Sunday, August 30, 2020

13th Sunday After Pentecost (Year A) - August 30, 2020

13th Sunday After Pentecost
Year A
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-28

What does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah?

This morning’s text continues where we left off from last week. As a brief recap, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a regional capital of the Roman Empire, Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks the disciples who they say that he is. In front of the symbols of nation, in front of the idols of Rome, Peter, in a moment of triumph in his faith story proclaims, “You are the messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then proclaims that upon Peter, this rock, Jesus will build his church. 

Okay. Great. Last week, things seemed to be going in a positive direction.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed. And on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.’”

Welp. That went down hill quickly. Peter, who just a few verses before, is declared to be the rock on

which the church will be built, is now not a block for building but a stumbling block for the Messiah. Peter got the title of Jesus right. But there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah the Son of the Living God. There were a bunch of theories on who the messiah would be and what the messiah would do. Some thought, for instance, that the Messiah would lead a revolt against Rome and finally free Israel from the rule of oppressors – a militaristic view of the Messiah. There was certainly a line of thought that believed that the messiah would bring with him worldly power and riches. It is hard to know exactly who Peter expected Jesus to be as the Messiah; he doesn’t explain in detail. But it seems to have never crossed Peter’s mind that the Son of the Living God would, well, die.  

“God forbit it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

We, as folks who have heard the story year after year, know that the cross is coming. But I wonder if we too find ourselves misunderstanding what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God – albeit on the other end of the spectrum. One commentator, Raquel St. Clair Lettsome, writes this, “Perhaps the story has become too sanitized. We are now so comfortable with the end of the story, so confident in Jesus’ resurrection, that his crucifixion no longer looms large. Jesus is no longer a threat to established religion or the sociopolitical system many religious groups lobby to uphold. The teachings of Jesus no longer confront but instead endorse the way things are. The result is that for many professing followers of Jesus, Jesus and the religious rulers are of one accord, backed by the government while simultaneously backing the government. Two thousand years have passed, and the scandalous, deadly language of the cross sounds almost hyperbolic amid the myriad of crosses decorating our paraments, houses of worship, clothing, knickknacks, and skin. Crosses are easily borne as ornaments disconnected from discipleship.” (Connections: A Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Kindle Locations 8888-8894)

We see the cross. But do we really “get” the cross. Because as we dig into what that cross event means – with the social, religious, and political (not partisan) implications of it, we find ourselves squirming. When we wrestle with the real world implications of following this Jesus, this Messiah of the Son of the living God, I wonder if we too say, “God forbid it.”  

So what does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God?

This is the paradox of the Christian faith: we meet the Messiah on the cross. We encounter the Son of the Living God in the outstretched arms of a dying man, in his cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” and in breathing his last. It is there that the love of God, the love of the God who risked everything to become human, to repair a broken relationship with humanity, to bring healing to a broken world, is made known. On the cross, God does this new and radical thing to turn the world on its head. And to turn our expectations of God on its head.

The cross is the world’s reaction to God’s love. The cross is the world’s reaction to the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings. Because this one, this Messiah, God’s anointed, will transform the world and set things right. In lifting up the lowly, in standing with the outcast, in eating with tax collectors and sinners, in being the messiah, the son of the Living God, Jesus is a threat to the status quo. Jesus humanizes the dehumanized. Jesus stands with and lives life with the people the world would rather forget, would rather hide, would rather ignore.  We find him standing with the lost, the lonely, the immigrant/ foreigner/ stranger, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsting, the outcast, the marginalized, the dehumanized. We find, in Jesus, a Kingdom the lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful. Coming into the world, Herod hunts him to kill him. Precisely because of the threat Jesus brings to the status quo. And this one isn’t met with praise and welcome, but rejected. The cross is a consequence of this kind of life and ministry that Jesus came for. Because he and his ministry (and thus also the ministry of his followers) is seen as a threat.

As I was talking to a seminary friend this week (about something completely unrelated… it’s funny how the Spirit works sometimes), Francisco reminded me of a passage in one of my favorite books, One Coin Found, written by Pastor Emmy Kegler – an ELCA Pastor in Minneapolis. She writes: 

“Jesus suffered and died not because he was a sinner but because his full and honest truth made all those in power recoil in fear. Certainly something more cosmic could and would happen in that death, but the story itself bore the truth: Jesus died because the religious and political elite hated him. He died because he intentionally aligned himself with those on the edges. He placed himself among the poor who did not have enough bread for an afternoon on a hillside, among the tax collectors who colluded with the empire, among simple smelly fishermen, among those whose skin puckered with leprous scars or the violence of the demons that possessed them, among women who were Samaritans or bleeding or caught in the act of adultery or foolish enough to sit at his feet and dare to learn. He dared to declare the kingdom of God was at hand and that it was among the last and least. He claimed titles for himself that a carpenter’s son from backwater Nazareth had no business speaking: Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God.

I needed this. I needed someone to tell me that all my differences, my impossibilities, my queerness, everything in me that pushed me to the edge of society was not going to prevent my inclusion. I needed to know that all the barriers the world would put up between me and God were worthy of crossing. I needed to hear that no matter how despised and rejected, no matter how acquainted with suffering, no matter how oppressed and afflicted, I was still worth something. The story was that my own sin was the chasm, but what I saw was a culture and a church happy to dig that ditch for me and drop me into it. In Jesus’s suffering and death, I heard it declared that no matter what evil and devastation the powers of this world could cook up to silence a message of mercy and love, God was going to find a way to cross it and bring me back. (Emmy Kegler, One Coin Found, 39-41).

“No matter what evil and devastation the powers of this world could cook up to silence a message of mercy and love, God was going to find a way to cross it and bring me – [and us, and all of humanity] – back.”

That’s what it means for Jesus to be the messiah. Jesus brings with him the kind of love that liberates. The kind of love that brings deliverance. The kind of love that brings us back to God. Again. And Again. And again. And that kind of life and ministry and love leads us to the cross. And Jesus lives that kind of life anyway, knowing that that is exactly where this kind of life – the kind of life that lives out the love of God - leads. 

When Jesus tells those who follow him to take up our crosses, he’s asking us to take up that kind of life – centered in the love of God.  It is a call to stand with and live life with the people the world would rather forget, would rather hide, would rather ignore.  Jesus wants to find us standing with the lost, the lonely, the immigrant/ foreigner/ stranger, the imprisoned, the hungry, the thirsting, the outcast, the marginalized, the dehumanized. Even when it comes at a cost to us. Jesus is calling us to the real world implications of Jesus’ life, ministry – the real world implications of the coming of the kingdom of God into this world. It is a call to see the ways of the world and the pain that those ways brings, and it is a call to stand with those who are harmed. 

