Sermons

                   

Jul 26, 2020
When the Ordinary is Sacred
Series: (All)
July 26, 2020. In the most ordinary of tasks, God shows up. In the most ordinary of things God is present, and the ordinary is sacred. The weekly practice of baking bread at home, for online worship on Sunday, connects us with generations of people in all times and all parts of the earth. And today, with our friends Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, we celebrate the sacrament of Communion.
 
Readings: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
 
*** Transcript ***
 
I don't know how many of you have made bread, but there is something unique about bread dough for those who have made it, isn’t there? I hadn’t done a lot of bread baking prior to COVID-19, but suddenly I've found myself making bread on a weekly basis, for the celebration of Communion. I use a really simple recipe — only four ingredients plus water. And there is no yeast in it. I put the flour, baking powder, salt, and oil in the bowl and add some water, and begin to turn it over and over with the spoon. If there’s still any flour left in the bowl then I add a little bit more water and turn it some more. And maybe a bit more — but not too much. Once all the flour is all mixed in, when there’s just the right amount of water, there is that moment when the bread dough becomes super stretchy and almost stringy, flaky-looking in a damp sort of way I think. That’s when I wash my hands (again) and mush the dough between them, digging my fingers in to be sure that any dry bits are well-mixed. And then I let it sit for about half an hour before I fry it in a pan. My favorite part is when the dough is just done enough to hold its shape really well, and I use the spatula to make the cross on the bread before I flip it over to cook the other side.
 
Most weeks I make my bread on Fridays, and it sits wrapped in paper towel on the counter waiting for Sunday morning. I'm kind of shocked that none of my cats has discovered this routine yet, but maybe they just don’t like bread. Making the bread has become one of my favorite parts of the week, the mixing and the kneading and the frying and the crossing, and this ritual has brought new meaning to the sacrament for me, in its ordinary-ness.
 
This weekly practice of taking such simple ingredients, come right out of God’s earth, to make the bread that feeds my body, connects me with generations of people in all times and all parts of the earth, who have done the same to feed their families. Generations of Christians who have made flour and water into loaves and wafers, poured the wine, and set the table for their Sunday Eucharist celebrations, for two thousand years now. Each Sunday as we celebrate Communion, I have felt nourished in body as well as spirit. It has surprisingly become one of my favorite meals of the week.
 
And this week, I got to make bread with friends! Wednesday evening, Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, and their families and I, got together on Zoom, and we had the privilege of sharing this ritual together (thanks parents!) while we continued to learn and talk about what the sacrament of Communion means and the grace of finding God in the making, and the breaking, of the bread.
 
The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge tree for the birds to nest in. The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast — when it's mixed in with a whole bag of flour, it makes the whole loaf rise. The kingdom of God is like finding treasure while you are plowing your field. The kingdom of God is like sorting fish with nets. Not stories of grand miracles or royal parades, but ordinary folks doing ordinary things, and discovering that God is right there in the ordinary-ness.
 
In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experience of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
 
In the most ordinary of tasks, God shows up. In the most ordinary of things, God is present, and the ordinary is sacred. In the catechism, Luther explains that baptism reveals God’s grace not because of the ordinary water alone, but because in the water and the word and the promise of our God, God extends forgiveness of sins, rescues us from evil, and brings us new life. The sacrament of Communion reveals God’s grace, not because of the bread and the wine, but because in the bread and the wine and in the word and the promise of our God, God extends forgiveness, and salvation, and life.
 
We as Lutheran Christians celebrate these sacraments, and in these moments of grace, we experience God making the ordinary sacred. Nourished and fed and forgiven and blessed in these sacraments, we can see God’s presence in all ordinary things. Deer in the yard. Tending your garden. Washing your dishes. Conversation about the Sunday scriptures with a friend. A headbutt from your kitty, or an affectionate lick from your puppy.
 
And Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, God’s promise to be faithful has no limits. Even when everything is working against you, even when death surrounds you, even when it seems that there is no way out, when we are so confused and wounded and exhausted that we can’t string two words together, God is present. Because nothing, Paul says, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
 
And so today, we come together to worship, we hear the promises of God in the scriptures, and with our friends Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, we celebrate the sacrament of Communion. And in the ordinary bread — or the crackers, or the waffle, or the cookies — with the word and the promise of our God, the grace of God is present with us.
 
In our first reading today, we hear that Solomon could have chosen wealth or power as his gifts from God. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to ask for God’s Spirit of Wisdom to change him, so that he might know God’s will, and be able to bring justice for God’s people. And as we are fed and nourished by the bread and the wine today, we see God in the ordinary. We too are empowered to embody the love and the mercy of our God. We too, like Solomon, are granted wisdom to know God’s will and be a voice for justice for all of God’s people.
 
Jack, Ruthie, Maggie, and Megan, in your baptisms we celebrated the love and wisdom and justice and joy that you each bring into this world, and claimed the promise of God that you are God’s beloved child forever. Today, we celebrate with you the sacrament of Communion, and we are all strengthened and blessed by your presence in our family of faith. We pray that you will always know how much God loves you, that you will know you are forgiven when you make mistakes, and that you will see the presence of God in the ordinary things all around you.
 
Thanks be to God.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, video, YouTube, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, Matthew 13:44-52, coronavirus, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jack Wood, Ruthie Helton, Maggie Ringkor, Megan Eftink, First Communion
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  • Jul 26, 2020When the Ordinary is Sacred
    Jul 26, 2020
    When the Ordinary is Sacred
    Series: (All)
    July 26, 2020. In the most ordinary of tasks, God shows up. In the most ordinary of things God is present, and the ordinary is sacred. The weekly practice of baking bread at home, for online worship on Sunday, connects us with generations of people in all times and all parts of the earth. And today, with our friends Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, we celebrate the sacrament of Communion.
     
    Readings: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I don't know how many of you have made bread, but there is something unique about bread dough for those who have made it, isn’t there? I hadn’t done a lot of bread baking prior to COVID-19, but suddenly I've found myself making bread on a weekly basis, for the celebration of Communion. I use a really simple recipe — only four ingredients plus water. And there is no yeast in it. I put the flour, baking powder, salt, and oil in the bowl and add some water, and begin to turn it over and over with the spoon. If there’s still any flour left in the bowl then I add a little bit more water and turn it some more. And maybe a bit more — but not too much. Once all the flour is all mixed in, when there’s just the right amount of water, there is that moment when the bread dough becomes super stretchy and almost stringy, flaky-looking in a damp sort of way I think. That’s when I wash my hands (again) and mush the dough between them, digging my fingers in to be sure that any dry bits are well-mixed. And then I let it sit for about half an hour before I fry it in a pan. My favorite part is when the dough is just done enough to hold its shape really well, and I use the spatula to make the cross on the bread before I flip it over to cook the other side.
     
    Most weeks I make my bread on Fridays, and it sits wrapped in paper towel on the counter waiting for Sunday morning. I'm kind of shocked that none of my cats has discovered this routine yet, but maybe they just don’t like bread. Making the bread has become one of my favorite parts of the week, the mixing and the kneading and the frying and the crossing, and this ritual has brought new meaning to the sacrament for me, in its ordinary-ness.
     
    This weekly practice of taking such simple ingredients, come right out of God’s earth, to make the bread that feeds my body, connects me with generations of people in all times and all parts of the earth, who have done the same to feed their families. Generations of Christians who have made flour and water into loaves and wafers, poured the wine, and set the table for their Sunday Eucharist celebrations, for two thousand years now. Each Sunday as we celebrate Communion, I have felt nourished in body as well as spirit. It has surprisingly become one of my favorite meals of the week.
     
    And this week, I got to make bread with friends! Wednesday evening, Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, and their families and I, got together on Zoom, and we had the privilege of sharing this ritual together (thanks parents!) while we continued to learn and talk about what the sacrament of Communion means and the grace of finding God in the making, and the breaking, of the bread.
     
    The kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a huge tree for the birds to nest in. The kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast — when it's mixed in with a whole bag of flour, it makes the whole loaf rise. The kingdom of God is like finding treasure while you are plowing your field. The kingdom of God is like sorting fish with nets. Not stories of grand miracles or royal parades, but ordinary folks doing ordinary things, and discovering that God is right there in the ordinary-ness.
     
    In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experience of human life on earth. My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them. My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
     
    In the most ordinary of tasks, God shows up. In the most ordinary of things, God is present, and the ordinary is sacred. In the catechism, Luther explains that baptism reveals God’s grace not because of the ordinary water alone, but because in the water and the word and the promise of our God, God extends forgiveness of sins, rescues us from evil, and brings us new life. The sacrament of Communion reveals God’s grace, not because of the bread and the wine, but because in the bread and the wine and in the word and the promise of our God, God extends forgiveness, and salvation, and life.
     
    We as Lutheran Christians celebrate these sacraments, and in these moments of grace, we experience God making the ordinary sacred. Nourished and fed and forgiven and blessed in these sacraments, we can see God’s presence in all ordinary things. Deer in the yard. Tending your garden. Washing your dishes. Conversation about the Sunday scriptures with a friend. A headbutt from your kitty, or an affectionate lick from your puppy.
     
