Sermons

                   

Mar 29, 2020
Can These Bones Live?
Series: (All)
March 29, 2020. The readings today include the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel, and Jesus raising Lazarus to life from the Gospel of John. Pastor Meagan preaches on these texts, on the death that is already happening in our world with the pandemic we are facing, and the life anew that we know is coming from the breath of God.
 
Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
 
*** Transcript ***
 
Twice, I've been present in the room at the moment when someone took their last breath. Stood at the bedside, waiting and watching, holding hands, praying and singing, as breath by breath, life slipped away. In both cases, I and those I stood vigil with listened closely, wondering which breath would be the last one — this, or this, or this. In the end, when the final breath was released, we collectively held our own breaths until we were sure: the final exhale had indeed signaled the end of this unique life in human form, the body still warm, but quickly cooling.
 
The bones God leads Ezekiel to in that valley have no warmth. There is no indication that they ever had breath, and for my money, if I were the betting type, no hope that they would ever breathe again. It’s kind of like the feeling I would get being out in our yard in Minneapolis, after the snow melted, but before any buds had popped or grass had appeared. It just doesn’t seem possible that life could return, it all looks so dead, twigs and sticks and brown.
 
If I had been Ezekiel, I might have said, “No way!” in response to the question of whether these bones can live. “Are we looking at the same thing? Not possible.” And Mary and the other mourners say basically the same thing to Jesus, when he says he wants to take the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb. “It’s going to smell! He’s been in there for four days!”
 
Jesus persists, because he knows something that the others don’t know. Even when death is so final that you can smell it, when breath has been gone for so long that the bones are literally dry, God can still bring life.
 
The winds, the Spirit, moves, in concert with Ezekiel’s prophecy, and the breath enters the bones and they live! When the stone is rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, we have to imagine the stench of certain death was terrible, and yet in response to Jesus’ cry — Lazarus, come out — Lazarus comes!
 
My family of faith, the pandemic that we are facing is like the stench of death from Lazarus’ tomb, or the rattle of bones from Ezekiel’s valley, or the brown, lifeless branches in my yard before spring begins. Signs of death, undeniably. Death is already happening, and beloveds, there will be more before this passes.
 
And, the Spirit is still at work. The wind is blowing, ready to bring life out of the bones that have no flesh left on them. The stone is rolled away, waiting for Lazarus to step out into the fresh air. In our yard here in South City, our cats are discovering every green blade, all the new plants they've never seen before.
 
This coming of life is not a passive thing. We human beings living this human life are invited to be active, breathing participants in the life-giving movement of the Spirit around us. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” and he says, in effect, “I don’t know, can they?” And God says, “Prophecy to these bones. Tell the winds, breathe on these bones, and they might have life.” In other words, claim the promise, Ezekiel, and proclaim the promise, that God brings life where we can only see death.
 
Lazarus’ sisters, and their gathered community, are invited to participate in Lazarus’ re-birth by unbinding him. Letting go of old ideas perhaps of who he was, letting go of grief, opening their minds to receive the new life that stood before them.
 
We, too are invited to witness to death, family of faith, as Ezekiel did in the Valley of Dry Bones, as the mourners gathered smelled death at Lazarus’ tomb. God witnesses with us all the griefs we experience, all the losses we bear now, and those yet to come — not as a passive observer, but weeping alongside us, as Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus.
 
We, too, are invited into the promises of the living God, family of faith. We, too, are invited to prophecy with Ezekiel, to join the mourners in unbinding new life when it appears.
 
And when we are the dry bones, when we are sealed in a tomb as dead as Lazarus, the community here gathered prophecies to you, and for you, and unbinds you, that you might find life again. Because we can’t always see it for ourselves, in the midst of the tomb, in the midst of the valley. I don’t know about you, but I suspect I am not alone in having experienced dryness the last couple of weeks. I will confess to having had a temper tantrum over a minor inconvenience a few days ago, to having felt overwhelmed by all the changes we have been asked to make in a brief two weeks, to having felt the helplessness of wondering how my family is, from a distance, as I know many of you have as well. Anyone else felt dry, keenly aware of fear and grief and tiredness this week?
 
And yet, I have also felt the wind blowing, and the Spirit moving. Your worship team gathered, and a new life entered into our imaginings about how to celebrate Holy Week and Easter together, while we are still physically apart. Our youngest cat figured out he can climb the wooden fence in our yard, much to his delight and our chagrin. A neighbor down the block hosted her own block concert this week, with a professional sound system set up on her porch. My brother’s family posted a photo of their family taking a run together in their neighborhood. A mentor sent me a link to an acapella recording of “It is Well” that brought tears to my eyes. And all of you, family of faith, are caring for one another so well, in these days.
 
When we are dry and can’t speak, we prophecy to one another, proclaiming that we know the breath of God will come, bringing life anew, however that looks, on the other side, whenever that is. Family of faith, no matter what happens, life is coming. We are here, and so is God, and we are in this together. Life is coming!
 
Family of faith, God is whispering to us, “Mortal, can these bones live?” What is your answer this morning?
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45, coronavirus, COVID-19, St. Louis
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  • Mar 29, 2020Can These Bones Live?
    Mar 29, 2020
    Can These Bones Live?
    Series: (All)
    March 29, 2020. The readings today include the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel, and Jesus raising Lazarus to life from the Gospel of John. Pastor Meagan preaches on these texts, on the death that is already happening in our world with the pandemic we are facing, and the life anew that we know is coming from the breath of God.
     
    Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Twice, I've been present in the room at the moment when someone took their last breath. Stood at the bedside, waiting and watching, holding hands, praying and singing, as breath by breath, life slipped away. In both cases, I and those I stood vigil with listened closely, wondering which breath would be the last one — this, or this, or this. In the end, when the final breath was released, we collectively held our own breaths until we were sure: the final exhale had indeed signaled the end of this unique life in human form, the body still warm, but quickly cooling.
     
    The bones God leads Ezekiel to in that valley have no warmth. There is no indication that they ever had breath, and for my money, if I were the betting type, no hope that they would ever breathe again. It’s kind of like the feeling I would get being out in our yard in Minneapolis, after the snow melted, but before any buds had popped or grass had appeared. It just doesn’t seem possible that life could return, it all looks so dead, twigs and sticks and brown.
     
    If I had been Ezekiel, I might have said, “No way!” in response to the question of whether these bones can live. “Are we looking at the same thing? Not possible.” And Mary and the other mourners say basically the same thing to Jesus, when he says he wants to take the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb. “It’s going to smell! He’s been in there for four days!”
     
    Jesus persists, because he knows something that the others don’t know. Even when death is so final that you can smell it, when breath has been gone for so long that the bones are literally dry, God can still bring life.
     
    The winds, the Spirit, moves, in concert with Ezekiel’s prophecy, and the breath enters the bones and they live! When the stone is rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, we have to imagine the stench of certain death was terrible, and yet in response to Jesus’ cry — Lazarus, come out — Lazarus comes!
     
    My family of faith, the pandemic that we are facing is like the stench of death from Lazarus’ tomb, or the rattle of bones from Ezekiel’s valley, or the brown, lifeless branches in my yard before spring begins. Signs of death, undeniably. Death is already happening, and beloveds, there will be more before this passes.
     
    And, the Spirit is still at work. The wind is blowing, ready to bring life out of the bones that have no flesh left on them. The stone is rolled away, waiting for Lazarus to step out into the fresh air. In our yard here in South City, our cats are discovering every green blade, all the new plants they've never seen before.
     
    This coming of life is not a passive thing. We human beings living this human life are invited to be active, breathing participants in the life-giving movement of the Spirit around us. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” and he says, in effect, “I don’t know, can they?” And God says, “Prophecy to these bones. Tell the winds, breathe on these bones, and they might have life.” In other words, claim the promise, Ezekiel, and proclaim the promise, that God brings life where we can only see death.
     
    Lazarus’ sisters, and their gathered community, are invited to participate in Lazarus’ re-birth by unbinding him. Letting go of old ideas perhaps of who he was, letting go of grief, opening their minds to receive the new life that stood before them.
     
    We, too are invited to witness to death, family of faith, as Ezekiel did in the Valley of Dry Bones, as the mourners gathered smelled death at Lazarus’ tomb. God witnesses with us all the griefs we experience, all the losses we bear now, and those yet to come — not as a passive observer, but weeping alongside us, as Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus.
     
    We, too, are invited into the promises of the living God, family of faith. We, too, are invited to prophecy with Ezekiel, to join the mourners in unbinding new life when it appears.
     
    And when we are the dry bones, when we are sealed in a tomb as dead as Lazarus, the community here gathered prophecies to you, and for you, and unbinds you, that you might find life again. Because we can’t always see it for ourselves, in the midst of the tomb, in the midst of the valley. I don’t know about you, but I suspect I am not alone in having experienced dryness the last couple of weeks. I will confess to having had a temper tantrum over a minor inconvenience a few days ago, to having felt overwhelmed by all the changes we have been asked to make in a brief two weeks, to having felt the helplessness of wondering how my family is, from a distance, as I know many of you have as well. Anyone else felt dry, keenly aware of fear and grief and tiredness this week?
     