It is a call, for instance, to see that racism indeed still infects our world – even the institutions and places that we love – and stand with our siblings of color and show that yes, their lives matter – despite the ways this world as it is devalues and dehumanizes them. We’re called to be theologians of the cross – calling a thing what it is, calling racism for what it is – an affront to God and to God’s people. We’re called to pursue justice, peace, healing, and wholeness for our lives and for our world. We’re called to be Christ for our neighbor. We’re called to this, even if it leads to our own crosses (a literal possibility for the earliest Christians). Even if it leads to our own rejection – in our faith communities, in our friend and family groups. And it is hard. And sometimes we go from the rocks of the church’s foundation to stumbling blocks. 

But we do this following the Jesus who, to quote Audrey West, “puts his life on the line ahead of all who follow him” (Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28).  Jesus faced the worst of what this world can do. And on that cross we’re shown the kind of love that continually brings us back. It is only by that love that we first received that we can do it at all. 


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Ash Wednesday (Upper James City County Ministerium) - February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday
Upper James City County Ministerium
February 26, 2020
Luke 23:26-34

Recently, I started reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal Priest and a professor of religion, entitled Learning to Walk in the Dark. It has been on my reading list for quite some time. Now, I just picked it up, so I’ve only finished the introduction and the first chapter (so I don’t yet know where she’s going with her walk in the dark), but as I started reading it, I began to think about learning to walk in the dark as a metaphor for Ash Wednesday and for Lent, in general. In her introduction, she writes, “when I look around the world today, it seems clear that eliminating darkness is pretty high on the human agenda – not just physical darkness but also metaphorical darkness, which includes psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual darkness… If I had my way, I would eliminate everything from chronic back pain to the fear of the devil from my life and the lives of those I love – if I could just find the right night light to leave on” (Taylor, 4-5).

I find a lot of truth in that. And to an extent, it is only natural. When I get home from work, this time of year, it is already dark. The first thing I do, as I’m walking in the door, is tell Alexa to turn my living room lights on; there’s fear of what we can’t see. We don’t want to experience pain. We take Tylenol or advil at the first sign of aches and pains. There’s this urge to look away or deny the pain and the darkness around us. In this society, we don’t often face our mortality or the mortality of our loved ones, wanting to believe that we can stave off death. We don’t want to face the things that cause us pain – physical or emotional. We don’t want to be afraid. We don’t want to face loss. We don’t want to face death. At its extreme, there’s this push to find immortality – in power, in money, in extreme medical procedures. Facing mortality and walking in the darkness is radical and countercultural in this world that tries to convince us – with enough wealth, with the right medical treatments, with the right attitude, with the right prayers – that we can stave off death.

Last summer, my grandmother had a health scare. Double pneumonia caused by undiagnosed congestive heart failure. I was there as the doctor was laying out treatment options. “We’ll start with lower grade medications – they come with lower risks of severe side effects. Given your age, we don’t think it’ll have much of an effect. If they don’t work, we’ll move to stronger medications – but they come with higher risks, so we’ll have to keep you for a few more days. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll have to put in a pacemaker.”

My grandmother immediately said, “No. I do not want a pacemaker. I’ve had 84 good years. I do not want a pacemaker.” My cousin responded, “well, then you’ll break your granddaughter’s heart.” The doctor responded, “well, my job is to get you to 100.” To which, my grandmother said again, “I’ve had 84 good years. I’m happy with my life. I do not want a pacemaker.” I’ve never heard her so assertive about anything. She’s the kind that will often do what makes others happy, but she was adamant. When I left, I gave her a hug, and affirmed that she should do what she wanted and needed to do for her, not to worry about us, fully believing that it would be the last time I saw her. Today, Gram’s fine. The lower grade meds did their thing, and she’s back to living her life well.

My point is this: Gram had learned somewhere somehow to walk in the dark, knowing that whatever she faces, walking in the day or in the night, God walks with her. She has faced the mortality of her loved ones: her parents, her brother, her friends. She has faced her own mortality for years, telling me things like, “Gram’s ready to go whenever the Good Lord is ready for her.” “If there’s anything of mine that you want, you be sure to tell your Gram.” And to be honest, hearing her say those things always made me uncomfortable. And I’ll never be ready for “the Good Lord to take her.” But it wasn’t until seeing her in this health scare this summer, that I truly faced her mortality. Even after losing two grandparents already, I didn’t want to face it (and if I’m really honest, I don’t want to face it; but I will fight for what she wants the end of her life to be). Yet in a world that tells my gram that she should do everything she can to extend her life, that the goal is to live to 100, she said no. She’s learned to walk in the dark.

Today, we hear a portion of Luke’s passion narrative. Our Lenten theme this year is on the people of the cross. And tonight, we encounter the women that followed Jesus, the “daughters of Jerusalem”, highlighted only in the Gospel of Luke. These women were well acquainted with the dark. And they follow Jesus into the darkest part of Jesus’ life and Jesus’ story. The disciples have scattered. The road was simply too dark. They needed to find a night light. I don’t say that as a criticism; I don’t pretend that I’d do any better myself. Fear of the dark, fear of the death of their loved one, fear of their own deaths were just too much.

Yet these women, like so many of the prophets of Israel’s past, see the darkness, stare it in the face, and lament. Lament over the faithlessness of God’s people, lament over the ways that people suffer under the powers that be, lament over the injustice happening right in front of them. They lament the brokenness of the world that leads to the death of Jesus. They lament the power of sin that leads to the death-dealing ways of this world. They walk in the darkness and dare to stare it in the face. In a world that encourages them to shy away from the darkness of the world and to ignore it, staring it in the face is an act of bravery and an act of trust. In a world that says that tears, that weeping and mourning are signs of weakness, beating their breasts and wailing for Jesus, is an act of defiance in the face of injustice.

The Rev. Dr. Craig Kocher, chaplain at the University of Richmond, puts it this way: “Here [in the cries of the women] once again the dramatic story of God’s relationship with humankind is put on display. The powers that be have their way, while the innocent suffer. The people’s faith falls prey to fear and is placed in political, military, and religious institutions rather than the love of neighbor and the faithfulness of God. The voice of God’s kingdom prophet crying out in the wilderness is brutally silenced. The women’s lament highlights the grief within the Godhead, the cries of God the Father weeping for the sake of God the Son, a cry that will be lifted again in the silence of God the Spirit at Jesus’ dying breath” (Feasting on the Gospels, Luke – Vol. 2, ).

