Sermon: Beasts at the Crossroad

Beasts at the Crossroad
Mark 1:9-15

There was a problem recording audio this week. I hope to have the audio up later this week.

*****

Today is the first Sunday of this journey called Lent. During these 40 days we will walk along the crossroad of life – acutely aware of our humanity. Reminded on Ash Wednesday of our mortality – from dust you have come and to dust you will return – these journey on the crossroad is one in which we search ourselves. We confront the beasts that test us; come face to face with the fact that the things we feel strongest about are our things not God’s; we confront our idols; our inner darkness faces the light of God; we take stock of our lives; we shout hosanna; we cry crucify. During these 40 days on the crossroad – we look in the mirrors of our lives and are shocked by the cracks and wrinkles – we see ourselves in the bright light of this season.

But Lent isn’t just about us; no, it is about the fact that as we walk on this crossroad journey we walk with Jesus. We walk with God in human clothes. Jesus walks each step of this journey with us. Jesus faces the beasts; Jesus shows us what are God’s things; Jesus smashes our idols; Jesus shines the light of God’s love; Jesus rides on a donkey toward his death; Jesus comes in contact with mortality; Jesus walks along this crossroad with us – for us. This Lenten journey is not about us, but about Jesus with us. It leads to that day when Jesus is nailed to the cross and on him is laid all of our human brokenness – all of our pain, all of our fear, all of our doubt, all of our questions, all our our self deception, all of our pride, all of our ego. On that day at the top of the crossroad, Jesus is nailed to the cross and that is what the Lenten journey is about – Jesus taking all of us onto the cross – for us, because of us, with us.

And beloved – it is with Jesus that we begin our Lenten journey. A journey through these forty days.

This journey begins as many do, a day full of delight and joy. A Galillean carpenter is in the crowd as John is preparing the way for God’s messiah. Baptizing many into this apocalyptic hope, the carpenter listens and in his belly a fire begins to stir. He follows John up and down the Jordan, watching as the gathered repent and turn around – coming out of the water as new people. The fire continues to burn. The events of his life until now begin to makes sense. The odd things that set him apart from his peers; the way his mother would coddle him – even when it was embarrassing. Perhaps, he was meant to follow John – to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps we was meant to proclaim repentance; the call to turn around. Perhaps he was meant to become a disciple of John.

As the fire burns, the carpenter stands at a crossroad. Does he go home, back to Nazareth and continue to make his living carving beautiful bowls and stunning table? Does he follow John? At the crossroad the fire burns, and he hears the words of the preacher on the banks of the Jordan, “The one who comes after me is more powerful than me; I can’t untie his sandals. I baptize with water; but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” The fire burns. And the carpenter fells his feet beginning to move without his even thinking about it. He finds himself at the banks of the Jordan face to face with his teacher.

John takes Jesus by his hard, cracked and calloused hand and leads him into the water. Saying words that he has said many times, John raise his hands in the priestly blessing; grabs the arms of the carpenter and dips him under the water.

Deaf to all sounds, Jesus under the water opens his eyes and see the fire burning; a holy fire that burns but does not consume; a fire that washes over him; and as he emerges out of the water inhaling that first breath of new life; he looks up and sees the heavens opening. The veil between heaven and earth is torn and that Holy Fire breaks through like a dove and lands on him. He is there breathing this new breath and a voice speaks to him, “Your are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Joy and delight fill his being. Euphoric, he feels like he can walk on water. In his joy he turns to John, about to speak when suddenly the joy and delight are replaced by dread and fear. He fells as though he is being thrown out of the waters – the waters of joy and delight. He is thrown into the wilderness. The barren wasteland that is the Galillean desert. The lushness of the riverside is taken over by the shrubs and skulls of the arid plain.

What is going on? Thrown into the wilderness after the joy of baptism, the beasts begin to meet Jesus at the crossroad. They follow him for days. He finds no food, and begins a fast of forty days. Hoping, praying, that this nightmare will end. How could this be happening he had just said yes to the Holy Fire. And the beasts follow close behind, nipping at his heels. They seemed to be handled by the Adversary – Satan himself.

The beasts would surround him day and night, testing him. Questions, doubts, fears, anger, hate, they bit at him, but could not devour. He began to question his own call, his own self-worth, his own life. He began to doubt John, doubt the Law, doubt even God. Fear ate at him, would the beasts eat him, how would he find food, when would this end. Anger at God, at John, at himself began to bear its rabid teeth. The beasts on the crossroad tested him at every turn.

He stood at a crossroad.

The beasts at the crossroad are there at every turn. We try to run and hide from them, but every where we turn we run into them. From the joy and delight we feel from the moment of baptism; from the sweet gathering of a beloved community, it all disappears as the beasts seem to be stalking us; hunting us. Their yellow eyes burning into us.

The beats are always there. Testing us.

Violence. Every time we turn on the TV or read the newspaper it is on the front page. ISIS beheading 21 Christians, killing fellow Muslims, instilling a reign of terror. It is everywhere. The beast goes for our jugular, trying to bleed us of hope. It’s claws swipe at you when family dysfunction swings it’s ugly fist. It snaps when a lover slaps you and then masks in in the disguise of, “it’s for your own good.” The beast of violence tests us, led on his hellish leash by the Satan himself, when the economy slaughterers you with non-living wages. When gangs rule the streets. When you can’t get the medical care you need when the beast takes a sweeping blow. The beasts on the cross road test us.

Discrimination raises its ugly head from its slumber of complacency lovers are denied benefits. When a child is denied healthcare because she has two moms. When the law says you can’t love the person you love.

Its sister Racism leaps from the shadows as innocents are gunned down in the streets and the response is black on black crime. When prisons are built in knowledge that some will never have the opportunity for anything other than the three hots and a cot the offer. When the color of your skin determines whether or not you get pulled over while driving in certain neighborhoods. The beasts at the crossroad are there testing us.

The beasts on the crossroad are there circling us. And as they circle, minds begin to reel. Minds begin to peel. We remember the joy of the call. The beginning of the new life. The excitement and the passion and it is being drained from us. From you. Like Jesus, you stand at a crossroad. You are surrounded by beasts. Tested. Tempted. It would be easier just to give up. To give in. To let the beasts begin their feast.

At the crossroad something begins to stir in Jesus. That fire that was there at the shore of the Jordan begins to rekindle. The discipline of the forty days begins to remind him that even as the beasts are gathering he is not alone. He has made it through these forty days and beings to see that in the doubt and in the questions, there were angels waiting on him. That in the fear and in the dread, there were angels waiting on him. That through these forty days he was never alone. “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” That voice gives strength to the food weary legs. And as the voice begins to echo in his head and the smoldering fire rekindles; he makes his move along the crossroad. He moves past the beasts, through the beasts, knowing they will always be there; he moves on and makes it through the wilderness and begins to pick up the mantle laid down by John. He begins to say the words that he was meant to say. The call he felt all those days ago is renewed and having been brought through the wilderness he stands at a new crossroad. And there he proclaims for the first time, “Repent, turn around and see the world with God’s eyes. Repent. For the Reign of God is near.”

The beasts at the crossroad have no power of the voice that calls him beloved. The beasts at the crossroad tremble at the very sound of that voice.The beasts at the crossroad cower and hide when they hear the voice. The voice that calls to you, “beloved.” The voice that says to you in the wilderness, on the cross you are my beloved.

