Sunday, January 24, 2021

Sermon: Forgiving enemies and God's enormous grace (Jan 24, 2021)

Full service is in two clips (tech difficulties!): first here, then here (sermon in latter).

Epiphany 3B
January 24, 2021
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20



         We’ll hear some more call stories today, in particular Mark’s version of Jesus’ calling of the first disciples, and the call of Jonah (or one of them). I want to give you a little more background on Mark, since we’ll be hearing from him for the next several weeks. As an aside, our Feb. 7 “Faith on First” Bible study will be about Mark, so that would be a great chance for you to learn even more about this Gospel and thus get more out of hearing from his Gospel throughout the coming year.

         But here’s a snapshot: Mark is the earliest Gospel to be written, around the year 70. Since the first generation of Christians had started dying off, and they believed that Jesus was coming back any minute now, Mark felt a great urgency to get this story out there ASAP so that people could hear this good news! You’ll see that sense of urgency in his writing, by his excessive use of the word “immediately,” and by his lack of elegant transitions. But, all those gaps and rough edges also give us, the readers, space to enter into the story ourselves, which is exactly what Mark intends for us to do.

         Also, a quick word about Jonah: so that you know where this story appears in his narrative, it is after the incident with the big fish. The first time God called Jonah, he fled. This time, he listens. It’s a story that may resonate with our own experiences answering or ignoring God’s call!

         There are lots of entry points in our readings today, so just notice them. Notice what resonates with your experience. Place yourself in these stories, and see how that might cause you to hear them differently. Let’s listen.


Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         I think Jonah might be my favorite character in the Bible. Not because I admire him or am inspired by him, but rather, because he is so easy to relate to. Maybe we don’t quite appreciate that, from just the whale part of the story that we all know and love. But looking at the whole story? Jonah is a mirror for human nature. So, let’s take a look, not just at today’s reading, but his larger story…

         It started when God asked Jonah to bring a message to the people of Nineveh about how their wickedness would be their downfall. Jonah is uninterested in this task. For starters, being God’s prophet is not for the faint of heart. But Nineveh is a particularly hard assignment. Nineveh was located in Assyria, the land of Jonah’s and Israel’s worst enemies – he rightfully hates them for all the death and destruction they have caused. Imagine, having to go talk to your worst enemies, people known for their violence and abuse, and saying, “So, God is mad at you, and you’ve gotta clean up your act or God’s gonna destroy you all. K?” I can’t imagine this would go well, and neither did Jonah. So he does what any reasonable person would do: he goes as far away from this call as he possibly can. He hops a boat in Joppa that is headed to Tarshish, literally the opposite direction from Nineveh.

Now, I hear this and think, “I get it, Jonah.” Jonah was not the first to run from God’s call, and he was certainly not the last. There are plenty of times in my own life when I really strongly felt God telling me to do something (or not to do something), and I just ignored it because my own freewill or desire was too tantalizing, and sounded like more fun, or easier, or safer. I metaphorically ran the other way and hopped a boat to Tarshish. I’m sure you can think of times you’ve done the same, because you know what? Sometimes God calls us to things we flat out don’t want to do, or don’t think we can do. I doubt there are many among us who are always more like Simon, Andrew, or the sons of Zebedee, who “immediately” drop what they were doing and follow the stranger, Jesus. Most of us take at least a little time to weigh the consequences of big decisions. Most of us are a lot more like Jonah – first thinking things through, at least, if not outright denying the call.

Back to the story. Jonah goes on the boat. No sooner have they set sail than a storm arises. Jonah, still aware that he is trying to escape a God who he should have known will always win, becomes convinced that this storm is the Lord’s work and Jonah’s fault, and in one of his more selfless moments, he tells the others on the boat that they might as well throw him overboard if they want to save their own lives. As unconventional a method of enduring a storm as this may seem, they finally do it, and immediately the storm ceases. Meanwhile, Jonah, whom God is determined to reach, whatever it takes, gets swallowed up by a big fish, in whose belly he spends three days and three nights. Jesus would later refer to this event as a precursor for his own death and resurrection, which helps us even more to realize the hellish predicament that Jonah has found himself in.

Have you been there? In the belly of the whale? I remember in school learning about the Hero’s Journey, the narrative trajectory made famous by the story of Odysseus, and recreated in many more modern stories, perhaps most famously Star Wars. In the “Hero’s Journey,” the “belly of the whale” is the part of the story where you think, “Our hero is really in trouble this time. How’s she going to get out of this one?” In Star Wars, it is in the trash compactor. It’s that moment in which the hero must truly rise to the occasion, to look inside herself and realize who she is – and I would add, who God needs her to be – and recognize what is needed in order to get out of this dark place.

Pardon the pun, but it really stinks to be in the belly of the whale. It is dark in there, and you can’t always see what the next step has to be, and certainly you don’t know how this is going to end. But it is also a place that calls us to faith, courage, and trust in a God who can see the whole story. And this is what Jonah demonstrates, in a beautiful Psalm of Thanksgiving, which you can read in Jonah chapter 2, right before today’s story, and I encourage you to do so.