By walking the journey to the cross, by following Jesus there, these women found courage: a courage that allowed them to lament. A courage that allowed them to embrace righteous anger at the injustices of the world. And a courage that pushed them to see the course to its end. This Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, tells us that a group of unnamed women who followed him were the ones who saw him laid in the tomb. And the unnamed group of women who followed him were the ones to first see the empty tomb. Eventually Luke tells us that it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James who told the apostles. But it was a crowd of women who had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem, to the tomb who were there that first Easter morning. By walking in the dark, they were the first to experience the new day and the new life of the resurrection. They were the first to see that death is not the end of the story. They were the first to see that the ways of this world and the powers of this world, while mighty and death dealing – will not win in the end. As Jesus tells the women, they will have to walk in the dark again (and they do when Jerusalem in destroyed in 70CE). But the promise of the empty tomb is that the death-dealing ways of the world do not have the final word – for them – or for us.

Tonight, we gather here on Ash Wednesday and we receive the imposition of ashes. We hear “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (or some similar words). They are a reminder of our mortality. That we too will die. They are a reminder of our sin. And they are a reminder of the dealing ways of the world, of the sin and injustice that is within us and that surrounds us. These ashes remind us that, because sin and brokenness are part of our lives and part of our world, we need Jesus. We need God’s grace, we need God’s forgiveness, we need God’s life to break in to our lives and into our world.
And tonight, we set out on a journey through Lent, a walk in the darkness that leads us to Jerusalem – a walk that finally leads us to the cross. We walk to the cross – that place where God meets us in our darkness, where God meets us in the injustices of the world, where God meets us in the worst of what human life can bring. On the cross, God, in Jesus, makes it known that God doesn’t shy away from the darkness, but embraces us there. In Jesus, God walks in the dark too. Because in Jesus, God has walked in the darkness, has died on the cross, has been through the worst of what human life can bring, God shows us that not even death – the death of God’s beloved son at our hands – can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus. We are free to honestly and bravely walk in the dark – the dark of our mortality, the darkness of the world’s injustice, whatever darkness we may face – because God has been there too. We don’t journey this alone, but with God by our side.

The ashes we receive today remind us that our walk in the darkness doesn’t have the last word. We have the gift of living on this side of Easter morning. These ashes, made in the sign of the cross, are placed where many of us were marked with the cross of Christ at our baptism, where many of us were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” We are free to walk in the dark because of the promises of Christ made to us – that we are joined to not only Jesus’ death but also his resurrection – “for if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Jesus frees us from the power of sin and death, from the power of the darkness of the world, receiving the promise that “resurrection means that the worst thing is not the last thing.” We can walk in the dark because from the dark of Good Friday, we get the new day of Easter morning. We are joined to that story; we are joined to the empty tomb and to the promise of resurrection and new life. So we walk in the darkness with the promise of that light and life of Easter morning, a promise made to each one of us.

These ashes remind us not only who we are: sinners in desperate need of God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness. But these ashes remind us whose we are: God’s beloved children, named, claimed and saved by the grace of God through faith apart from the things we do or don’t do for the sake of Christ. And nothing, not our sin, not our mortality, not the darkness of our lives or our world can change whose we are. Because God has claimed us, because of God’s grace, we can follow the call to walk in the dark with courage to center our lives around the cross. Placing our faith in the one that declares victory over death and the grave, we can dare, like the women of Jerusalem, to look honestly and courageously at death and sin in its face, lamenting the sin and brokenness of our lives and of the world.  Placing our faith in the one that declares victory over death and the grave, we can dare to live out our identity as beloved and redeemed children of God, for the sake of a broken world in need. As we turn toward the cross, we can learn to walk in the dark, knowing that it is Jesus that walks right there with us.


Ash Wednesday (OSLC) - February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday
February 26, 2020
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

As I was preparing for this sermon, I read an article in The Christian Century by Matt Fitzgerald, 5 Times a day, the WeCroak app reminds me that I’m going to die. I liked this, until I didn’t.” In the article, he tells about an app, called the WeCroak app, that reminds users that they are going to die. Not once. Not twice. But five times per day. Seriously, the app exists. I checked. It has four and a half stars on the Google Play app store, with over ten thousand downloads. It seems to have morphed a bit since Matt used in in 2018. When he used it, five times per day, it said the same thing: don’t forget, you’re going to die. Now, the app promises five quotes per day to help “find happiness by contemplating your mortality.” In our society, we’ve become death avoidant. Facing mortality is radical and countercultural in this world that tries to convince us – with enough wealth, with the right medical treatments, with the right attitude – that we can stave off death.
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Reviews for the app include this one from Kyle: “having this app for a little over a week now has been an experience to say the least… It has been interesting to have random reminders that I’m going to die, we all know this, but contemplating it regularly has shifted my lifestyle to a more pleasant experience simply by understanding this is it and I need to live fully aligned with who I am to feel fulfillment. I will never delete this app. 😊”

And for a time, for Matt, it worked. He found that by remembering his mortality he found more patience with his kids, speaking softly to them instead of going into a rage with them. Usually the alerts happened when nothing notable was happening, but in his words “nothing happens, but my coffee tastes better. Nothing changes, but I notice the sunlight pouring through the bay window. Before I had the app, I rarely found such pleasure in the mundane. A microdose of mortality can make the day glow.”

But there came a time when those notifications fell short – when the grief of his father’s death as a young teenager came pouring back. “As WeCroak pulled me under, down into the depths of existence, it also pulled me back into the pain I’d silenced long ago.” It is a reminder of death, of one’s own mortality without the promise of new life, without Christ. He said that, in the end, the app “ask[ed] [him] to put [his] faith in the grave.” But as Christians, we put our faith in the Christ who has victory over the grave, the one who says that death will never have the final word. He deleted the app.

Today, we do face our mortality. And that is an important part of Ash Wednesday. Today, we do hear the words, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” In Lent, we are setting out in a walk toward Jerusalem. We are setting out on a journey toward the cross. To the place where God, made known in the person of Jesus, dies. We don’t get the joy of Easter morning without Good Friday. We don’t get resurrection without death. For it is in death - in Jesus’ death on a cross - God’s love is ultimately made known to us and to all humanity. It is here that God, in Jesus, makes it clear that not even death - including the death of God’s beloved Son at our hands - can separate us from God’s life-giving and redeeming work in the world.

