Saying Yes

Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 1:26-38

Will you do me a favor? How many times has someone asked you to do them a favor and before they even tell you what they want you to do you say yes? Probably not too often. Usually, we want to know what it is that they want us to do. If we know the person really well, we may say a tentative and shaky….yes – maybe. But if we don’t know them well, we wait for more information. We need to know if it’s something we can do. Are we able to do it? Is it possible? So we want the details. We need the specifics. We don’t just jump right in and say yes without even knowing what we’re getting ourselves into.

But that’s not the case for Mary. In Luke’s gospel today we hear that the angel Gabriel came to Mary greeting her not by her name, but “favored one.” In other words, she had already been chosen to do God a great big favor. The angel was just waiting for Mary to say yes. God was waiting for Mary to say yes. “But she was much perplexed” by the angel’s strange words and “pondered what sore of greeting this might be.” Mary was trying to figure out what on earth was happening. What did the angel want? And the words “do not be afraid” were probably not any more comforting to Mary than they would be to us today. When someone says “don’t be afraid” it often signals that something they are about to reveal will cause us to be afraid. It means something is about to happen.

Something was about to happen to Mary. She – a young teenage girl between 13 and 14 years of age – was chosen by God to be the instrument through which God will bring forth the savior of the world. Mary was chosen not because she was the most important person in the village, not because she was the most educated person, not because she was the most religious, but because God felt she was the right person for this holy vocation – the mother of the messiah. What an honor, yet Mary never signed up for this. Like most of the prophets in the Scriptures, Mary had questions and so would we. “Wait a minute,” she said to the angel, “how can this be?” It’s a reasonable question and I’m sure we don’t have the whole story. I’m sure Luke did not write down everything that Mary was thinking or feeling. It must have been overwhelming and not in a positive way.

To say yes to what God was asking of her would have been to subject herself to ridicule and scandal. A young girl engaged to be married and already pregnant? Even in today’s society that causes quite a stir. Imagine what that would mean back in the ancient middle east 2000 years ago or even in that culture today? She could be stoned to death! Accepting this task could very likely mean that Mary might die. That’s a lot to ask of a young girl. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.

But doesn’t God ask the same of us today? God has a vocation – a special task – for each and every one of us. Some of us are called to be parents, teachers, factory workers, farmers, office workers, and dozens of other kinds of jobs. God uses our vocations as a means to proclaim God’s glory. God equips us with the skills needed to do what we are called to do. Through our baptism God has called us to be disciples of Christ and to follow in His footsteps, to continue the ministry Jesus began, and to bring about the kingdom of God here on earth. We don’t have all the facts. We don’t have all the answers. Sometimes the things God asks of us are difficult and seem impossible. Love our neighbors? Love the people who may not love us back? Forgive those who hurt us? Put God before everything and everyone else in our lives? Trust God even when it feels like we are walking in the dark? Trust God even when we don’t know how things are going to turn out? Wait for the Holy Spirit to guide us where we need to go rather than go in our own direction?

Saying yes to God can be hard. Jonah tried to run away from what God wanted him to do, but eventually Jonah couldn’t escape. Moses tried to say send someone else because he didn’t feel he could speak well enough. David was just a boy when God called him to be a king. And Mary was just a young girl when God said you are the one I want. Yet God doesn’t force anyone. God too waits.

In this season of Advent as we await for the birth of the Christ child. As we await for the coming of Christ again we wait sometimes with doubts. We wait with questions. We wait not knowing all the answers. We wait wondering how it is that God calls us to be disciples, and prophets, and messengers of the gospel. We wait wondering how God can use simple ordinary people like us. We wait wondering how in a world filled with so much darkness and pain how God can use us as instruments of light. And while we wait, God waits too.

God waits for our response. God waits for us to be bearers of Christ just as Mary was. God waits for us to shine Christ’s light in this world. God waits for us to build a temple for God not with our hands like David, but with our very lives. We are to be living stones that are the church. God waits for us to say yes, like Mary. She did not have all the answers but she said yes. She is a wonderful example to us of what it means to be a faithful disciple. Her yes changed the world. Her yes, put into motion God’s plan for saving all people. Through her yes, we have an amazing and wondrous story to tell and retell. This Christmas story – acted out by the children in the pageant today – is filled with stars and angels, sheep and shepherds, manger and messengers. We are part of that story. We are called to be messengers today. We are called to bring forth glad tidings of great joy. We are part of a story that began with one young girl saying yes. Imagine what our yes, our collective yes to what God asks of us could do! “For nothing will be impossible with God!” Say yes! Amen!

