Ash Wednesday 2021

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Please pray with me this evening, church:

Holy God,

We come to you tonight

A rough people.

A bit stressed. A bit strained.

A bit tired. A bit worn.

Remind us of what and of whose we are.

Remind us that we are dust.

Lovingly formed and given breath by you.

Amen. 

—————

For a year that has been so strange and historic in so many ways…I’m not sure why I’m surprised that Ash Wednesday 2021 would be just as unusual as the rest.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I’m really ready for a little bit more “precedented” in my life. I’ve had just about all of the “unprecedented” I can stand. For like, a lifetime. Maybe several lifetimes.

This Ash Wednesday service is coming to you in the midst of, but on the trailing end of, an arctic blast that dipped down all the way through the US, but that ended up devastating the Texas energy grid. Millions are without power in some of the most dangerous temperatures on record.

I don’t need to tell you about all this. You’re all living it right now.

But it is my role to help us discover together where God is in the midst of all of this, right?

Ash Wednesday marks our entry into the season of Lent. A 40-day journey that begins with a reminder of our origins as people crafted from dust, and ends with a dynamic crescendo of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and glorious resurrection.

This season, we’re using a resource from a sanctified art called Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain. The artists and curators write:

In Lent, we’re reminded that, again and again, suffering and brokenness find us. We doubt again, we lament again, we mess up again. Again and again, the story of Jesus on the cross repeats—every time lives are taken unjustly, every time the powerful choose corruption and violence, every time individuals forget how to love. With exacerbation we exclaim, “Again?! How long, O God?” And yet, in the midst of the motion blur chaos of our lives, God offers a sacred refrain: “I choose you, I love you, I will lead you to repair.” Again and again, God breaks the cycle and offers us a new way forward.

This Ash Wednesday we’re reminded of the familiar refrain of the seasons of our lives. We’re reminded of the heartache, the betrayals, the ways we’ve messed up, the ways we’ve wronged others. We’ve done so before, and we’ll do so again.

But we’re also reminded of how God has shown up in the midst of all of that. We’re reminded that God was present then, has been present throughout, and we hope and we trust that God will be present in all the other times we’ll keep messing up.

Because that’s what God does.

As we sit here tonight, many of us without power or water, I’m reminded of disasters. Hurricanes, tornadoes, novel coronaviruses…and even arctic blasts. I’m reminded that we’re really good at disasters, church. You show up. In big ways.

When we put the call out that people were in need, we had more offers to help than we had need. Even those of you who were yourself dealing with no heat or no water were reaching out and asking “How can I help?”

This is the love of God, church.

This is what God created us for.

To reach out. To help. To give. To love. To loose the bonds of injustice. To remove the yoke of oppression. To fill hungry bellies. To clothe and shelter the poor.

This is what we’re good at.

This is what you’re good at.

That cross that will mark your forehead is a reminder of your mortality, yes…but honestly, this year, I just don’t think we need that many more reminders of our impermanence…death seems especially present this year……but that cross is also a reminder to you about whose you are. The One who has laid claim to your life. Who has called you according to their purpose.

In the waters of baptism, you were claimed by God, marked with that same cross on your forehead, and called by God to live lives of discipleship.

That cross on your forehead is a reminder that what you’re doing now, helping others, reaching out, doing what you can…this is what you are made for. This is what God formed you from dust to do.

Not in a showy way, or a pious way…but simply because that’s what you are created for.

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As we begin this journey through Lent, it feels helpful to take a deep breath. To pause from all the zillion different things on your to-do list, all the zillion different things running through your head, and take a moment to breathe. To breathe in God. To breathe in the very breath that breathed into the dust, formed you into life, and called you “Very good.”

We’ve been running breathless.

Take a moment to breathe.

“Remember, o mortal one, that you are dust…and to dust you shall return…”

These words—spoken to us when we receive ashes on our foreheads—remind us of our humanity. So in full honesty, make a list of 5-10 challenges you are struggling with, recognizing that life is messy and life is complicated. Name anything that is hard or heavy in this moment.

Write them down on a piece of paper or in your journal or whatever you have available.

Challenge yourself to think of the core emotion underlying each challenge. For example, instead of simply saying, “I’m busy,” perhaps you might confess: “I overcommit myself because I worry that others will think I’m selfish if I say no.”

Name your challenges and your confessions, offering them all to God.

Take a moment to look over your list.

Ask God for forgiveness for the things you can control.

Ask God for grace for the things you cannot.

