Feb 16, 2020
Matters of the Heart
Series: (All)
February 16, 2020. Guest pastor Karen Scherer preaches today on the law. Throughout the scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. In talking about anger, adultery, and divorce, Jesus teaches that it is one thing to behave according to the law, and another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy.
 
*** Transcript ***
 
Let us pray. Come to us, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and minds that we might hear your word for us today, the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.
 
So I think it's a wonderful coincidence that Valentine's Day was just two days ago and that our readings this morning, two of them anyway, are all about matters of the heart. In Deuteronomy, as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land, the Lord through Moses sets before the people a very clear choice: if you obey the commandments of the Lord by loving the Lord your God, walking in God's ways, then you shall live, become numerous, and God will bless you. But if your hearts turn away and you serve other gods then you shall perish, and your days of living in the Promised Land will be short. If your hearts turn away. Where your heart is shapes your whole life -- your attitude, your actions, where you invest your time, your money, your efforts. It's all about the heart. Obedience, following God's commands, walking in God's ways, blessings, curses, choices -- it's all about the heart.
 
Do you remember that first blush of new love for that someone special, when you were so in love with another one? You would have done anything for them because you loved them. But as that love matures over time, if it matures, then you come to know that it's not just about that feeling, that feeling for them. It's about walking with them, being with them, being committed to them, through life together. It's about commitment, about a covenant with them, those vows that you made whether they were official or not. You committed yourself to one another. It's about honoring them, caring for them, even when they are unlovable. Tom Long states that what lies at the heart of God -- and is at the heart of the law -- is in fact a committed covenantal relationship. The law is based on God's commitment to humankind, to y'all, and on our commitment to community with one another. It's all about relationship. It's more than going through the motions. It's a matter of the heart, a commitment of being, walking with, caring for, trusting the other.
 
Today we hear the law. Jesus teaches us. And as I looked at your faces as I was reading that, I was looking at not good news on your faces. But he teaches us about God's intention -- God's intention for us as beloved, honored children of God. And this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. It is to affect not just our behaviors, but our attitudes and our emotions as well, for they are where our heart is too, and where God seeks to live in us. It is one thing to behave according to the law, Jesus says. It is another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy. Jesus connects the dots for us from outward acts to internal orientation. He goes from murder to anger, from adultery to lust, from divorce to responsibility and accountability. It is possible to abide by the letter of the law and still wreak havoc on the lives of others. That's what he's wanting us to hear: where it comes from. That we can carry out the law, and our heart can be so twisted.
 
Let me give you some examples. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words. We even call it "stabbing someone in the back." We can do business in ways that are completely legal, but that leave our workers destitute and unhealthy, and maintain policies that ravage our environment -- but we have broken no laws. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet what we find is our primary relationships end up being maybe about work, or sports, or entertaining ourselves, or even the internet, rather than our spouse, from whom we are absent much of the time -- and thus unfaithful. It is possible to lead nations and corporations and businesses and organizations in ways that are legally sanctioned, but that serve only ourselves, and leave others broken. And it is easy to apply the law as a weapon to judge others, whether it be religious or secular law, to learn to use it with lethal accuracy, and to manipulate the world to our own agendas with it. But when we do this, when we do these things, the law becomes incomplete at the very least, and broken -- a shadow of the glorious glue that it was created to be.
 
You see the law was created to bring order out of chaos, to create community -- that we could live with one another and care for one another, in relationship to one another that is good and life-giving, even as our relationship with God would be good and life-giving, trusting. That's why Jesus moves his hearers' understanding of the law from the realm of the letter of the law, to the realm of the heart of the law. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder. You also have to treat each other with respect and caring. Calling another names, awful names, demeans and diminishes you and those whom God loves: his children. And we don't want to hear this but yes, it brings judgment upon ourselves when we do that. It ends cutting us off from God, whose intention was very different. And we cut ourselves off from each other. I would urge you to go back to Luther's Small Catechism. How many of you have read the Small Catechism? If you haven't, pull it out, give it to somebody else, get it, get them a coffee. In his Small Catechism and his explanation of the Ten Commandments, he talks about how the law is not only following it by the letter, but in fact extending it out. For example, not bearing false witness against your neighbor. For Luther isn't simply about avoiding lying, it's also about putting the best construction on what a neighbor says or has done, and in this way tending to the communal relationships that simultaneously constitute and bound our Christian life together. It's about going beyond.
 
We risk everything, people -- judgment and disconnection from God and one another and yes, even from ourself, from whom we were created to be -- when our heart is only oriented towards ourself. The Kingdom of God is much more than following rules. It's about the heart. And dare I say: if it's up to us, if we truly examine ourselves, then we are lost. Humankind is lost. Our individual heart is not big enough and our collective heart is not strong enough to fully complete the law, because our heart is not in it. But God's is. Ultimately, it is God's heart and God's heart alone that saves us. And that heart is made known to us in the flesh and blood of a human being called Jesus Christ, child of God. In him God was born among us, as the prophets had spoken and in fulfilling the promise of God. In him, God made flesh walked with us, truly saw us, and sought to teach us and to heal us, to heal our broken hearts, our twisted selves. He fulfilled the law to its fullest measure -- not twisting it to serve his own purposes, but giving himself in full commitment, full commitment to save us, by facing the powers and principalities of this world. Facing them not with violence, but with the giving of himself, with faithfulness to God and mercy upon us, freeing us, on that cross basically saying to us: you are set free from my love and my mercy. And God raised him from the dead. Thus, overcoming death and fear, we don't have to fear death. We don't have to fear those little deaths that others or the world tries to put on us, because we know that God loves us. In Christ Jesus we are set free.
 
Jesus is the heart of God now, who teaches us with his word and empowers us with his spirit, who reorders the relationships of this world, of this community, and reorients our hearts, the internal landscape of our lives, reorients us toward God and God's love -- not what the world is trying to put on us, but what God is giving us. God is giving us God's heart for us to live out of, to live for all, not just ourselves. That's what happens when you are baptized. That spirit dwells in you. God's intention dwells in you, and it is always there in forgiveness and mercy, so that you may then give mercy and forgiveness. It is the spirit of Christ's heart, who is ever working to renew our hearts daily, moment to moment, to take away that curved-in self and open us up to others, and the pain and the hurt we see there. And then accompany us on a path of sacrifice and faith and love. The law is now opened up for us, and we are freed to be all that God dreamed for us to be. And in our trials, God through Christ grants us mercy. For we are not yet what we are meant to be. That is true. But we know that we are forgiven and freed to live without the fear of judgment, and to be filled with hope and promise.
 
So we can ask forgiveness from a coworker whose reputation we may have spoiled with our words. We can do business in ways that care for our workers, though it may take some sacrifice on our part. We can develop policies that care for our environment, even as we care for those around us. We can find ways to live on less, and find that we have more of what really counts. We can commit ourselves to spending as much quality time as possible with our spouses, as much at least as we commit to ourselves as well, knowing that we must care for ourselves, too. We get to work toward a nation that lifts up the broken hearted, the poor. A nation that cares for the alien, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and gives respect and dignity and worth to everyone. That's our calling. We get to do these things without fear, knowing that God is for us. And we can live with the hope and promise of life now and in the time to come, the life given to us in Christ Jesus. That's the heart of the matter. You are the heart of the matter in the world. So happy Valentine's Day, people of heart. Christ's heart lives in you.
 
So may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Karen Scherer, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths
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  • Feb 16, 2020Matters of the Heart
    Feb 16, 2020
    Matters of the Heart
    Series: (All)
    February 16, 2020. Guest pastor Karen Scherer preaches today on the law. Throughout the scriptures, the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. In talking about anger, adultery, and divorce, Jesus teaches that it is one thing to behave according to the law, and another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Let us pray. Come to us, Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and minds that we might hear your word for us today, the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    So I think it's a wonderful coincidence that Valentine's Day was just two days ago and that our readings this morning, two of them anyway, are all about matters of the heart. In Deuteronomy, as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land, the Lord through Moses sets before the people a very clear choice: if you obey the commandments of the Lord by loving the Lord your God, walking in God's ways, then you shall live, become numerous, and God will bless you. But if your hearts turn away and you serve other gods then you shall perish, and your days of living in the Promised Land will be short. If your hearts turn away. Where your heart is shapes your whole life -- your attitude, your actions, where you invest your time, your money, your efforts. It's all about the heart. Obedience, following God's commands, walking in God's ways, blessings, curses, choices -- it's all about the heart.
     
    Do you remember that first blush of new love for that someone special, when you were so in love with another one? You would have done anything for them because you loved them. But as that love matures over time, if it matures, then you come to know that it's not just about that feeling, that feeling for them. It's about walking with them, being with them, being committed to them, through life together. It's about commitment, about a covenant with them, those vows that you made whether they were official or not. You committed yourself to one another. It's about honoring them, caring for them, even when they are unlovable. Tom Long states that what lies at the heart of God -- and is at the heart of the law -- is in fact a committed covenantal relationship. The law is based on God's commitment to humankind, to y'all, and on our commitment to community with one another. It's all about relationship. It's more than going through the motions. It's a matter of the heart, a commitment of being, walking with, caring for, trusting the other.
     
