Be The Star This Christmas

Posted December 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Christmas Eve / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-24-15

 Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God, our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say Come! Amen.

This Christmas we are blessed with the work of many hands who have decorated our sanctuary and practiced music to share in our worship service. We have readers who’ve practiced their lines. Our Altar Guild hung Bible verses on the stairs that guide us to Christ, and arranged the poinsettias. The Worship & Music Team put up the tree and hung the greens. And a couple of our members built a sign of JOY out of wood for our altar and this beautiful Christmas Star to hang in our chancel this year.

These are all wonderful gifts – especially this time of year – why? Because they point us toward Christ. The wise men didn’t worship the star – but the one to whom the star pointed: Jesus Christ. The function of a star is to shine and guide and to show the way for others. And every star is different – no two shine quite alike. So, this Christmas, I want to ask you: how will you shine and light the way for others? And, to help you think about this, I wrote a little story about stars (with apologies to Dr. Seuss, as it’s done in that same style) about how we all shine in our own way. So, this is the sermon this Christmas Eve.   I call it: Be The Star This Christmas!

Tis the season for wide-eyed wishes
And shining stars and Christmas dishes
The guests will all come singing songs, giving gifts
And we’ll toast them with eggnog and eat leutefisk!

And soon we can all breathe a sigh of relief
Being glad that it’s over (except the roast beast).
When guests have all shuttled away to their cars
Then we can go back to our lives near and far.

But wait, what’s that glow, through the trees up on high?
Could it be the Star of Bethlehem still drawing nigh?
Who knows, maybe this will be the year
That the star shines for us, some true Christmas cheer!

Oh, I wish it were true. It isn’t so trite
To imagine that peace in the world comes tonight.
It can happen in YOU. It can happen in ME.
All we need to do is SHINE so that everyone can see.

So, how will YOU shine in your starry-kind-of-way?
Will you glow oh, so gently or with bold, bright array?
Will you burn so hot till your friends need sunglasses?
Or will your light be warm and dark as sweet molasses?

You could plug IN your star to make it brighter than bright
Using string-after-string. Why, it would shine day and night!
Your friends would say ‘Wow!’ They would all come and see
But friends are not friends because of electricity.
Even if you’re famous and get on TV!

Or maybe you’re ashamed of the star in your heart
And feeling so down for not doing your part
Maybe someone laughed at your particular twinkle
And made you feel small as a Flim Flammer Flinkle.
(And that’s pretty small, let me tell you, I know.
I once had one for a pet. It did everything but grow!)

So what are we to do if we’re down with the blues?
And don’t think we could shine like the rest of those hues?
Could the answer be sitting at the top of my tree?
In a star shining brightly for you and for me?
Say, what if I shine for you and you shine for me?
It really doesn’t matter if no one else sees.

Don’t you wonder in a world full of hatred and sin
How a dear little baby could draw people in?
How he’d one day stand up to rulers with swords
And disarm them with love, not the force or big words.

This Jesus, this Mary, this Joseph, I’m told
Have much more to give us than incense and gold.
For the world still needs saving. Look around you, it’s true.
People are hurting, and maybe it’s you.

God sent the star for the wise men to guide
It wasn’t so big, but it shined far and wide
It shined so bright that they just had to pursue
Till this star came to rest over a stable with cow poo.

They weren’t much to look at, this family in the hay
But there was something about him that made the wise men stay
They knelt before the child and worshipped him as king
Doesn’t that sound like a strange sort of thing?

Star-struck lovers, they offered gifts untold
Of frankincense and myrrh and pockets full of gold
But the best gift they gave to the child in the hay
Was the gift of their hearts, for they had FAITH that day.

For that is what stars do – in the end of all things
They point the way for others to worship Christ the king.
It isn’t about their glow or how sparkly they are
No, they simply do what all stars do: show God’s love near and far.

So, someday when others may ask about God
Don’t be surprised and perplexed or feel odd.
No, the star that they’ve followed is YOU, you big star!
You’re the one radiating God’s love. You just ARE!

Yes, Christmas is about Jesus and the sharing of his love.
But we must shine it down here because it came from above.
So be the star this Christmas as you point the way for others
And shine the light of Christ on your sisters and your brothers.


I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year in 2016!

Magnifying With Mary

Posted December 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Luke 1:46-55 / Mary’s Song of Praise

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

Luke 1:39-45 / Mary Visits Elizabeth

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe

25 Jul 2014, Taizé, France — Stained glass window of The Visitation, Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, Church of the Reconciliation, Taize Community, Taize, Saone-et-Loire, Burgundy, France, Europe — Image by © robertharding/Corbis

Advent4 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-20-15

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

I’m going to go out on a limb today and bet that everyone sitting in this room has, at one time or another, felt superior to or inferior to someone else; either more important or less important than another, for some reason.

We live in a society that is hard-wired for ‘winners’ & ‘losers.’ In school there are athletes and loners, popular kids and stoners. At the movies there are Jedi and Sith, and the Dark Side to play with. And, Santa’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice. Why?   Gonna find out who’s Naughty or Nice. And, at the end of every sporting event only one team can sing: “We are the champions!”

So, whose side are you on?

It’s a tempting question we get asked a lot in life. But I’m not sure it’s the right question. Asking ‘whose side are you on?’ only drives the wedge of division deeper between us. Surely there’s a third way to live in this world between winner and loser. Mary shows us how in the song she sings on this fourth Sunday in Advent. It is known as “The Magnificat.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings. In this moment she is neither inferior nor superior – she is simply a ‘magnifying glass’ to show the world what God has done. Mary blows up the fine print of scripture, recalling God’s past faithfulness to Abraham and Sarah – who were also poor, unlikely candidates for God’s will to be carried out. Then Mary zooms in on her own experience of being loved by God (a very intimate and personal testimony): “You have looked with love on your servant here and blessed me all my life through.” And finally, Mary keeps the focus on what God has done (and is doing).

