          • Comes from time when Moses and the Israelites were in the wilderness after escaping Egypt and God provided them manna from heaven: God provided enough manna for each person for each day → instructed people only gather enough for that day, not save any except for the Sabbath day → instructed to gather enough food for two days the day before the Sabbath so they didn’t have to work to gather food on the Sabbath itself[7]
    • So that’s where the Pharisees in our story this morning were coming from. These were the rules pertaining to the Sabbath – the rules that the people of Israel had already been following for centuries, the rules that had literally been given to them by God. And it was the Pharisees’ job to interpret those rules for themselves and their communities and to make sure everyone abided by those rules to keep the Sabbath holy.
  • But then there’s Jesus
    • Now, it’s important to remember, folx, that Jesus was a Jew. He grew up observing all the Jewish laws and festivals. Just a few weeks ago, we read the story of Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem when he was 12 yrs. old, and if you’ll remember, his family had traveled to Jerusalem to observe the Passover festival. → means Jesus’ disagreement with the Pharisees over Sabbath in our Scripture this morning wasn’t about the importance of the Sabbath but about the nature of how to best, most faithfully keep the Sabbath
      • 2 different instances in our passage this morning
        • 1st Sabbath run-in with the Pharisees = Jesus and his disciples walking through a field on the Sabbath → disciples are picking heads of wheat as they walk through the field and eating them → Pharisees call them out (as per the prohibition that comes the from the story of gathering manna that we talked about earlier)
          • Jesus’ response: “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.”[8] → goes back to the story that we started with this morning: David being in a moment of need because he was doing what God needed him to do
          • Implication = work/movement of God supersedes the particular rules of the Sabbath → Jesus doubles down on this with his final statement to the Pharisees on this matter: “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”[9]
            • Sounds simple, but this is a loaded phrase! → scholar explains significance of this statement: In declaring himself lord of the Sabbath, Jesus announces both his authority over the Sabbath and his place as the fulfillment of God’s promise. … In this declaration Jesus positions himself as that one for whom Israel may and must give thanks as the provision of God, as the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption. As the lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in which Israel has been trusting and resting since the exodus. However, Jesus also pronounces himself this [“Human One”] who is lord of the Sabbath. … While he is the promise of the Sabbath, Jesus is also the man who in his flesh is the union of God and humanity. … In Jesus’ humanity God has joined God’s self in covenant with all of humanity. As the [Human One] who is also lord of the Sabbath, Jesus in the union of God and humanity, the master and fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises.[10]
        • See even more of this fulfillment in Jesus’ 2nd Sabbath run-in with the Pharisees: heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath → even trickier situation because, as text tells us, Pharisees are waiting in the wings (so to speak) just itching to pounce on Jesus for profaning the Sabbath with his actions again … And Jesus does not disappoint! – text: On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason o bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?” Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” Se he did and his hand was made healthy. They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.[11] → Again, this not Jesus telling the Pharisees that the Sabbath wasn’t important, wasn’t worthwhile, wasn’t holy and sacred. It’s Jesus interpreting the faithful practice of the Sabbath differently. It’s Jesus honoring the spirit of Sabbath differently. It’s about Jesus displaying devotion to God differently – not in the letter of the Law but in the action of love that inspired the Law in the first place.
  • So what do we do with the idea of Sabbath today? What does Sabbath mean to us? How do we honor the Sabbath with our actions, our rest, our words, and our purpose each and every week? How does God’s command to honor the Sabbath affect our movements through our days and through our lives?
    • To be sure, not easy questions to answer, especially in this day and age → our world is a 24/7 world that stops for little to nothing
      • Jobs that require the presence of workers all day every day or at least for a large chunk of time 7 days a week → being so close to so many medical careers in Rochester – both Mayo and Olmsted – makes this particularly clear to us (even in non-pandemic times!)
      • Activities and obligations that require our action and our attention all the time → perfect e.g.: there’s laundry waiting for me at home this afternoon – laundry that cannot wait … not if I want clean clothes to wear to tomorrow!
    • So how do we keep Sabbath today? Key: take a cue from Jesus = honor the love and sacred intention of the Sabbath → read passage from The Sabbath by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel[12]:

      One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the world qadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the divine. Now what was the first holy object in the history of the world? Was it a mountain? Was it an altar?

      It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.

      This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place – a holy mountain or a holy spring – whereupon a sanctuary is to be established. Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first. …

      Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world. 
    • So, friends, let us, indeed, turn to that holiness in time – our time together in this worship, our time together with humanity that reflects God’s image and love back at us, and our time together with God. Let us find our Sabbath. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] 1 Sam 17-20.

[2] https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2974301/jewish/The-Showbread-The-How-and-Why-of-the-Temple-Bread-Offering.htm.

[3] 1 Sam 21:1-6.

[4] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-in-the-bible/.

[5] Gen 2:2-4.

[6] Ex 20:9-11.

[7] Ex 16.

[8] Lk 6:3-4.

[9] Lk 6:5.

[10] Keith Errickson. “Luke 6:1-11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 148.

[11] Lk 6:7-11.

[12] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man. (New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951), 9, 10.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Great Expectations?