Eventually, the big fish delivers Jonah safely to shore, in the precise location he started (oh, what an ironic God we have). He is spewed out by the fish, covered in who-knows-what (and smelling like you-know-what), and this is where our text for today begins. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” I can almost hear God saying, “You thought you could run away from me? That’s cute. Here, I’ll give you another shot.” And to his credit, Jonah hears and this time answers the call – but not to his credit, he does a very half-hearted job. He goes only part of the way into the city, gives the shortest sermon in all of the Bible (in Hebrew, it is only five words), and then he gets outta Dodge. I picture him like a reluctant 10-year-old who is being forced to apologize to his little sister. He is slumped over, head to the side, eyes averted, and mumbles what his mom tells him to say, just to get her off his back, then runs back to his room just as soon as he can.

But amazingly, Jonah’s short, half-hearted message works! It goes viral through the city, even making it to the king. And this whole city of ne’er-do-wells repents! They actually listen! They turn from their evil ways, and God (who must have known all along this would happen, like any wise parent would), decides not to destroy them after all. Happy ending, right?

For the Ninevites, yes. For Jonah, no. This is one instance where he was sort of hoping for failure, not success. As you may remember, he hates the Ninevites, and all the violence and destruction and death they have caused. The one saving grace for Jonah in all this was that he would have the chance to give his enemies what-for, and to see them destroyed, like they surely deserved. In fact, he finds a good seat on a hill to watch this all play out. But then God “changes his mind”?? It is incredibly unfair and unexpected, and Jonah is unimpressed, and he goes off to pout. God, after all, should hate all the same people he hates, who are really worth hating, by the way, cuz they’re terrible. It was really nice that God showed grace to Jonah by saving him with that big fish stunt (though he could have found a less messy way to do that, if we’re being honest), but Jonah was a nice person. These Ninevites – they were not nice people, and they deserved what was coming to them.

Sound familiar? Jonah serves as a mirror to help us see our own humanity, and here is where that mirror becomes hard to look into. Jonah does not like that God showed grace to people who were so clearly bad. Jonah gets angry at God for being gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Jonah feels grateful for the grace that God has shown him for his short-comings, but has a harder time accepting that God might be so gracious and merciful that even the nasty Ninevites could be forgiven – held accountable, but forgiven – and saved.

It’s hard to swallow: that God could be so gracious as to love and forgive even the people we find unlovable and unforgivable, the Ninevites in our own lives: QAnon followers and insurrectionists, antifa and BLM activists, those who were joyous watching the inauguration this week and those who were angry or scared… or even more personally, estranged family members, bullies at work, people who have hurt us and broken our hearts. God loves all of them. It is hard to swallow, but it is also the best news we could hope for – that God’s grace is big enough for all that, and for you, and for me. There is nothing, nothing that is too big for God’s grace.

If God can forgive like that, can we? In the Jonah story, we never do find out if Jonah forgave the Ninevites. We only know that God did. But in the Gospel story today, we hear Jesus call people to follow him, to “fish for people.” The four disciples he calls that day, unlike Jonah, follow him “immediately.” I wonder if they knew how hard it would be to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, how hard it would be to forgive their enemies. I wonder if they knew, that, hard as it is, Jesus continues to lead, and continues to forgive us for falling short. I wonder if we really know that.

Let us pray… Gracious and merciful God, there is so much hatred and division around us. We long for healing in our personal lives and in our nation. Remind us always that your abundant mercy and grace extends to all people – to our enemies, and even to us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sermon: Cultivating connection with God (Jan 17, 2021)

Watch the full service here.  The sermon begins at 34 min.

Epiphany 2B

January 17, 2021

Psalm 139

John 1:43-51



         We are now through the festival season for a while, and find ourselves in the Epiphany season, one of the liturgical seasons known as “ordinary time” and marked by the use of green paraments. During ordinary time we hear stories about the life of discipleship, beginning, today, with some call stories. First, we’ll hear the story of the boy Samuel’s call, a story beloved by many of God calling to him in the night, and Samuel having the courage to hear that call. (Though the message God gives him after this reading ends is not so sweet!) The story encourages us to listen for that voice of God, calling us into new ways of being God’s people. The Psalm assures us of God’s deep knowledge of us, even before we were born. That will echo a part in our Gospel reading, where Jesus seems to know all about Nathanael before they have ever met (and Nathanael is duly impressed!).

Speaking of the Gospel: for the next year, we will be hearing a lot from Mark’s Gospel, but also a fair amount from John, and the two could hardly be more different. Where Mark is quick and rugged, with a sense of urgency, John is verbose and poetic, with long discourses that explain Jesus’ signs and actions. Where in Mark Jesus is portrayed as very human, with numerous emotions and even some failures, and his true identity is kept a secret, in John Jesus is all out there, trumpeted as God Himself dwelling among us. I’ll try to keep things straight for you week by week this year, but for today, know this: we’re hearing today from John, and for John, a main theme of great importance is that we have a relationship with Jesus. This is the definition of faith for John, that we abide in Jesus and he in us. All that Jesus does is to draw us closer in relationship to him. And we’ll see that play out today, as he calls some of his first disciples.