    And yet, I have also felt the wind blowing, and the Spirit moving. Your worship team gathered, and a new life entered into our imaginings about how to celebrate Holy Week and Easter together, while we are still physically apart. Our youngest cat figured out he can climb the wooden fence in our yard, much to his delight and our chagrin. A neighbor down the block hosted her own block concert this week, with a professional sound system set up on her porch. My brother’s family posted a photo of their family taking a run together in their neighborhood. A mentor sent me a link to an acapella recording of “It is Well” that brought tears to my eyes. And all of you, family of faith, are caring for one another so well, in these days.
     
    When we are dry and can’t speak, we prophecy to one another, proclaiming that we know the breath of God will come, bringing life anew, however that looks, on the other side, whenever that is. Family of faith, no matter what happens, life is coming. We are here, and so is God, and we are in this together. Life is coming!
     
    Family of faith, God is whispering to us, “Mortal, can these bones live?” What is your answer this morning?
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45, coronavirus, COVID-19, St. Louis
  • Mar 22, 2020We Are Still Here
    Mar 22, 2020
    We Are Still Here
    Series: (All)
    March 22, 2020. Here we are today, in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, an experience that we living through it will not soon forget. And just like other such events, it is going to transform our country, transform us as people, transform us as a family of faith. But Pastor Meagan reminds us that there is good news to be heard in our readings today. First and most important: we are still here. And God is still here.
     
    Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-41
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    September 11, 2001 is a date that many of us of a certain age or older will not easily forget. I was at work, alone as it was still early, when the first reports came in. My coworker called, exclaiming in shock about the plane that had crashed into the Trade Center in Manhattan, and promised she would pack her TV into the car and be at the office in twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes later she called again, and in horror I pulled up images of the second plane hitting the tower. And again she promised to be at the office quickly with her TV in tow. Ten minutes later, she called again.
     
    But finally she made it, and the two of us spent the greater part of the day glued to the TV, hearing the President’s announcement that this was a terrorist attack, the likes of which had never been seen in this country before. People dying, flames burning, the seeming impossibility of navigating the wreckage to rescue survivors.
     
    Over the weeks to come, I found myself shaken to the core. I was afraid of what the future held, in a way I never had been before. I felt economically vulnerable. I was horrified by the thought that my cousin, who lived in Manhattan, had run past the building a scant hour before the attack. I grieved for the loss of so many lives, the terror they had experienced in their final minutes, and the devastation for all the families who had lost loved ones that day. Nothing felt safe, or secure, or familiar anymore. Grief, anxiety, isolation, confusion.
     
    I remember talking to my dad in the weeks after September 11th, as I struggled to find solid ground again. And he told me that he had experienced just such uncertainty, and fear, and grief, following the assassination of President Kennedy — another national event that had rattled everyone who lived through it, leaving them wondering how they would make it through. Grief, anxiety, isolation, confusion.
     
    And here we are today, in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, an experience that we living through it will not soon forget. And just like other such events, it is going to transform our country, transform us as people, transform us as a family of faith. But for now, as things are shifting minute by minute so quickly, it is hard to keep up. Many aspects of our lives may feel unrecognizable compared to what they were even last week.
     
    So, family of faith, let us take a minute on this Sunday morning, breathe deeply, and listen to what God may be saying to each of us as we gather together for worship and prayer as a community. We can find grounding, for a few minutes at least, in the story of Samuel seeking a way forward after losing his relationship with Saul, and in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind.
     
    In our first reading today, Samuel was grieving the loss of his relationship with Saul. We are grieving right now. Grief is real, very real. We are grieving the loss of our Good Friday Cantata, in addition to grieving the loss of worshipping together in our sanctuary each Sunday and Wednesday.
     
    ALL of us are grieving different personal losses and family losses, from vacations to concerts to sporting events and parties. We are all grieving different things in different ways. And God is with us in that. Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. And God grieves with us, today and in the days to come. God is present, leads us forward in the journey, just as he led Samuel forward to find David. What are you grieving, at this time?
     
    The people around the man born blind are anxious. Why did it happen? Whose fault was it? Who sinned, that God caused this man to be born blind? And then the man was healed, just like that. The community around the man born blind, we are told, when they saw him after his encounter with Jesus, did not recognize him as the man they had known their whole life. And they immediately begin once again to seek answers, seek direction. Who are you? Who did this? Is this your son? Are you sure? What happened?
     
    Events like these shake up what we think we know and challenge our assumptions and expectations, and at times we might feel like we are not even sure who we are or what we're supposed to do. We seek answers, want to know who to blame, whose fault this situation is. I’ll be honest, I have my list. How about you? What are you anxious about today? What answers are you seeking?
     
    The man born blind had lived most of his life isolated from the community around him. He was less than, defective, other, the one who must have sinned, or whose parents must have sinned. Today, we are asked to voluntarily set ourselves physically apart, for a time. Some of us, and some of our loved ones, are in situations where they can’t receive visitors, can’t see the friends they spend their days with, even if they live right down the hall. Some of us, and some of our loved ones, are thrust suddenly into 24-7 community that we are struggling to navigate — even though we love our close companions dearly. Some of us are feeling the weight of not having needed space. Some of us are feeling the panic and exhaustion of not having access to energizing, renewing, physical interactions that typically fill our days.
     
    This time of flattening the curve, of choosing to love our neighbor by maintaining sacred distance for a time, has completely disrupted our regular rhythm of life. Samuel wasn’t sure what to do, once Saul was gone, until God guided him to David. The man born blind, and his parents, were cast into the focus of their community in an unexpected way after his encounter with Jesus. His parents were afraid. The man, it seems, was a little irritated at the persistence of the religious leaders, and snaps back, brilliantly, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” How are you experiencing the disruption of your community today? Are you feeling lonely? Are you craving silence and solitude that are not easily available right now? Have you, like the man born blind and transformed in his encounter with Jesus, found yourself short on patience, and long on irritation?
     
    My family of faith, there is good news to be heard in our readings today, very good news indeed. First and most important: we are still here. In the midst of the transformation of the blind man, people don’t seem to believe that he is actually the same person. The man himself explains the encounter he had with Jesus, and his parents claim him — "He is our son.” We are still here, nonetheless. Our world is changing, and yes we are being transformed by the events of our times, but we are still here.
     
    And God is still here. God was there to guide Samuel forward, in the midst of his grief, and his confusion about what to do next, without Saul at his side. God is here with us, inspiring and guiding us as we continue to be church, together. Just over a week ago, coming together for worship on Zoom was the last thing we anticipated. And yet today, here we are. Zoom Sunday School will happen at 11am. We are caring for one another, reaching out in intentional and thoughtful ways, as best we can in this time of transformation. We are physically separated, but will not be torn apart. The blind man told his questioners, “I can’t explain it, but I know this: I was blind, and now I see.” In other words, “I encountered God.” As confusing and unfamiliar as things may feel right now, we are still here, and God is still with us!
     
    The grief, and anxiety, and loneliness, and confusion are real. Extend grace, abundantly, to one another — and to yourselves. We will come to balance again. We will be transformed by this season in ways we can’t yet anticipate, gain a clarity and grounding that right now may feel somewhat elusive. We will continue to be the church, in this space and time, and all the times and spaces to come. Thanks be to God!
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, coronavirus, 1 Samuel 16:1-13, John 9:1-41, John 11:30-40
  • Mar 15, 2020Jesus Builds Bridges to Connect People
    Mar 15, 2020
    Jesus Builds Bridges to Connect People
    Series: (All)
    March 15, 2020. Bishop Susan Candea preaches on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and building bridges to connect people, as we celebrate the Installation of Pastor Meagan today.
     
    Readings: John 4:5-42
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    Whew! There is a lot going on, isn't there?! In some ways it feels so surreal, this whole coronavirus pandemic thing. Did you ever think that we would be talking about a pandemic? Things are rapidly changing, and it's hard to know what is the appropriate response. How should we be feeling? What ought we doing? Are we taking enough precautions? Are people overreacting? How are we supposed to feel? Are we supposed to cancel everything? Keep going on? What kind of adjustments? It really feels like a lot, doesn't it? And in the midst of all of this, we're in the season of Lent — a time when we gather more intentionally as a church, to engage in the disciplines of repentance and prayer and acts of charity and fasting, when we hear and respond even more deeply to the invitation to return to the Lord our God.
     
    And on this Sunday in Lent we have this long gospel that is full of all kinds of stuff: a Samaritan woman being approached by Jesus for a drink, and the whole bit about Jews don't have anything in common with Samaritans, launching into this discussion of living water, the strange detail about the woman having five husbands (what is that all about?), the disciples coming back with food only to be told, "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me," then launching into a conversation about harvest and reaping (where did that come from?) ending with the Samaritan woman bringing people to meet Jesus. Whew, there's a lot going on in this story, isn't there?
     
    Oh, and by the way we are also installing your new pastor! After many months of discernment and transition, you are officially welcoming a new pastor, embarking on a new relationship with one another, stepping into the future of which God is calling all of you. That's a big deal. There's a lot going on: lots of excitement, lots of changes. Because we all know we're each different. She's different. You're different. Things are going to be different. So you get to explore and experience and grow in this new relationship. Have I mentioned that there's a lot going on?
     