    Today we hear the law. Jesus teaches us. And as I looked at your faces as I was reading that, I was looking at not good news on your faces. But he teaches us about God's intention -- God's intention for us as beloved, honored children of God. And this is not new to Jewish thinking. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the law is to be taken to heart and not only outwardly observed. It is to affect not just our behaviors, but our attitudes and our emotions as well, for they are where our heart is too, and where God seeks to live in us. It is one thing to behave according to the law, Jesus says. It is another thing entirely for one's heart to be oriented toward love and mercy. Jesus connects the dots for us from outward acts to internal orientation. He goes from murder to anger, from adultery to lust, from divorce to responsibility and accountability. It is possible to abide by the letter of the law and still wreak havoc on the lives of others. That's what he's wanting us to hear: where it comes from. That we can carry out the law, and our heart can be so twisted.
     
    Let me give you some examples. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker through our words. We even call it "stabbing someone in the back." We can do business in ways that are completely legal, but that leave our workers destitute and unhealthy, and maintain policies that ravage our environment -- but we have broken no laws. We can pat ourselves on the back for not committing adultery, and yet what we find is our primary relationships end up being maybe about work, or sports, or entertaining ourselves, or even the internet, rather than our spouse, from whom we are absent much of the time -- and thus unfaithful. It is possible to lead nations and corporations and businesses and organizations in ways that are legally sanctioned, but that serve only ourselves, and leave others broken. And it is easy to apply the law as a weapon to judge others, whether it be religious or secular law, to learn to use it with lethal accuracy, and to manipulate the world to our own agendas with it. But when we do this, when we do these things, the law becomes incomplete at the very least, and broken -- a shadow of the glorious glue that it was created to be.
     
    You see the law was created to bring order out of chaos, to create community -- that we could live with one another and care for one another, in relationship to one another that is good and life-giving, even as our relationship with God would be good and life-giving, trusting. That's why Jesus moves his hearers' understanding of the law from the realm of the letter of the law, to the realm of the heart of the law. It's not enough, Jesus says, to avoid murder. You also have to treat each other with respect and caring. Calling another names, awful names, demeans and diminishes you and those whom God loves: his children. And we don't want to hear this but yes, it brings judgment upon ourselves when we do that. It ends cutting us off from God, whose intention was very different. And we cut ourselves off from each other. I would urge you to go back to Luther's Small Catechism. How many of you have read the Small Catechism? If you haven't, pull it out, give it to somebody else, get it, get them a coffee. In his Small Catechism and his explanation of the Ten Commandments, he talks about how the law is not only following it by the letter, but in fact extending it out. For example, not bearing false witness against your neighbor. For Luther isn't simply about avoiding lying, it's also about putting the best construction on what a neighbor says or has done, and in this way tending to the communal relationships that simultaneously constitute and bound our Christian life together. It's about going beyond.
     
    We risk everything, people -- judgment and disconnection from God and one another and yes, even from ourself, from whom we were created to be -- when our heart is only oriented towards ourself. The Kingdom of God is much more than following rules. It's about the heart. And dare I say: if it's up to us, if we truly examine ourselves, then we are lost. Humankind is lost. Our individual heart is not big enough and our collective heart is not strong enough to fully complete the law, because our heart is not in it. But God's is. Ultimately, it is God's heart and God's heart alone that saves us. And that heart is made known to us in the flesh and blood of a human being called Jesus Christ, child of God. In him God was born among us, as the prophets had spoken and in fulfilling the promise of God. In him, God made flesh walked with us, truly saw us, and sought to teach us and to heal us, to heal our broken hearts, our twisted selves. He fulfilled the law to its fullest measure -- not twisting it to serve his own purposes, but giving himself in full commitment, full commitment to save us, by facing the powers and principalities of this world. Facing them not with violence, but with the giving of himself, with faithfulness to God and mercy upon us, freeing us, on that cross basically saying to us: you are set free from my love and my mercy. And God raised him from the dead. Thus, overcoming death and fear, we don't have to fear death. We don't have to fear those little deaths that others or the world tries to put on us, because we know that God loves us. In Christ Jesus we are set free.
     
    Jesus is the heart of God now, who teaches us with his word and empowers us with his spirit, who reorders the relationships of this world, of this community, and reorients our hearts, the internal landscape of our lives, reorients us toward God and God's love -- not what the world is trying to put on us, but what God is giving us. God is giving us God's heart for us to live out of, to live for all, not just ourselves. That's what happens when you are baptized. That spirit dwells in you. God's intention dwells in you, and it is always there in forgiveness and mercy, so that you may then give mercy and forgiveness. It is the spirit of Christ's heart, who is ever working to renew our hearts daily, moment to moment, to take away that curved-in self and open us up to others, and the pain and the hurt we see there. And then accompany us on a path of sacrifice and faith and love. The law is now opened up for us, and we are freed to be all that God dreamed for us to be. And in our trials, God through Christ grants us mercy. For we are not yet what we are meant to be. That is true. But we know that we are forgiven and freed to live without the fear of judgment, and to be filled with hope and promise.
     
    So we can ask forgiveness from a coworker whose reputation we may have spoiled with our words. We can do business in ways that care for our workers, though it may take some sacrifice on our part. We can develop policies that care for our environment, even as we care for those around us. We can find ways to live on less, and find that we have more of what really counts. We can commit ourselves to spending as much quality time as possible with our spouses, as much at least as we commit to ourselves as well, knowing that we must care for ourselves, too. We get to work toward a nation that lifts up the broken hearted, the poor. A nation that cares for the alien, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, and gives respect and dignity and worth to everyone. That's our calling. We get to do these things without fear, knowing that God is for us. And we can live with the hope and promise of life now and in the time to come, the life given to us in Christ Jesus. That's the heart of the matter. You are the heart of the matter in the world. So happy Valentine's Day, people of heart. Christ's heart lives in you.
     
    So may the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Karen Scherer, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, anger, adultery, divorce, oaths
  • Feb 2, 2020Live the Beatitudes
    Feb 2, 2020
    Live the Beatitudes
    Series: (All)
    February 2, 2020. The Beatitudes are the way of the cross. Jon Heerboth preaches today on how Jesus lived them perfectly, and how if we are to follow Christ they must become our way too.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Last winter I had to make a trip to a hospital emergency department in the middle of the night. The waiting room was full of sick people and injured people. Everybody needed help. Some were incapacitated by chronic illness. Some had no obvious illness, but were clearly in misery. And none could wait until morning for healing or for care. That waiting room experience reminds me of the crowds that followed Jesus around the Sea of Galilee. In Matthew 4 he had just called his first four disciples. They were fishermen, people I think of as business people. They were capable of catching fish with their nets or with their boats. They could make a living and sell the fish in their communities. They probably had enough to eat most days, and they did alright for themselves and their families. And they probably paid taxes to the Romans like everybody else. Well, these small-town men were used to a quiet life, I bet, and they might have found the crowds following Jesus to be overwhelming. Jesus taught in the synagogues and it says he cured every disease and sickness among the people, according to Matthew. You can imagine the excitement throughout the region. They brought him all the sick: those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them, according to verse 24.
     
    Those of us in the waiting area of the emergency room, we were not a pleasant or appealing group of people. I wonder if Jesus' new disciples were put off by the crowds: their misery, their dependence upon others, their insistence on being healed, the stench of sickness, the impatience of those at the back of the line. Like healthy people walking through an emergency room, perhaps the disciples felt superior to the crowd. Did they recoil from the sick and from their caregivers? Maybe Jesus saw how the disciples reacted. We know he took them up the mountain where he sat down to teach. He didn't preach. Jesus taught them his values, like parents telling their children what is important to them and how they want their children to get through life. For Matthew, Jesus was the teacher of all righteousness. Jesus laid out a course for them to follow. Like any good teacher, Jesus connected the disciples with ideas that were larger than their own life experiences. The Sermon on the Mount was the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, in the book of Matthew. Jesus used the Beatitudes to teach the disciples how they should think about others as they live their lives, and to show them that being a disciple is to be the consummate student.
     
    Matthew, right at the outset of the stories of Jesus' ministries, demands that our first act of discipleship is to recognize Jesus as our teacher. Many of us have been taught or have learned to get ahead by acquiring power, strength, position, awards, or wealth. We think that if we are rich we can have what we want. If we have power we can take what we want. If we are clever or insistent we can argue our way to get what we want. Winning brings us respect. Beauty and outward appearance can make us desirable. Does this sound familiar? Is this how we get through our lives? Have you ever been to a ball game where people waved signs that said, "We're Number Two?" Of course not. Everyone knows we are number one. That's the attitude that fills the headlines in magazines, the television, the social media, and our own lives. We seek our fortunes, as they say. They're our life coaches and public relations firms. We look out for number one, because if we do not, who will? That's what we hear. That's what we've been told. That's the myth of success that constantly surrounds us.
     