Text used – Luke 4:14-30

  • I want to set the scene for you this morning, so imagine this with me, if you will.
    • Setting: 1st synagogue → large open room, simple table for scrolls in the center, multi-level platforms for seating built into the edges of the room, dirt floor under your feet, wood beam and thatched reed roof over your head, colorful frescos adorn the walls all around you[1]
    • Your family and your neighbors have all gathered for worship → men, women, and children sit intermingled on the benches
      • Talking amongst themselves and laughing before the service begins
        • Sharing news of the village
        • Sharing news of their families
        • Sharing news of the latest escapades of the Roman occupiers
    • Before the service starts, the chief priest chooses members from the congregation to participate in today’s worship → participants are notified by one of the synagogues attendants[2]
      • Some reading → prayers, passages from the law (7), passage from the prophets
      • One translator (if need be) from the biblical Hebrew to a language the congregation could understand
      • One to preach
      • So while you sit there with your family waiting for the service to begin, you watch the attendant out of the corner of your eye as he moves throughout the room, notifying those who have been chosen by the chief priest to read for today. (He glances in your direction, and you quickly look away, silently praying that today is not your day. Your little ones were up at all hours last night, and you don’t feel like you got nearly enough sleep to be able to read the sacred text without stumbling this morning.)
    • Service begins, opening with those ancient words of prayer that have long brought a balm to the soul of you and your ancestors before you → feel yourself relax and become swept up in the cadence of the familiar responses → with your family, friends, and neighbors all around you, you lift your voice to declare the greatness of God
    • Readings begin
      • One by one, men and women rise to read the 7 passages of the law, interpreted now and again into Aramaic by yet another of your neighbors
      • Then, you see a young man stand up. He’s toward the front of the congregation, so you can’t immediately see his face as he stands and walks toward the attendant and reaches out his hand to take the scroll of the prophets, but when he turns around, you recognize this man. He’s the carpenter’s son – Joseph’s boy. And you find yourself excited. This is that Jesus that everyone’s been whispering about. You’ve heard about the things that this young man has been doing throughout the region – teaching, healing, and so on. As he begins to read, you recognize the words of the prophet Isaiah, though you realize something about them sounds just a bit different today. The words aren’t quite the same, and something about the way Joseph’s son reads them grabs your attention like nothing ever has before. There is conviction in his voice. There is a power in his voice. There is a tone of understanding and comprehension that lends itself to confidence. Somehow, he makes you believe that he knows what he’s reading in a way no one ever has before. And when he’s done reading, he rolls the scroll back up, hands it back to the attendant, and goes back and sits down … but you and the rest of those in the synagogue with you can tell that he is not finished.
    • Jesus begins to speak: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”[3] → And you feel excitement rush through you because you know what this means. Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah – the warrior king from the line of David who would marshal the nation of Israel behind him, storm the Roman oppressors, and finally bring a new freedom to his people … your people. Your heart soars at the thought of finally being free! But Jesus is not done: “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’ But I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown.”[4]
      • Jesus continues his speech about how the great prophets Elijah and Elisha both performed incredible miracles for Others … for Outsiders … not for the people of Israel but for foreigners and strangers → And something in your spirit breaks a little out of sheer and utter disappointment. Clearly, this mere local can’t be the Messiah. He hasn’t come to deliver you all from bondage to freedom. He won’t even help his own neighbors and family out with a little healing and a few well-placed miracles!
    • And you start to hear the muttering and grumbling among those around you rise in volume and fervor. They’re disappointed just like you are. They’re frustrated just like you are. They’re angry just like you are. And as the temper within the crowd continues to rise, everyone begins to rise and to crowd Jesus out of the synagogue. If he doesn’t want to help those who nurtured him and taught him and watched him grow into a man, fine! Nazareth doesn’t need radicals like him. Nazareth doesn’t want radicals like him around causing trouble and making claims he can’t back up!
      • You follow the crowd – which is getting angrier by the minute – as they herd Jesus out of town → realize they’re leading him to the top of one of many rocky outcropping around the city → realize that some in the crowd are so worked up by Jesus’ words that they’re getting ready to throw him off the cliff, something that definitely makes you uncomfortable → But before you can think what to do, you realize that Jesus has somehow passed through the angry mob unscathed and is walking away. You were standing right here. He must have walked right past you. And yet you have no idea what happened. And as you watch him walk slowly and deliberately down the hill and away from Nazareth, you can’t help but wonder: Who is this Jesus, really? What is he doing? What is he about?
  • To understand this passage best, we need to understand the context a bit more, so let’s do a little digging
    • First, let’s talk about the timeline of things a little bit.
      • Luke’s gospel (what we just read): story appears directly after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness → Jesus gets up out of the waters of the River Jordan after being baptized by John and goes immediately out into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights of fasting, praying, and temptation by Satan.[5]
        • From that, we go straight into today’s passage: Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read.[6] → So according to Luke, Jesus did some traveling and teaching around Galilee (presumably by himself because Luke hasn’t introduced any of the disciples yet), then heads back to Nazareth for a bit and has this encounter in the synagogue.
      • Matthew’s and Mark’s versions of this story = a bit different
        • Story comes later in both gospels (Mt: 13; Mk: 6) so Jesus has had more time to build up quite a reputation before he returns home to Nazareth
          • Healings
          • Casting out demons
          • Teachings (parables, etc.)
          • Even squared off against the Pharisees once or twice
          • Already stopped the storm by this time in Mk[7]
          • Already preached the Sermon on the Mount in Mt[8]
      • Even the passage from Luke that we read today gives a nod to at least some of Jesus’ miraculous actions in other places. Jesus himself says to the crowd in the synagogue, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’”[9] So clearly Jesus already has a reputation.
    • Yet despite that reputation, he doesn’t perform in Nazareth as they’ve heard he has everywhere else. And the hometown crowd is sorely disappointed (to say the least!). → all gospel accounts of this story are harsh … but not in the same way
      • Lk’s account that we read today = harsh in that they try to kill Jesus – text: They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.[10] → undoubtedly an angry, violent mob
      • Mt’s and Mk’s accounts don’t include this homicidal detail or even an account of Jesus in the synagogue
        • Like Lk: both mention his quote about prophets being rejected in their hometowns
        • UNlike Lk: both include a judgment on the people of Nazareth
          • Mt’s last line for this passage: [Jesus] was unable to do many miracles there because of their disbelief.[11]
          • Mk’s last line: [Jesus] was appalled by their disbelief.[12]
          • Gr. “disbelief” in both passages is the same word = unfaithfulness or lack of faith → implies more than just an intellectual disbelief or even a simple ignorance but implies an intentional involvement of the heart, a deliberate turning away
            • Gr. word = root of the word “apostate”: someone who renounces their faith
  • This is all important because it helps us understand the distress of the crowds in this passage. They knew what Jesus had been doing (at least to some extent), and with that knowing came some pretty high and ambitious expectations, some long-held and deep-seated expectations, some expectations wrapped up in cultural and religious beliefs. The crowd was waiting for and hoping for and anticipating the Messiah … but not the kind of Messiah that Jesus came to be.
    • Israelite notion of Messiah = proud, strong warrior who would lead them to victory in battle against those who oppressed them (Romans) → return of a king like David
      • Sword in his hand
      • Tactical plans on his mind
      • Battle cry in his throat
    • But Jesus came to save, not just the nation of Israel from the tyranny of the Romans but to save all people from the tyranny of death and a lifetime in broken relationship with God. Jesus came to embody not the power and strength of a mighty warrior but the power and strength of God’s unconditional love and unsurpassable grace. Jesus came not to whip up and exploit the people’s hatred of the Other – the other nation, the other culture, the other’s scattered along the margins of society – but to reach bridge that hatred and reach out to the Other, making sure they all knew that there was a place for them, too, in God’s Kingdom. → that’s where Jesus’ examples come in in his speech in the synagogue
      • Elijah’s miracle saved the widow of Zarephath and her son from starvation[13] → saved an outsider, not a widow of Israel
      • Elisha’s miracle healed Naaman’s skin disease, an army commander from Syria[14] → healed an outsider, not a man of Israel
    • You see, the problem in this story comes not from Jesus or his actions but from the expectations of the crowd – expectations that were both inflated and too narrow at the same time: inflated in their worldliness, too narrow in their holiness. And yet this misguided expectation is exactly the good news that we proclaim: that Jesus came to live among us, God Incarnate, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, extended God’s amazing love and grace to all people, freeing them from all bondage and laying out a path of compassion, inclusion, and hope instead of a path of hatred, retaliation, and fear. So friends, what are your expectations today? What are your expectations for yourself? For your community? For God? And where is God trying to broaden and deepen those expectations? Where is God trying to nudge you to recognize a more encompassing, more grace-filled expectation? Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reconstructed_First-century_Synagogue_(5806655244).jpg.

[2] Ernest DeWitt Burton. “The Ancient Synagogue Service” in The Biblical World, Aug. 1896, vol. 8, no. 2 (Aug., 1896). 144, 146. Found at https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3140264.pdf.

[3] Lk 4:21.

[4] Lk 4:23-24.

[5] Lk 4:1-13.