    So in the midst of all of this, what is the gospel? What is the good news that we are invited to hear this day? Well first of all, the good news always begins with Jesus, so let's start with him. And what we see in our gospel is that Jesus is the one who reaches out to the Samaritan woman, even though Jews have nothing to do with Samaritans. What we see in our gospel is Jesus offering living water, Jesus having a theological conversation with the woman — in other words, talking about God with her. And then, that is what brings more people to seek out Jesus and to hear and experience him as the Savior of the world. In other words, Jesus builds bridges that connect people — connect people with God and connect people with one another. And that is the theme of my sermon this morning: Jesus builds bridges to connect people. Jesus builds bridges to connect people.
     
    Let's start by talking about why building bridges is even necessary. Well, that's pretty easy, isn't it? We all know why: because we are a divided people, with what sometimes seems like huge chasms between us. In Jesus' day it was the Jews and Samaritans who had nothing to do with each other because they did not share things in common. In our day there is a long list of groups of people who have nothing to do with each other, seeing their differences rather than seeing what holds us in common: our humanity, the reality that we are all children of God. We divide people along religious beliefs and political affiliations, along their immigration status, their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their age, even where they live.
     
    In my first congregation that I served in western Kansas, one of the local boys went off to college and met a young woman who had grown up in the city. When she came to meet his parents, because they were getting pretty serious, she encountered all these new things on the farm and thoroughly enjoyed these new experiences. But afterwards they came to tell me that they were quite concerned about their son becoming too serious with what they called a "city slicker." It was just going to be too different. It would never work out. They got married, and to this day they're just fine.
     
    I understand why we put people into categories. It's easier to deal with groups and then just make assumptions, rather than engaging people in their own uniqueness and complexities, which can be part of the group that they belong to. But we don't just put people in categories, do we? We take a further step. We put them into categories and then we move the box that we have put them in away from our box, and the divide gets even larger. But Jesus (remember, the good news always starts with Jesus) comes along, and he not only ignores the dividing lines, the barriers, the categories, but he crosses right over them, to connect people who are on the other side. In seminary I had a professor who said that we need to be very careful when we divide people into "us" and "them" because Jesus is always on the other side with "them." I've heard that phrase many times, and it has always stuck with me. And we see that truth over and over again throughout the gospel, Jesus including those who have been excluded: tax collectors and women and lepers and Samaritans, and eating with them and touching them and teaching them and calling them and becoming one of them. He hung on the cross between two thieves. So that there's no longer an "us" and a "them" but a "we" — a we, who are part of the reign of God where there are no dividing lines. Not only does Jesus, in his actions interacting with the woman at the well, show us what the reign of God looks like, but Jesus also enables us to participate in that reign by offering us living water. "The water I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life, so that we might experience the reign of God." I came across a wonderful image as I was working on this sermon. And it said (an author wrote): living water can purify our hearts of hatred and hostilities, and form us into a diverse people of God on earth.
     
    During the season of Lent, we focus on honestly confessing our sins, owning our baggage — which includes our own prejudice and fear and hatred and insecurity. The living water not only cleanses us of that, but actually wells up in us, so that we can grow in ways that are beyond what we might imagine, growing in ways that connect us to God, that connect us to one another, that connect us to the world, growing in ways so that we understand that the eternal life that we are offered in Jesus is all about relationships. No wonder that the woman, after experiencing this relationship with Jesus, this understanding of life that connected her to something more, went and told her friends and said you've got to come, hear this, and know this. This is the savior of the world. Wow. In the midst of everything that's going on, this gospel reminds us that Jesus is in our midst, building bridges across our fears, our anxiety, our worries particularly in this time, to connect us to one another, even in times when we may not be able to be physically connected.
     
    And that, my friends, is a great job description for a pastor. Pastors are called to proclaim the gospel, the good news which builds bridges and connects us, not only to each other, but to the whole church and the wider community. Pastors are called to have these theological conversations. So when a pastor brings up God, yeah that's part of our job. So that we can talk with one another about our relationship with God which connects us to one another, so that we can actually be honest about our own fears and prejudices, our own hostilities. We all have them. Pastors are the ones that call us into these confessions, that both challenge and comfort us, to get out of our boxes and connect in wonderfully diverse ways.
     
    But pastors do not do this in isolation. They do this in partnership, in mutuality with all of you. Did you notice, at the beginning of our gospel story, that Jesus went to the woman and asked her to give him something to drink? It was a mutual ministering and serving one another back and forth. And did you notice who it was that went and told all the other neighbors about Jesus? It wasn't Jesus. It was a woman. Jesus empowered the woman to become an evangelist. So while it is a pastor's call to proclaim the good news, it is a call of all of us to be evangelists, to share the good news. Think about all the bridges that we can build together. Think about the ways that we can share the living water. Think about the impact we can make. That's what this is all about. That's what we are celebrating, even in the midst of everything else going on.
     
    So my friends, my partners in ministry, let us move forward — not only in this new relationship, but during this season of Lent and even during this time of a pandemic. Let us move forward, continuing to care for one another, continuing to connect to one another, continuing to be a strong witness to the good news, to be refreshing and life-giving sources of hope and comfort. How appropriate — I know this is not what you signed up for, Pastor (like you said, it's your third Sunday) — but how appropriate that at this time, in these circumstances, during this season, you began this new relationship to participate in God's activity and mission. Because my friends, the world needs us. The world needs you. This is our time to be the people of God, and together be proclaimers and builders of hope.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Bishop Susan Candea, John 4:5-42, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Installation
  • Mar 8, 2020Follow the Wind
    Mar 8, 2020
    Follow the Wind
    Series: (All)
    March 8, 2020. Although we have times in our lives when things seem predictable and stable, we don’t ever really know what is going to happen. Just as God told Abraham and Sarah to go and they went, just as Jesus told Nicodemus to follow the wind, just as we sometimes can't see more than one step in front of us, God is guiding each of us along the way.
     
    Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Some years ago, I was working at The Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, and my co-worker and I received a phone call that a volunteer we worked closely with was going to be married. But this was not an ordinary sharing of news that is full of excitement and joy, hope for a long future for this couple beginning life together with a wedding they would spend months planning and preparing for. This couple was getting married that afternoon. In her hospital room, where she lay in her final hours of life. Darla had been diagnosed with cancer, and although the doctors had tried to do what they could, she would not survive. And she and her fiancée wanted to get married before she died.
     
    So of course, we went. And so began my journey into the unknown, via seminary — although I didn’t know that yet. We entered her hospital room, and two things overwhelmed me right away. First, I could see immediately that Darla was close to death. I had never experienced that before, but somehow, I knew. And second, was the profound presence of God in that space at Minneapolis’ University Hospital. To this day I can’t quite describe it, but God was there.
     
    Following this encounter I called my mom, and told her what had happened. In that moment, she didn’t quite understand what I had experienced, and she wondered out loud why they would want to be married, when she was so close to death. I called a friend, who listened closely, and then asked the questions: Why do you think God led you to that room? Have you ever thought about going into ministry? I hadn’t. And quite honestly, a good Catholic girl, I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about at that moment. But her question echoed, bringing shape to that encounter I had had in that hospital room, and some years later, I took my first official class at seminary.
     
    I was not sure where it would lead me, this adventure into the unknown, and when I finally made the decision a year later to quit my job and go to seminary full time, I still didn’t know. I only knew I had to go.
     
    Which brings us to the story of Abraham, and Sarah, from our first reading today. “Go to the land that I will show you,” God told them. "Leave everything you know. Leave your home. Leave your family. Leave your land. No map, no itinerary for the journey, no plan for what you will do when you get there. Just go. I’ll show you the way.” And so, our reading tells us, Abraham and Sarah went.
     
    And I find myself thinking, “Who ARE these people?” I mean, really, who does that? Certainly not me. I'm a planner, if you haven’t already figured that out about me. I had never made a major decision without thinking I knew what was going to happen next.
     
    And yet, there I was, in March, knowing I would be leaving my job and starting school in August, and I had no idea what my schedule would be, what classes I would be taking, or how I would even spend my time. And I had absolutely no idea what would happen when I was done. I only knew I had to go.
     
    Seems crazy, right? And since that time, I have come to realize that although we have times in our lives when things seem predictable and stable, we don’t ever really know what is going to happen. We never know when an unanticipated encounter with God in the world, in our neighbors, in our family, even a stranger, will call us out of what is familiar and comfortable, and lead us, if we follow it, to unknown places. Places God will show us.
     
    You can imagine the relief I felt when I had finally registered for my first semester, and at least knew when I needed to be at school, and what books to buy! And that was just the beginning of my journey into the unknown, with many encounters along the way. There was the invitation to look at robes in the seminary bookstore where everything was on sale, my reflection that sure I could look but I still didn’t think I would ever need a robe really, and finding that the one robe remaining in the entire store fit as though it were tailored for me. AND it was 75% off! And then, being encouraged by fellow travelers from my home congregation to buy my first stole, in Tanzania, while I thought to myself, I hope I at least get my money’s worth from this. And then, the feeling I experienced at CPE Chaplaincy residency, as I came to realize that chaplaincy was awesome, but it wasn’t “IT,” not for me. And the sense of coming back home as I settled into my congregational internship, and knew beyond a doubt that this is where I belonged.
     