As you listen to these texts, notice how much imagery of seeing and hearing there is. All the texts invite us to be more fully aware of the many ways God comes to us in the world. So notice them here, and then notice them all week long! Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week, I asked Jonathan if he would be willing, during our weekly Wednesday Facebook Live reflection, to talk about today’s offertory, a piece Jonathan composed. He set today’s Psalm, which happens to be my favorite Psalm, to music a few years ago, and I knew we would be hearing it today, so I asked him to share a bit about his composition process, and what drew him to this text, and why he portrayed it the way he did through the music. In his talk, he mentioned that he discovered this Psalm right after the 2016 election, a time when tension and anxiety on his college campus were very high. In these words from the Psalm, he found assurance in the knowledge that God knows us so intimately. He said he found it very self-reflective in a time when there was so much anxiety in the world around him, as a way to enter back into that connection with God.

How interesting, I thought, that Jonathan first encountered this Psalm after that election, and now that same administration is coming to an end this week and we are entering a new era with a whole new set of anxieties and tensions (as well as some of the same ones!). And we still need that intimacy with God, that assurance that wherever we go, and whatever happens, God knows us completely, sees all the best and worst parts of us, and still loves us deeply.

All this set off a bit of a spiritual journey for me this week. The previous week in my own Facebook Live reflection, I had spoken about the Star Gift I drew, which this year is “renewal.” I talked about how easy it is for pastors to fall into a pattern, especially during anxious times, of spending so much time and energy tending to the spiritual needs of everyone else, that they neglect tending to their own spiritual needs. I certainly do this! That’s not to say I don’t personally get something out of weekly preaching and tending the flock, but it is also important, of course, to spend time cultivating my own spiritual connection, apart from anyone else. In light of “renewal,” I vowed in that post, I’m going to make time this year to tend to my own relationship with God, which I’m certain will then make me a better pastor for you.

One hour after I posted that reflection, the Capitol was attacked. Anxiety across the country shot through the roof, as well as anger and a fair amount of confusion. I couldn’t ignore the timing: “Oh, you want to be sure you’re tending to your relationship with God during anxious times, Johanna? Here, try it now.”

As I tried to find my footing in the new reality, and as we wait with anticipation to see what will happen as we inaugurate a new president, I read today’s Gospel story, John’s telling of Jesus calling the disciples. In the Gospel of John, as I mentioned, faith is understood as abiding in Jesus, being in relationship with Jesus. This is very important in John – that word, meno, translated as abide or remain, is used 34 times in its various forms. So, to be a disciple, according to John, is to abide with Jesus, to find your home with him, to be in relationship with him. Conversely, sin is to fall out of that relationship, to lose that connection.

Reading Jesus’ invitation into that relationship in today’s story really struck me. “Come and see,” Philip says to skeptical Nathanael, and in my personal attempts at cultivating my own connection with God, I heard that invitation issued also to me. Come and see what rest in Christ feels like. Come and see how Jesus can bear that burden with you. Come and see what it is like to find your home, your safety, your power and your sustenance in the Lord. Come and see.

The invitation isn’t just to me, of course. It is to all those whom God loves. And this is a good time to be aware of that continuing invitation in our lives, the invitation to come and see and be in relationship with God. We’re at almost a year now of being apart from each other, and growing plenty weary of it. We’re also on the precipice of big change in our country – a transfer of power to a new administration, as well as all the uncertainty of the possibility of more violence. And of course all the fear around new, more contagious strains of the virus.

Into all of this, I really want to get out there and do justice, or preach a fiery and exciting sermon to you that quotes Martin Luther King and moves us all to change the world for Christ!... But I also know that we’re all exhausted, and that none of that good work can happen unless we have first cultivated that connection to the one who gives us life, Jesus Christ our Lord. So this week let’s all just stop for a moment and hear Christ extend the invitation to us, drawing us into relationship. Now, in the midst of all our fear and exhaustion, now is the time for us to commit to finding new and deeper ways of connecting with the God of life.

Which brings me back where we started, to Psalm139. This has long been a favorite of mine, for some of the same reasons Jonathan mentioned in his talk. It’s so personal, speaking to my own, and your own, heart and needs. That God would search me out and know me so intimately, and after everything God sees, still love me and choose to come to earth to dwell with me, and die for me, and rise for me, to bring me new and abundant life! That no matter what whims I may follow that take me away from God’s presence, He is never away! That God in fact knew me and loved me even before I was born, and will love me long after I die! These sorts of promises, which are of course also for you, compel us to draw closer to God, to abide there, to find our way home to the very bosom of God.

One way that I have found, especially as a writer, to connect deeply with God, is to dwell in God’s promises found in scripture, and then to rewrite them for myself. I talked about this once in yet another Facebook Live reflection (see, you should really be watching these if you aren’t already!), in which I did this with Psalm 23, rewriting it to speak more to my personal needs at that moment. So, I tried it with this Psalm. Looking at these words, I imagined how I would write them myself, if I were talking to God, how those images speak to me, or need to, today, in my current struggles.

The words poured out, and when I looked back over them, they felt at once immensely intimate, and also universal. So as my closing prayer, I’d like to invite you into this prayer, in hopes that it may bring you closer to God, as it did me. Like the original, it is written in the 1st person, but I hope you can hear this today as not only my prayer, but also yours. Let us pray…

Holy One, as I try to find myself, my heart, my home,

         I know that you have already found it.

