Sunday Sermon – January 17, 2021

People ask me often what it was like growing up in Hawaii. Kids have asked me if I rode a dolphin to school, if I had to buy normal clothes to visit other states (assuming all I owned was grass skirts and coconut tops). I’ve been asked if Hawaii has zip codes or area codes, if we have electricity, if I lived in a hut on the beach, or if I was a hula dancer or surfer. I’ve been asked what we eat, what we do, if I ever got tired of the sunsets or the ocean. People think this is what Hawaii is like because this is the Hawaii they know from afar, the one they see in cartoons and ads. And yet, while I can answer their questions, all that answers do is to dispel the myths. If someone asks me all those things and my answer is, we wear normal clothes, don’t live in huts, I don’t surf very often or ride sea creatures to school. The landscape is nice, we eat lots of different things. All I’ve done is to take away their understanding, doing nothing to actually give them a better picture of where I’m from. 

So, if you ask what we eat, we eat things like ulu and lilikoi fruit, with lomi and mahi mahi, poi, and haupia, and spam musubi. Yet most of you won’t know what any of those things are. So, I could describe them to you one by one – That spam musubi is exactly the kind of canned spam you’re thinking of, but thinly sliced and fried in soy sauce and brown sugar, then assembled into a rectangle with a fat cake of sticky white rice, and wrapped in dried seaweed like massive spam sushi, which admittedly sounds horrible. But even me who has been a vegetarian for over half my life can attest to how delicious they are, and how much kids and grown-ups absolutely love them. I can tell you about other things we eat like ulu, which is a giant fruit that grows on trees and is the size of a cantaloupe but looks like a jackfruit. When it is raw it’s slimy and smells like feet, but if you bake it and eat it with butter, it has the flavor and texture of moist warm bread. And then you might have an idea of what an ulu is, or what a musubi is. But the far better way is for me to make it for you. Instead of offering answers, to say “Taste and see.” “Smell and see.” how spam sushi is mouthwatering and soul warming, and how slimy gym sock fruit becomes just like home baked bread and butter if it is cooked right. Taste and see. Smell and see. 


When people ask me what the landscape is like, I can ask if they’ve seen Jurassic Park, 50 First Dates, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lost, Hawaii Five O, From Here to Eternity, or dozens of other movies or shows that will give them an idea. I can try to describe the sharp green cliffs and valleys, the personality of the waves on different beaches, the smell of the tropical forests, and how one valley smells like ginger while the next smells like plumeria and the next hibiscus. I can try to describe the feel of treading through wet, rotting branches, or describe how sore your calves get from running on sand. I can explain the nuances of how being barreled in an ocean wave feels different than swimming under a pounding waterfall. But you won’t really know what those things are like – the smells of hiking through plants and flowers you’ve never been near, the personalities of different valleys and trails and beaches, the thrill and fear of tumbling underwater in the ocean, the softness of the water itself under a waterfall. I could answer your questions about what the landscape is like, but the best thing I could possibly do for you is to say – come and experience it. Smell the flowers, tread through the trails and beaches, swim in the waters. 


When people ask me what the language is like, I could explain how there are only 13 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, how vowels are heavily used, how beautiful Hawaiian music is with ukuleles and slack key guitars. But you won’t fully understand that unless I speak it for you, unless you hear the old men from down the street singing and playing together in lawn chairs on the beach, you won’t be moved by it until you see their wives stand up, bashful yet proud, to dance hula and tell the story of the words the men are singing with their dancing. I can try to tell you what it sounds like, what it feels like, but you won’t be moved by it unless you come and hear. Come and see. Come and experience it for yourself, because no matter how well I try to answer your questions, to tell you about it, to witness to it all, I can’t put the fullness of it all into words. You have to come and experience it for yourself to know the beauty, the grace, the extraordinary manifestation of God’s creation and God’s people that have emerged there in the middle of the pacific. 

Our gospel text this week, very early in Jesus ministry, is about invitation. It’s about misconceptions about people and places – Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Come and see. It’s about limited understandings of who Jesus was. It’s about Nathaniel declaring “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” for Jesus to respond, “You will see greater things than these.” It’s about surpassing expectations, about the glorious future still to come, about the anticipation, the expectation, the obliteration of everything they thought they knew about the Messiah because experiencing Christ is so much more than words or legends or prophecies can describe. 

This is a central theme in John’s Gospel – the invitation to come and see. John as a gospel writer leaves questions unanswered but doors open. He takes Jesus words “Follow me” and extends them to each and every one of us, because Christ can’t just be heard about, or talked about, he must be followed into new and better relationship with God and our neighbor. The depth and richness of that relationship needs to be experienced, not just talked about. 

So, you want to know Jesus? Come and see him in the face of the woman with the cardboard sharpied sign on the side of the road, see him in every neighbor you encounter whose in need, see him in every neighbor with a yard sign for the candidate you didn’t vote for, see him in every act of kindness and love you receive yourself. Come and hear him in the voices of people calling for justice, fairness, equality, support for those who most need it, for those who are most vulnerable. Hear him in every lonely or homebound friend or family member you call just to say hi. Hear him in the gospel, and in worship music, and in birds chirping and rain pounding and in every other way God speaks to you. Come and taste and smell Christ’s body and blood through the bread and wine we share in the eucharist. Come and feel Christ in every way you can, through relationship with your neighbors, through solidarity with the poor and the hungry, through the beauty of oceans and waterfalls and mountains, or of pastures and longhorns, tall trees, and country roads. Come and experience Christ in every part of your life you possibly can. This is Christ’s invitation to us. To come and see and follow him to new places God might be calling you, to know him in ways that will surprise you, but will far exceed your expectations.

Sunday Sermon – January 10, 2021

As we look to Jesus’s baptism by John and our own experiences of baptism on this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, we find that the act of baptism changed something for Jesus, and it changes something for us. Baptism inaugurates a new life and a new way. It did for Jesus, and it does for us.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin his account of the gospel with Jesus’s birth narrative. He focuses on another sort of beginning, the birth of Jesus’ public ministry. Before the day when Jesus met John at the Jordan, the day we hear about in today’s reading, Jesus was not the same person we usually think of when we think about Jesus. Before baptism, Jesus was only God incarnate. 

After being baptized, Jesus was God incarnate on a mission and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and sent him out into the world for the work of healing the sick, giving sight to blind, feeding the hungry and embodying a different type of faith. A faith that wasn’t stuck inside the temple but that was actively at work in people’s lives.


This gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism pushed Jesus out into a new movement and was itself a break in the way things were before. The Heavens tear open as the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in Jesus and in the world. The word used to describe the opening of the heavens that allows the Holy Spirit to descend onto Jesus and into the world is schizo. It is not a gentle opening like as of a door but a violent tearing open. 

God rips through the heavens, bridging the divide between heaven and Earth. Creation is fundamentally altered as God again crosses the boundary between him and his creations. This violent action and the word used to describe it only occurs one other time in the gospel, during Jesus’ eventual crucifixion- the final tearing of what was left that could separate God from humanity- sin.

