Category Archives: sermon

Not so silent night

Preached 12/29 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship
Matthew 2:13-23

Merry Christmas! It is good to gather together in worship with all of you this Christmas morning. Perhaps it seems odd to speak of Christmas, as our Scripture passage today is in sharp contrast to the celebrations of the past week. On this fifth day of Christmas, we continue to sing of a Silent Night and the stillness in Bethlehem. As we wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, we imagine Joseph and Mary and Jesus settling in. New parents, far from home, sleep-deprived, and doing everything within their power to care for this incredibly tiny new person entrusted to their care.

DSC_0345But our text today reminds us that all was not silent. And while Mary might have had a moment to sigh and breathe in the scent of her newborn as she gathered him to her chest . . . that moment did not last long. After all, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor wished to register everyone in order to tax them.

The roads are filled with travelers, the guest rooms are packed . . . but no one wants to be there. For many this is unpaid time off combined with costly travel . . . all for the purpose of another tax padding the coffers of a foreign empire.

There is a reason that the people have been waiting and praying for a Messiah to free them from Roman occupation. The New Testament is filled with quiet stories of centurions and legions—indications that the Roman military presence is commonplace, that violent acts of power are ways of life. The hope of a Messiah was couched in what seemed a hopeless situation.

Finally Jesus—God enfleshed—is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger . . .  While Matthew gives us no angels or shepherds, we find a group of astrologers who follow a star and read the signs that a King has been born. At some point during Jesus’s early years these strangers arrive, bearing expensive gifts. Of course, their very journey has stirred political trouble.

And as soon as the astrologers leave, the nightmare begins. Joseph has a dream, and the family runs. Some, likely in an effort to make this passage palatable, talk about this passage as a story of Herod’s fear and the family’s faith. I don’t think there is any level of faith that allows you to wake up from a dream about brutalized babies, pack up your belongings and two-year-old son for a three hundred mile walk and not experience sheer terror. The holy family has become political refugees, leaving everything they know in order to survive. They are making a difficult journey into an unfamiliar place with different customs and different language. They run picturing the sword at every turn.

Herod is certainly acting out of fear—he has a long history of brutal actions used to gain and defend his crown. But while Jesus is protected from slaughter, children back in Bethlehem are not. In Bethlehem, babies are ripped from their mothers and murdered. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper estimates that somewhere around twenty children were killed that day.

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

The Christmas story contains a pain so intense that even those beyond the grave cannot be comforted, because there is simply nothing—nothing—that makes this okay. It is a story of absolute hell thriving on earth. And this is a story that we cannot ignore—that we cannot skip over—because the hope of God is always, always mixed up with the desperate cries of a hurting people.

Rachel is still weeping today. She weeps in Nairobi, where poor parents dress their children as beautifully as they can, and place them in the street, hoping that someone with more resources will want them and take them in.

She weeps across the world as children are taken into slavery, stripped of their innocence, and used in the most vile ways imaginable.

She weeps as families are promised an education and dowry for their girls by factory owners who have no intention of keeping their promises, but merely want cheap labor for clothing sold to us here.

She weeps in Sudan and Gaza and Iraq and Jerusalem, in Myanmar, Thailand, and Guatemala. She weeps in St. Louis as a man named Richard sleeps outside in an alley on Christmas Eve.

She weeps as laws make it harder for the most vulnerable families to meet their basic needs. As guns and bombs and hate tear families and communities apart.

She weeps and cannot be consoled—and neither should we. Our voices should be joining with those experiencing pain and injustice in the world. We are surrounded by darkness—but today we lit the Christ candle, a symbol of God’s presence with us in full faith that the darkness did not and cannot overcome the light. We continue to speak the hope of the Gospel—that God broke into a hurting world and continues to break into the world of our hurt; that Christ came to announce freedom to the captive, release to the prisoner, sight to the blind, life to the lifeless.

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of this day, we shared this light with one another. In doing so, we proclaimed our role—to carry Christ’s light and illuminate the darkness, to join with God in the work of bringing the Kingdom of God here and now.

On this Christmas morning, we are invited to join with the pains of the world, to listen to the stories of anguish, to add our weeping.

At the same time, we are invited to sing—and I’ll admit that I wrestle with this tension. Because it IS tension, and who really wants that at any time of year, much less Christmas? But this is a passage without easy answers, without anything that lets us sigh too deeply with relief.

I believe we are called to sing, not in ignorance of a hurting world, but because the light of God, the love of God, is bursting forth. God wasn’t just in Egypt, but God was also in Bethlehem, holding mother and father and baby—and even soldier—in all of their brokenness. God is here today, entering into our world and our lives in new ways. God with us . . .  God. Is. With. Us.

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Playing the fool

Sermon preached at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship today (July 13)
Luke 10:25-37

Good morning. I am glad to be here sharing the good news today. And I don’t mean because I am delivering the sermon—although I do believe that our text for this morning offers us challenging, good news—but it is good because I am the one here this morning and Samuel is not, meaning that Samuel and Rachel are off getting to know the long-awaited Jonah Eugene. And because of that, I think Rachel would approve of me saying how good it is to gather in worship with all of you this morning.

samaritanI will confess that it is rather intimidating to be the one standing before you to talk about our text today. As you may have noticed, it is the priest and Levite—two religious leaders—who are depicted as the bad guys in this parable of the man who fell among thieves. And I say bad guys intentionally, hoping that my gender will somehow distance me from these two men who passed by a traveler who had been striped, beaten, and left for dead. They merely glanced at him before intentionally crossing the road and continuing on their way. But, if I am honest with myself, it may be that these are very much the characters that I represent–I’ll leave it for you to determine where you fall.