         You know me completely, through and through.

Even when it feels like you’re far away

         (and I’ll be honest, it often feels that way)

         You still know what I’m doing and thinking, feeling and hoping.

I talk and talk, just trying to figure out what I’m trying to say,

         while all along, you knew! You gently lead me to my voice, to your voice.

You’re all around, holding me on all sides,

         steadying me with your strong hand.

Whenever I try to understand this, I cannot.

         I simply fall back in wonder.

Of course you know me so well –

you made me this way, lovingly and marvelously!

Like an artisan carefully considering her art,

         You intentionally chose each color and texture

that would make up my being, my person, my heart.

Let me never forget that all your works are wonderful – even me!

From start to finish, I am your masterpiece.

         You made me just the way you intended to.

O, my God, my Love, I wish I could know you as deeply and fully as you know me,

         but You are more than I can comprehend.

Make me content to keep seeking you as you have sought me,

         that I would always continue the search for you,

and know you all my life.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sermon: Our baptism in the midst of national distress (Jan 10, 2021)

Baptism of our Lord (B)

January 10, 2021

Mark 1:4-11



Today we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. We’ll hear about the heavens tearing open, and the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove, and that voice from heaven calling Jesus the beloved son with whom God is pleased. Mark, who is known for his quick-and-dirty writing style, gets us the whole story in just one sentence, but there is a lot packed into that sentence! It hearkens other moments in scripture – including today’s reading from Genesis, the beginning of the creation story, in which we’ll hear about that same Spirit, hovering over the waters just before God brought all creation into being. When that Spirit returns in Jesus’ baptism, it gives us the sense that baptism offers a new creation. Paul will also bring up that same Spirit in the story from Acts, asking the Ephesians if they have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is something pretty special!

It's special for us, too, in baptism and in faith. And even though we are hearing the story of Jesus’ baptism today, there is so much of it that happens also in our baptism: we, too, receive the power of the Spirit. We, too, are called beloved children of God. So as you listen, hear these promises spoken also to you, the baptized children of God. Let’s listen.


Baptism of Christ, by Dave Zelenka

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

         Well, 2021 is off to quite a start. I’m sure none of us planned this week to watch in real time as our own countrymen and women forged an attack on our Capitol, much less one that was encouraged by the sitting president. Then the flurry of resignations, the very real possibility of invoking the 25th amendment or a second impeachment trial, and strong statements from people on both sides of the aisle. And through it all, most people finding someone else to blame.

         For us who love our country, of course, it is heartbreaking and terrifying. We don’t know what the future holds, and all this on top of the daily increasing deaths from the pandemic – we’re at over 4000 a day! Only 10 days into the new year, and already that darkness is making a good show of trying to overcome the Light we are celebrating in this season.

         And into this, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, this marvelous story in which God tears open the heavens and comes down, and a bellowing voice is heard: “You are my Son, my beloved. With you I am well pleased!” This text is a real treat for a preacher, with so many points of entry.

         For me, in this particular moment in history, I am drawn to the very next part of the story that we didn’t read. Mark’s very next words are, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” The water of the riven Jordan was still running down Jesus’ legs when he was driven – not escorted or invited, but driven – into the wilderness, that place of limbo and unknowing, where he is confronted with the devil’s temptations.

         The reason I’m drawn to this part of the text that we didn’t even hear this morning is that it is a powerful reminder that baptism is not something that happens in the safety of some church building and then that’s that. It is something that immediately drives us out into the struggles of the world, of real life and all of its challenges and hungers and temptations. It happened to Jesus that way, and it happens for us. You see: when we are baptized, though we certainly receive personal benefits, we are not baptized for ourselves. We are baptized for the world, for our neighbor. We receive baptism’s life-giving promises – the forgiveness of sins, freedom from death, and eternal salvation – not just so that we can rest easy, but so that we can be God’s beloved children, shining the light of Christ into a broken and hurting world.

         And that light is dearly needed right now, as we worry about the future of our country. What will the events of January 6th mean for us going forward? I know that many people feel that religion and politics don’t mix. “Keep politics out of the pulpit!” I sometimes hear. But here’s the thing: first, that Jesus didn’t keep politics out of it. Just being called the Son of God, a title reserved for Caesar, the king, was a radical political statement that undermined the Empire, and he was not shy about speaking out about the political issues and current events of the day. Second, there were people attacking the Capitol this week who were carrying Christian flags and symbols and allegedly doing this in the name of Christ, and as your pastor it is my duty to swiftly condemn that. While peacefully assembling to make your passions known, and even doing this out of faithful convictions, is fine and even needed, what we saw happening in the Capitol is not Christ-like, nor is some of the rhetoric we saw from the crowd.

But more important than even those reasons today, is that we are simultaneously Christians, citizens of God’s kingdom, and citizens of a worldly country. Now, those “two kingdoms,” as Luther called it, the earthly kingdom and God’s kingdom, are not the same, but they both serve a purpose we are called to serve in both, and have a duty in both. In the end, though, while we love our country, our primary allegiance is to God’s kingdom. So we must always be asking: how does my identity as a light-of-Christ-bearing baptized Christian, a citizen of God’s kingdom, call me to live out my life as a citizen also of this country?