    And Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, God’s promise to be faithful has no limits. Even when everything is working against you, even when death surrounds you, even when it seems that there is no way out, when we are so confused and wounded and exhausted that we can’t string two words together, God is present. Because nothing, Paul says, nothing can separate us from God’s love.
     
    And so today, we come together to worship, we hear the promises of God in the scriptures, and with our friends Jack and Ruthie and Maggie and Megan, we celebrate the sacrament of Communion. And in the ordinary bread — or the crackers, or the waffle, or the cookies — with the word and the promise of our God, the grace of God is present with us.
     
    In our first reading today, we hear that Solomon could have chosen wealth or power as his gifts from God. But he didn’t. Instead, he chose to ask for God’s Spirit of Wisdom to change him, so that he might know God’s will, and be able to bring justice for God’s people. And as we are fed and nourished by the bread and the wine today, we see God in the ordinary. We too are empowered to embody the love and the mercy of our God. We too, like Solomon, are granted wisdom to know God’s will and be a voice for justice for all of God’s people.
     
    Jack, Ruthie, Maggie, and Megan, in your baptisms we celebrated the love and wisdom and justice and joy that you each bring into this world, and claimed the promise of God that you are God’s beloved child forever. Today, we celebrate with you the sacrament of Communion, and we are all strengthened and blessed by your presence in our family of faith. We pray that you will always know how much God loves you, that you will know you are forgiven when you make mistakes, and that you will see the presence of God in the ordinary things all around you.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, video, YouTube, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 1 Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, Matthew 13:44-52, coronavirus, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor, Jack Wood, Ruthie Helton, Maggie Ringkor, Megan Eftink, First Communion
  • Jul 19, 2020Living in the Messy Middle
    Jul 19, 2020
    Living in the Messy Middle
    Series: (All)
    July 19, 2020. Any gardener knows that weeds are a never-ending challenge. Pastor Meagan preaches today on Jesus' parable of the weeds among the wheat, and how our world and our lives are a lot like the field in the story.
     
    Readings: Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    In our gospel today, Jesus takes his parable about the sower and the seed from last week and he extends it, saying that these gardens that have so many weeds growing in them are like the Kingdom of Heaven. And as much as I love gardens, I am not a very skilled gardener, so my first reaction to hearing this image quite honestly is, “Ugh!” Any gardener knows weeds are a never-ending challenge. This spring, it seemed like every time we thought we had gotten all of the dandelions up, we would turn around and there would be half a dozen more. And of course dandelions aren’t ones that you can just grab with your hand and pull up easily. It takes some work with a weed puller to get at the roots. And even so, often at least part of it will remain tightly entrenched in the soil. Or more seeds, unseen in the earth, are preparing themselves to sprout, leaving the possibility that another dandelion will pop up where the last one lay.
     
    And being new to St Louis, and tending new gardens, there are of course many things growing in our yard with which we are not yet familiar. Often, as a new plant would sprout, one of us would say to the other, “Is that a plant or a weed?” And as often as not, the other would say, “Beats me.” We've learned a lot by uploading photos to online plant identification apps, or posting pictures on Facebook and asking friends what they thought. But we've been left with a certain amount of guesswork, pulling out what we believed to be weeds, and leaving what we weren't sure of. In the front yard, we had several small lily flowers pop up in just random places. They bloomed beautifully and then they died, leaving green leaves and a brown, crusty stem behind in the midst of the grass. I initially advocated to leave them where they grew. But once the flowers died, they provided far more of a challenge as Karen would attempt to mow around them than they offered in beauty. So I relented, and Karen took them out. “Are they plants or weeds?” “Beats me.”
     
    And the process of weeding, as we all know, is an ongoing one, requiring patient, hard work — and it is as much about tending the plants and flowers as it is about removing the weeds. I learned long ago to take it in blocks, addressing one section, then another, then another, of the garden beds. Attempts to remove all the weeds at once have never ended well. So, this parable of the weeds in the wheat as the Kingdom of Heaven definitely gives me pause. But the more I think about it, the more it resonates. Because in spite of my initial “ugh” reaction to this image, truth be told, this world, and our lives, are an awful lot like the field in Jesus’ parable — not clean and neat, yielding only wheat and no weeds, but a mix of wheat, weeds, and things we can’t even identify.
     
    I remember as a teenager getting into an argument with one of my brothers, probably about something really silly, and feeling desperate for him to know that I was right. And the more we got into it, the more my voice went up — and the more I tried to make myself tall (a futile effort at any time). And my brother said, “You’re really mad about this!” And in the midst of my unawareness, I replied of course, “No, I’m not.” “Oh yeah, you are.” “No, I’m not!” “Uh huh!” “No I'm not! Stop telling me I'm angry! You're just wrong!" I was so frustrated and angry. It was happening right inside me, and yet I couldn’t see it. Has anyone else ever had that happen? Where something was going on around you, or with a another person, or inside you, and you just couldn’t figure it out?
     
    Over the years, getting to know myself, understanding how I am feeling or what I am doing, and what is helpful and what is not, what is wheat and what is weed if you will, has been a process — much like the ongoing process of weeding a garden. Because being human is not a clean, neat, clear venture, but really super complicated at times. Paul describes it in a lot of different ways, today using the image of labor pains to describe the challenges of living through this process of becoming, of finding our way when so many things can distract and block us from seeing and doing God’s will in the world. In Luther’s language, we are all sinner and saint. We all have weeds and wheat. I think of it as living through a really messy middle, certainly in process, but not there yet.
     
    The good news in all of this is, God knows this. And as it tells us in Isaiah today, no matter what, we belong to God. We have been adopted, chosen, to be God’s children, beloved. And from “of old,” Isaiah says, God has told us that only God is God. In other words, in all this messiness, of good and evil, saint and sinner, God is ultimately in charge. We are not. We, along with all of creation, are in process, family of faith. And God is with us in that. God will be faithful right up to the end. And we can have hope that in the end, God will heal all wounds, remove all evil, leaving only the wheat that is growing along the way. Jesus’ parable tells us this too. He says it is not up to us to pull out all of those pesky weeds and create a perfect garden. It's enough for us to live what we call the theology of the cross — we name the wheat and the weeds, the good and the evil that we see, as best we can. We do what we can with God’s help to nurture the good, in ourselves and in others.
     
    C. T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, who had been working for decades for civil rights and racial justice, against the evils of racism and oppression, know this. Last year Congressman Lewis said, "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never be afraid to get in some good trouble," said congressman John Lewis. And we too can do this, trusting that in the end, only God will be able to sort it all out. Twelve Step spiritual wisdom tells us this too — it is our job to listen, to tend, to notice, and to name, and to ask God for help. But removing the weeds of our lives is up to God and not ours.
     
    Jesus tells his followers that in the end, the weeds will be cast into the fire, conjuring up perhaps images of the devil and those overcome by sin, burning in hell. Interestingly, overwhelmingly in scriptures, fire is very sacred. Fire lets Moses know that he should pay attention, that something is happening that he needs to learn about. Fire guides the Israelites in the desert by night. And tongues of fire come upon the disciples at Pentecost, purifying them and empowering them for the work that they have ahead.
     
    We all tend to resist the refiner’s fire. Moses comes close to the bush, but he's shaking in his boots. Israelites get weary and frustrated because the end isn’t coming soon enough. The disciples go out after having been blessed by fire, and the people notice their transformation and question it, because of its power. We do this too, when we resist facing the realities of racism and other evils, and see how we ourselves have been blind and complicit with systemic oppressions in this world. Or when we are called out for something we aren't aware that we were doing, we can resist that. Or when we in shame realize something of our own sinfulness, our own being, to change. Because being transformed isn't comfortable, is it? Recognizing the weeds in us isn't comfortable. Living in the messy middle is hard. And sometimes all we want is for this process we are living in to be over. “Is it wheat or weeds?” “Beats me.”
     
    We can be encouraged by Isaiah’s words that God’s promises are from the beginning, and they stretch all the way to the end. Jesus promised that God is not going to abandon us to be overcome by the weeds, even though it may seem that way at times. It’s not our job to pull all those weeds out — thank goodness! Because that is a job that is beyond us. It is enough that we tend our gardens as best we can, ask God for help, and trust in God to sort it all out.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, YouTube, video, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30, Matthew 13:36-43
  • Jul 14, 2020Tending Sacred Places
    Jul 14, 2020
    Tending Sacred Places
    Series: (All)
    July 12, 2020. In the sermon today, we remember those who have recently passed away — and how they, like the sower in Jesus' parable, sowed the seeds of faith in this community.
     
    Readings: Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Many years ago, I was on the phone with the Office Manager from my childhood church, when I heard the extension in my parents’ house pick up. After listening for just a few seconds, my brother exclaimed, “Joanne O’Neill!” It had only taken a couple of words from my conversation partner for him to recognize her voice, though it had been several years since they had spoken. My brother, back in his church grade school days, had been quite a troublemaker, and for whatever reason the kids who fell into that category often ended up spending a lot of time with the feisty, energetic, short, white-haired administrator. And she didn’t mind it one bit. She made quite an impression on my brother and his friends, and they on her.
     