Because we are mortal, because we are in bondage to sin, we need Jesus. We need the journey to Jerusalem. We need the journey to the cross. The journey to Jerusalem is one marked by repentance, by turning back toward God, reorienting our lives yet again to God’s work in Christ Jesus. The journey to Jerusalem is marked by the acknowledgement that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. These ashes are a reminder that We need God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s life.

But the ashes we receive today don’t stop there. The ashes follow the sign of the cross, the cross that was marked on each of our foreheads at our baptism. We can face our own mortality because of the promises of baptism. When we were baptized, we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It is a reminder that we have already been named and claimed as a child of God. We recall the gift of baptism, where in those waters, not only are we joined into the body of Christ, it is also where we have already died and risen with Christ. In the waters of baptism, we have received the promise that, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “resurrection means that the worst thing is not the last thing.” While we recognize our mortality and our sin, because of Christ, Sin and death no longer hold power over us. We trust not in the grave, but in Christ. Christ’s love, Christ’s death are what frees us from sin and death. As we say in our thanksgiving for baptism at funerals: “when we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

These ashes remind us not only who we are: sinners in desperate need of God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness. But these ashes remind us whose we are: God’s beloved children, named, claimed and saved by the grace of God through faith apart from the things we do or don’t do for the sake of Christ. And nothing, not our sin, not our mortality, can change whose we are. With those reminders, we are set out to live as the risen body of Christ for the sake of the world.

To quote Daniel Ehrlander, “Baptized into his death, we are raised to live as the body of Christ in the world today.” The call to repentance today is a call to return to our baptismal callings, to center our lives around the cross, to risk looking at death and sin in its face, place our faith in the one that declares victory over death and the grave, and to dare to live out our identity as beloved and redeemed children of God.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Transfiguration Sunday (Year A) - February 23, 2020

Year A
February 23, 2020
Matthew 17:1-9

Transfiguration comes as this bridge between Epiphany and Lent. A bridge between the season where Jesus is revealed as Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as light in the darkness and the season marked by the journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. We come to worship this weekend seemingly with a foot in each season - we are still in the liturgy of the Epiphany season (with This is the Feast, singing Alleluia as part of the Gospel acclamation), yet we are also looking forward toward Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent with its midweek services, lenten meals, etc. We’re moving from the uplifting stories of Jesus’ baptism and the challenging words of Law from the Sermon on the Mount to readings that show us that this Messiah, this Son of God is not the messiah we’d choose or that we’d expect, but the Messiah who reveals God’s self-emptying and life-transforming nature, a nature marked by servanthood, forgiveness, mercy, and never ending love for all the world, a nature marked by the cross.

David Lose, a pastor and a professor at Luther Seminary, talks about this season in this way: “Across [Epiphany]’s Sundays, we discover the significance of the Jesus whose birthday we just celebrated… In this regard, I like to think of the Christmas message as a tightly, even intricately packaged Christmas gift which takes the whole of Epiphany to unwrap and discover. Transfiguration Sunday draws the season to a close, and Matthew’s account provides the nearly perfect bookend to the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read on the first Sunday of Epiphany… At the same time, Tranfiguration leans unmistakably into Lent, as Jesus comes down the mountain to head to the death he speaks of during that very descent.”

Our gospel lesson for today also has a foot in both seasons, so to speak. On one hand, today’s gospel echos the season of Epiphany, revealing something about Jesus’ identity in this moment of transfiguration - a change in form, a metamorphosis - on this mountain. The transfiguration itself is revealing, perhaps, a glimpse of a future post-resurrection glory, or that Christ is light in the darkness, or that Christ has a place among the Jewish great prophets, but more importantly, today’s Gospel reveals or confirms who this Jesus person is in relationship with God and in relationship to the world. As the scene unfolds, the bright cloud overshadows them, and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” drawing us back to the words of God from Jesus’ baptism. In this way, this Transfiguration of Christ serves to not only reiterate but also to confirm the identity of Christ revealed in his baptism. This is the Son of God, in whom divinity and humanity become one and can no longer be separated.

This Son of God, revealed both here in the Transfiguration and in the Baptism at the Jordan, is one opposed to the typical workings of this world, is one opposed to a religious establishment that has seemingly turned inward, and is one opposed to the Roman empire and its emperors (who in Roman society were also thought to be sons of God). Whereas this world sees power in strength, in might, and in riches, Christ as the Son of God models power found in service, in humility, in community, in love of God and stranger.

On the other hand, when we look closely at this passage and put it within its context, the Transfiguration pushes us into Lent and into the journey to the cross. Within the Gospel of Matthew itself, this passage comes at a point of transition; the focus is shifting from the ministry of Jesus to Israel to Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and to the cross. Just a few verses earlier, Peter is the first person within the Gospel to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, which signals the beginning of that shift. Jesus then explains what it means to be the Messiah, foretelling his death and resurrection for the first of three times, and he explains what it means to be a follower of this Messiah, telling the disciples that they must pick up their crosses and follow him. Following today’s passage, Jesus cures a boy of a demon and then foretells his death and resurrection for the second time. Because of it’s position within the Gospel of Matthew, the transfiguration cannot be separated from the journey to the cross and Jesus’ impending death and resurrection.

Furthermore, in the passage itself, the Gospel pushes us forward to the fulfillment of Christ’s identity as the son of God in his suffering, death, and resurrection. This Messiah, this Son of God is one that is deeply rooted in the sufferings of the world, to the point of his own death on the cross. In this moment seemingly of glory, of seeing Christ in dazzling white, of seeing Christ conversing with Moses and Elijah, Christ’s death and resurrection may seem distant, yet it is ever drawing closer. 

After witnessing the transfiguration, Peter asks Jesus to build the three dwelling places - one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. For, in Peter’s mind, it seems good that they be there and remain there (at least for a period of time). And Christianity has typically given him a hard time for it. Like his seemingly failed attempt at walking on water, this is talked about as further proof that he doesn’t “get” it. While he has the right words to talk about Jesus, he still doesn’t fully get what that identity means – what that name means. While that may be true, I’m not sure I’d do much better. Think about it: you’re on a mountain. With Jesus. Suddenly, Jesus is chatting with Moses and Elijah. Who would want to leave that? Who would want to leave that unmistakable glory? That moment that it is so clear that indeed God is with them – that God has met them in this person we call Jesus. It seems right and good to stay there, to keep experiencing this again and again.