At the beginning of our text we meet a lawyer who is trying to test Jesus. He asks a question that he already knows the answer to in order to see if Jesus will give the “correct” answer. Knowing nothing else about the lawyer, I can’t speak to his intentions. Growing up, I understood that anyone testing Jesus was bad. But we all have these tests we place before new churches or those claiming religious authority. “What Scripture translation do you use?” “Is this a Bible-believing church?” “What are your thoughts about (insert issue here)?” We want to know if this is a congregation we can trust, a person who will lead us in the direction that seems best. This lawyer obviously knows the Torah, the law, as Jesus points out, turning the test back on the tester. When the man answers his own question, stating that we are to love God and love neighbor, Jesus confirmed that the man had the right answer, but pushed him a step forward—“do this, and you will live.”

The lawyer is clearly feeling some pressure on his toes—who wouldn’t?—because he asks another question in order to justify himself “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story we know well—perhaps too well. Once we believe we know a story, we stop prodding it, stop asking what it means because, of course, it is obvious. But parables are remarkable because they are like riddles. Their meaning is not always clear at first glance. And even when we have figured out a meaning, there are always other layers of meaning to discover.

So today I’m going to ask that we look at this story with new eyes, to find more layers to explore. To do that, we need to know a little bit about the first century world and the context Jesus was in.

Jesus was likely part of the peasant class. He entered the world in a stable and was first visited by shepherds. He spends his days with fishermen and tells stories of day laborers and those who tend fields. We see over and over in Scripture that it is not the wealthy or religious elite who resonated with the message Jesus brings, but the lowly. Peasants of the day, perhaps much like the poor everywhere, saw goods—money, food, resources—as limited. You only had access to so much and that allotment never changes. If someone somehow gets more, then that must mean someone else has less. If your neighbor suddenly comes into a source of food or money, something must be wrong. This is a world in which bandits were seen as heroes. Like Robin Hood after them, these bandits stole from the rich—who lived at the expense of their poorer brothers and sisters—and even if these bandits only divided the riches amongst themselves, they were already doing more sharing that the rich man who hoarded the resources. Bandits helped correct the injustice of the world. The selfish rich folk who were attacked? They totally deserved it.

So in the story, our man who fell among thieves? The assumption of those who heard the story would be that he wasn’t a very good guy. He was a rich city-dweller—one of the elite. So he was stripped of his riches? Great! He was left nearly dead? No different from the way he left people every day.

The priest and Levite who walked by? The did what they were supposed to. Aside from purity laws which would render them unclean for touching a dead or bleeding man, there were safety concerns to consider. Might this be a trap? Bandits might be waiting for someone to stop and offer assistance. Of course they crossed the road. Any reasonable person would.

And then the Samaritan enters the story. We traditionally hear about the tensions between Samaritans and the Judeans. But not only is this man part of a despised ethnicity, but he is a tradesman—he obviously travels; he has a donkey to carry his supplies, and he has oil and wine, which were typical items of trade.

And at this point, he does the most foolish thing imaginable. He takes a nearly dead man to an inn and promises the innkeeper to pay whatever is needed. Now, if you have a tendency to think of inns as quaint getaways run by pleasant semi-retired couples, erase the image. Replace it instead with the innkeeper from Les Miserables who sings “charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice / two percent for looking in the mirror twice.” The hands are out, the pockets are deep, and chances are the other guests aren’t particularly savory. If you aren’t familiar with Les Miz and want more to compare, it will be showing at the Muny starting tomorrow.

Respectable people didn’t stay in inns—those folks who did stay at inns were wise to sleep with one eye open to avoid having their throats cut.

And it is at such an inn that our nearly dead man who fell among thieves is left.

And that is our story. So who was a neighbor to this man?

It gets a bit more complicated, right? New Testament scholar Douglas Oakman suggests that we might look at this story as if it began “The kingdom of God is like . . . “ which is what most of Jesus’ parables are about. The kingdom of God is like a despised fool who cares for a deeply selfish man despite a high level of risk, leaves that man with the vilest of characters and fully believes that he will return to collect the man in full health, with plans to pay what will surely be an outlandish bill.

And this is a beautiful story if we picture a God who stop at no end to pick us up when we are fully deserving of the cruel treatment we receive, and who is willing to pay whatever price necessary to see us restored. That is a God I can get behind, a Holy Parent who is worthy of praise. But Jesus does not let us think of this story as simply being a tale of a God who is a fool in love with creation. We must instead consider a world where our neighbor is a selfish man, a collection of thieves, religious leaders who are more concerned with doing the right thing than being the right sort of people, a traveling fool from a despised background and occupation, and a corrupt innkeeper . . .  all of which is far more complicated than simply being willing to help someone wrongly attacked and dying on the side of the road.

Our mercy is to extend to all. The Kingdom of God is a place where foolishness is only outdone by generosity. How do you live? By going and doing likewise.

What does that mean? The first thing that comes to my mind is praying what Anne Lamott calls the “first great prayer”—Help!