This tearing begins Jesus’s public ministry and gives him the tools needed for that ministry, healing and gospel sharing. Jesus’ baptism pronounces Jesus as God’s son and God’s beloved and sends him out in the world to share the good news that a different type of life is possible.

Jesus’s baptism started him on his slow march towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion. It set in motion his sacrifice. This set-in motion another sort of slower tear too. Slowly, in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, people’s worlds and visions were torn open to include the poor, the sick and the marginalized. Relationship with God was torn away from the temple and temple officials as God himself went to meet people in the streets. That tearing would slowly tear into the people’s lives too, opening their eyes and their hearts to their neighbor and Christ. 

Baptism fundamentally changed Jesus’s life. After baptism, Jesus was transformed and set out to transform the hearts and lives of all those he came into contact with and all those who heard his message. 

We cannot understand the fullness of all that happens in the act of baptism, but we know that the simple act of being splashed with holy water, like the eating of simple bread and wine during the eucharist, is a way that God tears into our own selves and works in our own hearts and minds to prepare us for a different type of life, a life as children of not only the world but as children of God too.

I don’t remember my own baptism, but I know that it marked the beginning of another kind of life even though I was only still a baby. When I was baptized my family and my godparents stood up and decided that they would raise me with an understanding of who God was and how a relationship with God was possible.

By some mystery, God entered into my life and now I live as a transformed creation. By the faith of my parents who had me baptized, by the work of the holy spirit, and by all those in my life who have nurtured and encouraged my faith, I have tried to live into the life God has called me to. The Holy Spirit has been with me throughout my life, and I know because of the promises of baptism that it will continue to guide me as I continue on the path ahead of me.

That is what living into baptism is like. It’s about moving forward transformed but not always aware of exactly how. Each of us experience this, guided by the holy spirit throughout our lives, even when we don’t fully understand or realize it. In some way’s baptism is like the beginning of this new year of 2021. Plenty of people are thinking about new year’s resolutions and ways to get more sleep, exercise more or spend more time on self-care. In baptism, we take up the practice of nurturing a different sort of life too. We practice admitting we have not lived as God desires in the confession, we ask for and receive forgiveness in the community of our churches and we develop a deeper understanding of God and God’s word each week during worship and hopefully elsewhere in our lives too.

The Holy Spirit is at work in us as promised, yet our promise and the promise of our baptismal sponsors, family, and community is to nurture ourselves in ways that allow God to work in our lives more fully. Baptism is not a one sided, get out of hell free pass. It’s entering into relationship with God, and all the blessing and responsibility that entails. It is entering into community so God can continue to work in our lives, not only within us but also in our relationships with and interactions with those around us.

In our own baptisms we are welcomed into the life of the church, given people to help instruct us in our lives of faith and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’s baptism, the Holy Spirit empowered him into a life of ministry that would ultimately lead to his death and resurrection. For us, baptism opens us up to God’s working and leading, and to new relationship with God made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Baptism is not any work of our own. We do not control the Spirit’s coming but rather, we acknowledge the promise that it does. This is exactly why we practice infant baptism. What happens in baptism does not hinge on our own understanding or ability to do something but rather on what God promises and assures us will happen. Baptism is not contingent on our action or inaction, but it calls us into action – into relationship with God and our neighbor. Whether the one being baptized is an infant or adult, we as a community rejoice with them, and commit ourselves to helping them grow in their faith given to them through the Spirit yet nurtured by scripture and by those around them.

Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit coming to us during baptism empowers us to live a different kind of life. That life strengthens us to live through grief, pain, sorrow, joy, hope, love, and all else life entails, not fearing what’s to come, but opening ourselves to all God has in store for our lives, just as Christ did. In baptism, we let ourselves be torn open, over and over again, because we are baptized into Christ’s life AND death, forever tied to service of God and our neighbors. So, let the world break our hearts. Let us feel for our neighbors in need and act on it. Let us recognize where God’s love is most needed and bring the good news to those places. Let us cry, and laugh, and weep, and rejoice for and with our neighbors just as Christ did, because the holy spirit is moving us to action, and we must respond.

Please pray with me.

Sunday Sermon – December 20, 2020

“Do not be afraid” Simple and perhaps terse words for the world-altering news Mary was able to hear. Like elsewhere throughout the Bible, an angel of God cautions their hearer before continuing. A brief reminder that what is about to happen should not cause fear. In our own world of unknowns and fear we would do well to remember that God is at work and weaving new life for the world in our midst. The Christ-child is coming. All will be made new. Things will be different but do not be afraid because God will bring us into better and more abundant life if we but have faith and trust in him.

One of the songs we’ll sing later in our service is inspired by the text and person our gospel is about today – Jesus’ mother Mary. The song is “Mary did you know?” and it asks a number of interesting questions.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your baby boy Would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy Has come to make you new?

That the child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

When the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would have a son that she was to name Jesus and that he would be great, be called the Son of the Most High, that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, Mary was understandably surprised, and must have had an overwhelming number of questions. When it finally sunk in, Mary’s response was exuberant joy. Mary was so filled with happiness and emotion that it was not mere words; it was a song. Mary’s song. The Magnificat, which we hear parts of in many beloved hymns and parts of liturgy and our worship, rather we notice it or not.

Like the others before her, Mary had learned to expect God’s working in unlikely and unimagined ways and so the vision she casts of what a Savior’s coming might mean included amazing things. Casting unjust rulers from their thrones, feeding the hungry, helping Israel amidst their persecution and occupation. Mary considered what her encounter with an angel might mean not only for herself but for her people and the world and so she ran towards that future without fear.

Mary responded to the heed of Gabriel’s command “do not fear” and the world-shattering news that followed by boldly trusting in God and God’s character. While finding herself in an unfavorable situation and with a lot of explaining to do with those around her, Mary chose to cast her vision towards the newness God was creating. Mary did not get stuck in the ordinary that was passing away. Mary did what is not easy to do. In a time when the world felt like it was being turned on its side, she chose confidence in God as she moved forward into the unknown future. She imagined what could be rather than what could be lost.

Last week I shared with you part of my call story, and this week I’d like to tell you about part of my husband’s. Very few of you have had the chance to meet my husband Cole, because he’s also a seminary student, serving as a vicar at four Lutheran churches near La Grange, until we both graduate this Spring and are hopefully ordained this fall. His story is fairly different from mine. I knew I was called to ministry from the time I was 14 and have actively pursued this path ever since. Cole at that time would have laughed at you if you told him then that he’d become a pastor a decade later. 

Growing up, he was always excellent at math and science, he excelled in school and his whole personality is much more heady and logical than most people. He wants to investigate and understand everything he can, constantly acquiring more knowledge, rather it’s about calculus or how to shell pecans and make moonshine. Everyone had always told him he would make a great engineer, and he heard that enough times that he assumed he wanted that too. It would give him financial security, it was interesting, he was good at it, what more could he want?