Maybe, just maybe, we don’t give enough credit to Peter here. I think there’s a piece of him that knows – that really knows – that he’ll need to hold onto this experience as they journey forward. He has already heard Jesus tell of his impending death once. And the weight of Jesus’ declaration is slowly creeping in. And while we could read Peter’s response, as wanting to avoid that fate by remaining in this place, I wonder if we could see it another way. I wonder if Jesus’ words are finally starting to creep in and Peter knows that he’ll need to hold onto a picture of this moment to cope with what is about to come. And by holding onto the moment just a little longer, grasping on it a little longer, dwelling there a little longer, he feels like he can be better prepared for what is to come.
While no one directly answers the question, based on the rest of the passage, the answer becomes clear: they will not and cannot remain on the mountain top. His thought is interrupted The voice from the clouds points Peter, James, and John to Jesus as God’s Son. That voice from the clouds adds a command: “Listen to him!” The three disciples fall to the ground, literally fall on their faces, overcome by awe and by fear. Jesus comes over to them, touches them, and says “Get up and do not be afraid.” He touches them with the reassurance of their teacher, their friend, with the hand that has been with them the whole time. Peter already has what he needs; he doesn’t need to stay there. The presence of God in Jesus goes with them into the darkest places of the world. The one that has already been with them will be the one that sustains them through the end.

These two commands - “Listen to him” and “Get up and do not be afraid” - push the disciples out of this moment of glory on top of a mountain down toward the other disciples, the people, and finally toward the cross. It is these commands, along with Jesus’ touch, that push these three disciples back down the mountain, transforming them, providing strength and reassurance for journey ahead of them, with all of its struggles and hardships. These words assure them that the divine presence remains with them in Christ even as they move away from the mountain top. The divine presence doesn’t stay on the mountain, but in Christ, the divine comes down, dwells with the people, and takes the hard road to Jerusalem and to the cross.

Today, the Transfiguration pushes us to what is to come.  Jesus’ messiahship is rooted in the cross and the journey there. The cross is the place where God’s self-emptying and life-transforming nature is finally fully revealed. Here, Christ chooses to meet us and all of humanity, in weakness, in vulnerability, in loneliness and isolation, in suffering, in dying. It is a mission that cannot be separated from the realities of the hardships of human existence. No wonder Jesus tells the disciples (and us) not to be afraid; it isn’t just a response to the terror of hearing God’s voice directly from the clouds, it is also in anticipation of the journey to come. Upon recognizing who Jesus is, the disciples, along with Christ, must come down from the mountain. They must journey toward the cross, transformed by the knowledge that they do not walk this journey alone. But they journey to the cross with the reassurance that, whether shining on the mountain top, or in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus remains. God’s beloved son will not leave them – or us. The glory on the mountaintop points to the presence of God that stays with us in the suffering in the valley. This is a God who descends again and again from the mountain to the depths of the world and its suffering.

That God who descends comes with a promise – the Easter promise tucked in at the end of this
passage – The Son of Man/ Humanity will be raised from the dead. There is something about the mountain top and about the journey to the cross that cannot be fully understood except through the lens of the resurrection. It is a promise that the darkness of the world and the darkness of our lives will not have the final answer, but the glory of God will break through again, that life and light will have the final word. The darkness of Good Friday will lead to the brightness of Easter morning.

After moving through Epiphany to Transfiguration, we too turn toward the cross. We encounter again this season a God who refuses to stay in the safety of the mountaintop, a God who descends into the valleys of our lives and into our world. Because this is who God is, we are freed to come down from the mountain top, to journey with Jesus like Peter and the disciples into the valleys of the world and toward the cross, to be in solidarity with others in their joys and their sorrows, in their hardships, and to be agents of God’s life-giving and self-emptying love to all the world.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

6 Epiphany (Year A) - February 16, 2020

Epiphany 6
Year A February 16, 2020
Matthew 5:21-37

A moment of confession: This is not this pastor’s favorite week to preach; there is so much going on our Gospel reading this morning – and we just can’t hit it all or I’d be preaching for an hour – and no one wants that. Our Gospel text for this morning is admittedly a difficult passage that has been used and misused in a variety of ways. In particular, Jesus’ strict words about divorce have been used in incredibly harmful ways, keeping people in abusive marriages or marriages that are unhealthy or just not working anymore (for whatever reason). Even though it is only two verses of this lengthy passage, these words on divorce ring loud, clear, and harsh, in part, because most of us know and love someone who is divorced and some people here have been divorced. Just in my family, both sets of grandparents divorced, my mom divorced her first husband before meeting my Dad, my uncle has been divorced twice, and I have three cousins who have been divorced at least once. To put it bluntly, without my mom’s divorce from her first husband, I wouldn’t be here. It is a hard text to hear with modern ears.

However, today, I hope to take today’s passage seriously looking at both the function of law and the context of relationships in the Kingdom of God as we begin to engage with this text in its entirety. Because it isn’t just or even mainly about divorce - it is about relationships and how we are in relationship with one another. It is about what life looks like in the community of the kingdom of God. Then, we maybe, just maybe we can better engage what Jesus is proclaiming on here the mount.

In seminary, our beloved Old Testament scholar, The Rev. Dr. Ralph Klein, talks about the Ten Commandments, particularly the 8 negative commandments - the you shall not commandments - as God’s playpen. Think about a playpen; we have them for pets and for infants. They create a boundary in which a child or a pet can play freely and ideally also safely. There is a boundary. But there’s a lot of room to play, to grow, to explore. Likewise, these eight commandments form the boundaries for the community of God’s people. Within those boundaries, the people can play and live with relative freedom. As long as you refrain from taking the Lord’s name in vain, refrain from murdering your neighbor, refrain from committing adultery, etc., you’re within the community’s boundaries. And there’s lots of room to play, to grow, to explore life together in community and in faith. There’s lots of room for wrestling, for questioning, for figuring out what life together looks like. However, breaking these laws, places one clearly outside of the boundaries of the community.

In this way, the Commandments curb sin for the sake of the greater good of the whole community. The law, then, is not meant to be a burden, but a gift – a gift given for the sake of the health and wellbeing of people and of the community. Remember, the law was given AFTER God had chosen Israel as God’s beloved people. The Law isn’t about earning God’s love; it is about living in a community formed by God’s love. Certain actions and behaviors are ruled out because they damage the community, but there is a great amount of freedom within those boundaries.

