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Keep Marching

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Exodus 34:29-35

2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6

Mark 9:2-9

 

In the story we heard from Exodus,

Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and he receives the two tablets-

on which the 10 Commandments are written.

 

As he turns around to talk to the people, though,

they are blinded – they’re unable to look at him,

because his face is shining so brightly for having spoken with God.

 

His face is too glorious, too bright, too awesome.

 

So Moses has a solution…

He uses a veil.

He removes the veil when he talks to God,

but when he talks to the people, he places the veil over his face

so they aren’t blinded by divine glory.

 

…..

 

My sister’s friend has a 9 year old son named Jamie.

Just before Christmas, Jamie confided in my sister that he really wanted

an R2D2 for Christmas – the little robot from Star Wars.

But Jamie added… he wasn’t going to ask for it because it was

too glorious – too awesome a present.

 

On Christmas morning, Jamie came downstairs,

and there he saw under the tree a box – the size of R2D2.

And he burst into tears –

He couldn’t open it –

He had to leave it wrapped – leave the veil over it –

It was just too awesome, too glorious!

 

….

 

Veils have been used throughout history in different ways.

Someitmes they’ve been used to cover sacred objects – to cover the divine glory like shone from Moses’ face.

 

Some churches even today have a veil

which separates people from the ‘holy of holies,’ where only a special priest can go.

 

If you’ve ever been to a synagogue,

you know that when the Torah is taken out,

it is covered by a finely embroidered veil.

 

Even here today we have vestiges of this tradition –

our communion elements are ‘veiled’ – covered.

Sure, one reason is to protect them from getting flies into the wine!

But also it’s a symbol of what’s underneath – God’s presence.

 

Both women and men have been veiled in various cultures.

We’re familiar with the tradition of bridal veils,

to keep the custom that the bride and groom not see each other before they are married.

 

But in some West African cultures, men are veiled at puberty –

it’s to show modesty in front of their elders.

 

Sometimes the purpose of a veil is to protect the one who is wearing it….

And sometimes the purpose of a veil is to protect those who would look in…

 

In his letter to the Corinthians,

Paul takes this image of a veil to the people of Corinth.

 

As many of you know, Paul was an apostle of Jesus;

he never met Jesus in person himself,

but he traveled all around the Mediterranean by foot and by boat,

setting up small house churches on the way.

 

The context of this letter is that Paul had been to Corinth and set up a church,

and then went on his way.

 

In the meantime, other apostles came to Corinth and began to belittle his ministry.

They were saying that Paul wasn’t flashy enough; he wasn’t charismatic enough;

He wasn’t ‘glorious’ enough.

Paul was talking about persecutions and hardships…

and not the glorious life of a Christian.

The people of Corinth were beginning to listen to these new apostles,

and so Paul responds.

 

He says that the thing these new apostles don’t understand is that

the Christian life isn’t always shining.

These apostles want the people to believe that they can see glory all the time,

life is always awesome, bright things are always happening…

But Paul says that in his experience of the Christian life,

bright things aren’t always happening.

The good news is that by faith we know that

despite the crappy parts of life, God is still there.

The brightness is yet present – but sometimes it is hard to see – it is covered by a veil.

 

Paul says that these new apostles want to pull off the veil,

and see only glory all the time…

but they are only being misled by the ‘gods of this world.’

 

….

 

It is human nature to want to avoid suffering…

to avoid thinking about suffering, to avoid talking about suffering.

 

I read an article in the NY Times by Kate Bowler last week[i]

She’s one of those people who once you’ve heard about them,

it seems like you hear about them over and over again….

She’s written a book and started a podcast,

been on NPR, etc…you get the picture.

 

Anyway, Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity School.

She’s in her late 30’s and 5 years ago she was diagnosed

with stage 4 colon cancer.

Kate has a young son and a husband and loving family

and a job that she loves….

 

Every 3 months she goes in for various scans,

and her doctors help decide the next step in treatment.

She’s not dying but she also knows she’s not cured.

She describes herself in this time of ‘keeping vigil.’

 

Kate has a good social life,

but now, she says, when she goes to social gatherings, many times it’s just awkward.

What do you say to a young woman with a wonderful life who has cancer?

It’s hard.

 

Kate says that people are often uncomfortable with cancer, with suffering.

They want to find something to say that will pull the veil off!

They want to give words which will somehow put aside the veil,

and help Kate and themselves once again see God in all of God’s glory!

 

And so, Kate says, they often say things that she does not find helpful.

Kate has written about these things in her book called, “Everything Happens,”

and she talks about them in her podcast by the same title.

 

There are the minimizers.

You can tell a minimizer when their words begin “Well, at least….”

 

She tells the story of her sister flying on a plane.

She told her seatmate about Kate’s illness,

and the seatmate said something like, “Well at least she didn’t have to flee her homeland to survive the Iranian Revolution!”

 

There are also the spiritual minimizers…

those that say, “Well, you know you will be with God in heaven…”

And Kate sometimes wants to respond, “Well maybe you’d like to go there first!”