Meanwhile, as a teenager he was much more of a troublemaker than I ever was. While I played in the school wind ensemble, he played in a punk rock band. In my free time I played on sports teams and worked part time jobs, while he and his friends explored abandoned buildings and gave each other bad tattoos. Yet he still remained involved in church, not because his parents made him, but because he genuinely wanted to. He helped to mentor some of the younger youth, and even helped teach confirmation classes. He loved the Lord but didn’t realize that pastors could be people who had tattoos or used swear words, so the thought of him doing something like that never even crossed his mind. 

He went off to college in San Francisco, he had gotten into a good school there, and was in a 5-year program for physics and mechanical engineering. He had everything he’d wanted – a great school far from his hometown, a pathway to a reputable career, classes he was doing well in. But while he was in his first semester of college, he heard a voice inside of him, telling him this wasn’t what he was meant to do, he was called to be a pastor, not an engineer. The first time he realized this, he was at a punk rock concert, and told one of his friends what he’d just realized, and the friend stared at him, then laughed in his face and brushed it off. But that voice and that call never left him. 

He was doing well in his classes but wasn’t fulfilled in what he was doing. He found far more meaning by wandering the streets of San Francisco at night and making friends with homeless people, hearing their stories and breaking bread with them, being with God’s people on the margins. At the end of the semester, he went home for winter break and talked with one of his pastors at his home congregation about his thoughts about maybe, possibly considering ministry, and his pastor listened and validated everything Cole was saying. His pastor told him he’d always thought Cole might be called to ministry, and that he had great gifts for it, but the pastor was wise enough to know that if he told a rebellious teenage boy that, all it would do is make him run farther from the possibility. He knew Cole had to come to this path on his own, and that’s exactly what he did. 

Cole asked his pastor, if going to take this seriously, what he needed to do, where he needed to go, how he could even begin to take steps towards ministry. What this pastor told him was not at all what Cole wanted to hear. He said, Cole would need to leave his engineering program, and his Catholic university in San Francisco, and consider getting a Theology degree instead. And the best place he knew of to prepare and nurture Cole for the path God was leading him on was California Lutheran University, which is a great school, but which was even closer to Cole’s parents’ house than his high school was. It was where Cole relentlessly teased several of his friends for going to after high school, for not wanting to leave the nest or go somewhere cooler than their sleepy suburban hometown. In a matter of just a few weeks, Cole had gone from being so set and sure of his path, and well on his way to life as he’d always imagined it, to a crossroads where he was faced with a complete 180 to a completely different, lower paying job, with more schooling required, at the school that would have otherwise been his absolute last choice. 

Like Mary, he was faced with Life changing news, risking, and gaining everything all at once. Mary said yes and responded to her new future with joy. Cole responded, probably not with singing like Mary did, but with full trust and commitment to the new life God was giving him. He dropped out of engineering school and applied to California Lutheran, and was accepted just a few days before Spring classes started. He met me on his third day of school there. While God’s path for Cole was completely unexpected, God also gave him the faith to be able to follow boldly. God is active in our world and in our lives here and now, and having an active God means having our lives changed in huge and unexpected ways. We’re each called to do what Mary was called to – not to give birth to the Son of God – but to be open to God working in our lives in new and unexpected ways. We’re called not to fear, but to trust God as we choose to take steps towards the new, scary, wonderful life we’re being called to.  

We don’t always know where God is leading us, but we take courage and continue on despite the unanswered questions. Did Cole know if he would regret leaving his engineering degree? No. Did he know if he would even get into another school, for a completely different program? No. Did he know he would meet his wife there, along with countless other great friends and colleagues? No. But he trusted God and took courage. 

Mary, in her situation of uncertainty also decided to take courage in God and God’s character rather than linger in questions that could not be answered before she got through them. What would her betrothed Joseph think if she suddenly became pregnant? What would her parents think? What if she, a young teenager, wasn’t ready to raise God’s promised heir? 

Rather than get stuck in the present, Mary trusted in God’s future, whatever that might be. Mary boldly followed what God was doing in her life even in a situation that seemed like it might only cause heartache and headache.

So, did Mary know? Did she know her baby boy would walk on water, save our sons and daughters, and make Mary new? Probably not. As a member of the Jewish people Mary would have grown up with an expectation for a Jewish Savior. The name Jesus, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning Savior, itself carried with it a plethora of different expectations and assumptions. Mary would have had plenty of ideas of what Jesus might do or be, but she never would have been able to know exactly what Jesus came to do. Even more miraculous than predicting the future in that way is perhaps the fact that Mary trusted and obeyed the promise anyway.

Jesus grew up in a house with this sort of trust and bold faith, and so it makes sense that Jesus, as an adult and fully accepting his role as Savior, also trusted in God, and moved forward into a future, knowingly facing death, because he trusted not only in what could be imagined but in what could be possible through God. Jesus and Mary both adopted lives as obedient servants. Trusting in God and God’s plan that was being laid ahead of them. Going forward into the unknown future with confidence in God’s love and mercy, they left their fears behind and took courage in God alone. May we also have the courage and faith to do the same. Amen.

Advent Sunday Sermon – 11/29/2020

I once heard a story of a father who took his son to Toys-R-Us, and he and his son got separated. This was his first child, and had never happened before, so the father started to panic. Yet, because he could see the doors, he knew that his son hadn’t exited the building. He paced up one corridor and down another… around another aisle… peeping… looking to find him amidst a crowd of people in the Christmas rush – but he could not find his son. He found a security guard and asked him, “Do you have surveillance in the store?” The guard said, “Yes.” He then asked, “Do you have a monitor?” “Yes.” “Can I look at the monitor?” “Yes.” “Can you scan the floor?” “Yes.”


The guard began to scan up and down the aisles, and there the man saw his son, surrounded by toys, but crying.  He was clearly in a state of panic. His son was all by himself among people he did not know, in a place that was unfamiliar. The son was feeling lost and alone, and the father did not know what to do. The father asked the guard, “Do you have an intercom?” The guard said, “Yes.”

The father said, “Keep the camera on him.” Then he got on the intercom and said, “Christopher.” His son looked around because he recognized his father’s voice. He continued, “Stay where you are.” The boy started looking around. “It’s Daddy,” he said over the intercom. “Don’t move. I see you although you can’t see me. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”

Though the little boy did not know it, even when he felt most separated from his father, his father was doing everything he could to get back to him. No matter how far we wander, we are never too far for God to still see us and offer the hope of being reunited. God is active and is looking after our lives in ways that we don’t always understand, even when we’re feeling like a child feeling lost in a toy store. God is our protective father, calling out to us, telling us exactly what we need to do, reassuring us of the promise that through relationship with God, everything will be ok. Rather through the prophet Isaiah, or through the store’s intercom system, God reaches out to us urging us to listen.

In our Isaiah reading, we enter into the midst of a nation whose sin has brought them further and further from right relationship with God to the point that they felt completely lost. They remember that God is their God, and they are God’s people, yet their expectations of God have become very one directional. They cry out for God to fulfil his side of the deal, without seeing all the ways they’ve abandoned and actively worked against this relationship themselves. The prophets are God’s way of calling the people to repent, to recognize, to reorient themselves to God and right the relationship that has become so broken.


