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the sermon for

the First Sunday of Advent

03 December 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9
When all is done and said, we are all god's people!

12032017"Today's Readings" That's the name of the lectionary insert we use each and every Sunday morning. "Today's Readings" Two pages! 5 1/2 x 8 1/2"! Printed on high-quality 45 lb husky smooth offset paper! As you've seen, it contains just abut everything in worship that changes from week to week. The prayer of the day! First and second readings! Gospel! Psalm! And for the overachievers among us, on the back, across the bottom of the page, are the readings for next Sunday! "Today's Readings"

But three's another lectionary insert available through AugsburgFortress! Four pages! 8 1/2 x 11", folded in half! Printed on the same high-quality 45 lb husky smooth offset paper! It has everything "Today's Readings" has and more! It includes the Prayers of Intercession we offer between the Creed and the Peace! But "Celebrate," as it's called, also has an overview or introduction for the Sunday as a whole and for each reading individually! For instance...

this is what's written about the First Reading, for this morning! About the passage from Isaiah! "This lament comes from a people who have had their hopes shattered. The visions of a rebuilt Jerusalem and a renewed people of God, spoken of in Isaiah 40 –55, have not been realized. Instead, the people experience ruin, conflict, and famine. This lament calls God to account—to be the God who has brought deliverance in the past." Well, I read those words, sat back, and through about what I'd just read. There was a lot in those sixty-or-so words!

You see, contrary to appearances, the book of Isaiah isn't just one book written by one person. The first thirty-nine chapters were written some seven-to-eight centuries before Jesus. Back when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and controlled the southern kingdom of Judah! The book doesn't, even, mention Babylon about a hundred-and-fifty years later! When Judah was conquered, Jerusalem – including the Temple – destroyed, and the king was led away as a slave to Babylon itself! Second Isaiah – as it's called – are chapters 40 to 55! They leapfrog over the story of Babylon and go right to the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire. For the exiles in Babylon, it was a time of promise, a time of hope! It was a time when the Jews believed that god was making all things new! Cyrus gave them permission... and encouragement... and support... to go back "home" and rebuild Jerusalem! To start all over, again, in the land! To start all over, again, in THEIR land! But then, there's Third Isaiah! Chapters 56-66! The part of Isaiah that today's reading comes from.

This lament comes from a people who have had their hopes shattered. The visions of a rebuilt Jerusalem and a renewed people of God, spoken of in Isaiah 40 –55, have not been realized. Instead, the people experience ruin, conflict, and famine.

The people return home. And it was nothing like what they dreamed of! Nothing like what they remembered! When they lived in Babylon, anything – everything – was possible! So bright! So shining! But when they returned to Jerusalem... They were overcome, overwhelmed, by what they found! Thus, the lament...

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

It's a lament, a dirge, a song of agony and of anguish. There was nothing that remained of that Jerusalem or of that god. And even here, they mourned, they grieved, they wept, as they had beside the Euphrates as exiles.

They wanted to make Jerusalem great, again! Back when the nation was strong, was proud! When the people were prosperous and powerful! When life was safe and secure and free! But then, they came home. They wanted to do it. They tried to do it! They really did! But the harder they tried, the more difficult it became! The closer to god they tried to get, they farther away they fell! And in the end, they simply gave up. Conquered, vanquished, by their own helplessness, by their own failures. They could only do so much. Only go so far.

This lament comes from a people who have had their hopes shattered. The visions of a rebuilt Jerusalem and a renewed people of God have not been realized. Instead, the people experience ruin, conflict, and famine...

I have to confess, as I read the words... from Isaiah... from Celebrate... I thought about us. I thought about us. Hopes shattered. Visions unrealized. Ruin. Conflict. Famine. It's one thing to build a church from scratch! To watch it sprout, grow from nothing! Fresh! New! But it's another thing entirely, waiting for the dust to settle... then picking up the pieces and trying to put them all back together... more a Humpty Dumpty moment... Some pieces are missing, never to be found... Some just don't mesh... Others, still, aren't our pieces, at all... That's what this passage is describing! No matter how hard... no matter how long... no matter how well... sometimes, it just can't be fixed... not like before... not like in the beginning...

A windstorm folds the roof of a church back like a tortilla... After thirty years, an a/c unit, finally, gives up the ghost... Hope cracks... dreams crumble... visions collapse... And the people are overcome... are overwhelmed... discouraged... disheartened... And that's not, even, considering the changes and chances of life that confront us at home... at work... at school... The fears. The frustrations. Our heads spin. Our hearts ache. "This lament comes from a people who have had their hopes shattered, their visions unrealized." That's true of us. O that you would tear open the heaves and make it all go away! O that you would tear open the heavens and make it stop! Even if just for a moment!

I thought of us. And then I read the last line. I read the very last line. "Now consider, we are your people! We are all your people!" Yes, we have been conquered. And yes, we have been defeated. By Assyrias. By Babylons. Our dreams, too, destroyed. Our hopes shattered, as well. We've done our best. We've tried our hardest. But the best wasn't good enough. And our hardest? Our hardest has been far from adequate. Shoulders to the wheel. Noses to the grindstone. We've tried it all. And that all hasn't made any difference. And yet, we are still your people! We are all still your people! Just as god remains our god! Remains our god in spite of it all!

