Monday, January 28, 2019

Reflection on Luke 4:14-21

What is being freed by Christ like?

It is like being literally blind to the beauty around you…being blind to the curly hair of your new baby and suddenly, by God’s grace, you are able to see the little red curls and the giggling smile of recognition that you only get when you look a baby eye to eye and face to face.

What is being freed by Christ like? It is like you are a server in a restaurant who keeps making mistakes all night (wrong drink orders, dropping plates) all because your mind is distracted and concerned about how you are going to pay rent the next day, and a group of five teenage boys who have sat at a table for over an hour and ordered little more than nachos and couple of cokes ends up leaving a $250 tip. It is enough to keep you in your apartment for another month.

What is being freed by Christ like? It is like being trapped in a school where your worst enemies confront you daily just around the corner from the eyes of teachers and administrators. It is not being able to go to the bathroom because you fear the beating that might take place, and then coming home to find out that your family quite suddenly will be moving, to a new place, a new school, and a new chance at having real friends.

What is being freed by Christ like? It is being jailed up, confined, unable to convince anyone you are a person of worth; unable to convince anyone that you are not your past, and then someone comes, unlocks the door, and says, “I believe in you. Now go be the person God created you to be.”

Jesus lays out his purpose quite plainly in his first sermon recorded in Luke. Spoiler alert: Jesus’ purpose has to do with freedom.

Reading from Isaiah, Jesus proclaims, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (NRSV, Luke 4:18-19).

If you have ever wondered what salvation is all about in this life, I will give you a hint: it is about freedom.

It is about the poor having worth.

It is about freedom from all that binds you and holds you back.

It is about all of your debts being wiped out in a year of jubilee and having the opportunity to start again.

It is about being able to see, to truly see the world and its need to be loved.

The purpose of Jesus is to go around and free people from whatever holds them down.

He does it you know...frees people.

Jesus frees a boy plagued with a demon and frees him from his past.

His power heals an unclean woman who has suffered from bleeding for 12 years.

He heals a man who the community fears and who lives out in the cemetery.

He feeds more than 5,000 hungry souls who are searching for something more in life.

He tells the story of an outcast in society who is the only one to stop and help.

And, he forgives a criminal with a death sentence who merely asks to be remembered, because, quite frankly, no one wants to remember a criminal. Jesus says to the criminal, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Jesus cares that we are freed from all that keeps us bound, captive, hostage, and unable to move so that we may be able to truly live.

But even more, Jesus cares that this work of freedom continues. It did not stop when Jesus died. It did not stop when Jesus rose up into heaven. The Holy Spirit did not stop working when it came upon Jesus, but the Holy Spirit also descended on Jesus' disciples. The Holy Spirit still descends on us, and sparks a desire of freedom within our own souls.

Jesus, after reading this text of freedom of Isaiah, sits down and declares, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." In other words, this task of freedom does not stop with Jesus.

The grammatical tense of the phrase, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" is not the present tense which indicated that Jesus' work is once and done. Rather, it is the perfect tense which says it is ongoing, even repetitive. Theologian David Lose puts it this way in his Jan. 23rd 2019 "In the Meantime" article: "Jesus is kind of saying, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled and continues to be fulfilled and will keep being fulfilled and therefore will keep needing to be fulfilled in your presence.’”

We are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are a people who have been baptized into a life of freedom. We are a people who care about the poor no matter what got them to that place. We are a people who care about the blind, both physically and spiritually. We are a people who care about the detained and imprisoned and thrown away We are a people who care about the world being restored to the way God intended it to be.

We are a people who have been freed and who set free.

And, if you are feeling stuck in the faith, if you are feeling as if you do not know what this salvation of Jesus is all about, then ask yourself, “Where are people trapped?” “Where am I trapped?” And, if you ask those questions, you will find Jesus and you will find purpose.

I have a very practical question to ask you. Which of these items sparks a sense of interest in you? Pay close attention to the one that is calling to you:

Good news to the poor.
Release to those held captive.
Sight to those who cannot see spiritually.
Healing to those who are struck physically.
Giving voice to the voiceless and freeing the oppressed.
Forgiveness from debts.

Which one seems to stick with you. Which one do you have more questions about? Which one is God drawing to your attention?

Focus on that one. Write it down. Keep it on your nightstand. Be open to how Jesus desires to keep this particular task of freedom alive by the power of the Holy Spirit through you.

Be set free by Christ, and set free through Christ.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Reflection on John 2:1-11

What is God’s grace?

God’s grace is wine that appears out of nowhere when the wine that we humans provide for the wedding celebration runs dry. It is six water basins intended for washing being transformed into nearly three thousand bottles of additional wine, all so that a young couple might not be shamed because they were not able to supply an appropriate feast for their guests. Grace is God’s abundance when our own attempts are meager. Grace is God’s abundance just when it is feared that God does not care.