Friends, God is intimately aware of our humanity and the many ways we fall short or get stuck in the weeds of our own problems. Having confessed and written down some of the challenges that weigh heavily on you, hear this poem from the Rev. Sarah Are as a reminder of God’s grace:

I like to imagine that each year,

God invites me to a party.

God drops me a note that says,

“No gifts, casual dress. Come just as you are.”

I like to imagine that I am brave enough to go.

I like to imagine that I decide that I am worth it.

This was no pity invite,

There is no obligatory postage.

God wants me there.

So I get myself together,

Smudged glasses, sensitive ego, wrinkled shirt, and all.

I ring the doorbell a few minutes late on account of the fact that

I lost my keys twice trying to get out the door,

And I almost turn back to hide in my car,

Afraid that I might embarrass myself over appetizers or small talk.

But then God answers the door,

And God says, “You’re here!”

And I smile, because I am.

And with every step past that threshold,

I know that God is cheering me on.

It’s the pride of a parent watching their child take their first step.

If I freeze, God is not disappointed.

If I fall, God is not mad.

But if I trust the invitation,

If I move closer,

I know, God celebrates.

Friends, you’ve got mail.

It’s an invitation to dust off your shoes,

To go deeper,

To trust that you’re worth it,

To lose your keys and your faith,

And then to find them both, along with your worth.

You are invited.

We are invited.

Again and again and again.

This invitation is for you.

Church, now having heard scripture and poetry, and named the challenges you are facing, I wonder if you would now write down 5-10 hopes you have for this Lenten season.

How might you live your life with intention this season?

As you write, consider these written hopes to be intentions that you are setting for this Lenten journey ahead. These are not intended to be aimless wishes on stars, but instead, thoughtful intentions for what Mary Oliver calls, “your one wild and precious life.”

Now, looking at your challenges and hopes…pray with me:

God of open doors,

Open arms,

And open conversations,

We know

Deep in our souls

That you are forever inviting us in.

Again and again,

You invite us to take another step closer,

Another step deeper,

Another step further,

In this journey of faith.

So with your invitation in our hands,

We pray for strength and wisdom.

Show us the next right step in this journey.

We are here.

You are here.

This is holy ground.

May this holy Lenten journey begin

Once again.

Gratefully we pray,

Amen.

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany 2021

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Mark 1:21-28

21 Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. 22 And all who were gathered were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a person with an unclean spirit, 24 and the spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

25 But Jesus rebuked the spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of the man. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and the spirits obey him.’ 28 At once Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

Holy One of God,

The truth can be a scary proposition.

Sometimes the truth can hurt.

Remind us again, the truth about us.

That we are called to follow.

We are beloved.

We are yours.

Amen.

—————

It always feels weird to say out loud, but I enjoy the time I get to spend doing ministry in hospitals and other healthcare settings. Like, pastoral care, and particularly visitation ministry is always a really filling thing for me. I’m filled up when I get to visit with folks who are going through some medically distressing stuff.

And so this whole pandemic thing has really drained me on quite a few different levels, but not least of which is because I haven’t been able to do any hospital visits in almost a year.

Now, we’ve also had fewer people in the hospital this year, which is a tremendous blessing, but still, there have been a couple of moments this past year that I really would have liked to be there.

I know this sounds bonkers, and please don’t hear my affinity for hospital visits as encouragement to find ways to spend more time in the hospital…that would not be good…but one of the reasons that I enjoy hospital visits so much, is that it’s just so raw. Everything is so real.

All the façades and veneer and cover-ups are stripped away and you’re left with just a really bare sense of reality…of the truth about things… I think hospitals and healthcare facilities and the scares that led you to be in those places have a really powerful way of getting past all the stuff…all the crap…all the baggage…and cutting right to the heart of things. I think they reveal truth…

I think we’re confronted…with truth…

And quite honestly, sometimes that truth is really scary.

This is why I also find those moments to be very holy.

Because there’s a comfort in having someone there with you whose only job it is to sit there…with you…in the scary stuff. Whose only job it is to sit there and say, “I hear you…and I agree…this is really scary… And…I’m here with you… So we’ll do this whole scary thing together, ok?”

We also often hear difficult truths expressed in hospital rooms. Doctors and nurses and healthcare staff have the unimaginable task of delivering sometimes crushing news to folks. Words like “inoperable”…”terminal”…or even just that look in their eye… Have you seen that before? Do you know the one I’m talking about?

Those are the truths we have difficulty with. Those are the truths we don’t want to accept. But it doesn’t make them less true.

The truth is sometimes hard for us to hear.

Especially when they’re words we don’t agree with. Or words that challenge our worldviews, or our opinions, or our preconceptions. All of us have bias, we can’t help it, it’s part of being human…the question is the extent to which we allow our bias to influence our behavior.