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Called to Witness

Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 1:6-8, 19-28

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away……” If you’re a Star Wars fan you’ll recognize these beginning lines. Each series in the trilogy opens with these scrolling texts. They provide an explanation of the backstory. If you missed one of the films in the series, this will give you a brief history of what has taken place before. History plays an important role in the present.

I thought of these lines from Star Wars because that is how the gospel of John begins. It is reminiscent of the opening texts from Star Wars. The gospel of John does not begin with a beautiful birth narrative of the baby Jesus, but rather gives us the back story. We hear about the beginning.

“(John 1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” This is the beginning of the back story to today’s text where we began with verse six:

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but “he came to testify to the light.”

Verse 19 says, “this is the testimony given by John…..” What exactly is it that John is testifying about? What is it that he is called to be a witness of? The verses we didn’t read today answer that question beginning with verse nine:

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

This is John’s testimony. His mission, his purpose, is to testify to the light. In Matthew’s gospel he is called John the Baptist. In Mark’s he is called John the baptizer. And in Luke’s gospel he is called son of Zechariah. But in John’s gospel, John is called just plain old John. He is not even the writer of this gospel. John is just John, called to be a witness.

Have you ever been called to be a witness? Perhaps it was when you were called for jury duty. Or perhaps you witnessed a crime or traffic accident and needed to give a report of what happened. In any event, most people shudder when they are asked to testify. It can be a dangerous thing to do especially if it involves a high profile criminal investigation. Giving testimony can put your life on the line. For that reason, many people choose not to get involved. “It’s not my problem,” they say and they turn away. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and testify against the dark forces of evil. Like the heroes in the movie Star Wars who stood against Darth Vader, they almost lost their lives and some did, but they believed it was worth the cost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran theological who took a stand against the evil of his day in the form of the Nazi party, believed testifying to the truth was worth the cost. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

What Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John the Baptizer are urging us to grasp is that discipleship costs something. Following Jesus means that we not only may, but will at some point suffer. John understood that and eventually became a martyr, which is the root of the word witness (martyria). We disciples, like John, are called to be martyrs, witnesses of the faith. We are called to witness and testify to all the things that we have seen and heard about who God is. How do we testify? We testify through our baptism where we first renounce the forces of evil, where our sins are forgiven, and where we publicly enter into the life of the church. We testify when we share what we read and study in Scripture and how this gospel, this Good News, affects us. People need to hear how God is working in our lives. We testify through our relationships with each other every time we allow the Holy Spirit to move us toward forgiveness, compassion, and love for even those people whom it is hard for us to act with mercy. We testify when we choose love over hatred even when seeking our own will would be easier. We testify each time we receive the bread and wine as an act of faith and trust in the forgiving power of Christ in this means of grace.

Yes, testifying is hard because it comes with a great cost. It means we have to become involved. We have to be willing to put ourselves in the very throws of danger if that is what it takes. When I was in my early twenties I was beaten up on the front porch of the house I grew up in. I suffered a mild concussion and had to be taken to the hospital. The most hurtful thing was not the physical injuries I sustained, but the fact that as I screamed for help and all the lights in the neighborhood went on, not one person called the police to help me. These were people I grew up with, but they didn’t want to get involved. I don’t say this to evoke sympathy from anyone; I reveal this to say that discipleship comes with a cost. We as followers of Christ are to get involved. We can’t just turn away. There are people all around us who are suffering and we can do something to alleviate their pain.

When we hear news in the media of people suffering in our country or other countries what do we do? Do we turn it off and say, “what difference can I make?” or do we get involved?
Do we earnestly pray for peace in the world? Do we get involved in service projects in our communities? Do we tithe or work toward tithing in the church knowing that the gift of our money can make a difference by the various projects our congregation and synod support? In the first couple of weeks that I have been here I am amazed at how the Holy Spirit is working through this congregation to reach out to the wider community and the world. Events like the Thanksgiving Day Pancake Breakfast, the Health Kits, the Christmas Gift Tree, and the Upcoming Valentine’s Day auction are only a few examples of the way this congregation testifies to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every time we reach out in the community we are testifying to the Light just as John the Baptist did.