It is significant that the first sign that Jesus provides in John’s gospel is one in which he provides more joy, more blessing, and more abundance than the couple (or any couple for that matter) deserves. The story of the wedding at Cana is a story of pure, heavenly grace.

And, all of that abundance…all of that grace from Jesus comes because of one simple request. In conversation with Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, mentions the problem she sees to her son. “They have no wine,” she simply remarks.

Sometimes, prayer is as simple as that. Sometimes, prayer is simply talking to Jesus as if he were sitting right here…because through the Holy Spirit he is. We do not need the finely crafted words heard from highly trained pastors who write their prayers ahead of time so that they might sound eloquent and theologically precise, images reflecting the biblical tradition.

Our words can be very simple. Actually, prayer does not even need to be thought out very well. The words of prayer can simply tell the truth of a situation: “They have no wine.”

Mary did not go as far as saying, “Please provide more wine.” She certainly did not say, “We know of your divine providence and trust that you can always provide for our needs. We ask that this day your providence shine down on us, your humble servants, that this couple, faulty as their preparations have become, may be blessed by the exuberant bounty of your wine that you provide from your own hand.” No, Mary’s prayer simply tells the truth, “They have no wine.”

It is interesting to note that Jesus really had no intention of doing anything about this situation until Mary asked. Jesus’ response was somewhat dismissive, and by somewhat I mean extremely: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."

This dynamic of prayer is not new. Throughout the Bible you see requests being raised up toward heaven and God deciding to change course after hearing the prayer. In the beginning of Exodus when the people of God cry out because of the pain of their enslavement, God hears their groaning and decides to take action (Exodus 2:24).

Later, Moses convinced God not to destroy the people that God had just saved from the Egyptians after they had fashioned a golden calf and started to worship the calf instead of God (Exodus 32:9-14).

When King Hezekiah falls ill and is told by Isaiah that he will soon die, Hezekiah pleads with God to extend his life so that he might get his house in order. God grants the request and the King lives 15 more years (2 Kings 20:1-11).

Then there is the famous encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus initially refuses because it is not a part of his mission, but the woman quite cleverly convinces Jesus to have mercy and show some grace. (Matthew 15:21-28).

All of this is to say that prayer is not simply a form of meditation to calm our fears (though that can be a side benefit). It is an actual conversation with the living God and sometimes God can be convinced to change course and show grace.

So, when you pray, pray boldly.

It is OK to pray for the impossible. It is OK to pray even if you have no idea what you want the outcome to be. It is OK to pray the boldest of prayers. Sometimes, God will agree and wine will appear where there previously was only water.

Take a moment to search your heart. If you could pray anything at all, what would it be? What is it that you want God to hear? What is it that you wish God would take an interest? Take a moment right now to pray boldly.

Mary does “Pray boldly.” She mentions a problem to Jesus and hopes that he will do something about the problem. But, there is a second part to Mary’s prayer. When Jesus questions whether or not this is really something about which he should intervene, Mary says to the wedding servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

These words cannot simply be overlooked in anticipation of the amazing and miraculous part of the story. Taking time to pause in the story, we see that Mary tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.

What are Jesus’ possible responses here? Jesus could have said, “Go home, the party is over.” Jesus could have said, “I have some wine at my house, go fetch it.” Jesus could have said, “Who needs wine when we could have beer!” In other words, Jesus could have said any number of things.

Mary does not have a certain expectation of Jesus, she simply makes her request and waits to see what Jesus will do…if anything at all.

In all honesty, sometime when we pray boldly, the answer will be “No.” When Mary makes her request, she holds open all the possibilities. In other words, she allows God to be God. She allows Jesus to do as Jesus sees fit. She, herself, is not the savoir of the world; she simply talks to the savoir of the world.

We see this same dynamic going on when Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays boldly that his life be spared, but he is still open to what God the Father has in store.

“And going a little farther, [Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’”

Jesus has no problem asking for something bold, but he also knows that God the Father will decide whatever God needs in order to bring grace to the world. Therefore, he adds, “yet not what I want but what you want.”

Sometimes, the right answer to our prayer is “No,” and we simply do not know why. But, at other times the water might be turned into wine in an act of abundant and undeserved grace for all. In either case, the way that we the disciples of Jesus Christ pray is the same: we pray boldly and then wait patiently for whatever God has in store.