There on the crossroad as the beasts keep circle in their predatory dance, you feel alone; abandoned. There on the crossroad as the beasts threaten their attack, you are afraid. There you feel as though you have lost everything; the joy and excitement of the first kiss of the divine have long gone and you are surrounded by the beasts…and then comes to you the voice. The voice you heard at that first kiss, the voice that was there when you first held your baby, the voice that was there when you made it through the grief of loosing a loved one; that voice that was there when you found a community of friends that take you in and love you for who you are…that is the voice of God crying out to you. It is the voice of God crying out, “Beloved. Though the beasts be at the crossroads, you are not alone. You don’t have to fight the fight by yourself. You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

Dear Friends, the voice of God is crying out this Lenten season. It is crying out, “Beloved.” As we journey these forty days, as we make our way along the crossroad of life, there will be tests. There will be temptations. There will be attacks against us by the beasts, but know this…know this – Through your time in the wilderness, you are not alone. God will not leave you alone. God will not leave you for the beasts to devour, for you are God’s beloved.

You are God’s beloved.

You are God’s beloved.

Thanks be to God!


Sermon: A Photo Op?

A Photo Op?
Mark 2:2-9

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Peter was already feeling a bit sheepish when Jesus woke him up that morning. It had been six days since he had made Jesus upset and he had been keeping to himself since then. Usually the outgoing chatterbox of the disciples, this withdrawn and solitary Peter made the other disciples nervous. The didn’t like what Jesus had been saying, and now his reaction to Peter had them on edge.

Six days ago Jesus had been talking about how he was going to die, and of course – none likes to hear that kind of talk, especially from someone they admire and love. But Jesus had begun this death talk and it was unnerving. When Peter finally spoke up and said what they all had been thinking, Jesus rebuked him calling him Satan and telling him we wasn’t setting his mind on God’s things, but on human things. Then Jesus called everyone near him that had been following him – the large crowd – and began telling them that in order to be a disciple needs to abandon themselves and take up their own crosses and follow him. And as the crowd heard these words they began to buzz with questions, looking toward Peter – knowing he would ask what they wanted, but Peter wasn’t near Jesus. Peter was in the back of the crowd. Lost.

So it was, when six days later that Jesus approached him and woke him up. “Get James and John and come with me.” Peter looked as him, sighed, and rolled over, ignoring Jesus. Jesus just tapped him on his shoulder and left, began looking for something to eat. Unable to get back to sleep, Peter threw off the blanket his mother-in-law had woven for him. He got up like a teenager being woken at 7 am on a Saturday, went over to James and John. Kicked each of them in the shoulders to wake them. “Come on. He wants us to do something.”

The three fishers of people went over to the food grabbed some bread, saw Jesus and went toward him. As they approached, he got up and began walking toward the path that lead to the top of the mountain whose base had been their camp for the night. Petulant, the three just stood there wondering why he wanted them to wake up if he was just going to leave them. Sensing their attitudes, Jesus stopped. Turned around, “Well, come on,” he said.

The three began to follow just as they had that day at the sea of Galilee when he first called them. They couldn’t explain why they followed. Peter was still mad at him, James and John were still half asleep, but when he called the only thing they could do was answer.

Jesus waited as they approached. And as they got to where he was, Peter made sure James and John stood between he and the teacher. Afraid that he might do something he wold regret later.

In silence the four made their way to the mountain top. The trees began to recede and the air got thin. By the time they made it to the top it was mid-day. Even though there were high above, the thinness of the air and the aridness of the desert caused their throats to burn and their heads to begin to spin. As they situated themselves at the summit, Jesus told them to wait there and he went off and began to pray. Grateful they had grabbed extra food the three began to prepare lunch. Some fish and bread, leftovers that seem to not go bad. They began to eat, their senses regained, they waited for Jesus to return. As they conversed there was a wind that began to stir, worried a storm was approaching the three ran to where Jesus was and immediately fell to their faces.
There a light exploded. And Jesus seemed floating above the ground. Light radiating from him. Not reflecting off him, but coming from him. His clothes, brown with dust and sweat had become whiter than anything they could explain. No one could clean something to be this dazzling white. And into this light they saw two silhouettes. Terrified they watched as the shadows grew. They began to take shapes of men. Strangers they did not know, faces they had not seen, but as their mouths began to speak they knew there on the mountain, shinning in that divine light were the law and the prophets – there on either side of Jesus were Moses and Elijah.

This was the presence of the divine on the mountain. All the feeling of anger had disappeared from Peter. The shame he felt. The harbored rage that he was so rejected by his teacher left him and he, unsure what to say knew he had to say something. “Teacher, It is so good for us to be here. To see this glory. To see you glorified. Let us build tents here so that we can stay.”

Then in the silence of the wind came a voice that rattled their bones. A voice that was not Jesus’. A voice that came not from the law or the prophets, but a voice that came through them all. That they had all encounter bellowed in the silences, “This is my son. The beloved. Listen to him.”

In a second that seemed like an eternity, all he had said flooded their hearts. “To become a disciple one needs to take up their cross and follow me.” Holy terror and joy flooded their souls. And when they looked up, they saw Jesus alone. In silence they made their way down the mountain. As they neared the camp Jesus stopped, “Tell no one of this until I have risen from the dead.”

They began to discuss amongst themselves what this meant. Until he rises from the dead, and Jesus explained.

***

“It is good for us to be here.” Peter’s response to the miraculous event the transfiguration. “It is good for us to be here, let me put up tents.” Let me hold on to this feeling. Let me remain here in your glory. Isn’t this only the natural response to such a holy moment? Who would want to leave the mountain after seeing something so glorious? I mean, really, Jesus, Elijah, and Moses! It is really couldn’t get much better than that, and then add to it the voice of God and a dazzling light show. You would have to be goofy to not want to stay. This was a touch of heaven!

“It is good for us to be here.” It is good for us to be in this place this day. To welcome two sisters into the baptismal life that is a follower of Jesus. It is good for us to be here. To be gathered with our friends and for some, our families. To be present in this holy place and this holy time.

It is good for us to be here. The thrill we get playing a gig that we know is pitch perfect. The joy in watching our child shine like a new born star as she dances across the stage. The giddiness we feel as we leave a conference that seems to set our lives back on the right course.

We all have been there, those high points. Those mountain top experiences. Those places when we can really say we have had an encounter with the Divine. Those place where we see God revealed in all of God’s glory and are able to touch heave.

Those moments draw us out of ourselves, they free us to see the world with new eyes. Like Peter, who climbed the mountain grumpy and angry, we come into these moments carrying the weight of all of our problems and responsibilities. We climb the to the top with a mountain of debt always in front of us. We climb to the top with the pain of family nipping at our heels. We climb to the top of the mountain – going we know not why, but we climb and when we get to the top we encounter something so transforming that those things do not become our idols, but our eyes are open to the one we worship. We come face to face with the one we praise. We fall down terrified, but ultimately freed. These encounters with the holy renew us and revive us. And we want take a picture. We want to never let this moment end. That joy we feel when we come up for that first breath after our baptisms. We want to never leave that moment. All that has been bothering us is forgotten, and we are freed.

But while we are there, like Peter and James and John, there is a voice that brings us comfort – we hear God’s word proclaimed. We eat the Lord’s Supper. We hear the divine voice, and it reminds us -“This is my son. The beloved.” and then the words that burn in our hearts “listen to him.”