Like John, we are not the light, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, the light can shine through us. We can reflect that light to a world that is surrounded in so much darkness.
During this time of Advent as we light the candles on the Advent Wreath and light our homes with Christmas lights, we do so as a reminder of Christ who is the Light of the world. It cost God a lot to have a deeper and closer relationship with us. God did not just sit idly by and watch us destroy ourselves. God came down. God left the glory of heaven and became human – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – pitched a tent and made a home with us – in Christ who testified on our behalf.

God didn’t play it safe. God loved us so much that God got involved. Jesus, who as John said was with God from the very beginning, and was God, the great I AM, came to earth to save us. That’s a long way to go – further than a galaxy far, far, away, but God felt we were worth it. We are worth it to God. No matter how dark things get, no matter what people may say, the darkness will not have the final say. Christ is coming, and will come again. We have this promise. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness will not overcome it! Amen.

Prepare the Way

Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 1:1-8

“Get ready! They’re almost here! We don’t have much time! There’s so much to do! The house is a mess! They can’t see it like this! How are we going to get all this done before they arrive? More time, more time, we need more time!” For anyone who has ever had guests –  family members, friends, or some other special person, who is coming over, you’ve probably uttered these words. You want things to be perfect before their arrival because these people are important to you. Maybe it’s a big surprise party you are planning, or someone you haven’t seen in a very long time. Whatever the circumstances, you can just about wear yourself out in the preparations, especially during this time of year.The preparations could take days, or weeks, or even months, but it doesn’t matter because you want everything to be just perfect. But it is important and so you pull out all the stops – the red carpet treatment.

My daughter Sara has always loved watching the Academy Awards and other celebrity award events like the Oscars and the Golden Globe Awards. Weeks before the events would begin she would mark her calendar to make sure she did not miss the televised award ceremonies. I remember one of her birthday party themes was even the Oscars. She and her friends dressed in their finest attire and pretended they were going to the Oscars. We even found some red fabric to drape across the living room floor to act as the red carpet. It was as though they were actually at the ceremonies. They were going to walk across the red carpet in their finest attire and give some brief interviews like the celebrity personalities in real life. The red carpet was right there in our living room. They were in the spotlight even if just for one night.

In Mark’s gospel today we hear about John the Baptist and it seems like he too is in the spotlight, only he would not win the best dressed award on the red carpet. John was not dressed in an expensive three piece suit and unlike the other people of his time in the ancient near east, John the Baptist was dressed much like the ancient prophet Elijah in strange clothes made of camel hair. His own hair was not slicked back, but rather scruffy and unkempt. He looked like a wild man eating locusts and wild honey. John the Baptist hardly looked like someone you would spend money buying a ticket to see or traveling a great distance to hear. But Mark tells us that” people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.” Why? Why would they travel all that way to hear this very odd character?

People went out to hear John the Baptist because he spoke as if he was on fire! There was an urgency in his message. It was not the well-rehearsed speech of a modern celebrity receiving an Oscar or Academy Award. John was preaching like someone who had a lot to say and little time to say it. And he didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear – “everything will work out just fine” – but told them the truth. John didn’t beat around the bush. He told it like it was. He told them to look and prepare for the one who would baptize them not only with water, but the Holy Spirit. Like the rare celebrity today receiving an award he was speaking about a cause greater than himself. He was not the one that was in the limelight. John the Baptist was shining the spotlight on someone else. Someone that was so important that John was “not worthy to untie the thong of His sandals.” A celebrity that was giving credit to someone else?It’s rare even today to witness such an event in humility although in 2006 at the Golden Globe Awards, Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest actors of our time, gave such a speech.

In his acceptance speech, Anthony Hopkins who was in the spotlight, thanked the people who prepared the way for him to be where he was. He thanked the people in charge of taking care of his hair and makeup, the electricians, the people who transported him where he needed to go, and the “wonderful bunch of anonymous people who work harder than anyone – lugging those cables around. I’m just amazed by them.” he said. It was a moving acceptance speech. Anthony Hopkins recognized that his success was built on the backs of all those anonymous people who shined the spotlight not on themselves, but on him. They prepared the way for him to be the award winning actor that he was. I admired his humility and his ability to see that his success was due not just to his own hard work, but the hard work of so many others.

