Thursday, January 18, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

In the very first verse of our Old Testament reading this morning, the writer of First Samuel tells us “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” And with those words, suddenly this story is placed in a context we can understand. Vanished are the burning bush that Moses encountered and the pillars of fire and smoke that accompanied Israel during their exodus. The time of Samuel, between 1250 and 1000 BCE, was a time when, as one scholar wrote, “God seems to be sleeping.”[i]

When the young boy Samuel, whose name means “God has heard” is called by God to be a prophet, he reacts with confusion and disbelief. Even though he had spent his whole childhood in the temple with Eli the priest, Samuel is startled and disoriented when he hears God’s Word for himself. On the third time that God calls, Samuel fully awakens and responds, “Speak, Lord, for you servant is listening.”  (v. 10)

God tells Samuel then that God is “about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (v. 11) The phrase shows up in the words of later prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah usually carrying a sense of omen and threat of destruction, and here they precede a word of judgment against Eli and his sons who were stealing from the temple offerings. But God’s word also carries a word of promise to Samuel and Israel that God had, in fact, been awake and had witnessed the unfaithful actions of their leaders.

With these words, God reveals to Samuel that God still remembered the covenantal words of promise that had been given first to Noah and then to Abram all the way back in the genesis of Israel.[ii]

Reflecting on Samuel’s story of awakening, I want to recall other stories of awakenings. One took place in Los Angeles back in 1906:

A few years before the city would boom and become synonymous with the glamour of Hollywood, an African-American preacher named William J. Seymour from Kansas traveled to L.A. to preach at a small holiness church. Afterward, he stayed, teaching and preaching to larger and larger curious and interested crowds. Some weeks later a building on Azusa Street was found by his followers, and worship gatherings began happening nearly around the clock. The religious meetings, collectively called the Azusa Street Revival, continued for several years, attracting thousands of people and birthing the Pentecostal movement.

Another awakening happened in 1977 after Bishop Óscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador in central America. While Romero doubted his qualifications, his appointment was applauded by the military government because they saw him as bookish, weak and compliant; he wouldn’t make waves. However, as he met the people who filled the cathedral and asked for his prayers and assistance, visited places like Aguilares where the occupying army used a church as a barracks, and witnessed the torture and assassinations of both priests and residents, Romero awakened to the suffering of the people there. And in the face of criticism, turmoil and increasing violence, the Archbishop responded obediently to God’s call “to preach God’s Word, to administer the sacraments, to conduct public worship, to witness to the kingdom of God in the community, to speak publicly in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.”[iii] In 1980, minutes after preaching,  "One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us….” Romero was martyred, assassinated as he led mass.[iv]

In this Epiphany season when we pay special attention to how Jesus is being revealed, it is important to see that, in each of these awakenings, “human speaking and hearing …become one of the main means by which the light of God’s revelation breaks into the affairs of this world.”[v]

God remembers. God sees. God speaks and calls us to live out the gospel.
None of these leaders was perfect and none of them responded to God in a vacuum. Samuel, who did not yet know the Lord, needed Eli, Seymour needed the local neighbors, and Romero relied on the people who were living and dying in San Salvador. They identified where God was calling them to be by listening together.

Hearing God speak and responding to God’s call to public ministry becomes a communal activity where discernment happens as the community listens and takes action, investing in ministry with our neighbors. Just as Eli exhibited obedience after hearing what the Lord had told Samuel, we too are called to obedience to God’s Word.

Earlier today we dedicated spaces for ministry that welcome people who are grieving or hurting, or just need to listen for God’s voice in silence, remembering the words of the psalmist who said his soul waited in silence for God, from his hope was in God.”[vi]
And we dedicated the Little Free Pantry, remembering God’s command in Deuteronomy to "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."[vii] Both of these ministries help us fulfill our congregation’s mission to be an extension of Christ in our community.
As we continue through the Epiphany season, may we continue listening to God’s Word in Scripture and may we pay attention to the ways that God is breaking into our world now; may we hear how God is calling us to participate and respond obediently saying, “Speak, Lord, for you servant is listening.”

Let us pray…
We give you all thanks and praise, O God, for what we know of you is overwhelming, more wonderful than we can ever understand.
Awaken us to your presence in all circumstances.
May Your Holy Spirit guide our discernment that we would listen for Your voice and follow wherever it leads.