There is no haughtiness to her song: No, “I’m da man!” No, ‘woe is me’ self-pity, either. Only this magnificent testimony that Mary gets to participate in something bigger than herself – she has come, empty-handed, and has been made a vessel for the Almighty. Notice who the ‘subject’ is of nearly every one of Mary’s ‘verbs’ – God! “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly… [God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

So, inasmuch as Mary’s song isn’t ‘about Mary’ it does leave me wondering: Does God ‘root for the underdog?’ playing favorites with the poor? The powerless? The insignificant? Does God really flip the world upside-down – choosing Moses, with his speech impediment / or David, the scrawny shepherd boy /or Ruth the outsider to lead the people to greatness? Does God really birth kings from poor peasant girls whom nobody knows?

I mean, who else besides Mary understood the depth of this song? That’s right: King Herod. When he heard a child had been born and the prophecies were ‘that the government would rest upon his shoulders’ and that he would come from little town of Bethlehem, what was his reaction? He dispatched a garrison of soldiers to have every child under the age of 2 killed in that region. There aren’t any Christmas carols that tell that part of the story. Herod, that ruthless pawn of the Roman occupying force – who knew his subjects loathed him, but he could care less. Herod, who kept 70 Israelites prisoners at any given time, just in case he might die suddenly. His orders were that those 70 Jews would be killed upon his death, so that there would truly be mourning in Israel when he died (that’s how much his subjects hated him). What an ego trip! What a flagrant abuse of power! Needless to say, Herod was not one to feel inferior to others.

How different were the words of President Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether he felt God was on his side in fighting the Civil War. His reply was: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

And so, Mary’s song is not diminished, for she strove to be faithful to God throughout her ordeal.  Even through the horrific slaughter of little children, her song stood the test of time. Governments in India and Guatemala once banned the singing of the Magnificat, or its public recitation – for this very reason: it’s dangerous and subversive because it might incite riots in the streets. Mary flips the world upside down as she sings about rulers being cast down from their thrones and the rich being sent away empty. So how is it good news for everyone?

You see, if this song had only been about Mary it wouldn’t have been remembered. But the world was about to change forever in the birth of Jesus. This Magnificat is anchored in that promise that God works through the lowly and the insignificant. Through Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. Through Mary, in her virginity and her poverty – through Elizabeth, in her old age – through you and me, when we think we have no power. Even through the tragedy of daily mass shootings in our country.

Today I want you to imagine God being born in you, like a song rising up inside of you. Not a victory song of winners or losers – but a song of faith, bringing about a new beginning. What does your ‘magnificat’ sound like? How has God loved you and blessed you, like Mary? You may not have words to express it. When the angel told Mary about it her response was: “How can this be?”

I once visited a gospel singer, Robert Anderson, in his home in Chicago. He was well into his 70’s by then. It was 1993, and I was interviewing him for school project. He spoke of a joy that wells up within the believer’s heart – that doesn’t come from worldly power or wealth. He said,

“Some folks can actually get up and say many things that they wanna say, that they got this and they got this. Yeah you got it, but how long you gonna keep it? And somebody else could receive the same thing, and won’t even think nothin’ of it, and throw it out to the wolves… So, these things don’t mean anything. I’d rather have the love of God, and have his concern than anything in the world. All of this don’t mean nothin’. I’ve sang in front of ambassadors and kings and queens. That don’t mean nothin’! If they haven’t received the word and received the Christ, they’re still sounding brass.”

So, what does ‘joy’ have to do with Mary’s song and Elizabeth’s child dancing in the womb? Just think how distraught Mary must’ve been – all the shame and talking behind her back that must’ve gone on there in that small town. People talk. They want to know who the father of the child is. Joseph wanted to know! And in the midst of all this stress and shame,  Elizabeth couldn’t be happier to see Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” It’s pure joy that she greets Mary with.  This child will rule with love and mercy – not fear and force. His joy will come from the Word of God. It was Jesus who would some day say: (in John 15:11) “I have said these things to you, so that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”

Whenever our world seems to be spinning out of control, it’s in our nature to try and take over – to believe that old adage: “God helps those who help themselves” (which isn’t even the Bible). No, Mary will have none of that today. You want to talk about somebody who’s life is out of control? Look no further: Mary knows she cannot help herself. She has appeared before the angel, in her humility and vulnerability, and received all the power she needed from on high.

If the best we can do this day is to put our trust in worldly power – to “Make America Great Again” to be “Winners and not Losers” then we’re just riding the coattails of the Empire, like Herod.

Christmas isn’t about being naughty or nice – and worrying about which list we’ll end up on! It’s about being faithful – which is all Mary & Elizabeth had to go on – faith.

That’s why we need Mary’s song today more than ever. That song of magnificent love – full of the promise and hope and joy that is about to visit the earth. A song that invites us to receive all that is coming to be born in us.

Let us pray: O God, you come to us in ways we cannot understand. In a humble manger, born of lowly Mary. Be born in us ~ and may we too sing that magnificent song of faith, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Preparing The Way For A ‘Nobody’

Posted December 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: sermons, Uncategorized

Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”


Advent2 / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 12-6-15

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

Today we light the “Candle of Hope.” Last week it was “Peace.” Or, as it’s named in Hebrew: shalom. We hear it every Christmastime as angels sing from the heaven above: Peace on earth and good will toward all.

And, in today’s lesson, we hear Zechariah’s song to his son, John the Baptist… who would help “guide his people into the way of peace.” These are hope-filled texts. In fact, there’s almost a “Lion King” feel to Zechariah’s song. You can imagine him lifting up baby, John, as the heavens parted and the sunbeam falls upon him as he declares with hopeful expectation:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High
For you will go before the Lord to prepare the way
To give the people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassions of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
And to guide our feet into the way of peace

As we light this HOPE candle for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming Christ-child. We pray with HOPE for PEACE in our world. When nations go to war with one another we send in diplomats for peace talks with the hope that eventually they will sign “peace treaties” (and actually abide by them). We admire those around us who seem to have found ‘a little peace of mind.’ – or, if nothing else, a little ‘peace and quiet.’ Jesus, himself, said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But how do they do it?