As I pay attention to the news of people in conflict, of justice that seems to be missing in so many places, I admit that I feel powerless. In light of the trial results that came out last night, I have tried to reflect on what it means that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are my neighbors, that the drug addicts in my neighborhood are my neighbors, that the woman who stormed away from my garage sale yesterday after reading the price tag on a pair of shoes is my neighbor. That those who are deeply hurt and angered believing that society feels the color of their skin makes them worth less . . . and those who are afraid that their rights are being taken away are my neighbors.

Calling out “Help!” seems the only valid step, trusting that we serve a God who can help us learn how to stand in the tension, seeing one another as the presence of Christ even with the glaring, painful, hideous faults we bear.

Friends, we are called to be fools, embracing all as neighbors to be loved. Let us go and make it so.

(Note: credit for my connection to this layer of meaning in the parable of the man who fell among thieves goes to Dr. David May [my NT prof] and to Douglas Oakman.)

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Mustard Seed Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34
Preached June 17 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. Farmer’s markets are filled with berries, tomatoes, and peppers fresh from the garden. When I worked as a journalist in southwest Missouri, local farmers would routinely bring their extra zucchini and tomatoes to the newspaper office. There would be boxes of produce every week, and I found myself learning new recipes for zucchini casseroles and zucchini bread. I appreciated the hard work of the local farmers, tending to the plants, watering and fertilizing and plucking pests from the leaves. I regularly heard discussions on what to do to prevent moles and rabbits from infiltrating the garden, or the best way to get rid plants of slugs that seemed to come from miles to snack on the young plants. Reaping produce from a garden is hard work. It requires dedication.

Our parables today are not pleasant tales for gardeners. The first of these garden tales talks about someone scattering seed, then going about his regular business. He seems surprised when the seed grows into a plant — and he should! He had very little to do with it. The text tells us that the earth produces of itself. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran minister in Northern Illinois, compares these surprise plants to what she describes as volunteer tomatoes in her father’s garden. These volunteer tomatoes are those fruits that he did not plant, but that grow miraculously in strange places from seeds left behind from the previous year’s harvest. They are the plants that come up from the edges of the compost pile or smack dab in the middle of the yard, beautiful in their rebellion. All the while you are pleading with this year’s perfectly cared for tomato plants to produce something, anything edible.

The Kingdom of God is like volunteer tomatoes.

The second of these stories is about mustard. Jesus references the tiny seeds. I brought some today. I was amazed at just how many seeds one packet contained. The estimations I have found suggest that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 seeds in this ziplock bag. I find that incredible. But here’s the thing, Jewish law prohibited the growing of mustard in a garden. Now, scholars debate on what the definition of a garden was in that time. There is a suggestion that it was a plot 6 handwidths long by 6 handwidths wide.

The understanding, however, is that the mustard varieties that grew in the first century were mostly wild. They would take over a garden. Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 in the Common Era, wrote about mustard in his “Natural History.” He said “With its pungent taste and fiery effect, mustard is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

As soon as the sower scatters the mustard seed, the sower looses control. The mustard grows as a weed, taking over the place where it was planted.

When it is full-grown, it becomes a large shrub, 8-10 feet tall. The contrast between tiny seed and large shrub is pretty incredible. But in the Psalms, we are told that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Now these are mighty images—Lebanon is known for its cedar trees. They can grow to be over 8 ft in diameter and 130 feet tall.

But Jesus chooses a plant that starts from very small beginnings, grows into a large shrub, and must be replanted every year. A plant that has powerful healing properties, but that no one wanted in their garden in the first century. A plant that grew whether you wanted it to or not.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Mustard and Mysterious plants. It is no wonder that Jesus had to explain everything in private to his disciples. Parables are riddles. It seems the moment you think you have the correct answer, something new crops up in the story that suggests yet another meaning.

It must have been scary to have been a part of the first century church. The Gospel of Mark – like all of the Gospels – was written after Jesus ascended into Heaven, after the church was established. These new Followers of the Way, as early Christians were called, were struggling with who they were. Some were Jews who believed that Jesus had ushered in a new age – the Kingdom of God. Others were Gentiles who came to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth had a message worth participating in. These groups were struggling to figure out how to navigate their differences and find a way to be united. They faced persecution from the Roman government, and perhaps persecution from religious leaders who felt these new Jesus People were messing with the established order. They were different. And who wants different?

Last week Samuel preached the first sermon from our 12 Verses Project on Romans 12:12 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

Not conforming got those first century Christ followers in trouble. Followers of the Way were being killed. And they watched as the powers in control of the government worked to protect their own interests instead of working for justice for oppressed people. Their own efforts seemed so small, so useless. I imagine they were often discouraged, thinking that all hope was lost.

I imagine we find ourselves there, too. While those of us in America are able to worship freely, we watch as the world around us doesn’t seem to reflect the vision of the Kingdom. Divisions seem to grow—whether the divide is between people of different political parties or the divide between the rich and the poor or the divide between neighbors who never take the time to know each other, or the divide between the United States and the nations we engage in war. Both within and beyond our borders, we hear stories of those living in slavery, we hear of conflicts that rage, we hear of people who are exterminated for their ethnicity. And in the midst of all the fear and hate, it can be easy to think that our efforts are too small.