 

Then there are those who try to say that her illness

is God’s way of trying to teach her something…

one person solemnly told her, “I hope you have a Job experience….”

 

Kate finds it hardest to deal with those who try to ‘fix it’ somehow –

there’s always another nutritional supplement or doctor to see.

 

But despite these well-intentioned missteps, Kate also says, she’s discovered some people who do know, who do understand.

One day after a chemotherapy treatment,

a nurse sat next to her and said quietly, “You know, I lost a child.”

 

With those words, Kate said she knew this nurse could understand.

In Kate’s words, “She knew what it was like to keep marching

                                long after the world had ended.”

 

To keep marching long after the world has ended.

That is what it was like to live the Christian life, Paul says.

 

Not to insist that God is present only in the remarkable glorious days of our lives,

Not to try to pull off the veil ourselves by minimizing or trying to fix the suffering of others.

But rather to stay present where there is still darkness.

 

It is difficult though…

When the disciples go up the mountain with Jesus and he is transfigured before them,

they too want to stay in that place.

Peter says, “Let’s build a dwelling here!”

 

But Jesus reminds them that God is in the valleys too.

 

Where is God’s glory for you today?

Maybe it’s not on a mountaintop or in a sunrise,

but maybe it’s hidden for a season behind a veil…

waiting for God to once again bring new life out of suffering.

 

When you arrived this morning you received a piece of a veil.

Perhaps you’ll hold onto it.

 

Perhaps in moments when you are surprised by God’s awesomeness, beauty, or wonder…

the veil will remind you that it is a gift not unlike what the disciples experienced –

for a moment the veil has been pulled away.

 

And perhaps when you are taken aback by unspeakable suffering, when the world has ended…

the veil will remind you to keep marching – God is still here.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/opinion/sunday/cancer-what-to-say.html

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Faith Story – Corry Robb

Faith Story shared in worship by Corry Robb

Good Morning everyone. I wanted to take a couple minutes this morning to talk to you about how excited I am about this upcoming year at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. There is a LOT to talk about, but this morning I’m going to focus on this congregation’s participation in the Metro DC Synod’s “New Connections” campaign.

 

I’m sure you are all well aware of the tremendous impact our small church has on the Alexandria community – I see so many of you devoting your time, talents, and finances to help live out God’s love for his people. There is no shortage of ways in which we all can lend a hand, and so many of you make that important choice over and over and over again throughout the year. And that is exactly why I am here in front of you today. Because I was once the recipient of the outpouring of love….and more than just once…

 

I’d like to tell you a quick story about a young couple who started attending Good Shepherd back in the late 2000’s after getting married and buying a house in town. They were both working very busy DC jobs that took up crazy amounts of their time (sound familiar?) – to them, Good Shepherd felt like home from the very first visit. God’s love shined through all of you – they knew they belonged here. Well, a few years passed and the couple began having children. Their first daughter, Ellie, arrived much too early (and during a blizzard no less) but was healthy and strong. Little did they know that Ellie’s premature birth would soon pale in comparison to what they were going to experience. 2012 and 2013 brought back-to-back, late-term stillbirths. Why would God let such a thing happen? And why twice, let alone once?! In those dark days, when Carly and I asked ourselves that question over and over again, this church body was there for us – blanketing us with love, reminding us of God’s promise to always be there for us, and bringing us some of the most amazing home cooked meals I have ever tasted. This congregation provided that vital connection that we needed.

 

In that same vein, your church council is recently back from a weekend retreat where we talked about the actions we will be taking throughout the year to reach our goals associated with the DC Synod’s “New Connections Campaign”. In short, our congregation has been challenged to grow and to give.

 

Specific to growing, over the next 3 years we’ve committed to inviting 500 new people to church and other events we are currently planning that we hope will lead to a 10% increase in our congregation. Things like games nights, paint nights, and small groups. We will also be refreshing our website design, church logo, and social media strategy to clearly articulate our activities as well as the impact we are having in the community. We will have service projects such as the food packing event – (wasn’t that amazing?) which will invite the larger community to become involved. We will reach out specifically to military families, the LGBTQ community, and the economically-disadvantaged, just to name a few…

 

But we won’t be able to achieve this growth without your help – so I ask you, please think about who you can connect with, who you can invite, who you can welcome into our church home so that we may have an even greater impact on those around us. This isn’t always easy, and sometimes requires us to reach outside of our comfort zone.

 

In John Chapter 21 we are told of Jesus’ disciples who are out fishing on the Sea of Galilee…and they weren’t exactly having the best luck….

 

Verse 4 – “Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”

 

Friends, I ask you – throw your nets on the other side of the boat – reach outside of your comfort zone and help us share the good news of God’s word so that others may believe and receive his unconditional love and salvation.

 

The Power of A Welcome

Sermon by Good Shepherd member Shannon Steene

2018-02-04 09.36.17

Open our ears, O Lord,

to hear your word and know your voice.

Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills,

that we may serve you now and always. Amen

 

Good morning, my name is Shannon Steene and many of you know me as Tud. It is good to be here today. When I say here I don’t mean at Good Shepherd Lutheran generally. I’m here fairly regularly. I mean here in the pulpit. You see, normally, I’m looking from the other direction, like you are.