In Isaiah 64, the children of Israel were much like the little boy in Toys-R-Us; they cried out for help from someone they had wandered away from, someone they could not see, nor could they be sure that they were seen. And while an intercom was sufficient for the father to announce his arrival to his son, the prophet on behalf of the people asks for something far more dramatic. He prays and asks for an announcement of God’s presence in ways that would garner respect and recognition from both the children of Israel and God’s enemies, who they viewed as their own enemies. They cried out for quaking mountains, burning brushwood, and boiling water. 


Now, we should not think this request is unusual given the fact that God has been performing awesome deeds on behalf of Israel for quite some time. The plagues on Egypt that forced Pharaoh to let Israel go, the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the flattened walls of Jericho and David’s victory over the giant Goliath all readily come to mind as we consider how God has intervened and saved them in the past, so the lack of God’s intervention now makes them think that this time they may have gone too far, that God’s lack of action means their relationship is irreconcilable. 


The nature of the prophets was to help God’s people see that they had turned away from God, and that God was waiting for them to turn back. Isaiah was urging Israel to stop expecting God to be a miracle vending machine, but to recognize God instead as one whom they were in relationship with, that required effort on both sides. God was waiting for them, just as they were waiting for God. As we enter into the season of Advent, waiting is a central theme, and we’ll hear it over and over in weeks to come.


Over and over in the Hebrew bible, God’s people are admonished to wait: 

(Psalm 27:14) – “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord” 

(Psalm 37:9) – “For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” 

(Psalm 40:1) – “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me and heard my cry”.

Now, the idea of waiting has several implications. The first is that the Lord is worth waiting for.  No matter how long it takes, no matter what you have to go through, when you get to the place that God has purposed, planned, and provided, or you receive what God has promised, prepared, and produced, you will gladly testify that it was worth the wait.


Another implication of waiting is the reality that God reserves the right to keep us waiting; time was made for humans, not for God. Thus, God is not in a hurry. Another implication of waiting, which is probably the least popular yet the most applicable to the text, is the reality that while God is great, God can also be gradual. When it comes to God’s moves, God’s methods, and God’s miracles, God can be slow, and we must learn to be patient.


In all our waiting, we are not called to just sit there idly until God makes the first move. Advent waiting is an active time of anticipation, of reflection on our relationship with God in the past and preparing ourselves for what the future might hold. In our waiting, we return to God in every way we can, doing our part to be God’s people, as we trust that God continues to be our God.

Our God is a god of promise. God is going to do what God said. What we go through cannot cancel what God told us, because God’s Word is more powerful than any shortcoming we may have. Nothing is strong enough to revoke, rescind, retract, reverse or repeal God’s promises. God promised to be the God of Israel, and they were to be God’s people. God promised to make us all God’s people through Jesus Christ, calling us to repent, and reconciling us to new relationship with our God.

This passage in Isaiah closes with an impassioned appeal for God to look favorably on the people of Israel, forget their sins against God, and to remember that they are God’s people. I am inclined to believe that the wait had far less to do with God remembering than it did with the people remembering; remembering that God is our caring and concerned parent, watching, searching, and calling out to us like a father in a toy store. 

God’s hope is the hope of a Parent, who always hopes against hope that the children will see the error of their ways and return home. Our hope is the hope of a child, realizing we’ve wandered too far and are lost in a toy store, trusting that there is hope that we can be reunited once again. So, we eagerly wait, hoping for a future we don’t yet know, but that we are sure our God will be a part of, turning to us as we turn back to him. Amen.

Sunday Sermon – 11/22/2020

Christ the King surprises us. We celebrate it year after year, as the last Sunday of Pentecost before we begin our church new year with Advent next week. Though the appointed scripture texts for Christ the king are different year to year, they always surprise me, because they don’t often depict Christ as the kind of king we imagine, or the kind of king the world would imagine, then or now. The kingdom of God is full of surprises, just as all those in today’s gospel text experienced. 

            What strikes me most about this parable is that neither the sheep or the goats knew what they were or what they had done to receive the judgement they did. Both groups ask a different version of the same question. For the sheep, it was ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ For the goats, it was ‘when didn’t we…’ Both had encountered Christ numerous times and didn’t even realize it. 

            Earlier this year, I realized I had encountered Christ in someone very unexpected and didn’t realize what was happening at the time. I was chaperoning for a youth gathering with my church in North Carolina, and we had about ten of our middle and high schoolers there with us. Our youth group was hanging out in the hotel lobby during free time, and a seventh-grade boy came up to us and started making conversation. He and his sister were the only kids there from their church, and he didn’t know anyone else at the gathering. He was very, very talkative, and really didn’t pick up on social cues very well, but our whole group shared our giant box of goldfish crackers, dealt him in to our game of uno, and made conversation with him best they could for the rest of the hour. I could tell some of the older high schoolers weren’t thrilled to have him there, but they were patient and inclusive regardless. 

            The next night, there was a big dance party, and I noticed one of the younger girls from my church was missing, so I went all over to look for her. I eventually found her sitting in a corner of a conference room, hugging her knees to her chest, and having a panic attack. I got her some water and tissues, sat with her for a while and after a while we were able to get her breathing under control. She was still crying, but not panicking. 

As I sat and talked with this girl for the next hour, lots of other youth passed by and just politely looked away. But one person decided to come sit with us. It was the boy from free time. The one who I thought had bad social skills, who I was proud of my kids for being nice to. He was the one person who saw us and decided to come over. He sat on the floor with us, put a fist full of Hershey’s kisses in front of the girl, and said calmly and kindly as ever “Hey, it’s gonna be okay. We all go through this sometimes. You’re an awesome person and I know you’re gonna be alright.” Then he smiled at me sheepishly, fist bumped us both, and walked away. I never saw him again. 

But in that interaction, I knew I had just encountered Christ, in the person who I thought I was being Christ for. I didn’t understand how every encounter I had with this boy was an opportunity for both of us to experience Christ in one another. Even with scripture teaching us and reminding us that in every member of Christ’s family we meet, we meet Christ, the practice of actually living in response to that is far more difficult than we give it credit for. 

            I once heard a story about a reporter who interviewed Mother Theresa towards the end of her life. The reporter was not religious at all. As he interviewed Mother Theresa, he asked her what the key was to running such a successful ministry and community. She answered that she simply saw Christ in every person she encountered. The reporter went on about how that was great, but there must be some secret – some methodology or leadership strategy, some business model or SOMETHING that led her to be so much more successful than so many other ministries. Again, she told him, she truly sees Christ in every person she encounters, and treats them as such. The reporters disconnect was similar to that of the people Christ tells of who didn’t feed him, clothe him, visit him, heal him. The reporter could not comprehend seeing Christ in another person, so the idea of a lifetime of service based on that understanding like Mother Theresa’s was incomprehensible to him. 

            I struggle to do this myself. I hear the gospel, and take it to heart, and yet I’ve walked or driven by people begging for food countless times. I’ve never even been to a prison. I’ve encountered Christ more times than I could count, and yet have only realized a small handful of those instances. I imagine that many of you might be in a similar boat. 