    The words of Jesus from the mountain fly in the face of that myth. Jesus offers us a different pathway through life, a path of blessings that he has cleared for us. As God's people, we can find our way through life, but not through power, strength, accomplishment, or possession. As followers of Jesus, it is not enough to focus only on our lives or our little corners of the world. It is not enough to try to reform our politics or our economic systems. We don't navigate the Christian life by overcoming other people. We follow our true course in life by overcoming ourselves. What does that look like? Let's look at the Beatitudes:
     
    Blessed are the poor in spirit. If we open our hearts to Jesus, we acknowledge our weakness and need, and we are able to see the weakness and need of others. We understand that our riches did not come from our own effort, but from God's gift of an eternal kingdom that Jesus proclaimed to his first followers and to us. God blessed us with salvation so that we can be a blessing to others.
     
    Blessed are those who mourn. In our world of endless violence, in times of loss or crisis within our families, in nostalgia for loved ones long gone, we realize that our only comfort comes from God. In the worst of our times, our hope is in the risen Christ, even when we are not feeling his comfort and peace.
     
    Blessed are the meek. If we think about it, we will realize that in the end we have no real power at all. We cannot take the Earth. We understand that God has given us all we have and all we need. In our meekness then, we respond with thankful stewardship, gratitude, and generosity toward others.
     
    Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. God calls us to be God's own people, knowing that only God's gift of grace through faith can ever satisfy us.
     
    Blessed are the merciful. Mercy is the gift that we can give to other people, because we know the mercy that God has shown us through Jesus Christ.
     
    Blessed are the pure in heart. We can only see God when we admit we need God.
     
    Blessed are the peacemakers. We may not be able to fix all the problems of the world, but we can make peace in our own lives, in our families, and among our friends. We make peace through forgiveness, patience, and understanding. When we make peace, we set aside our human instinct for revenge. We follow Christ. Christ makes his people a new creation, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Christ reconciled the world without counting our sins against us. We are free to do the same for others.
     
    Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake. Jesus warned his listeners, as Jesus warns us in Matthew, that the world stands in opposition to his words. People with power, people who oppress others, people who seek wealth above all, will not give up without a fight. Opposition may not only come from the outside, but sometimes the worst persecution might come from voices within us -- voices that speak to us of unworthiness and shame. But we know that our places in the kingdom of God are secure. We can endure with the blessings of God. We overcome ourselves by living the Beatitudes, day after day, year after year, for a lifetime.
     
    The Beatitudes -- in fact, the entire Sermon on the Mount -- these words are not an advice column in the newspaper, some TV preacher spouting a gospel of prosperity. They are not hints for happy living. These words came from the heart of the great teacher, Jesus. These words reflect God's values and teach us what life is like in the kingdom of God. If we live by the Beatitudes, our lives and longings will come to be like Jesus' life and longings for his people. It is the opposite of what we often like to do, our attempts to twist God's will to fit our own longings. Meek? That's not me. That's not our world. That doesn't even sound like the church sometimes. I can look at the Beatitudes and say that they reflect everything that I am not. God, however, focuses on what we can be as the people of God. These ideas seem weak and foolish when we read the tabloid covers in the checkout lines, or see the people who ride in private jets. But to those who follow Jesus, the Beatitudes are the power of God. In 1 Corinthians, it says "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."
     
    The Beatitudes are the way of the cross. Jesus lived the Beatitudes perfectly, and the result was his crucifixion. If we find our lives in the Beatitudes, we will follow them to Jesus on the cross. Now we've all worked very hard to be successful in our lives. But eventually we all find ourselves in the emergency room. We need help from others. We face a crisis in our families. We lose a job. We're out of money. A bank wants to foreclose. A loved one is ill. We are very ill. Perhaps we must deal with abuse or addiction or a broken relationship. These are the events of life when the self-sufficiency we prize so much gives way to weakness. We begin to see ourselves as poor in spirit. In our despair, we awaken to the pain of the entire world, and we cannot help but mourn. We think less about ourselves then, and become more merciful to others. We remember our offertory prayer, that all we have comes from God. In our depths, there is nowhere to turn but to the face of Jesus. The more we think of God, the more we seek the righteousness we have in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We want to seek peace. We want to be reconciled with God and our neighbor. Regardless of our circumstances, as Matthew wrote, we should rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven. Jesus already paid the price for our sins and weaknesses. Matthew wrote that the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount came from all over. There would have been Jews and Gentiles alike, all living in Roman-occupied territory. They were looking for healing or seeking relief from the problems of their day. Jesus didn't ask anything of them. He simply healed them, and then tried to explain to his disciples what he was up to.
     
    When I was in college, well before we could scan people's brains, we defined learning as "changed behavior." Jesus calls us to change our thinking and the way we live our lives. We have the good news. We are blessed. Our blessing is not for the sake of some pie-in-the-sky reward after we die. We are blessed so that we can make it through the tough times of our lives here on earth. We are free to put aside our self-seeking in favor of giving ourselves over to God and to our neighbor. We are free to set aside our tribalism, our blindness to the suffering of others, and our own fears in favor of love. We know that we can do that, because we understand that we have already received the blessings of God and we are the people of God. In a few minutes, together with God's people here and everywhere and in every time, we're going to gather at the Lord's table. We will be refreshed in our faith and our fellowship. We may follow the model of Jesus and live the Beatitudes as our response to God's blessings in our lives. The Beatitudes were Jesus' way. And if we are to follow Christ, they must become our way.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth, Matthew 4:24, Matthew 5:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Corinthians 1:27
  • Jan 26, 2020Signs of God’s Presence Near to Us
    Jan 26, 2020
    Signs of God’s Presence Near to Us
    Series: (All)
    January 26, 2020. On Pastor Stephanie's last Sunday with us, she preaches on Jesus' own mission statement from Luke 4. We can look to great works of fiction, current news stories of churches purchasing debt relief, and deeply sacred personal experiences, and find signs of God's kingdom coming near to us all around.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, on this third Sunday of Epiphany.
     
    Jesus came proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Why did he start with the word "repent?" Because it's a rich word, much more full of meaning than is often attributed to it. Yes, it does mean "to turn around" or "to turn away" from sin. This is most certainly true, to quote Martin Luther. But because it means "to turn around," when paired with "for the kingdom of heaven has come near" it is a call to turn around from what usually grabs our attention, to notice that the kingdom is very, very near to us. This also is most certainly true.
     
    Sometimes though, it's difficult to even define which direction we are already facing. One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons starts with Lucy at her five cent psychology booth, where Charlie Brown has stopped in for advice for life. "Life is like a deck chair Charlie," she says. "On the cruise ship of life, some people place their deck chair at the rear of the ship so they can see where they've been. Others place their deck chair at the front of the ship so they can see where they're going. Where is your deck chair, Charlie Brown?" Without hesitating, Charlie replied glumly, "I can't even get my deck chair unfolded." Ah, such is life sometimes. How can we focus on the direction we're going, when the logistics of life keep us preoccupied? We can't know for sure.
     
    But let us just imagine that Peter or Andrew or James or John, or any of the initial disciples that Jesus called to come follow him, might have been preoccupied with getting their deck chairs unfolded, or their fishing nets untangled. Something they heard in the call from Jesus though, when he asked them to follow him, got them to repent or turn away from the direction they intended to head. They were ready, ready to turn toward seeing God in action. I don't think that means that they only left their fishing nets because their lives were mediocre or boring. They could have very well enjoyed what they were doing, because they were probably very good at it. After all, with Jesus' statement that they would now be fishing for people, he seems to imply that he values the skills they've already honed as fishermen. He says as they follow him he will have them fishing for people. The patience they have learned, the commitment to seeing a job through, maybe the business acumen, or marketing or relational strengths they've developed -- all of what has made them who they are -- can be put into use as they turn to face this new direction, a direction pointed toward seeing God in action, and joining in the process as God reclaims a world in need of redemption. The invitation to join in seeing the kingdom of God coming near would have been far too good to just pass up.
     
    Isn't that so for us as well? No matter what our day jobs are, how we spend our time in school, at home, in a retirement center, on a hospital bed, to turn toward seeing God in action all around us and participating in whatever way possible in what God is doing, well that's a very compelling invitation. Part of responding to the call of Jesus is taking note of the signs of God's presence already near to us. Just like the early disciples were apprentices of Jesus, we are also apprentices who need to learn, to observe, and to recognize God's nearness: the kingdom of God actually being near to us. A helpful way to remember what some of the values of the kingdom of God are is to look at what is often called Jesus' own mission statement in Luke 4. It states that he came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. Sometimes we read stories where God's grace is so evident it causes us to catch our breath at its pure beauty. It is then that we see that God has been active in a situation.
     
    Even in fiction we can be inspired to experience the kind of grace depicted that can only come from God's presence, acting in and through a person. Victor Hugo's great novel Les Misérables, and the Broadway musical based on the book, is in part the story of a spiritual journey. Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, having served a sentence of 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. As the novel opens, he is out of prison finally. But he is lost and hungry and cold. He is given shelter and food by a kind and generous bishop. During the night, at the bishop's residence, he wakes up, steals the bishop's silver and plates, and runs away. He's captured by the police, brought back to the bishop's residence in shame to return the stolen items. But before anyone can say a word, the bishop greets Jean Valjean: "There you are. I'm glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also. Why did you not take those with the silver and the plates?" A story like Hugo's, of unexpected forgiveness, and release of a former captive still living under disgrace and shame, is his way of showing what it is like to see the kingdom of God being near.
     