I’m reminded of the story that is told about the young Ojibwe boy who was given the task of ensuring the entire village had enough wood for winter. This was the first time he had been given such an honor and he wanted to do it right. Before he went to work he decided to call the weatherman to ask what kind of a winter was to be expected. The weatherman told him it was going to be a warm and uneventful winter. The boy thought to himself, Great! I won’t have to work too hard and I’ll be able to look good in front of the whole tribe.’ Just to be safe, he gathered a few of his friends and they went to work for a week. At the end of the week, after chopping and piling the wood, the boy decided to give the weatherman a second call. The weatherman told him it was going to be a very cold winter. Shocked at this sudden change and not wanting to disappoint the elders of his village, he gathered more of his friends and they went to work. For two weeks they cut and piled wood, hoping that it would be enough to last the whole winter.
And, once again the boy called the weatherman and this time the weatherman told him, “Son, it’s going to be a very bitter, cold and long winter. Maybe the worst winter on record.” Exasperated, the boy had to ask, “What makes you say that sir?” The weatherman replies, “Haven’t you heard? The Indians are gathering wood like crazy!”

(At least they were paying attention to each other.) So, who are you paying attention to these days? In Isaiah 40 we read: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” And so, praying and waiting and listening are all a part of this Advent-kind-of-waiting. Remember for a moment the great expectations leading up to John’s birth. His own father, Zechariah, literally couldn’t speak for nine months until John was born.

That was his punishment from the angel, Gabriel, for not believing that he & Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. “We’re too old! How can this be?” (It wasn’t much different than what Mary said when she found out Jesus was on the way). But, in stern-Gandalf-fashion, Gabriel declares: “For your disbelief you shall remain mute – unable to speak – until all these things have come to pass!” It is kind of harsh, don’t you think? Gabriel didn’t punish Mary for asking “How can this, for I am a virgin? I suppose nine months of morning sickness, public humiliation, and breaking the news to Joseph more than made up for it!

I wonder what we’d say – if we had only so many words TO say. Nine months is a long time to not say anything. Can you imagine? Some days it’s all I can do just to think before speaking. We should all learn how to taste our own words before saying them out loud. And, in a way, that is what Advent is all about. Watching, waiting, weighing our words – for when the time is right to speak.

In our culture there’s no shortage of words. We post to Facebook or tweet our thoughts and opinions – sometimes multiple times a day. It seems everyone has something to say. There is no shortage of verbage and thoughts to fill our news feeds and minds.
But when we are silent…

When we intentionally shut our mouths, even for a moment, to breathe and to listen – God stands ready to fill our hearts with gladness. Hear again the angel’s promise to Zechariah: “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:14)

There is a sense of anticipation – I mean, once Zechariah let it sink in, what was happening, I’m sure he too was looking forward to it. And, when his tongue is finally set free he sings! His papa, Zechariah, speaks from experience – he, himself being the first to repent. Before he’s even born John is turning the heart of his father around. And, in the end, it is Zechariah who names him John: God’s gracious gift.

Alyce McKenzie puts it this way: “In those moments when we name God at work in the world, we find our voice, our identity, and our message.” No doubt, after nine speechless months, Zechariah had had plenty of time to think about it. And here, in this Advent season, he’s found his voice – he knows who he is and what his purpose is.

So what does this mean for you and me?

You may say to yourself: “I’m nobody.” “Why would anyone care what I have to say?” I would argue that John probably felt the same way. I mean, just look at this long list of dignitaries Luke begins his gospel with in v. 1 – Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip – all the bigwigs are here. Even the religious leaders, Caiaphas and Annas the High Priest, get a mention. And during that time, the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. John? Who’s he? A ‘nobody.’

John became a prophet, as important as Elijah, calling people to repent and believe in the good news. This crazy preacher, clothed in camel fur, eating bugs & honey – cried out in the wilderness, and people didn’t know what to do with him. He had no credentials… but the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. Never underestimate what God can do with people the world calls “nobody.”

Consider Jeremiah, who hid his underwear down by the river (in Jeremiah 13) to show the people how they had spoiled themselves, though God made them to cling to him – closer than a loincloth (i.e Fruit of the Looms!). He was trying to make a point – and people remembered it.

Consider Isaiah who walked butt-naked and barefoot for 3 years (in Isaiah 20) to warn the people that they, too, would be taken prisoner – naked and ashamed – into a foreign land.

Consider Hosea who married a temple prostitute to show the people how much they had ‘cheated on God’ (in Hosea 1) by following after false gods.

Time and time again, God sent people to speak and to act in ways that woke others up. Now, I’m not suggesting you run off to get married… but I am suggesting that we should listen more for that voice that shapes our identity that shapes our message. The Word of the Lord was with those prophets – and lives were changed as a result. “Prepare the way” is not just a phrase for Advent. It’s for every day. What part of you needs to be brought down a notch – like a mountain laid low? Or, what part of you needs to be restored – like a valley being filled up?

It may be something as simple as snow removal. Do you even stop to think about the snow shoveling crews that we have on call this time of year at First Lutheran? Who shovels the snow and salts the sidewalks to prepare the way for worship? Who gave you a lift to get medicine or visit the doctor? Who prepared a meal for you during a death in the family so you didn’t have to think about meal planning while you were busy funeral planning? Who prayed for you when you were in need?

One thing is clear: when Christ comes into your life it is Good News. And it is irresistible – like a song, rising up from within.

I want to close with a poem by Madeleine L’Engle entitled: The Risk of Birth, Christmas 1973. She writes:

This is no time for a child to be born
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by the comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Thanks be to God that love still takes the risk to be born among us! All around us – prophets are being born – people who prepare the way for us! People who show us how to love in a world broken by hate. So, what’s being born in you? What are you hearing in the silence? Something new is coming that will forever change your life. Let us pray:

O God, we ask for patience as we wait and watch and wonder at what you are about to do in our lives. We pray for HOPE and PEACE in our world. Give us the right words to say to prepare the way for others this Advent season, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Advent Fish Out Of Water

Posted December 3, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Luke 21:25-36
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”


Advent 1 / John Stiles / 11-29-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

There is an old Chinese proverb that goes: If you want a definition of water, don’t ask a fish. As we begin this new church year, with the season of Advent, I feel much like a fish in the water. We talk about Advent every year, we light the candle and hear the stories about the coming Christ-child, and yet I’m not sure we realize the enormity of it all. Like fish in the water, it’s easy to swim along through the Christmas season and miss the fact that were swimming in a whole ocean of grace about to be poured out on the earth!