    Some of the teachers, I know, felt like it was pretty hopeless, not worth the effort on a group of kids that seemed intent on just stirring up chaos, having a good laugh, showing no interest in their grade school days — in anything that the teachers might have to teach them. Joanne O’Neill saw it differently. Perhaps she saw something of herself in their rambunctious rebelliousness. Joanne took the time to sow seed into these unlikely fields, planting seeds of hope and watering them faithfully. She made sure that they knew that she, at least, delighted in them.
     
    And I remember Gail Merrill, our neighbor from across the street, showing that same delight in me, an eccentric kid, who always did everything “right” (or at least I tried!), but always seemed to fall a bit outside that circle that defined the “in-crowd.” In the world of “Cheers,” a little more like pedantic Cliff, than I was like cool Sam.
     
    Coming alongside our parents, who loved and nurtured and cared for us, Gail and Joanne, and many others over the years, sowed seed and tended soil, creating a space for my brothers and me to grow and become the people God created us to be. And we all need that, don’t we? Soil in which we can set down roots. Seeds planted in us, that can bear fruit.
     
    Vic, and Gloria, and Gwen, all of whom were laid to rest this week, sowed so much seed into this life. Love for family, sharp wit, passion for traveling, heart for teaching wisdom and knowledge, and a commitment for sharing God’s abundance with everyone. They all embodied the joy of their faith. They were all, in their unique ways, sowers of faith in their families, their communities, and their worlds. Vic, Gloria, and Gwen all sowed seed into this community of faith, and Luther Memorial before it, helping to form and nurture a place where we who are gathered today, and all those who will come, can grow.
     
    A Twin Cities Lakota elder, Jim Bear Jacobs, shared with a group of United Theological seminarians that Lakota tradition tells us that our stories are rooted in place, and not in time. As I shared last evening, according to that tradition the valley below Fort Snelling, on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, is the birthplace of creation, a sort of Garden of Eden. It is also the birthplace of many Lakota people whose mothers travelled days and weeks to get to that place so their children could be born there. You can feel it, when you walk there — no matter how much time passes, their stories and the story of creation itself are alive there in that sacred place.
     
    And in this sacred place, in the gathered community of the Christ Lutheran family, for over a century, we have heard the Word of God, and broken bread, and shared the Eucharist together. Through the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus, we live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us, and because of that, we all live forever. This is a sacred place. The stories of Vic, Gloria, and Gwen are rooted in this place now. No matter how much time passes, their stories are alive here, along with the stories of all who have been here, all who are here now, and all of those yet to come.
     
    We are human, as Paul reminds us so pointedly, and it's easy for us to get caught up in what Paul refers to as the “flesh” — to be distracted and focused on what is best for us at the expense of our neighbors, security that comes from our own efforts, messages that tell us that God’s abundance is not enough for everyone, the voice inside us that says maybe we aren’t worthy of love after all — the sinfulness of disconnection, and judgement, and fear that cuts us off from the life-giving soil of God’s creation, God’s Spirit.
     
    We enter into sacred places, those places where we are tended and fed, and we in our turn feed and tend to the unique lives around us, and we're connected to the Spirit that gives us life. And then, like the sower in Jesus’ parable today, we sow more seed. We will not do it alone, and we will make mistakes, because we're human, and it’s not about being perfect, after all. It’s about creating places where stories can be shared, and songs can be sung, and the will of God can be revealed, where God's spirit can give life. Sacred places, that honor and give birth to life.
     
    Some years later, when Joanne passed away, I remember calling my brother and saying to him, “All of the adults are dying! Who is going to be the grown up now?” And then realizing, that was us! And it is on us, as it has always been, to continue to tend the fields. And sow more seed. Tend, sow, rest, repeat.
     
    We don’t need to worry about whether the soil is right, or what will happen after the seed is sown. Because what happens to that seed isn't up to us. It's up to God. We may sow, but God is constantly tending, tilling, and preparing all of creation — including each one of us — to receive the promise, and let it flourish. We never know where the seed we sow might grow.
     
    Archbishop Oscar Romero offers us a reflection to sow on:
     
     
    "It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
     
    The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
     
    We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
     
    No statement says all that could be said.
     
    No prayer fully expresses our faith.
     
    No confession brings perfection.
     
    No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
     
    No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
     
    No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
     
    This is what we are about.
     
    We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
     
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
     
    We lay foundations that will need future development.
     
    We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
     
    We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
     
    That enables us to do something, and do it well.
     
    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
     
    We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
     
    We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
     
    We are prophets of a future not our own."
     
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, Matthew 13:18-23, Vic Saeger, Gloria Richardson, Gwen Hickman
  • Jul 5, 2020Independence Day And the Yoke of Christ
    Jul 5, 2020
    Independence Day And the Yoke of Christ
    Series: (All)
    July 5, 2020. On this Independence Day weekend we think about what independence means. It is not passive. It requires investment and sacrifice. And the work continues, even within the church.
     
    Readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Yesterday was the 4th of July, Independence Day. It’s kind hard for me to think about that phrase — Independence Day — without an image of the silver screen movie "Independence Day," with Will Smith rushing off to save the planet from invading alien forces. I was taught to be independent, as so many of us have been. I got to thinking about what independence means. So I looked it up and it says, "Be self-sufficient. Take care of myself." Merriam-Webster says, “Self-dependence, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, self-support.” A lot of "selfs." And in so many ways, independence has always seemed to be focused on separating, in one way or another — whether it be humans from aliens like in the movie; or people in slavery from those enslaving them; not being part of a political party, being independent politically; or even children growing independent from their parents.
     
    The War of Independence, which we commemorate on this July 4th, involved 8 years of struggle to define the right to self-govern — another self — free from Britain’s rule. The Civil War of the 1860s, a battle between those claiming the right to hold people as slaves versus those claiming the right of the enslaved people to be free, divided the southern states from the northern, Republicans from Democrats, parents and siblings from one another.
     
    One thing is for sure: freedom is not a passive thing — it requires investment, and sacrifice. Jesus and Paul, in today’s readings, both talk about struggle, about confusion, in our human experience. Freedom has always come with a cost. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, 100 years after black people had been granted freedom, was met with horrifyingly violent resistance. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail that “freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” You must demand it, for it will not be given freely. And this has always been true, through the ages, from the story of Moses and Israelites, to today. In the LGBTQIA+ liberation movement 50 years ago, in 1969, transwomen of color did just that, leading the way as they fought for their freedom from police brutality, and the freedom to live as themselves, without fear.
     
    And the work of liberation, of independence, has continued, even within the church. In 1970, 50 years ago, the first woman was ordained in the Lutheran Church of America — the LCA, one of our predecessor bodies — after decades of working for this change. In 1990, the first openly gay clergy were ordained in the ELCA, prior to it actually being allowed. And not only did those ordained receive sanction, but so did the congregations that had the courage to call them. They were all expelled from the ELCA. And in the 19 years that followed, many people went through candidacy “extraordinarily,” and congregations called them against the direction of their Synods. And finally in 2009 the Churchwide Assembly made the decision to allow the Ordination of LGBTQIA candidates! And the decision to come back into the ELCA, after all that had happened, was not easy for those that had been expelled — for the pastors or for their congregations.
     
    These journeys — for women, for black people, for LGBTQIA folks — continue. Paul describes in clear terms in his letter to the Romans the ongoing struggle he experienced, as he sought what was right, where the Spirit was leading, over what was easy. Jesus in Matthew talks to his disciples about how difficult it can be, in the chaos of this world, to see truth from lie, to know God’s will when there is so much that distracts us. Liberation, freedom, is and always has been not the work of a moment, but of a movement.
     
    Even in our church today we struggle to evolve. Women continue to face considerable challenges in ministry — seminary enrollment is about 50% men and women, but rostered leadership is only about 30% women, and people who identify as non-binary or gender fluid are often not seen at all. Black people continue to face discrimination, poverty, incarceration, at highly disproportionate rates, as the structures of racism — and overt white supremacy — are alive and well, at all levels. We know, in this time, that black people are literally dying, even today. LGBTQIA people have gained the right to be married, but still face daunting challenges, in the world as well as in the church.
     
    So, as we come together on this Independence Day weekend, what does the gospel have for us today? Because I believe it is always speaking to us. For one thing, freedom doesn’t mean what we often think it means — the ability to determine our own course, without concern for others, all those “selfs” we talked about earlier. In Zechariah, the king is coming not for individuals, but for the people, together. The people, exiled though they may be, are still God’s people. And God is still their God. And Jesus calls us, all of us, to bring our burdens to him, telling us that his yoke is easy. Those of us who have not farmed may not think about yokes often. When Jesus calls us to him, he is calling us not to the freedom of independence, of standing alone, or free completely of burdens, but to the freedom of interdependence and dependence on God — the freedom that comes from being intimately connected, one to another, bearing our burdens together. Yoking brings us together in symbiotic relationship with one another, and with our God.
     