            All those who Jesus tells about in our gospel text for today didn’t realize the weight of what they were doing when they were doing it either. So today, instead of telling you to go start a leper colony in Calcutta like Mother Theresa, instead of worrying with you rather we’re sheep or we’re goats, I offer you an invitation. Hear this gospel, take it to heart, and find one new practice to help you see every person in need as Christ himself. That practice could be that every time you go to the grocery store, you pick up something extra to set aside for SOS. It could be taking one opportunity to volunteer somewhere new. It could be training your internal dialogue to look at people who are different than you and think “beloved child of God” instead of “homeless”, “immigrant”, “thug”, “felon”, “idiot”, or any other label or name that helps you to justify hatred, disdain, or even indifference towards another person, no matter who they are. It could be calling or writing a card to someone who has been isolated during this pandemic because of their health. Or it could be something else entirely. 

Just choose something. Let the Spirit move your heart to new action, in whatever way God is calling you to. I encourage you to remember that every single time you do this, you are doing it not for the sake of checking boxes, of doing enough good deeds to be a sheep and not the goat. Do it not for yourself, but for Christ, who has already done and continues to do so much for each of us. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving, to honor Christ our King, than to turn our thankfulness into action for the good of our neighbor, that Christ’s Kingdom may break into our world even just a little bit more. Whatever you choose, however you push yourself to take on just one more practice, I pray that in doing so, you may be surprised by the joy of encountering Christ in our midst. And I pray that others may find the same in encountering Christ through you. Amen. 

Wednesday Connection – 11/15/2020

This week, we celebrate the last Sunday of Pentecost with “Christ the King” Sunday. No matter what the changing lectionary text is, every year we celebrate Christ the King with a gospel reading from the very end of Jesus life on earth, rather it’s on the cross, or in his last moments teaching his disciples before he is betrayed. It is both powerful and strange to proclaim Jesus this way, as “Christ” and as “King”. The ancient understanding of “Christ” was that Christ was the one who was to come. In other words, to proclaim Jesus or anyone as the Christ would have been almost contradictory for the people of Jesus’ time, because you cannot be the one who is coming if you are already here. The Christ, to their understanding, could exist only in the future, never in the present or past. On an equally strange note, people of Jesus’ time could never imagine a king who was crucified. To be king was to be mighty, powerful, conquering, the crucifier, not the crucified. Yet, Jesus yet again turns everything upside down. Jesus, Son of God, is the Christ who is past, present, and future. His kingdom is far beyond our made up, earthly borders and domains, and his rule is merciful and just. Jesus is all this, and so much more. As we prepare our hearts for this Sunday, this celebration and proclamation of who Jesus is, I invite you to consider throughout this week how Jesus has surpassed your own expectations, just as he surpassed the world’s expectations in being Christ, and King. 

In Peace,

Pastor Amanda McGlynn

Wednesday Connection – 11/11/2020

Our community is still processing the enormity of a global pandemic, an election, and the many ups and downs that come with everything else in our lives. There is grief, joy, fear, relief, apprehension. As a community, we bring all these things to the table together and take courage in knowing that God is with us, and our community is supporting us through it all. In my sermon last week, I nearly included a particular prayer that has helped me through times of great uncertainty. I omitted it for time’s sake, but offer it here now, in hopes that it may bring you comfort just like it has brought me. 

The Lutheran Prayer of Good Courage

Lord God,
you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

For those of you who like music, here is a beautiful version of the same prayer:

In Peace,

Pastor Amanda McGlynn

Sunday Sermon – November 15, 2020

My husband Cole and I are both students at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and we lived on campus there for our first two years of classes. While we were there, my husband was an absolute menace to the grounds crew. He was never trying to be difficult or to make their lives harder, but he has such a passion and fascination with the abundance of God’s creation, that it leads him to do things that other people might find… well, weird. 

Cole would do things like install grow lines on the side of a building and grow three different types of hops so he could brew them into beer. He would email the director of maintenance, informing her that he had inoculated many of the wood chips on campus with mushroom spore, and would ask her to please not spray his sweet baby mushrooms with pesticides. If he heard that after a storm a tree on campus had fallen, he’d rush to get there before the grounds crews removed it, and would use a hand saw to cut slabs off, and drag them back to his house “to make something with”. Likewise, if he found old chairs or wooden furniture the seminary was getting rid of, he would bring it home and teach other students how to widdle chair legs into wooden spoons.

            He once convinced me to spend multiple afternoons with him, picking up every acorn on campus we could find, then he spent a full other day replicating some Native American technique he read about for leeching the poisons out of acorns, and turned it into acorn soup to share with the whole school at dinner church, assuring everyone he was mostly sure it wasn’t poisonous anymore. 

            He once found a large wild rhubarb plant growing behind the dumpster on campus, so he made “dumpster rhubarb pie” to share with our classmates too, along with the crab apple cider he cut the squirrel nibbles off of. He found lots of other edible berries around campus too. He once saw an old man pick a tiny berry off a tree and eat it, asked the old man, and found out they were saskatoon berries, and they only bloomed for about two weeks per year. So, Cole recruited me and a few of our friends to come pick thousands of tiny saskatoon berries with him, over several days, and we made jam, pie, and all sorts of things to share with everyone we could. Saskatoon berries taste sort of like almondy blueberries, and the almond flavor comes from trace amounts of cyanide, but they are harmless to humans, Cole would assure everyone. 

I call this hobby of his “suburban foraging”. He has a gift of seeing the world around him and asking himself how he can experience God’s abundance through the things everyone else overlooks. I know this about my husband, and I love this about him, yet most times he finds some new mystery plant to eat or some new hobby to try, I am still usually very skeptical. Maybe it is because I am afraid of him getting food poisoning, or afraid of my living room floor being covered in wood shavings from a stool leg. But a lot of the time I think my skepticism comes from knowing the very high likelihood that he will recruit me to help in his newest project. My favorite of these projects of his, and one of the ones I was most skeptical of, was the year he decided to try to make his own maple syrup. 

            As the season was changing from winter to spring, we walked around campus in the several feet of accumulated snow, and tried to identify if any of the trees on campus were some variety of maple, based only on their bark. If he were smarter he would have planned ahead and marked the trees before they lost all their leaves and became way harder to identify but that’s my skepticism creeping back in, and probably my grumpiness about agreeing to wander around in the freezing cold with him looking at tree bark. But he slowly figured out which trees were maples and we tapped a few of them and outfitted them with makeshift tubing and recycled milk jug containers to harvest the sap of the trees. 

Then, during the course of each day, as the temperature would move between freezing and thawing, the sap in the trees would flow out into the milk jugs. I have always wondered if the maintenance workers ever saw these maple taps, which looked like plastic umbilical cords duct taped to milk jugs coming out of these giant, majestic, leafless trees. If they saw them, rolled their eyes, and just walked away, I thank them, and if they just happened not to see them, I guess we just got lucky.

