God-flavors and God-colors

Sermon from February 5, 2017 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Encinitas, CA.

Text:  Matthew 5:13-20

Welcome to the second installment in the Sermon on the Mount from the gospel of Matthew.  Today’s message is brought to you by the Morton Salt Company, and by the Knorr Candle Factory in Del Mar.

(Just kidding.)

So we began last week with the Beatitudes, one of the best known passages in all of scripture.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, and so on.  I’ve been working on tweeting those this week; I’m an amateur at it, so it’s been a little sporadic.  If you’ve been tweeting, I hope that has gone well for you!

I love how Jesus begins this teachable moment, this Sermon on the Mount, in a rather unorthodox manner.

He doesn’t start with a syllabus, or an outline of any kind.  No due dates for ridiculously long papers – footnoted, of course – or requirements for web forum postings.  Office hours – who knows.

No, he starts elsewhere.  He starts by validating and lifting up not only his listeners’ existence, but their experience.

He calls them blessed.

As I considered this story, I thought about the great teachers I had throughout my school years.  I thought particularly of Clayton Liggett, who for years was the drama teacher at San Dieguito High School.  The performing arts center at San Dieguito Academy is named in his honor.

Mr. Liggett didn’t operate by the model Jesus uses.  He ran his classroom with discipline and order.  We were all a little afraid of Mr. Liggett.  But boy, if you got an A in his class, you knew you had earned it.  When he was ready to give praise, you knew it was authentic.  And so in spite of our fear, most of his students would say today that he was the single most influential teacher they ever had.

And that’s the model we’re a little more used to, isn’t it?

So this story might seem a little off.  Jesus AS USUAL is going against the grain.

But it’s not against the grain in our Lutheran theology.

No, this is a perfect example of a core tenet for us: GOD MOVES FIRST.

Let me repeat that:  God moves first.

We don’t choose God.  God chooses us, ALL of us.

So Jesus’ telling the disciples and the others gathered that they are blest, and that they are salt and light, is an endorsement of their worth as beloved children of God BEFORE THEY’VE EVEN HAD A CHANCE TO DO ANYTHING TO EITHER EARN IT OR PROVE IT.

If that isn’t being set free, then I don’t know what is.

They are set free to be the people God has created and called them to be.

I’d like to re-read this passage, but from a different translation.  It’s really more of an adaptation or paraphrase than a translation.  It’s called the Message, and was put together by scholar Eugene Peterson.  He figured it would be helpful to have a version of the Bible that was instantly understandable and accessible.  He says, “when the prophet Isaiah was writing, the Israelites in exile didn’t have to go to the library to research what he said, they just understood it.”

Here is the salt part.

Matt. 5:13   “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.”

Salt-seasoning.  He writes it as a hyphenated word.  It’s kind of like those blended sea salts you can get at Trader Joe’s: you get the good sea salt in the grinder, but you might also get garlic.

Now, you put a little of that with some harissa and rub it on your chicken before grilling or pan-frying – I guarantee you that will bring out the God-flavors in that chicken.  And we are called to do the same for the world.

One thing that intrigued me about this reading was this whole idea of losing saltiness. I’m all, pretty sure that’s not a thing.  So I went to my kitchen and pulled out my container of MarkenSalz, which I purchased in Salzburg, Austria in 1987.  Yes, I still have it and no, I haven’t used it.  Don’t judge.

I tasted it, and believe me, it is just as salty as the day I bought it.  Turns out salt doesn’t lose its saltiness and remain salt.  So why does Jesus say this?  This is long before the era of alternative facts.

I wonder if Jesus is speaking from a place of knowing full well that salt doesn’t lose its saltiness – rather, he is subtlely making the point that God’s covenant with God’s people doesn’t LET anyone get thrown out or trampled underfoot.  God has created us for this purpose – God has made us “salt” – and God isn’t going to abandon us in the midst of that purpose.

Throughout human history, salt has been an essential element for seasoning, for preserving, and for a host of other things.  If each one of us is the salt of the earth, then we are indispensable to the carrying out of that covenant relationship with God and with God’s creation itself.  If we never open that pour spout and let our saltiness bring out those God-flavors – if we don’t spread that salty love – then we are, as Paul says, just a noisy gong.  Losing our saltiness is actually bottling it up tight.

