Thursday, January 12, 2017

Christmas Day

 This is the short homily I shared Christmas Day with the people of St Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The scripture text was Luke 2:8-20.
In this passage from Luke, we see the angels appearing not to the elite and rich. They appeared to shepherds, who were one of the lowest on the societal totem pole. Shepherds were looked down upon even to the point where their testimony was not allowed in a court of law. Once again, God turned the world upside down by appearing to nobodies and giving them news of earth shaking possibilities. Don't we see that happen in today's world--where God moves outside of our perfect little boxes and does something totally unexpected or appears to the most unacceptable?

We can be sure that if we are open to possibilities, God will appear to us in any number of ways. After all, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us He brings “good news of great joy [to] all the people.”

I'm sure some of our gifts have already been been opened and it is likely there are still more to come. There's the excitement of everyone guessing just what their gifts may be.  Have you ever opened a gift and it was exactly the very thing you wanted? It doesn't get much better than that, does it? It can be such a exciting time. Isn't that what Christmas is all about? Yes, its about the birth of Jesus as a baby, but it goes much deeper than that. Jesus is the greatest gift that God could ever give his people. "God so loved the world, that he gave the world his own son, so that all who would believe in him, would have eternal life" (John 3:16}.

Now THAT'S a gift!

God's gift of life is for each and every one of us. God makes us his own in baptism, feeds us with the gift of holy communion and surrounds us with a church family of faith each day of our lives.

God wants to have an intimate relationship with us. We can ignore God, despite the many gifts he has given us, especially the gift of His Son, But he's going to keep reaching out to us again and again and again until we respond to him.

So, what do we do with this great gift that God has given us?  We share it with others. As the spiritual says, "Go tell it on the mountain over the hills and everywhere that Jesus Christ is born."


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

No Favorites

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 1/8, Baptism of Our Lord at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The scripture text was Acts 10:34-43. 

What in the world does this passage from Acts have to do with the Baptism of Our Lord? Jesus' baptism was the signal that his ministry should begin. It was when the Father gave Jesus the assurance that he was the beloved Son and commissioned Jesus. God's message was incarnate in Christ, God's message was preached by Peter and the other apostles and God's message of God's inclusive love is to be shared by us as well.

The first words of today's reading from Acts are, "Peter began to speak..." (v. 34). We struggle so much with sharing our faith with others. More often than not, we are associating with people who are like us--economically, racially and culturally. We do not encounter nearly as many barriers as Peter did. Yet, if we open our eyes beyond our neighborhoods, we will see many needy people who are far different that we are.

God sent Peter to a household very different from his own; culturally and racially. A fisherman was sent to a soldier, a Jew to a Gentile. Peter says he understands that "God shows no partiality" (v. 34). What brought Peter to Cornelius' house and how did he come to that conclusion about God's impartiality?

In the beginning of this chapter of Acts, Peter had a vision, the gist of which was that God wanted Peter to go to a Gentile home and share the good news. God was saying, "I have breaking  news. The gospel is not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also!"

Peter and his companions went to Cornelius, as witnesses to the truth, just as God had told Peter. In spite of Peter's statement about God's impartiality, later in Paul's letter to the Galatians, we see Peter more concerned with the opinion of some Jewish believers, than he is with the inclusivity of the gospel. It was such an issue that Paul had to publicly correct Peter.

God has no favorites. This means that no ethnic, geographical, cultural or moral barriers are any longer in the way of anyone and everyone is offered forgiveness and new life.

Peter shared the message of Jesus with Cornelius. Peter uses an interesting phrase: "You know the message [God] sent to Israel..." (v. 36). The whole point of Peter's sermon is that Cornelius and his household do not know what has happened. After all, that's why Peter was sent! If we look at those who first read Acts, they knew and we know, but Cornelius certainly did not know.

Peter summarizes Christ's mission as "the message [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ" (v. 36). Jesus' earthly mission was primarily aimed at the people of Israel. Jesus preached peace in the face of Roman oppression.

As Peter goes through the geography of the Good News, he notes that Jesus' ministry began, "after the baptism that John announced" (v. 37). The beginning of Jesus' ministry was tied to John the Baptist.

Peter summarized the public ministry of Jesus in this way: God anointed [Jesus] with the Holy Spirit and power. Jesus does not act on his own. Jesus is God's agent so he did good and healed all oppressed by the devil. As in the gospels, Jesus' healings were portrayed as an assault on the power of the devil, not solely errands of mercy.

Peter then summarized the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 39-40). Jesus appeared to his disciples and ate and drank with them after his resurrection.  A great example of this was when Jesus met the two on the road to Emmaus, who recognized him through the breaking of bread.

The appearance of the risen Lord culminates with his command to proclaim the gospel. Jesus leaves his disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide and empower them after his ascension. This promise finds fulfillment in Cornelius and his household and bursts through boundaries to include all God fearers.