“Listen to him.” Listen to what Jesus says. Just before taking the three to the mountain top, Jesus tells them that to be a disciple they must forget themselves and take up the cross and follow him.

Listen to him as he speaks a word that illuminates the Reign of God rather than the reign of people. Listen to him as he heals the deaf, so they may hear. Listen as he gives sight to the blind, so they may see. Listen to him.

The word of God reminds us to what we are called, and that is disciples. We are being called to leave the photo op of the mountain top behind and face the cross with Jesus. We are being called off the mountain top and back into the dark and scary places we are trying to avoid. When we listen to him, we are carried off the mountain and to the side of the sick, into the house of the hurting. When we listen to him, we are drawn out of ourselves and into the world as it is.

But here is the difference. Having been to the mountain top, we have come face to face with the glory of God. We have seen – we have experienced the transformation that happens at the transfiguration. We have had the opportunity to be in the divine presence – and instead of lamenting that we are leaving that behind we are given the power to move down the mountain. To leave the picture at the mountain top because it has been burned into our souls. We can come down the mountain and come face to face with the cross because we have been transfigured.

The cross is the place of death and darkness. It is the place of pain. The cross is not a pretty thing, but when we face it transfigured we see it not just as an instrument of death, but as thing of power. The cross is transfigured from an instrument of death to the gateway of life. Having been to the mountain to we can see. Listen to him.

Beloved, it is a wonderful and beautiful thing to be on the mountain top. To be engulfed in Glory. But it is easy to make an idol of that glory. To build up a theology of glory that sets us apart from the word. That beings to create an us vs. them world view. That begins to see us as better than. When we try to remain on the mountain are doing what we want to do. We are making it about ups and the good feelings. It is a wonderful thing to be on the mountain top, but the voice is telling us to listen to him. To take up the cross. To face the valleys with the promise that the glory we experienced on the mountain top will carry us through. To take up the cross and confess that there is something beautiful in humility, rather than bloviating hubris. When we confront the darkness we do so with the light of the mountain top burning in our souls. We are reminded that we face the cross not alone but with the very one who took on the cross himself. God come to us in human clothes. That is the power of the mountain top.

That we see the glory of God with us even in the dark.

When family disputes begin to nail you to the cross, the glory of the mountain top give you strength.

When the demon of addiction rears its ugly head and again tries to separate you from those you love, the glory of the mountain – the love of the God – give you strength.

When the storms of depression begins to pelt you with anxiety and doubt, the glory of the mountain top shines a light of hope and promise.

When you are mocked and ridiculed for daring to be the person God has called you to be – the glory of the mountain top lights your way.

Jesus takes you to the mountain to not for a divine photo op, but to give you the strength you need to face the cross. To pick up and cross and move beyond belief into a life of true discipleship. Jesus takes you to the mountain not for you to stay, but for you to come down new – renewed. Jesus take you to the mountain top – shows you the glory – so that when the dark days come – you know…you know that the light shines within and you can face anything. Jesus takes you to the mountain, because Jesus takes you to the cross. Jesus take you to the cross and there is the glory of God. Strength in weakness. Light in darkness. Hope in despair. Love in hate. There, at the cross, is God revealed fully. And it is the mountain top that gives us the strength to face the cross. That prepares us for what is to come. That sends us out.

Thanks be to God


Sermon: Raised Up

Raised Up
Mark 1:29-39

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“He came and took her by the hand and raised her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.” Jesus touched a sick and dying woman and with his touch he raised her – just as he was raised – and she began to serve. Healed and renewed she became a disciple.

A lot has been made of this passage, and especially this verse – it has been used to justify specific gender roles…that the woman’s place is to serve. By making Simon’s mother-in-law’s first action after being healed waiting on them, this verse has been used to oppress women and remind them that they really are not allowed at the table, when in fact this is the story of the first disciple to really understand what Jesus is proclaiming – it is the story of a woman (and it is the women in Mark who understand who Jesus is – not the men) who is raised up – elevated – healed – made new, and her only response to that is to serve. To serve with her whole being. Our english is again limited here. For the word translated as served is the work diakonia – the root of our word deacon. Diakonia service is more than just waiting on tables, it is a kind of service that inhabits ones whole sense of purpose. It is the kind of service that is inextricably linked to the Reign of God as preached and experienced by Jesus. She is raised up. And she serves with her whole being.

This is not what is expected going into this story. No, it is about a poor woman. An itinerant weirdo who just caused a stir in the synagogue, and newly unemployed fisherman. It was not supposed to go this way.

Just twenty four hours ago, Simon’s mother-in-law, whom I will call Naomi because I think she deserves a name, was laying on the verge of death. For a three days she had been suffering from a fever of unknown origin. It began with chills in the night and sweats in the day, and now the horrible dance of the two was tango of misery. Her work as a net-mender of the small fishing town of Capernaum was gone. That was the nature of the economy at the time – if you provided a service and were then unable to provide you lost your income. People needed their nets mended and if you couldn’t do they would have to find another. Within a week, here meager earnings were gone. Her earnings that helped the brothers care for her.

She had felt so blessed when they took her in after her husband died. Simon’s wife, too, had died and they lived with Andrew, just the three of them. She had felt so blessed, that she tried to help them any way that she could. She knew that the fishing business they had inherited from their father was small, and really was meant to provide for the family, but since the Romans had come they were forced to give most of their earnings to the invaders. They barely had enough, and now with her illness – even less.

She knew that whatever it was that was slowly incinerating her would eventually kill her. Too many in the village had died from unknown fevers. There were no doctors, there were no antibiotics, no vaccines that prevented common illness. Fevers were more often than not death sentences. And she knew that her stay of execution has been denied.

Wrapped in blankets, shivering and sweating, she heard the commotion out in the town square, but did not have the energy to see what was going on. She had no clue that in the synagogue, this strangers, Jesus, had just released a man from the talonous grip on an unclean spirit. She had no idea that the boat of Andrew and Simon was now crew-less floating somewhere in the middle of the sea of Galilee, she just knew that there was noise and each breath she took was fire going into her lungs.

Wrapped in blankets, laying on her death bead. She prayed to God that her dying be a blessing for Simon and Andrew – that they would have one less mouth to feed. Supine she sang her own kaddish – the prayer of the dead. At death’s door, she laid, when through the door came her son-in-law and his brother and a stranger she did not know.

This stranger said no words. But looked deep into her eyes, and in them she saw a light she had never known. A light that cause her breath to increase, her pulse to elevate. In his eye, she saw hope and peace. And he stretched out his hand, and like what happens when a child sticks their hand out she just had to hold it. She held his hand and as she did fire shot through her body – fire followed by cool. The sweat on her brow immediately ceased to be, the pain in her joints – gone; the flames in her lungs replace by the breaths of a new born.

His other hand reached down and his arm wrapped around her back and he pulled her close to his chest, he knelt down to her and embrace her and as he stood up he brought her with him. He raised her of the bed of death and into something completely new. For three days she was near death, in her mind already in the tomb, and now she is raised up. And as she is raised she has no words. No words, but tears. Tears of joy, and she goes to the small kitchen and begins to bake bread to feed them. For that is all she can do. No money would suffice, no words. The only thing she can think to do is offer bread in thanksgiving for this new life.

And within 24 hours, this home in the small village of Capernaum has become the place of healing for the whole town. But it was not supposed to go this way. What happened is not what is supposed to happen. What happened was the Reign of God entering into the life of a woman who became a disciple.