Peterson has this to say in his paraphrase of the passage about the light:

Matt. 5:14   “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  15 If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand.  16 Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

“Going public.”  That has got to be one of the best ways I’ve heard to explain what it means to live our life in and as the light of Christ.

You see, dear friends, the gospel is not good advice.

It’s not a “Dear Abby” column to be read with detachment and considered with indifference.  No indeed.

The gospel is not good advice.  The gospel is good NEWS.  It is the factual reality that God loves us no matter what.  And it is also the factual reality that because of that love, Jesus calls us to go public.  To keep open house.  To be generous with our lives.  To open up to others.  To live into the implication of our baptism:

“Let your light so shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

 I like these words.  We repeat them at every baptism as a commissioning of sorts to the newly baptized.  But I’m afraid that my default setting isn’t quite so noble.  I would like it to be, but I seem to mess up pretty regularly.  Perhaps you find yourselves in that place sometimes too.

Our default setting leans toward comfort, conformity, and complacency.  Deep down, we know that if we are the salt Jesus needs us to be, what it REALLY might do is sting.  If we are the light – it just might expose what we do not want to see.  We might have to get uncomfortable.  We might have to rise up and follow where God leads.

We hear Jesus’ next words about the law, and we might feel that sting a little more.  But I wonder if what Jesus is really doing here is beginning his distinction between the letter of the law, and the spirit of the law.  If what he’s doing is challenging that default setting.

Here is how Peterson brings it:

Matt. 5:17   “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama.  18 God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.”

A vast panorama.  What a great image for the fulfillment of the law.

You might remember that elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, and he replies that there are two: first, love God; and second, love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s like the story of the rabbi who refers to those commandments as the essence of Torah.  “The rest,” says the rabbi, “is merely commentary.”

What if Jesus’ intention is for us as disciples to imagine and live into an attitude of the heart, a righteousness that makes the kingdom of heaven possible?

What does such imagination and living-into look like?

Our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, tweeted a prescient observation earlier this week.  “In the Good Samaritan story,” she said, “the lawyer asks, who is my neighbor.  But Jesus asks, who ACTED as neighbor.”

Perhaps this is the key.  Maybe here is where our imaginations are ignited, where our living-into begins making God’s peaceable realm possible.  It begins with Christ’s “attitude of the heart”, his righteousness, given to us in God’s grace, whereby our attitude of the heart is activated and enlivened as we then act as neighbor.

Instead of sitting passively, just acquiring knowledge about who is our neighbor – which, by the way, is full of judgmental overtones – we are called to be actively seeking out those to whom we might act as neighbor.  No vetting required.

It is knowledge accompanied by action.  In other words – discipleship.

You see, knowledge without action is a barrier wall against the Kingdom of heaven.  Knowledge without action is what perpetuates the existence of racism in our world.  Knowledge without action keeps us quiet about sexism and ageism.  Knowledge without action overlooks the hungry and keeps folks in the margins.  Knowledge without action is also against the grain: against the grain of God.

But I think we know a little bit about knowledge WITH action.

Remember our stewardship chair’s slide presentations on stewardship?  When we saw all the ministries of Bethlehem appear one by one in a word cloud?  And he then said, “thank you for your stewardship”?

That stewardship, those ministries – this is knowledge coupled with action.  It’s not only stewardship, but discipleship.  Together with the Beatitudes’ blessings, Jesus begins to lay out the blueprint for building the Beloved Community – the way of discipleship.

There’s a reason that this particular Isaiah text was chosen several decades ago to be read alongside this Matthew gospel lesson every three years.  The Isaiah text is before us today because it is the essence of that vast panorama of fulfillment of the law.  It is the most flavorful of all salts, it is the brightest of lights.  It is the way of discipleship.

As we heard read:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness…..and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; …..you shall…..be called…..the restorer of streets to live in.”

Knowledge and action.        Salt and light.

Dear friends:  Be that salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this world.

Be that light that brings out the God-colors in this world.

Go public.  For this gospel is not good advice.  It is good NEWS.

 May it be so among us.