            The whole experiment gave us both an overwhelming experience of God’s abundance. Cole only had three trees tapped but we found ourselves with gallons upon gallons of sap each day. It was amazing to walk out to our trees after just a few hours and find the containers overflowing with fresh, clear sap. We had to go out at least two or three times a day, wading through the snow carrying 5-gallon buckets, to bring back all the sap, or else the milk jugs would overflow. This was made even more amazing by the fact that the trees gave freely out of their abundance at no harm to themselves. When the season ended and Cole removed the taps, the trees healed themselves where he had drilled into them and they were indistinguishable from the trees we had done nothing to. When you harvest maple sap, it comes out clear, and tastes like very slightly sweet water. You have to boil it down for hours to evaporate nearly all the water from it. To make one gallon of syrup, it takes 40 to 60 gallons of sap. Yet, Cole would spend multiple afternoons a week boiling down his sap for usually less than a pint of syrup. But that syrup lasted us for years, and it was the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted. 

I bring this story up because the parable of the talents, like my experience with maple trees, is about abundance. A talent, which is what our parable talks about, was no small sum of money. A talent was a unit of weight- about 80 pounds. As a unit of money, it meant that much weight in silver. So, 80 pounds of silver or about 6,000 denarii. A denarius was the usual payment for a day’s work which means that one talent was worth over 16 years of labor without break or holiday. In terms we would understand and with minimum wage currently at $7.25 an hour means a talent would be worth $348,000 to a minimum wage worker. Again, this is no small sum of money. And all that is only a single talent. In the parable, one gets 5 talents, another gets 2 and it is only the third that gets a single talent. In modern day, that would be almost 1.7 million to the first slave, 700,000 to the second, and 348,000 to the third. 

            The three slaves are each entrusted with an unbelievable, abundant amount of money. They are given this responsibility with little direction or advice and left to respond. The parable is not about wise investment strategies or economics. It is about how we react to abundance. How we respond to the gift of God’s abundant grace.

            From the context of Matthew’s gospel and the little we are told about the master’s character; we can be fairly certain that we are supposed to understand the master as Jesus himself. Jesus comes, already possessing great and abundant gifts, inviting his servants to share in his joy. And ultimately, Jesus comes back to invite the faithful to enter the joy of their master.

            Those that are greeted with the instruction to enter the joy of their master by faith are the ones that share the abundance they receive. God’s gifts are meant to be shared, and multiplied, not hidden out of fear or shame. The point here is not the profit, it is the sharing and good stewardship of the abundance of God. The first two slaves decided to share their abundance with others, trading it amongst one another but the third slave hordes his gift and buries it far away from others out of fear of losing what he was given. It would have been easier to give the money to the bankers but the third slave goes through the work and the labor necessary to locate a place, dig a hole and bury the talent away from others, including away from himself. 

            It’s like if the first two servants were given a few maple trees on campus, and decided to take the time and care to make syrup to share with their neighbors and classmates, because they understood the abundance of God and the joy they could have and share with all those around them. It is the understanding that comes out of a respect for everything around us as a gift from God, rather it is our home, our community, our world. Whatever gifts we’re given, money, food, time, talent, maple trees, whatever it is, we are called to be like the first two servants, to react to the gift of God’s abundance with joy and generosity, so others can experience that joy too.

            The third servant was filled with fear and reacted to what he had been entrusted with by hiding what he was given. It would have been like if Cole found a maple tree and cut it down, or roped it off with a sign saying “perfectly ordinary tree here, nothing to see, nothing to tap, carry on, pip pip.” Or perhaps a less dramatic example would be, if he had simply done nothing, and let himself and everyone in our community walk past these old trees every day, not giving them a second thought, letting their gifts and potential be hidden in plain sight. This is the easier way to go through life. It’s a whole lot safer than investing in taps and jugs, going through the time and work of hauling buckets of sap through the snow, and hoping the grounds crew doesn’t throw it all away or tell you to quit it. But this harder way is the life we are called to. 

            This, Jesus tells us, is what entry into the kingdom is like. We are each given great gifts from God and asked to respond. Not just material gifts either. Gifts of love and mercy and forgiveness, and we must decide what we are going to do with them until we meet our end and face our ultimate judgement. We can receive God’s forgiveness, and keep it to ourselves, refusing to forgive those who wrong us. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. We can stock our pantries with food and our cabinets with hoarded toilet paper in the midst of a pandemic, not thinking about our neighbors who have none. But that is not the life of abundance we are called to. 

            We are called to respond to the abundance we are given, by sharing that abundance with others, rather it is through money, canned food, time, forgiveness, or whatever we have to offer. We give thanks to God by giving his abundance to others and sharing in all that comes from that with God and with everyone around us. 

            I haven’t yet had the opportunity to work at the SOS food bank, I will soon. But before I moved to Texas, my husband and I volunteered every weekday at our local soup kitchen, and eventually ran the food pantry there for several months until we moved here. I can’t tell you how little the can of peas that’s been sitting in the back corner of my pantry for months means to me. But I can tell you about the look of relief on the face of a Vietnam veteran I handed a bag of canned goods to, who said “I used to volunteer here, I never thought I’d need to come here for food myself”. I can tell you about the young mothers who broke down in tears and hugged me as I handed them a $25 grocery store gift card, because it meant they could feed their kids something more substantial than ten cent ramen noodles. 

I can’t tell you how little the random tarp in my garage or the 5 dollar bill in my wallet means to me, but I can tell you about the people in Haiti and Indonesia and other places, who organizations like Lutheran World Relief, and Lutheran Disaster Response can pass tarps like that out to use as temporary roofs or walls when their house is barely left standing. 

I can’t tell you the name of the kid at Lutherhill Bible Camp your small donation may have helped sponsor, but I can tell you about how much a week at bible camp can inspire a kid’s faith and lead them on a path to ministry, like it did for me. I can’t tell you the names of every person who has worshiped here, experienced God here, or been impacted in some way by Joyful Life, because the list would be too abundant, but I can tell you that every single situation I just told you about is part of the abundance that comes out of this place. We are each given so much abundance, so we come together as a community and multiply that in all the ways we bring ourselves to share that abundance, to support causes like SOS, like the ELCA’s disaster and hunger relief organizations, like bible camps, like livestreamed worship opportunities, like, like, like, I could go on and on! 

            In responding to abundance received with abundance given, we experience the joy of God and all creation. Faced with the abundance of maple sap, Cole didn’t just choose to share with others, he needed to. He needed help collecting and moving the buckets full of sap, so he had to bring others into that experience with him and teach them along the way. After processing the sap down into syrup he needed help in enjoying it, so he didn’t give himself a sugar coma by finishing off gallons of syrup alone or let his hard work spoil before he could use it all. Anytime we had friends over for brunch, we’d be sure to make pancakes, or if we had them over for dinner, we’d make maple old fashioneds, so we could tell everyone about the joy and hilariousness of Cole’s adventures with suburban foraging. We had no idea we would end up with as much as we did from just three trees. But our experience of abundance led us into the act of sharing and in doing so we found even greater abundance, and much greater joy.