[i] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8914-8915). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Genesis 9 and 12
[iii] Responsibilities of a Minister of Word and Sacrament, Manual of Policies and Procedures for Management of the Rosters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, p. 6.
[iv], accessed January 13, 2018.
[v] Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 8894-8895). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Psalm 62
[vii] Deut. 15:11

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany of our Lord

Today we are celebrating the Epiphany of our Lord, a feast that follows the twelve days of Christmas and remembers that the Christ child came for all people and nations. These verses from Matthew are the Epiphany gospel no matter where we are in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings, but whenever we encounter a familiar story, we are invited to hear something new in it. Sometimes we are drawn to the star that led the magi to Bethlehem, to ponder what reveals Christ in our lives, or we look at the visitors themselves and the gifts they brought to the infant Jesus, and ask ourselves what worship is, but this year what caught my attention was how the magi responded after they met the infant King.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, and his story mirrors the history of Israel. In the opening chapters of the book of Exodus, Pharaoh ordered that all the male children of the Hebrews, or Israelites, be killed by the midwives; the child who escapes death in Egypt is Moses who goes on to lead God’s people through the wilderness and into freedom. In the verses that follow the magi’s visit here, the emperor Herod similarly orders the slaughter of all the children under two years old after learning about the birth of the Christ child. Warned by an angel, the holy family takes the infant Jesus and flees to escape the tyrant, only to return later in safety.

But the magi did not seek out Jesus because they had learned the prophets’ words about the long-awaited Messiah or the branch of David. They were responding to the revelation of something they did not yet understand, to a foreign phenomenon that was, nonetheless, clearly sacred and holy. And after their visit, the magi chose to “return to their own country by another road.”  The revelation of Jesus that they experienced caused them to choose a different course or route through life.

The magi knew the way back home, and they could have retraced their steps, following their previous route back to their country, but they chose differently. We, too, can follow the familiar worn ways that we have followed before, or we can choose to live differently, in response to the holy gift God has given us in Jesus. That is what discipleship – knowing God and being in relationship with God – is. It’s not an intellectual exercise, but it is about changing course, repenting from the ways that we turn inward and focus on ourselves, and choosing a different course that follows Jesus into the world.

A few years ago, a Benedictine abbot named Father Christopher Jamison invited five volunteers to explore silence with him. His belief is that silence is a wellspring for the soul, providing much-needed respite from a world infected by busy-ness. BBC filmed the participants as they experienced silence first on a weekend retreat at Worth Abbey in Sussex and then over eight days at a Jesuit retreat center in Wales. Like the magi in the gospel, these were not priests or people with formal religious training or even people who had spent their lifetimes in churches or synagogues. They weren’t familiar with the language or traditions of faith; all of that was foreign and strange to them. And yet, they discovered sacred spaces and ways to connect with the holy as they entered and stayed in the silence. And preparing to return home, they committed to choosing to live differently in the world to preserve those sacred spaces and practices.

On Epiphany we celebrate the manifestation of the glory of God — the holy — in the infant Jesus, recognizing, gratefully, that God sent his Son not only for the high priests and Pharisees, the Sadducees and religious leaders, but for every one of us, too. As we marvel at this child and offer our gifts, I wonder if we can offer ourselves, like the magi and those volunteers at the abbey, by choosing to live differently in response to sacred and wondrous miracle that God chooses to love us more than righteousness and judgment and enter into our lives in the Incarnation.

Let us pray…
Holy God of mystery,
Thank you for revealing your love in your infant Son Jesus
And for the faithful witness of the magi who recognized the sacred wonder of his birth.
Draw us to you and teach us to bear your light into the world.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

In the “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” the woman Grace who is casting the Christmas play tells the children that Mary is “gentle, sweet and kind” as she explains that the person who plays Mary should have all those qualities.  When Imogene Herdman bullies the other girls to get the role though, Grace knows this pageant isn’t going to be like anything they’ve ever seen before.

At another Christmas play a few weeks ago in a Tennessee church, as the children’s choir sang “Away in a Manger” and Mary and Joseph were gazing adoringly at the baby Jesus, one of the sheep, a two-year old little girl, scooped up the baby doll and began to dance. That wasn’t what anyone expected either.

One of the joys of the Christmas story is God’s surprise for us. Full of grace and love for the whole world, our holy God comes down to earth in the person of Jesus,
and lives among us, fully human.
In him, we see divine love with skin on it and it turns all our expectations upside down.

At least for a little while — as long as the hot chocolate steams, the twinkle lights glow, and the Christmas music plays.

Pastor Delmer Chilton, a Lutheran pastor who’s served congregations throughout the southeast, tells this story about his sons when they were little boys.