         Or more specifically, how are we, as baptized Christians, called to respond to our nation’s current turmoil?

         In a moment, we will participate in an affirmation of baptism. Normally on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday, I like to include a Thanksgiving for Baptism, but this year it felt important to return to the promises we made (or were made on our behalf by our parents and godparents) at the font, and the promises God made to us. So we will hear that liturgy again, and I pray we will take all of it to heart. But I want to lift up a couple parts in particular.

         First, the profession of faith. This begins by renouncing the devil, sin, and all that would rebel against God. With each question we boldly respond, “I renounce them!” This renunciation of evil is something we continually do throughout our baptized life, just as Jesus did in the wilderness after his baptism: we renounce (reject, refuse) evil, anything that is not of God. Whether that evil is inciting violence, or using symbols of hate and oppression to intimidate others, or systemic racism, or putting our own sense of entitlement or supremacy before love and service of neighbor: in our baptism, we renounce it. As Luther said, a Christian who lives by the cross “calls a thing what it is.” And these sorts of acts are sinful and wrong.

To be clear, to “call a thing what it is” and renounce it doesn’t mean we resort to name-calling and insults, and mustn’t slip into self-righteousness. Insulting other children of God is no way to build up the kingdom. Calling out and renouncing evil requires strength but also finesse. It requires humility, self-reflection, recognition of our own part in the evil (whether active, or passive acceptance), and the abiding knowledge that we are all broken and sinful, and all beggars for and recipients of God’s grace and mercy. So leave the soap box and self-righteousness out of it, yet still boldly name evil for what it is – and then work continually to renounce it, reject it, from your own life and our common life.

Next, I want to look at the affirmation of faith, and one commitment in particular. After the promises to do things like pray, study scripture, serve others, and be with God’s faithful people, there is this line at the end: “[I promise] to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” You see, the Christian life does not end at going to church, nor even at participating in a collection or service project. Baptism takes it a step further: to seek the justice and peace that characterize God’s kingdom, in which everyone has what they need and we can live without hatred and fear. Striving for justice and peace requires learning about the issues at stake, and seeking understanding. It means, again, a lot of self-reflection and coming to God in repentance for ways we have fallen short, and asking God for help to live in ways that align with God’s vision for us. Striving for justice and peace in all the earth is a whole-life-long sort of charge, one that I think every American has (we are always seeking “a more perfect union,” after all), but especially every baptized person.

Finally, I want to make very clear the promises that God makes to us in baptism. Luther defines these in the Small Catechism, saying that baptism “brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it.” Those are pretty great promises! Forgiveness: the knowledge that when we fall short of the promises we made (all of them, including that one about striving for justice and peace!), God still loves us and forgives us – that promise gives us the courage to try and try again, knowing that God never gives up on us. Redemption from death and devil means that we need not be paralyzed by the fear of death, neither the end of our earthly life, nor the thousands of small deaths and losses and griefs we experience on a daily basis. It means that God will always lead us from death into life, that none of those deaths will be the end of us. And eternal salvation – well, what could be greater than the hope of entering God’s heavenly home someday and living eternally in God’s light and love?

Or perhaps even more simply, we can just look back at Jesus’s own baptism, when a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, my beloved. I am well pleased with you.” These same assurances are offered also to us: you, sons and daughters, are God’s beloved, and always will be, regardless of your shortcomings and failures. God is pleased with you. God made you good, and is with you in the darkness and in the light. Be encouraged by this, knowing that with these baptismal gifts, we are able, once driven out into the world, to bear Christ’s light to a world in pain, and bring to it Christ’s own life.

Let us pray…  Loving God, as our nation discerns the way forward after the events of this week, remind us always that we are called to be your baptized and beloved sons and daughters in this world, bearing your light and sharing your love. Embolden us to do your work, knowing every moment that your Spirit is near. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Epiphany Star Gifts (2021)

 Epiphany (Star Gifts)

January 3, 2021

Matthew 2:1-21



         This week, January 6, is the day the church celebrates the festival of Epiphany, which is the day we remember the magi’s visit to baby Jesus. It is a day we think about stars, and light, and camels, and kings, and the strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We will see all of these things in our readings this morning. Isaiah will mention camels and kings and two of the three gifts brought by the magi. The Psalm mentions how “kings will bow down before him.” And Paul’s letter to the Ephesians will talk about how the mystery of God is made known to the Gentiles, the nations, the non-Jews – which of course, the magi were. That’s remarkable, not so much because they were royalty or sages (though that is cool, too), but rather, because they are not Jewish. Until now, God’s story of salvation was for the Jews, God’s chosen people. But in this story we see that Jesus is for the whole world! As God had promised to Abraham all those years ago, God would bring, from the descendants of Abraham, a blessing for the whole world. And ta-da! Here he is! Even Gentiles like the magi come to be a part of it.