            There’s an old story about this sort of abundance that is only truly realized if it is shared, about the harvest of a corn farmer. There once was a farmer who grew superior quality and award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won honor and prizes and blue ribbons. Once, a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learnt something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors’’. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why sir, “said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior, sub-standard, and poor-quality corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”

Whether it is maple syrup or canned goods or corn, abundance confronts us and necessitates our response. Our parable says this is what the preparation needed to enter the kingdom of God is like. We are each given more than we could ever imagine. Will you choose to hide it? Or will you choose to respond in a way that brings far more joy? 

Please pray with me.

God of maple syrup abundance,

You have blessed us with an abundance that at sometimes confronts us and causes fear

Let us see these good gifts as a blessing

Let us share this overwhelming multitude with all those around us

Let us experience an even greater abundance we find in giving away what we have

Give us joy, not fear

Invite us to new ways of life unrestrained from worry

Let your mercy, grace, and love flow from us like sap

Let it drift into the lives of our neighbors like pollen

In confidence of God’s gifts, we pray.

AMEN

Sunday Sermon – November 8, 2020

According to Wikipedia, in my lifetime there have been 46 major, notable, well publicized predictions of when the world was supposed to end. Some of them you might remember more vividly were the ancient Mayan calendar ending December 21, 2012, or Y2K when all technology ever was supposed to crash and cause mass destruction of society as we know it. 

This week, in the midst of a pandemic, a divisive election, natural disasters, and feeling for many reasons like the world was ending, I rabbit holed into some of these apocalyptic predictions and conspiracy theories, and tried to make sense of them. Surprisingly only one of those 46 is a prediction for 2020, which seems like a missed opportunity, given the state of the world. A few of them were from fringe cult groups, or fortune tellers, or alien conspiracy theorists. But a lot of them, probably almost half, were from Christian ministers, often predicting or “calculating” the time of the rapture or of Christ coming again. 

In our text today, Christ is not alluding to an end time when technology crashes, or aliens invade. When we think about the “end times”, and how to prepare for them, our imaginations shift toward stockpiling underground bunkers stashing away food and weapons for years of survival, but that’s not what Jesus had in mind either. This parable today is part of a series of teachings in Matthew about the end times and being “watchful” for Christ’s return, and that return is depicted in many different ways, and with an intentional emphasis on the unknowns associated with it. Many biblical apocalyptic texts like this depict darkness, isolation, division, unpredictability, and instruction of some sort to be prepared. 

How do we prepare for darkness? How do we prepare ourselves for something horrible that could happen at a time no one knows, with a consequence that no one could imagine? How do we prepare for separation from those we love, or feeling separated even from God? While this parable brings up lots of questions, the only real answer given is to prepare and keep watch, which can feel frustratingly vague, and scary if we do not fully know what that even means. 

This passage is not meant to frighten us. It is meant to refocus us. To prepare us for the inevitable times of darkness throughout our lives, and to humble us in remembering that we can never know what to expect or when to expect it. Preparing for the worst all the time, living in constant fear, only blocks us off from the work the Spirit is trying to do through us. Even in my final year of seminary, there are still times I walk into a hospital room, or a conversation, or a phone call where I am at an absolute loss for words. And if I were to prepare for that, to have a scripted response prepared and memorized for every possible scenario, there’s no room for the spirit to work through me there, and there’s quite frankly no room for me to be in honest and genuine relationship with whoever I’m with. Sometimes with faith, the less of ourselves we force into the way, the less we worry and get anxious about exactly how to say or do the right things at the right times, the more room there is for the Spirit to work through us, and God is far more equipped to handle those times than we are. 

In the back of my mind all week as I’ve been thinking about this apocalyptic text, and thinking about all that Christ talks about in it, I couldn’t help but realize that yesterday was the 2 year anniversary of a mass shooting that killed 13 people in Thousand Oaks, California. Thousand Oaks is where I went to college, where my husband Cole grew up. Before the shooting, it was ranked in the top 10 safest cities in America. The shooting was at a country line dancing bar that I had gone to before, I had even been by there just a few months before the shooting. 13 people were killed that night, including my friend Justin, who died shielding strangers as he helped them escape through a window. The shooting happened late at night, and by morning a massive fire had broken out just a few miles away, that burned almost 97,000 acres, destroyed 1600 buildings, killed 3 more people, and caused 75% of the city to have to evacuate, while they were still grieving and trying to figure out if all their loved ones were still alive from the shooting. My friend Kelsey, who had just survived the Las Vegas Massacre, survived her second mass shooting but lost 6 people that she knew and loved night. That week was full of grief, and chaos, and frequent phone calls with friends and with Cole’s evacuated parents to see if they knew whether, they had lost their home. 

As if all that, the shooting, the fires, the chaos, weren’t enough, as soon as the fires started to finally be contained, an extremist Christian group sent members from halfway across the country to protest on a busy street with picket signs saying God sent the shooter, signs with a picture of a burning house and the words “God’s fury”, and other incredibly hateful things. They tried to convince people that God’s wrath was coming upon Thousand Oaks, that God had killed 16 people and burned nearly 100,000 acres and countless homes because there were too many Catholics and LGBTQ people, and because the local high school had a mental health support group. 

I think about Thousand Oaks, and I think about this apocalyptic text, and I recognize both the chaos, and the powerful presence of God within it all. The gospel writer Matthew was writing in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple, the death of Christ and the persecution of everyone who followed him. He was using his memory and experience of Christ to reflect on his world absolutely falling apart, and trying to help others to do the same, to process, and to cope with the uncopiable. 

Thousand Oaks had tragedy after tragedy, and it all happened within a matter of hours, in one of the safest cities in the country. They could not have prepared for that. No one can prepare for the possibility of what if I instantly lose everything I own, and many people I love, what if I lose my entire sense of security and safety, what if in the midst of that, people try to come and tell me that God hates me and is the cause of my suffering? You cannot prepare for the unimaginable. But you can trust that God is with you through it all. You can take courage in knowing that God is good and gives us wisdom so that we can be prepared for the darkness we need to face. He moves through people, and works through us constantly, just as he worked though Matthew to bring the word of the Gospel to so many people, and just as he worked through the people of Thousand Oaks. 

In the aftermath of the shooting and the fires, neighbors took in neighbors who had been evacuated or lost their homes. The community came together with memorials and remembrances and services and parades honoring and remembering those who were lost. People raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support victims’ families, and to help get survivors the counseling and support they needed. Even on days like the day when other Christians brought signs of hate and accusation, those 3 or four hateful persecutors were absolutely dwarfed by the crowd of several hundred students and community members who gathered across the street at the same time with signs saying God Loves You, You are not alone, Thousand Oaks Strong. 

We can’t prepare ourselves to know exactly what to do in unthinkable situations, like what thousand oaks faced two years ago, or like what we’re facing today with a global pandemic where work, class, worship, nearly every aspect of our lives has changed, that’s fueling isolation, fear, anxiety, instability and so much more, in addition to an election year that’s been more divisive and stressful than many of us could have imagined. I could not have prepared for the emotional and spiritual toll of this year any more than I can prepare for what is to come tomorrow or the months and years after. 