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Do Something

 

This coming Sunday is New Year’s Day.  The choices for those of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary are many:

Christmas 1 – The Holy Family’s flight (as in fleeing as refugees) into Egypt and the Slaughter of the Innocents

Name of Jesus – The naming of Jesus at his circumcision and a look ahead to his dedication, when we hear Simeon’s Song

New Year’s Day – Matthew 25 text about “the least of these”

We decided to go with observing the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  This was not an easy decision.  Both of the other sets of texts center around exhortations and situations that are either frighteningly present in our world or speak directly to the state of our world.

Had we used the New Year’s Day set of texts, we would have explored what it means to be a Matthew 25 church: doing for “the least of these.”  We are considering studying this for the entire year, reflecting on Luther’s call to vocation and service of neighbor (and of course putting that into action!).  But not knowing what our attendance will be on New Year’s Day – it is generally low – we will instead use this text more intentionally throughout the year.

The Christmas 1 texts, to be honest, are not pretty.  Being told to run for your life is not an impromptu vacation.  Little children being killed is horrifying.  We don’t need to look far to see this exact scenario: there are over 14 million refugees from the Syrian Civil War either internally displaced within the country’s borders or scattered around the world.  The estimated number of children killed is nearly 15,000.  We remember the riveting photograph of the little boy sitting stunned in an ambulance.

omran-syrian-boy-injured-in-war

We came to the conclusion that the only way we could deal with the horror that is all around us, and the uncertain future facing us, was to ground ourselves this New Year’s Day in basics.

So we are reading the texts appointed for the Holy Name of Jesus.

Shakespeare asks, via Juliet, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”  It’s the person or the thing, not the label attached to them, that is the essence of who or what they are.

And yet…..the name of Jesus carries associations, emotions, weights.

It’s been used to calm and soothe, but also to intimidate and oppress.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he invokes the name of Jesus as “the name above all names.”  It is clear Paul sees Jesus’ name as a signal to people that here is God Incarnate, the God who loves us beyond our words.

I think in our day, it’s not the name of “Jesus” that turns people off.  I think it’s the name of “Christian.”  And we do a lot of hand-wringing about how to change that.  Here’s an idea:

What if, this year, we were intentional about living into the name of Jesus?

We pray “in Jesus’ name” all the time; what if we were to DO in Jesus’ name, all the time?

Then we might find ourselves living that Matthew 25 text.  We might find ourselves standing up to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.  We might find ourselves dipping our fingers in the waters of the baptismal font and letting that cool splash remind us of who we are, and send us out reminded of whose we are.

Such an assurance of grace gives us the freedom, ALL the freedom, to DO in Jesus’ name.

It’s what our sending phrase really means:  “Go in peace.  DO SOMETHING!”

I wish you all a blessed, ACTIVE New Year!

All In

So much for that “daily post through Advent” plan!  Ah well.  Perhaps in another season.

At Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA., we worshiped on Christmas Day with an invitation to come in our jammies or a Christmas sweater.  We had DOUBLE the number of folks we usually do for Christmas Day worship!  I’m not sure if it was the jammie invite – though lots of folks did wear their PJs – but it was great fun.

I was the preacher for the day, and our text was John 1:1-14.  This passage is a creed of sorts – a statement of faith.

My thoughts on, and reaction to, this profound text are below.  May you have a blessed and merry Christmas!

Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church

Mary Shaima, Diaconal Associate

starofbethlehem_1400

 

John 1:1-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.

Grace and peace to you this Christmas Day, from our loving God through his son, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

That greeting, which precedes so many sermons in the world, is really a summation of the gospel lesson we just shared.

It’s a gospel lesson in the form of poetry.  Poetry like the type that American poet Wendell Berry tends to write.  Both broad and intimate in scale.  Speaking truths that touch our souls’ depths.  Berry writes:

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

(Wendell Berry, “What We Need Is Here”  http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-we-need-is-here/ )

Contrast this with John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him

… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, … full of grace and truth.

What we need … (gesture to crèche & manger) is here.

The Word became flesh, and lived among us.