 

So you know, preaching is not my regular gig. But, when I was asked if I would come to share a sermon related to our becoming a Reconciling In Christ congregation, I was a little nervous, but more so intrigued and excited. I am so pleased that our congregation has approved our welcome statement. Because of this, here are my thoughts on being inclusive and the power of a welcome.

 

When I think about a sermon, it usually springs from something in the scripture that has been read, and we clearly have a theme going on from what we heard from the story in Acts as well as in the Gospel reading. What was mentioned dozen times? Eunuchs. Heaven help me. I’m preaching about eunuchs.

 

So, what are they?

 

A modern definition refers to a man who has been castrated, typically early enough in life for this change to have major hormonal consequences. Back in Biblical times, it was a term used to more broadly describe sexual minorities — someone that was gay, transgender or intersex. Back then they didn’t have those labels — only a eunuch.

 

What did eunuchs do and how were they treated in society? It’s no surprise to learn that they were outside the norm. They were unusual. For some like the Ethiopian eunuch we read about in Acts, they in were positions of great authority or trust. For them, being different was an asset. For the Ethiopian eunuch, he was described as a court official in charge of the entire treasury of Candace. Other eunuchs were used to guard the bed chambers of wives or harems. In that environment, they were not a physical threat to the women. Because of the physical changes to their body if they were made a eunuch, the position of chamber guard was not something that you could try out or undertake lightly. It relied on physical and hormonal changes that were not reversible. It was your life’s work. And for other eunuchs, they didn’t have positions of power and influence. They were simply outcasts because they were different.

 

And what about this being an Ethiopian eunuch? So, he’s not only a sexual minority, he’s also a racial minority. Wow. In this story it is clear that he was an outsider on multiple fronts. Finding his community had to be tough. He was forbidden from the Jewish faith. They had a barrier preventing him from being part of the faith simply by who he was. It must have been lonely for him. Is it any surprise that he hears of Jesus and his teaching and gets excited and wants to be baptized? He inquires about what barriers stand between him and being part of the church.  

 

Let’s move forward to right here and now. I am an openly gay man, a sexual minority. Because I know many of you, I know that this isn’t a surprise to you. Being an openly gay member of the Good Shepherd is a major reason I was asked to be on the task force that led our exploration of becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. Why should I? What experiences would I have that would round out the perspective on the task force? Let me share some of that context with you.

 

I’ve been a Christian my whole life. Specifically, I’ve been a Lutheran my whole life. My undergraduate studies were done at St. Olaf, an ELCA-affiliated college. In addition I’ve spent two years of my career on the staff of Lutheran Services in America as well as about 20 years leading nonprofits that are secular organizations but both have names that speak to their roots in faith communities — Good Shepherd Housing & Family Services as well as Carpenter’s Shelter. Clearly, my faith is important to me.

 

So is my identity as a gay man. I know that these two elements can be and are in accord, but that isn’t as clear for many people. Being gay and a Christian has helped me see barriers and obstacles associated with the church in ways that weren’t as evident to me when I was living in the closet. Over the years since coming out, I have had many people talk with me about their perceptions of how being gay can’t possibly fit with Christian beliefs. Those people say that they love and care about me and others that are gay, but that they pray for me (and not in a way that feels good or affirming). They are asking God to change me, to make me different. It is mind-blowing to have people that I know and love say things like that to me. Have you ever had someone talk with you about who you are and how they think you should live differently? Be different? It’s awkward. My reaction is usually to create distance from their comments (and often them) to not have it crush me. Their faith acts as an impediment in our relationship. They are entitled to their opinion, and their own faith. But, their faith is different than mine, obviously. I believe I am a child of God, created this way and that my role in this world is to live authentically as I am, loving and serving my neighbor.

 

And, in this vein, I am not alone in wanting to live as I have been created. Many, many gay men and women have had similar experiences, many worse and more flagrant than those I’ve had. I think about the multiple pastors that are friends who have left their churches and their denominations because of the intolerant environment for any idea that LGBTQ people could be people of faith and invited to be part of their church. Two of my pastor friends have such similar stories that it astounds me. They still love God deeply, but they don’t share that love for their former churches. They are still both healing from deep wounds that came from their church leadership roles and being unable to clear the hurdles that the church has put before them.

 

I also have a dear friend that was a beloved organist at a church where despite him being repeatedly told that people love him and that his contribution to the worship life of the church is key to the vitality of the church and its members, his lifestyle was in direct conflict with the written and approved conduct code the church has for its staff. That left him with an underlying vein of fear and uncertainty. The church itself was the root of the fear and uncertainty, despite a tagline of having open minds, open hearts and open doors. As my friend’s sister told him, “well, yes, open doors for the right people.” That crushed him…and he left that church soon after. It was an insurmountable barrier.  