[6] Lk 4:14-16.

[7] Mk 4:35-41.

[8] Mk 5-7.

[9] Lk 4:23.

[10] Lk 4:29.

[11] Mt 13:58.

[12] Mk 6:6.

[13] 1 Kgs 17:7-16.

[14] 2 Kgs 5:1-19a.

Sunday’s service: Reaffirming Our Baptism and Renouncing Evil

Text used – Luke 3:1-22 (embedded in the text this week)

This week, we didn’t have a traditional sermon because everything about this week was anything but traditional. So instead of posting my sermon as I usually do, I’m posting the worship write-up.

Centering Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
As you breathe in, pray, “Lord, make me an instrument.”
As you breathe out, pray, “Of your peace.”

Friends, I tried to write a regular service for today – for Baptism of Jesus Sunday. But after the scene that unfolded in our nation’s capitol on Wednesday, a “regular service” just wouldn’t come. So today we are going to remember the vows made during our baptisms and re-immerse ourselves in the grace of those waters. We are going to read Scripture and some other powerful words of witness, of hope, of healing, of lament. And we are going to pray.

Prayer (based on a prayer from the Book of Common Worship):

            Gracious God, the news of this week has ripped our hearts and torn our souls. We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. In the depths of pain and anger, we gather before you, O God, our rock and our refuge. You are our only comfort. You are our only hope. Merciful God, you know the depth of our suffering. We have only begun to mourn the violence and upheaval, the death and havoc inflicted in Washington D.C. this week. Uphold all those who hurt, fear, and grieve, especially the families of those who died because of this violent uprising and in particular the family of Officer Brian Sicknick. Faithful God, surround us with your everlasting arms. Hear our cries of despair, heed our calls for justice, and do not let us lose hope, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior, we pray. Amen.

A word before we read our Scripture this morning: You all know that we’re following the Narrative Lectionary right now which means that the passages I choose for each Sunday follow a plan that was laid out years ago. There have been times in the past, especially over this past year, when the pre-designated passage seems to speak powerfully and prophetically to current events. Those are the moments when we feel the thrill of the Holy Spirit stirring close at hand in our worship and in our hearts, and today is certainly one of those days. With the events of the past week in your minds and your hearts, friends, listen for God’s word this morning …          

Scripture – Luke 3:1-22 (translation from the Common English Bible):

1 In the fifteenth year of the rule of the emperor Tiberius—when Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea and Herod was ruler over Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler over Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler over Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas—God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 4 This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. 5 Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. 6 All humanity will see God’s salvation.” 7 Then John said to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? 8 Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.” 10 The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.” 14 Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?” He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.” 15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done. 20 He added this to the list of his evil deeds: he locked John up in prison. 21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

I confess to you this morning that preaching after an armed mob has broken into the nation’s capitol with the intent of damaging property, taking the lives of elected officials, and subverting our political process was not a subject that we covered in seminary. Those aren’t even words I thought I’d ever say in American in the 21st century. And yet this is where we find ourselves. Yes, I realize that there were many people in Washington D.C. this week that were there to lift their voices in protest without lifting their hands in anger, but we also cannot deny that there were many, many more who went with the intent of violence and hatred in their hearts. And they carried out that violence and that hatred in damaging and devastating ways – damaging to property, damaging to lives, damaging to the nation’s trust in the system of government that we have upheld for centuries.

I want to read part of a statement for you this morning. This statement was put out by Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the coordinator of the Office of Public Witness for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Incidentally, the physical location for the Office of Public Witness is directly across the street from the capitol building in D.C., but because of the pandemic, all those employed by the Office of Public Witness have been working from home since March. They were safe from the violence and threats that so many others enduring on Wednesday. Here’s Rev. Hawkins’ statement:

Wednesday, January 6, marked the day of Epiphany, Día de Los Reyes, as the end of the Christmas season. Sadly, on that same day, at 2:15 pm EST, the United States Capitol building was stormed by a mob of insurrectionists intent on disrupting the certification of Joe Biden as president of the United States.  This was an alarming and sobering reality of the divisions within our country and the danger posed by those who are guided by extremist ideology.

… Domestic terrorists attempted to intimidate our nation’s leaders in an attempt to halt the certification. Using guns, clubs, and other weapons, terrorists overran the police and broke into the Capitol Building. They broke windows, spray-painted walls, ransacked offices, and left threatening notes. Two pipe bombs were left outside of the DNC and RNC local offices. A cooler of Molotov cocktails was discovered in a parked car. Members of both houses were ushered into safe locations for their well-being knowing that their lives were at risk. Many are still shaken by what happened.

The Office of Public Witness mourns the loss of life that occurred and we pray for the four families now in mourning.

… These actions were not just an attack on the Capitol Building, but an attack on American democracy. … Epiphany proclaims hope in the midst of despair. Let not the destructive events of [this past week] derail us from our goal of liberty and equity for all. No amount of resistance will quell our resolve to fight for freedom, justice, and democracy for all people.

Our country is changing and there is resistance, much of it through violent acts and rhetoric. But we will prevail because whenever you stand for justice, love and inclusion, you stand with God.

Friends, today is the day that the church calendar designates as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. Many of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism are elaborate tellings compared to our Scripture this morning. And yet instead of lavishing all his details on the River Jordan and John the Baptist, Luke decides to dedicate his account of Jesus’ baptism to what is happening in the world around Jesus and John at that particular moment: corruption and injustice, dishonesty and intimidation, political intrigue and deception. It almost seems like Jesus’ baptism, a seminal event in the life of Jesus’ own mission and ministry, is but a footnote – an afterthought to which Luke devotes a mere two sentence: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’” By spinning his gospel tale in this way, Luke inextricably links baptism with sacred integrity, with just actions and intentions grounded in God’s love, with a faith that is active and consistent – a faith that talks the talk and walks the walk.

As we hold all of that in our hearts and our minds this morning – what happened at the capitol and God’s word to us in our Scripture this morning and the meaning of baptism – I want to read you the vows that we ask parents/guardians/individuals to make when we baptize:

(From the Book of Common Worship): Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we enter the covenant God established in Jesus Christ. Within this covenant God gives us new life, strengthens us to resist evil, and nurtures us in love. Through this covenant, we choose whom we will serve, by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ.

            Questions for the individual or the parents/guardians: Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? (Answer: I do.) Who is your Lord and Savior? (Answer: Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.) Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his word and showing his love? (Answer: I will, with God’s help.)

In the face of the evil perpetrated in Washington D.C. this week; in the hope of a life everlasting a grace that is greater than all our fears – past, present, and future; in the assurance of a God who is just and merciful who calls us to action in the face of oppression, fear, and hatred, this morning, we reaffirm our baptism in gratitude and in strength:    

Beloved people of God,
our baptism is the sign and seal
of our cleansing from sin,
and of our being grafted into Christ.
Through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ,
the power of sin was broken
and God’s kingdom entered our world.

Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom,
and freed from the bondage of sin.
Let us celebrate that freedom and redemption
through the renewal of the promises made at our baptism.

I ask you, therefore,
once again to reject sin,
to profess your faith in Christ Jesus,
and to confess the faith of the church,
the faith in which we were baptized.