Yes, this part of John’s gospel, considered a “prologue” to the rest of it, is beautiful poetry.  It also has a broad-yet-intimate scale to it, but I think of it more like the scale of the photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope.

stars-in-the-small-magellanic-cloud

 

This is the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way.  The sparkles of light in the center of the photograph are baby stars.  That’s the actual term NASA uses:  “…baby stars that are still forming from collapsing gas clouds and have not yet ignited their hydrogen fuel.”

The photographs from Hubble are the visual manifestation of the word “cosmic” – seemingly beyond anything we can understand. Not unlike this gospel passage!  And yet – our astronomers and space scientists continue to watch and study.  They seek the truth about what they see through the lens.  We also seek the truth, though we find it not expressed in numbers of galaxies and spans of time far greater than we can even comprehend.  Kneeling down next to the manger, we find it in a baby, in the most vulnerable of creatures.  A baby, still forming, whose “fuel”, so to speak, may just be starting to ignite.

We understand babies to be vulnerable in terms of helplessness.  But here’s the thing in this text to really ponder: GOD as a baby takes on that same degree of helplessness.  God becomes dependent on US.

Even in the context of this gospel passage, this is a head-scratcher.  But I would invite you to consider the word “vulnerability” from a different angle.

Last week, when we heard the story of Joseph and his encounter with the angel, Pastor Laura spoke of vulnerability.  She told us about the woman who, while fighting her own cancer, stepped in to pay the medical bill for another patient without the same resources.  Responding to vulnerability with vulnerability.

This is the essence of the incarnation.  God responds to our vulnerability by becoming vulnerable.  But it’s not quite the same kind of vulnerable.

Most of us would define “vulnerability” as “weakness.”  Personally, I have issues with vulnerability.  You’ll notice I’m not wearing my jammies; that would be too vulnerable.  I chose the Christmas-sweater option.

Researcher Brené Brown*, however, invites us to rethink this assumption.  She asked people to finish this sentence:  “Vulnerability is                              .”  Here are some of the replies:

  • (Vulnerability is) Standing up for myself
  • (Vulnerability is) Trying something new
  • (Vulnerability is) Stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts
  • (Vulnerability is) Asking for forgiveness
  • (Vulnerability is) Having faith

When she considered these responses, she concluded that what vulnerability REALLY sounds like is truth.  What it feels like is not weakness, but courage.

Courage, of course, has for its root word the French word coeur – heart.

This is the kind of vulnerability I see God entering when God comes to us in the person of Jesus – a newborn in a cattle hay rack.

It’s a vulnerability that is entered into by choice, with courage, from the heart.  The WHOLE heart.  It’s what is meant by the statement “I’m all in.”

God’s whole heart is laid in the manger.  God is all in – FOR US.  Not for God’s self, but for the world that came into being through God and the Word.

The NASA scientists tell us these infant stars “are still forming…and have not yet ignited…”  And the gospel tells us “all things came into being through him…”  It’s an already/not yet, isn’t it? – like so much of our life together with God.

Jesus in the manger is still forming…and we might say he has not yet ignited any fuel cell other than the ruach of his breath.  We sit down next to the manger knowing how this story ends – and yet it doesn’t end.  God’s story is ever unfolding, drawing us into the dance that is life.

Our stories are not ended either, of course.  We sit between the times that mark our lives.  We are still forming too.  How many times do we simply need to sit by the manger and look at the baby – this helpless little one – and wait for the dawn?

Pastor Laura and I have a friend and colleague who has waited a long time for the dawn.  Whether she and her husband would ever be able to have children was a question that stayed in the darkness of their lives.  The pain she carried with her was real and deep.  Earlier this year, she and her husband announced they were expecting.  She had waited for some time to announce this, and every week represented another step closer.  She knew at some point she ought to breathe easier, but she just couldn’t. She’s a pastor, but she’s also a person.  She waited for the dawn.

A couple of weeks ago, a number of our friends and colleagues also waited for the dawn.  They were gathered in the San Carlos area to remember the life of a close friend of our bishop – a pastoral colleague of ours.  As they raised a glass in his memory, the news came that our other colleague had been safely delivered of a very healthy baby boy.  The glasses were raised again – this time to give thanks for the gift of new life.

dietrich-martin-in-stocking

 

This is his Christmas picture.  Pretty darn cute.