Advent means “coming”. These next few weeks, we will prepare for the coming of Jesus. It is a time of anticipation and getting ready. We deck our halls with greens, the snow comes down, and we raise the banners of blue – the color of hope. There are trees to be bought, and lists to be made; letters to be mailed, schedules to coordinate. And in the midst of all of this swimming through the season, God sends us a wake up call — full of wonder and awe – and danger!

In Luke 21, Jesus tells his followers about the last days. And it’s pretty bleak. This section is filled with news of the end of time, but in the verses leading up to today’s reading (starting in verse 16) Jesus says,

“You will be betrayed even by your parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name…” “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars… for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Merry Christmas to you, too, Jesus! Really puts you in the mood for spreading Christmas cheer, doesn’t it? Jesus told his disciples to watch for the signs of the time. Just as the fig tree puts out its leaves, telling us that summer is coming; so too, when you see these things happening, you will know that the Son of Man is coming. One thing is clear: these events involve terrible destruction. They should sound familiar to us all. Verse 10:

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues… “

Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about such things in the newspaper or online. Then comes this chilling indictment: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down… and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap!”

Two common traps we fall into, especially during the holidays are worry and flurry. Simply speaking: worry constipates energy and flurry dissipates it!

VerizonThanksgettingThe trap of consumerism also looms on the horizon this time of year. Everywhere we look someone’s trying to sell us something. We fall into the trap when buying becomes more important than giving. Just this week, Verizon Wireless ran an ad campaign called Thanksgetting to promote all the features one could ‘get’ with a new phone plan.  It’s all part & parcel of the toxic soup we swim in as consumers. The word consume is actually a medical term, meaning literally to use up, lay waste and destroy. In fact, an early term for the disease tuberculosis was “consumption.” So, what’s eating at you this Advent Season? How are you really doing as you prepare your heart for the coming Christ child?

What are the storms that roar in your life this time of year?
Has a loved one been taken from you?
Have natural disasters destroyed your dreams?
Has someone hated you because of your views or because you’re different?
Have you been ignored or put off because you’re getting up there in years?
Have you been captured by a secret sin, and are just dying to break free?
Have you been hurt by a lover, scorned by a friend, or perhaps you yourself bear the guilt… and you wonder whether God even cares about your life.

It can lead us to despair, asking: “WHAT’S THE POINT OF MY STORY?! If this is God’s idea of a wake up call, I’d rather stay in bed, thank you. No, in fact, I am not awake. No, I do not want to get up. Just let me stay under the covers.” Most people know that there is no point to the senseless sufferings around us every day – racial unrest in the streets of Chicago and Minneapolis – homegrown terrorists in Colorado Springs and Charleston, SC – and a political process that has lost its civility and respect for one another. When did we lose the ability to simply be agreeable with one another, even if we don’t agree on something?

It’s important to note here that Jesus lifted up these very moments as the times in which he would come again. …the moments when we were to watch for him. He is even so bold as to say: (in v. 18) “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” What times in your life can you point to when that promise was put to the test?

When I graduated from seminary a classmate of mine, Barb Bullock-Tiffany also began her ministry. But just two years into the call, news came that Barb had cancer and she died within a year. Young, witty, talented, tender Barb. Barb the thinker and theologian. Barb the preacher, pastor and friend. I remember being angry and sad all at once. Most of her classmates came back for the funeral. They had us seated toward the front – rows upon rows of clergy, processed by her casket during the opening hymn. And as I walked by it seemed like the end of the world. It was so unfair. So terribly wrong. I remember saying to God, as I passed by her casket: “It had better be true… It had better be true… true that you are who you say you are – true that you rose from the dead – true that you’ll be there each time we have to do this.”

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus’ advice during these times is to stand up – and raise your head – for your redemption is drawing near.”

Just like Jeremiah stood up, in our first lesson. He gave his people hope that they’ll be going home soon. They’d been in exile in Babylon for years. And yet, back in chapter 25, while the entire city of Jerusalem was under siege, Jeremiah also spoke of hope. So much so, that he went out and bought a piece of land – knowing full well that the Babylonians are about to sack the city. “The days are surely coming…” said Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming…” It was a favorite saying of his. He might as well have said: “It had better be true!”

“The days are surely coming… when I will cause a righteous branch of David to spring up.” …refering to a new king to come… in the line of David. Even as Jerusalem is about to be destroyed, and the throne of David, which has never fallen since the boy king defeated the mighty Goliath… Jeremiah prepares them for the worst. A new king is coming: a Messiah who will save not just the people of Israel, but the whole world!

And so we wait… and we hope for what we do not yet see.

Like a fish in water, there are some things I just cannot understand. We see the signs and say, “This just can’t be how the story ends.” Now, more than ever, we need this gift of wonder – to awaken the faith and find our purpose in life. But that’s not always easy to see.

It’s like the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were on a camping trip.
In the middle of the night, Holmes nudges Watson awake, and says,
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
“I see millions of stars, my dear Holmes.”
“And what do you infer from these stars?”
“Well, a number of things,” he says, lighting his pipe:
Astronomically, I observe that there are millions of galaxies and billions of stars and planets.
Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo.
Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three.
Meteorologically, I expect that the weather will be fine and clear.
Theologically, I see that God is all-powerful, and man, his creation, small and insignificant.
What about you, Holmes?”
“Watson, you fool! Someone has stolen our tent!”

It’s a good thing Jesus isn’t a fish. Sure, he came to be a fish — like us — to swim in the waters of this world, to teach us a few things along the way. He came to show us the way through those deep, dark caverns at the bottom of the sea, where dreams vanish and good people drown – as well as the beautiful lakes and reefs and clear, blue oceans – that give us joy.

British theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, describes it this way. He says, “How can we, who are still in the middle of the cosmic story, know what the point of the story is, or whether it has any point at all? Only if the author of the story has let us in on the secret while we are still in the middle. There can be no other possibility.”