    More often than not we will see the kingdom of God being near in unexpected and surprising ways. Over the past seven months I have periodically asked for prayers for a dear friend Jeanette, who was diagnosed in late June with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. About four months ago, my husband Phil preached a sermon right here in which he described how Jeanette has not yet been made physically well, but now she had recognized that she has been made whole through this ordeal. Since that time Jeanette has been through several more rounds of chemotherapy. This past Tuesday night, Phil and I were present, along with a few friends, at a special birthday party for Jeanette. She is doing relatively well physically -- as much as one can hope for in her situation. With the effects of the chemo, the drain of living with such uncertainty regarding the future have markedly changed her. But not all the changes we observed were for the worst. We went thinking we were there to support and care for our friend, but unexpectedly she ministered to us. We experienced the time with her as sacred. She described how each day has become, for her, an opportunity to experience God's presence in the small things. She told us how she delights in the kindness of others who bring a meal, how she reads and rereads notes of get well wishes and love that she receives, and as she does she thanks God for each person and prays for their needs. Describing her Christmas celebration as a quiet one, it became clear that it was rich with deep and meaningful conversations with her children and husband, as well as a few silly moments sprinkled in. As that evening came to an end, I believe each of us experienced God's kingdom having come near to us. Love, joy, peace, hope renewed, faith uplifted -- the qualities that are only experienced when the God who is love is made known -- were gently present.
     
    One of the last tasks that I'll complete for the church as your interim pastor will be to finalize the annual report that is sent to the ELCA office. One question in the report asks for a yes or no answer to this question: in the last year has someone besides a congregational leader shared a personal story during worship about God's activity in their life? That's a new question this year. But since you know you'll be judged on it next year, you might want to be thinking about that one in advance. In an atmosphere of confusion, contention on the national scene, and stories of concern around our city, it may be more important than ever to find ways for you to express among yourselves signs of God's activity, God's presence breaking in. I know you have them. You are people who exhibit God's grace and kindness. You are very capable of seeing it around you. You have stories and examples to share that can remind others to see, to know, and to be glad that the kingdom is indeed very near to us.
     
    So as I said earlier, part of responding to the call of Jesus is taking note of the signs of God's presence already near to us. There is at least one other part to responding to the call of Jesus in today's gospel reading. Jesus calls us to repent, to turn around and notice that the kingdom of God is near. And further, Jesus told the early disciples that they would be fishing for people. There they are [motioning to altar display], people caught in the net -- in a good way. He entrusts his ministry to us to effectively make his kingdom known, as we care for people as Jesus would do.
     
    You've likely come across the story that came out about a week ago regarding United Church of Christ congregations and the Deaconess Foundation exhibiting God's kingdom values in an inspiring way. Recognizing that medical debt was oppressing people laboring under its weight prompted 14 UCC (United Church of Christ) congregations in St. Louis to raise about $60,000 to bring some relief. Together with $40,000 given by the Deaconess Foundation, they were able to work with a New York based nonprofit called RIP (yes, "Rest In Peace") Medical Debt to purchase $12.9 million in debt relief. Typically, these unpaid debts have been purchased by a debt collection agency. $100,000 was used and was able to purchase $12.9 million in medical debt. That's a pretty good economic move. But the best move is that it was used to help more than 11,000 families across dozens of zip codes in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Last week, each family received yellow envelopes in the mail notifying them that lingering medical bills have been paid. The average amount given was $1166. Teara Norris, 34, one of the recipients, said that her debt had accumulated mainly for frequent hospital stays and blood transfusions. She said she was born with sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder. "This is going to be a life-changer for my family," she said. She has two children. "I'm going to be able to not worry and stress about the medical bills that I have. It's going to allow me to take better care of my family." When we think of the implications of this, it's natural to think of and wonder about just how life-changing this really is for so many people in our larger community. What kind of difference does this make for the 11,000 families, to be freed at least in part from the burden of debt? But stepping back a bit further to see the bigger picture, I wonder what the impact of this is as thousands of St. Louisans have read this, and a watching world has read this in the international news. And that they might see that the kingdom of God is actually near to us through God's people, and what God's people have done in God's name.
     
    Jesus making disciples into fishers for people often gets described very narrowly, as mostly telling people about Jesus. That is an important aspect and should not be forgotten, of course. But it is also true that our culture in general has heard quite a bit about Jesus. What people are longing for is to see those of us who know we belong to Jesus, showing them by the way we live and act, anticipate, and put into place evidence that God's kingdom is very near, demonstrating by our lives that living in the kingdom means sharing and joining in God's restorative work in all of creation, bringing good news to the poor in ways that bring hope and sustainable life, proclaiming release to those captivated by any number of problems, recovery of sight to those blinded in a myriad of ways, and freeing those oppressed by sin and social ills. God's work. Our hands. That's the ELCA motto. It understands that the kingdom belongs to God, and all of the redemptive work truly does come from God's spirit. But it also understands that we are the hands and the feet and the willing bodies that carry out God's kingdom's work.
     
    I want to look at you just for a few seconds. Not because gazing out and seeing your beloved faces is not already seared deeply within my memory, because it is. But also because I want to envision you and your future. And I want you to pause and think about it as well as you and I turn our focus more and more toward looking for where God is an action, for where the kingdom has come near, and where we can join God wholeheartedly in following Jesus where we are led. It's a beautiful, beautiful vision. Rejoice, people of God. The kingdom of God is near. And your place in it? Well, it has to be spectacular. Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Matthew 4:12-23, Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1
  • Jan 19, 2020Dwelling in Christ is What We Seek
    Jan 19, 2020
    Dwelling in Christ is What We Seek
    Series: (All)
    January 19, 2020. Wouldn't we love for all the sin of the world to just disappear? Pastor Stephanie's sermon on this celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is on Jesus' first two disciples, who were hopeful that he would take away the sin of the world.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
     
    I have a question for you. Have you found what you're looking for? There's a song by the Irish rock band U2 that begins with these words: "I have climbed the highest mountains / I have run through the fields / . . . / But I still haven't found / What I'm looking for." I'm sure some of you could sing that right along. It repeats many times, "And I still haven't found what I'm looking for." That song has a haunting quality to it. Its popularity seems to suggest that it hit a very responsive chord with the wonderings of many. Most days, we are busy enough with just doing what is necessary for the time being. It's not until a question like this is posed to us, or we are reminded through song or through other thoughts that come to us, that we realize that it's a question tugging at our hearts. Have we found what we're looking for?
     
    In today's gospel, we are back in the same location as we were last week, with John the Baptist and Jesus being baptized and hearing the words, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." That was the Gospel of Matthew. But in this week's gospel reading from the Gospel of John, we again have John the Baptist. But this time he is still watching and waiting for the messiah, the anointed one of God, whom he is looking for. He'd been told that he would find what he was looking for by baptizing -- that when the right one arrived, the Spirit would descend and remain on him. "I myself did not know him," John says. "But the one who sent me to baptize with water said, 'The one on whom you see the spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' "
     
    Can you just picture John the Baptist standing waist-deep in the Jordan River, looking intently at each person who comes to him for baptism, searching for some glimmer of divinity? And then when they come up out of the water, looking toward heaven to see if this will be the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains, always seeking to discover if he has at last found what he is looking for? It's kind of like panning for gold in some ways. You've seen pictures of this, or maybe some of you have done this on vacation out West. You scoop up a pan full of sand and gravel from the bottom of a creek and swirl it around, hoping that the sand and gravel will slosh out and some heavier gold will actually settle on the bottom. On a good day you might actually see a few flecks of gold in your pan. But of course, what you're really hoping for is a big, solid nugget the size of a golf ball. When Jesus appears before John for baptism, it is like John scooped up a nugget the size of a bowling ball. John's heart and mind are fully engaged. This is the one that we've been looking for.
     
    Of course, he can't keep this good news to himself. The next day, two of his disciples are standing there with him. When he sees Jesus walking by he says to them, "Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." And immediately they leave John and start following Jesus. (I might say parenthetically here that we'll be singing "Lamb of God" twice this Sunday. We always sing it during communion, but it was chosen for the gospel acclamation because it shows that this is lifted right out of scripture. Just in case you ever wonder where some of the liturgy comes from, it pretty much follows what is scriptural. And this is one of the things that we get to celebrate in a big way today.) But now these disciples leave John -- and they've been his disciples -- and they start following Jesus. I wonder though, how closely they dared to follow him?
     
    That they were intrigued and hopeful that Jesus would indeed take away the sin of the world is understandable. Wouldn't we love for all the sin of the world to just disappear? It's just too much to handle, all the bad news reports of violence and hatred that we receive. But what if they were realistic enough to know that there was plenty of sin within them? And if Jesus would zap away all the sin in the world, well, maybe they'd better follow from a distance. I know that I might want to leave some space between Jesus and me if I were in their  situation, not knowing how he was going to take away the sin of the world. He might want to deal with me and my sin in a way that's uncomfortable. At some point Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?" Instead of answering him, they come up with a seemingly odd question for him. Was it out of nervous energy that they just blurted out, "Rabbi, where are you staying?"
     