And this is exactly what John the Baptist was proclaiming in Mark’s gospel. He was proclaiming the Good News, the news that Jesus was coming to empower them to be all that they were created to be. Jesus was coming to fulfill the promises God made to the people of Israel foretold through the prophet Isaiah. The people were not abandoned by God, but God was coming in the flesh to save the world. Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the spotlight in Mark’s gospel is not on the baby Jesus in the manger. Mark’s birth narrative begins with “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark wants us to see right from the beginning that the focus of Jesus’ birth was salvation for all of us. He came for each and every one of us.

John the Baptist believed Jesus to be the Messiah and so there was an urgency in his voice. People needed to hear that they had to prepare for Jesus’ arrival. That meant they had to prepare their hearts. They had rid themselves of whatever it was that was holding them back. John shouted to repent, to turn their lives around. But  not everyone was thrilled to hear the truth. John would eventually be killed by Herod because he pointed out Herod’s sinful ways to him. Not everyone wants to turn around. Not everyone wants to go in a different direction than they are heading. The Good News isn’t always received as Good News if you’re being told to straighten up and turn the spotlight away from yourself and onto someone else. Human nature compels us to think of ourselves first, to take the credit for whatever happens to us, and whatever is given to us. We want to be in control. We want to be in the spotlight.

But the truth is that none of us achieve anything on our own. We were created to be in community with one another and to help one another. Who are the people in your life that have remained in the shadows – behind the scenes – so that you could shine. Was it your mother or father who made sacrifices all their lives so you could have a better life? Was it a sister or brother who was your biggest supporter? Was it a friend who encouraged you, sat with you during those difficult times, and never gave up on you? There have been many such people in my life. This past Friday night, I was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am officially now a pastor! And while it took many years of difficult studies, I did not achieve this on my own. There were many people who supported me along the way – friends and family who made many sacrifices to help me achieve what I believe God has called me to do.And the work of people in the synod, and  you, the congregation who in faith voted to call me as your pastor. The spotlight may have been on me Friday night, but it was possible only because of those countless people behind the scenes helping to prepare the way.

We, as followers of Jesus, are called to prepare the way for the coming of the kingdom of God just as John the Baptist was called to prepare the way. Even Jesus did not turn the spotlight on Himself. Jesus always pointed to the Father, the Creator. Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like. And Jesus pointed to the one who would come after Him. He pointed to the Holy Spirit, our greatest advocate and the one who would lead us to fulfill God’s work on earth.

During this Advent season, a voice cries to us to prepare the way. It calls us to make straight the paths that lead to Christ and there are many crooked paths. There are people suffering from homelessness, depression, poverty, addictions, illness,  violence, and endless oppression. The news bombards us with images and stories of what seems like hopeless situations. But the Good News is that nothing is hopeless. Nothing is impossible with God. We are people who are witnesses to the promises of God that never fail. We are people called to shine the spotlight on the One who has come and will come again. The One who will draw all people to Himself through His outstretched arms on the cross. The One who came as a helpless infant, who preached with courage, who died out of His great love for us, who rose from the dead, and who will come again – Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to never leave or forsake us. And He, Christ, is in this very room.

He is present in the Water and the Word in baptism. He is present – mysteriously yet truly- in the bread and the wine we receive today. He is present in the love we show to one another and the countless random acts of kindness that we show to one another. God is present in our midst and we are called to prepare the way, to shine the spotlight on Christ, so that Christ’s light will shine through us in the darkness of this world. Prepare the way. Amen!

Life is Short; Pray Hard

Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 13:24-37

Life is short; pray hard. That’s the phrase on my license plate frame. To some it may seem funny, to others rather morbid. But the truth is life is short. In the grand scheme of the universe, our existence is just a blip in the eons of time. Our life on earth is just a blink compared to the eternity that awaits us. Life is short. And none of us know how long we will be here. Everything can change in the blink of an eye.

I was reminded of that this past week while driving down to VA to visit my daughter and son-in-law. Just as I got onto the highway, I went to put my brakes on and….nothing. Wait a minute, where were they? My car had just had a substantial amount of repairs done to it. The car had been inspected and new rear brakes installed. What was going on? My mind raced and I tried not to panic as I pushed my foot against the brake as hard as I could. I thought my foot was going to go through the floor because I was pushing so hard. I kept trying to get the car to slow down and stop. My heart was racing a mile a minute and I really thought this was it. I was going to be in a serious accident. To say I was frightened would be an understatement! My brake line had snapped and I was trying to squeeze out every last drop of brake fluid I could to stop. Eventually, miraculously, I was able to get off the highway and get it to the mechanic. Life is short; pray hard and did I ever!