Trusting in the gracious mercy of God,
do you turn from the ways of sin
and renounce evil and its power in the world?
I do.

Who is your Lord and Savior?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple,
obeying his word and showing his love?
I will, with God’s help.

In hope, in strength, in conviction, in call: remember your baptism and be thankful. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Lament Psalm Forty-two” by Ann Weems (from Psalms of Lament)

O God, I am struggling
to survive,
preoccupied with dismal
thoughts
that will not
let me go.
My blood pressure climbs,
and I have aches
and pains
that have no cause except
my broken heart.

Why have you turned
your back on me,
O God?
Why won’t you protect me
against my emotions?

I have nowhere to turn
if not to
you.
I have nowhere to go
if not to your
house.
I have no one to talk to
if you won’t
talk.
Break your silence
and speak
to me.

Open your door
so I can
get in.
Turn your face to me
and pay attention
to my problems!

Trouble surrounds me
like a fence
with no
gate.
I need eyes in the back
of my head
so I can see
what’s coming next.
I’m worn down from trying
to deal
with one hell after another.
The pain in my mind
leaves no room
for rest.
O God, return me
to a life of
joy!
Give me a reason
for
laughter!

Can eyes weep
all
the time?
Can hearts race
night
and day?
Can minds agitate
constantly?
Can my soul survive
this assault?
O God, please
stop this revolving door
of emotional oppression!
Stop the outpouring
of unrelenting
adversity!

O God, on the wings of dawn
you come to my house,
bringing peace
in the palm of your hand.
You open my eyes;
you stand in
my doorway
and invite me
to your house.
O God,
you are my peace!

Hymn – “This Is My Song” (Glory to God hymnal, #340)

Blessing (from the Book of Common Worship):

Go out into the world in peace;
have courage;
hold on to what is good;
return no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering;
honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.      

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you might abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Sunday’s sermon: Just a Boy?

Text used – Luke 2:41-52

  • I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies this past week (surprise, surprise … I know). It was one of the movies toward the end of the series (Order of the Phoenix[1], for those of you who are Harry Potter fans), and in it, there’s a scene in which Harry is attempting to join in an adult conversation about what to do about the return of Lord Voldemort, the most evil wizard of all time. The conversation progresses somewhat with the adults around the table divulging information about what they think Voldemort is up to and what the resistance in doing one small bit at a time. Then, just as they’re getting to the heart of this information – the really interesting, crucial piece – the mother of Harry’s best friend butts in and bring the conversation to a screeching halt. She says, “No. That’s enough. He’s just a boy!”

 

    • Implication = because of Harry’s young age, he can’t handle the truth, severity, and danger of what’s happening in the wizarding world → And as a mother, I can completely understand that reaction. Harry may not be her son by blood, but early on in the series, this woman basically adopts Harry since he has no parents of his own. She even says later on this same movie that, while Harry isn’t her son, “he’s as good as.” And parents want to protect their children – from pain, physical and emotional. And that’s all she’s trying to do: protect Harry and keep him from experiencing even more pain and suffering than he already has.
      • Long has age been used as a reason to shelter children → We know that as children grow and develop, their brains also grow and develop, both in their capacity for acquiring and holding on to knowledge as well as their ability to process emotions and increasingly complex thoughts. Often, we say, “He can’t understand that yet,” or “She can’t process that yet.”
        • Happens a lot in our house with conversations with the boys about their little sister → differentiate between the things a 2yo can understand vs. the things a 7yo can understand
        • Exact reason my preference as a pastor is to start the confirmation process as late as possible → cognitive level required for processing spirituality and abstract thought is one of the last to develop in the human brain
    • And yet, we have our Scripture reading this morning – the only story from Jesus’ youth that we find in all of Scripture in which Jesus himself is “just a boy” … but also so much more than that.
  • About the passage
    • Particularly rich narrative → few of the stories about Jesus throughout any of the gospels include this much moment-by-moment detail in the story itself
      • Gives us the time and place: begins in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover Festival
      • Gives us insight into Jesus’ upbringing: he and his family headed to Jerusalem “according to their custom,”[2] so they were faithful practitioners of the Hebrew religion
      • Gives us Jesus’ age – 12
        • Scholar pointed out the significance of this: While it makes sense for Luke to include Jesus’ age to write as specific a history as possible, the age 12 is important. At that age, Jesus is still considered a “child” since he would not have been expected to fully embrace his ancestral traditions; that would happen when he turned 13.[3] → Today, this transition from spiritual childhood to adulthood is called a bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah for girls). The particular bar mitzvah ceremony as it’s practiced today didn’t start until the 13th Still, that traditional transition to adulthood is ancient – the same tradition Jesus himself would have undergone … would have undergone but had not yet undergone in our reading today. So even Luke is making it clear that Jesus is, indeed, just a boy.
      • Luke’s narrative also gives us an incredibly detailed description of events → Usually, Biblical narrative will give us a few words or a sentence at most about what happened. But Luke details how Mary, Joseph, and supposedly Jesus were headed back to Nazareth with a crowd that had also traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover, traveling a full day away from Jerusalem before stopping for the evening. Luke details how Mary and Joseph failed to find Jesus among the group at the end of the day; how they searched for him; how they traveled back to Jerusalem themselves to look for Jesus; how they spent three who days searching before finally finding their missing son in the temple.
        • Can imagine the frantic nature of that search, can’t we? → Three days. They searched the streets and familiar places of Jerusalem – a massive, teeming city compared to their hometown of Nazareth – for three whole days as they looked for Jesus. Days. Three days of not knowing where he was, who he was with, what he was doing, how he was surviving. Can you just feel the tension in your chest? Can you feel the frantic flutter of anxiety and fear and worry in your stomach and your heart? Can you feel your mind racing with Mary and Joseph – racing with all the “maybes” and “what ifs” and “if onlys”?
    • Thanks to Luke, we actually hear Mary give voice to these anxieties when they finally find Jesus – text: After three days they found him in the temple. He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and putting questions to them. Everyone who heard him was amazed by his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were shocked. His mother said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”[4] → Okay, there’s a lot to unpack in this part of the story.
      • Interesting dichotomy set up in the Gr.: Jesus “listening” to the teachers = verb that implies listening coupled with understanding BUT those who heard Jesus were “amazed,” a verb that implies confusion and not understanding → So while the boy Jesus is sitting there listening to and comprehending the teachings of the rabbis and religious leaders there in the temple, those sitting and observing this strange exchange lack that same understanding. For the first time (but certainly not last), Jesus understands … but the crowds do not.
        • Critical nature of this lack of understanding is further emphasized by the way that verse is structured in the Gr.
          • English transl: Everyone was amazed by his understanding and his answers.[5]
          • But in Greek, sentences aren’t structured in the same way English sentences are. You construct the meaning of the sentence using the various forms the words take (indicative, imperative, 1st person, 3rd person, and so on). Instead of directing the flow of the sentence, in Greek, word order indicates importance, and in the Greek, the very first word in this sentence is that word “amazed.” So the crowds bemused, bewildered amazement is paramount in this story.
      • Next: word that describes Mary and Joseph’s astonishment upon finally finding Jesus in the temple – text: When his parents saw him, they were shocked. → Gr. “shocked” = amazed/overwhelmed
        • Scriptural resource: Figuratively, [this word] means to drive out of one’s senses by a sudden shock or strong feeling, or “to be exceedingly struck in mind.” It means to cause to be filled with amazement to the point of being overwhelmed (struck out of one’s senses). It encompasses the idea of wonder, astonishment or amazement. [This word] expresses a stunned amazement that leaves the subject unable to grasp what is happening.[6] → This is the feeling that engulfed Mary and Joseph upon finally finding Jesus. It’s not just the kind of shock that drops your jaw. No. This is the kind of shock that drops your whole body to the floor because your knees have given way and your legs have forgotten how to hold you up.
      • Finally, the exchange between Mary and Jesus:
        • Mary doesn’t hold back – text: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!”[7]
          • Gr. “treated us like this” = literally “made us this way” → Mary is literally imploring Jesus to look at the frantic state that she and Joseph are in and truly see them – truly see the physical consequence of his actions. She’s imploring Jesus to see her: all her fear and anxiety, her worry and her concern wrapped up in fierce, maternal love.
          • Gr. “Listen” = special word that is used throughout Scripture – meant to draw attention to whatever comes next → Very often when this word appears in Scripture, what follows is a declaration about God – about who God is; about God’s mercy or salvation; about the One coming in the name of God, and so on. But here, it is Mary using this word to grab Jesus’ attention.
            • Sort of the Biblical, linguistic equivalent of the Mom Stare
            • What follows: “Your father and I have been worried.” – Gr. “worried” = particularly pointed word that implies anxiety and something that has caused pain → Make no mistake, friends. Mary may know that she’s speaking to the Son of God … but she’s also speaking to her son, the boy that she carried and bore through her own body; the boy that she nursed and lifted onto her hip day in and day out; the boy whose skinned knees she kissed and whose dark curls she lovingly patted as he lay sleeping; the boy whom she fiercely loves. He has scared her pretty severely with this action, and she needs him to know it. Mary is not mincing words.
        • Jesus’ response – text: Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?”[8] → I don’t know about you, but in my head, I read Jesus as having one of those maddeningly calm tones here, not disrespectful or unkind … but in the face of frantic parents, maddening all the same.
          • Gr. is interesting here, too – “must be” = interesting combination of two small words that aren’t all that compelling by themselves but, when combined, are very revealing → “necessary” = must be + “I am” = exist, belong, stay → Jesus is literally saying to Mary, “I must be here. I belong here. My existence is here. In my Father’s house.” In this one sentence – really, in these two small, seemingly simple words – Jesus reveals his true identity and purpose for the first time. In the face of fear and misunderstanding, Jesus – young Jesus, the boy Jesus, supposedly-not-yet-spiritually-mature-by-cultural-standards Jesus – attempts to turn everyone’s attention to God: to God as home; to God as central; to God as essential; to God as belonging.
    • But of course, for the first but certainly not the last time in his life, those to whom Jesus speaks do not understand – text: But they didn’t understand what he said to them. Jesus went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. His mother cherished every word in her heart. Jesus matured in wisdom and years, and in favor with God and with people.[9]
      • Who doesn’t understand? The implication is Mary and Joseph – sets up the fact that the majority of the misunderstanding about who Jesus is and what Jesus’ ultimate objective is doesn’t come from the crowds or from strangers but from those who are closest to Jesus and love him most → later in the gospel narratives
        • Jesus’ family doesn’t understand[10]
        • Jesus’ hometown doesn’t understand[11]
        • Time and time and time again, Jesus’ own disciples don’t understand
      • Jesus’ response to this misunderstanding = obedience and “growing in favor with God and with people”
        • Gr. “favor” = grace → So even at this young age – even though he’s just a boy – Jesus is already growing in grace.
    • And maybe that’s why Luke chose to include this particular story in his gospel: because it serves as a microcosm of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry: calm and grace and obedience in the face of misunderstanding and impassioned reactions to his actions and his teachings. It reminds us that Jesus was, is, and always will be maddeningly and yet grace-fully unexpected.
      • Scholar: [This passage] teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as the old, which means that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers. It teaches us that though God’s wisdom and holiness remind us of our limitations, it is precisely within these limitations that wisdom is often revealed. The incarnation represents the moment in which this wisdom enters the human sphere in all its contradictions, so that nothing is left without transformation and transfiguration.[12] → Transformation and transfiguration. From just a boy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, directed by David Yates, screenplay by Michael Goldenberg based on the novel by J.K. Rowling (Warner Brothers, 2007), DVD (2007).