They had a favorite book, Richard Scarry’s Christmas Book, that has no words, just pictures.
It shows a traditional [small] town going through the Advent season: pictures of families decorating the house, baking and eating cookies and pies.
It shows the town workers putting up lights and decorations downtown and Sunday School folk at Christmas play practice and Santa Claus in the Toy section of the Department Store.
There is a scene of Candlelight Communion and a Christmas Day with [a big table covered with a feast] and then the opening of gifts around the tree and the blazing fireplace.
[And] throughout the month of December, his boys would sit with him and page through this book. [And after their dad had told the story a few times,] the boys took over, narrating and describing the activities on each page. And, each night they said exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way.
The last page was a two-page panorama showing Christmas trees out by the mail-box to be picked up by the [trash collectors], people going to work, and city workers taking down lights and decorations.
At this point, Delmer says that the boys loved to slam the book shut and shout at the top of their lungs:

The good news of the Christmas gospel is that when the hot chocolate cools and the Christmas lights are turned off, the carols fade and the rest of the world goes ‘back to normal’ God remains here on earth with us, and loves us abundantly.

This Christmas I invite you to hold onto the unexpected and surprising appearance of God in your life, and discover the joy found in following our Savior every day.

Let us pray…
Holy God of surprises and joy,
Thank you for your grace and love,
appearing to us as Your Son Jesus and bringing salvation to us all. As we sing, “Glory to you in the highest heaven and on earth peace among all you favor” may we go into the world, to make the good news known to all we meet.
We pray in the name of our blessed Savior, Jesus Christ.

[i] Chilton, Delmer. The Gospel According to Aunt Mildred: Stories of Family and Faith (p. 33). Brasstown Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Recently I heard an interview with a woman who has written a book called The Last Castle where she tells the story of the Biltmore House in Asheville. Answering the reporter who asked, “Outside North Carolina, do people know much about Biltmore House and its connection to the Vanderbilts?” the author expressed her surprise at how unknown it is, she said,

“When we’re very close to something, it’s easy to forget that there are people who don’t know anything about it…There are so many things that we all think we should know, or we think everybody should know, but we don’t.”

She could have been describing how many of us read these very familiar texts that we have this morning and tonight in the first two chapters of Luke. After all, who hasn’t heard the story of the angel coming to Mary and telling her that she will be the mother of Jesus? Hasn’t everyone seen a living Nativity, a Christmas play, or at least watched Linus and Charlie Brown at Christmastime?

But on this last Sunday of Advent as we move from waiting and expectation to fulfillment, we are being invited to hear these stories anew.

Speaking to Mary, the angel Gabriel calls her “favored” but Mary doesn’t immediately hear the annunciation — the news that she was unexpectedly becoming a young unmarried mother — as good news,
or evidence of God’s grace to her.

Instead, she answers incredulously, “How can this be?”

Reassuring her, Gabriel describes how “the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her.” These are not ominous storm clouds or the frightening shadows one sees in the darkness of night. Instead, they are references to the covering ascribed to God in the psalms, a shelter of safety and protection that is given to God’s people (Ps. 90 and 139) and to the cloud that covered the Israelites’ tent of meeting during the exodus. (Exodus 40) They are assurances that the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

Like the bright cloud that overshadows the disciples when they hear God speak in gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, Gabriel is promising that the glory of God is present in these events.

Hearing God speaking through the angel, Mary responds with confidence that springs from her faith, saying,
"Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

This morning’s assigned text ends there, but Luke’s account continues with Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. While both he and Matthew name Mary as the mother of Jesus, only Luke gives us the stories of the annunciation and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Notably, in this gospel, women are the primary witnesses to both Jesus’ birth and resurrection.

It isn’t until after Mary is greeted by her cousin and hears Elizabeth’s excitement for Mary and the child she is carrying that we hear the Magnificat,
Mary’s song of jubilation where she sings, “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

While Mary was certainly set apart, truly God favors us all because God came down to earth in the person of Jesus.

Everything Mary knew — social norms, tradition and custom — was thrown to the wind by the new activity of the Holy Spirit. In bible study this week, we wondered aloud about times when we have questioned, “How can this be?” and where God’s favor has surprised us in our own lives.

Sometimes, “How can this be?” is our response to an unexpected calling. Remember how Abram’s wife Sarai laughed when God told her to expect a child? Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth illustrates how even when we experience God’s grace firsthand, we may not believe it until we hear the affirmation of another person. Mary shows us how to respond to the unknown and unexpected with confidence, grounded in faith, even as Elizabeth models how to be an encourager and provide affirmation.