    The truth of the yoke is that our well-being is bound up with the well-being of all of God’s creation. We know that, especially in this time of pandemic. Our continued well-being, the health of the whole community, depends on our willingness to be yoked together, to care for one another, bearing the responsibilities of this time as a people, as closely and intentionally as two oxen sharing a yoke, plowing a field. There is a tension here that is really counter-cultural, between rest and freedom, and yoking. And we are called right into the middle of this tension as people of God. We hear Jesus call to us saying, "Come to me and I will give you rest," and think of putting down the plow. And in this time of COVID and racism, of political upheaval and physical separation and disruption, of fear and anxiety and grief, doesn’t that sound good?
     
    And then we see the growing lines of our neighbors seeking basic food and necessary supplies, communities of people living without housing in a pandemic. We hear the echo of Al Sharpton’s appeal at George Floyd’s funeral — “Get your knee off our necks” — and we know that there is still work to do. Our rest and freedom, family of faith, comes from the yoke of Jesus, knowing that we are in this together, and none of us has to carry this burden alone. When we lean into the yoke it becomes easier, because we’re going with the Spirit, together. Walking the line, together. Resting together, so that we can be ready to walk the next line, together.
     
    And that, family of faith, is what keeps me going. What can keep us going, when we would rather abandon the field? I may have my image of Will Smith, when I think of Independence Day, and I am sure you have your images too. But as Christians, we are called to set aside an independence that allows us to rest comfortably while others are still suffering and dying, and claim the promise of Christ to bring freedom to all people, and all creation.
     
    Zechariah calls us “prisoners of hope.” And that’s the really good news of our message today — no matter the confusion or the chaos of the world we live in, the yet unresolved sin of racism and homophobia and poverty, the struggle we find within ourselves as we seek to find truth in the midst of it all. Because in the end, all those wars and struggles and movements for independence have been about reaching for a vision of a world of truth and justice and mercy that is here now, and not yet. We can claim with Zechariah that the king is coming, to save God’s people. We can trust that Jesus’ yoke has been adjusted, for us, and that we will find rest when we walk with one another, and with God. And we can sing with Mary her vision of a world where the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are full, and the prisoners are free.
     
    I end with words from Frederick Douglass, a black freedman and truly a prophet for his time and for ours, spoken on Independence Day 1852, 11 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. 'The arm of the Lord is not shortened,' and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of this age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, 'Let there be Light,' has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light . . . . In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it: ‘God speed the year of jubilee / The whole wide world o'er!'"
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, Matthew 11:25-30, Magnificat, Independence Day, coronavirus, COVID-19, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual, allied, Fourth of July, dictionary
  • Jun 28, 2020May We Show Up
    Jun 28, 2020
    May We Show Up
    Series: (All)
    June 28, 2020. Guest preacher Edith Chemorion talks about the lessons we can learn from our readings today, and how we can show up with love, care, and compassion for a community in need.
     
    Readings: Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    It's good to be here today. I hope you can hear me. I'm so glad this morning that we can have a few things to reflect about in the world in which we live today. But I'll begin with a small story of where I come from. I come from the western part of Kenya, a place called Mount Elgon. And Mount Elgon is on the border between Kenya and Uganda. And between 2006 and 2008 the community had intraclan conflict. The community which comprises of one ethnic community fought amongst themselves. And this was because of the issue of a historical injustice that the government did not resolve for many years — for more than forty or forty-five years. And the young people who are the great-grandchildren of the parents who had been given land, as people who are supposed to benefit from land from the mountain, had not been given.
     
    So the young people are agitating for their right to access the land of their great-grandfathers. But they did not receive hearing from the government. So out of anger, out of frustration, the young people mobilized themselves and said, "We will do anything we can to get the land which our ancestors were supposed to get." So they mobilized themselves and renamed themselves, gave themselves a name called the Sabaot Land Defence Force. And now this was a threat to the government. The government was so annoyed, because how can we have another defence force within the country? Did that imply they wanted to oust the government? That was not the reason why! But they were mobilizing themselves, and they wanted to get a share of the land that belonged to their great-grandfathers, their fathers, and now them, having married and with families. And they were still living as squatters. So they decided to fight, and they began doing nasty things. And they mobilized all young people to make sure that the men came up and they were armed with guns, to make sure that they fight the government.
     
    But it didn't work well because those ones who did not have sons. For instance, my son was very young at the age of nine. And they were recruiting young boys go to the forest to fight. So I did not, and they threatened. So people were supposed to give money to the Defence Force, or else they come and attack you in your home. So they fought and they attacked people aimlessly. And at the end of the day, they hurt the community inasmuch as they were fighting for the community. What happened was, many men — young men — were killed, they were beheaded, they were forced into the forest and they were beheaded. And we also had young women who were abducted and taken to the forest to cook for the Defence Force. And of course they were out to hurt them. We had some of the young girls who were raped.
     
    And out of that the government realized no, they had to do something. So they sent the army with helicopters. They sent the army with all types of ammunitions to make sure that they sent peace to the mountain. This did not work very well to the community. Many women were hurt, because they were raped by the army again. And the food was burned down and the men who had remained in the community, the elder men, were beaten up by police. Most of them died. So at the end of the day we have these young women with children. Some of them are school dropouts, so they did not go to school. But then they have to take care of their families. We had over 30,000 people who were killed during the ambush. To make sure that they bring peace, the army had to intervene.
     
    How could we respond? As a pastor I had a very hard time to respond. First of all, I had to look for the best ways to get food and non-food items to the internally displaced people. I had young mothers and young girls who had been raped. They ended up being pregnant, infected with a disease. But they had to be taken care of. So my husband and I had to be alternative family to the children born out of rape during the 2007–2008 conflict that was in the mountain. There in a center we provide food, we provide clothing, we provide literacy training for the young mothers, and some elementary education for these children — because the community say no, we cannot have children who do not belong to our sons. So these children born out of incest, born out of rape, did not have a place to belong. But we belonged. That was the little way we could respond to the need of the mountain then.
     
    Reading from the text we read today, Paul is speaking from a context where the Roman world was full of many things that were all wrong. This is where the church was situated. And the Roman church was also experiencing moral decay, because the issue of compromising. Others were saying they followed, but still there were sins which the members of their congregations were committing. We had false teachings, and the teachings the people were telling people made them to be compromised, because they did not remain as Christians who were baptized, who had been taught by Paul and other disciples. But they were compromised, and they ended up behaving like any other person in the Roman community. Paul, in the text that we read — Romans 6:12-23 — is talking about the issue of lack of understanding amongst the Christians. They had the limited capacity to understand who they were as Christians, because as Christians they were not supposed to sin. Because the sin they had before joining Christianity was dead in them. They had new life. They had a new identity. They had to behave according to their identity, but they did not behave like that. They just behaved like any other member of the community. They hardly recognized that they were a different people who had been set apart from the community to be children of God, with a new standing in society to influence the community in a positive way. Paul had to remind them. Because of the false teachings that were present, he had to teach them and to have them to understand what they did not know. They did not know that they were no longer supposed to sin because they were Christians. Teaching a congregation is very important, because out of that it clarifies some of the misunderstandings that people may have, or maybe falsehood that may exist. And people need to understand.
     
    When we read Jeremiah, Jeremiah was dealing with a situation where the Israelites had been exiled. But then we had the prophets coming up with information. And one of the information they relate was about the oracles of God, what God was speaking to the communities. But Hananiah comes in the context in which Jeremiah is conveying the message to us, pretending to be better than Jeremiah and other prophets, with false information about the context of the exiles. And he spoke, and Jeremiah noticed that he did not spoke with mandate from God, that he did not even depend on Yahweh. He was speaking out of what he only wanted people to speak, because Jeremiah said if it is a prophet of God may it be so, that what he speaks about peace be realized. But when we read further in Jeremiah, the text that we read, we find that after two to three days after speaking that, Hananiah died because he was a false prophet.
     
    The psalmist, in the text that we read, talks about lamenting about a situation where there's defeat of the nation. After having been defeated, the psalmist talks about some of the negative things, but at the same time remembers that God is still good. Talks about the steadfast love of God. Talks about the strength of God, and an encouragement to ask, for instance in the context in which we are or we find ourselves in.
     
    The gospel that we read, Matthew, talks about how we could or we should as Christians relate with other people. I like what Pastor Meagan said: we have to be intentional in our relationship. In our justice we have to be intentional. In our actions we have to be intentional. So that it's not just doing it for the sake of it, but we are doing something out of good intention, and we are doing that at the back of our mind, we're doing a service to God and service to humanity.
     