 

I personally have a family member that asks that when I visit I should go back into the closet and not be who I am while there. My identity should be hidden and something we don’t discuss and that I try to avoid in conversations with others in that congregation. Many people there know me well and want to ask how I am and what I’m doing. Frankly, that request from my loved one is wholly unreasonable, as well as unfair. As much as I love this family member, what they ask of me diminishes my desire to visit there and them. I no longer feel at home or comfortable in that place, because it forces me to be someone that I’m really not. There is an obstacle there.

 

This is the context that I know and is so important to understand when thinking about how and why we should live out the idea of removing barriers and being a welcoming congregation. Many LGBTQ people have been hurt by the institutional church, whether intentionally or not. It is a sad reality shared by so many of my gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and questioning brothers and sisters.

 

But, here’s the great part — that’s not us. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church is now demonstrably different. We are openly and overtly welcoming to people that are LGBTQ. I am thrilled by this. We have gone on record saying that it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be a deterrent from coming and participating in the life of this congregation.  We have pulled down a barrier and for that, I’m grateful.

 

Several months ago when we were in the process of exploring the idea, Pastor Jen preached on the topic. I don’t remember what Scripture her sermon was referencing, but at one point she said in very direct terms something like, “if you are gay or lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered or questioning, you are welcome here. The church, this church, is a place for you.” Despite my being a member here for many years and for having family and friends that I worship with here regularly, that simple, direct statement hit me like something I hadn’t really heard or felt before here. It put a huge lump in my throat and brought tears to my eyes. It delivered a powerful message of comfort to me, and deepened my belief that this is my church home. There is no obstacle from my being gay.

 

That is exactly what we heard about earlier with Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, a sexual minority. The eunuch heard the good news of Jesus and was moved. He asked if there was any obstacle to him being baptized. The eunuch was really trying to understand the rules with this church following Jesus. He was not permitted to be part of the Jewish faith, after all.Would this church be different? It was. There was no impediment for him being baptized. He asked, and there was no need to wait. Phillip and he stopped at the next river and he was baptized.  

 

For sexual minorities today, our being a Reconciling In Christ congregation has similarly cleared the way for them to be part of our church. This is a great first step. Please know that I am comforted by this, and grateful.

 

I look forward to what follows next — continuing to worship together and invite all to join us in our journey of faith. How many of you have noticed that our doors now have a signal on them to the LGBTQ community that drives or walks by? The little rainbow sticker may not have caught your eye, but I see it every time and it makes me smile. It tells that community that their sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t impede them from being part of our church. Take pride in that every time you see it. We welcome the participation of all ages, races, religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, socioeconomic, marital and family statuses, abilities, political affiliations and national origins. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m reading from our welcome statement.)  Our ministry is strengthened by diversity, and we welcome all to join us in worship, fellowship, learning and service. It is with great pride that I tell you that you are a child of God; you are welcome here.

 

There is more work to be done as we work on the next steps of our collective faith journey. As we do that, know that our being intentionally welcoming is powerful, and affirming. We are on the right path, and I look forward to walking it alongside you and others.

 

Amen.  

—–

Yalla, Yalla! Come and See!

Rami

John 1:43-51

January 14, 2018

 

I just came back from the Holy Land…

I’ll try to restrain myself from telling you everything I saw today….

We saw a lot in a week.

 

There was one person who pulled it all together though –

It was our guide named Rami.

 

Rami is an Israeli citizen;

He’s a Palestinian Arab;

And he’s a Christian.

 

He grew up in a town you may have heard of … Nazareth.

It is an Arab town and the vast majority of its residents are Muslim.

 

As an Arab Christian,

Rami is a minority within a minority.

 

As a Palestinian, doors open to other Israeli citizens are not open to him.

He went to university,

But the first job he could get after college was a cook.

Five years ago he found this job as tour guide…

And truly  – this is a calling for him.

 

Rami is the best tour guide I’ve ever had….

What makes him such a great guide isn’t the knowledge he has about Holy Land

(though he has plenty of knowledge about the Holy Land);

What makes him so great is the fact that he wants everyone to

“Come and see.”

 

“Yalla, Yalla” he says in Arabic…

“Let’s go!”

“Come and see!”

 

Come and see the places where Jesus walked.

Come and see the places where he made miracles.

Come and see the places where he met the disciples,

Where he prayed in Gethsemane,

Where he spent the night of Maundy Thursday.

Come and see where he was born;

Where the shepherds watched over their fields;

Where Christians walk the path Jesus did on the way to the cross.

 

Yalla, Yalla.

Come and see.

 

Now frankly, some of the sites in Jerusalem aren’t much to see today.

Our tour leader talked about “Holy Land Disappointment Syndrome” – “HLDS.”

It’s a “condition” that occurs when people take a trip to see these sights

as pilgrims have done for centuries,

and it just doesn’t feel as spiritual as they thought it would.

Holy Land Disappointment Syndrome…

 

I don’t doubt that can happen.

I don’t doubt that when people make the pilgrimage to the holy land

It doesn’t always match up to what they thought it would be like…

It doesn’t always meet their expectations.

 

After all, we are 2000 years from the events of Jesus’ life.

In that time, that small piece of land about the size of New Jersey,

has arguably been the most contested piece of land in history….