So the passage begins as lament. Sorrow. Regret. A dirge of broken promises and shattered dreams. And yet it ends in a simple statement of faith. "Now consider, we are all your people!" We always have been! We will be, forever! Even here, even now, we belong to god! There may be gloom. Gloom. Despair. Agony. But that one thing never changes! Life may become more than we wanted. More, even, that we can handle. It may not be what we expect, what we signed up for. But god is still our god! And we, all of us, together, are still god's people! We cry out for help. But instead, we receive faith!

My friends, god loves us. And there is nothing, there is no one, who can get in the way! Not Assyria! Not Babylon! Not Persia! And not, even, ourselves!

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the sermon for

Christ the King

26 November 2017

Matthew 25:31-46
We believe in charity and in charity alone!

11262017In the past, I, probably, would have just said it as it was written! Read the passage, say the words, and, simply, moved on. At most, I might have smiled or rolled my eyes, amused by the contradiction.

Matthew writes, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life!" The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ!

But this morning, I couldn't do it. Maybe it's because of the buildup, the crescendo, to this year's Reformation Sunday. All the reading I'd been doing. All the movies we've watched. Whatever the reason, this time, I just couldn't do it. It just didn't feel right. And as for the smirk, the eye roll... Well, it just wasn't funny, anymore. You see, there's too much at stake! Too much that matters! For too long – and by too long, I mean since back before I was ordained – I'd hear the words and I'd back away. I'd read them and I'd blink. I'd flinch. I'd look the other way. I figured that if I ignored them, they'd go away. They haven't. Thirty-some years later, they're still here. After all, what could I do. They're part of the bible! Chapter and verse! Printed in red!

And these will go away into eternal punishment... into that outer darkness Matthew's so fond of talking about... with the weeping and the gnashing of teeth... Into the fire... the eternal fire... the fire of hell... prepared for the devil and his angels...

But this year, this time, before we move on, as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ, I wanted to say that this... this is NOT the gospel of the Lord! This is NOT the gospel of the Lord! Not, even, close! Gospel means good news! And I ask you, where in this passage, where in this parable, do you hear that? Some are saved, some are damned? Some punished, some rewarded? Forever and ever, amen? That's not the gospel! At least, that's not "our" gospel! It might be a part of popular religion. It might be what a whole lot of other churches – especially churches in this neck of the woods – say is gospel. But for us, as heirs of the Reformation, gospel is something else entirely!

Gospel – good news – is the message of god's grace and mercy! Period. Exclamation mark! End of sentence Gospel, good news, for us is the announcement, the proclamation, what god has done for us in Jesus Christ! Done for us out of the goodness of god's own heart! The gospel was spoken at the very beginning of worship, this morning. "In the mercy – the charity – of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake, god forgives us all! That is good news! In its most basic form, the gospel is simply Jesus! Conceived by the spirit and born of a virgin! Suffered, died, buried, descending! On the third day, rising! That's the gospel of the Lord! God redeeming! God delivering! God saving! God setting free! And punishment and reward, no matter how hard we try to make it so, have nothing to do with it! God loves! Period! God loves! And that's all that matters! God loves! That's what's important! God loves each and every, one and all... or god doesn't! It's as simple as that! God loves without limit and without measure, loves no ifs, ands, or buts, or god doesn't! There's no compromise! Nothing halfway! No middle ground! Our life depends on Jesus... or it doesn't!

One of the lessons I've learned, over the years, is that the more we talk about ourselves, the less we talk about Jesus! The more we focus on rules and regulations, the less we mention Jesus! Mention Jesus and his love! There's a reason why the baptizer says, "I must decrease!" It's the only way for Jesus to increase! It's either ourselves or it's Jesus! We can't have it both ways. That's why we Lutherans don't give testimonies here in church. It's not our story! It's god's story! Jesus' story! The gospel isn't about morals or ethics or principles! That's just another way of making it about us! The gospel is the message, the good news, about Jesus! Indeed, the gospel IS Jesus! It's something – someone – to believe in, not to obey! It's something – someone – to stake your life one, not, merely, to heed!

Don't get me wrong, acts of love are important, even essential! But only as echoes and reflections of the love god has for us! We feed because we have been fed! We give the thirsty something to drink because we once were thirsty, ourselves! Making a place for the stranger, for the refugee, for the exile and immigrant, because that's what god's done for us! Clothing the naked! Caring for the sick! Visiting the lonely! We don't do it for the merit or the payment or the reward! We do it because we care! We do it because we love! We do it because that's what god has done!

But, of course, we still hear about punishment and reward. And we're threatened! With darkness! With fire! As if that will motivate and inspire! Anymore, even for us, it's impossible to hear about Jesus and not think of hell. But truth is, that's Matthew! Matthew and Matthew alone! That's the way he tells the story! But for us... for us, it's all about grace! It's all about charity! It's all about love! Unearned and undeserved! Pressed down, shaken together, overflowing! Pure and unbounded! No lines in the sand! Separating sheep from goats! Worthy from worthless! Wise from foolish! You see, that's all Matthew, as well! Matthew and only Matthew!

So, after a year of Matthew... of simply reading the passage and saying the line and moving on... I, finally, had to say something. This is not us. This isn't what we believe in. All this talk about punishment and reward. Instead, we believe in love! We believe in a mother holding her child close, in a stable, on a winter night! We believe in a man feeding a multitude in a deserted place with nothing more than five loaves and two fish! We believe in a god hanging on a cross, on a hilltop outside a dusty, desert town! We believe in a savior that not even death can keep away! Not wrath! Not retribution! But love! Love that comes to us! Love that picks us up! Love that holds us close! Love that never, ever lets us go! That, my friends... That is the gospel of the Lord!

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