We like our worldviews. We like our opinions. We like our preconceptions.

If we didn’t like them, we probably wouldn’t hold them. Those biases make us feel comfortable. And so when those words of truth challenge our biases—our worldviews and our opinions—that’s a tough thing to hear. We don’t like to hear that we may have been wrong. Or that maybe we learned incorrectly, or that someone we trusted a great deal didn’t know any better and so may have taught us incorrectly…because if they were wrong about that…what else were they wrong about…? You see this discomfort here, yes?

Sometimes the truth is hard to wrestle with.

Like the words of a prophet described in Deuteronomy, “’I will put my words into the mouth of the prophet,’ says the Lord, ‘who will speak everything I have commanded them. And anyone who does not listen to the words of the prophet that I send, I will hold them accountable.’”

Prophets speak difficult words.

That’s kinda the role of a prophet. They speak the tough words from God to the people. Prophets speak truth to power. Prophets call God’s people to account. It’s why all the stories about biblical prophets are about reluctant prophets. Who wants to be called by God to deliver a not-so-great message to God’s people? Not me… Not Moses. Not Jonah, or Micah, or Amos, or Joel, or Isaiah… Truth-telling is hard business. “A prophet is never welcomed in their hometown.” Remember those words from Jesus? There’s a reason they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff in Nazareth.

The truth is sometimes hard for us to hear.

But truth-telling, dear people, is what leads to healing.

The person with the unclean spirit is the one to tell the truth about Jesus, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It’s interesting to note that the ones proclaiming the truth about Jesus are all the so-called “wrong” ones you’d imagine. It isn’t the disciples or the religious authorities, and in fact, in the Gospel of Mark, the identity of Jesus as Messiah is this big secret. You’ll hear over and over again in Mark “And he strictly ordered them not to tell anyone.” But it’s all the wrong people you’d imagine who get it. It’s ha’satan—or the accuser—when Jesus is in the wilderness…it’s this unclean spirit…it’s the Roman centurion in Mark 15 who says “Truly this was God’s son.”

And it’s through this truth-telling that Jesus heals this person with the unclean spirit. But it’s a messy business, right? The spirit convulses this person and then cries out, and then is finally exorcised.

Another thing I find often in hospitals is that healing is tough work and it doesn’t come easy. When cleaning a wound, you have to scrape the wound and clean out everything in there that could cause an infection. You don’t get to healing without a deep cleansing and a good amount of painful scraping. Which also sounds uncomfortable, and it is. It’s meant to.

Friends, I’ve watched over the past years as we as a people have become more divided and more polarized than ever. Leaders stand up and love to grandstand and call for unity, but time and time again, fail to offer any real substantive steps forward, much less an alignment between the words they love to shout and their actions.

This is the uncomfortable truth about who we are. We are broken. We are a fractured people. We are disunited, disjointed, and dissociated. We are far more interested in being “right” than we are concerned with the well-being of our neighbors. We are more interested in proving our moral and intellectual superiority over our friends and family than we are in listening to the pain, hurt, and anger they express.

We are possessed. By the demons of self-righteousness, self-importance, and self-centeredness. There are real evils in our world. Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, sexism…all these upheld and perpetuated by fear.

What are you afraid of?

My sense is that we’re afraid to deal with those biases I mentioned earlier. James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” Pain is one of the primary drivers of our fear.

But if we can expect pain…if we can expect pain and we can endure it, with help from one another, we can use it as a deep cleansing on our way toward healing.

Because there is another truth about us, too.

This is the truth attested to by God and all who speak for God in these pages… Another truth about us that in spite of all our nastiness, we are still beloved by God. God desires to set us free from all the stuff, all the garbage, all the trash, that keeps us imprisoned and bound up, and all the stuff that possesses us. Our self-righteousness and self-centered ways of living. Our worldviews and prejudices that end up keeping others down so that we might get a leg up. Our dualistic ways of thinking that pit “us” against “them”, “me” against “you”…instead of we. All that stuff that binds you up and entangles you and keeps you from reaching out and truly loving and embracing your neighbor.

God’s desire is for you to be free, dear child.

Let God help us do the work of unbinding, of loosening, of cleaning, of mending, of bandaging, and of healing. We have to do the work, make no mistake…but we can let God help us. We can begin to build bridges and tables of sharing. We can begin to heal. With God’s help.

There’s one last truth to be told this morning, church.

The truth that truth-telling leads to hope. The truth that despite all the gloom—and Lord, we know there’s a lot of gloom—despite all the gloom…there is still reason for hope.