This Advent season, Jesus is coming again to let us all in on a secret. He’s coming to tell us how the story ends. And through it all, his words of hope ring true:

“When these things begin to take place, stand up, raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near…”

In fact, let’s stand for this closing prayer – and lift our heads in prayer for a change. Let us pray: Awaken the faith in us, O God. Show us the point in our story. Walk with us in the midst of our sufferings that we, too, might stand tall in the faith this Advent season.


It’s In Our B.N.A.

Posted November 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: sermons

John 18:33-38

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

1961 --- Actor Jean Marais in the movie "Ponzio Pilato" (Pontius Pilate), directed by Irving Rapper and Gian Paolo Callegari. --- Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

1961 — Actor Jean Marais in the movie “Ponzio Pilato” (Pontius Pilate),  Image by © Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Christ the King Sunday / John Stiles / First Lutheran Church / 11-22-15

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love, in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, “Come!” Amen.

It’s only fitting that we end this church year by proclaiming Christ as King – as the One who is, who was, and who is to come – as the Alpha and Omega of all that is or ever shall be (Alpha & Omega are the first & last letters of the Greek alphabet). Next Sunday is Advent, the beginning (the Alpha) of our church year, as we prepare the way for the coming Christ-child. And here, at the end of our church year (our Omega), we proclaim him King Jesus: the final word on life and death. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

But I must admit, that does sound a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? To declare ‘our god’ as the ‘final word’ on all matters of life and death? Is that really what we’re proposing on this Christ the King Sunday – and every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – or declare that at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Just what kind of king is this?

Historically, the Jews had no king except “Yahweh” – the Lord, God, was their king. When Moses delivered them from the land of Egypt and they wandered 40 years in the wilderness – they were a nomadic people. When they came to the Promised land to settle down, they became a tribal people – 12 tribes. It was a time when judges were raised up to settle disputes and to lead the people in wisdom. But it wasn’t long until other nations began to stir things up. They were attacked by nations with kings – nations with armies and great power – and so they decided they, too, wanted a king – so much so, that they appealed to the Lord, through the prophet Samuel (you can read about this in 1Samuel 8). “Give us a king to protect us from our enemies. We must live in the real world like other nations. For the sake of our national security and for the safety of our children, we must have a king!”

Others, including Samuel, opposed the idea: “If we have a king, we will become like other nations We’ll have military conscription. Elites will grab the land entrusted to our families. We’ll become like slaves. We’ll have to do hard labor for the king and his higher ups. The king will lay heavy tax burdens on us. We will cry out to God in our oppression.” But the ‘pro-king’ crowd won out and the Lord appointed Samuel to anoint Saul as 1st king over Israel.

Things went fairly well for Israel, until Solomon became king and he amassed great riches and wealth, built a grand temple and oppressed the masses of people who were at the lowest rung on the ladder. Between his 700 wives and 300 concubines Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, bowing down to foreign gods. And, in time, Israel became the very thing it had fled from generations before: Pharaoh’s Egypt.

We should be careful what we ask for, yes? It’s like the two guys who died and went to heaven: St. Peter greeted them at the pearly gates and said “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but your mansions aren’t ready yet. Until they are, I can send you back to Earth as whatever you want to be.”  “Great!” said the first guy, “I want to be an eagle soaring above beautiful scenery!” POOF! He was gone. “And what do you want to be,” St. Peter asked the other guy. “I’d like to be one cool stud!” POOF! and he was gone. After a few months, their mansions were finished, and St. Peter sent an angel to fetch them back. “You’ll find them easily,” he says, “One of them is soaring above the Grand Canyon, and the other one is on a snow tire somewhere in Detroit!”

Or, how about the story of the woman who rubbed the lamp and found a genie? It was a one-wish genie. “Ask me for whatever you wish!” said the genie. And, of course, being a kind person, she asked for world peace with her one wish. She even showed the genie a map and asked that these warring nations in the Middle East could settle their differences and that the United States could help bring about peace. The genie shook his head and said, “Do you know that I’ve been bottled up for over 500 years? Now, I’m good, but I’m not THAT good. Please think of something else.” “Well,” said the woman, “I’ve always wanted to meet a man who truly understands me. He doesn’t finish my sentences and he jumps up to do the chores without asking. He’s romantic and good looking and…” “Let me see that map again,” said the genie.

Be careful what you ask for, right?

Martin Luther had no idea what kind of genie he was releasing from a bottle when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. When he let the Genie out of the bottle it sparked the Reformation; but things got out of control – within eight years, the peasants were revolting – pulling down statues of Mary and the saints in their churches, making their own rules rioting in the streets and rising up against the aristocracy. And so he made distinctions between the “Two Kingdoms” – the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right – one ruled by the governing authorities and the other by Christ. And we, who bear the name of Christ, are citizens of both – with obligations to both. And Luther wrote hundreds of letters to the dukes and secular leaders of his day – admonishing them to govern wisely, according to the faith. And, during the Peasant’s War he found himself in the middle – sympathetic to the injustices forced upon the peasants – and yet, not condoning their bloody tactics. Some called him ‘the butcher’ for siding with the governing authorities to put down the rebellion.

So, there are no easy answers on this Christ the King Sunday – when we are tempted to claim: “Our god is better than your god.” “Our religion is the one, true religion.”

Last week’s terrorist attack in Paris has brought to the forefront a national debate about what “True Islam” is really about. True Islam says that if you kill an innocent person, it is as if you’ve killed all of humanity. So it says in the Qu’ran – and yet, there are also some verses requiring us to kill the infidel in the Qu’ran. Just as there are calls to kill one’s enemies in our own scriptures. Who could read Psalm 137 “Blessed are those who dash your babies heads against the rock” and say ‘go and do likewise’? We understand these texts of terror in their contexts – penned by people who had witnessed atrocities against their own people, taken into captivity. And so, each day is a striving for the truth.

Also this week, in North Minneapolis, there are those who are trying to uncover the truth about the shooting of an unarmed man, Jamar Clark, by a police officer. Peaceful protests have begun outside the 4th precinct to demand answers. Will we ever know the truth?