 

Romans, Byzantines, Turks, the Crusaders, Brits, Israelis, Palestinians….

All have occupied the Holy Land;

Battles have brought destruction to the Holy Land over and over again.

 

There are bullet holes in the Church of the Nativity –

the traditional site of Jesus’ birth – from as recently as 2002.

 

Churches have been built and rebuilt over these holy sites,

And they don’t look like they did when Jesus alive…..

When pilgrims travel to the holy land for the first time,

Sometimes they’re surprised by that…

Sometimes they get “Holy Land Disappointment Syndrome.”

 

This was my second trip to the holy land,

And I didn’t get HLDS either time.

I was not disappointed at all…

Because what’s sacred about the Holy Land isn’t the place –

            It’s what happened there.

 

Yalla, Yalla,

Come and See, Rami says….

Come and see what happened here.

 

As we stood on the shores of the Sea of Galilee,

By the healing pools of Bethesda,

On the Mount of Olives,

On Golgotha…

The Scriptures were opened to us –

Not because of what the places themselves,

But because of what happened there.

 

So today, imagine you’re Nathaniel

And you live in the Galilee – in a relatively large town called Cana.

 

You’ve heard stories about this man Jesus.

Everyone has heard stories about this man who has made his way from Nazareth up north.

 

This blew me away…

Throughout the area between Nazareth and Galilee, according to our tour guide Rami,

even today people have stories about Jesus….

They are not necessarily stories that are in the Bible,

but stories they have told each other for centuries.

 

They are stories about miracles they witnessed,

and stories about how their community connected to him.

 

Rami now lives northeast of Nazareth in a town called Reineh,

A town known for its four springs.

 

The locals there have their own story of Jesus.

They say that Jesus came through town,

And stopped to water his donkey at a spring.

While he was there,

The locals stole the donkey….

 

Everyone has a story about Jesus.

Even today, they have stories about Jesus.

 

As Jesus makes his way north out of Nazareth toward the Sea of Galilee,

One of the first towns he would have arrived at is Cana –Nathaniel’s hometown.

 

As Jesus passes through Cana,

Apparently he sees Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree.

(I tried to find THE fig tree so I could take a picture…

but alas, whereas I saw the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus supposedly climbed up to see Jesus,

Nathaniel’s fig tree apparently is lost.)

 

As Jesus gets to Bethsaida,

He finds Philip and says to him, “Yalla, yalla!”

“Come and see.”

 

And Philip then finds his friend Nathaniel,

And he says to Nathaniel,

“Yalla, Yalla!”

Come and see…

 

But there’s a problem….

Nathaniel has “Jesus Disappointment Syndrome….”

 

He’s heard some good stories about Jesus…

Miracles being made…

Maybe he could be the messiah….

 

But Philip says he’s from Nazareth!

That just doesn’t fit with what Nathaniel expects!

Nazareth is a village of maybe 20 families – 150 people at the most…

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks.

 

Can anything good come out of those places where life has been hard?

Can anything good come of those places which struggle with poverty?

Can anything good come out of a small village,

Out of Nazareth…

out of the villages and cities of countries in Africa,

out of Haiti, out of El Salvador?

Out of places where people live who don’t look like us?

 

Some like Nathaniel dare to say the answer is, ‘no.’

 

It takes someone like Philip and someone like Rami to say,

“Yalla, Yalla!”

“Come and see.”

 

Nathaniel chooses to come and see,

And he is transformed.

 

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day this weekend,

We know that many white people had no understanding

Or chose not to understand

what the civil rights movement was all about.

We were blind to the injustices blacks in our country faced.

 

King said, “Come and see.”

Come and see for yourselves.

Sit at a lunch counter in Montgomery.

Take a bus with some freedom riders.

Talk to a black man who’s tried to vote.

Come and see what’s happening.

Those who did were transformed.

 

God calls each of us like Nathaniel to ‘come and see.’

Where is the place you need to see?

Where is a place you think you’ve got pegged?

Where is the place you could never imagine anything good coming out of?

 

It could be as far away as Nazareth,

Or as nearby as Arlandria or Capitol Hill.

 

Where do you need to see?

Where are you called?

Yalla, Yalla!

Let’s get going!

 

Can anything good come of out Nazareth?

Well…Jesus did.

From Ordinary to Extraordinary

Sermon by Good Shepherd Seminarian Jennifer Moore

December 31, 2017

 

Whew! We made it. I want you to turn to your neighbor. Shake their hand, pat them on the back, and say, “Hey! We made it!”(pause) That’s right. We made it through another Christmas. For some people, that means making it past weeks – maybe even months! – of preparations. For others, making it through Christmas means getting through another season of sadness and loneliness.

Whatever “getting through Christmas” means for you, there’s a good chance that, like most people, now that you’re on the other side of it, you’re relieved it’s over. Not me! When Christmas is over, I mostly feel disappointed, not relieved. See, I love Christmas. I love the corny light displays. I love baking (and eating) Christmas cookies, caroling, decorating the tree, drinking hot cocoa, and watching terrible made-for-Netflix Christmas movies.