All of these folks at the San Carlos gathering had been praying for this woman for months, and so to hear of little Dietrich’s safe arrival was a pinprick of light.  Perhaps the dawn would indeed come.

dietrich-baby-jesus

And last night, Dietrich made his debut across social media as the Baby Jesus.  Our friend is still on maternity leave but she couldn’t resist taking this picture.  Dietrich, too, is all in.

(Admittedly, that comes with the territory if you are a pastor’s kid.)

Dear brothers and sisters – this dawn has come.  It is the dawn of redeeming grace, as the hymn tells us.

And this is the hymn text that, guaranteed 100%, will ALWAYS make me cry.

Let me tell you, for years that has annoyed me no end.  Why did THIS one line tear me apart??  But some personal work this year has brought me to the place of asking:  does this hymn text probe where I am most vulnerable – where I see myself as weak, as unlovable, as not enough?

Well, this is precisely where God enters in, upending my assumptions to tell me to my face “I love you.  You MATTER.”

It’s where God’s incarnation as Jesus – as vulnerable child – invites me to re-define vulnerability.  In God’s terms.  And those terms include redeeming grace.

Before Jesus, God’s all-in, is incarnate and laid in the manger, our vulnerability is lodged in a place of uncertainty.

But once God is laid before us – we can claim vulnerability from a place of certainty.  And that certainty is that God loves us and trusts us so much that God would place God’s self into our care.  That God would be all in.

Wherever you are joyful this day – wherever you carry pain – wherever you are uncertain – know that God is all in with you, with God’s whole heart.

Love has come.  For you.  For me.  For the world.

What we need – is HERE.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

starofbethlehem_1400

 

*Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.  Avery, an imprint of Penguin Ransom House, 2012.

Veni Immanuel

At our leadership conference this fall, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad was one of our presenters.  She took us through the lessons from the prophet Isaiah that are read in this year – what we call Year A in the three-year cycle of lessons that are read in worship.  The gospel lessons in Year A are taken mainly from the gospel of Matthew – in Year B,  they are taken from Mark; and in Year C, from Luke.  John’s gospel doesn’t follow the timeline of the other three and so is read in all three years.

The Old Testament lessons follow a number of patterns through the three years.  This year’s Advent, we hear the prophecies from Isaiah that we believe are fulfilled in Christ.

The song “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” is a traditional one through the season of Advent.  It expresses the longing for Immanuel (which means “God with us”) to “ransom captive Israel.”  Recent scholarship has questioned the somewhat anti-Semitic tone of the lyrics.  Dr Lundblad brought us her new version of the song, with lyrics that reflect the Isaiah lessons through each of this year’s four Sundays of Advent.  She graciously urged us to share it:

O Come, O Come, Immanuel

Advent 1
Isaiah 2
O come, O come, Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev’ry weapon crafted for war,
bring peace upon the earth forever more.

 

Refrain Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

 

Advent 2
Isaiah 11
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and the meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak. Refrain

 

Advent 3
Isaiah 35
O come now, living water, pour your grace,
And bring new life to ev’ry withered place;
Speak comfort to each trembling heart:
“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.” Refrain

 

Advent 4
Isaiah 7
O come, dear child of Mary, come,
God’s Word made flesh within our earthly home;
Love stir within the womb of night,
Revenge and hatred put to flight. Refrain


The above verses correspond to the Isaiah readings for Advent, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. Revised text by Barbara K. Lundblad. Used with permission.

Dr. Lundblad’s language expands the scope of the original to be widely inclusive of all peoples and all of creation.

One of the most beautiful arrangements of this 15th century French processional hymn is by Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller:

Veni, Veni – Mannheim Steamroller

Come, Lord Jesus.

Still time….

 

I ran across a beautiful poem by Mark Doty entitled “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” that describes a community choir assembling to rehearse and sing a part of Handel’s great oratorio.  His words describe the intersection of the everyday lives of the people of the town with the stirring, majestic tones of one of the greatest of all choral works.  The music transforms the mundane into the transcendent.

Mark Doty’s biographical info is here:  https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/mark-doty

The poem’s full text is here:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44142

It’s a fantastic read, and I heartily commend it.  Below are the last few lines.  Peace to you this day.