I wonder if my professor’s theory can help us figure out what is going on in today’s passage. Jesus takes several commandments from Hebrew Scripture - you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely – and, on one hand, digs deeper to what lies underneath them. Underneath committing murder is unresolved anger and underneath adultery is unrestrained lust. And on the other hand, today, Jesus pushes back against societal norms that can create unhealthy and dangerous situations. For instance, instead of putting the onus on women to “cover up” or to avoid being objects of the male gaze, Jesus says “no, the responsibility is on the person looking at another person to see them as a beloved child of God.” Jesus’ words today go against the culture of “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” that has existed throughout the millennia. It isn’t about what a woman is wearing (or not wearing). It is about how one looks at another human being. Do you see an object – one to be lusted after or to be used for one’s own pleasure? Or do you see a fellow human, made in the image of God?

To briefly turn back to Jesus’ comments on divorce. Divorce, in the ancient world, put women at risk. Only men could ask for a divorce. Women weren’t allowed to own property – because they were considered property. They couldn’t enter into contracts. Often, divorce, for a woman meant either returning to her parents’ home in shame or homelessness and (possibly) a life of prostitution. A divorced woman was placed in real danger. Whereas today, divorce sometimes is the most life-giving choice one can make, in the ancient world, divorce was a real threat to the life and the livelihood of women.

Making these comments, Jesus not only further defines or explains the boundaries for the community’s playpen, but also speaks to the environment and the relationships within the community’s playpen itself. What makes for a life-giving environment? The community is whole and healthy when the relationships within it are also whole and healthy. To be clear, Jesus is not contradicting the Law, but rather he is interpreting and expanding upon the Law to point us toward his vision of what ideally the Kingdom of God looks like.

Within those boundaries of God’s playpen - this world - what kind of community is hoped for? You have been saved by the grace of God. You have been freed from the power of sin and death. How do we enact that freedom in the community in which we live? You are recipients of God’s unconditional love. How do we live out that love in our community? how is our community shaped and defined by that love?

Jesus’ words today point to a hope that within God’s playpen the Kingdom of God will be fully realized - not just in some future afterlife, but in this world here and now - and it will be a life-giving community for all within it. Jesus’ comments today are about, in the words of our reading from Deuteronomy, choosing life – choosing the things that allow life not only to exist but to flourish. A life-flourishing community is one where people are reconciled and relationships are restored, where anger and lust are fleeting, and where people are trustworthy, where women are seen as children of God and protected, where people live up to their word (without the need for an oath). What a vision for community? Here, Jesus sets up some pretty high standards and expectations, not just within the context of marriage, but within the context of all of our relationships - relationships with family, with friends, with the neighbor and the stranger.

So on one hand, the law sets up the expectations for the community, curbing sin, trying to keep God’s people within the boundaries, yet on the other hand, it convicts us because we don’t live up to those expectations. Although we get glimpses of this Kingdom that is always pressing in, but we can also see WE so often miss the mark, our community so often misses the mark, the world so often misses the mark. Sin gets in the way. Our curved-in-on-self nature prevents this from being fully realized. Human brokenness leads to broken relationships with friends, with loved ones, with spouses, with others around us. That’s our reality. And that reality doesn’t live up to the ideal community of the people of God.

In reading this passage, I’m immediately convicted - and if we’re honest with ourselves most of us are convicted right from the beginning too. I have been angry with people. I’ve insulted people out of anger and frustration (and the insults in the Greek are relatively minor; I’ve used much worse insults than those words). And there are people in my life that I am not reconciled with - and probably never will be. There are relationships left broken because I haven’t put in the effort for reconciliation to happen (in other words, because of my laziness or negligence in that relationship). Yet if I’m honest, there are also relationships that I don’t have any desire to mend because I don’t want anything to do with that person (in other words, I’m actively choosing not to reconcile that relationship). The
hurt and the brokenness is too much. Based on Jesus’ words this morning, I’ll be thrown into prison until I can pay the last penny.

Last time I preached this text, I used a similar confession. In the handshake line, one of my beloved members said something to the effect of, “Oh good, so if Intern Pastor Alex can not be reconciled to people, then it’s okay if I’m not too.” Ehh. Not what I’m getting at. God wants better for us. God calls us to do better. That is absolutely clear in Jesus’ words today. Because God envisions a playpen that doesn’t just allow life to exist but encourages life to flourish and thrive. I’m looking honestly at the reality of the brokenness around us that infects our playpen. As much as we may try, we all do things that strain and break relationships with our neighbor. We all act in ways that fail to promote a life-giving community. We all fall short of the expectations of God and of the law. And without the Grace of God, Jesus paints a grim picture: judgment, imprisonment, and hell (or, better Gehenna, the trash dump outside of Jerusalem, a current reality – a “living hell” – not a future punishment in the afterlife).

Therefore, in addition to curbing sin and setting of God’s play pen boundaries, the law acts like a mirror showing us for who we are - sinners in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Although within this passage itself, words of grace are absent, we can look to words of Grace found elsewhere in the Gospels for the promises of God through Christ. Thankfully, we have a God that recognizes that this world isn’t yet what it should be, that our communities aren’t yet what it should be, that our relationships aren’t what they should be, and that we aren’t yet what we should be. We have a God that through Christ that promises grace and forgiveness so that we don’t need to fear punishment and hell because of our sin and our shortcomings.

Each Sunday, we gather around the table, and we hear the words proclaimed, “This is the cup of the new covenant, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin.” We trust in that promise. Here at the table, Christ promises to meet us in our own sin and our own brokenness, promises to love us, promises us forgiveness of sin. Here Christ sets us back on a life-giving, life-flourishing path, giving us new life through his body and blood, so that, although so often we may miss the mark, we may try again and we may become agents of God’s life-giving Kingdom for all the world. Because of God’s grace, because we can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God found in Christ Jesus, we are free to live life-giving, life-flourishing lives in God’s playpen. Because of God’s grace, you are invited into the kind of life envisioned in God’s playpen – the kind of life that reflects the kingdom of God – so we and all people can experience abundant and flourishing life found in the kingdom of God.


Thursday, February 13, 2020

5 Epiphany (Year A) - February 9, 2020

Epiphany 5
Year A
February 9, 2020
Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20

For the second week in a row, I find myself drawn to our word from the prophets. For the second week in a row, we hear a prophet wrestling with a people that are talking the talk but not walking the walk. This text comes from, what we tend to call “Third Isaiah,” the latest of three sections of the book of Isaiah, composed sometime after the Babylonian exile ended and the Jewish exiles were able to return home in 539BCE. All of that to say: this is somewhere around 200 years after our text from Micah last week. Yet the same issue is rising (as humans, we’re prone to making the same mistakes again and again, aren’t we?). They’re saying the right things, they’re observing Sabbath, they claim to “delight to draw near to God.” And still something is still off. People are serving their own interests and oppressing their workers. Their fast is leading not to a restored community but to quarrels and fights. Something went awry. There is a belief that by saying or believing the right things, they will bring about God’s favor. Yet there is still pain. There is still brokenness. Restoration and healing seem far from a reality. Though freed from exile, they still find themselves in darkness.