What does it mean to make sure my coffee is fairly traded, if everyone else in the neighborhood continues to buy the unfairly traded varieties? What does it matter if I recycle when no one else seems to? What does it mean to champion nonviolence when the nation we live in spends trillions of dollars on a military? What does it matter if we love our enemies, when our enemy doesn’t welcome or acknowledge our love? Our efforts seem small.

And they are. But I think that is the point. The Kingdom is like a person who goes out and plants some seeds. They are small seeds—perhaps even old seeds—but the sower scatters them around. And that is all the sower can do. For days, the sower goes to bed and is awakened without any evidence that anything is happening with those seeds. Perhaps the sower even gives up, believing that nothing can come of the sowing efforts. But all of a sudden, the seeds begin to germinate and grow—without any intervention from the sower. And those seeds become plants that grow into 8-foot shrubs. The leaves of those shrubs are pungent, but they have healing properties. And because the plants have overtaken the field, there are enough leaves to share with neighbors, who desperately need the healing.

Mother Teresa, who is widely known for her work with the sick, poor, orphaned and dying in Calcutta, once said “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

Church, we are small in number, and we are small in works—but we serve a God of great love. Jesus encouraged the first century church, and he encourages us now: our efforts to love the world around us are not in vain. God is at work, germinating and growing the Kingdom in ways that we can’t imagine.

Shane Claiborne, who is part of an intentional Christian community known as The Simple Way, writes in his book “The Irresistible Revolution” that perhaps The Kingdom of God is like a mustard plant instead of a giant tree because it keeps us closer to the ground, closer to real people who have real needs.

What needs exist around you? What is going on in your neighbor’s life that needs your love and care? We might not be able to do great things, but the world desperately needs the small things that you are able to offer. This is what the Kingdom of God is like: volunteer plants, tiny mustard seeds, and small acts done with great love.

(photo credit)

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One More Mile

Isaiah 40:21-31
Preached Feb. 5 at First Baptist  Church (Belleville, IL)

This may surprise you, but about 3 years ago, I ran a marathon: 26.2 miles. I have this medal to prove it. It is a giant fish, because this was the Bass Pro Marathon in Springfield, MO. I know some of you are really impressed right now, thinking that this medal means I won the race – or that I maybe came in third since it is bronze. Well, I’m sorry to both surprise and disappoint you on the same morning, but I didn’t win. In fact, I was dead last. Or, perhaps I should say that I was dead last of those who finished the race, because there were a lot of people who started the race behind me and never caught up, and there were several people I passed – but they all quit somewhere along the way.

The Springfield Bass Pro Marathon is a very small race. That was only the second year of the race and about 300 people were signed up. To offer a little comparison, nearly 2,000 people completed the Go! St. Louis marathon this year. Looking back on my experience, I should have chosen a larger race with people cheering on the sides of the streets. Because being in a race of only 300 people means that for long stretches of time, you run alone. For the first 13 miles or so, I was around other people. There were other runners to talk to, but somehow along the way, they kept disappearing. Some quit, others were running the half marathon and were finished, and others seemed to be machines who could speed up at the 15 mile mark.

Did I mention it was nearly 80 degrees. . . in November? While that doesn’t seem surprising this year, we were having normal fall weather that year – so all my of long training runs were done outside in 40-50 degree weather. While 80 degrees is pleasant to stand around in, once you’ve run the distance from St. Louis to Belleville (roughly 16 miles), it feels like an oven. And when you aren’t used to running distance in heat? You get worn out QUICKLY.

And there is nothing particularly exciting about running alone. My running partner was running the race with me . . . only, we weren’t exactly running together. She was feeling really good that day and had gotten ahead. And so there I was . . . me and my thoughts . . . for mile after mile after mile. At one point, I wondered if I’d made a wrong turn and was lost. But I kept going and eventually found another person.

The last 5 miles, I couldn’t run any more. I was walking – and probably not very quickly. I began collecting race volunteers who knew I was the last runner. I can assure you that the lines “they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” were going through my mind repeatedly. Only I *was* weary. And when my GPS watch started beeping that I had completed 26.2 miles when the race volunteers were telling me I still had a mile to go, I was ready to hurt someone… that is, if I’d had the energy.

“One more mile” is a popular race slogan. In fact, starting at the beginning of many races, spectators will hold signs that say “one more mile.” People say it long before it is true to try and get you to smile, and remind you that you can, in fact, finish this thing.

Runners, however, see things differently. By the time we are in intense pain, the thought of one more mile is torture. Every single thought revolves around quitting. Until you can see the finish line, it might as well not exist.

I find it particularly fitting that running is one of the metaphors used in our Scripture passage today. At this point in the book of Isaiah, the Israelite people are in exile – exile is a big fancy word for not belonging. The Israelites have been taken from their homes, brought to a foreign land. The people around them speak a different language, eat funny foods and do not treat the Israelites particularly well. The prophets have been warning that this will happen – they’ve been saying that the people will be punished for breaking covenant will God.

And this text is beautiful – chapter 40 of Isaiah begins with God telling Isaiah to comfort the people. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord double for all her sins.”

I recently heard a pastor describe comfort as the moment after you fall and skin your knee, when your mother scoops you up, kisses the boo boo and puts a bandaid on it. Moms know how to make everything better.

But the people are tired. They are homesick for a home that is gone – it’s been destroyed. They are having trouble remembering who they are. Isaiah is bringing comfort, but instead of being a kiss and a bandaid, it is the promise that the kiss and bandaid are coming. He’s telling the people that they have one more mile.