    And now, after some years of seeking the right time, the right place, the right people for my first official call as a pastor, here I am, in MISSOURI, of all places! And already, I know, this is where I have been headed, all along, although I couldn’t see more than one step in front of me the entire way.
     
    Abraham and Sarah’s journey to the land God would show them, although the story makes it sound so straightforward at the beginning, was long and complicated and challenging. They travelled through unfriendly territory, had to talk themselves out of sticky situations, waited years to see evidence of God’s promise to them. I can only imagine that they were not always so nonchalant as they started out. I can only imagine that they had plenty of questions and arguments and times of despair wondering if they would ever get there, and yet, somehow, they did.
     
    And, as we do, they ran into challenges. Scary things happened. And they happen for us in this human life that we lead. We face storms that do great damage, like the tornadoes in Tennessee. We experience change that is outside of our control. We encounter illnesses and disease that are new and intimidating. We are all following the news, doing and learning what we can about the coronavirus, knowing that there is so much unknown about this thing that we face together. And the promise is that God is with us as we journey.
     
    There is the rest of God’s invitation from our reading today. “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Because this journey of life that we are on, is never just about us. It is about us and the encounters we have with one another along the way. It is about how God guides us through just when we think we have hit the final dead end, the one that means we are lost completely.
     
    When Nicodemus seeks Jesus out, in the garden, at night, he is not just trying to figure out the theological truth of Jesus’ origin. He is seeking the way to God. He is lost, and looking for a way home. And somehow, Nicodemus knew Jesus had the answers he was seeking. And Jesus gives him the wisdom that could have come straight from Abraham and Sarah: follow the wind. You don’t know where it came from, and you don’t know where it’s going, but you know that it is there. You can trust the Spirit to lead you, encounter by encounter, on this journey.
     
    We are blessed by these encounters we have, with one another, with God. And as God told Abraham and Sarah, the whole point of the journey is not so much where we are going, as it is the blessing we receive as we travel. And just as important, the blessings that we bring to one another. Blessed to be a blessing.
     
    We may not know where we are going, or when we will arrive, or what we will do when we get there, but one thing we do know for sure — God is guiding each of us, in this community gathered here, just as surely as God showed Abraham and Sarah on where to go, just as surely as we know the wind is blowing. And just like Abraham and Sarah had Lot with them, we travel with one another along the way. Thanks be to God!
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
  • Mar 1, 2020Discovering Who We Are
    Mar 1, 2020
    Discovering Who We Are
    Series: (All)
    March 1, 2020. We are beginning two separate journeys at the same time — the journey of Lent and the journey of the ministry that we will discover together. Pastor Meagan's sermon this morning reminds us that as we share these journeys, God is present, guiding us.
     
    Readings: Matthew 4:1-11
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Here we are, and it is my first Sunday here at Christ Lutheran, and it is our first Sunday of Lent, and we seek these 40 days to encounter God in the world around us. And so we're going to begin today two separate journeys at the same time — the journey of Lent as we walk with Jesus as he encounters many different people in the community around him on his way to the cross, and the journey of the ministry that we will share and discover together as a family of faith, as we get to know one another and encounter the Spirit working among us, and in our communities and our neighborhoods around us.
     
    And as I reflected on these two journeys, and on today’s readings, it occurred to me that these journeys are really not so different from one another. They are all about relationship. Jesus encountered people as he went, and the people that he met encountered God in Jesus. We will see this over and over in the stories that we will hear as we gather during these 40 days. We in our human journey encounter people as we go, and encounter God along the way. Human relationships, and relationships with God.
     
    And as we look especially at our gospel story from Matthew today, with Jesus in the desert, being tempted by Satan, another common thread of our Lenten journey and our own journey as community is revealed. Jesus is tempted three times — to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the mountain, and to worship power and evil instead of trusting God. And with each temptation, each encounter with Satan, Jesus becomes a little more clear about who he is as God with skin on.
     
    Each temptation is an attempt to set Jesus apart from humanity, to make him relevant, and spectacular, and powerful, as Henri Nouwen suggests. And each time, Jesus claims his trust in God, and his dependence on God, and his commitment to living fully the human experience with us. It is about relationships, encounters with each other and with God.
     
    And, it's about who Jesus is called to be in the world. Not apart from, but one of. Not to be powerful, and spectacular, but to embody the love and the healing and the reconciliation and the mercy of God for all those that he encounters on the way.
     
    And as we begin to share ministry together, we too are on a journey to discover more about who we are, who we are becoming, as beloved children of God, and as a community of faith. Because each one of us here embodies the love and mercy of God in a beautifully unique way, and as the Spirit is revealed in our encounters with one another, our whole community is transformed, each one of us is transformed.
     
    We all know that I am new among you, and I have already been changed in the short time I've been here. Each week, as we gather, we are changed by the encounters that we have with one another, whether we've been part of this congregation for decades, or whether we are here for the very first time.
     
    In the community of those gathered here in this moment of time, we encounter one another and God when we enter into relationship with one another as we worship, as we learn, as we enjoy a cup of coffee in the Fellowship Hall.
     
    In the community of those gathered here in this moment in time, we discover a little bit more about who God is calling us to be, and how we can embody the love and mercy of God in our unique human experience for all of those we meet along the way.
     
    Two separate journeys, Lent and the beginning of our ministry together, and yet they are really one journey, aren’t they? As a family of faith, you and I, we go through these 40 days, encountering God in one another, and in the world around us, and we grow in our capacity to see one another, to see God. And with each encounter, we are transformed, know more clearly who we're called to be as children of God, and who God is calling us to be together as a community of faith.
     
    We are just beginning a journey of 40 days. In Biblical language, 40 days doesn't necessarily mean 40 literal 24-hour periods. 40 shows up a lot in scriptures — Noah and his family were in the ark for 40 days, according to one telling of the ancient flood story. Moses spent 40 days with God on the mountain, and the Israelites were in the desert for 40 years! In all of these stories, there is an aspect of the unknown, sometimes a feeling of being lost for a little while, sometimes even a feeling of being abandoned on a journey that seems far too long.
     
    And in each of these stories, we know God is present. God carried Noah and his family and animals to dry land in the ark, with the promise of the rainbow to encourage them as they started life anew after the flood. Moses came away from his time on the mountain with guidance for life together as people of God, and God guided the Israelites to their new home with fire and cloud, and renewed his promise and their covenant for their life together as people of God before they entered the Promised Land.
     
    People of God who were listening to Isaiah were reminded of God’s call, and we're reminded today as well: “Is not this the kind of fasting I've chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter?” We are called to be in a relationship with one another in which God’s abundance is shared. We are called to remember that we are all God’s people.
     
    At the end of Jesus’ time in the desert, as Matthew tells the story, angels “suddenly” appear and wait on him. Suggesting that far from being abandoned, God was with Jesus all along.
     
    And God is with us, this community gathered here this morning, and whether you've been attending for decades or are here for the first time, we walk these 40 days of Lent, and begin ministry together, as a community. And when we feel anxious about the unknown, or a little bit lost, we can look around us, and know that in the midst of this journey, we are not alone. God is present, guiding us, and as we will sing in just a moment, we are all connected with one another.
     
    Our journey has begun, and together we will encounter God, in our relationships with one another, in our neighborhoods, our families, and in this community of faith. As God was with Noah and his family in the ark, with Moses and the Israelites in the desert, and Jesus as he faced Satan, God is with us, showing us who we are called to be in this world. Thanks be to God!
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Matthew 4:1-11
  • Feb 26, 2020Encountering God
    Feb 26, 2020
    Encountering God
    Series: (All)
    February 26, 2020. During the 40 days of Lent, the stories we will hear of all of the encounters that Jesus had with people, and the encounters they had with God in Jesus, show us that God wants nothing more than to meet us right where we are. On this Ash Wednesday we welcome our new pastor, Meagan McLaughlin. She preaches on the story of Adam and Eve, and how no matter how much we may mess up, it can't change the fact that God created us in God's image and will never stop loving us.
     
    Readings: Genesis 2:15-17, Genesis 3:1-7
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I spent much of my life feeling like the key to gaining friends and influencing people was to be perfect. Mistakes were horrifying, asking for help was not an option, and being anything but totally in control was pretty much intolerable. Can anyone relate to that? In order to be okay, I could not be human -- I could not be anything less than superhuman. In short, to be okay, I basically had to be God! Just like Adam and Eve in our story today.
     
    And of course, that is not possible, for us human beings. And so I constantly felt the weight of falling short of my own ideals, and when I did fall short, the easiest thing to do was to cast blame as far from me as I could possibly throw it. Try to pretend that I'm more than human. And what I came to realize is I wasn't fooling anybody, least of all God!
     
    And I think that this, perhaps, is one of the great lessons that we can learn from this ancient tale of Adam and Eve. When we make mistakes, God sees through all of the excuses and the distractions and the blame, and knows the truth: we mess up, just like Adam and Eve did in this legendary tale from the very beginning. Of course we do, we are human after all! And God knows this, no matter how hard we may try to hide. It didn't work for Adam and Eve, it didn't worked for Cain, and it doesn't work for us either.
     
    This is not, however, the only lesson of Adam and Eve, although we often get stuck there, and sometimes in the worst possible way: Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple, and drew Adam into her sin. Evil temptress woman! And then, God threw us out of the garden to suffer. But this is actually not the beginning of the story, and it isn't the end of the story either.
     