When my family lived in Germany, I loved Christmas even more. Germans really know how to do Christmas right, you know? There were outdoor Christmas markets in most of the neighborhoods, and I can remember walking around the stalls, the chilly air thick with the smells and sounds of Christmas – spicy baked goods, mulled wines, peals of laughter and church bells. My sister and I would wander the market with spending money from our parents  – I can still feel the weight of the five mark coins in my jeans pocket. I even remember the quality of the light – the way the light from the booths spilled out onto the cobblestone sidewalks, illuminating the crisp winter night.

To me, this season is magical. And when it is over, it is just – over. After the gifts have been put away, and the empty boxes and shredded wrapping paper have gone to the curb, and the leftovers have been eaten up, and the relatives sent home, we return to our mundane lives. We go back to school and work. We return to meeting deadlines, making dentist appointments, walking the dog, doing homework and laundry, and feeling busy. Christmas is an extraordinary event that interrupts the ordinariness of our lives.

In Luke, the events leading up to Jesus’ birth are certainly extraordinary. Mary finds out she is having a baby – not from a drugstore test, but from an angel of the Lord. Meanwhile, up in the hill country, her relative, Elizabeth, is preparing for the birth of her own angel-announced baby, whose sole purpose in life is to prepare the way for Jesus. When Mary meets Elizabeth, some extraordinary things happen: John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, Elizabeth makes a profound statement of faith, and Mary is moved to sing a song of praise. The events leading up to the birth are so spectacular, so extraordinary, that you would expect the birth itself to be a star-studded, Broadway-worthy production of epic proportions.

But no. If anything, the actual birth of Jesus is startlingly ordinary. In fact, the story of that night begins in the most mundane way possible: “In those days a decree went out from …. Blah blah blah …. Census …. Taxes …. Yada yada yada.” Yawn! Mary and Joseph, ordinary subjects of occupied Roman territory, must travel to Bethlehem to be counted for tax purposes. It’s like saying that Mary and Joseph went to the DMV to renew their vehicle tags. It’s the kind of administrative detail that you would normally omit from a story – that is, if you want to keep people’s attention. But not Luke – no, Luke starts the story this way.

And because Mary and Joseph are so ordinary, they can’t get a VIP suite at the Holiday Inn of Bethlehem. In fact, they can’t get any room at all. You can almost imagine Joseph, tired and desperate, his wife showing obvious signs of labor, standing there pleading with the innkeeper. “Dude. Look at my wife – she’s is going to deliver in this lobby if you don’t find us a room. Seriously, man.” This is how they end up in the stable. It’s such a human predicament.

In popular images of the stable, Mary and Joseph are clean and glowing, wearing flowing blue garments, surrounded by adoring and adorable, equally clean livestock. The baby is wrapped in a soft blanket, sleeping soundly. They hay in which he lays is clean and golden. In reality, though, we have to assume that both Mary and Joseph are filthy, covered in dust from the journey, and slick with sweat from the effort of childbirth. They certainly aren’t wearing blue, the color of royalty. Not even Roman citizens, Mary and Joseph are Jewish subjects in occupied territory, lower than low, almost as far from royalty as people could be. And have you ever smelled a barn? As Mary labored, the stench of that barn would have filled her nostrils. The manger is not a bassinet – it is a feeding trough, into which animals stick their snouts. It’s entirely possible that Jesus’ first bath came from a cow’s tongue.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. Luke’s description is so brief, our imaginations are left to fill in the details. Luke tells the story in a single sentence:  “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid in him a manger, because there was no place for thm in the inn.” It sounds so ordinary. So human. Not divine at all.

And yet…

In the very next scene, God announces the birth of Jesus to shepherds with not one angel, not two, but an entire chorus of angels. Here is the light show! Here is the fanfare! And the audience? A group of humble shepherds. Not a court of kings, or men of influence, but shepherds. And these shepherds, amazed and terrified, run to see for themselves. They become the first witnesses to the arrival of the Messiah, unable to keep this news to themselves. If not for their exuberant and uncensored proclamation, this birth in this stable to these people might have gone unnoticed, just another human event. Even Mary, who has insider information about Jesus, is amazed by what the shepherds have to say. She can only take it all in, treasuring their words and pondering them in her heart.

I wish I could know what she was thinking. It must have seemed incredible to her then, as it does to us now. Because she knew, as we do, that this night was anything but ordinary.

This night was extraordinary, because on this night, the Lord God Almighty, who breathed the universe into existence with a Word, the God who transcends all time and space, this God chose to come to us and live like us – ordinary people, living ordinary lives, engaged in the mundane tasks of human existence. God chose to come to the stench and sweat of a dirty stable. God chose to be announced to the world by a band of humble shepherds. God chose to be born into a family that was not only ordinary, but powerless as well. God, the one whom the Evangelist John calls the “true light,” came into the darkest place on earth – a first-century barn in a poor, occupied land – to bring the light of salvation to anyone who could believe it.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Why would God do such a thing? God came to us so that we could know the unknowable. The unknowable God, whose Word creates life, sent the Word to live among us, so that we could meet Jesus and have a glimpse of the new life God promises. God takes the ordinary stuff of human existence, and turns it into an encounter with the divine.