What is the truth? It’s the question on everyone’s mind these days.

And it was Pilate’s question to Jesus after the reading of today’s gospel. When Jesus says to Pilate: “For this I was born, to testify to the truth.” Pilate says “What is truth?” In John 14, Jesus said it was he, himself: “I am the truth, the way and the life.” And here, in today’s reading, we find Jesus on trial. “Are you the King of the Jews?” He doesn’t deny it – but he describes a much different kind of kingdom. It is one where his followers do not rise up to fight. Whereas, Pilate is used to ruling with an iron fist, taking names and commanding soldiers – Jesus rules from the heart, with love and mercy. He’s counting on his followers to listen to the truth, and to overcome darkness with light and to drive out hate with love. This way of ruling involves not a company of soldiers, but a communion of saints – a towel and a basin to wash one another’s feet. Here is a king who rules by caring for the hungry and the thirsty – there’s no mighty chariot, no flashing sword.

Do you ever wonder whether we’d recognize Jesus today – if he were to show himself? I bet the first thing he’d say is what he always said: do not be afraid.

In a world where fear runs rampant – whether it’s about ISIS or the potential threat of fleeing Syrian refugees – Jesus would say: do not be afraid.

Did you see the story in yesterday’s paper about First Lutheran Church – opening its doors to refugees 40 years ago after the fall of Saigon? It’s in our DNA – that thing that Bishop H. George Anderson called our BNA: “Be Not Afraid.”

It’s not a safe world in which we live. There will always be dangers and unforeseen tragedies. But we are called to walk in the way of peace nonetheless.

I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis for his part in the resistance against Adolph Hitler. He wrote: “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment. Wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of almighty God. …Battles are won not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a sermon on August 28, 1934.

It’s often a lonely path we are called to walk. John opens his gospel with these chilling words about Jesus: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

So, what are we to look for these days? How can we open our hearts and accept the coming Christ as our king this day? In many ways, it seems obvious: we just pray to him. We take time each day to keep Christ at the center of our lives (both public and private).

As a closing prayer, I leave you with the words of a Charles Wesley hymn. Let us pray:

Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s cross to bear’
Let each his friendly aid afford and feel his brother’s care.
Touched by the loadstone of thy love, Let all our hearts agree;
And ever toward each other move and ever move toward thee.

A Message From “Old Long Robes”

Posted November 28, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

Mark 12:38-44
As [Jesus] taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Pent22 / First Lutheran Church / 11-8-15 / John Stiles

Children’s Time: Have you ever made a tent? It’s fun! I brought this blanket from home so we can try it. And I have this flashlight, too, since it can get dark. Should we invite anyone else in? Maybe mom or dad? What about a friend or even a stranger? You see… if we just keep the tent for ourselves and no one else, it can get lonely and even a little stuffy in there! Plus, others might need a friend and would love to join us. In our lesson today, Jesus was worried about people in church who cared only for themselves. They had a lot of nice things (fine clothes, fancy dinners, and they were famous – everybody knew their names) but they didn’t even notice this poor woman in need among them. Did you know that we have a Food Shelf drop off in the main office? You can bring a can of soup, a box of cereal or a turkey for our Thanksgiving Baskets and leave it in the office and we deliver it to people who are hungry. That’s just one way we’re helping others instead of just ourselves. Can you think of anymore? So, having a tent is great – but let’s not get so turned in on ourselves that we forget the rest of the world.

06 Mar 2015 --- Parents creating fort over sleeping children --- Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

06 Mar 2015 — Parents creating fort over sleeping children — Image by © Hero Images/Corbis

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say ‘Come!’ Amen.

When I was a little boy, we used to love making a fort in the basement out of blankets. It was the perfect activity for a snow day off from school. We would raid the linen closet and bring out every blanket and sheet we could get our hands on. Then we’d drape them over chairs and stretch them out into hallways and secret chambers – making sure to weight down the sheets with copies of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster’s Dictionary – the bigger the book the better to hold up the walls of our fortress!

And if we were lucky, we’d find a fitted sheet we could install over the entryway of our fort – right in front of a box fan set on ‘high,’ so it would poof out into a great, billowing drawbridge. I’m telling you, it was the best – except for one small thing: the older kids got to go in in at first. They had to ‘check things out’ and make sure it was okay. Well you can imagine how that went over with the younger ones… No one likes to be left out in the cold, excluded or ignored.

So, who gets to come into our tent this morning? Who’s invited? Isn’t the church just one big tent? And yet, who’s on the outside looking in today? Who might we be reluctant to welcome because they’re ‘like us’? Or they might not want to play our games – or they might knock something over – or fart and stink up the whole tent! Each week, on Sunday morning we gather for coffee hour in between services in the Koinonia Hall. That word, koinonia, literally means (in Greek) ‘community.’ The church desperately needs opportunities to simply be together and to lift each other up in the Body of Christ. We come to belong to something greater than ourselves… and only then are we sent to become who God intended us to be.

Because we all know that if it’s only “about us” then we’ve already ceased being that Body – the church of God in this place. If it’s all about self-preservation then we’ve already lost our way. The classic definition of sin is to be turned in on oneself.  It’s bound to happen – we’re made that way – to bend inward, toward self-preservation – to look after our own interests. Heck, even Jesus reminds us of the greatest commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – and love your neighbor as yourself. And I’ll be the first one to say, “You’ve got to take care of yourself or you’ll be no good to anyone else!”

(half) The Widow's mite. (Woman placing coin in box for the poor at church graveyard as ghost of woman watches.) Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. (no --- Image by © CORBIS

(half) The Widow’s mite. Stereo, c1876 by Melander & Bro. no — Image by © CORBIS

And that’s well and good – even necessary for healthy living – but… then there’s this widow giving her two copper coins. All that she had to live on! And I’m not sure what to make of her. I got to preach this sermon yesterday at the Woodland Good Samaritan Home at the 4:00 service where, wouldn’t you know, half my audience were widows. Hoo boy!