    All of the angst and the shame and the mistakes and consequences of Adam and Eve cannot erase the real beginning of the story. No matter how much we may mess up, it can't change the fact that God created us in God's image. God spoke words calling us into being. God shaped and formed us with God's own hands. God breathed life into us. And when we breathe, God's very Spirit fills us again, and again, and again. And, when Adam and Eve were ashamed about their nakedness, God provided clothing for them. Our translation says, a couple of verses after our reading today, God gave them clothing made of skin, a profound connection to the human creation that they were. We know through God's provision of clothes, and God's protection of Cain after he killed Abel, that God will never stop loving us, even when we have done great harm.
     
    We know that God will never, ever give up on us. God is so committed to loving us, redeeming us, and bringing us home, that he came to us in Jesus, even though God knew that our sinfulness would result in Jesus' suffering and death on the cross. In Jesus, you might say that God has some serious skin in the game! And God continues to come to us today, because we are God's beloved children and nothing can ever change that. God created us to be precisely human, after all!
     
    We human beings, in this human life we live, are complicated! There's a reason we Lutherans like to talk about so many "both-ands." As we begin Lent, we can hear echoes of Martin Luther telling us that we are all simultaneously sinners and saints. We are humans, imperfect beings who sin -- make mistakes, harm other people and ourselves and God, by what we do and what we fail to do. And, we are humans, beloved children created by God, with an amazing capacity for love, compassion, healing, and joy.
     
    In Lent, we are reminded to embrace the full truth of who we are, both sinner and saint, beloved of God. We are called during these 40 days not to make excuses, not to place blame on others, not to distract from our brokenness and the brokenness of the world, but to acknowledge the areas of our lives that are impacted by sin, that need healing and forgiveness. We are challenged to take the finger we may have pointing at others and point it back at ourselves, and look at our own lives and our own part in our relationships, and invite God in.
     
    Where have we been dishonest in our relationships with God, ourselves, or others? Where have we contributed to the brokenness and oppression in the world, whether by what we have said or done, or by failing to stand up for those who are suffering? How can we learn to be more present for the people in our lives, and less distracted by those things that really don't matter in the end? What can we do these 40 days of Lent to grow our capacity for love, honesty, compassion, justice, and joy?
     
    Because the whole story of Jesus -- all of the stories that we will hear these 40 days, all of the encounters that Jesus had with people, and the encounters they had with God in Jesus -- show us that God wants nothing more than to meet us right where we are. God wants nothing more than to love, and reconcile, and forgive, and heal.
     
    And as we listen to the stories we will hear this Lent, we will know that Jesus crossed a lot of lines that his community didn't think he should cross -- talking to a woman, a Samaritan woman at that. Healing a man born blind, on the Sabbath, and denying that sin caused the blindness in the first place. Suggesting that God, far from wanting us to follow rules perfectly to earn God's love, asks us to embody God's love and mercy and justice, as best we can, for those that we encounter.
     
    Because often, it is in our encounters with other humans, and creation, that we encounter God, and are transformed. The love extended to us by another just when we feel at our most lost and unlovable reveals the unconditional, unfathomable love that God has for us, perfect or not. Healing, reconciliation, life emerge in us and around us, and we know God is there. And we, humans created by this amazing God, have a great capacity to witness God in our world, and reveal the love and mercy of God to all of those that we encounter on our journeys.
     
    During these 40 days, we can prepare for Holy Week and Easter by focusing on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In prayer, we commit time to focus on our relationship with God, acknowledging that we need God in our lives. In fasting, we let go of the things that specifically get in our way, and make room for healing and love to come in and change us. In almsgiving, we look for ways to be of service to the world around us, trusting in the abundance of God for all people.
     
    All of this we do in the spirit of the theme that we are focusing on this Lent. Encountering God in the World. We open our eyes and hearts and minds to the world around us, and we see God in our neighborhoods, our communities, our workplaces, our schools. We encounter God in this community of faith, week after week, as we gather here together.
     
    We walk these 40 days together, and it starts today. It starts with worship, prayer, sharing Communion. Or let's not forget, it actually started downstairs with a feast. I'm still full, I don't know about you. Tonight we will receive ashes to remind us of our humanity, to remind us of our mortality. As a community, we see our own brokenness and sinfulness, and we see the brokenness of this world with no excuses, and we are reminded profoundly of the need that we have for God. We are, as our hymn of the day suggests, restored to love, and power, and joy, and grace, in Christ who lived our human experience.
     
    As we prepare ourselves to go out into the world, embodying the love and mercy of God, and witnessing the breath of the Spirit all around us. And we do this because we know we have a God who will never fail us, even when we, at times in our humanness, fail God.
     
    Thanks be to God!
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Genesis 2:15-17, Genesis 3:1-7
  • Feb 23, 2020May We Keep Listening
    Feb 23, 2020
    May We Keep Listening
    Series: (All)
    February 23, 2020. We're ending the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, which are often mountaintop experience times of the church year. Rachel Helton preaches today on the richness of the Transfiguration of Jesus, about the new covenant that will be made through his sacrifice and death, and about listening to what God is asking of us today.
     
    Readings: Genesis 1, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:1-9
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Won't you pray with me? Eternal God, open our minds to hear your word, our hearts to love your word, our lives to be obedient to your word, through the power of your Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    As many of you already know, in my life before St. Louis, I was a pediatrician. And in life before pediatrics, I was, obviously, a medical student. The first two years of medical school are the pre-clinical years, the years that you spend in lectures and labs and classrooms learning first all about how the body works, and second, learning about how illness disrupts that normal functioning and what we as practitioners of medicine can do to restore health. It's a little bit overgeneralized maybe, but that's the basic idea. And the point is, when you make it to the third year, to the clinical year, you finally get to see actual patients. And that is a pretty exciting thing. As a medical student you spend time rotating through different specialties trying to figure out which one feels like the best fit for you and hopefully gleaning some knowledge from each one along the way.
     
    I was several weeks into my OB rotation when one afternoon my pager beeped notifying me that there was a woman nearing delivery. I met up with the obstetrician I was working with and as we walked to the woman's room he said very casually, "You wanna catch this one?" This is kind of a big deal for a medical student. "Catching" the baby means that you get to be the hands that guide that new life into the world. Now truth be told, and I'm sure he knew this, the woman whose room we were going to already had several children and probably could have delivered this baby without any help from anyone. But still, I was very excited to agree to this, and I'm sure my hands were shaking through the entire delivery. Once the baby was born and the nurse had clamped and cut the cord, I stood there, gazing at this screaming, squirming baby girl through tear-filled eyes, experiencing something about life that I had not experienced before. There was something so beautiful in that moment, something I still can't quite put into words, and I just wanted to stay there in that moment. And I probably would have stayed there even longer had the OB not interrupted my moment and said, "We usually hand the baby to the mom." Oh right, the mom! And my world suddenly spun back to reality and the tasks at hand and the busyness of the day.
     
    I can't help but to wonder if that might be a glimpse of what Peter experienced at the Transfiguration of Jesus. First he and two other disciples followed Jesus up the mountain. Many important events had happened on mountains — Moses receiving the Commandments, Abraham and the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Sermon on the Mount, after all. What might the disciples have been expecting this time? They probably weren't expecting what happened next. We need to remember that just a few days before this Jesus had predicted his own suffering and death to the disciples. If we flip back just one page, to Matthew chapter 16, we can read, "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."
     
    So when Jesus takes Peter and James and John up on a high mountain and is transfigured, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white, and then he is joined by Moses and Elijah — these pillars of the faith, is it any surprise that Peter, in his usual earnest fashion, wants to make dwelling places for them? Is it any surprise that he wants to just stay right there for a moment, stay in that moment of experiencing something so holy, of perhaps being transformed by the undeniable truth that Jesus is God? And Peter wants to do something, he wants to build something. And then is interrupted by the voice of God coming from the clouds saying, "This is my Son... listen to him." In the Greek form of the verb translated "listen" is not just listen to him right now. It's keep listening to him. We've heard this proclamation of "This is my Son" before coming from the heavens, haven't we. This is the same thing that was spoken at the baptism of Jesus which we heard about at the beginning of Epiphany back in January when God speaks from the heavens saying this, this human, is my son.
     
    Upon hearing the voice of God at the Transfiguration, we are told that the disciples fall to the ground "in fear" which is about more than just feeling scared, it's about showing reverence and adoration to the God who is speaking to them from the clouds and the God being revealed in the transfigured Jesus. And then Jesus reaches out to them in their fear and touches them. As this happens Jesus is suddenly alone again, meaning Moses and Elijah are gone. This is such an important part of the nature of Jesus as God made man, that he physically reached out and touched people in a way that brought reassurance and healing. It's not the gloriously shining Jesus who reaches out to them either, but the very human Jesus who they have come to trust as a good friend and have been willing to follow as disciples. As they continue to follow him, back down the mountain, back into a violent, broken world, into a place of suffering they've been transformed by his Transfiguration.
     