Other times, “How can this be?” is our response to a changing world that we cannot fully understand. Church historian and author Diana Butler Bass suggests Christianity may be experiencing such a time now. It is a time when “some things will cease to work, no longer make sense, and fail to give comfort or provide guidance.”[i] But she writes that is isn’t a time to despair or lament; instead she writes “that only means we have work to do here and now – to find new paths of meaning, new ways to connect with God and neighbor, and to form new communities and to organize ways of making the world a better place.”[ii]

So, as we hear these old, familiar stories this Advent and Christmas, let’s listen anew and ask, “Where is God coming to us in surprising and unexpected ways?” and “How is God asking us to give birth to the holy?”[iii]

Let us pray…
Most High God,
Thank you for your surprising and abundant grace,
for showing us your favor and coming down to earth in the person of your Son.
Open our eyes to your holy presence in your invitation to work for your glory, and
Send your Holy Spirit upon us that we would rejoice and answer You, “Here am I, Lord.”

[i] Diana Butler Bass Christianity after Religion, 31.
[ii] Ibid, 32.
[iii] Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 844-848). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Third Sunday of Advent

The Gospel of John is called “the book of signs” because throughout his public ministry, Jesus shows himself in sign and word to his own people as the revelation of God.[i] Where in Luke Jesus comes to us as a baby in a manger, and in Matthew he is the descendant of royalty, the Fourth Evangelist introduces Jesus to us as the λόγος (logos) the “Word” or “revealer” of God.  

In the gospel reading we just heard, we meet Jesus’ cousin John again, but here, unlike last week in Mark, he isn’t baptizing. Instead this account focuses on John’s unique role in the “Good News story of Jesus”[ii] as a herald and the first witness to Jesus.[iii]  

Verses 7 and 8 tells us: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

Witnesses make statements, sharing firsthand accounts of what they have seen or heard. They are compelling storytellers who speak from their lived experience of a person or event.

John knows his role, and understands, with enviable clarity, that everything he is doing – his reason for being in Bethany – is to point to Jesus.

So, when the priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees ask who he is, John is quick to tell them he is not the long-awaited Messiah, and he is not Elijah, whose return was expected ‘before the day of the Lord.’[iv] Nor is he the Prophet, a much-anticipated figure in the tradition of Moses. Having refused all of these traditional roles, he redirects his interrogators’ attention to Jesus, the one who stands among them but whom they do not know. (1:26)

A leader with influence and followers, John chose to lead by serving; and in giving himself fully to his identity as one who points to Jesus, he participated in the holy event that was initiated when “God came down to us in the flesh in Jesus.”[v]

In this account, Jesus had not yet arrived in Bethany, but John’s words are full of expectation —not giddy, childlike excitement, but faith-filled confidence that hope will reach fulfillment.[vi]

We too, as the church, are called to be filled with expectation and to witness to how God is here, active and moving in our lives, how the light of Jesus Christ is breaking into our world.

Like the news broadcast that takes a daily break from the cycle of hard news to share a ‘good news story’ of a 100-year old woman who still drives or a Santa who knows sign language, we have our own good news stories to tell.

One of the first stories in this issue of SOFIA is about a seminary classmate at Luther who has been called to serve two rural congregations in North Dakota. Like Brook Seaford who preached here in summer 2016 and is now called to serve at Cross and Crown in Matthews, God’s fingerprints are all over Kathy’s story. Importantly though, it isn’t only in the lives of soon-to-be-pastors where God shows up. These stories showcase how congregations of all sizes have imagined new ministries together, including one that claimed a New Jersey parking lot as a ministry site and another that transformed their building into a community hub.

Like these stories, the story of John the witness is that each of us may “put [our] faith into action by pointing to and participating in something larger than [our]selves” and in helping make Christ known.[vii]

Because the hard truth is that for many of our neighbors and perhaps even for some of you who are worshiping here today, Jesus stands among [us] as one who is not known. (1:26) Perhaps, God was reduced to a harsh judge or a distant and unsympathetic puppet master; or what you thought you knew about God has been shattered against the reality of your life, or deep grief and disappointment, cynicism and the noise of the world have eroded your confidence in who you thought God is.

For us all, this is the Good News story of Jesus, and here, the evangelist and John point to Jesus and remind us that God came to us to be with us, to set us free from our worry and suffering, and to send us out to be witnesses, telling others how God loves and cherishes them, too.[viii] Sent out for the sake of the world, we share our firsthand experience of how knowing Jesus changes who we are and our relationships with others and why God’s love matters.