Church, this morning, I see hope in a met budget. In spite of this global pandemic, you stepped up and made extra contributions this year, and even apart from our Payroll Protection Program loan, we ran a $4000 surplus in 2020. And we’ll celebrate that at our Congregational Meeting this morning.

I see hope that in spite of this global pandemic, we had extremely generous folks contribute leading gifts to our Capital Campaign, and we have projects being completed as we speak. We replaced 2 non-functioning air conditioning units with one cohesive, centrally-controlled unit on the southside of our Community Center…the side with our Sunday School classrooms, and where most of the groups in our Camp Hope occupy. Right now, in this Sanctuary, installation is happening of an audio and live streaming project that will allow us to continue to reach beyond these walls to unthought of corners of the world with the good news of Christ’s love for all God’s creation.

It’s been a tough year, absolutely. But in spite of all the difficulty, God’s love is still being shown. Through acts of love and service, volunteer efforts with our partnership with Armstrong Elementary, the Human Needs Ministry, and Family Promise. Hope are the shrieks and giggles I hear at the park down the street from our house…mostly which are my kid… Hope sounds like young ones having faith conversations on Zoom on Sunday mornings. Hope sounds like prayers being lifted up together in virtual community.

Here’s what’s true:

Joy does come in the morning.

Hope does come from the gloom.

Healing does come from the hurt.

Third Sunday After Epiphany 2021

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Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to the Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,

15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and trust in this good news.”
  16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon Peter and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—because they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As Jesus went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and James’ brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately Jesus called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers, and followed Jesus.

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

God of Hope,

You invite us to enjoy the riches

Of your abundant goodness.

Help us to invite others to encounter your grace.

Give us words to share.

Amen.

—————

I have a tricky relationship with fishing.

I guess I always kinda have.

My problem is that I’m just not very good at it. Like, I think that I just don’t, like, get it. It’s not really my speed.

Right. That’s the one. It’s not really my speed.

And truthfully, I am not taking anything away from those of y’all that like to fish. I’m glad for you. I’m glad you like it. I’m ecstatic that it’s your thing. It’s just…it’s not mine.

It’s not really my speed because I don’t exactly have the patience required, I don’t think. I get antsy after a few minutes. But like, this is not fishing’s fault…I had the same problem with baseball when I was little. I tried to like baseball…I really did…I just got bored standing out there in right field. I’d drift away, daydreaming about something else, and totally just miss the very catchable and very playable ball that would land like, right beside me. I was kind of like Smalls from The Sandlot. Coordinated, but just not there. I’d lose interest. …Soccer was more my speed…

But it’s important to know that what we think of as a leisure activity was not what Simon, Andrew, James, and John were doing. These are 2 very different types of fishing. Rather than fishing for enjoyment, these folks along the Sea of Galilee are fishing for their livelihoods. This is the clothes on their backs and the food on their tables. This is their work. And so when Jesus calls them away from that…particularly James and John, being called away from their father, Zebedee, and the other hired workers…Jesus isn’t just messing with their work and their money…Jesus is sticking his nose into the family business…Jesus is mucking things up for Zebedee and his fishing enterprise…this is a problem…

And the way they were fishing was different, too. We think of bait and hooks and sinkers and bobbers. Fishing for fun is about the leisure of it…kicking back and taking your time, no rush… Fishing for your livelihood is about getting as much as you can as quickly as you can. They were using nets, dragging the water, trying to get as much fish as they could get. There’s skill involved, but honestly, it’s kind of ham-handed…you throw the net out, and you bring the net back in…then you throw it out again and bring it back in again, over and over. Hardly leisure.

It was back-breaking work, and so it’s not really a big surprise that Simon, Andrew, James, and John take Jesus up on his offer. “Yeah, sure…I’ll leave this behind to go and follow you, doing whatever it is you’re doing. Seems reasonable…”

But Jesus still extended the invitation. It wasn’t that Jesus was just so charismatic and people were just drawn to him…Jesus extends the invitation to these fishers, “Follow me.” Like we heard last week, “Follow me.”

God’s reign is at hand…repent…turn around…and trust…and follow…

In my heart of hearts, I wish it were that simple.

I wish invitation were that easy. I wish that the work of church were as uncomplicated as turning, trusting, and following a new way.

I wish it were quick…like throwing a net off a boat and hauling in a bunch of fish. I wish it didn’t require me to have patience.