But when the unthinkable happens, when darkness comes, what we can do is open ourselves to what God can do in us and through us. We can use the little bit of power we have to be Christ to others who desperately need it, so God may be glorified through us. We can refuse to give in to hatred and evil and tragedy. We can take courage in knowing that even when we don’t know what to do, God does, and so we must endure, we must have courage, we must act wisely, because we as Christians know that there is so much more potential for good in the world if we can find the strength to open ourselves to what God can do through us, no matter the circumstances, because what God can do through us is so much more than what we could do on our own. 

So even as the temple falls, as persecutions rise, and the world feels like it is absolutely falling to pieces; Be prepared by being open. Christ is coming, but Christ is simultaneously in our midst and working in, through, and among us here and now. God is already with you, and there is nothing the world can do to change that. Amen.

Sunday Sermon – November 1, 2020

I imagine the crowds went to the mountain that day feeling the same way we would as elementary school kids going to assembly. You never knew when it was going to happen, but one morning you get to school and your teacher says, “leave your backpacks, we’re going to the cafeteria”. And your eyes light up, and you line up in the hallway and march to the cafeteria in its sticky glory, and you wait for all the other teachers to shuffle in all of their classes too, making everyone face the old stage with the faded blue velvet curtains. You are talking with your friends, hoping it is the magician or the cop this time instead of the guy with the lame puppet show. But whoever it is, this is way better than regular class. There were rumors it might even be a new guy that did not come last year, a professional yo-yo-er or jump-roper, or some other person who is about to blow away your 8-year-old mind. And even if it is the lame stranger danger puppet show guy, you are at least content with the fact that it is better than regular class.


And that is the kind of mindset I imagine the crowd who had followed Jesus would have, wandering up the hillside and waiting for what this mysterious new teacher was going to say. Maybe they had heard of him, maybe they had not, but followed the crowds to see what was happening. Maybe they heard some of the parts of Jesus’ story that have happened so far: that even as a baby he escaped King Herod’s death sentence, that he beat Satan in the wilderness, that he’d been going around Galilee teaching and curing the paralyzed, the sick, the demon possessed, calling the smelly fisherman to be his own disciples. And people from all over Israel and way beyond would seek this man. Not only could he do things and heal people no one else could, but by now he was this famous, powerful guy, who hung out with all society’s outcasts. He was the coolest kid in school, who still chose to hang with the chess club and the short kid with smelly clothes, and the kid with a stutter.


Of course, crowds followed him. Of course, so many people would seek him out, bringing them their sick children, their crippled friend, their own pain, and brokenness they had been wrestling with for years or a lifetime. In a society that scoffed at those people – put them off as impure – sinner – untouchable – Jesus said come. I will teach you; I will heal you, and I will turn your weakness into strength. Jesus said come, and in the midst of a world that says you are broken, let me tell you how you are blessed.


So, this is the crowd that has gathered, folks not just from one town, but from all over the ancient world. They have heard about this amazing new healer, Rabbi, leader, whatever he is to each of them. Some of them have probably already been healed, or had a friend be cured, some of them are probably waiting for the chance. And these people all go to this mountainside and wait with the anticipation of an 8 year old on assembly day.
So Jesus sits down, and the people there would have known that he means business, he was ready to teach. And their minds are wild with imagery of Moses on Mount Sinai, sitting and teaching the crowds the ten commandments. And as he speaks, they hear echoes from the Psalms, and from the Torah, and they must be thinking, Who… is.. this.. Man? This man who has the authority to teach in the synagogues of the Pharisees and the scribes, high on the social ladder, and yet he shows mercy to the afflicted, he welcomes the outcasts, he doesn’t blame the disenfranchised but meets them in their pain, enters into it even, and heals them. If this Jesus guy can really do all that, then maybe what he is saying is worth listening to.


In the midst of a global pandemic, election season, isolation from friends and family, financial instability, and all the rest of the chaos and anxiety that 2020 has brought, I imagine that for many of us, blessed would not be the first word you’d use to describe how you’re doing right now. But that is exactly what Christ is calling us to hear. Every person in the crowd that day had something they needed to hear, part of them that was broken or in pain or yearning for something more, and Jesus told them all, You. Are. Blessed. You who society says should be downcast, ignored, disdained, broken, despised, all for your weakness and vulnerability, You. Are. Blessed. So, come exactly as you are. You see, that weakness that we have, becomes a way for God to enter into our lives, to take hold of the control we didn’t really even have in the first place, so that God can be in fuller relationship with each of us, not in spite of our vulnerabilities, but because of them. It’s not that God wants or causes these things to happen so we’re forced to depend on God, but it’s that we have a God who works through the worst parts of ourselves and our communities, meets us in the worst times in our lives, and reminds us each, I made you, I’m still working in you, and I called you good even if you don’t feel like it right now.


So those of you whose lives feel like they are falling apart, God is with you. Just keep your eyes out. Those who want nothing more than to live righteously, to have your hearts yearn for God, when you cannot seem to make yourself believe or hope or trust any more than you already do. God can work with that. God sees that. And all of you who meet your neighbor with mercy and peace, even in the face of persecution, God strengthens you in that, and reminds you, promises you, that you are not alone, and what you’re doing is not in vain. All the burdens we carry, as we bring them to Christ, he reminds us of just how blessed we are, how present God is in our lives when we need him most.


On this All Saints Day, I carry with me the memory of so many friends and family members in my life who have died much sooner than I wish they would have. People who taught me about God, who were a light when I needed it, people who God worked through to bless me at times I needed it most. On All Saints day, even in the midst of all our mourning for those we’ve lost, we’re comforted by the reminder that God is with us, not just accompanying us in our grief, but fully understanding what it’s like to die, and what it’s like to lose someone we love. Today we remember all those in our lives who God has worked through to bless us and so many others by being Christ to us when we needed it most. In our mourning for those we have lost, we are strengthened by Christ’s promise that our weakness is an opportunity for us to feel God’s presence stronger than ever.
With God, with Christ, weakness is no longer weakness. It is opportunity and invitation, to look closer and see where God is at work in even the worst parts of our lives. Perhaps that looks like comfort, or flowers, or a card from an old friend or a hospital chaplain when you have lost a loved one. Or maybe like God working through community, through church members and bereavement teams to bring comfort and healing as a grieving family gets back on their feet. Maybe it looks like receiving forgiveness when you were too ashamed to ask for it. Just as we do from our neighbors, our parents, our spouses, our teachers, and from God more than we could ever imagine. It could even look like the bullied 3rd grader who is invited to sit by one of the popular kids at a school assembly, who makes a new friend because of God moving in the hearts of those we least expect. God’s promises are both present and future, calling us into better relationship now, promising us the joy of that relationship still to come. And in all of it, Christ invites us to simply listen as those who first heard him speak on that mountain. We are called to come exactly as we are, to open ourselves to God’s Word, and to hear in it that even at our weakest, God is at work in us for good, and we are so very blessed.

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