    As we speak today, we find ourselves in the world as the exiles. We are exiled now — the entire world because of the COVID-19 context. But in our context we hear many voices. Voices that are true, and other voices that do not bring a clear meaning to how best we can understand the situation in which we find ourselves in. We find ourselves in compromised situations. For instance, in the exile in which we are, the homes that we live in, it was very surprising when I read that in Ethiopia that some fathers — a hundred fathers — violated their own girls. They impregnated their own, a hundred girls. This is within the home. It's supposed to be a safe space for the girls. We also find that in Uganda more than 89 girls are now expecting, because of the moral decay in society. We also find that in Kenya, where I come from, in one community, one county, we have 2,789 girls who are expecting now. What do we make of this in the exile? Is it gendercide? Is it something that is positive to the girls? No, I wouldn't say it's positive, because they will become mothers at the age of 14, 13, and 15. I'll say it's also interfering with their education; they will not move on.
     
    But the context in which we find ourselves, we find ourselves reacting in anger. We have bad relationships with others. We find ourselves hating other people for no good reason. For instance, you find people passing by, but inside you feel so bad about the people. We are hostile to one another. We are hostile to ourselves, to an extent of even ending our own lives. The exile we find in ourselves, we find that there is a lot of greed going on. People want many things for themselves. Is that what Paul would recommend for our church today? No, absolutely not. Because this is not in line with the will of God. God wills that we have things that promote life. And in the newness that we have as members of our church, we shouldn't have broken relationships. In the newness that we have as a church, we should have a spiritual connection with our God, so that out of the connectedness we have with God then, that can flow to the next person who is near us. We do not have to be a church and witness all that is going on without coming up like Jeremiah did, without saying something like the psalmist, without uttering something like the gospel. We have to show up. And how can we show up? We can show up in our intentions, in our relatedness, in our ministries, in our prayer life, so that we make a difference as members of the Christian church.
     
    Three things we can learn from the message of today, as I conclude: the Bible, from the book of Romans, the letter to the Romans, Paul is telling us not to sin anymore because sin does not reign. We should not have anger. We should not be frustrated to an extent of hurting other people. We should not be arrogant in the way we relate with other people. We should have total allegiance to God, because the grace of God gives us power over sin. And when we conquer sin we become the children of God with a new identity.
     
    The second thing we are supposed to learn from this lesson is, we understand that we are new. When we are new, we give out new life. The old is gone. When we remember our baptism and the vows we made at baptism, we are supposed to remain committed and give our loyalty and allegiance to God and Jesus Christ, so that out of the newness we can breathe newness in the society which is hurting, in the society which has bad relationships.
     
    The third thing we can also learn is to remain realigned to God. How can we remain realigned if we have things that have been wrong with us? Let us repent of the things that make us have a broken spiritual relationship with God. Let us repent so that we can receive through the grace the power to live on and influence the surrounding that we have, from within ourselves to the families that we meet in, so that we can transform and liberate — through love, the love of God — so that we can transform and liberate through our outreach as a church, through the care and also the material support, in the patience that we're supposed to have, the endurance with others, the concern we have over what is happening.
     
    Let us show up. When we show up with love, with care, with compassion, it will bring a difference. And I know that as a church we have been doing a lot. We shouldn't stop. Because we are doing, we should even add more. Because when we have abundance of love, we have the abundance of care. When we have sound judgment, many things will go right. We remain rooted in Christ and depend only on God, so that our negative passions which become sin in us are conquered.
     
    I believe that today, as we go out in the community, God will help us. May he help us that we go out in the community to show up for ourselves when we need people too, or shoulders to lean on. May we show up for those that are marginalized, those that need shoulders of the church. May we show up, those that are in dire situations, so that out of the gifts that we share that it can bring transformation and newness of life. May we give life that is affirming. May we give life that is God-glorifying.
     
    In the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Edith Chemorion, seminarian, Eden Seminary, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, Psalm 89:15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42, SLDF, coronavirus
  • Jun 21, 2020As the Brokenness Dies
    Jun 21, 2020
    As the Brokenness Dies
    Series: (All)
    June 21, 2020. Lutheran tradition teaches us that we're all sinner and all saint. We all get lost, make mistakes, and harm others. Pastor Meagan's sermon today is on how painful it must have been for Saul to realize the harm he had done to people of God, getting called out, and being guided into a new path forward.
     
    Readings: Romans 6:1b-11, Romans 7:19, Matthew 10:24-39
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    As I read the readings for today, the claim that Paul makes that all of us human beings are sinful, that we aren’t perfect, jumped out at me. As I started to reflect on those times when I have been publicly “not perfect,” the first story that came to my mind happened my very first Sunday when I was on internship. I was a basket case, and I was struggling to make them think that I knew exactly what I was doing. I was helping to serve communion, and when the line had finished I headed back up the stairs, three levels, to the high part of the altar in that sanctuary. And I turned around and I noticed that, to my surprise I was alone — at the top of the world. The rest of the communion serving team was not done yet. Not even close. I was mortified. The sacristan for the day, noticing my plight, moved his finger in a circle at me. And so I turned around, with my back to the congregation, and I experienced immediate relief. I could no longer see anyone watching me.
     
    After worship was over, the sacristan came to me and said, “Sometimes it helps just not to look at anyone else.” Several other people besides that sacristan also made a point of coming up to me and commenting about what had happened — not to make sure I knew I had screwed up (because I certainly knew), but to make sure that I knew it was okay, that we were Lutherans and there is plenty of grace to be spared for a new vicar. It is not the first time that I made a mistake in public, and it has not been the last. And I'm sure there will be plenty more to come. And it is always nice to remember that we are Lutherans, and that grace abounds.
     
    But as I continued to reflect on these readings I realized that there was a much deeper message, burning, as Jeremiah so powerfully describes, to be told. While I was working at the Basilica, I had a phone call one day with a parishioner. The details aren’t important but suffice it to say, I spoke that day out of a broken place, a sinful place, in myself — and in so doing, I deeply wounded her. And she called me out. In no uncertain terms, she named for me exactly how I had sounded, and how it had hurt her. And something in me broke. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. A part of me, when I think about it now looking back, died in that moment — a part of me that needed to die, and had for a long time, to make room for healing, and new life, to emerge.
     
    And although I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, Paul’s letter to the Romans names this very real part of our human experience — the truth of our brokenness, our sinfulness, as human beings — alongside our very deep capacity for change, to grow, to live into new ways of being in the world. And Paul himself was no stranger to this reality. His life as Saul, as a young religious leader, was devoted to uphold all that he had been taught was right and true and good, and destroy all that threatened that. He had, in fact, been complicit in torture and murder of those who had the courage to follow Jesus. Saul was, for everything he knew, like many of us, a good person. He was well-respected by his peers, educated, faithful. He was complacent, as it is so easy for us to be, in his confidence that he was on the right path. Saul, in his zeal, became so caught up in his own experience and his own convictions, that he completely missed the horror of the events that were unfolding right in front of him. And then, all at once, he got called out. He actually heard Jesus speak, telling him that he had been exactly wrong, and in murdering God’s people, he had in fact been murdering Jesus himself. And Saul was struck blind, made vulnerable, compelled to stop what he was doing, and be guided into a new path forward.
     
    We can imagine how painful it must have been for Saul, to realize the harm he had done to people of God. And we, living our human lives, have those moments too. We live our lives, thinking that we're on the right path, doing the right thing, and then something happens and we wake up, and realize somewhere along the way, we got lost. We, perhaps without realizing it, acted out of fear. Or a belief that we would not have enough, if we ensured that others had what they needed. Or a mistaken notion that our experience of the world was shared by everyone. Like Saul, we may have gotten so focused on our own experience that we missed the pain, even the horrors, of events right in front of us. And somewhere along the way, family of faith, we have all made mistakes and harmed others, sometimes those we hold most dear. And then like Saul, we are awakened. Family members or friends or coworkers may let us know that something we did was hurtful, and they're in pain.
     
    With ears that are opened by George Floyd’s calls for his mother, we hear our black siblings as they tell us one more time the realities of racism, and what has been happening to them while we in our ignorance have been looking the other way. With our eyes focused on our health care system and essential workers, our vision sharpened by our experience of COVID-19, we can see more clearly the injustices that exist as so many people live without health care, or a living wage, or safe and affordable housing, or the ability to care for themselves and their families when they are sick.
     
    We are awakened, as Saul was, and something within us dies. This was such a profound change for Saul that he even got a new name, and Saul became Paul. What needed to die was gone, and new life could begin. As Paul writes, “The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” And we hear in Paul’s letter just a few verses after today’s reading that this was not the one and only time this process needed to happen for him. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,” he writes in Romans, chapter 7. Paul struggled, as we all do. He claimed his need for God — and we all need God, to bring healing and transformation and new life.
     