    There's so much richness in the event of the Transfiguration, isn't there? It's about more than just Jesus shining in glory, although that is certainly true. It's about the new covenant that will be made through his sacrifice and death. It's about the fulfillment of the law and the prophecies of the Old Testament — the law which was delivered through Moses, the prophecies which were spoken by Elijah. The Transfiguration happened on the seventh day after Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem. And this number seven is significant — we see it other times in the Bible. The easiest to recall probably is Genesis 1, when we see the creation of all things in seven days. But we also see it in the reading from Exodus this morning — Moses is on Mount Sinai and on the seventh day the voice of God calls to him. The number seven represents wholeness, completion. So it's fitting that the Transfiguration happens on the seventh day because Jesus is revealed in his wholeness — as fully human, fully God — and he confirms that he will bring to completion the work of our salvation, the work of making us truly whole.
     
    We're ending the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany which are often "mountain-top" experience times of the church year. And at least for me personally, it's not hard to want to follow the Jesus that we focus on December through February. But as we begin the journey toward the cross and Lent, as we descend the mountain so to speak, down into the valley of our world of injustice and oppression, it can be difficult to follow Jesus into the hard places. Sometimes we experience God in bright, shining moments... other times, like the Magi following the star, we are provided only enough light to know where our very next step should be. As we take each step, even in the ordinary moments of life, we are transformed into the people God created us to be, not because we transform ourselves but because transformation happens to us.
     
    And as we are transformed by the Spirit through experiences in our lives and through encounters with the word and the sacraments, we gain a deeper understanding of the love of God and the mission of Jesus. We can be the hands of Jesus — reaching out to a fearful people. We can do this right here in our own city. We can do this right here in our own community and in our church and in our own homes.
     
    The God of Moses is the same God of the Transfiguration is the same God of today. The essence of God revealed in the Old Testament is that of a persistently loving and gracious God who gives mercy to a persistently rebellious and broken world. The essence of Jesus revealed in the New Testament is that of a God who cares deeply about all people and reaches out to those who are sick, afraid, marginalized, and restores them to wholeness. He does that for us too. That's what salvation is about, after all.
     
    As we prepare for the season of Lent and journey to the cross, I hope we have moments of awe as we experience the transfigured Jesus in all his glory. But I hope we also have quiet times of turning inward, of listening for what it is that God might be asking us to do. How might God be asking us to feed God's people? How might God be asking us to literally clothe God's people with coats and blankets on the streets of St. Louis on cold nights where the temperatures are in the teens? How is God asking us to see and stand with people who are living on the margins of our society? How is God asking us to reorient our lives toward love and truth and mercy? How is it that God might be asking us to bear witness to the good news of salvation?
     
    God is still speaking; may we listen. May we keep listening. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Genesis 1, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9, Matthew 16:21, number 7
  • Feb 16, 2020Matters of the Heart
    Feb 16, 2020
    Matters of the Heart
    Series: (All)
    February 16, 2020. Guest pastor Karen Scherer preaches today on the law. Throughout the scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. In talking about anger, adultery, and divorce, Jesus teaches that it is one thing to behave according to the law, and another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Let us pray. Come to us, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and minds that we might hear your word for us today, the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    So I think it's a wonderful coincidence that Valentine's Day was just two days ago and that our readings this morning, two of them anyway, are all about matters of the heart. In Deuteronomy, as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land, the Lord through Moses sets before the people a very clear choice: if you obey the commandments of the Lord by loving the Lord your God, walking in God's ways, then you shall live, become numerous, and God will bless you. But if your hearts turn away and you serve other gods then you shall perish, and your days of living in the Promised Land will be short. If your hearts turn away. Where your heart is shapes your whole life -- your attitude, your actions, where you invest your time, your money, your efforts. It's all about the heart. Obedience, following God's commands, walking in God's ways, blessings, curses, choices -- it's all about the heart.
     
    Do you remember that first blush of new love for that someone special, when you were so in love with another one? You would have done anything for them because you loved them. But as that love matures over time, if it matures, then you come to know that it's not just about that feeling, that feeling for them. It's about walking with them, being with them, being committed to them, through life together. It's about commitment, about a covenant with them, those vows that you made whether they were official or not. You committed yourself to one another. It's about honoring them, caring for them, even when they are unlovable. Tom Long states that what lies at the heart of God -- and is at the heart of the law -- is in fact a committed covenantal relationship. The law is based on God's commitment to humankind, to y'all, and on our commitment to community with one another. It's all about relationship. It's more than going through the motions. It's a matter of the heart, a commitment of being, walking with, caring for, trusting the other.
     
    Today we hear the law. Jesus teaches us. And as I looked at your faces as I was reading that, I was looking at not good news on your faces. But he teaches us about God's intention -- God's intention for us as beloved, honored children of God. And this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. It is to affect not just our behaviors, but our attitudes and our emotions as well, for they are where our heart is too, and where God seeks to live in us. It is one thing to behave according to the law, Jesus says. It is another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy. Jesus connects the dots for us from outward acts to internal orientation. He goes from murder to anger, from adultery to lust, from divorce to responsibility and accountability. It is possible to abide by the letter of the law and still wreak havoc on the lives of others. That's what he's wanting us to hear: where it comes from. That we can carry out the law, and our heart can be so twisted.
     
    Let me give you some examples. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words. We even call it "stabbing someone in the back." We can do business in ways that are completely legal, but that leave our workers destitute and unhealthy, and maintain policies that ravage our environment -- but we have broken no laws. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet what we find is our primary relationships end up being maybe about work, or sports, or entertaining ourselves, or even the internet, rather than our spouse, from whom we are absent much of the time -- and thus unfaithful. It is possible to lead nations and corporations and businesses and organizations in ways that are legally sanctioned, but that serve only ourselves, and leave others broken. And it is easy to apply the law as a weapon to judge others, whether it be religious or secular law, to learn to use it with lethal accuracy, and to manipulate the world to our own agendas with it. But when we do this, when we do these things, the law becomes incomplete at the very least, and broken -- a shadow of the glorious glue that it was created to be.
     
    You see the law was created to bring order out of chaos, to create community -- that we could live with one another and care for one another, in relationship to one another that is good and life-giving, even as our relationship with God would be good and life-giving, trusting. That's why Jesus moves his hearers' understanding of the law from the realm of the letter of the law, to the realm of the heart of the law. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder. You also have to treat each other with respect and caring. Calling another names, awful names, demeans and diminishes you and those whom God loves: his children. And we don't want to hear this but yes, it brings judgment upon ourselves when we do that. It ends cutting us off from God, whose intention was very different. And we cut ourselves off from each other. I would urge you to go back to Luther's Small Catechism. How many of you have read the Small Catechism? If you haven't, pull it out, give it to somebody else, get it, get them a copy. In his Small Catechism and his explanation of the Ten Commandments, he talks about how the law is not only following it by the letter, but in fact extending it out. For example, not bearing false witness against your neighbor for Luther isn't simply about avoiding lying. It's also about putting the best construction on what a neighbor says or has done, and in this way tending to the communal relationships that simultaneously constitute and bound our Christian life together. It's about going beyond.
     
    We risk everything, people -- judgment and disconnection from God and one another and yes, even from ourself, from whom we were created to be -- when our heart is only oriented towards ourself. The Kingdom of God is much more than following rules. It's about the heart. And dare I say: if it's up to us, if we truly examine ourselves, then we are lost. Humankind is lost. Our individual heart is not big enough and our collective heart is not strong enough to fully complete the law, because our heart is not in it. But God's is. Ultimately, it is God's heart and God's heart alone that saves us. And that heart is made known to us in the flesh and blood of a human being called Jesus Christ, child of God. In him God was born among us, as the prophets had spoken and in fulfilling the promise of God. In him, God made flesh walked with us, truly saw us, and sought to teach us and to heal us, to heal our broken hearts, our twisted selves. He fulfilled the law to its fullest measure -- not twisting it to serve his own purposes, but giving himself in full commitment, full commitment to save us, by facing the powers and principalities of this world. Facing them not with violence, but with the giving of himself, with faithfulness to God and mercy upon us, freeing us, on that cross basically saying to us: you are set free from my love and my mercy. And God raised him from the dead. Thus, overcoming death and fear, we don't have to fear death. We don't have to fear those little deaths that others or the world tries to put on us, because we know that God loves us. In Christ Jesus we are set free.
     
    Jesus is the heart of God now, who teaches us with his word and empowers us with his spirit, who reorders the relationships of this world, of this community, and reorients our hearts, the internal landscape of our lives, reorients us toward God and God's love -- not what the world is trying to put on us, but what God is giving us. God is giving us God's heart for us to live out of, to live for all, not just ourselves. That's what happens when you are baptized. That spirit dwells in you. God's intention dwells in you, and it is always there in forgiveness and mercy, so that you may then give mercy and forgiveness. It is the spirit of Christ's heart, who is ever working to renew our hearts daily, moment to moment, to take away that curved-in self and open us up to others, and the pain and the hurt we see there. And then accompany us on a path of sacrifice and faith and love. The law is now opened up for us, and we are freed to be all that God dreamed for us to be. And in our trials, God through Christ grants us mercy. For we are not yet what we are meant to be. That is true. But we know that we are forgiven and freed to live without the fear of judgment, and to be filled with hope and promise.
     