 

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

Stir It Up

“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

This is the ancient form of prayer through Advent – the “stir up” prayers.  When I hear them, I add my own prayers for things to be stirred up, particularly my doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

Those three things are reminders from the Old Testament prophet Micah.  Micah is also the prophet whose words we read at Christmas:  “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

How right it is that the prophet who foretells Jesus’ coming – the coming of a so-called king who upends all the understandings and expectations we have of a king – is also the prophet who reminds us that this journey with Jesus is not complicated.

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.

Make no mistake, it is hard – but not complicated.  The king who comes as a helpless infant helps us to see the simplicity of it, because the baby Jesus has the same needs as any other infant: clean diapers, food, and nurturing. Ask any parent: it’s not complicated, but it IS hard!

Ask anyone who lives into those hard but simple words of Micah, and they will tell you of the deep blessings that come amid the challenges.

May we seek those challenges, and share those blessings.

Stir us up, Lord.

Walk in the Light

Sermon for November 27th – Mary Shaima

Texts:  Matthew 24:36-44; Isaiah 2:1-5

 

Grace, peace, and light to you from the God for whom we watch and wait, and who is always with us.  Amen.

One of the things you have so graciously taught me over the last few months is that I have a tendency to make assumptions.  Not all the time, of course – but sometimes.  So I thought it would be helpful this morning to give you some basic  background as to our lessons, and not assume that this is common knowledge.

The ELCA is one of 48 Christian churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary in worship every Sunday.  “Lectionary” comes from the root word lectio, which means “word.”  The lectionary is the set of readings for all the days of the church year, consisting of a gospel reading, a Psalm, and lessons from the Old and/or New Testament.  “Common” of course because we all hold it in common.  “Revised” because the international and ecumenical group of scholars that prepared the initial lectionary later expanded it to a three-year cycle from just one.

Starting with the First Sunday in Advent, we read for twelve months from one of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  “Synoptic” means they follow roughly the same chronological timeline.  John’s gospel sits outside that timeline, so it is read at various points throughout all three years.  Today we begin Year A, and we begin reading from the gospel of Matthew.

And as is so frequently the case in the season of Advent, we also begin reading from the writings of the prophet Isaiah.  Many of Isaiah’s texts are considered foretellings of Jesus, and so they are paired with the fulfillment accounts in the gospels.

Sounds good.

Well, you may have noticed that today’s lessons don’t seem to fit this mold AT ALL.

What does the first lesson from Isaiah – a beautiful, poetic text about not learning war any more – have to do with the gospel lesson from Matthew, where it sounds like the worst lottery game ever?

Actually – more than a cursory glance will reveal.

In our gospel today, a cursory glance seems more like a replay of that 60s song, “I’m in with the In Crowd.”  If I know what the in crowd knows, I’ll be fine.  (So how do I find out what the in crowd knows?)

It also seems tailor-made for the insomniac.  Keep awake – stay alert.

But such literal readings only lead us down a series of rabbit holes that divert our attention from what I believe God is actually calling us to in these lessons.

The author of this gospel is believed by many to be the Matthew in the gospels – the tax collector.  The character Matthew was a Jew.  So it is important to think about this text in light of the Jewish understanding of apocalypse or end times – which is that all things are renewed, not destroyed.

And that is where the Isaiah reading begins to make a little more sense.

If all things are renewed, if God makes all things new, then perhaps this so-called “apocalypse” looks a lot like the scene Isaiah describes.  The word that Isaiah saw.

Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel when they are quite literally between a rock and a hard place – Assyria and Egypt.  They have messed up mightily.  They have managed to turn all that God has given them into idols, and forgotten that it is God whom they are to worship.  In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, the prophet graphically reminds them of all they’ve done wrong.

But here in Chapter 2, the prophet reminds them that God’s promises are for all time – and for all people.

“In days to come,” says Isaiah, “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills, and all nations shall stream to it.”

The text then makes an interesting point: there is work to be done both by God AND by God’s people.

God does the arbitrating, and the people engage in active peacemaking.

The word that Isaiah saw.