After the summary of Jesus' ministry comes the statement, "we are witnesses to all that he did" (v. 39). Jesus commanded those he had called as witnesses  (v. 41), to testify. Testify means witness, which comes from the Greek, martyrein. From this word comes the word martyr. Not very encouraging, is it? Most of Jesus' apostles died as martyrs. The invitation to witness was an invitation to come and die with Jesus.

After our passage from Acts, we see the power of the Holy Spirit as such that while Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit comes on Cornelius and his household. Before Cornelius could respond verbally that he believed, God powerfully demonstrated that Cornelius and his household had become children of God. I love the way God demonstrates what He says, "...everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness through his name (v. 43).

In the final verse, the reference to the prophets shows that the Christian message is not a break with the past, but the continuation and fulfillment of God's plan revealed in the ancient scriptures.It was important to emphasize this in presenting the gospel to Gentiles [and people today] who did not know the Old Testament, who are too inclined to misunderstand Jesus as simply a significant personality, a great teacher, or a wonder worker. In Acts, the Christian message is integrated into the continuing plan of God for all history.

Initially it seems that this passage has nothing to do with the baptism of Jesus. However, in a deeper sense, this passage has everything to do with recalling the baptism of Jesus. That baptism is directly related to the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16), a promise that is richly fulfilled in the baptism of Cornelius.

As writer N. T. Wright notes, "God is not simply accepting us as we are. He invites us as we are; but responding to that invitation always involves the complete transformation which is acted out in repentance, forgiveness, baptism, and receiving the Spirit" (N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone). God invites us to be part of his plan. In baptism, we are washed clean, made God's child, filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned to proclaim the good news.

God shows no partiality, which is difficult for all to hear who have been socialized to think in terms of an us/them mentality. That God loves and accepts "them" as well as "us" is part of the scandalous good news of the gospel. This news is too good to keep to ourselves. Let's share God's message that the world may know of Jesus and his love.


Friday, January 6, 2017

A New Name

This is the sermon I preached on New Year's Day, 1/1/17 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text was Galatians 4:4-7. 
What is in a name? Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"). When picked on, adults used to tell kids, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." We quickly discover that this is not so! Some labels given to us are such that we may struggle with them as adults.

All names are powerful, but Jesus’ name is the most powerful of all. We use names as a concise way to convey complex meanings: being able to call someone by name means you know something important about that person, and being called by name means you are known. On this day we celebrate the privilege and the power of calling God by name, and that name is Jesus.

Our texts for today affirm the power of the name we’re given at baptism: child of God. The name of God liberates and empowers us in ways we do not deserve and did nothing to earn (Ps. 8, Num. 6:27).

For everyone of us at worship today, the passing of time is on our minds especially because today is the first day of 2017. That is one kind of time. However, Paul is writing about a completely different kind of time. In these moments, God invites us into his holy mission in specific and concrete ways.

It was in "The fullness of time," that the Father sent the Son. The liberating event was God's act in Christ. It was not a matter of people adopting a new attitude or resolving to follow the principles taught by Jesus. The fullness of time was when everything was in place and ready for Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.

Paul writes that Jesus was "born of a woman." This means that Jesus completely belonged to the human race. Paul also says Jesus was "born under the law." This identifies him not only with the Jewish people, but with all people. Jesus was Jewish, but Paul's point is that Jesus accepted the conditions of human life. He shared the same restrictions as all other human beings.

Some of us struggle with prayer. It is not something we can do on our own. Our good intentions to pray are not enough to develop a prayer relationship with God. But that's alright. God is the one in our hearts praying through us. Because we are adopted children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts crying Abba.

Martin Luther, in his writings on Galatians points out, "That God adopted us is due to the merit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who humbled Himself under the Law and redeemed us law-ridden sinners" (Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians). Paul proclaims the gospel: with Christ Jesus, believers are now children of God and have the right to call God Abba. Since God is the adopted Father of everyone here, this means we have a large extended family in the community of faith.

Knowing someone's name was a sign of having access to that person's inner self. It was a privilege to use someone's first name. What's so special about the name Abba? For me, it is best illustrated by warm evenings in Jerusalem when families were out walking on the plaza of Ben Yehuda St. Small children in strollers would stretch their arms upward to their fathers crying out, "Abba!" Abba is a very intimate form of address. As our name changes in baptism from sinner to child of God, the name with which we address God changes because of our new relationship with him. It is not something we can do on our own, but it is the Spirit of God at work in our hearts. Previously, we were slaves, now we are children of God. Because of that, Paul writes that we are heirs.

Have you given much thought to your inheritance? Perhaps it may be large or incredibly small. How do we inherit something? Someone has to die. Jesus died so that we become heirs of God. And what an inheritance he leaves for us.