I struggle with patience…as you probably heard me say earlier… I want this pandemic to be over with. Like, yesterday. I want to go to restaurants and travel and gather together with people again. I struggle with the fact that things sometimes take a bit longer…

Church is slow work. It takes time and care. C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their book Slow Church talk about the need for churches to be rooted deeply in their places. And that rootedness takes time. It takes time to grow deep roots that extend far outward. It takes time to nurture relationships in your community. It takes time to cultivate meaningful ministry in your neighborhood.

I want church growth to be a quick thing…like there’s some kind of switch I can flip and all of a sudden we’ve got hundreds of new members and a gajillion new ministries…just like that… But that, too, takes time.

And it also requires invitation.

I wonder, church…who invited you to New Hope…?

Think back…think about when you came to New Hope, whether it was 40 years ago or 4 years ago or 4 months ago when you joined us online…who invited you?

Unless you’re one of the very few who have been here as long as New Hope and you were invited by Pastor Ed Steinbring or Pastor Steve Quill, it’s much more likely that you were invited by someone else. A friend. Someone you trust.

And you accepted that invitation because you trusted that person.

And you’re still here…

43% of visitors to church came because someone invited them. A personal invitation from someone they know and trust.

Less than 10% came because they saw an advertisement. Over 90% visited your website before either showing up at the Sanctuary or joining you for worship online.

The overwhelming majority of people found their way here because someone invited them.

So who have you invited, church?

This isn’t a rhetorical question, think about it, write it down, pray about it this week: Who have you invited?

And who might be waiting on an invitation from you? Who can you invite?

Because here’s the thing, I can make cold calls through the phone book all month, but they don’t have a reason to visit because they don’t know me. Your friends and neighbors know you, church. Your invitation means something.

It’s slow work…it’s work that is formed out of trusting relationships…but you are called to this work of invitation. If you want to see new people, you have to invite them.

And truthfully, it’s never been easier. Invite your friends to worship with you…I say it every week in my announcements…it’s literally as simple as sharing a link on your Facebook page or in an email. Better yet, set up a Zoom meeting or a facetime…and worship together. Sing together, pray together, share a meal together… Be the church, church.

I know folks who, when the chance comes up, on their neighborhood Facebook page, they make it a point to tell people where they go to church and what they’ve found at New Hope—what they enjoy about New Hope.

What have you found here at New Hope, church?

Who are you going to share that with?

“But all my friends already go to church, PC. It’s no use inviting them.”

You never know until you extend the invitation. Maybe they do…but maybe they’re open to looking… Simon, Andrew, James, and John weren’t necessarily looking either…but they still followed…

I know you don’t like the “e”-word, but it’s just true, church, you are all evangelists. You are the ones sent out to do the inviting. You are the ones sustained, uplifted, encouraged, and sent out into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ…to invite the whole world to experience that same freedom and healing and restoration that you’ve found here.

It’s guaranteed to be slow work.

But you’d be surprised what happens when you start casting your net.

 

Baptisim of Our Lord 2021

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Mark 1:4-11

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “After me the one who is more powerful than I is coming; the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
  9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

10 And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

Holy God,

You drew near and named Jesus as your “Beloved”.

In our baptism, you name us, too, as “Beloved Child”.

Make us instruments of your love.

Help us and guide us as we seek to share your love with our world.

Amen.

—————

Preachers all know that we are just one big news story away from having to edit our sermons. Sometimes the breaking news fits nice and neat into what you’ve already written. Other times, a complete rewrite of the entire sermon is needed.

Under normal circumstances, it’s the Saturday night news stories you want to watch out for. In these pandemic times, when I’m writing my sermon on Wednesday and Thursday, and preaching it on Thursday afternoon (night…), I don’t get to include those late-week stories, but the Wednesday afternoon ones…

Like many of you, I was glued to the news watching the events that unfolded in Washington D.C. on Wednesday afternoon, January 6. A day when the church officially celebrates the Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord. And certainly, this Epiphany, on January 6, 2021, we certainly had our own eyes opened…

It’s not my role to stand here and say this thing or that thing about what you should think about what happened on Wednesday afternoon, but it is my role to stand here and talk about where our faith intersects with the world around us.

Hopefully, you’ve heard me quote the great Lutheran pastor and theologian Karl Barth who said that the preacher must always preach the Gospel “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” That is, our faith always has something to say to the goings-on around us. Our faith is the lens through which view, and move, and live, and exist in the world. If our faith doesn’t have something to say to our actual, real-life, shared experiences…what good is that faith?

Our faith informs how we understand and act in the rest of the entire world.

Our faith is that foundational principle. Above all others.

Which is why when folks ask me why I get political in my sermons, my question in response is “How do you even separate the two?” If politics is simply the structures and norms that guide our shared life together, how is that different than the Gospel which sets out, through the teaching and ministry of Jesus, how we are to live together? It’s the exact same thing. How do we live together?