As I read this from my perspective of 20 years in the law, I was drawn in: God judges and arbitrates.  And we expect to hear that a judge will judge between nations.

But look at the next verse: he shall arbitrate for many peoples.  This is truly the arbitrator’s role: to act as the impartial third party, with a desire to achieve the best possible outcome for ALL parties, not just one or the other.

And we see what that outcome is, too.  A day when war is no more.  When conflict is no more, and division, and hatred, and all the -isms and phobias that are the hallmark of our living in fear.

The word that Isaiah saw.

That word was not limited to the action of God.  No, it included the action of people.

Because it is the people who are reversing the implements of war.  The people are a part of the transformation from a war economy – which is always transactional, in an eye-for-an-eye fashion – to an economy of grace and peace.

This is what I think Matthew’s gospel is talking about when we read words like “stay awake” and “keep alert.”

To see those words – might just be the kind of transformation and action Isaiah describes.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares.

And their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.

Neither shall they learn war any more.

This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools – images of death-dealing turned into food-producing – this is a promise for “the days to come.”  But biblical visions in both the Old and New Testament come to us from the future, from the heart of our loving God, longing to shape the days in which WE are living.

swords-into-plowshares

If you have been to the United Nations Centre in New York City, you have seen this sculpture.  You have seen Isaiah’s words.

It was a gift to the UN from the Soviet Union in 1959, to represent the human wish to end all wars and turn from making implements of destruction to making implements of production.  Production of food for all.

It is entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares” and is installed near the entry to the UN campus.

On a wall across the street from the UN, the words I just read from Isaiah are engraved.  So the delegates to the UN pass by those words every day as they go to their important work.

The United Nations is, of course, a human institution and is therefore flawed.  But its intent and hope is deeply rooted in the horror the world felt at the end of World War II, amid the realization that we had harnessed the kind of power that might destroy the planet.

This, too, is the response I believe God asks of us to the darkness that surrounds us.

Instead of succumbing to the darkness – instead of throwing in the towel and sitting afraid in the dark, God calls us to walk in the light.

Walking in the light means that we claim our Lutheran identity, forged and formed in the waters of baptism, as a named and claimed child of God who is saved by God’s grace and freed to make a difference in the world.

Freed to serve the neighbor, and freed to broadly define who my neighbor is.

Freed to hear these words of Isaiah as a call to shape the days in which we are living.

Brothers and sisters, this is what I believe Jesus means when he speaks of being ready.  For if we are to lean into the coming peaceable realm of God, then by practicing our call from the prophet Isaiah AND the prophet Micah we indeed are ready.  We re-form the swords of our lives into plowshares.  We practice doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  And every now and then, we catch a glimpse of that peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse when we see Christian and Muslim women in Liberia, dressed in white, pressuring the government by non-violent resistance to enter peace talks.  And finally the decades-old war ends.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse in Cambodia, where land mines used to make it impossible for anyone to farm the rice paddies.  A petition from Lutheran World Relief to remove the land mines has brought their number from 4300 in 1986 – to NONE today.  The fields are again producing rice, and the farmers are able to make a living.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

We catch a glimpse in Los Angeles, where the non-profit Homeboy Industries works transformation in the lives of gang members and ex-cons through a range of social enterprises and job opportunities.  They provide critical services to over 15,000 people who come to them every year seeking a better life.  A glimpse of the peaceable realm.

I believe that we all have a story we can tell about catching that glimpse.

And yet, in our broken and hurting world, there are so many days when we ask ourselves if this makes any sense.  If this really makes any difference.

I would gently remind us that we drop into the continuum of time for the very briefest of moments.

That brief moment is for us to contribute what we can, in partnership with God in the establishing of that peaceable realm.

We are very much a results and success-oriented people.  We want to know that our hunch was right, that we guessed correctly.

Sometimes, though, we cannot see what the future holds for the efforts we contribute now.  How shall we see any word, with such obscured vision?

Some years ago, I came across a poem that was written by the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan in tribute to Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  I think it captures so well the idea that we wait not passively, but actively.

A Step Along the Way: Archbishop Romero’s Prayer

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

 

Dear friends, may it be so for us.  Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.  Amen.