This story is the story of what happens when God’s Reign breaks into our lives. It is the story of what happens when God’s Reign comes face to face with the forces of death and despair.

We heard again in the news how the terrorists of Islamic State have killed another prisoner in the name of their religion. We have heard the uproar after the president, rightly in my opinion, called us to remember that fundamentalists of our own tradition have a history or brutal behavior -from the crusades, to lynchings and NAACP office bombings. We have heard how children are becoming sick from a disease that we thought was near eradication in this country because some parents refuse vaccinations. We hear again and again about the violence done in the name of “law and order.” We see families ripped apart in the name of national security. We watch in horror as bombs explode in civil wars and as our nation’s drones drop bombs on innocents.

It’s like this world is lying on its death bed. And it makes it hard to even think about trying to go out of the house. It makes it difficult to find any hope out there. It is easier to just stay at home – or with those who are like us.

And it is not just those big picture things that lay us flat.

No, it is the constant pain we feel as our aging bodies remind us that we are not so young anymore. It is the dread we have when we have to go to work in the morning to a job that just drains our sprits. It is the sleepless nights wondering how rent is going to be paid. It is the anguish of solitude; the heartache of grief; the wounds from being stabbed in the back. We are knocked flat by the power of addiction; the shame of abuse; the crime of being young and black. It is the worry about the future of our church, will we have the means to do what we feel called to do. It is the desperation we hear in the stories fo those around us – longing – hoping for an end to the despair.

All of it adds up and keeps us shivering under the blankets – singing our own kaddish.

And as the fever of all of this begins to grow and our chills and sweats seem to never leave us, we begin to withdraw and become focused only on our selves. Sometimes it starts small by sniping at those we care about, sometimes it grows to alienating our selves from those we love; sometimes it is complete withdrawal into our own safe little words. The deliriousness of our fever wipes out anything but our suffering.

And it is precisely then that a word appears, a word that is reaching out to you today. A word that is the Reign of God come to earth in Jesus Christ. It is a word that tells the story of a woman who was on deaths door and in comes Jesus, and he reaches out his hand and raises her up.

It is about Jesus coming to you today, reaching out his hand and raising you up.

It is about Jesus coming into your place of pain and suffering; your place of question and doubt; your place of hurt and grief and reaching out his hand and raising you up.

Jesus comes through the door of our solitude and with out saying a word, reaches out his hand. Without nagging or harassing. Without guilt or then intent of causing shame – Jesus comes in and just reaches out his hand. There is no quid-pro-quo. There is nothing that you need to do first. Because this isn’t the world as we know it it is the Reign of God, where Jesus comes in and reaches out his hand hand raises you up. Raises you up.

Raises you up like Naomi, Simon’s mother in law.

Raise you up like the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof.

Raises you up like the man with the withered hand.

Raises you up like the little girl – the girl who died and breathed again.

Raises you up like the woman who bled for 12 years. Brought to new life

Raises you up like the boy possessed, brought to wholeness.

Raises you up like blind Bartimaeus – seeing again.

Raise you up, like him on that easter morning. Crucified and killed, having been to the darkest parts the word – now victorious over death. He raises you up in the darkest parts of the world.

Jesus walks through the door and reaches out his hand and raises you up. He comes into the place of despair and hurt; pain and isolation. He walks through the door into the room where you lie engulfed by the fever of the world. And he raises you into something all together new. All together whole. Jesus raises you from the reign of the wold into the Reign of God.

Into that active Reign of God where we can only respond by giving up what we were and serving as someone made wholly new. Someone who was been through the dark valley only to be carried safely to the the shore. We have been raised into the Reign of God where serving others is the way of life. We are no longer living for just ourselves but for all. We are living now as ones raised up. For just as Jesus came to serve are not be served, we are raised up to serve. To become more than just believers but transformed into disciples. To go where Jesus leads:

Breaking bread with the hungry; sitting with the sick; teaching the children; being taught by the children; giving to the work of God’s church in time, talent, treasure. We have been raised up and into the Reign of God.

Thanks be to God.


Sermon: In/Out

In/Out
Mark 1:21-28

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Last Sunday we heard about Jesus calling Simon and Andrew, and James and John to become radically reoriented to the world and begin to cast their nets to close the chasm between the world as it is and the world as it can be. What we have today is what happens when the boys follow Jesus back into their hometown of Capernaum.

Still wet from jumping out of the boat James and John join Simon and Andrew as they follow this man – really this stranger, for they had never met or been formally introduced. But even in the strangeness, they feel there was some kind of authority that he has that made them feel safe and that they were stepping out of the boats into the right direction. He had called them and now he was about 50 feet in front of them walking towards their town with purpose. They struggle to keep up.

Jesus seems to be on auto-pilot until he he the walls of Capernaum. Then instead of walking through the main gate, he walks around the walls. He seems to be looking for something, someone, but who ever it was is not there. And he makes his way into town. Now, the sun was beginning to set and shabbat was about to begin. Jesus makes his way to the synagogue, stopping only to pet the stray dogs that hung around the man near the well. This man and his dogs were the outcasts of Capernaum, all of them were covered in dried mud and feces and their hair was matted with sweat and snot. The man’s skin was covered in cuts and bruises, wounds that never seemed to be healed.

The boys, finally catching up with Jesus – Jesus who looks into the man’s eyes he strokes behind the ears of the dogs. It is like there was some sort of conversation happening even with out words between the two. The boys see the man and know that he was trouble. They immediately grabbed Jesus and directed him to the synagogue for the Shabbat service.

Jesus steps into the synagogue and there was, right then, something in the air. Some kind of electricity or charge that caused the conversations to stop as the heads turned to this stranger who was accompanied by Simon and Andrew and the Sons of Zebeddee. Without realizing it, the boys lead Jesus to the rabbi’s seat, and he begins to teach those who were gathered. He expounded on the Torah, prayed the psalms, breathed the prophets. And as he did, the men (for it was only men in the synagogue) begin to whisper to each other, “who is this that speaks with authority?” His teaching is beyond just the recitation of the words they had heard many times before. His teaching contains breath – it was as if they Torah became alive and they were they with the Israelites witnessing Moses come down from the mountain – glowing. Some remembered the words of Torah – “I will raise up for them a prophet among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Jesus stepped into the synagogue and with him came power. Authority. Good News.

Just then, as he was rolling up the scroll, there was a scream coming from the town center and coming their way. Those gathered know who it is, for this happens all the time as the prophet’s scroll was being put away – it was as if he could hear the words of hope and judgement and came – came for something they did not know. AS the man with the open wounds and matted hair bursts into the synagogue – immediately arms go out try to protect Jesus. They did not want this new teacher harmed by this possessed man. They try to drive the darkness out, but they can not. They try with everything they have, but they can not get him out.

He tears through them and comes face to face with the seated rabbi – the only one in the synagogue who remained seated. Trying to pull him out of his comfort zone, the words poured out of the man’s mouth like the words of the serpent in Eden, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are Holy One of God.”

And as the words spill out of the man’s mouth, Jesus steps into the man’s space. Jesus walks and stands face to face with the man possessed. In the space of the man Jesus stands and stares into the possessed eyes, eyes that speak to Jesus of the suffering that was to come as he brings the Reign of God into a world that has shut God out. Staring into the man’s eyes, Jesus said, “Be Silent! And Come out of him.”