It’s the fundamental question asked of you in your baptism.

Who are you—what role do you have—in this Christian life, this life you share with all others and with all of creation?

Who are you?

What role do you have in this life we all share?

(I told you, sometimes they fit nicely…)

The gospel writer of Mark tells us, John the baptizer was out in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem by the Jordan River baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sin. This has largely been understood to be a form of washing associated with Jewish purity rituals. But John is careful to draw a distinction between his baptism and the baptism of the one coming after him: “I baptize you with water, but the one coming after me, the one who is more powerful than I, will baptize you with the holy spirit.”

For a really really really long time it was taught that our Christian baptism had something to do with forgiveness of sin, also. But even here in the gospel, we have John drawing the distinction between the baptism for the forgiveness of sin and Jesus’ baptism, a baptism with the holy spirit. For so many—honestly, myself included, for a really long time—baptism had some sort of implication on our salvation. Like, we needed baptism to make sure we got into heaven or something like that. Even Luther hints as much in the Augsburg Confessions, so we got the idea honestly, but the thing is, in the very same document, and in our theological understanding, as Lutherans, we believe and we confess that we ourselves have nothing to do with our salvation. Salvation is God’s work, and God’s alone, and we are recipients of that salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ, justified and made to be in right relationship with God, a gift that has been given to us as grace, undeserving and unworthy as we are. (By the way, this is like, almost the entire thrust of Lutheran Confirmation…Congratulations, you’re all basically Confirmed Lutherans now if you weren’t already…)

So then, what use is our Baptism?

Well, as we do in our Rite of Holy Baptism and in the Affirmation of Baptism we do occasionally, we make promises, either ourselves or have promises made on our behalf. Things like promising to worship and pray and study scripture and participate in the Lord’s Supper… And learn; we promise to be nurtured in faith and to nurture faith in others. And we make promises to proclaim Christ through word and deed…to care for others and the world God made…and to faithfully work for justice and peace in all the world.

And it’s these last few that I think we hear so often at church that we honestly kind of gloss over them. Because they sound so familiar to, like, everything else we talk about at church. But I want you to really hear these promises because I think they speak really profoundly to this moment that we’re all in.

In your baptism, you promised to proclaim Christ through word and deed.

In all you do and in all you say, your life is to point to Christ. A Christ who, as we just sang about not 3 weeks ago, whose law is love and whose Gospel is peace.

How are you doing there?

In your baptism, you promised to care for others and the world God made.

In all your interactions with others and with creation, your posture is to be one of care and compassion. In these divisive and so highly-charged times, you are to be a voice of healing and unity.

How do you receive and interact with others who view things differently than you? How do you treat others who look, speak, think, act, vote, and believe differently than you? Do you seek out common understanding? Or do you write people off as nothing more than their voting record? (I’m especially convicted by this one, by the way… I can do this so much better…)

In your baptism, you promised to faithfully and tirelessly work for justice and peace in all the world.

In situations of oppression and injustice, your call is to stand and work with those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and marginalized. Those on the outsides. Those who do not have power and privilege. Those whose power and privilege and voice are trying to be taken away from them. Your “side” is to be with God, doing the work of lifting up the lowly, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, releasing the captive, and proclaiming the peace—the shalom—of God.

Where do you stand in situations of injustice?

The truth is, church, in all of this, our baptism most clearly shows us just how connected and how dependent on each other we all are.

Church, baptism is belonging.

The heavens were rent apart and the Spirit descended like a dove, and voice from the heavens said, “You are my child…my beloved…with you, I am so so pleased…”

Words not only reserved for Jesus. In your baptism, too, dear one…God drew near…the very same voice that swept over the waters and called forth life proclaimed you “Beloved”……a beautiful child of God……in you God is so so pleased……

And if that’s true of all of us, how does that change how we receive and view and interact with all those other people…all those folks we disagree with…? Are they, too, Beloved? Are they deserving of your love and care and compassion?

Baptism is belonging.

We are given to and for one another.

We are responsible for one another.

Perhaps if we understood this better, scenes like this past Wednesday might not have happened.

Perhaps if we understood this better, wearing a mask and avoiding gatherings wouldn’t be seen as a political statement, but rather as an act of care and concern for our neighbor.

Perhaps if we understood this better, we might more easily be able to overcome this pandemic because we would see that what is best for our neighbor is ultimately best for us. We would see that our lives really are tied up together, caught up in that inescapable network of mutuality.

Baptism is belonging.

And in this belonging, who are you?