Have you ever felt worn out? Do you feel worn out now? Perhaps you’re experiencing stressful times at work or at school. Maybe a time of grief that feels like it will consume you. Maybe you don’t even know why you feel worn out, but life just seems more difficult than it should.

In times like those, the encouragement of “one more mile” doesn’t seem like much. In fact, sometimes it seems downright brutal. We really want the easy answer, don’t we? We’d like to be picked up and have the puzzle pieces of our lives put back into order – and perhaps glued down like the puzzles that hang in the hallways. But our pains, griefs, distresses, angers, and fears linger, don’t they? Any answer that is easy does not ease the hurt – and often, they make things worse. A pastor friend told me yesterday that he has a list of things not to say to people in the hospital. It includes the sort of easy answers that deny the difficulty of real life.

Making everything “right” for a people in exile takes more than a bandaid – it is a process. Sometimes for all of us there is more pain before we can see or feel the comfort. But Isaiah reminds us that the God who makes these promises is the God who knows the stars by name and calls them forth. That God, Isaiah says, is able to renew us, to give us the strength to keep moving forward, even when we think we are through. The God who is never weary sees when we are. That last mile won’t be easy. Every step may feel like it will be your last. Running columnist John Bingham describes the last 6 miles of a marathon like this:

“Mile 20 is ‘the Wall.’ For many runners and walkers, ths is where the marathon starts. As a friend of mine used to say, the marathon is 20 miles of hope followed by 6 miles of truth. I know that’s where everyone says the Wall is, but this wasn’t like hitting a wall. This was like someone handing me a refrigerator and asking me to carry it to the finish line. It wasn’t that anything hurt. It was as if I suddenly weighed 800 pounds.”

For those of you who like sports metaphors, I’m afraid running is all I’ve got. But my guess is that we’ll all had moments where we felt like we were carrying around a refrigerator-sized weight. Perhaps you have one now. I wish I could find a convenient bandaid, but I have none. What I do know is that you aren’t carrying that refrigerator alone, and that God is whispering the strength that all of us need to go just a little farther. Step by step, moment by moment we are being renewed.

Will you pray with me?

God of comfort,

Many of us come today with more hurt than we can carry. And those of us who don’t know and care about others who are. We ask for the strength to continue. We ask for the renewal you offer. Give us what we need to continue on our journey. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

(photo credit — by the way, I adore this line of running gear)

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Who is this man?

Mark 1:21-28
Preached Jan. 29 at First Baptist  Church (Belleville, IL)

I once went to the perfect church. The people were warm and inviting.It was obvious that the people loved and cared for one another – but they didn’t just love and care for themselves, they cared for everyone who walked in the door. It was beautiful. And the building? It was simple, but attractive. The whole building seemed to express its purpose – paintings depicted the themes of the Bible, Sculptures and furniture stilled the mind, perfectly designed to bring church attenders into a state of calm reflection. When the service started, I noticed that all the musicians were professional-quality. The Scripture reader had a deep, resounding voice like a movie narrator. And the preacher was a master with words. Every person in the room was attentive, with the appearance of proper motivation. The service flowed seamlessly. It was absolutely perfect.

Sometime in the middle of the benediction, I awoke, sweat dripping from my forehead. I had to take a few deep breaths to recover from my nightmare.

They say you can find the perfect church, but that it is ruined the moment you walk in the door. A perfect church allows no room for humans—no room for our doubts, our fears, our distracted minds. It leaves no room for children’s innocent questions… or for their temper tantrums . The perfect church leaves no room for life.

The congregation that Jesus found himself in in Capernaum was not perfect. Capernaum was right on the Sea of Galilee and was a fishing village. This synagogue was likely made up of fishermen who pulled their boats to shore for the Sabbath. They may have been smelly… and a bit, well, rough around the edges.

So Jesus walks into the synagogue with his four newly recruited disciples – Simon, Andrew, James and John… all fishermen. All straight off the boat, the scent of saltwater and fish still on their clothes.

The Sabbath candles are lit, and Jesus begins to teach. Maybe we’ll try that next week – first visitor who walks in the door gets to preach! We’ll either have an empty room, or preaching hopefuls will be running toward the doors hoping to be first! But in a synagogue with lay-leadership and no system for ordaining rabbis, Jesus is able to read and share thoughts on the Scriptures. As we read the Scriptures now, it seems obvious that Jesus would be teaching in the Synagogue – but remember, no one knew him yet. The Book of Luke tells us that Jesus was about 30 when he started his ministry—he was about my age. Many in the room may have considered him just a boy . . . after all, he had no wife, no children—none of the regular signs of manhood.

Can’t you just picture the wives in the congregation elbowing their husbands—“who is this man? Do you know him? Is that Esther’s boy? No, I guess he’s taller.”

And then Jesus begins to speak, and perhaps to the surprise of everyone present, he’s good! He seems to have a good grasp of the Scripture, and he’s bringing new interpretations to the text that they have never heard before. And more people begin to ask “who is this man?”

And right there, in the middle of the Shabbat service, a man possessed with an evil spirit speaks up. Have you ever been to a service like that? No? I find it funny—and somewhat frightening—that the writer of Mark doesn’t seem surprised. He states it just as a matter of fact, a passing comment on the evening news: “just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” If I were the journalist on the story I’d have a lot of questions—where did he come from? Does he show up often? Are their regularly men possessed with unclean spirits present while you pray? How do you know? Do they look different? Do they always run around yelling things?