    So we can ask forgiveness from a coworker whose reputation we may have spoiled with our words. We can do business in ways that care for our workers, though it may take some sacrifice on our part. We can develop policies that care for our environment, even as we care for those around us. We can find ways to live on less, and find that we have more of what really counts. We can commit ourselves to spending as much quality time as possible with our spouses, as much at least as we commit to ourselves as well, knowing that we must care for ourselves, too. We get to work toward a nation that lifts up the broken hearted, the poor. A nation that cares for the alien, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and gives respect and dignity and worth to everyone. That's our calling. We get to do these things without fear, knowing that God is for us. And we can live with the hope and promise of life now and in the time to come, the life given to us in Christ Jesus. That's the heart of the matter. You are the heart of the matter in the world. So happy Valentine's Day, people of heart. Christ's heart lives in you.
     
    So may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Karen Scherer, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths
  • Feb 2, 2020Live the Beatitudes
    Feb 2, 2020
    Live the Beatitudes
    Series: (All)
    February 2, 2020. The Beatitudes are the way of the cross. Jon Heerboth preaches today on how Jesus lived them perfectly, and how if we are to follow Christ they must become our way too.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Last winter I had to make a trip to a hospital emergency department in the middle of the night. The waiting room was full of sick people and injured people. Everybody needed help. Some were incapacitated by chronic illness. Some had no obvious illness, but were clearly in misery. And none could wait until morning for healing or for care. That waiting room experience reminds me of the crowds that followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 4 he had just called his first four disciples. They were fishermen, people I think of as business people. They were capable of catching fish with their nets or with their boats. They could make a living and sell the fish in their communities. They probably had enough to eat most days, and they did alright for themselves and their families. And they probably paid taxes to the Romans like everybody else. Well, these small-town men were used to a quiet life, I bet, and they might have found the crowds following Jesus to be overwhelming. Jesus taught in the synagogues and it says he cured every disease and sickness among the people, according to Matthew. You can imagine the excitement throughout the region. They brought him all the sick: those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them, according to verse 24.
     
    Those of us in the waiting area of the emergency room, we were not a pleasant or appealing group of people. I wonder if Jesus' new disciples were put off by the crowds: their misery, their dependence upon others, their insistence on being healed, the stench of sickness, the impatience of those at the back of the line. Like healthy people walking through an emergency room, perhaps the disciples felt superior to the crowd. Did they recoil from the sick and from their caregivers? Maybe Jesus saw how the disciples reacted. We know he took them up the mountain where he sat down to teach. He didn't preach. Jesus taught them his values, like parents telling their children what is important to them and how they want their children to get through life. For Matthew, Jesus was the teacher of all righteousness. Jesus laid out a course for them to follow. Like any good teacher, Jesus connected the disciples with ideas that were larger than their own life experiences. The Sermon on the Mount was the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, in the book of Matthew. Jesus used the Beatitudes to teach the disciples how they should think about others as they live their lives, and to show them that being a disciple is to be the consummate student.
     
    Matthew, right at the outset of the stories of Jesus' ministries, demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as our teacher. Many of us have been taught or have learned to get ahead by acquiring power, strength, position, awards, or wealth. We think that if we are rich we can have what we want. If we have power we can take what we want. If we are clever or insistent we can argue our way to get what we want. Winning brings us respect. Beauty and outward appearance can make us desirable. Does this sound familiar? Is this how we get through our lives? Have you ever been to a ball game where people waved signs that said, "We're Number Two?" Of course not. Everyone knows we are number one. That's the attitude that fills the headlines in magazines, the television, the social media, and our own lives. We seek our fortunes, as they say. They're our life coaches and public relations firms. We look out for number one, because if we do not, who will? That's what we hear. That's what we've been told. That's the myth of success that constantly surrounds us.
     
    The words of Jesus from the mountain fly in the face of that myth. Jesus offers us a different pathway through life, a path of blessings that he has cleared for us. As God's people, we can find our way through life, but not through power, strength, accomplishment, or possession. As followers of Jesus, it is not enough to focus only on our lives or our little corners of the world. It is not enough to try to reform our politics or our economic systems. We don't navigate the Christian life by overcoming other people. We follow our true course in life by overcoming ourselves. What does that look like? Let's look at the Beatitudes:
     
    Blessed are the poor in spirit. If we open our hearts to Jesus, we acknowledge our weakness and need, and we are able to see the weakness and need of others. We understand that our riches did not come from our own effort, but from God's gift of an eternal kingdom that Jesus proclaimed to his first followers and to us. God blessed us with salvation so that we can be a blessing to others.
     
    Blessed are those who mourn. In our world of endless violence, in times of loss or crisis within our families, in nostalgia for loved ones long gone, we realize that our only comfort comes from God. In the worst of our times, our hope is in the risen Christ, even when we are not feeling his comfort and peace.
     
    Blessed are the meek. If we think about it, we will realize that in the end we have no real power at all. We cannot take the Earth. We understand that God has given us all we have and all we need. In our meekness then, we respond with thankful stewardship, gratitude, and generosity toward others.
     
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. God calls us to be God's own people, knowing that only God's gift of grace through faith can ever satisfy us.
     
    Blessed are the merciful. Mercy is the gift that we can give to other people, because we know the mercy that God has shown us through Jesus Christ.
     
    Blessed are the pure in heart. We can only see God when we admit we need God.
     
    Blessed are the peacemakers. We may not be able to fix all the problems of the world, but we can make peace in our own lives, in our families, and among our friends. We make peace through forgiveness, patience, and understanding. When we make peace, we set aside our human instinct for revenge. We follow Christ. Christ makes his people a new creation, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Christ reconciled the world without counting our sins against us. We are free to do the same for others.
     
    Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Jesus warned his listeners, as Jesus warns us in Matthew, that the world stands in opposition to his words. People with power, people who oppress others, people who seek wealth above all, will not give up without a fight. Opposition may not only come from the outside, but sometimes the worst persecution might come from voices within us -- voices that speak to us of unworthiness and shame. But we know that our places in the kingdom of God are secure. We can endure with the blessings of God. We overcome ourselves by living the Beatitudes, day after day, year after year, for a lifetime.
     
    The Beatitudes -- in fact, the entire Sermon on the Mount -- these words are not an advice column in the newspaper, some TV preacher spouting a gospel of prosperity. They are not hints for happy living. These words came from the heart of the great teacher, Jesus. These words reflect God's values and teach us what life is like in the kingdom of God. If we live by the Beatitudes, our lives and longings will come to be like Jesus' life and longings for his people. It is the opposite of what we often like to do, our attempts to twist God's will to fit our own longings. Meek? That's not me. That's not our world. That doesn't even sound like the church sometimes. I can look at the Beatitudes and say that they reflect everything that I am not. God, however, focuses on what we can be as the people of God. These ideas seem weak and foolish when we read the tabloid covers in the checkout lines, or see the people who ride in private jets. But to those who follow Jesus, the Beatitudes are the power of God. In 1 Corinthians, it says "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."
     
    The Beatitudes are the way of the cross. Jesus lived the Beatitudes perfectly, and the result was his crucifixion. If we find our lives in the Beatitudes, we will follow them to Jesus on the cross. Now we've all worked very hard to be successful in our lives. But eventually we all find ourselves in the emergency room. We need help from others. We face a crisis in our families. We lose a job. We're out of money. A bank wants to foreclose. A loved one is ill. We are very ill. Perhaps we must deal with abuse or addiction or a broken relationship. These are the events of life when the self-sufficiency we prize so much gives way to weakness. We begin to see ourselves as poor in spirit. In our despair, we awaken to the pain of the entire world, and we cannot help but mourn. We think less about ourselves then, and become more merciful to others. We remember our offertory prayer, that all we have comes from God. In our depths, there is nowhere to turn but to the face of Jesus. The more we think of God, the more we seek the righteousness we have in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We want to seek peace. We want to be reconciled with God and our neighbor. Regardless of our circumstances, as Matthew wrote, we should rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven. Jesus already paid the price for our sins and weaknesses. Matthew wrote that the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount came from all over. There would have been Jews and Gentiles alike, all living in Roman-occupied territory. They were looking for healing or seeking relief from the problems of their day. Jesus didn't ask anything of them. He simply healed them, and then tried to explain to his disciples what he was up to.
     
    When I was in college, well before we could scan people's brains, we defined learning as "changed behavior." Jesus calls us to change our thinking and the way we live our lives. We have the good news. We are blessed. Our blessing is not for the sake of some pie-in-the-sky reward after we die. We are blessed so that we can make it through the tough times of our lives here on earth. We are free to put aside our self-seeking in favor of giving ourselves over to God and to our neighbor. We are free to set aside our tribalism, our blindness to the suffering of others, and our own fears in favor of love. We know that we can do that, because we understand that we have already received the blessings of God and we are the people of God. In a few minutes, together with God's people here and everywhere and in every time, we're going to gather at the Lord's table. We will be refreshed in our faith and our fellowship. We may follow the model of Jesus and live the Beatitudes as our response to God's blessings in our lives. The Beatitudes were Jesus' way. And if we are to follow Christ, they must become our way.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth, Matthew 4:24, Matthew 5:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Corinthians 1:27
  • Jan 26, 2020Signs of God’s Presence Near to Us
    Jan 26, 2020
    Signs of God’s Presence Near to Us
    Series: (All)
    January 26, 2020. On Pastor Stephanie's last Sunday with us, she preaches on Jesus' own mission statement from Luke 4. We can look to great works of fiction, current news stories of churches purchasing debt relief, and deeply sacred personal experiences, and find signs of God's kingdom coming near to us all around.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on this third Sunday of Epiphany.
     