What role do you have in this life we all share together…in this belonging to one another?

You…are beloved.

And you are called…to love.

Epiphany Sunday 2021

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Matthew 2:1-12

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
  are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
 for from you shall come a ruler
  who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
  7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

 

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Please pray with me this morning, church:

Brilliant God,

Your glory breaks into our weary world

And fills the places in our hearts

That feel distant from you.

Help us to share the gift that we’ve been given,

The immeasurable gift of your care, your love

And your grace in our world.

Amen.

—————

I’m not really a very spectacular gift giver.

I tend to be more utilitarian in the types of gifts I give. When considering which gifts to buy, I tend to ask myself the question “What does this person need?” rather than “What would this person want?” And even then, I’ve found that I’m usually a pretty poor judge of what my friend needs. And I imagine I’d be an even worse judge of what my friend wants.

So all in all, I’d say I’m not a very good gift giver.

I feel a lot like the magi in our gospel this morning. Seriously, what use does a toddler have for gold, incense, and a burial spice?

But, as you’ve heard me say before, the gifts in this story are less about their utility and more about what the gifts represent. Gold indicated riches fit for a king. Frankincense was an incense representing wisdom. And myrrh was a spice representing long life and healing, but it was also a burial spice, some say as a way of foreshadowing just how Jesus was to rule in his kingdom…by dying himself, and calling us to a sacrificial way of living, to die to our selves also.

Not necessarily gifts a child wants, but maybe the gifts this child needs.

One of my favorite Epiphany traditions that we’ve kept here at New Hope for a few years now is the house blessing of our spiritual home and the chalking above the doors of our Sanctuary. It’s a reminder for me every time I walk through those doors that this place is surrounded by blessing. We prayed for our church, and with our voices, we collectively asked for God’s blessing on this house.

But what a strange year it’s been since we did that… Less than 3 months after we prayed for God’s blessing and marked the occasion in chalk last year, we were forced from our spiritual house by an invisible virus whose most effective course of treatment is to maintain distance and keep physically separate from one another, rather than be drawn together, which is so much of many of our own experiences with church. It’s particularly insidious that the absolute best way to beat COVID-19 is to keep physically apart from one another, especially when so much of our identity and who we are as a people of faith is as a people of connection…and when so much of that connection is fostered through physical interaction.

I’ve been lamenting this pretty much throughout this pandemic, but most especially throughout the month of December, and even more so as we got closer to Christmas. Christmas is such a special time in the life of the church, similar to Easter or really any of the feast days, but then we got to Christmas Eve… We got to Christmas Eve, and after the staff spending all month trying to figure out how to approximate some version of “being” together…we got to Christmas Eve and we had these 3 opportunities to gather together virtually. And we saw each others’ faces, and we greeted each other, and we shared some laughs, and we prayed together, and we sang together, and we lit candles together, and we wished each other Merry Christmas and best wishes for a new year…and I was powerfully reminded that even though it’s not very safe for us to be all together under the same roof right now…church has never been canceled…

The building might be closed right now…but the church is still very much alive…

We may not be able to gather at this house right now…but our spiritual home has never been shut down…

I’m reminded of the invitation we extend to y’all every year—to grab a piece of chalk and a copy of the traditional Epiphany house blessing and to bless your own homes each year. To pray for God’s blessing as a family and mark the occasion over the door. If you did that in 2020, I wonder if you felt a deeper connection between the building here at 1424 FM 1092 and the Sanctuary of your address. In such a time as this, aren’t our homes in fact an extension of our church building? With faith formation and worship and serving your neighbors happening primarily in your homes right now, isn’t it simply that the church has been scattered and deployed?

Which, turns out, is even more true in this age of streaming worship. Church, do you know that we have folks joining us from all over the US? Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, Nebraska…even former members are able to re-connect, even from what I’ve started calling New Hope West, out in the Hill Country of Texas… The church is scattered and deployed.

And quite honestly, I think that’s where we do some of our best work anyway…sent out, deployed into the world…to do the work God calls you to…in, with, and among the world God so loves.

Arise! Shine! Your light has come!

Go, therefore, and be that light. Be the healing brightness in a weighed-down and weary world.

As I’ve called folks and checked in with you and talked with you over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the thought that although I don’t consider myself a very good gift-giver…I do have presence to offer…p-r-e-s-e-n—c—e… The gift I’m really good at giving is…my self…my time, my energy, my attention. Even mediated through the phone or a text or an email or a Zoom call, there’s still a deep connection.