Who’s invited into your tent today? In what way is the Holy Spirit prying your fingers open – from a posture of fear and hoarding, turned inward – to a posture of abundance, turned outward, where all are welcome? Jesus doesn’t hold back. He goes right for the scribes, in their vain attempts to get attention and care only for themselves. And, for me, this hits close to home:

Long robes? Check.
Respect in the marketplaces? For the most part.
Best seat in the synagogue? Yep.
Says long prayers? We’ll see.
Devour widows’ houses? Where did that come from?

Nobody said anything about hurting poor old widows. That’s the rub in our gospel lesson for today. They didn’t even notice the plight of this poor woman among them. Jesus makes sure to point out this widow to the disciples, but it’s easy to miss the tone of his voice. Is he saying, “Look at that widow who gave more than all the others – you should go and do likewise?” Or, is it a tone of disgust: “Look at that poor widow, being taken advantage of by these ungrateful brats in their flowing robes!”

I don’t think it’s about the amount that poor widow put into the treasury. No, one of the mistakes we make with this lesson is that we assume we, too, should “dig deep” and give away all that we have like this widow. I think it’s more about the motivation behind the gift that matters.

It reminds me of Stumpy & Martha. Stumpy and his wife Martha went to the state fair every year. Every year Stumpy would say, “Martha, I’d like to ride in that there airplane.” And every year Martha would say, “I know, Stumpy, but that airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.”

One year Stumpy and Martha went to the fair and Stumpy said, “Martha, I’m 71 years old. If I don’t ride that airplane this year I may never get another chance.” Martha replied, “Stumpy, that there airplane ride costs $10, and $10 is $10.” The pilot overheard them and said, “Folks, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take you both up for a ride. If you can stay quiet for the entire ride and not say one word, I won’t charge you. But if you say one word, it’s $10.”

Stumpy and Martha agreed, and up they went. The pilot did all kinds of twists and turns, rolls and dives, but not a word or a squeal was heard. He did all his tricks over again, but still not a word or a sound. They landed and the pilot turned to Stumpy, “By golly, I did everything I could think of to get you to yell out, but you didn’t. I can’t charge you the $10. The ride is free.”

Stumpy replied, “Well, I was gonna say something when Martha fell out back there, but $10 is $10.”

Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?” (Mt. 6:21) Yes, the money is important, and yet, wealth is about more than just money. Untold wealth was in the members of the AME church in Charleston, SC who gave that shooter the undeserved gift of forgiveness. It’s all they had to give him. He’d already taken the lives of their loved ones. That’s a wealth that is immeasurable. People think you need money to get something off the ground. And yet, most of the movements that changed the world didn’t come out of financial gain. Paul was a tent-maker who received donations from the church in Macedonia. MLK, Ghandi, all of those guys didn’t have a lot of funding. But they were wealthy in other ways.

So, how do we better steward our money? How do we make room in the tent until no one is ignored or overlooked? We commit ourselves to pay better attention. We notice the least of these who have been forgotten – before it comes down to their last two pennies! We watch for our veterans returning home and we provide support groups for them to re-learn how to live with PTSD in civilian society. We give a turkey or prepare a meal this Thanksgiving so a family won’t go hungry in this land of plenty. We open our hearts to Syrian refugees, refusing to paint all Muslims as terrorists, as we welcome the stranger.

Don’t take it from me, “Old Long Robes.” No, take it from Jesus who once said, “I came as a guest, and you received me.” (Matt. 25:35). Let’s build a tent big enough for all to come and find peace and belonging this day. Let us pray:

O God, you gift us with many things. May we use them as stewards – to your glory – and toward the betterment of those in need among us – so that all might be welcome in your kingdom, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Smells Like A Saint – A sermon on All Saints Day

Posted November 5, 2015 by bluejeremiah
Categories: Uncategorized

John 11:32-45
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

All Saints Day / John Stiles / 11-1-15 / First Lutheran Church

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from God our First Love in Christ Jesus. Let all who hear say, ‘Come!’ Amen.

Girl pinching her nose --- Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Girl pinching her nose — Image by © Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Do you smell something? What does a saint ‘smell like?’ Though my grandpa George would probably chuckle at being called a saint, I count him as such.  I remember as a kid visiting grandpa and he always smelled like Vicks Vapor Rub and Wintergreen candies. And if you even gave so much as a little sniffle or sneeze, he’d slather a generous layer of Vicks on your neck ~ because it’s good for you! You couldn’t really win an argument with grandpa, but besides all that, I knew he loved me. A real saint in my book. So, what about you? What saintly smells do you remember, both good or bad, growing up?

I remember the smell of oatmeal on the stove where my wife stands cooking it up at 6AM on a Sunday. A weekly ritual that I have come to appreciate deeply.   This week, we’ll head to Staples for the leutefisk dinner with some friends from church. Now, there’s a smell that can go either way, depending on which side of the fjord you grew up! No, some smells are not pleasant at all, are they?  I recall the smell of urine at the nursing home when I go to visit someone there. What smells bring you back to important people or moments in life? Is it the smell of perfume or cologne that remind you of an ex-lover? Or maybe the smell of saliva on the back of your head in the 7th grade when you were teased? What does grief smell like to you?  What really stinks in your life?

You see, Jesus knows something about stenches. When he arrived on the scene, in today’s lesson, his friend Lazarus had already been dead four days and there was a stench. But Jesus had a keen sense of smell. He could smell betrayal on Judas, as he dipped his bread in the sauce and greeted him with a kiss later that night. He could smell the fear in the woman caught in the act of adultery, shamelessly at his mercy, waiting to be stoned to death. He could smell the stench of greed as he toppled the tables of the money-changers who were cheating the people of God right there in the synagogue.

Anytime you encounter a situation in life that just plain stinks… he’s there. Like a Cosmic EMT who’s used to the sight of blood, Jesus is unafraid to get in there and stabilize us – check our vital signs so we can get the care we need. That’s just the way God operates. He’s got the stomach for all the things that make us want to throw up. And he lives in us as a fragrant bouquet for those who call on him in faith.