But really, the overall theme of Epiphany is exactly what it is named for: epiphany! It is a word that means, “manifestation,” and it is a day when we think about how God has been made manifest, first to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, and then even to those outside of the Jewish community… and now still to us. So, as you listen to these texts, notice all the ways they describe God being made manifest, apparent, visible to those from long ago, and consider some of the ways God is still made visible and manifest to us today. Let’s listen.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you were at worship last year on Epiphany, you will remember that as a part of the sermon we passed out “star gifts.” This was an exercise in living out the promise of Epiphany – a day on which we celebrate the manifestation of God in our lives. Often we remember on Epiphany the gifts the magi gave, but before they gave those gifts, the magi had first received – received the gift of God through Christ. Their giving was in gratitude and praise of that gift they received.

 Still today, we receive all kinds of gifts from God – our family, friends, homes, etc., and even more abundantly, we receive abstract gifts like love, forgiveness, mercy, prayer, peace, truth… 

            Boy, when have we needed a specific reason to notice these gifts more than in 2020! And that’s the key, really – not just “knowing” they are there, but really noticing them. That can be a challenge even in the best of circumstances (not because they aren’t there, but because we ignore them, or misunderstand them, or we let all the negative stuff overshadow them). But in a year where the bed news kept coming – that is when it is even more important to notice those gifts!

So I’m glad we started in 2020 the tradition of Star Gifts, in which each person received a paper star with a gift written on it, and then the charge to consider for the upcoming year how God has been and is being made manifest in this gift. It was not a charge to use that gift, necessarily, though you certainly may have. Rather, you were asked to notice how you have already received it, how God has already been made known through it, and how God continues to be made known through it in our daily lives. And, last year I warned you that I would ask you to share some of your reflections today with the congregation. A few folks (including myself) were happy to share, and have sent in videos, so I turn this now over to them!


            As humans, we yearn for tangible, clear signs of God’s presence. But so often we are so overwhelmed by life that we fail to see those signs even when they are right in front of us. My hope is that this exercise has and will continue to help focus your awareness of God’s gifts in your life.

Epiphany is a time to celebrate God’s presence breaking into the darkness and chaos of life, and shining as a light in the darkness. My prayer for us this year is that we would be reminded at every turn of our generous, giving God.

            Let us pray… Gracious God, we give you thanks for your many gifts. Help us to notice and not to ignore, to embrace and not to disregard, and in this effort, to become ever closer to you. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Note: if you want a star gift, let me know, and I'll prayerfully draw one for you and send you either a picture, or the physical star if you prefer.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve Sermon: God creeps in

Christmas Eve, 2020

One of the best things about the pandemic for me was that when no one was going anywhere from March until September, I never set my alarm. Instead, my “alarm” was the sound of pitter-pattering feet, and the feeling of my two kids, then 3 and 4 years old, climbing into my bed with me. They would just wiggle their little bodies right in close, and I’d wrap my arms around them and for a few moments, the bed was full of love and everything felt safe and warm.

I lived for these few moments each morning. In a world full of fear and uncertainty and constantly changing news and advice, I needed this constant bit of love to creep in and wiggle its way right up beside me, even when, honestly, there really wasn’t quite enough room in the bed for everyone. We made room. Such love was and is a daily source of life and light.

Love, life, and light: three images we think a lot about during Christmas. Each year we hear the story of God’s immense love for us, about how in that love God came to live among us, to bring us life, taking on a body like ours. And then, having heard this story, we light candles, and in this magical moment we bask in the glow of knowing that the darkness of night cannot overcome us because the “light of the all people” has come to dwell among us.

I know that many hearts ache this year with the reality that, in a year when we need that promise more than ever, we can’t experience it in the way we look forward to each

St. Paul's, Pittsford, in 2019
year. We will, of course, still recall that light shining from the manger on that silent, holy night – I am counting on you lighting candles in your homes, maybe even going out on your porch to hold a candle and sing out into the neighborhood. Even if we cannot be together, a light still shines in the darkness and the darkness still has not overcome it! That does not change.

Even so, that darkness has made a pretty good showing this year. With all that 2020 has brought, it can be difficult to believe that there might be a light shining that could possibly overcome that… yet this is what makes it all the more important to believe exactly that! We need that light to creep in, to wiggle in like a sleepy 3-year-old climbing into mommy’s bed, and embrace us with its warmth.

This need is not so different from that first Christmas night, of course. Our hearing of the Christmas story has been sanitized over time, made more sweet and cute than aching and painful. It’s easy to miss or overlook why this light shining in the darkness was so important. The Roman occupation was no picnic. The hundreds of years of feeling like God had abandoned God’s people. The year that Emmanuel, God-with-us, was born, the earth was more than ready for a savior. They were living in a land of deep darkness, just like the people in our reading this evening from Isaiah. And into that darkness, God crept in, wiggled His way into humanity and into a manger in a stable in a quiet, dark little town, so that the shadows would no longer be quite so consuming. And in the dark streets of that little town of Bethlehem, shined the everlasting light.

Do you think God will do that again this Christmas? Do we believe that this will happen, that the light of Christ will creep in beside us, finding its way into a nook or cranny, onto the very edge of the bed or that little space up by the pillow, and shine away the shadows of fear?

It can sometimes be difficult to believe, I know. It has been a hard, emotional, exhausting year, one that has brought many to a breaking point or close to it. So how do we keep believing this light has come, or will?