I wonder what connections you might foster this new year. I wonder if you would re-up your commitment to check in with your friends and neighbors and family. We still need connection, church…deeply. Even after we get through the worst parts of this pandemic, that will still be true. We’re created for connection and we can use the tools we have at our disposal to foster that connection in profoundly meaningful ways.

Your presence can be a blessing.

Your presence is a blessing.

And you don’t have to be physically present to be a presence of blessing.

Happy New Year, church.

Christmas Eve 2020

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Luke 2:1-20

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she 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.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

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Please pray with me tonight, church:

Holy God,

Through the birth of a child,

You show us what Love looks like.

Let that Love be born in us again tonight,

So that we might be Love for the world.

Amen.

—————

A Christmas unlike any other…

We’ve read and heard that line countless times through the years in advertisements and commercials, and you’ve probably not paid it any mind, right? I mean, you’ve probably read and heard that line this year and thought nothing of it or didn’t even notice it…

But think about the ways that’s really true this year…

A Christmas unlike any other…

Back in January and February this year, you might have already started planning your holiday vacations. The thought that Christmas 2020 would be anything other than perfectly and completely normal didn’t even enter your mind. And even back in March and April, we were talking about a very temporary pinch…shut down for a couple of weeks, this thing goes away, we postpone our Easter celebration by a month or so, but we’re back to business as usual by Memorial Day.

No one…no one……thought that we’d still be doing this 9 months later.

But, here we are…

A Christmas unlike any other…

Much smaller affairs. You’re gathering with your immediate household rather than your whole extended family. Following the guidance of the national and local health officials and infectious disease experts, we’re all FaceTime-ing or Zoom-ing Christmas dinner and unwrapping presents, instead of gathering together all under the same roof this year.

It’s why we’re doing this…(*gesture back and forth to camera*)…virtually this year instead of in-person. Setting the example since our county threat level is at the highest “Red” level right now.

And it just makes me wonder if the imbalance and how off-kilter all of this feels doesn’t help us to understand just a bit more deeply how utterly unusual, and truly, how completely backward and upside-down the Nativity story is.

I wonder if the strangeness and the confusion of everything we’re experiencing in 2020 doesn’t actually help to see a little bit more clearly the whole point of this story that’s so familiar to us and that we hear every year.

Because the truth about this story lies in how unremarkable it all is. This story that we all know so well, is a story about God’s preference for the unassuming, the nobodies, the least, and the ones on the margins. And in that way, this familiar story of the birth of Jesus is just like every other gospel story we know so well.

Cod chooses to be found in an infant, not in royalty. In a back alleyway, not a palace. Visited by animals and their caretakers, not by dignitaries. Born to an unwed teenage mom and tradesperson dad, not the king and queen of some province. Heralded by angels and celestial bodies, not by trumpeting and royal decrees.

This story is about God choosing the completely unexpected to reveal God’s self to a world in desperate need of saving.

And in this way, maybe 2020 is precisely the year to help us understand this.

Maybe this is the year for us to finally understand that giving is so much more rewarding than receiving.

Maybe this is the year for us to finally understand that the least, the lost, the downtrodden, the outcast, the looked-down-upon, and the ones of no account are the ones we should be listening most closely to if we want to know about God’s incredible love.

Maybe this is the year for us to finally understand that the child, God’s gift of love, that draws us together, holds us so much more tightly than all the hatred, vitriol, division, and rhetoric that seeks to drive us further apart.

Maybe this is the year for us to finally understand that how we show up with God’s love speaks so much more loudly than what or who we say God’s love is for.

Maybe this is the year for us to finally understand that the world is indeed weary…full of hopes and fears…and that by showing up as the hands and feet of Christ to serve and love those whom the world seems to have left behind or forgotten is what God hopes for us this year.

Love is born, once again, this night, into a world desperate to receive it. Our job is to not leave that gift lying in the manger, but to carry it and share it with reckless abandon and extravagant abundance. The same abandon and abundance with which God has loved you, o dear child.

There is no more perfect year to share this gift of love.

Our hearts are breaking for it.

Our spirits are longing for it.

Our very souls are aching for it.

This year, more than any other, is when your showing up with love will have monumental effects.

This year, more than any other, is when your showing up with love will have incalculable consequences.

The Light has come once again to illumine the dark places.

This year, more than any other, you carry with you the Light of the World.

And by sharing your light with those around you…those you meet throughout your week, or month, or year…by bringing light to dark places…by caring for others who need to be cared for and loving others who need to be loved…God’s love and God’s dream for the world will grow and become more brilliant than ever.

The light will shine in the darkness.

And the darkness will not overcome it.

Merry Christmas, church.

A Christmas unlike any other…