    Is the best answer they can come up with a question like "What hostel are you staying at tonight?" No, not really. They really are kind of answering Jesus' question by wondering if he is the one that they want to be following. They don't literally mean, where will you be sleeping? They are asking about his nature, his very identity. The Greek word "meno" is used here, and it's used frequently throughout the Gospel of John. It occurs something like 40 times, and every time it means some version of "to abide," "to remain," "to stay with," "to dwell within." Meno is what Jesus uses when he speaks of himself, later on in John, abiding in the Father, and the disciples abiding in him. It's the same word Jesus uses when he talks about the vine and the branches in chapter 15: "Whoever abides in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit."
     
    To use preacher Tom Long's words, in essence the two disciples were asking Jesus, "Rabbi, who are you? Where is the home, the center of your life?" So you can think of it like this: when Jesus asked them, "What are you seeking?" they responded, "We are seeking a meaningful place in which our lives can dwell, they can take root, they can be at peace, they can be at home. Is that in you?" "Come and see," Jesus says. Come and see. "Come and see," Jesus says. "Come and dwell close to me, and I will show you, I will transform you with Epiphany eyes. You will see the reality of my kingdom." This story is compelling, because if we're honest with ourselves, we'll see that (seven words) dwelling in Christ is what we seek. We might feel quite at home in our lives, but any restlessness that we have, or thirst for deeper meaning that we experience, or longing for a centeredness to tie up the loose ends, reveals that deep down we are longing to be at home more fully with Jesus. Being part of the church means we are looking for the community of people with whom we can abide in God's presence. Being at home here means we can inhale God's grace and remember whose we are, as well as remember that we do not seek that home alone, but rather with each other. Like the first two disciples, we are here because we are seeking our home in Jesus. And we've heard him say, "Come and see." And so we follow Christ together because dwelling in Christ is what we seek.
     
    As we grow in making our dwelling or our home in Jesus, remaining or abiding in him, we will certainly have moments when we rest in the truth that we are deeply loved and claimed. After all, we are the beloved children of God. But we'll also find that we'll have moments when we are called to account by the gospel, by the one who makes his home within us, for that which needs to be set right. He takes away the sin of the world all right. His body and blood are given for us for the forgiveness of sin. As we abide in him, he abides in us. He cleans us up from the inside out. As we dwell in him, he makes us aware of the judgments of others that we make, of how we use our resources, for the words that we use in speaking about and to each other, for the times that we were silent and should not have been, as well as for the times we used our voices when we should have remained quiet. As we keep following the call to seek our home in Jesus, like those very first two disciples, we will be challenged to change. And that challenge will never stop. In a sense, we are continually looking for him, for more of him. When we live our lives as those who seek our home in Jesus, that means we live our lives always on the way, always continuing to learn how to better reflect Jesus in this world, working for mercy, love, and justice for all people. Seeking to be home in Jesus will comfort us when we are afflicted. But make no mistake about it, it will afflict us whenever we become too comfortable and complacent. That is something that must be somewhere in the gospel's job description. Being at home with Jesus is wonderfully fulfilling, but it comes at a price of being ever re-created and made new by his very presence.
     
    Now this weekend, as you know, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Dr. King was a preacher who knew the comfort found in seeking his home in Jesus. Being at home in Jesus centered him in a profound way, and gave him a love for others and a way of leading with non-violence that demonstrated the gospel for all to see, who would be able to see and comprehend. At the same time, being at home with Jesus, or abiding in him, took him to the places where Jesus dared to walk: right into the face of cruelty and injustice and hatred, in order to challenge its right to exist. As Dr. King wrote letters from his cell in Birmingham jail, far from his physical home with his family, he could still be at home with Jesus. He writes this in one of those letters: "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. There is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy . . . Now is the time to make [racial] justice a reality for all of God's children . . . The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." He could have written that yesterday.
     
    At the 2019 ELCA churchwide assembly, if you keep up with some of those documents and pronouncements, the fact that the ELCA is 96% white was addressed. So a paper, which was long conceived and carefully written, was presented and adopted. It was called a "Strategy Toward Authentic Diversity within the ELCA." On all levels, leaders and churches are seeking ways to achieve ethnic diversity. When we take the time to listen and learn about the ways that people of color have experienced church life with us, we realize that we have a lot of room for growth, those of us from European backgrounds. If you read the latest issue of "Living Lutheran" magazine you came across an article entitled "Unpacking white privilege: the important work of making the church less harmful." If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so. Included in your bulletin you'll find a page taken from this article. It starts with bold letters saying, "As a European American in the ELCA," and followed by 26 items that are thought-provoking and should be conscience-pricking for all of those of us in the European American category. I invite you to take it home and look it over, thinking what it must be like for people of color to deal with some of the issues that are highlighted there. It's a call to awareness. If what we are looking for is a fuller expression and experience of God's kingdom among us, then this and so many other things can send us in the right direction. To be at home with Jesus is to dare to take on large challenges by following his lead through them. It's not always comfortable, but its presence within us takes us to where he is. And he is always shining light in darkness. To be a member of the St. Louis community is to recognize that the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, is to be found working to uproot racism and to replace it with love and care for all of God's people. If we want to come and see where he is, we will find him there. We will also find him everywhere there's a need for his light to shine, bringing hope, forgiveness, and restoration for any number of needs.
     
    So what are you looking for? The good news is we don't need to keep wondering and waiting to find the hope of the world. He has come and he is among us. His call to the early disciples is the call to us: will we come and follow him? He is calling our names. And following him and dwelling in him as he dwells within us will never be the same, as goes the song we are going to use today for our hymn of the day. So, please rise to sing "Will You Come and Follow Me?"
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, John 1:29-42, MLK, Peter, Andrew, Cephas
  • Jan 12, 2020Persistent Reminders That We Are God’s Beloved
    Jan 12, 2020
    Persistent Reminders That We Are God’s Beloved
    Series: (All)
    January 12, 2020. Our interim resident pastor, Stephanie Doeschot, is ending her time with us very soon. Today, in one of her last sermons for us, she again reminds us that we are all beloved children of God.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
     
    Just to put your minds at ease, if you were here last week and either witnessed or heard about my little episode with overheating and dehydration, I'm going to take a large drink of water right now. [Takes a drink.] There, that's done. It is fitting anyway to talk about water today, since we are looking at the baptism of Jesus -- and baptism always requires water. Here in this church it requires very little, but water is essential. You may have heard this analogy before, but some have likened the practice of baptism to some of the branches of the military. Some Christian churches are like the Navy: they love a lot of water. They would be like the Baptists, who require full immersion for a legitimate baptism. Others are like the Army, who deal only with small amounts of water such as we have here in the baptismal font. A sprinkling of water will do, and that suits us just fine. Other churches are like the Marines. They operate on either land or sea, so they will do immersions or sprinkling. It's all the same to them. Regardless of the mode, all in the church see water as a means to communicate that we are washed in the forgiveness of Christ, and we emerge from either a lot or a little bit of water as people with a particular identity. In the rite of baptism, we are reminded of the great love that God has for us in Christ, and are called the beloved children of God.
     
    I wonder, though, if that is the first thing we think about when we are asked to define ourselves. Think about it. Most often when we think about who we are, and someone asks us, we answer with some version of "I am what I do." I work in an office. I paint houses. I sell real estate. I teach children. I perform surgeries. I write music. I clean homes. I go to school. Those are all fine, important things to do. But what we do doesn't define us. It tells something about how we spend some of our time, but it's still not truly who we are at the core. And that's a good thing, because what happens when a job gets outsourced, or we become disabled? Then, seeing ourselves as what we do becomes very, very inadequate.
     
    Another way we may describe who we are might be well, "Here is what people say about me." And we could list the accolades and awards we've received and feel really, really good about ourselves. It's a powerful thing to have people speak well of us. But then what happens to our sense of ourselves when negative things are said about us? If our identities are tied to what is said about us, we'll be on a very, very narrow balance beam, because no one hears only positive things about themselves. And studies have shown that a person can get ten compliments in a week, but if there's that one insult or criticism or negative comment that strikes at their heart about their character or something they've done, that is likely what they'll remember the most.
     
    Another way we can view ourselves is to think, "I am what I have." I have things that make my life enjoyable: good health, good friends, and family. That too is all well and good until losses come, and they do come in every life. What if I lose some of what I have that most defines me? When our identities come from what we do, what people say about us, or what we have, we are set up for living a roller coaster life. Because all these things vary throughout life, and they will at some points fail us, because they are a poor substitute for understanding where our true identity lies.
     