I was wide awake all right. Awaked by terror and the possibility that I could be in a catastrophic accident. I could have been the one referred to on one of those giant signs on the highway alerting traffic to the accident ahead. Stay Alert! It’s a warning pointing not only to what has happened, but what might happen if one does not stay awake and present in the moment. You can’t predict an accident – that’s why they’re called that – but you can be alert – alert to what is going on around you.

Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” Jesus says we will not know when the master of the house (Jesus) will return – not even the angels in heaven. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is talking about His own death and resurrection, yet the disciples don’t know this. Jesus will suffer and die, but He will also rise again. And after His ascension He will come again. In the meantime, the disciples are to wait not passively, but actively, by keeping alert, watching, and anticipating Jesus’ return.

Yet Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy. He says there will be suffering and persecution. The words of the psalmist cry out, “How long O Lord?” Haven’t we all felt like that at one time or another? How long O Lord? How long will I have to endure this suffering? This week as I and probably most of you watched the news concerning the riots in Ferguson, MO, it was evident that these people were reacting out of that plea. The average white American has no idea what it means to be profiled because of our skin color. We think because of the Civil Rights movement that racism is better, but in many respects it has only been subverted and become an accepted part of our culture. Minorities of many races are crying out, “How long, O Lord? How long will this suffering continue?”

This past week I attended a lecture featuring one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, and a gentleman from the audience asked her a haunting question. He explained all the terrible trials he and many people in our country have gone through and he asked, “Why pray?” He didn’t understand the point of praying if all we have to do is continue to wait for answers that never come and for sufferings that never end. Why pray? It’s a good question.

The answer lies in our understanding of prayer. If we think prayer is asking favors of God who is like a magic genie existing only to fulfill our every wish, then it seems logical that if God isn’t fulfilling all of our desires then what indeed is the point of praying. If however, we think of prayer as a direct line to God, an intimate conversation that enables us to experience God and be in relationship with God, then we are drawn to pray. The sufferings of this world are lightened when shared with a loving God who listens and has promised to “wipe away our tears” and to “make all things new.” Yet it doesn’t usually happen right away and we grow impatient. But prayer ensures that we do not have to wait alone. We have the arms of the Holy Spirit embracing us and reminding us of the scarred hands of the Savior who has saved us. Life is short; pray hard.

And so in this season of Advent we wait, not as those who have no hope, but expectantly clinging to the promises of God. We wait in a state of alertness keeping our eyes open to the many signs of God’s presence already among us. It’s so easy during this season to continue to look ahead to Christmas, to get caught up in the commercialism, but during this time of Advent we need to apply the brakes and sometimes that’s not easy. We need to slow down, to pause, and to be alert to the grace that flows in and through us. Waiting can be hard, but it can slow us down long enough to see things we might otherwise miss.

You might be wondering how I finally got to Fairfax, VA to see my daughter and son-in-law for Thanksgiving. It was quiet an interesting adventure. The repair of the brake line would take several days, so a friend drove me halfway to Frederick, MD, where my daughter and son-in-law would meet me and drive me the rest of the way there. (The car rental places were already closed by the time I was safely in the car repair garage.) My friend had to go to an important meeting so she had to leave me there in Frederick while waiting for my connecting ride, which was delayed due to heavy traffic. I was going to just sit outside the pet store with all my bags for the next couple of days, my favorite pillow, my cat, litter box, and several books to finish my sermon for today. I looked like a homeless person. I was going to wait outside, but the owner insisted I wait inside out of the cold. With my things all piled behind the counter – and my cat fearing I was leaving her at the pet store forever – I waited for a couple more hours. But while waiting I experienced something I would have otherwise missed. I experienced the kindness of a stranger and the face of God in that hospitality. Sometimes waiting gives others the chance to be the hands and feet and voice of God here on earth. Sometimes waiting gives people the opportunity to be the answer to someone’s prayers. Sometimes waiting gives us the privilege to experience the kingdom of God here on earth and to share it with others.

This Advent is a time for us to wait and stay alert; to wait for the coming of the Christ Child and Christ’s ultimate return. To stay alert to the presence of God already in our midst and to be the presence of God to one another. When the collective cries go out, “How long, O Lord?” they can be answered through the love we show toward one another. This Advent is a time to wait in prayer. Why pray? Because life is short; pray hard!  Amen!