Do you feel stuck in faith? Do you feel as if your faith has started to dry with no source of living water coming in the future? Then do this one simple act of discipleship: open yourself to the possibilities that God could have in store by praying boldly and waiting patiently.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Reflection on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The voice from heaven declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved…”


“You.” What a simple but powerful word that descends from heaven for all to hear that day at the river of baptism. It is only three letters long, but it is a word that has the power to include someone into a community if uttered aloud. “You are now a child of God.” It has the power to honor someone for years of service when it echoes through those gathered, “You have been a faithful servant, and we are all the better for it.” It has the power to bind the two as one: “I love you” and “I now declare you as husband and wife.”

The word, “you” also has the power to do just the opposite. “You are not welcome here.” “You are a disgrace; I cannot even look at you.” “I hate you.”

Our message from Luke could have gone in that direction this morning. After-all, our message does allude to the separation of the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the acceptable from that which is simply trash.

But, there is no direct mention of “you” in any of it, even as the ideas surrounding repentance (changing our ways) is explored. No, that subject is quickly noted and then moves quickly to a positive reflection on “you.”

As a group of people with John are baptized that day, Jesus included, the heavens rip open, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in a form like a dove, and the heavenly voice rings out, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

“You are my Son…” not “that guy over there is my Son.” It is not, “he is my Son.” Rather, God has something to say directly to Jesus, but for all to hear, “You are my Son, the Beloved.”

It is the same “you” that is spoken at our own baptism when we hear the words, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

It is the same “you” that is spoken when the pastor places hands on your head and speaks the words, “You are forgiven.” It is not a generic, “We are all forgiven,” but rather the powerful, “You are forgiven.”

“You.” It is the sort of word that pierces the soul and drives its message deep. “You are included.” “You are a part of the family.” “You are loved.”

God’s family is a real family after-all. This thing that we call the faith is not merely some head trip…some conscious consent to a set of doctrines or beliefs. It is not a philosophy of life nor is it a political platform to which you either agree or disagree.

Faith is being accepted into a very real family; living as a sister or brother of Jesus Christ. And, in this family, the word “you” has the power to change your life. “You are forgiven.” “You have been given the fire of the Holy Spirit.” “You have been given gifts by God.” “You are loved.” “You are God’s child.”

This simple message rocked the life of a 90 year old woman after a pastor preached this word from the pulpit…it rocked the 90 year old woman’s world in a good way though. The Rev. Caroline Lewis, in her January 6th, 2019 “Dear Working Preacher” article explains:

After the [worship] service, a long time member of the church, 90-year-old Dott …came up to me and said, “Karoline, is that really true?”

“What?” I responded. “That GOD baptizes you?” “Well, yes. This is what we believe, Dott.”

She then told me why she doubted the “you.”

Dott had a sister, born too early and not expected to live, about three years before Dott was even born. The only option was to bring her home for her two-to-three month lifespan. During that time, the grandmother baptized her. Then, when Dott’s sister died, of course her parents set up a meeting with the pastor for the funeral. The pastor told them that he would do the funeral, but not in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral was held in the basement of the church.

Dott then said to me, “Do you mean my sister is okay?” The sister she never met. The sister she had mourned for her entire 90 years. The sister for whom she wondered, “is God really for her?”

Oh, yes. I said. The “you” your sister heard, God meant. And God did not, and will never, let her go.

“You” is a powerful word. It can include someone into a community if uttered aloud. “You are now a child of God.”

It has the power to honor someone for years of service when it echoes through those gathered, “You have been a faithful servant, and we are all the better for it.”

It has the power to bind the two as one; “I love you” and “I now declare you as husband and wife.”

And, it is a word of grace from God that has the power to change your life. “You are loved, no matter what. God will not ever let you go.”

It is a holy word. May its sound grace our ears. May the gracefulness of its tone ring from our own lips. In baptism, “you” were made one with Christ. “You” are a part of God’s family forever. That is a promise.

"You Are Beloved" by Jira Albers
Copyright, 2019
(Capo 8th)

G                          D                          C       D       G  D
Come draw near. Come draw near. Come to the water.

G                          D                          C      D             G
Come draw near. Come draw near. You are God’s child.

C     G      D G     C    G              D
You are beloved. You are God’s child.

G                     D                      C          D           G  D
You are loved. You are loved. Washed with the water.
G                     D                     C     D              G
You are loved. You are loved. You are God’s child.

C     G      D G     C     G             D
You are beloved. You are God’s child.

G                         D                        C         D       G  D
One with Christ. One with Christ. Joined in the water.

G                         D                       C     D              G
One with Christ, one with Christ. You are God’s child.

C     G      D G     C    G              D
You are beloved. You are God’s child.

C     G      D G     C    G              D
You are beloved. You are God’s child.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Reflection on Matthew 2:1-12

You should never forget that one of God’s great gifts was a star.

The star was a light in the darkness, leading its followers on a journey toward the savoir of the world, Jesus Christ. The star was a guide for those foreign star gazers who were not raised in the ways of God. The star led those foreigners to Jesus and set them on a different course than they had intended. It was a star that God provided to guide and eventually change the lives of a few wise astrologers.