    And just as I experienced in my internship congregation on my first Sunday, and with the parishioner from the Basilica when I called her back and apologized for the profound harm I had done and shared what I had learned, there is abundant grace. Our readings today, as violent and as scary as they may seem, remind us of this. "A disciple is not above the teacher," Jesus tells his disciples. "It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher." Jesus never expected his disciples to be perfect. Paul makes it clear that we can’t be. Lutheran tradition teaches us that we're all sinner and all saint. We all get lost, make mistakes, and harm others. And we all have the capacity to live in Christ, who brings healing and new life as the brokenness dies. We all have, as Jeremiah prophesies, the fire in our belly that burns with truth and justice and hope, opening our hearts to see our neighbors with the compassion of God and to see ourselves in that same world.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, transcript, podcast, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Romans 6:1b-11, Romans 7:19, Matthew 10:24-39, coronavirus
  • Jun 14, 2020Called to Share the Good News
    Jun 14, 2020
    Called to Share the Good News
    Series: (All)
    June 14, 2020. Pastor Meagan reflects on Jesus commissioning his disciples to carry the gospel to all the corners of the earth, and how in the wake of George Floyd, our call is to go out and tell the good news: that freedom is for all people.
     
    Readings: Exodus 19:2-8a, Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23], Ephesians 2:14
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    On the surface, our gospel story today seems pretty simple. Jesus sees, with compassion, the need for people to hear the good news of God’s love and healing and guidance. And he commissioned people — his disciples — to walk alongside him, to carry the gospel to all the corners of the earth. Jesus prepared them for their work: giving them power to heal, to cleanse, even to bring life where there was death. And out they went, 2000 years ago, to carry out Jesus’ call. Simple, right?
     
    On the surface, the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation also seems pretty simple. Millions of people, children of God, had been kept in chains, abused, worked and sold for profit, treated for generations more like animals than human beings. And then, on January 1st of 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — and the slaves, at least legally speaking, were released from their chains, and everything changed. After centuries of bondage, the people of African descent were free. An announcement was made, and slavery was over.
     
    When we look closer, neither the story of Jesus sending out his disciples, nor the story of the freeing of millions of people who had lived in slavery, is as simple as it seems. Both stories warrant a little attention, especially this week. June 17th, we remember the anniversary of the execution of nine black people in Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a young white supremacist. The shooter was born, raised, Confirmed, and communed in the ELCA — which is to this day the whitest denomination in the country. From all of these stories we learn that freedom, healing, and transformation are not simple, one-time, individual events, but communal experiences of growth and change that can take years and even generations to be fully realized.
     
    When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it certainly meant the end of legal slavery. But it was far from the end of the story. For those living in chains, and for those whose whole lives had been formed in a world built on the institution of slavery, this declaration of freedom turned upside down the only world any of them ever knew. It required transformation at almost every level — financial, social, practical, physical, political — for everyone in the nation. The change would take generations. It certainly started with the signing of the Proclamation over 150 years ago, but what many of us don’t realize is that it would be two-and-a-half years before the last of the slaves even knew of its passing. On June 19th, 1865, the Union Army finally reached Galveston, Texas, where the first order of business was to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the people of God still living in slavery there. In the midst of the wide-ranging reactions to the news, celebrations broke out — which are continued today, each June 19th, in a celebration known as Juneteenth.
     
    The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was only the beginning. The bringing of the good news to Galveston on Juneteenth was another step in that process. In order for freedom to come, the word needed to be spread. And that transformation continues. If we think about the events of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that took place only about 60 years ago, and remember the nine lives lost to white supremacy at Emanuel AME just 5 years ago, June 17th, and today watch the evening news and hear the grief and pain and fear and yes, even the rage of our black siblings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we know there is still work for all of us to do in our nation, to fully live into and embrace the good news that started with the Emancipation Proclamation. At George Floyd’s funeral, Reverend Al Sharpton called us to continue that work: “What happened to Floyd,” he said, “happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, 'Get your knee off our necks.' The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George: we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but because you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck.” So much pain. And such a hard word of truth.
     
    When Jesus looked at the world around him, he knew, as we know today, that his world was hurting. Illness, death, division, poverty, and hunger. And he sent out the disciples, out of compassion, into this hurting world, to bring the good word. Not an empty word, but a word of promises made and kept, here and now. Healing. Life. Cleansing. And freedom. Jesus does not promise that the journey will be easy. He tells the disciples they are being sent out as sheep among wolves. He warns them they will face rejection. He invites them to let go of what they know, what makes them comfortable and secure.
     
    I don’t know about you, but I know how easy it has been, for much of my life, for me to rest in a place of familiarity and comfort, oblivious to the suffering of my black siblings. As I have heard the stories over time of the experiences of my black classmates and colleagues and friends that they have had in classrooms, and workplaces, and doctor’s offices, and shopping malls, I have slowly been drawn out of my complacency, to understand that the world as I see or experience it has been designed to help me, as a white person, feel safe and comfortable. The murder of George Floyd is an act of such obvious and cruel racist violence that it has awakened the whole world it seems, to the oppression and fear that has existed for centuries. I have been awakened to the ways in which I have been complicit in this reality, simply because I haven't seen it. As the call to carry the good news continues today, as we are called to proclaim healing and freedom, we like the disciples face a daunting task. We too are asked to let go of what we know, and what makes us comfortable and secure, as we acknowledge the truths of the woundedness of this world that we have been taught not to see. We are asked to confront the ways in which we have, all of us, been formed in a culture that is tainted with racism and white supremacy. And we're called to actively work to dismantle those lies, within ourselves, and in the world around us. And when we fail to do this, we allow the suffering to continue unchecked.
     
    Austin Channing Brown, a speaker and writer who is providing incredible leadership on racial justice, wrote this week, “I received an e-mail . . . . from [someone] who wants to know how she can support racial justice but without risk. And I’m sorry to share, it’s not possible. To be antiracist is to be active. It’s to resist the status quo. It’s raising your voice and making noise. It’s protesting and declaring things must change. It’s challenging supervisors and boards and executive teams and donors. Choosing antiracism is often choosing to be a nuisance.”
     
    The good news in all this: Jesus does not send the disciples, or us, out empty-handed. The disciples didn't start out ready to follow the call. Jesus equipped them, and equips us, for this mission, giving us the capacity to do what we are called to do. This week, as we remember at once the experience of the slaves in Galveston, Texas as they learned of their freedom over 150 year ago, the tragedy of the death of 9 black people at the hands of a white supremacist just 5 years ago, and the death of George Floyd and so many others in recent days, the call and commission Jesus gives to his disciples is for us too.
     
    The call is clear: go out, and tell the good news. Claim the promise that freedom is for all people. The Central States Synod Council, when they met last week via Zoom, wrote the following: “Our relationship to the shooter [of the Emmanuel 9], as well as to two of the slain, reminds us of both our complicity and our calling. Together we confess that we're in bondage to the sins of racism and white supremacy and, at the same time, we rejoice in the freedom that is ours in Christ Jesus who 'has broken down the dividing walls, that is, the hostility between us' (Ephesians 2:14). May God continue to guide us as we seek repentance and renewal, and racial justice and reconciliation among God’s precious children.” There is so much work to do, family of faith, it can feel overwhelming. And just when we think we have arrived, we will make mistakes, and will find out how much more we have to learn. But we don't go alone, and we start right where we are.
     
    When asked what people should do to move forward from where we find ourselves, Reverend Angela Khabeb of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Minneapolis said to a reporter last week, “Dismantle white supremacy in our congregations and in our hearts. For each congregation, that process may begin in a different place. Wherever you’re starting, you’ve got the world at your fingertips.” There are so many ways to make a difference. Vote, and help others register to vote. Watch the movie "13th" or "Just Mercy" to learn about our criminal justice system. Read a book such as So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. Join a book study or other group committed to learning about racism — we are starting a group at Christ Lutheran soon. As the people said to Moses, when he shared God’s direction with them in the first reading today, “Everything the Lord has spoken, we will do.” We will do it, together.
     
    This is such hard work, family of faith. And the call to bring the message of God’s love to the world will never be completed. We will never do it perfectly. But our God promises healing, and cleansing, and life, and freedom. Jesus called the disciples to embody the good news to the world. As they did so, they were freed of the illusions they lived in that separated them from their neighbors. Their eyes were opened to the beauty that is only evident in the abundant diversity of God’s creation. They were freed from the fear of losing what was familiar, and secure. Their hearts were opened, and they were free to share, and to receive in full, the gift of God’s presence that always surrounds us. In the words of Maya Angelou, “The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Exodus 19:2-8a, Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23], Ephesians 2:14
  • Jun 7, 2020The Holy Trinity
    Jun 7, 2020
    The Holy Trinity
    Series: (All)
    June 7, 2020. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton provides her national sermon to share with the church on the Holy Trinity.
     
    Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Philippians 2:5-6, Matthew 28:16-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Well, a lot has changed since last Trinity Sunday.  Not just the COVID-19 pandemic under which we live, but also the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed, handcuffed black man by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Just a few weeks ago we learned, many of us, of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. But since that time, Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon "Sean" Reed, Tony McDade have also been killed. And how many others, whose names are known only to their families and to God?
     
    Today is Trinity Sunday. It's a hard holiday for us to wrap our minds around. It's a difficult, a difficult concept. But, we learn about the Trinity, particularly in today's first lesson from Genesis. In this beautiful song of creation, we hear, "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. And a wind from God swept over the face of the waters."
     