Maintaining the hope and the belief that God’s brightness will still dispel the shadows starts with opening our hurting hearts even to the mere possibility that it can. It starts with making our hearts as vulnerable as God made Himself when He became a helpless child, completely dependent on a teenage girl and her terrified fiancĂ© to take care of him. It starts with trusting that if God was willing to do that, then God must also know what is needed to take care of us in the effort.

This leap of faith, this vulnerability, can be terrifying. God knows about that, too! The Christmas story is full of a lot more fear than cheer. That Mary was pregnant at all was a risk, in a time when pregnancy was a leading cause of death – let alone that she was unwed, a real scandal! A long journey – probably about 80 miles – by foot. Giving birth to her first child, in a stable with no family to help her except her terrified fiancĂ©. A group of trembling shepherds in the hills confronted by a host of angels. Might as well add to the story a deadly virus, social and political unrest, and an economic downturn, right? In fact, those things probably were going on in the background!

Nope, the characters in the story are no strangers to fear, any more than we are. And there are lots of reasons to keep our hearts safe from all our fears, to just shut ourselves away from it, distract ourselves and focus on something else. Same thing in the story. Mary could have said no to the angel. Joseph could have dismissed Mary quietly like he planned. The shepherds could have just gone back to work. It would have made for a much different story. But instead, the angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” The angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” And the angel says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Be open to hearing this good news of great joy. To you is born this day, a Savior. You will no longer be in the shadow of death. A light has come to scatter the darkness.

And what do Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds do? They believe it. They tell people that they believe it. And after the shepherds have greeted this babe, this light shining in the darkness, Luke tells us, they return, “praising and glorifying God for all they had heard and seen,” giving thanks that when they were able to open their hearts, their ears, their eyes, to the possibility that such a darkness-shattering light could be true, as terrified and trembling as they had once been, now they had indeed been transformed.

Some years ago, I learned of this beautiful prayer from a book called Cloth for the CradleIt gives words to the prayer and longing of our hearts this year better than I ever could, so in closing, I’d like to read it. Let us pray…



When the world was dark

and the city was quiet,

You came.


You crept in beside us.


And no one knew.

Only the few who dared to believe

that God might do something different.


Will you do the same this Christmas, Lord?


Will you come into the darkness of tonight’s world?

Not the friendly darkness

as when sleep rescues us from tiredness,

but the fearful darkness,

in which people have stopped believing

         that the war will end

         or that food will come

         or that a government will change

         or that the church cares?


Will you come into that darkness

and do something different

to save your people from death and despair?


Will you come into the quietness of our cities and towns;

Not the friendly quietness

as when lovers hold hands,

but the fearful silence when

         the phone has not rung,

         the letter has not come,

         the friendly voice no longer speaks,

         the doctor’s face says it all?


Will you come into that darkness,

and do something different,

not to distract, but to embrace your people?

And will you come into the dark corners

and the quiet places of our lives?


We ask this not because we are guilt-ridden

or want to be,

but because the fullness our lives long for

depends on us being as open and vulnerable to you

as you were to us,

when you came,

wearing no more than diapers,

and trusting human hands

to hold their maker.


Will you come into our lives,

if we open them to you

and do something different?


When the world was dark

and the city was quiet

You came.


You crept in beside us.


Do the same this Christmas, Lord,

do the same this Christmas.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Sermon: A visit from Mary, the mother of God (Dec 20, 2020)


This sermon is much better heard, as it is meant to be a performance, not a script. You can view it here. It starts around 33 min (just before).

Advent 4B

December 20, 2020

Luke 1:26-38



         First we had despair, then hope, then joy… now today, on this 4th Sunday of Advent, we get to hear something that sounds like a Christmas story! We’re almost there, folks!

         But first, a quick recollection about one reason why Jesus coming was a big deal, which we’ll hear in Samuel. Way back during King David’s rule, David had this idea to build a house for God, a Temple. But God had other plans. “No, I’m going to build you a house,” God says, by which he means, a dynasty. God promised that from David’s line would come the One who would rule forever and ever, and be a blessing for the whole world.

For centuries, God’s people have waited and wondered when this Messiah would come. And the first one to hear that the time is upon them is not the king of Israel, but a peasant girl in Galilee named Mary, who is betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David. (!) That’s the story we will hear today – in my humble opinion, one of the most remarkable texts in all of scripture. Just as remarkable is the song that Mary will subsequently sing, having heard that she will carry the Son of God in her womb. When the angel leaves, she runs to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, having just learned that Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, is now 6 months pregnant. Upon hearing Mary coming, Elizabeth feels her own child (who is John the Baptist) leap in her womb. In joy, Mary sings the song known as the Magnificat, so-called because that is its first word in Latin: “Magnificat anima mea dominum” – My soul magnifies the Lord. The words have been set to music countless times, including seven different settings in our hymnal alone. We will hear one of those as our Psalm today, and sing another as our sending hymn.

There is so much I want you to notice about this wonderful story: Mary’s gusty response to the angel, the table-turning nature of her song, the way women play a central role in this story, the way God’s promises come to pass in sometimes crazy, unexpected ways… But I’ll just say this: listen to these texts as if you’re hearing them for the first time. Take them in as if you were the one waiting all these years for a savior. What are you noticing for the first time? Let’s listen.