This is the mystery of the Incarnation: that God comes to us in the most ordinary times and ways, and turns the everyday stuff of humanity into something new. God turned a dark and dingy stable into a royal nursery. God turned Mary and Joseph, ordinary people, into the Holy Family. God turned a shameful death on the cross into resurrection and new life. God turns ordinary water into a bath that washes away sin. Jesus comes to us in bread and wine, and Jesus comes to us through one another, turning our very bodies into instruments of God’s grace. When we worship and read scripture together, and offer up our hands and hearts to one another in service and caring, we are transformed.

God comes to us every day, all the time. Not just once a year around the Christmas tree or the family Christmas dinner, but also when family dinner is overshadowed by loss, or when nobody has the motivation to haul out the Christmas tree. God comes when we receive good news, and also when our world is crushed by bad news. God comes to be in it, and in us –  the good, the bad, and the appaling.

God is not just present, God acts. God’s presence is a verb, not a noun.  God shows up and also transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. God is continually making all things new.

As we are making our lists of resolutions tonight, how will we recognize God’s presence in the ordinariness of our lives in this new year? How will we make space and time to see God everywhere? We don’t often get a chorus of angels, but we do hear words of encouragement, and we experience wordless acts of compassion. Will you allow God to use your hands and feet in acts of compassion? How will you be made new?

Faith Story

Jan_Noah

Faith Story shared by Lori Strauss

Jen goes to Seminary

Good Morning. My name is Lori Strauss and usually I share announcements about evangelical outreach or my own faith adventures. Today I’m going to talk about how our congregation’s generosity transforms the lives of Good Shepherd members.

 

Many of you probably know Jen Moore and her husband Noah and possibly their chameleon named Caroline, a fat-tailed gecko named Nancy, and two cats named Mack and Professor Snugglepuss.  Noah now lives in North Carolina and Jen Moore is studying to be a pastor at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.

 

I asked Jen if I could share how Good Shepherd supported her journey to become a pastor—here’s what she said.

 

Noah and I joined the church in 2004. Since the beginning, the church has nurtured my spiritual gifts by encouraging me to join council, assist in worship, and attend Synod Assembly. These are just a few projects that have been formational to my own internal identity as a leader in the church.

 

The most tangible and direct nudge I’ve gotten along the way has come from Pastor Jen, who is a keen listener and who recognized almost right away that a few of us had been thinking about pastoral ministry.

She started a vocational discernment group. I think that was the first time I heard other people name gifts they saw in me that I didn’t realize I had, and it made me think about this call in a different way. Pastor Jen also encouraged me to push out of my leadership comfort zone. I’m thinking especially of the faith she (and others) put in me to direct the choir, which wasn’t something I thought I could do.

 

While I’ve been in seminary, Good Shepherd has supported me emotionally and financially.  The Tirzah Women’s Circle and the Sunday School sent care packages. And individual members helped by purchasing one or more of my books at the beginning of each semester, or loaning me their own copies.

 

 

 

 

I have a full scholarship and housing allowance from the seminary, so the financial support I receive from Good Shepherd takes care of most of the fees that would have to come out of pocket. That frees up my limited income from my campus job and ministry site to cover personal expenses.

 

This tangible support always makes me feel so loved and is a huge help! Mostly, this support feels like an affirmation of this call.

 

Seminary is 4 years and Jen is in her 2nd year. Next summer, she will begin a year-long internship in a congregation, hopefully near home in North Carolina. After a final year of coursework, she will graduate in the spring of 2020, and join Noah in North Carolina, where she hopes to receive a call to a congregation.

She believes that all this would not have been possible without the generosity of this congregation. You may have noticed Jen’s name in the stewardship letter that reached your mailbox last week. She is just one of many member stories we could have shared today.

Our weekly contributions paired with our genuine care and support transforms the lives our Good Shepherd members and builds our capacity to represent the Jesus we all admire.

 

 

#GoodTrouble

mydesign (5)

Mark 13:24-38

December 3, 2017

 

I follow the civil rights icon and congressman from Georgia,

John Lewis, on Twitter.

Lewis often closes his tweets with a hashtag: #GoodTrouble

 

For example,

John Lewis‏Verified account @repjohnlewis May 4

More

56 years ago today, I was one of 13 original participants who set out on the Freedom Rides to end segregated buses in America. #goodtrouble

 

 

John Lewis‏Verified account @repjohnlewis Jul 7

More

56 years ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson, MS for using a “white” restroom. #goodtrouble

 

 

John Lewis‏Verified account @repjohnlewis Sep 6

More

Each and every person has a mission, a mandate, and a moral obligation to speak up & stand up for those left out & left behind. #goodtrouble

 

And on this past Friday,

John Lewis‏Verified account @repjohnlewis Dec 1

More

62 years ago today, Rosa Parks stood up for what is right, what is fair, and what is just, by sitting down on a Montgomery city bus and refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her actions took raw courage and helped ignite a movement. #goodtrouble

 

When he was interviewed about how he came up with the hashtag, #goodtrouble,

Lewis said that it came from when he was a boy growing up in Alabama.