What becomes clear is that the darkness is self-inflicted. They had the gifts of God’s life, God’s redemption, God’s freedom – not because they earned it but because of God’s love poured out for them. They had those gifts because God is God. The people of Israel are God’s beloved people. Yet people are still living under the bonds of oppression. Workers aren’t being treated justly. The hungry are still hungry. The homeless find themselves without a roof over their head. The call to care for the neighbor and the stranger is not being lived out, despite the fasting and honest desire to be close to God.

The prophet in Isaiah today points us to this truth: true restoration and wholeness cannot be found as long as oppression and marginalization are real for our neighbors. When I was in Tanzania, I was introduced to the African ideal of ubuntu. As a concept, it comes out of South Africa, but it is a common ideal in many parts of Africa. In European/ American societies, we’re formed by individualism. We may have heard “I think, therefore I am.” We’re formed by the idea that we pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps (and thus those who are suffering need to “just” do the same). My main responsibility is for me and for my family. Ubuntu couldn’t be more different from that. Ubuntu is the idea that I am because we are. I am because of who we are in community together. In other words, I cannot be whole unless you are whole. What affects you affects me. Our community does not find healing unless each member within it finds healing. We are intimately connected. That’s much closer to the proclamation of God through the prophets. The questions today, then, to the people are these: Do you live in ways that promote healing not just for you but for your neighbor? Do you live in ways that bring light to people that live in darkness? Do you see the ways in which our health/ healing is intertwined with the health and healing of others?

We hear God’s answer, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” Notice what we don’t hear: well, the poor need to find a job. If you’re treated unjustly at work, if you’re not making a living wage, find a new job. Pull yourself up. No, instead, the burden is placed on the community. The responsibility for the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed is on the community as a whole. You’re not experiencing wholeness? You find yourself in the darkness? Look at the way your neighbor is treated. Look at the way your neighbor suffers. You want to experience wholeness, healing, and light – make them real for your neighbor. For the darkness that affects them engulfs you too.

God is calling God’s people to live the kind of life that fosters healing, that fosters wholeness, that fosters restoration – not just for the individual – but for the whole. Then, they will experience the gifts and blessings that they so long for – light, healing, help, having needs met. Those gifts that already belong to them will be made real. In relationship with one another, in breaking down the bonds of oppression, in feeding the hungry, in housing the poor, they experience the presence of God in their community – in one another. As a people, they had already experienced God’s life and God’s light. This is the God that brought them out of the land of Egypt. This is the God that led them through the wilderness. This is the God that set free the Exiles from Babylon. God is calling them to allow that life, that restoration, that healing to break into their lives, to transform them, to propel them. God, through Isaiah, calls them to dwell in God’s own life, God’s own healing, God’s own restoration. The call, then today, is to live out or to participate in the life and the healing that has already been given to them. By participating in God’s life, the life and light of God becomes reality for them and for all people. By living out God’s light and God’s life, they become the people that God wanted them to be from the beginning – a people in right relationship with God and in right relationship with each other.

Today, Jesus says it another way. “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Jesus today isn’t naming a hope for us. Jesus is naming a reality. You (all) – it is plural - are the salt of the earth… You (all) are the light of the world. As we heard a few weeks ago on Baptism of our Lord Sunday, You are God’s beloved child. Because we are God’s beloved, we are the conduit or the channel for God’s light and God’s justice in the world. In Jesus, you have received the light of God. In Jesus, you have encountered God’s love. In Jesus, you have received God’s grace. In Jesus, you all become the light of the world.

As we gather here, we encounter the gifts of grace and forgiveness that spring forth from God’s love. in Word, in Water, in Bread and Wine, in this community. And nothing - neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38). In other words, nothing can take the gifts of God from you; nothing can take the gifts of God from us. Not because we earned it. But because God is God. This is a God that became human, became flesh, made godself in our image. This is a God that risked everything – even the cross – to show God’s love and to bring God’s light to all people. As God’s beloved children, we receive the gifts of liberation, of healing, of wholeness, of grace. Washed in the waters of baptism, fed by the body and blood of Christ, you have been given the light of Christ. You are the light of the world. Washed in the waters of baptism, fed by the body and blood of Christ, we have been given the light of Christ. We are the light of the world.

And yet, the world we live in is marked by darkness, by pain, by oppression, by marginalization. The question is, then, what is our response to receiving these gifts of a loving God in a world of pain. Are we going to let the salt go stale? Are we going to hide the light under a basket, hoarding the gifts for ourselves?

No, today we hear God is calling us to allow that life, that restoration, that healing to break into our lives, to transform us, to propel us into a world in need. God calls us to dwell in God’s own life, God’s own healing, God’s own restoration. Our actions are a response to God’s action and God’s promises already given to us. Eric Barreto, a New Testament professor at Princeton, puts it this way, “If we trust God’s promises, if we stand grateful for God’s actions, then we will bend our lives toward the life-giving ways God has called us to follow.” The call, then today, is to live out or to participate in the life and the healing that has already been given to us. The call is to bend our lives toward the life-giving ways that God has called us to follow – to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to provide shelter to the homeless poor, to cover the naked, to break down the walls and barriers that seek to divide us from our neighbor. By participating in God’s life, by living that out in our relationship with the neighbor and the stranger, the life and light of God becomes reality for us and for all people.

The call today, then, in the words of our opening hymn is this: “You are a light on the hill, o people. Light for the city of God. Shine so holy and bright, o people. Shine for the kingdom of God. Bring forth the Kingdom of mercy; bring forth the kingdom of peace. Bring forth the kingdom of justice. Bring forth the city of God.”