And the unclean spirit throws the man to the ground and leaves him convulsing and crying as he tears out of the man. Jesus steps in, and the darkness jumped out.

And those gathered were terrified and amazed, “What is this teaching? With new authority? He even commands the unclean spirits out and they obey.”

Jesus steps in and darkness jumped out.

Jesus steps in with the authority of the bearer of the Good News of the Reign of God, and out went anything that was antithetical to that Reign.

****

What happens when Jesus comes in?

I mean it, what happens when Jesus comes in? What happens when we stop trying to protect Jesus and let him stem into the darkness and confront it face to face? What happens when Jesus is let in?

We always like to protect Jesus. We like to make sure that nothing happens to him, but is that being faithful to the message of Jesus? Are we not keeping him out, but standing in his way?

When we stop trying to protect Jesus, and let him him – let him come face to face with the unclean spirits of the world; with the hate and violence; with the distrust and deception – when we get of of his way and let him in – powerful things happen.

But it is easier to stand in his way. I know, I am always trying to protect him. I am always trying to make sure the Jesus people is the Jesus created in my image. It is easier to do than letting go and letting Jesus truly in. Because I might not like what he sees.

I might not like the person he looks at when he looks into my eyes. The narcissistic person who can be too self involved. The man with the short temper and biting words. I might not like the person I see when I let Jesus really in. Because when he comes in, all that goes out.

And I feel like I need the armor of those things. I need to be able to defend my self from the attacks of the world. I act on my own authority and you know what, it always comes back to bite me in the back side. When I don’t let the transforming power of the Reign of God in, when I don’t let Jesus in, I begin to become like the man with the unclean spirit. I look at myself as the sole authority. I have the power. It is all about me.

I am pretty sure I am not alone in this confession. We all have plates of armor that we wear to keep Jesus out. We may not be aware of them or we may hid them from everyone. But I don’t think any of us have fully let Jesus in. And, honestly, this side of the end, I don’t know if we can, but we can sure try.

And when Jesus comes in, when he comes in all that gets in the way of the Reign of God tears out, because when he comes in he comes in with the authority of the one who breathed the cosmos into existence. And when he comes in and breaths the darkness out of our lives we get a breath of that new life, and we can begin to act with the authority of the one who just tore away our armor and bathed us in the light of Good News. Who casts out our unclean spirits and breathes in the Holy Sprit.

When we let Jesus in we can change the world. It is more than saying I believe. It is more than walking down the aisle of a church, saying I have decided to follow Jesus. When we let Jesus in we become something all together new. Our lives our renewed. Our purpose is give new life. We are given the authority to change the world.

When Jesus comes in, ain’t nothing that can keep us out.

The authority of Jesus, the Good News of the Reign of God breaks into the world in a way that cast light in the dark places.

We we let Jesus in, we can not sit silent as a sister battles the demon of addiction. We cast out the darkness, we are given the authority to stand strong and know that even when it hurts we are not alone. We let Jesus in, and he gives us the strength to fight for her recovery.

When we let Jesus in and the bottle at the table is calling to us – when the grip of alcohol begins it choke hold, Jesus is with us and can help give us the strength to fight a drink – one second at a time. One minute at a time. One hour at a time. One day at a time. And when we fall off the wagon – when we let Jesus in – he grabs us and picks us back up.

When we let Jesus we can say to those with the power – you do not have any power here. We can call out and cast out unjust laws. WE can fight for change in systems that reward shareholders and create paupers prisons.

When we let Jesus in, our armor fall of and we become vulnerable to the ways of the world – but we are give authority to change the world.

When we let Jesus in, our hearts are healed, our sins is forgiven, our weakness turned to strength.

When we let Jesus in, our heartache is embraced and changed into joy; our illnesses are taken and we walk the dark valley not alone, but in solidarity.

When we let Jesus in – really let him in – We will be like the man made new. It may hurt for a evening, but joy comes in the morning.

Jesus has the authority to make known the Reign of God. Jesus has the authority to come in and throw out. Jesus has the authority to make something new out of the cast out and forgotten. Jesus has the authority to come into this place – to come into Emerson Avenue Baptist Church and touch each of our lives. To renew our faltering walks. To wash us in the waters of Baptism. To feed us at the Lords Table. Jesus has the authority to open the doors of this church and welcome the single mother, the divorced man, the gay couple; the trans-gendered teen; the lonely grandmother; the alcoholic uncle; the narcissistic neighbor. Jesus has the authority to throw open the doors of the church and tear down the walls that keeps the world from his love.

When we let Jesus in we can be as surprised by his grace the the James and John, Simon and Andrew. We can be as transformed as the man with the matted hair; and as hopeful as those in the synagogue – here is the one God has sent to be with us! Here is the one who has come to be a prophet to the nations and to bring God’s Reign on earth as it is in heave. Jesus steps in and darkness jumps out.

And what happens when we let Jesus in – when we really let Jesus in – O Lordy – what will happen?

The doors of the church are open.


Sermon -Gone Fishin’

Gone Fishin’
Mark 1:14-20

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Have any of you really thought about what it means to be fishers of people? This is one of those passages that is a Sunday School favorite, especially when it comes to evangelism. Jesus calls Andrew and Simon, James and John, and they immediately follow him and become fishers of people – but what does that mean? Especially within the context of Mark’s gospel. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya from the film The Princess Bride – I do not that this means what we think it means.Yes, it could – but I think read within the context of Mark’s Gospel – it means something different than what we have been told all these years.

This may be hard for some of us – to hear that our interpretation is not the only one. I am not going to discredit the reading many of us have grown up with – one very similar to the children’s message today. It makes sense. It fits nicely with the scene we are given – but I don’t think it goes far enough. I don’t thing Mark’s Jesus is simply saying, “come follow me and you will be a great witness.” I think Jesus is doing something much deeper and much more profound. He is calling these new disciples and us by proxy into a radical reorientation of the world. A radial reorientation that sits disparate groups of people at the same table to reflect the beautiful diversity of the Reign of God. A radical reorientation that takes us out of the stasis of our everyday lives and into the vibrant and prophetic Reign of God. A radical reorientation that shows us that when we repent – when we literally turn around – see the world behind us we are able to see God’s reign in our lives – and then we are able to step out of our boats and become the fishers, the net casters, that we are called to be – mirrors of God’s Reign on Earth as it is in Heaven.

In Mark’s Gospel the Good News of Jesus is not just words, but it is more importantly doings. Unlike the Gospel of Matthew, Mark understands Good News to be more than just preaching or proclamation, but also the physical actions of Jesus. In fact Mark is the gospel that has Jesus performing more signs than speaking. For Mark, Good News is a verb – an action word. And this is why I believe we are being called to a radical reorientation of our understanding of the wold.

Jesus in Mark is calling these first disciples to abandon all that is dear to them, for at least James and John, a life of relative wealth. You see, when we see the name of the father attached to someone – it is a mark of status (the sons of Zebedee) and add to that they left dad with with the hired hands – we are dealing with a couple of wealthy boys. And Jesus is calling them to walk along side the poor boys – Andrew and Simon – they were the ones in their boat doing the casting of nets – they had no hired hands. Jesus is calling the wealthy and the poor to the same table – radically reorienting the status quo that says those with money are held in higher esteem. Jesus is calling them all into the active Reign of God. Where all are equal. And all are responsible to cast the nets. And mend the nets. Naming the inequality, and restoring community. Jesus is bringing them into the active Reign of God – someone ongoing and continuing.