    And God said and creation began. Martin Luther put it this way, "So also the Christian Church agrees that in this description there is indicated the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Father created through the Son who Moses called Word, and over this creative work brooded the Holy Spirit." Later, God says, "Let us make humankind in our image." This is the glorious relationship with God that spills out into all creation. God is not a lone ranger. And all of God shows up, all of God shows up, delighting in creation, caring for creation, weeping for creation, redeeming creation.
     
    I confess that I do not fully understand or even have language to describe the mystery of the Trinity, probably won't until I've finished my baptismal vocation and stand in the presence of God. I can't explain how, but I can testify to the great Lutheran question, what does this mean?
     
    God is relationship. Within God and flowing from God. Creation is God's decision not to look after God's self but focuses God's energies on creation. This Trinity, this God, this relationship is outward and overflowing. God is the one who does not grasp.
     
    As we hear in Philippians, "Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped." Likewise, the Spirit is poured out on us all. Again, what does this mean? God is relationship. Within God, with the creation, with humankind and among humankind. And since we are baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, baptized into the Trinity, we are also part of this powerful, dynamic, living, giving, loving relationship — with God, in God, with creation, with each other. We are inextricably woven together. No one is alone. No one is beyond the fierce, tender love of God, and God is not far off. God is present in creation, in each of us and in all of us. God is flesh and blood made visible in Jesus of Nazareth and in every human being.
     
    God is spirit, closer than our own breath. And this is how God as Trinity shows up today. God is creator. God created diversity, beautiful, vital, alive. We must reject calls for colorblindness. That diminishes and washes out God's gift of diversity. We in the white majority can begin to see our siblings of color more clearly. We should be color amazed, recognizing the strength that comes with all our many colors. And God as creator made all of us in God's image. "Let us make them in our image." That means all of us are a part of this relational, triune God who did create all of humankind, each and every one and all of us together, in God's image, all. And God is the word made flesh. Our flesh, your flesh, my flesh, George Floyd's flesh.
     
    Jesus in his passion still suffers with those who suffer. The crucifixion of an unarmed, handcuffed man lying face down on the street is the crucifixion and the passion of our Lord. The crucifixion of so many, too many, black and brown people, who live constantly with the violence of racism, is the passion of our Lord.
     
    And God is spirit. The wind, the breath that moved over the face of the deep at creation, the breath of God that was breathed into the first earth creature, Adam. The breath of Jesus as he gave them the gift of the Spirit, the breath crushed out of George Floyd, the breath of life God had given to him. And now, church, we as the baptized, those of us baptized into the Trinity, show up.
     
    We work for an end to violence, the violence of racism that kills bodies and maims souls. And we work for the end of violence brought about by lawlessness and also frustration, masquerading in some cases, as protest.
     
    In the fierce love of the Trinity, we do not deny anger. In the face of the reality and inequity of racial injustice, anger is appropriate. But we use our anger to bring about change. We put out fires set to stores, workplaces, churches and property, but we ask that the Spirit kindle in us the fire of justice.
     
    We work for calm and quiet throughout our country, but we remain disquieted as we search deep within ourselves. We work for peace, but not the passive peace that allows the mechanisms of racism and white supremacy to stay in place. No, the peace God alone can give that gives us the strength and courage to act. The Trinity is a relationship, within God, with creation, with us and among us. Until the white majority feels in our soul that the pain and suffering of black and brown people is our own pain and suffering, it will not be safe to be black or brown in America. And until we feel in our own soul that this is our pain in our story, we are not open to the relationship that God wants to shower, share, lavish upon us as a relational God, a loving God, as a God of the Trinity, as a God who has brought us into that relationship and commands us to share that relationship and live that relationship with creation and with each other.
     
    Paul's second letter to the Corinthians ends, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." It's actually a promise — and, I think, marching orders for us. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us, the love of God is with us, the communion of the Holy Spirit is with us and, together in the communion and community of the Holy Trinity, we can make that a reality.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Philippians 2:5-6, Matthew 28:1-20, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, coronavirus
  • May 31, 2020Roaring Winds and Flame
    May 31, 2020
    Roaring Winds and Flame
    Series: (All)
    May 31, 2020. Sometimes God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes God comes to wake us up. Just as the Spirit came upon the disciples in the first Pentecost as roaring winds and flame, we are seeing the Spirit alive today in the city of Minneapolis, as it burns in protest of the murder of George Floyd. The Spirit descends on us too, and frees us to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages.
     
    Reading: Acts 2:1-21
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Holy Week seems like such an incredibly long time ago, doesn’t it? And yet just like that, the weirdest Easter season that most of us have ever experienced is over. But let’s think back a minute, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, and find Peter. As they headed into the city to celebrate Passover, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus warned Peter that he would fall. Peter protests that he is ready to go to prison with Jesus, and he will even die with him. But Jesus knows his people. He tells Peter that not only will he not die with Jesus, but he will deny that he even knows him. And of course, we know the rest of the story. Peter does deny Jesus. The cock crows. The others run and hide. And for these fifty days since, except perhaps for essential tasks or brief trips out of the city, the disciples have been keeping kind of a low profile — waiting and watching and listening and wondering, staying out of the way of the Roman guard who they hear are still looking for the ones who were so close to Jesus — as rumors are beginning to spread and grow about the missing body and the empty tomb. "More dangerous dead than alive," warned one of the religious leaders after Jesus’ death. Maybe so. Everyone is on edge.
     
    It’s that Peter — the one who denied Jesus, the one who hid with his companions, the one who grieved how badly he had failed Jesus just when it counted the most — that we see in our story today from Acts, speaking to a crowd of thousands, shutting down their mocking (of course they aren’t drunk, it’s only 9:30 in the morning), answering their questions. "It is happening," he tells them, "Just as Joel and the other prophets told us. God is upon us." How did that happen? How did Peter go from denial to prophecy? What emboldened Jesus’ followers to come out of their comfort zone and share the good news of life triumphant over death, of God’s deeds of power? And that, I suggest, is really the story here, this Pentecost Sunday. What happened?
     
    There is so much that hadn’t changed, prior to the events of this reading. Jesus’ death was still real, his resurrection, confusing and maybe a bit scary as well as hopeful, his ascension, as perplexing as it was devastating. The authorities were still looking for Jesus’ followers. The disciples, as of yet, really hadn’t left their Upper Room. Hadn’t told the stories outside the circle of trusted followers. Still hadn’t figured out what on earth they were supposed to be doing, what it all meant. So what happened?
     
    When Jesus and Peter were talking, before the Supper, and Peter claimed he was ready to die, Jesus told him that on the contrary Peter would deny even knowing him. Jesus also said something else important. “But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your siblings.” When you have turned back, strengthen your siblings. And if we remember last week’s gospel, even before Jesus died he had made another promise, perhaps following up on this promise to Peter. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.” All along the way, Jesus promised that we would not be alone. God would be with us. Hard to believe with all that had taken place, but the disciples were trying.
     
    And so, we come to the events of Pentecost. The disciples are expecting something to happen — Jesus told them he would be sending a comforter. They had gathered in anticipation of this, not knowing what to expect. And then the Spirit showed up. Jesus often said, “Peace be with you,” “Be not afraid,” to his disciples when he came upon them after he rose from the dead. Angels would often say this too, when they appeared to unsuspecting humans, who would understandably be caught off guard by a heavenly being making an appearance. But in the Pentecost reading, there are no words of comfort or peace. Roaring winds, filling their room, locked doors and all. Flames of fire, leaping down and resting on their heads. And then suddenly, they are all filled with words that can't be held in, pouring out of them in languages they didn’t even know! I was talking about this story recently with one of you, who suggested that perhaps not all of the words the disciples spoke were, strictly speaking, “good news.” I recall moments when I have been taken by surprise so profoundly that I couldn’t think clearly enough to put words on it myself, and I can imagine the words that might have escaped my mouth if I had been there that day!
     
    Sometimes, God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes, God comes to WAKE US UP! Pentecost is one of those days, family of faith! Just as fire in a forest can transform and clear the way for new life, the fires of Pentecost, the Spirit come to the disciples, transformed them forever. They had been afraid, and rightly so. Peter had been so afraid he denied that he even knew Jesus. The Spirit came, and in spite of their fear, they embodied courage and spoke the truth of the good news of God they knew to anyone who would listen.
     
    There is so much fear and grief, morphed into understandable anger and rage, at the death of yet one more black man, George Floyd, murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. As my pastor from my Minneapolis home church, just half a block from the Minneapolis 3rd precinct, said, “My city is on fire.” My city is on fire. The fear is palpable, for those living in it, and those watching from afar. And the courage of those speaking truth, ministering in the midst of that fire, calling for an end to the deep, systemic racism that is fueling it, is undeniable. The Spirit is alive.
     