Mark assumes we know all of this and tells us nothing. We do know that all illness was seen as an “evil spirit.” In a time before medical science, disease was often thought to be punishment for sin. However, illness—even mental illness does not tend to make a person know what this possessed gentlemen knew. He cried out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

No one knew who Jesus was. No one knew, except this man with the unclean spirit. And Jesus rushes to silence him. He commands that the spirit come out—and it does. The man has some sort of seizure, and the spirit wails as it leaves the man’s body.

And then… the synagogue is quiet again. Except, of course, for the questions. “No, really, who IS this man? Did you see that? Who is he, that he has power over the spirits?”

Not your typical prayer service. People will be talking about this one for years! But what does this story say about Jesus?

The synagogue congregants pointed out his authority—and certainly that is an important piece of the story. This man knows something and has power over spirits. But I think it says more than that. Jesus pays attention to the interruptions.

I’ve heard several stories in recent months that make me cringe. A 12-year-old boy in North Carolina was escorted out of an Easter service. The child, Jackson, has cerebral palsy, and the way he voiced an “amen” after a prayer was apparently considered a distraction. When the mother sent an email offering to help the church start a ministry for special needs children, she received a response stating the church focuses on worship, not ministries. A church spokeswoman said “it is our goal . . . to offer a distraction-free environment for all our guests.”

I’ve seen story after story about children with autism being treated the same way—as distractions who need to be kept out of the sanctuary.

A man possessed with an evil spirit was certainly a distraction—but Jesus didn’t see it that way. He saw a man in need. The healing of this man is the first miracle that the writer of Mark tells us about. We don’t even learn his name. But Jesus takes notice of him and meets his need—right there in the middle of the service.

I preached my second sermon in a small Free Methodist church that has since closed. After the service a young woman named Jamie came over to talk to me. She had a military-cropped hair cut and had tattoos covering her arms. She told me that for years she had loved Jesus, but had no use for the church—until some friends had dragged her to the small congregation. She told me she had shown up that first week just waiting for everyone to mess up—waiting for someone to comment on the way she was dressed or critize her tattoos or her hair. Waiting for someone—anyone to look at her funny or fail to welcome her. And, well, no one reacts negatively at all. So she came back the next week and witnessed a drunk man stumble into the building. “Ah ha!” she thought, “I’ve got them.” But someone went back to the kitchen, made some coffee and found some bread to give to the man. That person then sat beside them and helped navigate him through the service—letting him know when it was appropriate to speak up and when it wasn’t.”

Jamie told me that she had been coming to church ever since—which had been over a year at that point.

That little church got it. The man who came in off the street wasn’t a distraction to ministry or worship—he was the reason the church gathers. As it turns out, the man who was drunk occasionally came back to the small church, too—sometimes sober. He was still battling with his demons, but the people of this church knew that being in a community of folks who were trying to love and worship the Lord was a far better place for him than the streets of St. Louis.

I think about that story often. I wonder what I would do if such a disturbance happened in the middle of worship. What would you do?

I’m pretty convinced what Jesus would do. The members of the Capernaum synagogue were asking “Who is this man?” My guess is that the gentlemen healed of his demons would respond—he’s the one who cared enough to bring me in and help me.”

Do we see people in need of help and care? Or are we so focused on our tasks that we push people out?

The perfect church? Jesus wouldn’t fit in there. Would he fit in here?

(photo credit)

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Stranger in the Night

1 Samuel 3
Preached Jan. 15 at First Baptist  Church (Belleville, IL)… in pajamas

*yawn* I am SO tired.

Oh, I’m sorry. Mr. Eli keeps telling I’m supposed to cover my mouth when I yawn, but I always forget. I’m sure you all know Mr. Eli, the priest. EVERYONE knows him. I’ve lived here with him since I was about a year old. My name’s Sam.

My Mom was really sad that she had no kids, so she made a promise to the Lord, that if the Lord would give her a son – that’s me! – she would give him to the Lord as a… oh, what’s that word? Na… Nazir… oh yeah, a Nazirite, which basically means that I can’t eat or drink anything made from grapes, and I can’t cut my hair. Can you imagine how long it will be when I’m old? I’ll be like Rapunzel!

Living here in the temple can be fun. I get to help Mr. Eli keep the temple clean. He says that when Moses built the place, it was made of mostly curtains, but now we even have some walls. The place takes FOREVER to clean. And now that I’m getting older and Mr. Eli is mostly blind, I have to fetch stuff for him. But he can walk all over the temple without running into things. Sometimes, when no one is around, I try walking with my eyes closed – nowhere near the Ark of the Lord, of course – but I run into things. I guess Mr. Eli has been here so long that he knows where all the turns are.

I try to stay away from Mr. Eli’s sons. They are bad news. Really bad news. They would steal the meat that people came to give as an offering to the Lord. They were also causing problems with the women who served at the entrance of the tent. Every time I would try to figure out what was going on, I was told that it wasn’t for little kids to worry about. But there are lots of whispers. Anyway, I try to stay away from them.