***

I saw the movie Selma the other night and I could not help but draw connections between that movie and this Scripture.

For those who don’t know Selma is about the 1965 civil right march form Selma to Montgomery, AL. It is the story of how, starting at a grass roots level, the African-American community of Selma began to fight for their right to vote – without the strong arm of Jim Crow blocking their way. They were fed up with the poll taxes, the vouchers, and the tests. In one scene there is a woman who is seeking to register and is forced to say the preamble to the constitution – which she does. Then to name how many county judges there are – 63 she says to the dismay of the white clerk. Then, to make sure she her application gets denied – he demands she name all 63 judges. This is the world in which the African American community of Selma were fishing.

They were casting their nets out of the boat, and pulling them in empty. They were working for the sake of the empire with no ability to change the system.

Then the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee began working in Selma to change the system.They began grass roots organizing of people to leave the boats and become fishers of people. They began to demonstrate against the unjust systems. They – in the words of Jeremiah 16 – were sent as fishermen to catch them – the unjust, those who sought to destroy the human personality, those who worshiped the false God of white supremacy instead of the true God of radical inclusion.

And as these fishers of people began to grow, they were seen by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And the SCLC was called into help organize even further. This led to disagreements between SNCC and the SCLC. The SCLC was led by Dr. King. And his call furthered the radical reorientation of the world by demanding federal action, not just local action. He cast the net further. And the further the net went out, the more uncomfortable people became. Because it was a radical reorientation of the world.

Before the SCLC, Sheriff Jim Clark was able to mostly retain his cesarian Pax Selma through force, but when confronted by the non-violent means of the SCLC – he overreacted and when the nation saw the events of Bloody Sunday – they saw the world for what it was. And for what it could be.

And beloved, this is the radical reorientation of the Reign of God. When we are at the shore line with Jesus we are able to see the world as it is and we are able to see the world as it can be. And when we are fishers of people we are casting our nets – not alone, but with Jesus. We are casting our nets and closing the chasm between the two.

We see the world as it is. And what it can be.

We see the pain in the world. We understand the heartbreak and the heartache. When we see the world as it is, we come face to face with the brokenness of the human condition.

We see the sin of racism and racialized polices that do not thing to build up the human personality, but rather denigrate and degrade the person. The rose colored glasses of a “post-racial” America are removed and we see that persons with black and brown skin are treated differently that those of us with white skin. Those like me are able, to see our privilege – small as it may be. We are able to say that it is wrong when someone is profiled just because of the color of their skin, or the way their religion requires they dress. We see the world as it is.

And we see what it can be – radically reoriented, we see the world with compassion and equality. We cast our nets out to close the chasm, by naming the racism – the profiling – the denigration of personality. We see the world as it can be and we close the chasm by living the Good news of Jesus. By living and seeing the Reign of God actively in our midst. We challenge the status quo. We sit with those who are always told they are not allowed at the table.

We are present with the hurting and the broken. We walk hand in hand with those discriminated against because of the color of their skin, because of their sexual orientation, because of their religious affiliation. We when are radically reoriented, we see everyone we encounter – friend or enemy as one called by Jesus into the Reign of God.

And that is the good news, beloved, that through it all – Jesus keeps calling us. He keeps at the sea shore until we leave our boats. He waits for us, and when we are ready he walks with us. He casts the net along side us. He embodies the Reign of God in which we are now living.

The radical reorientation of the Good News of Jesus is that the Reign of God is not something far off. That the reign of God is something that is not attainable unless we say the right words and know a five point plan of salvation – no the Good News of Jesus is that the Reign of God is near! The Reign of God is within reach and that when we turn around we are able to see how it has been near all along. And that Jesus is in our midst with us.

The good news of Jesus is that already, we are near the reign of God. Just come and follow. Reorient yourself to the Radical love of Jesus. Reorient yourself to the radical love of a God who keeps calling to you. Who keeps calling you by name. Who wants to be your fishin’ buddy.

The good news of Jesus is telling us to Go fishin’.

Go fishin’ – knowing that God’s reign is near. And when you cast your and close the chasm, you are there.

Go fishin’ – bringing the present and near Reign of God to those whose personality has been destroyed. Remind them they are beloved of God. That they are jsut as worthy of God’s love as anyone. That they are part of the Reign of God.

Go fishin’ – and cast your nets wide. Touching all aspects of life. Experience the world that makes you uncomfortable. See the world as God’s reign, not as something to fear. Be present in God’s Reign.

Go fishin – be patient and wait. God is here.

Go fishin’ – turn around and see that Jesus is always at the shore. Even when you go back to the comfort of your boat – Jesus is there. Turn around and see how the Reign of God has already been with you and you will see how it is with you.

Go fishin’- turn around a see Jesus walking with you. Next to you. Know you are not alone. Because the Good News of Jesus is an on going action. You are never far away.

Go fishin’ called to cast your net and close the chasm of the world as it is, and as it can be. Radically reoriented to the Reign of God.

You are not in this alone. You are not call to walk the shore by yourself. You are called into a community of believers that extents 2,000 years. You are called to join a cast of characters that has included thief and rogues, sinners and saints, heartbroken lovers and joy filled mothers. You are called into the Reign of God that is nothing but love. Love that reorients us to the light. That draws us together rather than apart. That closes the chasm of the broken world and the glorified world to come.

Beloved, it is time to go fishin’.

Thanks be to God.


Sermon: The Liberation of Love

The Liberation of Love
Luke 10: 25-37

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This morning I am straying away from the Lectionary – that cycle of Scripture from which I usually preach – in order to preach on the parable we have just heard. The parable of the Good Samaritan.

As many of you know tomorrow we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This past Thursday was his birthday, and with the renewed reminder of the problem of racism in our country – I though it would be appropriate on this day – this day when we remember our nation’s greatest prophet of love – I thought it appropriate to preach on one of his favorite passages of Scripture, and one that speaks just as powerfully to us today. A part of scripture that flips the script of the status quo and turns over the tables of our complacency. A piece of scripture that tears down the dividing wall and speaks to us of the liberation that love brings. The liberation of love.

Let’s hear this passage again from the JAT version:

Just then, a leader came down the state house steps and tried to trap Jesus.

“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Well,” Jesus said, “What do the scriptures say?”

“You are to love the Lord God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind…and you are to love your neighbor as yourself.”

“There you go. Your are correct. Follow those rules and you will live.”

Needless to say, this not what the leader was hoping to hear. After all, he wanted the answer he wanted – one that he could use to get the most votes.

“Fine, then, who is my neighbor?” he asked trying to trap Jesus.

Jesus looked at this fellow and told the following story:

There was a man who decided to walk from the east side toward downtown. He didn’t go down 10th street, or Washington – one of the busy ways, rather he decided to go down the side streets. He crossed various turfs along the way. Well, he finally crossed the wrong path and was mugged, pistol whipped, and left beaten and bloodied on the side of the road. They took his wallet, his cash, and left him for dead.

Now it just so happened that there was a small store front church a few blocks away, and the pastor of that church was headed to a stewardship meeting. He saw the man and saw his condition and thought it better to cross the street and get to his meeting. Then, not long later, there was an city councilor who saw the man – rolled his eyes and went to his fundraiser.