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

4 Epiphany (Year A) - February 2, 2020

Epiphany 4
Year A
February 2, 2020
Micah 6:1-8

It is sometime around 720 BCE. Israel had been split into two kingdoms, after the death of King Solomon. Israel, the northern kingdom, has just fallen to Assyria; large empires surround the Southern Kingdom of Judah, hovering at their gates. It is a tense time period with enemies all around, a period of national turmoil. And there’s another problem: Social and economic evil has penetrated their society. God envisions a world without war – a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where instruments of destruction are turned into instruments that sustain life. God envisioned a community that was living by a structure of justice where the vulnerable are cared for and no one takes advantage of other people. However, the world finds itself in the turmoil of war. The vulnerable find themselves without what they need. The rulers, priests, and prophets extort money from people. There’s this high religiosity – where people made a special point to show how religious they were. Yet despite the ways the people pay lip-service to God, bending-over-backwards to tell the world that they are religious, God’s vision for the world is not being lived into.

It is in this context in which Micah speaks God’s word of justice. Micah, a humble country-boy, is called by God to be a prophet to God’s people. A prophet is not a fortune teller or one called to predict the future. But rather a prophet is one called to dwell deeply in the world as it is, to speak forth God’s word into that world as it is, as part of God’s desire to transform the world as it is into the world that God intended it to be. Prophets are given the spirit of God and are called to be God’s spokesperson in moments of crisis.

It is 2020 CE. If I’m honest with you, I’m not so sure that our world is all that different from the world that Micah experienced. I see, in our country, in general a push to show religiosity. Putting the 10 Commandments in courthouses. Posts on social media. Just yesterday, I saw a post on FB that read “Who all on my timeline are not afraid to admit how good God has been to them?” I’ve seen memes featuring Jesus saying something like, “97% of people won’t share this. Share if you love Jesus. He already saw you read it.” Putting crosses and Jesus fish on our cars. Or that bumper sticker that says “Jesus I trust in You.” I don’t want to sound like I’m too harshly critiquing these things. We all do things that outwardly show our faith; it isn’t inherently bad. I have shirts that say things like “This pastor loves you.” And I sometimes intentionally wear my collar in certain spaces and certain places to say something about who I am and my faith. But for good or for ill, there’s this push to show our faith.

But in this country – a country that has an abundance of resources – the vulnerable around us find themselves without what they need. The poor go hungry. One in eight children in Virginia struggle with hunger. The sick go without medical care. Medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US. And too many have to choose between medical care and basic needs. Those facing oppression are pushed to the margins. People are demonized because of the color of their skin, because of who they love, how they understand and express their gender, for their faith. Brokenness is still all around us.

This week, I was at the light, coming off on 199, turning onto Rt. 60. The car in front of me had the “Jesus I trust in you” bumper sticker. Yet right next to that car was a sign that read: “Do not encourage panhandling by giving money from your vehicle.” (We’ve all seen those signs, right)? Now, I have no idea the personal views of the person driving that car. But it was striking. In a town where I see A LOT of similar bumper stickers, we have signs that function to push our vulnerable homeless population away and underground – away from our sight. Homelessness is a large problem here, but unlike in places like Chicago, we don’t see it, because we’re not forced to see it. Because we’ve encouraged homeless people to stay away. We’ve If we’re honest with ourselves, despite the religiosity of our town and our country, God’s vision for the world is still not being lived into. And that’s just one example.

So today, we hear the words of Micah. Since that was our first reading, let’s take a moment to hear them again: “1Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3 ‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’ 6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The problem is not that the people aren’t religious enough. The problem starts with forgetting or losing touch with the saving acts of the Lord. God has brought salvation to God’s people – through liberation, leading the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt, through raising up leaders, through protection, foiling the plans of their enemies. God did it not because the people earned it. God did it because God is God. And God is a God of love, of liberation, of protection, of salvation, of grace. The people didn’t earn it by being religious enough. These are the acts of a gracious God.

As Christians, we see God acting again on behalf of God’s people, becoming enfleshed in a human body, in living human life, in dying, and in rising again, releasing us from the power of sin and death, leading us to new and abundant life. In Jesus, we are promised that we are brought into right relationship with our God, and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In Jesus, God reaches out to God’s people again, not because the people earned it, but because our God is a God of love, of liberation, of protection, of salvation, of grace. We don’t earn it through our car stickers, facebook posts, etc. We don’t earn it through our acts of worship. God acted in Jesus because that is who God is; because God is God. This is purely the act of a gracious God.

Dwelling there, we get to the question: with what shall I bring before the Lord? In other words, what is our response to the acts of a gracious God? “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah is not saying that we shouldn’t worship God or outwardly show our faith through whatever medium we choose; the point is all of those things are just empty noise without doing justice – God’s justice, not ours –, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.  Here, today, we gather to worship, to dwell in God’s grace around Word, around Water, around Bread and Wine, encountering God’s gifts of grace again and again.

Dwelling in the gracious acts of God, we are called to turn out from this place to live out the love, the salvation, the liberation, the love of God in our relationship with other people and with the world. In other words, we reflect the grace that we have already received. God doesn’t need our facebook posts, but our neighbor needs God’s justice enacted in the world. God doesn’t need the 10 Commandments posted, but our neighbor needs our kindness. In other words, God doesn’t need us to show our faith, God calls us us to live out our faith, live out the love that we first received from a gracious God for the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of the world, mending the brokenness that surrounds us.

We are called to work for a world where the hungry aren’t just fed, but a for a world in which they don’t become hungry in the first place. We are called to work for a world that not only knows peace, but for a world that doesn’t know war. We are called to work  for a world in which weapons that take away life are not only destroyed but are refashioned into instruments that sustain life. We are called to work for a world in which people can not only survive, but thrive – dismantling the systems of oppression, dismantling racism and hatred, eradicating the systems that keep people in poverty – so that God’s vision for the world becomes reality. We’re called to this, not to earn God’s love – we already have that – but to live out that love for the neighbor that so needs to experience God’s love.

In Christ, we have hope and promise for the Kingdom of God that is breaking into this world. We have the promise that the brokenness of our lives and our world won’t have the last word. But God doesn’t just stay in the hope. God still wants the world to change right now. To quote Rachel Wrenn, “just because there’s hope and promise for a beautiful future does not mean that God gives up on changing things right now.” (First Reading Podcast). In other words, the promises of God aren’t just for some future afterlife, they’re intended to be enacted in this world now. Those promises are intended to become tangible now. God’s grace, God’s love, God’s liberation, God’s salvation are for right now. We encounter God’s acts here so that we can live it out in the world right now. Because of the hope, because of the promise, because of God’s saving acts for us, we get to live lives that reflect God’s saving acts in the world.

So… How is God calling us to reflect God’s love in the world? What does God want to be changed right now so that we get one step closer to God’s vision becoming reality? What brokenness do you see that God grieves? Where can we be one step closer to having the world that God envisions for us and for our neighbor?   Amen.