    The disciples had been cut off, hidden away, and the Spirit removed all barriers between them and their neighbors — even language. Think about how often we misunderstand one another, even our closest people, when we speak the same language, and we can get a glimpse of what a miracle this was — that everyone present, regardless of their national origin, or ethnicity, or language, understood what was being said. No longer cut off, they were suddenly connected with everyone around them. Any idea that God would only speak to certain people, of a certain culture, of a certain language, in certain ways, was dispelled, and the Spirit of God insisted on being accessible to everyone, despite our human limitations.
     
    And speaking of limitations... Peter, the one who denied Jesus, the one who failed to be there for his dear friend, who had really screwed up, is still called! The Spirit filled him, empowered him, and he found himself able to share the incredibly good news of God’s mercy and redemption and joy-filled power, with literally thousands. That news has travelled 2,000 years, to us here in the middle of the days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite our human limitations, the Spirit comes to us in the midst of the isolation and fear of illness and unknown future, in the grief surrounding over 103,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. The Spirit has come. In the midst of the very real barriers that divide us, the scourge of systemic racism that binds every single one of us, deeply wounding and oppressing living, breathing human beings, bringing death and fear and destruction and untold misery in its wake, the Spirit has come.
     
    The Spirit descends on us — not quietly and peacefully, but in roaring and in fire. It surrounds and fills us, and sends us out to proclaim the radical news of God’s abundant love, and grace, and justice to this world. We are freed and called to learn how to stand in the midst of pandemics and racism and all the evils of this world, and proclaim that God’s justice and will must prevail, even when it feels scary and risky to do so. We are freed to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages. We are freed to do everything we can to claim that all people are worthy and beloved children of God, WITH, and not in spite of, our differences. In other words, this is the day we are cut loose, freed from the limitations of our Upper Rooms, to be the church in the world.
     
    The disciples, like us, were not “prepared” to be the church in their time, but the Spirit came and led them, and they were the church. Like the disciples, we too are set free to embody the promise of God in new ways. We too are being transformed, to be the church in our place and time, in ways we couldn’t even fathom three months ago, and we are still discovering as we navigate our way forward together.
     
    Sustained and inspired and strengthened and blessed by the Holy Spirit, we will watch and wait with faith and hope for signs that it is safe to return to our common spaces, while staying physically distant to keep one another, and especially those most vulnerable, safe. And in the meantime, we are called, just like Peter was and the rest of the disciples, to strengthen one another on this journey. We are in this together, together cut loose, freed to be the church, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we will faithfully embody the love and the justice and promise of our God, that essential work that we as people of God have always been called to do, since the very first Pentecost.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Acts 2:1-21, coronavirus, Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
  • May 24, 2020God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    May 24, 2020
    God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    Series: (All)
    May 24, 2020. Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" Rachel Helton preaches today on how our reading from Ecclesiastes (as well as lessons from the movie "Groundhog Day") can help us find our purpose for these monotonous days during the pandemic.
     
    Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Has anyone else been waking up lately with the sound of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" playing in their head? I'm looking for Mark Ruff, because I know he put this idea in my mind a few weeks ago, and now it's happening to me. So, for those of you that know and those of you that don't know, in the movie "Groundhog Day" from the early 1990s, a self-proclaimed, under-appreciated weatherman is assigned with covering the events of February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when a groundhog named Phil will predict the end of winter, based on whether or not he sees his shadow. The weatherman, also named Phil, has contempt for this assignment and for the people in this small town. He's eager to get this story over with and move on to bigger and better things. But thanks to a blizzard, Phil is stuck spending an extra night in Punxsutawney. And he wakes up the next morning to find that it's February 2nd. Again.
     
    Day after day, he wakes up in the same bed, hearing the same song playing on the clock radio: "I Got You Babe," by Sonny & Cher. He sees the same people doing the same things. It's always February 2nd. He's trapped in this sort of time loop. He goes from confusion to frustration to downright anger. He eventually starts to manipulate this reality for his own benefit — initially because it seems there are no real consequences for any of his behaviors, and then eventually because he's trying to win over his love interest. But despite his efforts, nothing ever really changes. Everything is fleeting. All is vanity.
     
    Does this feel at all familiar? Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" A few Saturdays ago, I decided that our house should be cleaned from top to bottom — and everyone was going to help. About an hour in, my son Isaac said, "Mom, what are we doing? No one has been in our house for weeks. No one will be coming to our house for weeks. By the time someone can come over again, everything will be dirty. What is the point?" What is the point?
     
    And there have been plenty of disappointments in the last few weeks too, haven't there? Field trips that didn't happen. Last days of school that meant, at least for us, picking up a garbage bag of your child's desk contents while standing six feet apart, wearing a mask, on the sidewalk in front of the school. High school graduations that are meant to celebrate achievements and years of friendship that were moved to Zoom. Family vacations canceled. Special visits from friends and family afar postponed. And then there are the casual meals around the dinner table with the friends from down the block, that are suddenly just absent from our lives.
     
    And all this not to mention the real suffering that is happening from COVID. You're surrounded by words and images of illness and death. There's a real danger in our humdrum of becoming used to these images and numbers, of becoming numb to the injustices of our world that mean that people living in North St. Louis, people living in poverty, people of color are being affected more harshly by this virus. We can become numb to the pain that people are feeling and the sheer magnitude of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths from this pandemic.
     
    As we spend day after day doing the same things, inside the same walls, with the same people, without the usual moments of novelty and excitement to break things up a bit, the humdrum can feel unavoidable. In the words of Kohelet, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. The Hebrew word "hevel" is repeated 37 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the word that's often translated as "vanity" or "meaningless." But it's perhaps better understood as "fleeting," "impermanent" — something like a vapor or a mist.
     
    People have been searching for the meaning of life throughout all of recorded history. Kohelet searches for the meaning too. Is it our work? His answer is no. In the end, all that we work for may be handed over to someone else. Our achievements are impermanent. So, is it knowledge? I hate to tell you this, graduates, but his answer is no to this too. In the end, the person with knowledge will come to the same fate as the person without knowledge. Is it pleasure? Should we just live it up, seize the day? Is this the meaning of life? Another no. This too is fleeting. So the Book of Ecclesiastes opens with the teacher looking around and declaring that everything about life is meaningless, vaporous, fleeting, out of his control. Kohelet tries to justify his life with reason, and he just can't do it. He is honest and raw and frustrated. If nothing else, this book might teach us that God sees us in our frustrated search for meaning. We are allowed to be there. We are in fact invited to be there.
     
    Luckily though, this isn't the end of our story. This isn't the whole picture. So what then is the meaning? Where then can be our hope? Despite the fact that nothing about our existence is guaranteed, that there are limitations to our earthly life, God is limitless. Even in the mundane, simple activities of our daily existence, it is God's presence that makes life meaningful. It is God's presence that moves our activities from ordinary to holy, and creates purpose out of our willingness to use our lives to serve others. The ability to find not just purpose, but joy in our purpose and in our very existence, is a gift from God — a gift to be received but not possessed. When we surrender our time, our efforts, our simple moments to God — not expecting a reward, not expecting productivity or end results, but simply having faith that God will be active in our lives — this makes hope and life and meaning eternal.
     
    Kohelet writes in chapter 2, verse 24, "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Eating, drinking, working, enjoying — these can be acts of faith, faith in the eternal. This is where we, like Jesus, may become glorified by God, and bring glory to God, in this very moment, however boring and humdrum it may feel.
     
    So is the work the meaning of life? No, but we should do work that's meaningful and that serves others. Is knowledge the meaning of life. No, but we should pursue wisdom that helps us to understand God's purposes for creation. Is pleasure the meaning of life? No, but we should enjoy the pleasures of life knowing that they are gifts from God.
     
    In a moment, we'll pray together the Lord's Prayer, and we will ask God to provide our daily bread. We are asking God for the ordinary things that sustain our lives. We are surrendering to the fact that in the absence of God, the cosmos is repetitive, weary, fleeting. But God's presence in the ordinary, God's presence in our eating and drinking, in our work and in our enjoyment, makes it meaningful. This is the wisdom of God that has the power to sustain us. This is our daily bread.
     
    As the movie "Groundhog Day" moves on, Bill Murray's character starts to be transformed. He starts to do things not for himself, but for other people. And he starts to surrender to the fact that he does not have the power to change his situation. With this acknowledgement of his own limitations, and his shift from serving himself to serving others, he finally wakes up to February 3rd. In the final scene of the movie, Phil steps out onto the street — the same street that he's been stepping out onto, day after day after day — always the same gray, detestable street. But today it's new. He sees the world suddenly in a new way, and he looks around and he says, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    As we step into week 11 of COVID isolation, instead of focusing on the day when all will be back to normal — whatever that may mean — what if instead, we took a deep breath, quieted our anxious minds, allowed ourselves to ask what purpose does God have for this day? What meaning can God bring to this monotonous, humdrum, fleeting day, and all the simple moments in it? We just might find ourselves looking around our weary world, seeing God's promises of justice, hope, love, and saying to ourselves, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    Amen.
     
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    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25, Sonny & Cher, I Got You Babe, Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, coronavirus