    Henri Nouwen, in his book The Life Of The Beloved, reminds us that Jesus was tempted to define himself in every one of those three categories, in what we call the Temptations of Jesus in the Wilderness. The first temptation that Jesus faced was to define himself by what he did. If you'll remember, the tempter whispered, "Turn these stones into bread, and then you'll really be somebody." Jesus refused. The second temptation Jesus faced was for him to uphold his reputation as Son of God and test God by jumping from the top of the temple. Again, Jesus refused. The third temptation came when he was shown all the kingdoms of the world. If only Jesus would bow down and worship Satan, he was promised, then Jesus could have it all. Jesus once again refused. Jesus responded to each of these lies of the false narratives of his true identity in each case. At his core he knew he was not what he did. He was not about keeping up a reputation based on a distorted self-image. And he could not be defined by what he had or did not have.
     
    The story of his baptism precedes these temptations for a very good reason. It was in the context of our baptism story today that Jesus could say no to the wrong ways of identifying himself, and say yes to his true identity throughout his earthly life. It was through his baptism that he heard these sweet and all-powerful words that told him most clearly who he was: "You are my beloved and with you I am well pleased." That message guided Jesus' three-year ministry that followed. Whether he was able to see a person receive wholeness or wellness that he had to offer, or when he was met with stubborn resistance to God's love, he kept hearing the voice that told him he was God's beloved. Whether Jesus faced warm welcomes or was met by angry crowds, he kept hearing the voice that told him he was God's beloved. When he had a sumptuous meal at the home of friends, or when he said he had no place to lay his head, he kept on hearing the voice that told him he was God's beloved. That is the same message that you and I need to hear about ourselves, because it is the truth that we affirm in our baptisms. It is the truth about the way God views each and every one of us. We are God's beloved.
     
    Now, in a few weeks my time of serving as your interim resident pastor will conclude. As I move forward from our time together, I will take with me so very many good memories of conversations and interactions with you as a congregation. You have enriched my life through your faith and witness to the gospel of grace, that has clearly formed you as the beloved people of God. Honestly, you are just some of the best people I've ever been privileged to know. And I've been alive for a very long time and I've known a lot of people, so I do not say that lightly. You do demonstrate well what it means to be the beloved children of God.
     
    One of the many conversations that will stick with me long after I depart occurred in my office with the Mudd family, as we talked about the baptism of Rick in early December. Not only were parents Philip and Sarah well-prepared to bring their son to receive baptism, they had also prepared his big sister Katie well for the occasion. Two-year-old Katie confidently answered her parents when they asked her to tell me what was going to happen to Rick soon. "He's going to be baptized," she answered. And then this: "And Katie, what will we call Rick then?" "A child of God." Well, we did not need to talk any longer about the theological implications of baptism after that. I did not have any more questions for the parents, because they were clearly telling their two-year-old Katie about her own identity in Christ, and also how her brother was to be identified. Both were told that they were the children of God, God's own beloved ones. Rick (eight months old at his baptism) may not have heard the words telling him that day that he is God's beloved, but I can well imagine that his parents and sister, all of you, will continue to tell him, and then tell him again as he grows up, that he is a child of God. Every time he sees others baptized he can remember that just as that person is proclaimed a child of God, all of these people and more, that also describes his fundamental identity.
     
    We all need persistent reminders that the truth about us from God's perspective -- the perspective that matters the most -- is that we are God's beloved. We are cherished. We are safe, and ultimately well and tethered to the source of life and love. We are made in God's image. And just as God proclaimed when creating all things, God delights in us and calls us created beings very, very good. Imagine for yourself that you hear these words from God: you are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased. There are additional words that have been addressed to us from God throughout the Bible. Here are just a few: I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have written your name on the palms of my hands. I have knitted you together in your mother's womb. Precious. That's what you and I and all people are to God. Beloved. God's own children in whom God delights.
     
    Can we carry that message with us as the dominant way we see ourselves, day in and day out, year in and year out, in the good times and not-so-good times? God gives us that message because it frees us from the baggage of ill-fitting and destructive identities. It is most truly who we are, independent of other voices and circumstances. Embracing the identity of "beloved child of God" is the only way we can love God and love others who are also beloved children of God. It is from a place of deep security that we are cherished, that we can live the full life that God wants us to have. But granted, it's a lifelong journey to claim that identity and live into it.
     
    In closing I share with you a poem written by Jan Richardson. It's entitled "Beloved is Where We Begin."
     
    If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing. Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you. Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for. I cannot promise this blessing will free you from danger, from fear, from hunger or thirst, from the scorching of sun or the fall of the night. But I can tell you that on this path there will be help. I can tell you that on this way there will be rest. I can tell you that you will know the strange graces that come to our aid only on a road such as this, that fly to meet us bearing comfort and strength, that come alongside us for no other cause than to lean themselves toward our ear and with their curious insistence whisper our name: Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
     
     
    As you come forward later for communion, you may want to dip your fingers in the water to remind yourself that you truly are the beloved of God. I encourage you to do whatever it takes to repeat that mantra to yourself, so that that becomes truly the way you see yourself, because it gives great honor also to God.
     
    Please rise now to sing our hymn of the day, and thanks to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Matthew 3:13-17, Circle of Grace
  • Jan 5, 2020The Journey of the Magi
    Jan 5, 2020
    The Journey of the Magi
    Series: (All)
    January 5, 2020. In this sermon, written by Pastor Stephanie and read by Jim Bennett, we look at the journey of the Magi as they follow the star that will lead them to the baby Jesus. They did not know how far it would be or how long it would take. But they were committed to the challenge, and one thing they did have was each other, a fellowship of star seekers.
     
    [This sermon was written by pastor Stephanie, and she wrote it in her own personal context. In the audio recording, Jim Bennett reads it as she has written it.]
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
     
    Recently a friend had asked me how we like living in a condo in Columbia, Illinois. We moved over there several months ago. And to be sure, there's a little more driving involved to participate in some of the city's amenities. But there's one thing that we are increasingly becoming aware of and enjoy a bit more by being in a smaller city, and that is the ability to gaze at the wide, expansive sky that fascinates Phil and me both day and night. We see so many interesting cloud formations, sunrises and sunsets, and so many more planets and stars than we could see on walks in our former neighborhood. I guess stars have always held a special interest for me. I remember gazing up at the Milky Way with wonder as a child, and that was well before we had such sophisticated telescopes that could tell us just how extremely far away these heavenly bodies were from Earth.
     
    Today, we just sang a song called "Follow the Star." And probably like you, I was curious as to how far the star could have been that the Magi followed so long ago. Also, the number of times that the verbs in our lessons today use the word "see" or "saw" or "observed" and other variations that indicate the possibility of seeing the light that comes from God through the readings of Isaiah, the Apostle Paul, and in the gospel lesson, causes one to wonder how that could be so. It seems that following a guiding star and recognizing the light that comes from God would call for some extraordinary vision. Something like, as an optometrist might say, 20/20 vision. Because when I look at stars, I cannot imagine seeing a moving star that stops and lingers right over the place where Jesus lay, according to that often sung carol "The First Noel." As is often the case in biblical interpretation, it helps to spend more time wondering about the deep meaning than getting all hung up on what could possibly be so.
     
    An author I like, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote once upon a time there were some very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries, minding their own business, when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imagination, but they were wise enough to know that it didn't matter. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug that they had been waiting for all their lives. I like that, because her thoughts take us to a mystical awareness of God leading in inexpressible ways, far more compelling and interesting than we often make this story out to be. And along with that she discovered an ancient Syriac text from the second century that shed more light for her. One where the Magi were and how they were able to be guided to that place where they could worship Jesus, the newborn king.
     
    Brent Landau, a translator of that ancient text, revealed in his work that the Magi who came seeking Jesus might not have been primarily astronomers at all. He indicated that the manuscripts reveal they were first and foremost mystics, spiritual people who had dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and seeking after God's leading. As this tradition goes, generations before, these mystics were given a promise -- a prophecy of sorts -- that they were to guard and protect. They waited and looked forward with longing to a time when it was written that a star of indescribable brightness would appear, heralding the birth of God in human form. Every month of the year for centuries, the order of the Magi carried out its ancient rituals in expectation of that star's arrival. They ascended their country's most sacred mountains and prayed in silence at the mouth of the cave where they kept their prophetic books. And whenever one of the Magi died, a son or a close relative would take his place and their order continued through the ages. Regardless of the exact details, we can learn something from the Magi: their readiness to respond when they sensed God's beckoning them, and their commitment to engage on a journey to a place which called for them to rise to the challenge of following the unknown.
     
    The season of Epiphany. Epiphany means "manifestation" or "revelation." When it comes as a light leading the Magi, it compelled them to follow and trust, not knowing the consequences in advance. They did not know how far they would journey. They did not know how long the expedition would take. They did not know what kinds of circumstances they would encounter along the way. Most often when God illumines our hearts and minds to follow with faith into uncharted territory, we do not know, but we will find that it's not a smooth path without obstacles. After all, the journey of the Magi describes how the little interlude with King Herod could have derailed the whole journey, yet it did not.
     