*yawn*

Do you want to know why I’m so tired? Are you even listening to me? Ha! That’s actually what my story is about. I was deep asleep by the Ark of God. I like it there because that’s where the Lamp of God is – oh, do you not have one here? The Lamp of God is this oil lamp that is lit in the evening and stays lit until morning – God commanded it. It is never dark in there – not that I’m scared or anything. I’m not scared of the dark – I just don’t like it, okay?

So anyway, I’m sleeping and all of a sudden, I hear someone calling my name. So I jump up, run into Mr. Eli’s room and ask what he needs. I couldn’t see the look on his face, because it was dark in his room, but I’m guessing it scrunched up, because he sounded like he didn’t know what I was talking about and sent me back to bed.

So I lay back down and fell asleep and was having the coolest dream that I was flying and could see ALL of Israel when I heard my name again. So I climbed back up and walked back to Mr. Eli’s room. And I ask what I can do for him, and again he says that he didn’t call me.

I knew it had to be the sons trying to mess with me. Those bullies always think they can pick on me because I’m littler than them. But I was didn’t want to get into trouble and wanted to get back to my dream and maybe fly over my mother’s house. Or the Dead Sea.

So I went back to where I was sleeping and am almost to sleep when I hear it again. This time I leap up, knowing I’ll catch Mr. Eli’s sons, but I don’t see anyone. I went back to Mr. Eli’s room and said “Here I am, you called me?”

And this time Mr. Eli told me that it must be the Lord calling me. Isn’t that crazy? The Lord calling ME? I’m just a kid – I didn’t even know the Lord yet. But I trust Mr. Eli, so I did what he said. I went back to the place I had been sleeping and waited. Then I heard it! “Sam, Sam.” The Lord was standing there in front of me, calling my name. I think Mr. Eli’s sons would have been scared – but not me! I did as Mr. Eli told me and said “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The Lord started with something really funny – the Lord said “I’m about to do something that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” The Lord is going around tingling ears – that’s a good one! I got so excited, I had to know what it was.

But…what the Lord said next wasn’t funny. It wasn’t even good. The Lord said that Mr. Eli had been warned that his house was about to be punished because of the terrible things his sons did – and because Mr. Eli hadn’t stopped them. The Lord said that the wickedness of Mr. Eli’s family would not be made right with sacrifice or offering forever.

After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I knew I was supposed to tell Mr. Eli – but I just couldn’t. What would he do? Would he be mad? Would I get in trouble? Would the sons get in trouble? Or worse – would he cry?

I’m just a kid, I can’t tell a grown up something like that. I’m supposed to be quiet and listen to what the grown ups say to me. That’s what they always tell me. But this was a message from the Lord.

In the morning, I opened the doors to the temple and tried to stay hidden. But Mr. Eli knew I was there and called me to him.

I think he knew that I was afraid and that I had bad news, because he called me son and told me not to be afraid. He even asked that God curse me if I didn’t tell him everything that the Lord had said.

So I took a deep breath. And I told. I spoke so fast trying to get it all out that I don’t know how he actually heard me, but he did. I closed my eyes hard and waited for the reaction. What was going to happen? A few seconds had passed and I didn’t hear a thing. So I cracked one eye open just a little bit to peak and see if it was safe – or if Mr. Eli had suddenly been frozen or melted or just plain disappeared.

But Mr. Eli was just standing there, looking at me – or at least looking in my direction. It is always hard to tell what he can see and what he can’t. After what seemed like YEARS he said “It is the Lord; let the Lord do what seems good.”

I about fell over backwards – but good thing I didn’t, I would have pulled a whole row of curtains down. He was okay with this? His family was going to be destroyed, but he was okay?

I always like Mr. Eli, but I always just thought of him as the old man who took care of me and the temple. I see why everyone comes to him – he is really brave.

I don’t know anything about God, but Mr. Eli seems to trust God with everything. Even now, he is preparing the altar for the day’s offerings. If Mr. Eli can trust, even after the news I gave him, maybe, just maybe the Lord is okay. After all, the Lord did see just how mean those sons are and isn’t gonna let them get away with it. Maybe the Lord really cares about how people are treated and looks out even for little guys like me. I kinda hope the Lord will wake me up and talk to me again. *yawn* but maybe not tonight. I’m still tired.

(photo credit)

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Surprise!

Luke 2:22-40
Preached Jan. 1 at First Baptist  Church (Belleville, IL)

“O Hearken Ye Who Would Believe.” It’s a wonderful song, isn’t it? It’s joyful and encouraging and reminds us what this Christmas season is all about. It’s a plea for those who have waited—perhaps a long time – for the promises of the Lord. The time is here! Come and see what you have waited for. It is FINALLY here. That seems to be a common theme in our passage today. The believers – the waiters – are called to believe again and follow.

Mary and Joseph are bringing Jesus to the temple to complete Mary’s purification and present Jesus to the Lord – in doing so, they are following the Law of Moses. After all Mary and Joseph have gone through to get to this point, it might seem obvious to point them out as “those who believe,” but I don’t think belief is a one-time decision. Mary and Joseph come to the temple to reaffirm that they trust the God who has given them this child.

So they come with two turtledoves or two young pigeons, which our text tells us is the sacrifice stated in the law. We don’t know much about the sacrificial system today – we’ve long since considered it outdated. But this mention would signal something to the original hearers and readers of the text. This offering of two birds was a sign that the couple was poor. Leviticus chapter 12 spells out the process of a woman after childbirth – a process that Mary and Joseph are following. After a certain number of days, the new mother is to bring a lamb to the priest as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering. If the couple cannot afford a lamb, they are permitted to bring two pigeons or turtledoves – one as a burnt offering and one as a sin offering.