Then, just as the night was at its coldest and quietest, up came a man. His jeans were sagging halfway down his legs. The ink on his arms and face told the story of his affiliations. Trembling the man who was left for dead saw the very image of the guys who beat him. And as this new stranger slowly stuck his hand in his pocket – the beaten man whispered a prayer. It was almost slow motion – knowing what was coming out of the pocket the man tried to say he had nothing left to give, but instead of the expected gun – the stranger pulled out his cell phone and called 911. And then he began to attend to the man’s wounds. Compassion filling him.

When the ambulance arrived, he took the roll of cash out of his other pocket and gave it to the drive and told them that since the man’s wallet had been stolen and he had not proof on insurance – to use this cash to pay for treatment. And if more was needed he would swing by the hospital in the morning with what was owed. The stranger gave everything he had for the beaten and bloodied man.

“Now,” Jesus asked, “which one of these proved himself a neighbor?”

“The one who shoed mercy.”

“Well, now, go and act like that trouble maker.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

****

How many times do we come to the gospel with our own agenda? How many times to we come to the words of Jesus with the answer we are seeking already made up un our minds? How many times do we, like the questioner in this story, come to Jesus asking a question that we think we know the answer to – only to be shaken up and caused to reexamine everything?

This is the liberation of love!

Jesus tells this story to shake up the world of the man who asked the question. He shakes it up, so that the liberating word comes to the top.

The man comes to Jesus with his mind made up. He comes to him knowing that all he needs to do is answer the question correctly and he will get his reward. He just needs to hear that he is correct. And when he answer correctly he will get know the secret to life, the universe and everything.

But Jesus shakes things up. Jesus brings the liberation of love.

The man answers correctly that to be fully present in the eternal life with God, one is to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, all one’s strength, and all one’s mind – and that one is to love neighbor as self. He thinks it is all about the correct answer, but Jesus takes it a step further.

You can’t just say you love God and love your neighbor – there is action behind it. And those who understand this love ethic best – the ones who practice what Jesus preaches are often those we would least expect.

In Jesus’ parable he uses the Samaritan as the one who understands loves liberation most of all. He uses for his example, not the one who preaches love, not the one who “knows” right from wrong, but he uses the one who knows rejection and abandonment – isolation and bondage. He uses for his example of a good neighbor – the one the hearers of the story would not want to even be touched by.

He names the good neighbor as the one hated by the hearer: the drug dealer on the streets; the ISIL terrorist; the Boko Haram thug; the crooked politician; the welfare recipient; the one that represents everything we think is wrong with the world – this is the one Jesus uses as the example of the good neighbor.

Jesus shakes things up and the liberation of love makes its way to the top.

Jesus names the hated as the good neighbor because it forces us to see them, too, as a child of God. It forces us to begin to see the ones we despise as created in the same image of God as we are – and when that that happens the liberation of love begins to loose the chains on our hearts that prevent us from loving God fully.

When we get so focused on what is wrong with those who are not like us; when we get so focused on how it is that those people can do those things; when we go so focused on how mixed up and wrong everyone else is – we miss seeing that we, too, are in need of the liberation that those we judge are. We get so focused on the speck in our neighbors eyes that we miss the logs in our own. And we become enslaved by our own holier-than-thou-ness. We become trapped by our own ego and pride. We come to Jesus seeking affirmation rather than transformation.

But Jesus us about transformation. He is about transforming the man who brought he question. He is about transforming the image of the outcast. He is about transforming the bondage of sin with the liberation of love.

Jesus tells this story because it is about a God who none would expect to meet a broken and beaten mess on the side of the road. It is about a God who takes the broken sinner and makes them whole. It is about a God who meets us with a liberating love that binds the wounds of our broken hearts and makes us whole. Who transforms us into people who can love God with our whole beings and transform the world because we love our neighbors as ourselves.

When we see the liberation of love in our lives we are able to tear down the walls that separate. We are able to name the cycles of racism in our midst. We are able to say that there are systems in place that unfairly treat persons of color and poor people differently than those with means. We can name that even though illegal drug use is about the same amongst whites and blacks it is disproportionately blacks who are put in prison for possession. We can name that there is a new Jim Crow that determines a child’s worth to society by their third grade test scores. We can name the bondage that is need of loves liberation.

And we can stand boldly on the Gospel claim that in Christ there is no east or west. That in Christ all of us are equally God’s children – it does not matter what your station in life; it does not matter your race; it does not matter your sexuality or gender identity; it does not matter your age; it does not matter if you even believe in God because when we live in the liberation of love we are able to see everyone as a Child of God. We are able to see people for the content of their character and not the color of their skin. We are able to see that we are all beaten up and bloodied victims of the world in need of a savior that comes along the side of the road to lift us up.

The liberation of love is what binds our wounds.

The liberation of love is what ties us to one another.

The liberation of love is what frees us from the powers of the world.

The liberation of love is what brings us into relationship with God and one another.

The liberation of love is the freedom we find in the crucified Lord.

The liberation of love is what delivers us from the cycles of hate and fear.

The liberation of love is what will rebuild our communities.

The liberation of love is what is the cornerstone of our faith.

The liberation of love is God with us.

The liberation of love is God working in the lives of each one of us. When we live in the liberation love of God we love people not because we like them, but because God loves them. The universe is on the side of Justice. The universe is one the side of love. How can it not be? We have a God who gave up everything to find us on the side of the road.

The universe is on the side of love because while the grief of Good Friday may last for a day – the hallelujah shout of Easter rings for eternity.

To quote Dr. King – “Evil may so shape events that Caesar may occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., such that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name…so we can walk and never get weary, because we know that there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land of freedom and justice.”

In the liberation of love were are freed to love God so fully that we can do nothing other than love our neighbors as ourselves. Because they are are so fully loved by the same God who, in the guise of one hated and despised came to meet us on the side of the road and free us from our broken and bloodied state. Binding our wounds and making us whole. Liberating us with love.

Thanks be to God.


Sermon: A Strange Gift

A Strange Gift
Matthew 2:1-12

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Happy 11th day of Christmas! Today is the second Sunday after Christmas, but because we are not bound by the rigors of liturgical rubrics, we are celebrating today the Feast of Epiphany (two days early). Epiphany is the traditional end to the Christmas season – this time of gift giving and merry making. Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas and has influenced everything from Christmas Carols – I think there is one about 12 days of Christmas – all the way to a play by William Shakespeare aptly called Twelfth Night.

The celebration of Epiphany is one of the most ancient feasts for the Church, though, especially in our hyper commercialized world, Christmas Day has overtaken its importance. The Feast of Epiphany is still highly celebrated in many places, and it is the celebration of the Illumination of Jesus – Immanuel – God With Us – among God’s people. In fact, there are ancient liturgies that cover three Sundays – Epiphany (Revelation), Jesus’ Baptism (Manifestation), and The Wedding at Cana (Declaration) – tradition held that they were all happened on the same day. Before Christmas became its own feast day, part of the celebration of Epiphany was a remembrance of the birth of Christ, but the important thing was not just that Jesus was born – but that he was recognized – his light shining for all to see.

As liturgies (and for those unfamiliar with the word liturgy – I am speaking of worship services) around Epiphany began to take shape the tradition reading from the Gospels was the one we heard this morning – the arrival of the magi to the home of the baby. And if Janet were here she would want me to emphasize that they were not at the manger on Christmas eve like all the creche scenes show, but that it was in fact after the birth and after the manger and the stable. Mary and Joseph were probably at the home of a relative in Bethlehem at this time.