    Many of you might be familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Fellowship of the Ring, either from the book or the movie version of it. Even if you're not, I'd like to share a scene with you. And the story features a wise wizard named Gandalf who assures the young hobbit Frodo Baggins that he is indeed the one destined to carry the evil ring back to its destruction in the fires of Mordor. No one would have guessed that it would have been Frodo to be the one chosen for such a task. The creatures Tolkien invented named hobbits were not particularly brave as this particular hobbit Frodo, and he even was afraid and unsure of his ability to respond to that calling. But there's something about Frodo -- his loyalty to friends, his inner strength, and his innate capacity to resist the ring's evil -- that made him the right one. "The ring came to you for a reason, Frodo," Gandalf tells him. "There is comfort in that." "I wish the ring had never come to me," Frodo despairs. "I wish that had never happened." "So do all who live in such times," Gandalf replied. "But while we cannot choose the time we live in, we can choose how to respond to that time we are given." Then, in perhaps the bravest words uttered by hobbit or human, Frodo says at last, "I will take the ring, but I do not know the way." It is often like that in the journey of faith. The Magi chose to follow the star not knowing where it would lead. Frodo chose to carry the ring, though he didn't know where it would take him. In ways large and small, we all say yes to things we cannot fully comprehend. "In order to reach a distant shore," writes the artist Andre Gide, "one must consent to lose sight of the shore from which we depart for a very long time."
     
    It makes you wonder sometimes. With all the challenges present for us in this day and age, following God's lead, how is it possible that it can be done? What is there to guide us in this life, into this year 2020, when we do not know the way -- especially when we are honest enough to be so very aware that our own vision is far from perfect 20/20 vision? We have, first of all, the star that is whatever instrument, circumstance, revelation, or calling it is and inspires us to begin our journey in the first place. It is certainly our baptismal identity, as part of letting our light so shine, that calls us to that following -- a light that illumines the love of God to others. Since following that light of Christ was never meant to be a solitary venture, we find that along the way we need help from other sources. The Magi's star, remember, led them at first to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, which was certainly not their ultimate destination. They had come to what seemed like a dead end. So they inquired of others for guidance. We may wonder why asking Herod had had to occur. But Herod passed on the question to those who can consult the ancient scriptures, and that brought them to the answer they needed to take the next step. Yes, there was to be a newborn king, they were told, in the city of Bethlehem, according to the prophet Micah. So off they went to Bethlehem, where they did indeed find what had been promised. Epiphany. The direction of the light of Christ. Illumination, through prayer and seeking after God, including scriptural reflection, brought the Magi to their destination.
     
    One other important factor played a role for the Magi, and is equally important for all of us who seek to follow the light of Christ. The Magi also had each other. They operated as a fellowship of star seekers, as Frodo did with his friends who also accompanied him. There is wisdom and guidance in community for us all. The way of following Christ that is laid out for us all through the New Testament resides in the power of the community bearing the light of Christ. It is when we come together as two or three or more that the Lord promises to be in the midst of us. As we come to learn and pray and struggle together with what it means to follow the light of Christ, we deal with our struggles and our uncertainties together. Christ was quite clear that his followers were not to be alone, that in this life and on this path, we needed one another. It was on God's people together, Isaiah proclaimed, that the light had come. Arise, shine, for the glory of the Lord has shown upon you all.
     
    With boldness and confidence in the Lord, who is the light, may you, may we, may the congregation of Christ Lutheran follow the star of God's leading into this New Year, 2020. As you do so together as a unit, a body of Christ's followers seeking after God through prayer and meditation, listening to and heeding the guidance of God's holy word, and encouraging one another when the way seems somewhat unclear. Our vision may not be, as optometrists say, "perfect 20/20," but there is I think an important awareness that comes with this particular New Year -- in the world's understanding but also in our congregation's understanding. But the one who does possess perfect vision will guide us and show us the way that leads to everlasting peace. It's where we, like the Magi, will find Jesus and worship him with overwhelming joy.
     
    So, please rise and join with me in offering a prayerful response through our next hymn, number 314, "Arise, Your Light Has Come." Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Jim Bennett, Matthew 2:1-12
  • Dec 29, 2019All Kinds of Refugees, All Kinds of Herods
    Dec 29, 2019
    All Kinds of Refugees, All Kinds of Herods
    Series: (All)
    December 29, 2019. What is it like to be a refugee? God told Joseph in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to escape from Herod. What if they had found the border closed when they arrived? In his sermon today, Jon Heerboth tells us that the Herods of this world haven't changed over the millennia. And like Joseph, we must act to respond to God's plan.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    In my whole life, I never had a dream in which I woke up with the idea that I was told to take my family and flee in the middle of the night. But I do remember a night, in November of 1954 in Tokyo, when my father and mother snatched all three of us out of our beds and ran out into the night. The earth shook for a long time, and it shook hard. It was a terrible disaster for a lot of people there, but our parents kept us safely away from anything that might fall on us. To this day, I carry that fear with me in my head -- that the earthquake is the natural disaster that I most fear. When I look back on that it feels like a dream, but it wasn't. It really happened. Just to be sure, I checked before I related this event, because it was so powerful. A lot of people did die that night. But if I had some kind of warning in a dream, I wonder if I would heed it. If I was warned, would I have stayed home on the snowy morning a car slid into me on the way to work? I don't know. In 2005 I awoke in the middle of the night, zapped awake by a dream I couldn't remember, with the sure knowledge that I had to get up and decide to take a different job. And I saw that as some kind of direction and I took it.
     
    Most of us can think of times when a warning would be a great help. We'd love a warning that our slight pain isn't really indigestion, but something needing immediate action. It may be trivial, but I would like a warning as simple as some foreknowledge of a failing car battery. I would certainly pay attention to that. Unfortunately, that's just not how things usually work. As we go through life we make our choices, we pay attention to our instincts and our experiences, we profess our faith of course, and place our trust and hope in God. But most of the time, we are very much on our own.
     
    In today's lesson Joseph received a very strong, very direct warning, and specific instructions about what he should do to keep his family safe. Joseph's dreams seemed much more intense than my own dreams are. An angel came to him in his dream and told him to flee, to clear out, to get away as quickly as the family could go. The angel also told him why: that Herod was looking for him and would kill him. Joseph got specific directions about where he should go, and that he should stay in Egypt until the angel told him otherwise. Now, if I had a dream that vivid, would I heed it? Would I take my family in the middle of night and head for the border? I would like to think so. But Joseph was tuned in and receptive to the angels' words, and he acted quickly to save his wife and her son Jesus. But safe arrival in Egypt didn't stop the violence back in Bethlehem. When Herod could not find Jesus he ordered his people to kill all the boys, two and younger, in and around Bethlehem. Many scholars believe Herod suffered from depression and paranoia. According to the historian Josephus, Herod killed his favorite wife, his brother-in-law, three of his sons, 300 of his top military officers, and many others. Herod was so brutal and killed so many people that the murder of the children around Bethlehem seemed trivial, and is not even recorded in history. Herod was a violent man and would not ignore the baby the Magi came to honor as a king. He would have been enraged when he discovered that the Magi dismissed his order to come back and report to him. So, he took action himself to protect his power and his throne.
     
    Matthew's story of the flight to Egypt reminds us of when Pharaoh ordered the death of male Hebrew infants in Exodus 1. Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill boy babies, and when that didn't work he ordered the Egyptians to throw the Israelite boys into the Nile. In today's gospel lesson, righteous Judeans must flee to Egypt to escape Herod's massacre in their own land. People like Herod and the pharaohs before him were powerful rulers who destroyed anyone they saw as a threat to their power. Walter Brueggemann, the noted Bible scholar and former professor at Eden Seminary, wrote about attempts to figure out which pharaoh might have been responsible for murdering the Hebrew babies in the Exodus story. He finally determined that it didn't matter which one. He wrote, "When you've seen one pharaoh, you've seen them all. They all act the same way in their greedy, uncaring, violent, self-sufficiency." Herod was that kind of man too, and he was out to get Jesus. God acted through Joseph to save the child from certain death, so that God's plan could move toward fulfillment. Jesus was in danger, God spoke to Joseph through an angel, and Joseph took action.
     
    The Herods and the Pharaohs of this world haven't changed over the millennia. They continue in their greed, their lack of care for people around them, and their instinct to oppress and even to kill. Their only concern would be to quash any threat to their power. In the gospel for today, God's command was, "Flee to Egypt." What do you see in your mind's eye when you hear that command? I can picture Joseph snatching Jesus from sleep and telling Mary to quickly gather their things. I see them fleeing through the darkness of night, looking over their shoulders to be certain they were not followed. With each moment, they were a little farther from the known and the familiar, and closer to a land they did not know. Their one thought, their only priority, would be to protect their child and keep him safe.
     
    I hear this story in a new way these days. This is a time of mass migration around the world. Large numbers of people are subject to persecution for their race or ethnicity, their nationality, their opposition to a ruler, their religion or sect, or their perceived difference. In some places people are on the run from war. In others, from murderous gangs. Many endure poverty. If we believe the news stories, the slaughter of the innocents continues around the world today with no let-up. People risk everything to flee to their Egypts, to what they hope will be someplace in which they can live safely and find people who will welcome and accept them.
     