Mary and Joseph – the earthly parents of God’s son – are poor. Choosing to bring the sacrifice at all may have been a hardship. But they believe, so they come and give as the law requires. “God brought us this far,” they think “– surely God will continue to provide.”

And then we meet Simeon – a man who has waited for years to see the Messiah. The Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Christ before dying. So he has waited and hoped – and if he is anything like me, he has experienced plenty of times when he wondered if he understood right: was that really God? If so, wouldn’t this have happened by now? But Simeon kept hoping, kept listening – and he didn’t miss it. Finally, after decades of waiting, the Spirit guides him to the temple. And so he is there when Mary and Joseph walk in carrying Jesus.

It’s a little like a movie ending, isn’t it? We watch as our hero –now an old man — receives what he has waited for all of his life. In this one moment, the pieces finally all fall together. He goes on a walk after breakfast and decides to step inside the temple, just in time to witness what he’s been waiting for.

When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the child and praises God, but does so in a rather strange way. He begins by saying “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace” – in other words, “I’m now ready to die.” David Lose, Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary wonders why the writer of Luke includes this request in his telling of the story. “Why would he move from the beauty and light and joy of the nativity straight to Simeon’s morbid request for death? And why must we focus on that request, and therefore on death, just a week after our own celebrations of Christmas.”

But Simeon doesn’t end there – and I’m not entirely sure it gets better. Simeon blesses the child by describing rather divisive events: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. While this child will bring life, a lot of people will die in the proess. And he is a sign to be opposed? That’s hardly an encouraging word for parents who are just at the beginning of their journey. Jesus isn’t sleeping through the night yet, and Simeon is telling Mom and Dad that their child will have a lot of enemies.

Deep down, this is something they probably knew. The angel who visited Mary a year earlier said that this child would be given the throne of David. The Israelite people had been waiting for a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman rule and reestablish a kingdom – David’s kingdom. While we know that a worldly empire was not Jesus’s purpose, this is what was assumed: God will send a Messiah who will free us from foreign oppression and reestablish our government.

We only have to watch the news to realize that overthrowing a government is a violent business. It was only a few months ago that the people of Libya forced Muammar el-Qaddafi out of power. The six-month struggle was one of militias and fighting. Our own country was founded in the overturn of a government which came as the result of the Revolutionary War.

If this boy, this baby, was to have a throne, it would be the result of a dangerous mission. And while Jesus might have been a different sort of Messiah than the people expected, he did turn the world upside-down — and his message did lead to violence against him and his followers.

Mary and Joseph, of course, knew this. But I’m guessing they did their best to think of other things. We all wish good things for our children, want them to avoid pain. My mother routinely asks me if I’m sure I’m called to ministry – not because she doubts my calling. I think she knew I was called to ministry even before I was. She asks if I’m sure because she knows that ministry can be hard and painful. While she wants me to live out God’s will, she also wants to keep me safe.

My guess is that Mary and Joseph were praying “Lord, let this cup pass from him — but your will be done,” long before Jesus ever did.

After words like those, it seems redundant for Simeon to tell Mary that a a sword will piece her own soul, too. Of course, it would. A mother cannot watch her son in pain without feeling it all.

And just when Mary and Joseph thought the evens of the day were over, Anna steps in. Anna is in her 80s and has been a widow for a long time, since her husband died only 7 years after they were married. In a culture where a woman cannot really live on her own, Anna just decided to move into the temple. Anna had been praying and fasting night and day for somewhere around 60 years. Have you known people who prayed a lot? The people you turn to when you need someone to pray for you? Compared to Anna, they are just casual pray-ers. That’s ALL she does. And because she prays constantly, she recognizes Jesus and begins spreading the news to all who will listen – all of those who, like her and Simeon, had been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

He’s finally here! After all this time, all this waiting. The Messiah shows up as the month-and-a-half-old son of a poor, young couple. Surprise!

At Christmas, we do our best to be joyous. We decorate and we buy presents and we bake cookies and we anticipate time with family and friends. But as much as we like to hope that everything is perfect, it rarely is. Many families lost loved ones and experienced the holiday while grieving. Others, perhaps, were kept from family celebrations due to jobs or distance or even illness. Christmas is a time of joy – but we learn from Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, that the joy of Christmas comes in the midst of pain and struggle. God doesn’t come to us only in perfection, but breaks into our pain. The Christ – Emmanuel, God with Us – entered the world as the son of a poor couple who were struggling to get by. He is announced in the temple by an old man who is ready to die. An old man who told us that even in the joy of Jesus’ birth lurked the reminder of the difficulty he would face in life.

If this Christmas season has been hard for you — if joy has been hard to find, you are not alone. God does not only abide with the perfect, but enters our lives in the midst of our hurting. On the first Christmas, joy and sorrow were held in tension.

One of my favorite hymns is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The third verse of that hymn is “See, from his head, his hands, his feet / sorrow and love flow mingled down / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / or thorns compose so rich a crown.”

Our God is present in both the joy and the sorrow. That’s the wonder – that’s the surprise of Christmas: God came to us – and continues to come to us — in the places where we least expect it. Are you listening?

(photo credit)

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