He’d ask his parents why there were signs across town over drinking fountains and restrooms

which said, “Whites only.”

 

His parents replied, “That’s just the way it is.

Don’t get in the way. Don’t get into trouble.”

 

But Lewis continued, “Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired me to get into trouble – good trouble.”

 

Today we turn to the gospel of Mark…

The first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the church year,

and for the coming year our gospel readings will largely come from this gospel.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes into the world to get into some good trouble….

 

We heard a passage from the 13th chapter of Mark –

sometimes called the ‘little apocalypse,’

but the entirety of the gospel is an apocalypse –a ‘revelation.’

The gospel is an apocalypse not in the movie sense of a spectacular ending of the world,

But in a broader sense – the gospel depicts a cosmic struggle

between good and evil; God and Satan.

Mark’s Jesus comes in the midst of that struggle to reveal where God stands;

And then to get into some ‘good trouble.’

 

A couple weeks ago, a group of us from Good Shepherd,

met with a group from Ezher Bloom Mosque in Fairfax.

 

A couple of days later, I got an email from Yazur, one of the men from the mosque.

He is interested in learning more about the Bible and wanted to know where to start.

 

I suggested to him what I would suggest to you if you’d like to learn more about the Bible –

start with the gospel of Mark.

 

Start with the gospel of Mark –

It’s the shortest gospel and the one which was written first…

But more than that, Mark’s gospel is more than a collection of memories about Jesus.

Mark is particularly interested in addressing the question, “Who is this Jesus?”

 

I listened to the entirety of Mark earlier this week,

And when you listen through the whole gospel instead of piece by piece,

You hear things you might miss otherwise.

 

This time I heard that throughout the early chapters of Mark,

people are asking a lot of questions about Jesus,

wondering who he is.

 

The crowd, the disciples, and the religious leaders

are all talking about him, watching what he’s doing,

and then asking each other about what they see….

“Why does he eat with sinners?”

“ Who is this man who speaks with authority?”

“Who is he who forgiveness sins?

“Why don’t he and his disciples follow the religious  laws?”

 

Who is he and why does he do what he does?

That’s what those around Jesus want to know in Mark.

 

And how does Mark answer these questions?

One of the clearest answers Mark gives is that Jesus is a revolutionary –

He’s here to make some good trouble.

 

Jesus is more revolutionary in Mark than in any other gospel.

The very first verse is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

 

Notice that there is no verb in this verse –

It’s not a sentence – but it could well be a title for the entire gospel –

 

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

In a part of the world were the coins say that Caesar is the Son of God,

this is very political – even treasonous!

 

Jesus comes from the very beginning of Mark’s gospel to bring trouble – good trouble.

(Tidings of good news of good trouble.)

 

Chapter 13, a portion of which we just heard talks about a cosmic unraveling –

The sun and the moon losing their light;

Stars falling…

 

But the key in this passage is that Jesus says no one knows when this will happen –

Not even he – not even the Son knows!

Perhaps this is because he knows it’s happening already….

It’s begun with him.

 

Already, through Jesus, God is breaking in to the world,

challenging the empire and bringing good trouble.

 

God still breaks into our world brining good trouble.

We’ve heard news of them recently…

 

The women who have courageously told their stories about sexual harrassment

are creating some trouble – good trouble.

 

Our own Tud Steene as he talks about homelessnesss and gentrification

and the lack of affordable housing in Alexandria

is creating some trouble – good trouble.

 

But perhaps what’s most revolutionary, is that Jesus not only breaks into our world,

But he breaks into us, making good trouble within us….

He challenges our false beliefs that seem to be amplified this time of year

That we are not loved, valued, or worthy of respect.

That we’re not good enough.

 

Chaplain Liz Milner of Santa Clara Penitentiary in California

works with a number of men and women who carry such false beliefs.

She’s discovered that poetry can help her inmates challenge them

and identify some good trouble going on within themselves.

 

She’s asked them to write poems about Advent themes of hope, freedom, and waiting.

Each week of Advent, I’ll share one of these poems.

 

Today’s poem is about ‘hope’:

 

By D

I am from the front yard.

I am from gunshots, running from cops.

I am from a broken home.

I am from a weed plant smokes that if you hit it you would choke.

I am from BBQs that end in fights and cops come and someone goes to jail tonight.

I am from where the fear of God is not number one.

I am from soups and beans were what we had and if you cried you got slapped.

I am from drug task kicking in the door.

I am from gunshots at our house, cops coming, someone hit.

 

But that’s not the end of my story…

 

I am to a loving wife.

I am to showing my wife that I am worth her love.

I am to being better than I was.

I am to God’s loving hands.

I am to never hurting my family again and making up for what I have done.

I am to better days where people see people for people not color or race and gangs see people not red or blue.

I am to the best I can be, not and until I meet God.

 

Mark’s gospel reading ends with Jesus’ words: Keep awake.

Keep awake – watch.

Where is God bringing good trouble into our world?

Where is God bringing good trouble into you?

 

Amen.