The story of the Magi has been the one long associated with the feast of Epiphany and their bearing of gifts is where we get our tradition of gift giving at Christmas time. Their strange gifts to a peasant baby, born to a working class father and a teen-age mother. And that is what I would like to focus on today – A strange gift.

Imagine what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to see this caravan arriving at their relatives’ home. Imagine the relatives reaction. Now remember, no where does it say there were only three magi (and magi means wise one or seers). We assume there were three because there were three gifts, but in the Eastern tradition they say there were twelve. Whether it was three or twelve or fifty doesn’t really matter, the thing is that these strangers who arrived inthis small farm town of Bethlehem, called the city of bread. And regardless of the number I am pretty sure they each brought along their own retinue of people – servants and porters and what not. Into Bethlehem, unimportant Bethlehem, comes this caravan.

Camels and horses, strangers in bizarre clothes. Unknown scents emanating from the portable brasiers. The ones who seemed to be leading the caravan were in white from head to toe. Simple design, yet an unfamiliar material. They seemed like priests, but no priests that were known to the residents. There was no gold or jewels on them. The only color was the scarfs wrapped around their faces to keep the dust at bay. The magi, these wise ones, these seers were probably Persians priests of Zoaester. An ancient monotheistic religion from Persia.

The caravan processed, almost with a royal cadence, and finally stopped at the place that was the home of the baby. Who was this baby that it brought the dirty and roughneck shepherds from the hills to a manger, and now these – these strangers. No one seemed to notice the bright light that shone over head.

And here were Mary and Joseph, holding tight to the young Jesus, uncertain what these strangers were about. When without fanfare the magi dismount their rides and humbly ask to enter the home. Of course, being responsible Jews, they welcomed the strangers as Abraham welcomed the strangers – for they could be entertaining angels unaware.

We are not privy to the conversation between the magi and the parents, but they must have been enamored by this baby. This baby whose birth was announced to them by a star shining. Something so unique about it that they had to explore. They left their homes and their duties in order to explore this strange gift of light. They must have been even more entranced by the strangeness of this child when the King of the Jews himself – Herod – inquired about his where about. There was something about this baby that cause them to fall on their faces before him offering him the strange gifts of Gold – the gift for a king; frankincense – the incense offered to God in the temple; and myrrh – an incense offering as well as a healing balm – and more terrifying to the young mother and embalming ointment. These strangers and their strange gifts offered to the one who was a strange gift to them.

And as quickly as they had arrived they departed, but instead of leaving town the way the entered, they went a different way – told in a dream that this strange gift should not be made known to the king who seemed so enamored.

***

Strange gifts. Those odd things we receive that make us scratch our heads. They can make us laugh or they can make us cry, or they can just make us scratch our heads and say, “huh.” Most of us here have at one time or another gotten a strange gift.

I asked on Facebook and twitter for some strange gifts that some of my friends have received. One got a Flowbee – if you don’t know what this is it is a miracle of modern science – it is hair clippers that attach to a vacuum cleaner so that when you trim your hair it doesn’t get on the floor! Another friend got an electric roaster, another every imaginable kind and size of knitting needle, microwave potato cooking bags, a 25 piece screwdriver set, and a gallon – yes a gallon – of hot sauce.

These are all weird and unusual gifts, but when I asked people to post, I added the caveat that it had to be something that brought happiness or blessing. I wanted to see if people could find the blessing in the strangeness. And all of these things – all of these strange gifts – mean something deeply profound to those who received them.

As I was looking at the list of gifts, though, one jumped out and bit me in the face. One of my friends said that being diagnosed with a genetic mutation that predisposes her to various cancers was a strange gift that has changed her life.

Her words brought me back to the house in Bethlehem with Mary seeing the gifts of the magi – the gift for a king, the gift for a priest, the gift for a healer and the gift for the dead. As these strange gifts were opened in front of Mary, I can only imagine her thoughts. These gifts tell the story of the baby she had only recently born. This baby – her gift – was destined to live and die for the sake of the world. These gifts from the magi illuminated the strange gift of Jesus.

Jesus was born into a world and a place that was dark and oppressive. Born into a world where a king wished him dead. Born into a world that treated his people as dirt. Born into a world were shame and honor were the defining characters of society. Born into a world with nothing.

This strange gift was laid out for the world to see. He walked amongst the poor and the forgotten. He sat and ate with sinners. He reversed the understanding of shame and honor, blessing the poor, giving promise to the meek. He turned the social order of violence on its head saying that they way of the Reign of God is by loving your enemies and defiantly turning the other cheek.

This strange gift was laid out for the world to see. Bringing healing to the lame. Sight to the blind. Hope to the one diagnosed with a genetic mutation.

This strange gift is still with us – constantly opening our eyes. Liberating our sprits.

Who would have thought, five years ago, that we would be here today opening our doors to an art school for the kids of the neighborhood – a school that is transforming lives inside and outside of the church?

Who would have thought that a food pantry that at one time just handed out food, would become a model for other food pantries in how we interact and dignify all of our guest that walk through the door – welcoming them as the strange gift – as Jesus himself?

Who would have thought, three years ago, that we would again have a growing and vibrant children’s Sunday school class?

Who would have thought that people from the neighborhood, who have never worshiped with us, are excited about what we have to offer – a place of acceptance and grace. A place that exudes the love of God. People want to come here – it just looks different than it did 20 years ago.

And that is the strange gift of Jesus – he is always changing things and creating things anew. He is laid out for us – offering all he has.

Sisters and brothers, we have been offered a strange gift. A gift that just doesn’t make sense with what the words says is a good gift. The strange gift we have been given is a gift that is self-sacrificing; it loves unconditionally; it sees the image of God in everybody; it shakes the dust off the status quo of the world and offers us something brand new.

It offers us a way of life that can stand at the dark precipice of whatever life throws at us and give us the ability to say, “I am stronger that that. I am a child of the Light of God. I am loved by a God who can take whatever you throw at time. I am a child of God and will never be abandoned. I have a God who knows suffering and pain; addiction and disgrace; I have a God who weeps when his friend dies; I have a God who gave up everything just so I know I am loved. Bring it on. Bring whatever you have on – It ain’t gonna bring me down. God gave me a strange gift, and it is what makes me strong. It is what carries me when I am weak. I am loved and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”

This gift breathed life into Adam.

This gift gave Sarah a baby.

This gift split open the Red Sea.

This gift tore down the walls of Jericho.

This gift fed two starving women.

This gift defeated a Philistine Giant.

This gift stood in the face of kings and said, “Thus says the Lord.”

This gift fought for her people.

This gift was born in Bethlehem.

This gift was killed on Calvary.

This gift broke thru the cave door of the grave.

This gift filled an upper room.

This gift crossed the Roman Empire and converted a king.

This gift took root in Africa.

This gift raised up leaders.

This gift built a church.

This gift traveled across Europe.

This gift crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

This gift was banished from Massachusetts.

This gift founded Providence.

This gift came to Indiana.

This give came to Tuxedo Park.

This gift came to Emerson Avenue.

This gift is here today and is in this place and ain’t nothing gonna keep you fro the love of a God who from the first breath of Adam meant for you to be be here and hear this word. You are loved. You are loved. The strange gift is a a God who love you. Who as loved you since the first breath of creation. Who has loved you though your dark and questioning times. Who has loved you when you have not loved in return. Who has loved you and who loves you now and will love you forever more.

Thanks be to God.


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