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) --- Image by © Jorn/Corbis

Mother smelling flower held by her son (4-5) — Image by © Jorn/Corbis

I know, today is All Saints Sunday – a time to remember with fondness, those ‘saints’ in our lives who have gone before us – those who have “the aroma of Christ” – that pleasing smell of love and mercy. And yet, in our grief, as we hear the tolling of the bell and recall the names of those who have died this past year – we also bring a part of us that hurts, that stinks, that mourns. Maybe you’ve grieved well and have moved on or maybe you’re still healing from the hurt.

Granger Westberg, in his book Good Grief, reminds us of how much we try to avoid grief and talk of death. Of how boys, especially, are taught not to cry – to be a man – and show no emotion. So why then, do you suppose, God made tear ducts? Why was it important for John to include this famous “shortest verse in the Bible?” John 11:35 Jesus wept? (I know, the NRSV translated it into four words, but you get the idea) According to Westberg, there are several stages that one can go through when faced with a loss: shock, physical distress, panic, hurt feelings, anger, resentment, depression, and eventually… hope. But the tears are a part of that process.

Tears are simply a cleansing of the soul for those who have loved and lost. We grieve at the death of a family member or friend. We grieve at having to ‘put down’ the family pet. We grieve at the loss of health, eyesight, hearing. We grieve when a child goes missing – as with the Jacob Wetterling case, that has been in the news again this week. Even sending your kids off to college – or through marriage can be a loss. Westberg writes: “A child is lost not through death but through marriage. He takes all his belongings from his room, and the house is lifeless. A house once filled with laughter and joy is now as quiet as a tomb.”

And Jesus knows something about tombs. He knows the stench of decaying flesh and preserving spices such as myrrh. He can tell you what people say at the tomb. They get angry: “Lord, where were you? Having a day off? If you’d been here, he would not have died. You restored sight to the blind, so where were you?” It’s a fair question of the grief-stricken. Of those who are caught short of breath and slapped in the face with barely an idea of what hit them.

Anyone who’s had a loved one die or had a good friend move away or who has gotten passed over for that promotion – knows what it’s like to say, “This just stinks! Where were you, Jesus? Don’t you care?”

That’s the thing with loss. It hurts. But Jesus didn’t answer the question. No, when it comes to the questions that rise from the depths of our grief – no pat answer will do. Instead, he gives them something much more. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) He gives them what they need.

No one wants to die. We’d rather have God deliver us from that harsh reality. Maybe that’s why books and movies about near-death experiences give us a glimmer of hope. But even those testimonies are just about resuscitation – not resurrection. Lazarus would go on to die again after this story. The promise, “Behold, I make all things new!” (from Revelation 21) comes only after the old has passed away. There is no way to grow into something new without letting go of what’s dead and gone.

And we can let go because Jesus promises to be there with us. And what does he do? He just weeps. He weeps right where you are, right in the middle of your awful, stinky, mess – fully aware of the stench, and thanks be to God that he’s not going anywhere!

Pastor Heidi Neumark once said, “Jesus stands with us in the face of all that stinks.” (The Christian Century, 10/31/12). He stood with Mary and Martha as the stench of Lazarus’ rotting corpse seeped from that tomb. He stands with kids who are bullied and teased. He stands with those who got bad news from the doctor. He stands with those in the midst of divorce, whose lifelong vows have been shattered. He stands in our worship – where people come, fully knowing they don’t have it all together. And he weeps, and he cares.

And that’s good news for me and for you. Because something new is coming, and it’s because of this story right here. Renowned preacher, Fred Craddock had it right when he said, “This story isn’t just for Mary and Martha, ‘Oh, good for them, they got their brother back.’ No, when Jesus called Lazarus out of that tomb he knew that he was about to go strait into it.” From that moment on, John tells us, the chief priests and the scribes looked for an opportunity to kill him. And maybe some of his tears were echoes of his prayer: “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me!” Our very human, brother Jesus didn’t want to die. And yet, here he is: invited to his own tomb with the words: Come and see. “Where have you laid him?” “Come and see.” It’s a call to discipleship that John uses repeatedly. Nathaniel said it to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Who is this Jesus?” “Come and see!” The woman at the well was so moved by Jesus, she invited her neighbors, “Come and see a man who told me everything – can he be the Messiah?” And here, Jesus is being called with the same words… to his friend’s tomb – and ultimately, to his own.

~He comes to see us in our times of trial.
~He comes to see the destruction in Texas, where record flooding has claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods along the gulf coast.
~He comes to stand with the soldier being deployed to Syria, not knowing when or if he will come home.
~He comes alongside the young person who has no place to sleep, except for the couches of friends who open their homes to the homeless.
~He comes to weep with the young man who left his home church years ago because he was transgendered, and she didn’t know if she’d be welcome anymore.
~He comes alongside that person who was shunned by parents for dating someone who doesn’t believe in God.
~He comes to stand with you in the stench you alone can smell. And he’s not going anywhere.

In Rev. 21:4 we hear: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” But notice how the very next verse describe the conditions: “7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words: Jesus can stand the stench: all the failures and rottenness of our sinful nature. All we have to do is believe it – and receive the inheritance of the saints in Christ. All things are being made new, making us more than conquerors. When you live grounded in that hope, the people around you smell Jesus – the sweet smell of victory.

As Horace Mann once said (that champion of the American public schools): “Be afraid to die before you have made some small victory for humanity.” That’s what a saint looks like – or smells like – it’s that smell of victory around you that makes all the difference. It’s fresh coffee from a friend at just the right moment, or baked bread on the table feeding someone in more ways than one, or the sun on the bedsheets taken in from the line, as a blessing at the day’s end. It’s oatmeal on the kitchen stove at 6AM on a Sunday. It’s the smell of the top of a newborn baby’s head as the waters of baptism are poured out. It’s Christ living in you and me, in those small victories, that draws others to want to breathe it in more deeply. Take a deep breath right now and remember: you are the aroma of Christ – you saintly sinners – you ambassadors of Christ. And you smell great to me!

Let us pray: O God, some days we can’t stand the stench of this life. Weep with us. Give us courage to grieve, not as those who have no hope… but as children of your promise, filled with the aroma of Christ, in whose name we pray: Amen.


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