[2] Lk 2:42.

[3] Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero. “Commentary on Luke 2:41-52” for Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/boy-in-the-temple/49277. Accessed Dec. 28, 2020.

[4] Lk 2:46-48.

[5] Lk 2:47.

[6] “Astonished (1605) ekplesso” from Sermon Index: Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival. https://www.sermonindex.net/modules/articles/index.php?view=article&aid=33555. Accessed Jan. 3, 2021.

[7] Lk 2:48b.

[8] Lk 2:49.

[9] Lk 2:50-51.

[10] Mk 3:31-35; Jn 7:1-10.

[11] Lk 4:14-30.

[12] William J. Danaher, Jr. “First Sunday after Christmas Day: Luke 2:41-52 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 168.

Christmas Eve meditation: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Closed Doors and “No Room”

Text used – Luke 2:1-20

And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7

 

“Can you spare a room?”

No.

“My wife and I just got into town.
Can you spare a room?”

No.

“My wife is pregnant,
and we’ve been traveling for days.
Can you spare a room?”

No.

“We’re here for the census.
We’ll be gone before you know it.
We just need a place to stay
for a couple of days.
Can you spare a room?”

No.
No.
No.

Doors closed –

            some gently,

                        reluctantly,

                        compassionately,

                        sympathetically …

                                    but still closed;

Doors closed –

            some quickly,

                        forcefully,

                        suspiciously,

                        uncaringly …

                                    for we are strangers here,

                                    and we don’t belong.

 

But God came anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of promise and potential

                        and all the uncertainty

                        and all the hazards

                        and all the chaos

                        and all the mess

                        and all the blunders

                        and all the blessedness potential can possibly bring …

God came anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of the discordantly sweet sound

                        of a laboring mother

                                    crying out in pain and boundless love,

                                    crying out in hurt and hope,

                                    crying out in surrender and sacredness,

                                    bringing life …

            full of the discordantly sweet sound

                        of a squalling baby

                                    new lungs

                                    new breath

                                    new cry

                                    new born.

God came anyway.

 

And here we are now,

            centuries upon centuries,

            miles upon miles,

            civilizations upon civilizations

            away from that day,

                                  that place,

                                  those “no”s,

                                  those doors,

And still, God comes anyway

            knocking,

            asking,

            seeking,

            hoping

                        to find an open space,

                                      an open home,

                                      an open heart,

                                      an open life …

 

How often do we fling wide the door

and let God in?