One of God’s great gifts was the guidance brought by a star.

Years ago, a pastor got the bright idea to make Epiphany the day when the star might still guide the congregation like it did those wise men years ago. The pastor cut out little paper stars and then wrote singular words…words relating to faith…on each star in the hope that each star and the word might help to guide the lives of each person in the congregation.

One woman on that first Epiphany with the paper stars walked forward and grabbed a star out of the basket. As she flipped the star over, revealing the word of guidance meant for her, she saw the word, “Waiting.”

Her heart sank. For a number of years, she and her husband had tried to have a child, with no success. The last thing that she wanted to do was to wait any longer. But here it was; the star that God led her to choose was telling her that she needed to wait.

So she did.

Throughout the year she let the star guide her thoughts. She posted the star next to her front door so that she could not forget God’s message to her. Whenever she got anxious about having a child, she would eventually see the star and the word “waiting” would stick in her mind. With the help of the star, she would calm her mind in anticipation of the day when she would have to wait no more.

The next year, as Epiphany rolled around, she anxiously waited to see what word would be revealed to her. As she pulled out her new star she again saw the word “Waiting.” With 72 possibilities of words in that basket, how was it that she got “waiting” again?

She looked around and others had gotten stars with words such as “Joy” and “Peace” and “Forgiveness” and “Expectation.”

How she would have loved to have gotten "Expectation!"

It was the husband of a woman deployed overseas through the Air Force who had gotten "Expectation." She was happy at the smile that the word brought to that lonely husband’s face, but she was secretly jealous because, unlike him, she again had to wait.

That year she did not listen to the word on the star all that much. She and her husband refused to wait, spending lots of money, hours filled with appointments and shots, and lots of anxious days and nights trying to get pregnant through the wonders of medical technology.

Again, the word on the star seemed to win the fight. She was force to wait as each attempt to get pregnant failed. She was done waiting. Her natural clock was starting to approach the end and God could not possibly make her wait any longer!

But, “Waiting” was impossibly what she pulled out of the basket the very next year. At this point she had started to give up. She posted the star by her door once again, but she did not so much go about her daily life waiting, rather she appeared more defeated than anything.

The word “waiting” has the notion that there is something for which you are expecting that will be fulfilled eventually, but “waiting” did not describe her defeated state. She was not sure what God was up to, but she was not getting her hopes up. She was not waiting any longer. The star was there on her door, but she ignored it for the year.

Years and years later, a young woman asked the old lady about the stars that were posted on the wall of her nursing home room. Most of the stars had the word “Waiting” listed. The old woman told the young woman about the pastor and the stars and about the desire to be pregnant and how that had never happened. As the young woman searched, looking at the stars, she saw two that were different from the others. One read “Sorrow.”

“That was the year that my sister - your mom - died," the old woman said to the young one.

"You don’t remember because you were just a baby, but the car accident was a shock to us all. It was a tragedy that sort of pulled me out of my own selfish sorrow over not having a baby. There were worse things in life than not having a baby…things like losing a sister...a best friend.”

The young woman looked up at the door and saw that there was a star by the door, apart from the ones on the wall. It read, “Joy.”

“Is that the one from this year?” the young woman asked.

“No. That pastor died long ago. That was the last star that I ever picked up. It was the star that I got the very next year after I got the one with ‘Sorrow.’ It is the star that went along with the year that Jesus gave you, as a little baby, to live with me. The authorities never could figure out who your father was, so they gave you to me.

At first I was scared. I thought that it would be impossible to raise the daughter of my dead sister, but it wasn’t. You were nothing but a joy.

You have been nothing but joy in my life. You were the reason I was waiting. The stars weren’t wrong. God was not wrong. They guided me to the right place. It just wasn’t the place that I was expecting. Like how the star guided the wise men to Jesus, these stars all led me to you. You are my joy; so I put it on the door because I never want to forget.”

And so, God still guides you today. When those wise ones from ancient times journeyed to Jerusalem searching for the child king, they were redirected to Bethlehem. And, when the star led them to Bethlehem, they were redirected once again by God, away from the dangers of King Herod. They ended up going home by a different route.

The star of God will do that, you know. It will not always lead you to where you expect, but it will always lead you to Jesus. And, when it leads you to Jesus, it will have led you to where you needed to be.

Go ahead. Scroll down. Glance down at the list of Star Gifts. Choose the first one that your eye falls upon. It will be your word for the year. By a star may Jesus lead you.

Keep Scrolling

************Star Gifts************

dependability endurance

*It should be noted that this sermon idea was not original to me, but was based upon other sermons that I have heard in the past that used the idea and tradition of giving "star gifts."