Luther sums up today's reading from Galatians in this way, "This passage contains excellent doctrine and much comfort. It declares that we are justified not by works, sacrifices, or ceremonies, but by Christ alone. The world may judge certain things to be ever so good; without Christ they are all wrong" (ibid.).

In this new year, may we grow in our relationship with God and each other so that our world may know what life is like when we are all that God calls us to be.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016


This is the sermon I preached for Advent 2 A on 12/4 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The text is Isaiah 11:1-10.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a paradise like the one Isaiah describes? It’s an unimaginable world! But it didn’t start out that way for the people of Israel.

Judah had been devastated. In Isaiah 6, it’s likened to a tree that’s been destroyed with only the stump remaining. But God had promised that there would be new life that would usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. This would not be limited to Israel alone, but is an ideal world for all people. Isaiah preaches hope in a time of terror and justice in a time of oppression.

The stump was the dynastic reign of King David’s family, which was believed to be the carrier of God’s goodness and faithfulness in the world. But the royal family disappointed its people and left them in despair. 

God’s Spirit enters into this malaise. God’s wind has come to blow over the stump of death and discouragement. This is the life-giving, future-creating, world-forming, despair-ending Spirit of God. A tug of war was taking place between the stump of death and the spirit of life. Into this situation, God’s prophet Isaiah makes three life-altering announcements. 

The first announcement is that of new life and a new king (vv. 1-5). We have an amazing description of this king and his rule. His character would be shaped by the Spirit. The king is provided with the necessary gifts for just rule by the Spirit, evoking true piety from the anointed one. The king’s administration concentrates on the establishment of justice (vv. 3b-5).  He assures that the poor and meek have full rights before the law. This anointed king does not judge by outer appearance, but has discernment to see into people’s hearts. Nor does he judge by hearsay. The character and administration of the king are those that the people had hoped for, but never fully realized.

The second announcement is one of peace and tranquility in the natural order. This cosmic peace is the consequence of the rise of the anointed king. This is not life, as we know it.  It’s like the Garden of Eden on steroids—this is a kingdom beyond anyone’s expectations. The coming of God’s messiah changes everything—even the natural order.

The third announcement concerns the anointed descendant of David. He will be a signal around which all nations will unite (v. 10). The place is God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem. The promise is that this is the resting place where the root of Jesse stands. The vision is one of security with the shoot as a sign for the nations. The standard is not the one for battle, but one of peace. The goal of this transformation is for humanity to live life without fear. 

I‘m sure you‘ve all heard the name Nelson Mandela, who was the first black president of South Africa and who spent 27 years in prison for trying to bring about racial equality in that country. The transformation of South Africa from a minority ruled country that embraced the enslavement of blacks to a society where black and white are equal is a transformation from predator and prey to peaceful partners forming a society together. 

The system of apartheid was so deeply entrenched in South African society that no one believed that it would be dismantled and if it was to be dismantled, the ruling white minority was convinced that only a bloodbath would tear apartheid down. However, God gave Nelson Mandela the dream of a different future for his people, for all the people of South Africa. Once Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he could have taken the road to retribution and killing, but he chose to take the higher ground and followed the road of reconciliation, peace and harmony where black and white could live together and work together. Like the peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, South Africa was transformed. 

Can we dare to dream that communities near and far can be made new? Can we bring about the kingdom Isaiah talks about here in Bemus Point/Mayville  or in Chautauqua County or in the State of NY? In order to do so, we need to acknowledge that Jesus is the messianic king and we need to follow his teachings on loving one another and taking care of our neighbors and those who may not have as much as we do. Jesus, as our messianic king calls us to turn our world upside down.

Is this transformation going to be easy? No. It is something we will have to work at. God is asking us to move out of our comfort zone and that is not an easy thing to do. When we are overwhelmed or when we are trying to make change where the odds seem stacked against us, we can succumb to the trappings of despair. God’s Advent word of hope comes to sit with us in our despair. The fragile sign is God’s beginning where faith can break through the hardness of our disbelief. We may want to sit on the stump for a little while. God will sit there with us. But God will nudge us to look at the signs of life sprouting from our stump. Do you see that green shoot growing? It is God’s invitation into hopes and dreams and even adventures as we leave the familiar and go down paths untraveled.

A few years ago in my first call, we studied the book Advent Conspiracy for our midweek Advent gatherings. Did you know that according to Advent Conspiracy, Americans spend 45 times as much in one Christmas as it would take to ensure that people all over the world have clean water. It kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it? 

The concept of giving at Christmas has become a rat race rather than giving from the heart. We need to shift our fascination with consumerism to an attitude of caring for our brothers and sisters. One opportunity that presents itself is through gifts for ELCA World Hunger. Other deserving charities could be gifts to the Bemus Point Food Pantry or the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle program. We need to keep in mind that recipients of our gifts are not the poor or less fortunate people, but are our neighbors. Like our Lord, we are led by the wind of God’s Spirit. Our Christ like behavior will win over curious outsiders.