 

So full of “no” in our parenting and “no” in our politics …

So full of “no” in our finances and “no” in our fears …

So full of “no” in our doubts and “no” in our diets …

So full of “no” in our newscasts and “no” in our neighborhoods …

So full of “no”

            at every step,

            at every turn,

            at every possibility,

            at every street corner,

            at every border,

            at every desperate cry for help.

So

full

of

“no.”

 

“Can you spare a room?” Joseph begged.

            No.

“Can you spare a room?” Jesus asks.

            No?

 

But God come anyway –

full of grace and truth,

            full of promise and potential

                        and all the faith

                        and all the hope

                        and all the reassurance

                        and all the courageousness

                        and all the grace

                        and all the blessedness potential can possibly bring …

 

God comes

            into the places in our countries and cities

                        where doors close in the faces

                                    of those in need of hope,

                                    of those in need of healing,

                                    of those in need of recovery,

                                    of those in need of a warm bed

                                                                 and a hot meal

                                                                 and a safe space …

            into the places in our neighborhoods and our homes

                        where doors close in the faces

                                    of hurt feelings,

                                    of angry words,

                                    of inflated misunderstandings,

                                    of past wounds that have gone untouched

                                                                                         and untended

                                                                                         and unhealed for far too long …

            into the places in our lives and our hearts

                        where doors close

                                    out of fear,

                                    out of distrust,

                                    out of anger,

                                    out of self-doubt that has led to anxiety

                                                                                          and depression

                                                                                           and self-loathing for far too long …

 

We can try to close the doors –

            the doors to our homes,

            the doors to our cities,

            the doors to our countries,

            the doors to our hearts,

                        but God comes anyway.

We can try to whisper our “no”s

            in the farthest, deepest corners of our hearts.

We can try to shout our “no”s

            from every rooftop and treetop,

            every billboard and pop-up,

            every frustrated retort and impatient comeback,

            every wordless wail and stifled sob,

                        but God comes anyway.

God comes,

            not forcefully,

                        storming down doors

                        and talking over our “no”s,

            but tenderly,

                    lovingly,

                    hopefully,

            as a child who just wants to be held

                                                                 and kept

                                                                 and treasured.

God comes,

            not impatiently,

                        waiting only moments

                        before storming off again,

            but steadily,

                    enduringly,

                    hopefully,

            as a child who just wants to be held

                                                                 and seen

                                                                 and adored.

God comes,

            not because God has to,

                        not because God needs us

                        to keep the universe spinning,

            but because we need God –

                        deeply,

                        fiercely,

                        unendingly,

            as a child needs someone to hold them

                                                           and watch over them

                                                            and love them unconditionally.

 

And so God came.

And so God comes.

            Every minute.

            Every day.

            Every heartbeat.

            Every need.

God comes anyway.

Alleluia.

And amen.

Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Broken Dreams

Text used – Luke 1:26-45

  • Does anyone else remember the Disney movie “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”[1]?
    • Came out in the early 1990s
    • Film adaptation of true story of Sonora Webster Carver[2]
      • Young girl from Georgia
      • 1923: Answered an ad seeking an “Attractive young woman who can swim and dive; likes horses; desires to travel” → mother convinced her to answer the ad
      • Hired by William “Doc” Carver (organizer of Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody)
      • Swiftly became one of the most famous horse divers in the world → She would stand at the top of a 40 ft. platform, and as a horse ran up a ramp and passed her, she would leap bareback onto it’s back and dive with the horse 40 ft. down into a large tank of water.
        • Traveled the country
        • Eventually became a standing act/star attraction in Atlantic City
          • Performed up to 5 times a day for crowds of thousands!
        • Suffered terrible accident → hit the water with her eyes open and suffered retinal displacement → left her suddenly, completely, and irreversibly blind
    • In horse diving, Sonora found a life and a career that brought her joy and excitement, travel and, above all, one of the things that she loved most: horses. When she had her accident, much of that was stripped away from her for a time. The plan she’d had for her life – the dreams she’d been living as well as any grander dreams that she’d been dreaming – were suddenly in jeopardy.
    • Advent sermon series this year has been all about God being born in the person of Jesus Christ anyway
      • In the face of danger and fear … God came anyway
      • In the face of our own failings … God came anyway
      • In the face of things that hold us back … God came anyway
      • We’ve been talking about how, even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges of life (especially in 2020 – one of the strangest, hardest years that has ever been … at least in many of our lifetimes) … even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges that make us think the whole world has stopped, God came. God comes. God will come to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
        • Bringing light to our darkness
        • Bringing comfort to our pain
        • Bringing hope to our distress
    • And so we come to the last Sunday before Christmas Eve – before we celebrate the birth of that treasured and beloved Christ Child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And even as we prepare for that joy – for the relief that that birth will bring – we know that there are still broken parts of ourselves that make it hard to let that joy permeate all the way into our souls. Like Sonora Webster, our pasts and our hearts harbor broken dreams.
  • So there are a couple of things that we need to address before we dig into this text. The first is fairly light-hearted. The second … is not.
    • FIRST, let’s talk for just a second about the popular contemporary Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?”[3]
      • Written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green
      • Originally recorded and released in 1991 → instant hit
      • Covered by a lot of big names
        • Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd
        • CeeLo Green
        • Pentatonix (just to name a few)
      • Basis of the song: all questions asking whether Mary was aware of just who and what her “baby boy” would become
      • It’s a beautiful song with a haunting melody that lingers in your ear and in your heart … and it’s a song that is Biblically and theologically … wrong. Our text today is the exact opposite of “Mary, Did You Know?” because it’s the angel Gabriel literally giving Mary the answers to many of the questions posed by that song. With the exception of the opening line – “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” – the rest of the song really is precisely what Gabriel is telling Mary in our Scripture reading this morning – text: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom. … [T]he one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”[4] → So, friends, as beautiful as the song is … as much as we may love it … yes, clearly Mary did, indeed, know.
    • SECOND thing we need to address with this text is something that can make it a particularly difficult one for a lot people this time of year for reasons that we almost never talk about (to the detriment of society and the Church): the pain and heartache that reading this text can bring for anyone struggling with fertility issues this time of year → For anyone who has lost a child, who has lost a pregnancy, who has struggled and prayed for years to become pregnant with no result, this text that we’re reading this morning presents a double whammy.
      • First we hear about Mary = literally pregnant without even trying: Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”[5]
      • Second we hear more about Elizabeth = miraculously pregnant in her old age → Elizabeth certainly isn’t the first woman in the Bible who spends nearly her whole life wishing for a child only for God to intervene and bring about a pregnancy much later in life.
        • Sarah (Abraham) → birth of Isaac[6]
        • Hannah (Elkanah) → birth of Samuel[7]
        • Today’s text (Gabriel to Mary – addressing her disbelief over her own impending pregnancy): “Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”[8] → Yes, many of us have found strength and encouragement and power in that last phrase – “nothing is impossible for God” – but I cannot read this text this morning without recognizing and naming the pain, the longing, the frustration, even the anger that it brings to a lot of women and men who dream of nothing more than being in Mary and Elizabeth’s shoes. It’s a pain I know all too well myself.
          • 4 yrs. ago today that 2nd of what would be our 3 miscarriages was confirmed
          • That Christmas Eve = the only Christmas Eve in my entire life that I wasn’t in church → Because even as a pastor, my soul could not endure a night of joy and holy expectation and a baby as I was in the throes of losing my own. And I know I am not alone in knowing the ache of that particular broken dream. So today, as we read this text, we make intentional space for that experience and that pain. [PAUSE]
  • True: this text is often read as a text of joy and devotion to God → Because, frankly, that’s what it is.
    • Just after today’s text = Magnificat – Mary’s hymn of awe and adoration to God: Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”[9] → I don’t think that we can deny the joy and praise in Mary’s words. But before we go there, let’s take a few steps back and think about Mary’s very first reactions a bit more.
      • Initial response = confusion tinged with fear – text: When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.[10] → Gr. “confused” = perplexed but with a connotation of distress/being troubled → And we can’t really blame Mary, can we? I mean, not only has an angel suddenly appeared to her, but he has called her “favored one” and declared that the Lord is with her. That’s the kind of thing that would definitely unsettle just about anyone, I think!
        • Get another hint at Mary’s response with Gabriel’s next words: “Don’t be afraid.” → No one says, “Don’t be afraid” to someone who already isn’t afraid, right?
      • Second response (Mary’s question about how her pregnancy could possibly be real) = skepticism tinged with worry → Mary was engaged and unmarried, and at the time, for her to be visibly pregnant before marrying Joseph would have caused a great scandal. It definitely would have brought shame on her family. It could have gotten her killed. And it almost certainly would have ended her engagement to Joseph had God not intervened.
        • Story of Gabriel’s reassuring visit to Joseph in a dream comes from Matthew’s gospel[11] → not information that Luke shares with us and definitely not information that Mary would have had in this particular moment
        • Scholar emphasizes just how touchy this situation would have been: Mary’s assignment from God is an honor yoked with struggle. In her day, an unmarried woman expecting a child was cause for disgrace. Nonetheless, her neighbors’ prospective disdain does not hinder Mary’s willingness to proceed according to God’s entreaty. … Mary comprehends that her life, and not only hers, but the whole world’s, is about to be rearranged.[12]I think it’s important to recognize that when she accepted the call that God was placing before her and took up the mantle of “God’s favored one,” Mary had to let go of whatever dreams she’d initially had for her life. Because truly nothing would be the same after she said “yes” to God.
          • Read “Reflection” from Spill the Beans worship resource[13]