An Egyptian portrayal of Mary,
from the Basilica of the Annunciation in the Holy Land.

         This morning, we have a visit from Mary, mother of Jesus…

         I felt the angel’s presence, before I saw it. It was an ordinary day, I was doing my work like I always do, humming to myself, when the air suddenly felt sort of… electric. Like all the hair on my arms and back was sticking up straight. I turned slowly around, and it was all bright, warm light, yet I didn’t need to squint. Instead, my eyes were wide open – open to see and take in this mysterious stranger whom I suddenly knew to be a messenger from God.

         I always heard about angels being terrifying. All of the scripture talks about it. Yet I must say… I was not afraid. Perplexed and confused? Sure. Amazed, to be certain! But not afraid. How could I be afraid of what felt so strongly of love?

         And then from the light came a voice that sounded like bells ringing: “Greetings, favored one,” it said. “The Lord is with you.” Now this was strange. Favored one? I almost laughed, as I felt the callouses on my hands and viewed my humble home. Favored was not a word I would usually use in reference to myself! Faithful, maybe, but also poor, young, and a woman – not favored statuses. As I wondered what sort of greeting this might be, the angel went on, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

         Now this was unnerving. Like every woman, I envisioned myself having children one day. And for me, I figured it would be pretty soon, seeing as how I was engaged to that nice man, Joseph, a longtime friend of the family. But we weren’t married yet, and we certainly had not had relations, so what was this angel talking about that I would have a child now?

         But even more than confused, I admit that I was, at this point, afraid – not of the angel, but of the news. The stories about me don’t talk about this. They always paint me as meek and obedient, like some kind of ever-willing pawn in the story of God, as if I never had a thought or feeling about this situation. Believe me – I had feelings about it! I knew what happened to girls who got pregnant before they were married. I saw how they were mocked, or even stoned for this indiscretion. Though I was known for being somewhat more plucky than many of my friends, willing to face any challenge head on, that did not mean I wanted to voluntarily put myself in such a dangerous position! I trusted God, but… this was terrifying.

         As I processed all of this, the angel went on, describing this child I would apparently conceive, not by Joseph but “by the Holy Spirit.” He said the child was the Son of the Most High, and was the long-awaited descendant of King David who would rule forever over Israel. As I heard these words, my fears began to turn into excitement. I suddenly saw myself as a part of a much larger story, the story of my people, like Sarah and Tamar, Rahab and Ruth had been. Mine would not be the story of one terrified maiden worried about what people would say about her unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock. This was big. Since I was a little girl, I had been told of the promises God had made to the people of Israel, about God’s rescue plan. To our ancestor Abraham, God had made three important promises: first, that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would become a whole nation. This had happened – here we were, the people of Israel. Second, that we would have our own land. While this had been rocky throughout our history, with various exiles and occupations over time (and we were currently occupied by Rome), we were, in fact, living in the Promised Land.

But that third promise was the one we still hadn’t seen: the promise that from our people would come a ruler who would be a blessing for the whole world. We had been hopeful many times… but for 400 years, we had heard nothing. Many had begun to lose hope that God’s promise would ever come to pass.

         And now here, this angel stood before me, telling me that the promise my people had hoped for and anticipated for thousands of years… would begin to grow in my own womb, hearing the beat of my own heart, filling my own being.

         Could it be true? Could such hope really enter our lives once again through my own flawed vessel of a body? I believe I muttered then something about my disbelief, rooting it in some silly thing like not being married – as if such a thing could stop God from bringing about His promises!

         The angel paused then – I remember this – giving me a moment to collect my thoughts, all the while bringing to the space a depth of love that I had never before experienced. I tingled all over – was it the angel’s warmth, or could this be what it feels like to be, as the angel described, “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit?

Discerning then that I was ready to hear more, the angel continued: “Even now your relative Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived a son; and this is the 6th month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Elizabeth! My favorite relative! Tears sprang to my eyes as I recalled sitting with Elizabeth, talking about scripture in the ways that women do. How many hours had we laughed and cried together, as we recalled God’s mysterious ways, both those described in scripture and those we had seen. Elizabeth was the most faithful person I knew. She loved God so deeply and never doubted his providence or faithfulness. Though she never talked about it, I had seen the look on her face when she saw the children others bore, as she longed for her own child. But she and Uncle Zechariah had never been able to have a child. And now she would have a child!

         And then I knew. I knew with every bone in my body. I knew that everything would be fine. My dear Elizabeth would bear a child. And I would bear the Son of God, the descendant of David for whom we had waited so long, the blessing for the whole world. For nine months, I would hold Eternity in my own being. I would feed him with my own milk, my own body. I would give myself for him. I would sing him the songs of our people – songs of justice for the poor and hungry, songs of praise for the ways God lifts up the lowly and scatters the proud. I would teach him how God has kept His promises from generation to generation, even as he has uniquely blessed me to be the one who would help to bring about these promises. I would bear the Son of God.

         Tears streaming down my cheeks, I lifted my face to the warm, glowing light still filling my house. I straightened my shoulders, and raised my chin.

         “Yes,” I said, unwavering. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me, according to your will."