Do you feel the winds of the Spirit blowing? Amen!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Christ is the King

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, 11/20  at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran churches. The scripture text was Luke 23:33-43.

I have to admit that I was confused when I first looked at today’s gospel text. Doesn’t this seem like an unusual text, especially at this time of year? After all, this is not Good Friday!  What does Jesus’ crucifixion have to do with Jesus being Christ the King? 

Listen to the way theologian N T Wright describes the situation:                                      
Jesus has stood on its head the meaning of kingship, the meaning of the kingdom itself. He has celebrated with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. Now he is hailed as king at last, but in mockery. Here comes his royal cupbearer, only it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine that poor people drank. Here is his royal placard, announcing his kingship to the world, but it is in fact the criminal charge which explains his cruel death. (NT Wright, Luke for Everyone, 284)
Let the irony sink in. We are watching a parody being played out.
The concept of kingdom is a little hard for Americans to grasp. We don’t have a king. Our country was founded in rebellion against a king. Some explanation of the Greek word for kingdom will help us. The Greek word translated as kingdom means the power or authority to rule as king. "Entering the kingdom of God” can be understood as "accepting God's rule” over us.
Throughout his gospel, Luke tells us more about the kingdom: It is not something that can be seen (17:20). It is something within us (17:21). It is something proclaimed or preached (4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 60; 16:16). It contains secrets (8:10), but it can be sought (12:31) and given as a gift (12:32) and received (18:17). And finally, the kingdom comes near (10:9, 11; 21:31). 
This parody of worshipping the king on a cross contains quite a cast of characters, but for the moment, I’d like to focus on three groups and their responses to Jesus and his kingdom. The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus, the soldiers mocked him and one criminal.
The religious leaders scoffed at Jesus saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (v. 35). Scoffed literally means that they looked down their noses at Jesus or that they thumbed their noses at him.
The soldiers mocked Jesus. Their derision echoes the devil’s challenge during Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 9). The soldiers added further insult by offering Jesus sour wine, which was cheap vinegar heavily diluted with water. It was the drink of slaves and soldiers.

One of the criminals crucified with Jesus derided him saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (v. 39).  Literally, the criminal committed blasphemy because by belittling Jesus, all who mock him are belittling the power of God.

Did you notice the similarities in the various taunts of Jesus? All three derisions focus on the saving significance of Jesus’ death—vv. 35, 37, 39. Whether they knew it or not, they were proclaiming the truth of the saving power of this king on a cross. What irony that all referred to Jesus as the Savior (vv. 35, 37, 39). “Save yourself”—this was essentially the same thing the devil tried to tempt Jesus with. Avoid the humiliation, pain and suffering of the cross. After all, you are the king, aren’t you?

Luke’s description of Jesus’ crucifixion underscores his real identity and the true meaning of his death. Jesus is the Messiah of God (vv. 35, 39). Jesus is the Chosen One (v.35). Jesus is the King of the Jews.

How did the king on the cross respond to this antagonistic barrage? “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34). 

How are we supposed to respond to the forgiveness of the king? We’re shown this in the response of the second criminal. The second criminal expressed faith to see and believe that Jesus is the one who will have the final word, who will rule as king. He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). In scripture remembering carries with it the idea of responding in an appropriate manner. It’s more than just having something pop into our heads that we’ve forgotten. The criminal is asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about this repentant man. We too should be asking Jesus to respond with action as he thinks about us. 
Jesus’ response is to affirm the criminal’s confidence that he would be with him in paradise. What exactly is meant by the word, “paradise?” Is it heaven? Is it a tropical island in the sunny Pacific? Is it a place where we can eat all the food we want and never gain weight? Is it simply just a state of mind? 
Let’s think about paradise as something other than a place. Paradise can be thought of as a restored relationship with God.  
Jesus’ interaction with this criminal illustrates the truth of salvation. Salvation does not mean avoiding the cross. Neither Jesus nor the criminal were saved from suffering and death. Salvation means having faith, even when dying on the cross. “It means having faith to proclaim that Jesus is the powerful king, precisely when he’s on the cross” (Brian Stoffregen). The end result of the cross is that Jesus was restored with his relationship with the Father. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, our sins are forgiven and we too are restored in our relationship with the Father. 
Are we willing to believe in and worship Christ the King who stays on the cross until death? Can we be confident that Jesus will remember US and do what is good for us?
Christ the King, who was killed by the Roman Empire for treason and insurrection, did not merely challenge the orders of the world, but overturned them altogether. Jesus established a new reign governed by love, mercy and grace. Our king reigns from his unlikely throne, granting multiple opportunities for forgiveness to us all. On this feast of Christ the King, let our rallying cry be that of the second criminal. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 

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