    Jesus came proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Why did he start with the word "repent?" Because it's a rich word, much more full of meaning than is often attributed to it. Yes, it does mean "to turn around" or "to turn away" from sin. This is most certainly true, to quote Martin Luther. But because it means "to turn around," when paired with "for the kingdom of heaven has come near" it is a call to turn around from what usually grabs our attention, to notice that the kingdom is very, very near to us. This also is most certainly true.
     
    Sometimes though, it's difficult to even define which direction we are already facing. One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons starts with Lucy at her five cent psychology booth, where Charlie Brown has stopped in for advice for life. "Life is like a deck chair Charlie," she says. "On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they've been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they're going. Where is your deck chair, Charlie Brown?" Without hesitating, Charlie replied glumly, "I can't even get my deck chair unfolded." Ah, such is life sometimes. How can we focus on the direction we're going, when the logistics of life keep us preoccupied? We can't know for sure.
     
    But let us just imagine that Peter or Andrew or James or John, or any of the initial disciples that Jesus called to come follow him, might have been preoccupied with getting their deck chairs unfolded, or their fishing nets untangled. Something they heard in the call from Jesus though, when he asked them to follow him, got them to repent or turn away from the direction they intended to head. They were ready, ready to turn toward seeing God in action. I don't think that means that they only left their fishing nets because their lives were mediocre or boring. They could have very well enjoyed what they were doing, because they were probably very good at it. After all, with Jesus' statement that they would now be fishing for people, he seems to imply that he values the skills they've already honed as fishermen. He says as they follow him he will have them fishing for people. The patience they have learned, the commitment to seeing a job through, maybe the business acumen, or marketing or relational strengths they've developed -- all of what has made them who they are -- can be put into use as they turn to face this new direction, a direction pointed toward seeing God in action, and joining in the process as God reclaims a world in need of redemption. The invitation to join in seeing the kingdom of God coming near would have been far too good to just pass up.
     
    Isn't that so for us as well? No matter what our day jobs are, how we spend our time in school, at home, in a retirement center, on a hospital bed, to turn toward seeing God in action all around us and participating in whatever way possible in what God is doing, well that's a very compelling invitation. Part of responding to the call of Jesus is taking note of the signs of God's presence already near to us. Just like the early disciples were apprentices of Jesus, we are also apprentices who need to learn, to observe, and to recognize God's nearness: the kingdom of God actually being near to us. A helpful way to remember what some of the values of the kingdom of God are is to look at what is often called Jesus' own mission statement in Luke 4. It states that he came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. Sometimes we read stories where God's grace is so evident it causes us to catch our breath at its pure beauty. It is then that we see that God has been active in a situation.
     
    Even in fiction we can be inspired to experience the kind of grace depicted that can only come from God's presence, acting in and through a person. Victor Hugo's great novel Les Misérables, and the Broadway musical based on the book, is in part the story of a spiritual journey. Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, having served a sentence of 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. As the novel opens, he is out of prison finally. But he is lost and hungry and cold. He is given shelter and food by a kind and generous bishop. During the night, at the bishop's residence, he wakes up, steals the bishop's silver and plates, and runs away. He's captured by the police, brought back to the bishop's residence in shame to return the stolen items. But before anyone can say a word, the bishop greets Jean Valjean: "There you are. I'm glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also. Why did you not take those with the silver and the plates?" A story like Hugo's, of unexpected forgiveness, and release of a former captive still living under disgrace and shame, is his way of showing what it is like to see the kingdom of God being near.
     
    More often than not we will see the kingdom of God being near in unexpected and surprising ways. Over the past seven months I have periodically asked for prayers for a dear friend Jeanette, who was diagnosed in late June with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. About four months ago, my husband Phil preached a sermon right here in which he described how Jeanette has not yet been made physically well, but now she had recognized that she has been made whole through this ordeal. Since that time Jeanette has been through several more rounds of chemotherapy. This past Tuesday night, Phil and I were present, along with a few friends, at a special birthday party for Jeanette. She is doing relatively well physically -- as much as one can hope for in her situation. With the effects of the chemo, the drain of living with such uncertainty regarding the future have markedly changed her. But not all the changes we observed were for the worst. We went thinking we were there to support and care for our friend, but unexpectedly she ministered to us. We experienced the time with her as sacred. She described how each day has become, for her, an opportunity to experience God's presence in the small things. She told us how she delights in the kindness of others who bring a meal, how she reads and rereads notes of get well wishes and love that she receives, and as she does she thanks God for each person and prays for their needs. Describing her Christmas celebration as a quiet one, it became clear that it was rich with deep and meaningful conversations with her children and husband, as well as a few silly moments sprinkled in. As that evening came to an end, I believe each of us experienced God's kingdom having come near to us. Love, joy, peace, hope renewed, faith uplifted -- the qualities that are only experienced when the God who is love is made known -- were gently present.
     
    One of the last tasks that I'll complete for the church as your interim pastor will be to finalize the annual report that is sent to the ELCA office. One question in the report asks for a yes or no answer to this question: in the last year has someone besides a congregational leader shared a personal story during worship about God's activity in their life? That's a new question this year. But since you know you'll be judged on it next year, you might want to be thinking about that one in advance. In an atmosphere of confusion, contention on the national scene, and stories of concern around our city, it may be more important than ever to find ways for you to express among yourselves signs of God's activity, God's presence breaking in. I know you have them. You are people who exhibit God's grace and kindness. You are very capable of seeing it around you. You have stories and examples to share that can remind others to see, to know, and to be glad that the kingdom is indeed very near to us.
     
    So as I said earlier, part of responding to the call of Jesus is taking note of the signs of God's presence already near to us. There is at least one other part to responding to the call of Jesus in today's gospel reading. Jesus calls us to repent, to turn around and notice that the kingdom of God is near. And further, Jesus told the early disciples that they would be fishing for people. There they are [motioning to altar display], people caught in the net -- in a good way. He entrusts his ministry to us to effectively make his kingdom known, as we care for people as Jesus would do.
     
    You've likely come across the story that came out about a week ago regarding United Church of Christ congregations and the Deaconess Foundation exhibiting God's kingdom values in an inspiring way. Recognizing that medical debt was oppressing people laboring under its weight prompted 14 UCC (United Church of Christ) congregations in St. Louis to raise about $60,000 to bring some relief. Together with $40,000 given by the Deaconess Foundation, they were able to work with a New York based nonprofit called RIP (yes, "Rest In Peace") Medical Debt to purchase $12.9 million in debt relief. Typically, these unpaid debts have been purchased by a debt collection agency. $100,000 was used and was able to purchase $12.9 million in medical debt. That's a pretty good economic move. But the best move is that it was used to help more than 11,000 families across dozens of zip codes in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Last week, each family received yellow envelopes in the mail notifying them that lingering medical bills have been paid. The average amount given was $1166. Teara Norris, 34, one of the recipients, said that her debt had accumulated mainly for frequent hospital stays and blood transfusions. She said she was born with sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder. "This is going to be a life-changer for my family," she said. She has two children. "I'm going to be able to not worry and stress about the medical bills that I have. It's going to allow me to take better care of my family." When we think of the implications of this, it's natural to think of and wonder about just how life-changing this really is for so many people in our larger community. What kind of difference does this make for the 11,000 families, to be freed at least in part from the burden of debt? But stepping back a bit further to see the bigger picture, I wonder what the impact of this is as thousands of St. Louisans have read this, and a watching world has read this in the international news. And that they might see that the kingdom of God is actually near to us through God's people, and what God's people have done in God's name.
     
    Jesus making disciples into fishers for people often gets described very narrowly, as mostly telling people about Jesus. That is an important aspect and should not be forgotten, of course. But it is also true that our culture in general has heard quite a bit about Jesus. What people are longing for is to see those of us who know we belong to Jesus, showing them by the way we live and act, anticipate, and put into place evidence that God's kingdom is very near, demonstrating by our lives that living in the kingdom means sharing and joining in God's restorative work in all of creation, bringing good news to the poor in ways that bring hope and sustainable life, proclaiming release to those captivated by any number of problems, recovery of sight to those blinded in a myriad of ways, and freeing those oppressed by sin and social ills. God's work. Our hands. That's the ELCA motto. It understands that the kingdom belongs to God, and all of the redemptive work truly does come from God's spirit. But it also understands that we are the hands and the feet and the willing bodies that carry out God's kingdom's work.
     
    I want to look at you just for a few seconds. Not because gazing out and seeing your beloved faces is not already seared deeply within my memory, because it is. But also because I want to envision you and your future. And I want you to pause and think about it as well as you and I turn our focus more and more toward looking for where God is an action, for where the kingdom has come near, and where we can join God wholeheartedly in following Jesus where we are led. It's a beautiful, beautiful vision. Rejoice, people of God. The kingdom of God is near. And your place in it? Well, it has to be spectacular. Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Matthew 4:12-23, Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1