How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
meant that she was ostracised by her community,
shunned by her peers,
the subject of gossip and slander?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought isolation, anxiety and overwhelming responsibility?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought a swollen belly
and the pain of labour and childbirth?

 How could Mary sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord”
as her body changed
and weariness settled in her bones.

 Could it be that the peace in her heart,
the knowledge of responding to God,
of making God’s will her own
was so momentous
that joy overrode apprehension
and love overcame fear
giving way to the knowledge
of true blessedness.

 Mary, mother of God,
blessed art thou among women.

  • Remember Sonora Webster Carver? → following her accident, Sonora’s words: “After considering the matter from every angle, I decided that the best strategy I could adopt would be to treat my blindness as if it were a minor detail rather than a major catastrophe. The show must go on.”[14]
    • Returned to horse diving less than a year after her injury → continued diving for 11 yrs. until her show was permanently shut down in 1942 shortly after the U.S. entered WWII
    • After the end of her performing career, Webster worked as a Braille typist for the Lighthouse for the Blind and became an activist for those who are visually impaired
    • Friends, sometimes God’s call for us – God’s new dream for us – means letting go of other dreams, maybe even breaking other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with those other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with God’s dream for us. And it doesn’t mean that we can feel conflicted, challenged, even a little broken as we make one choice over another. But it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t blessing that can come out of that brokenness. And it certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t sit with us in the midst of our broken dreams, enfolding us with love and grace, hope and call. Amen.

[1] Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, directed by Steve Miner (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).

[2] https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/sonora-webster-carver-daredevil-horse-diver-gygmrx/15128/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_Did_You_Know%3F.

[4] Lk 1:31-33, 35b.

[5] Lk 1:34.

[6] Gen 21.

[7] 1 Sam 1-2.

[8] Lk 1:36-37.

[9] Lk 1:46-55.

[10] Lk 1:28-29.

[11] Mt 1:18-25.

[12] Ashely Cook Cleere. “Fourth Sunday of Advent: Luke 1:26-38 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 96.

[13] “Advent 4: Sunday 18 December 2016 – Reflection” in Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 21. (Scotland: Sleepless Nights Productions, 2016), 38.

[14] “Unladylike 2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America – Sonora Webster Carver: Daredevil Performer and Advocate for the Blind” from the American Masters series, produced by Thirteen for the Public Broadcasting Service. Premiered July 15, 2020, viewed Dec. 19, 2020.

Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Things That Hold Us Back

Text used – Isaiah 61:1-11

  • I want to introduce you to two women this morning: Cecilia and Virginia.
    • Contemporaries who both lived and worked in the early 20th
    • Both amazing women in their respective fields
    • Both thoroughly disregarded despite their intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and jaw-dropping accomplishments … simply because they were women.
    • Cecilia Payne → astronomer and astrophysicist[1]
      • Born in England in 1900
      • Completed all coursework and requirements of an undergraduate program at the University of Cambridge but was denied a degree → Cambridge wouldn’t start conferring degrees on women for another quarter of a century[2]
      • Received a fellowship to study astronomy at Harvard in 1923 → work there changed the field of astronomy forever
        • Granted the first Ph.D. in astronomy from Radcliffe College (since Harvard itself also didn’t confer doctoral degrees on women at that time)
        • Ph.D. thesis: Stellar Atmospheres; A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars → a thesis that has been called “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy.”
          • Proved that the classification system already being used for stars did, in fact, correspond to the surface temperature of those stars
          • Determined that stars are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium
          • BUT was initially dissuaded of that conclusion by a male colleague
      • Remained at Harvard as a technical assistant to the director of the Harvard College Observatory
        • Convinced to shift the focus of her work to “photometry” (basically taking pictures of stars) → phase of her work which she later referred to as “sad” and “a waste of time”
        • Named a lecturer in astronomy at Harvard in 1938 … but not listed in the Harvard catalogue until after WWII
        • Finally appointed a full professor at Harvard in 1956 → became chair of the astronomy department
    • Virginia Hall → foreign agent and French resistance organizer during WWII[3]
      • Born in America in 1906[4]
      • Studied abroad in France for most of her formative years → called France her “second country” for the rest of her life
      • Applied for positions in America’s diplomatic corps numerous times but passed up time and again despite her obvious intelligence and capability (spoke 5 languages) because she was a woman
      • Suffered a firearm accident while hunting with friends in Turkey when she was 27 → resulted in amputation of her lower left leg → forever used a wooden prosthetic which she affectionately named “Cuthbert”
      • Eventually recruited by England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1940 → trained and sent into occupied France (Lyon) → began to establish elaborate and highly successful networks of French resistance fighters
        • Carried out countless operations that chipped away at Nazi morale, disrupted supply lines, and diverted troops → e.g. – single-handedly was responsible for at least 8 German battalions being unable to reach the beaches of Normandy on D-Day
        • Coordinated numerous supply and personnel drops under the cover of darkness → secured safehouses, funds, covers, etc. for other foreign agents from Great Britain and eventually the U.S. as well
        • Broke many resistance fighters out of jail after being caught either by Nazis or by the French police collaborating with the occupying German army
        • Later trained as a radio operator (one of the most dangerous and vulnerable positions during WWII) and spent hour upon hour relaying critical messages to London via morse code
      • Evaded capture by the Germans while under cover for 3 whole years
        • Relentlessly pursued personally by Klaus Barbie, SS and Gestapo functionary known as the “Butcher of Lyon” → still never caught
        • Escaped from France into Spain for a time by trekking across the Pyrenees in the middle of winter (immensely difficult and dangerous climb in summer, let alone winter!), all the while concealing her prosthetic leg from her fellow escapees → spent short time resting up, then headed right back into enemy territory (even though the entire German army at that point had a detailed description of her and was on the lookout for her specifically)
      • Despite all of these amazing accomplishments → continually dismissed, ignored, disparaged, and even undermined by her male colleagues for being a woman
      • Returned to America after WWII → worked for the CIA until her retirement → never given the opportunities, responsibilities, or recognition that her male colleagues received, even to the point of being deliberately stymied in various positions or passed up for well-earned promotions
    • So why am I telling you about these two amazing women this morning? Because they were smart. They were ambitious. They were imaginative. They were beyond capable and infinitely qualified. But because they were women, their careers were held back in undeniable and unjust ways.
      • Last week’s sermon → God came down to dwell among us anyway even in the face of our own failings and mistakes
      • This week → recognizing that some of the struggles that we face in our life – some of the things that end up holding us back – come not from within us but from the outside … but even as we recognize and name that those struggles and hurdles exist, we also recognize and name that, indeed, God did come … has come … will come anyway, overcoming those hurdles with ease and helping us to rise above.
  • Scripture reading this morning = from Isaiah → This is significant because we have to remember that Isaiah was a prophet delivering God’s word to the people of Israel who were being held captive in Babylon or had been held captive in Babylon and had just returned to a Jerusalem unlike any they had expected.
    • 3 different parts of Isaiah = different authors of Isaiah and time period in which words of prophecy were delivered[5]
      • 1st Isaiah (chs. 1-39) = prophecies during captivity
      • 2nd and 3rd Isaiah (chs. 40-55 and chs. 56-66 respectively) = prophecies after the people had returned to what was left of Jerusalem
    • Babylonian Captivity = different from the enslavement that the people of Israel had suffered hundreds of years before at the hands of the Egyptians → In Babylon, the captive people of Israel were allowed to live similar to the way they would have in Jerusalem.
      • Participate in city life
      • Gather with one another
      • Build relationships with their Babylonian neighbors → some even married Babylonian men and women
      • Continue their intellectual and artistic pursuits
      • However, the land they lived on wasn’t their own. The homes they inhabited weren’t their own either. And the religion they were made to observe certainly wasn’t their own. They were free … but not really.
        • Ps 137 captures the anguish and desperate longing of the people of Israel during this time of captivity: Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion. We hung our lyres up in the trees there because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said. But how could we possibly sing the LORD’s song on foreign soil? Jerusalem! If I forget you, let my strong hand wither! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don’t remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. LORD, remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day: “Rip it down, rip it down! All the way to its foundations!” they yelled. Daughter Babylon, you destroyer, a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us! A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock! → We can hear the utter pain of captivity and forced separation in this. We can hear the yearning. We can hear the despair. We can hear the hopelessness.
    • This portion of Isaiah = written after the people had actually been allowed by King Cyrus to return to Jerusalem → return hoping to find the beautiful city from the stories their grandparents told them only to find the Temple destroyed, the walls still very much in ruins, and the city nowhere near the haven they had hoped for
      • They are beaten down
      • They are disappointed
      • They are overwhelmed
      • They are devastated
    • It was to these people – these people feeling this disconnectedness and isolation, these people feeling this pain and this hunger of the heart and soul – that Isaiah spoke God’s words of reassurance and empowerment. → [READ today’s text] → In delivering his message, Isaiah doesn’t shy away from the difficult or the painful. He doesn’t try to tell the people that things aren’t as bad as they know they are. He doesn’t try to whitewash their troubles with empty platitudes. In no way does Isaiah diminish the struggles the people of Israel are enduring or the grief that they are feeling. But still, he gives them hope.
      • HOPE: [God] has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners … to comfort all who mourn[6]
      • HOPE: They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past.[7]
      • HOPE: I surely rejoice in the LORD; my heart is joyful because of my God, because he has clothed me with clothes of victory, wrapped me in a robe of righteousness … As the earth puts out its growth, and as a garden grows its seeds, so the LORD God will grow righteousness and praise before all the nations.[8]
  • Friends, we know that there are people and circumstances in the world around us that hold us back – things that are out of our control, things that often feel utterly and disconsolately insurmountable.
    • Broken relationships
    • Financial barriers
    • Limitations places on us by others because of their own prejudice
      • Prejudice based on race
      • Prejudice based on gender/gender identity
      • Prejudice based on economic status or education level
      • Prejudice based on where we were born
      • Prejudice based on our accent or the language we speak
      • Prejudice based on the way we worship and pray
    • All of these are things that sometimes hold us back – things that we desperately wish to overcome, but despite our best efforts, we cannot find our own way over. Like Cecilia and Virginia, we are discounted, ignored, passed over. Or maybe we’re the ones doing the dismissing and the passing over. Maybe we’re the ones discounting the work and contributions of others because of barriers they face – hurdles that they are mightily struggling to get over, hurdles placed there by others … or even by us.
      • Scholar: Even amid the greenery, candles, and mangers in our sanctuaries, it is often difficult to see God’s transformation “spring[ing] up before all the nations” (v. 11). The real definition of Advent is something Isaiah challenges us to ponder … We do not need to look too far to see the injustice of poverty, abuse, hunger, oppression, and war. Yet our Christmas distractions often speak louder than Isaiah’s call for God’s transformation. … Jesus speaks the words of Isaiah again as a reminder that God’s advent is transformation that will alter our personal lives and the world in which we live.[9]
    • Hear again God’s promise through Isaiah: Instead of shame, their portion will be double; instead of disgrace, they will rejoice over their share. They will possess a double portion in their land; everlasting joy will be theirs. I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and dishonesty. I will faithfully give them their wage, and make with them an enduring covenant. Their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people blessed by the LORD.[10] → To bring us reassurance and hope in the face of the things that hold us back, God came anyway. To bring us strength and courage to rise above those things that hold us back, God came anyway. To remind us that sometimes those around us are being unjustly held back, and it’s our job to make sure they can rise up, God came anyway. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cecilia-Payne-Gaposchkin.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecilia_Payne-Gaposchkin.

[3] Sonia Purnell. A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. (New York, NY: Viking Publishing), 2019.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Hall.

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/Isaiah.

[6] Is 61:1b-2.

[7] Is 61:4.

[8] Is 61:10,11.

[9] Donald Booz. “Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.

[10] Is 61:7-9.