Let us pray…
Good and gracious God,
Thank you for loving us so much that you came down to us, in the person on your Son Jesus. Fill us with expectation that Your promises are being fulfilled, even now, and give us courage to live out our faith by serving as your witnesses.
We pray in the name of your Son Jesus,

[i] Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John, Chapters I-XII , 39.
[ii] “Third Sunday of Advent,” Daily Discipleship, ELCA.
[iii] Brown. 45.
[iv] Brown, 47.
[v] David Lose. “In the Meantime,” Advent 3B 2017.
[vi] “Third Sunday of Advent,” Daily Discipleship, ELCA.
[vii] Lose.
[viii] Lose.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

First Sunday of Advent

As we move into the Advent season, we begin a new church year and a new year in the three-year lectionary cycle of readings. This year the gospel text moves from Matthew to Mark which is the earliest written of the four gospels we have in the canon. It’s believed it was written as the first generation of Christians was passing away, and many of those hearing this gospel would have been expecting an imminent Second Coming of Christ, within their own lifetimes. [i]

In today’s reading, Jesus is concluding his longest teaching on discipleship in this gospel, and as he teaches, Jesus commands his disciples, “stay alert” and “stay awake.”

Hearing his instructions four weeks before Christmas, we acknowledge we hold different expectations than those first Christians, but I don’t believe Jesus’ call to watchfulness is diminished.

We too are looking for the ways that the reign and rule of God's kingdom has come among us.”[ii]

As Jesus was teaching, he told his disciples, “You do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,…”[iii]

And, even with that warning still echoing in their ears,
within days, Jesus was betrayed one evening by Judas;
disappointed by the disciples who fell asleep while he prayed at Gethsemane before his arrest;
denied by Peter three times before the cock crowed; and
tried in the early morning by Pilate and crucified.

As often happens, Mark gives us an example of how those first disciples just didn’t ‘get it.’ Even when Jesus was walking among them and sitting at the table,
breaking bread and sharing wine with them,
the disciples were not ready or watchful,
but overcome by greed, by sloth and fatigue, and by fear.

So, it’s no surprise that it is challenging for us, too, to understand what Jesus means for us.

It doesn’t help that the images of the Second Coming that we have from popular books and movies are dark and troubling and fearful, and, as one pastor noted, even in the gospel, “When [Jesus] speaks of the coming reign of God, [he] speaks in heavy apocalyptic language of the sun being darkened, the moon refusing to shine and the stars falling from heaven. There are signs and wonders and terrors and traumas, angels gathering up the chosen ones and Christ coming on the clouds with great power and glory. There is a violence about these accounts, it’s like an earthquake heavy with threat and menace.[iv]

In the midst of this, when we hear Jesus tell us, “Stay alert!”, we take his words as a threat or a taunt, like children playing hide and seek who hear the searcher call out, “Ready or not, here I come!”

And, we become afraid that we really aren’t ready, or that we will be caught and punished.

But stop for a minute, and remember what we know about who Jesus is and who God is. Does Jesus taunt and tease? Does God lay traps and gleefully wait for us to mess up?


Jesus words are not a threat, but a reminder and assurance that the Son of Man is near – all the time – not only coming at Christmas, or in some unnamed future apocalypse. They are words that encourage us as disciples to be more faithful,
not more fearful.

We can have confidence that God,
who created us and loves us, comes to us as we are,
in all of our imperfections and in all of our shortcomings, 
and promises us that we enjoy the fullness of new life with God.[v]

Jesus calls us to be eager to encounter God and practice an alertness that isn’t about avoiding something unpleasant or preparing for the worst, but an alertness that is an active readiness and full of anticipation for the wonders that God is doing.

So, instead of being in a place of fear and dread,
may we find ourselves in a place of confident wakefulness and watchfulness,
where perhaps, we will see people who we have not seen before because we kept our heads down and eyes averted, hoping to avoid attracting attention or rocking the boat; or,

perhaps we will hear the voices of people we have not heard before because their stories are too complex to tell in soundbites or they have been silenced or ignored by broken systems and corrupt power.

And, perhaps we will see beyond the stigma or label that the stranger carries and welcome the person that God loves, accepts and redeems.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Thank you for your abundant love and forgiveness that you come to us even in our failures and mistakes;
By your Spirit, awaken us to the world around us and alert us to the ways you are already near.
Help us bear your grace to the whole world.
We pray in the name of your Son Jesus,

[i] Enter the Bible,, accessed December 2, 2017.
[ii] ibid
[iii] Mark 13:35
[iv] Nathan Nettleton, “Fearing your Greatest Hope.”, accessed December 2, 2017.
[v] David Lose. “In the Meantime”, Advent 1B, 2017.