    What if Joseph had found the border to Egypt closed when they arrived? What if the border was blocked by a wall, or if they had been turned back? What story would we be telling today? What if guards had taken the two-year-old Jesus from his family and placed Mary and Joseph in prison? Would there be any good news for you or me, for the refugees of the world? You may remember the tragic photograph of a two-year-old child and her father after they drowned in the Rio Grande last summer. They were fleeing El Salvador for safety and economic opportunity. When they arrived at the US border and asked for asylum, they were turned away because of a policy called metering. They decided to try to make it across the Rio Grande, bypassing the ports of entry. First, the father carried the child across and set her on the bank. When he returned to help his wife, the little girl threw herself in the water. Her father tried to rescue her but they both drowned in the river. I can feel the parents' fear for their child's safety, and their panic when she threw herself in the river. We can all feel the mother's desolation at the death of her husband and daughter Valeria, just like the timeless verse from Jeremiah in today's lesson: "Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled because they are no more." This story was in the news for a week or so. Mainly, I suspect, because of the strikingly sad photograph of the drowned refugees. The victims and the grieving mother have faded from the news and from our memories. They are just one story in the endless stream of refugees that pass briefly across our awareness.
     
    I cannot explain why the child Jesus found refuge and the children of Bethlehem did not. I don't know why one child is safe and another drowns in a river, or is lost from a raft at sea, only to be quickly forgotten. Matthew made it clear that the murder of the children was not the will of God. It was the result of Herod protecting his power. It was not because God loved Jesus more than God loved a drowned refugee like Valeria. It is not because Jesus was God's son and Valeria was just another Salvadoran refugee. If that is what we think, then we have missed the point of Christmas. We would be denying that the word became flesh, human flesh, vulnerable flesh subject to murder or neglect from tyrants, just like Valeria's flesh and just like yours and like mine. The angel did warn Joseph though, and he took action and Jesus was saved from Herod's violence, and later saved again from Herod's successor Archelaus. Jesus wound up in Nazareth, a place so humble that no one would think of looking there for a king.
     
    If you have ever left what was known and familiar to you, and traveled to the unknown and unfamiliar, if you ever knew your life was at risk and you had to make a change, or if your survival depended on crossing a border to a strange land, you know what it is like to be a refugee. Maybe your life has been disrupted and you needed a safe place to get away. Maybe you've known that it was no longer safe or good for you to stay where you were, or to stay the way you were. Perhaps you realized your life, your mental health, your economic welfare, or even your children were at risk. Some of us may be refugees from a miserable Christmastime, or fleeing from grief, sorrow, or fear of loss. If you've ever experienced these, or a thousand other experiences like these, then you know something of what it is like to be a refugee.
     
    Herod was not just a king who lived 2,000 years ago. Herod lives on today. In every era, Herod has the power to corrupt, to abuse, to disrupt, to destroy. Herod is the one who will strike down any threat to the tyrant's power. Herod is the one who creates the refugees and then ignores them or persecutes them. Herod is the one who will turn the refugee away. There are all kinds of refugees, and all kinds of Herods.
     
    I suspect that there are many people all over the world who have heard and responded to a nighttime call to flee their situations. There are two actions in today's gospel story: God delivers, but Joseph decides. That is the story of faith and our lives. Like the fragile holy family, our lives are held in the providential care of God. Deliverance is God's responsibility, not ours. Yet, like Joseph, we must decide how to respond to what we perceive to be the plan of God. We have to act. But that's seldom easy, and we will make wrong decisions. We will need to experience again and again in the Eucharist, the promise of God from the beginning. We decide, but God delivers. God, who was so determined to save us that God sent Jesus, God's very own son. Jesus was human flesh like us. Jesus suffered -- like all people suffer -- felt pain, hunger, and fear. God used Joseph to care for Jesus when he was helpless and vulnerable, so that he could live out his life and bring us to salvation.
     
    So here we are on Sunday morning in God's house, our sanctuary, our Egypt. Here is where we are safe among our sisters and brothers. God talks to us here through God's word, just like God talked to Joseph through the angels. Here is where we gather as refugees before God's holy table, fed with the word and sacrament, reassured of God's salvation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Joseph received direction from God, he followed the angels' instructions. We too are all God's children. We can't remain here in our sanctuary either. We must leave Egypt to return to our daily lives, with the strength to carry out God's plan for us. We pray for God's mercy and protection for everyone, and then we take action. We go into our communities to help feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and provide protection for the weak and vulnerable, so that God may work God's plan through us. God delivers, but we decide. We are the ones who must take action. Amen.
     
    Let's pray again the prayer for the day: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm in adversity, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit and God, now and forever. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth, Matthew 2:13-23, Exodus 1, Jeremiah 31:15
  • Dec 24, 2019Behold His Glory, Full of Grace and Truth
    Dec 24, 2019
    Behold His Glory, Full of Grace and Truth
    Series: (All)
    December 24, 2019. The prophet Isaiah says a little child shall lead them. The way that children interpret nativity scenes can demonstrate that. Pastor Stephanie's message this Christmas Eve is about beholding Jesus, full of grace and truth, in and around the world.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate together this evening.
     
    A year ago I was invited back to the prior church that my husband Phil and I served, to speak at the installation of a pastor who succeeded us. My job was to give the "charge" to the congregation, a part of the service that acknowledges the partnership between pastor and congregation, urging the congregation to play its role well. Of course, I read the formulary that is part of the official installation rite. But I also had the freedom to speak personally, and so I did. Because it was early in Advent, and I had been reading the same John 1 portion that we often read this time of year, my head and heart were full of this phrase: we beheld his glory -- glory, as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. So I exhorted the church receiving their new pastor to continue to emulate the grace and truth they saw in Jesus. Come to think of it, that would be the same thing I'd encourage Christ Lutheran Church, as soon you will be welcoming your new pastor, following the lead of the one who is full of grace and truth. It doesn't get any better than that.
     
    Tonight we are beholding Jesus. Our plan for this hour is just that simple. We came to see and experience something of his grace and truth. Now, we don't use the verb "behold" very often anymore. I'm not much of a fan of using antiquated language to communicate to 21st century people, but there are some words that I just hang onto because we don't have any one word in the English language to replace them. "Behold" is one such word. Whenever it is used in the biblical text, it is a commanding word. That means we should pay very close attention. The Gospel of John, chapter 1 says the "Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . we beheld his glory, full of grace and truth." In that context, the word "beheld" means we have contemplated the full impact of his glory. That was the testimony of the early disciples. Well we have not merely noticed it, they're saying. We have wondered about it. We have marveled over it. His glory, his essence is full of grace and truth, the likes of which we see nowhere else. Beholding his glory, contemplating its meaning and marveling at it, requires our full attention.
     
    A few weeks ago, I saw a photo on Instagram from a young pastor in Michigan who is my friend Monica. She and her husband Steve have three young children. She wrote that they had setup a nativity set on their coffee table that had all the traditional characters, made of unbreakable materials. It was a set designed for young children to handle, to reenact the story of the shepherds and the sheep coming near to baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, with an angel nearby -- all of the main characters. You get the picture. But the photo Monica shared was of a scene that she and Steve were surprised and delighted to see a few days after the nativity had been brought out and setup. The children had added some of their own toy figures to this diorama. Spider-Man was there. So was Elsa from Frozen. There was a pirate, Marshall from Paw Patrol, and some dinosaurs. That photo prompted some good comments from friends, as you might well imagine. One reported that his son had added a pig to his own little nativity set. Now the dad's comment was that he hoped his son knew that even though a good Jewish family wouldn't eat it, the pig was welcomed as one of God's creatures, to come and see, to behold this newborn king -- a baby like no other. Apparently the children saw that everyone needed to be there. Something special was going on in the birth of Jesus. In their own little minds and spirits, they beheld something of his glory, of his grace and of his truth. The "gift of God made flesh and dwelt among us" was for every kind of person and every creature. They seemed to realize that every type of character was welcome to come, to be near the newborn king.
     
    Now, you may be familiar with a verse that comes from the prophet Isaiah that says a little child shall lead them. There's a lot of wisdom in that. The way that children interpret nativity scenes can demonstrate that. Monica and Steve's children perceived that there is something magnetic about this story, this truth, that God has come near. And we all must check this out, behold it, see it for ourselves. Poor shepherds, influential kings, and all types of people in between, are drawn to come and behold the one who embodied grace in all its fullness.
     
    That got me to recalling something else that happened when our own children were young and their nativity set was out for them to play with. Sometimes, when it was time to pack up the nativity to put it back in the box until next year, the baby Jesus would be missing. Well, we'd look and look, and we'd find him in the midst of other toys that were also precious to our sons. It seems that they innately knew that Jesus had to be out into the mix of real life, not contained to one time or place. To really see Jesus is to behold him in and around the world. Beholding the coming of the one who came to dwell among us is also to see the truth of who he is and what is important to him. He came to this troubled world to shed the light of his truth through the entire world, for its salvation.
     
    We have come together tonight to behold him. In the readings, the carols, the candlelight, we experience his grace and truth, and that is very satisfying. Will we also see him as we go out into the world which he loves so much? Will we behold him in our everyday lives in the coming days? Will his grace and truth illuminate the way we see the challenges in our jobs, or hear the political bickering going on, or notice the inequities in our city that keep people from flourishing? Will his grace and truth mend our impaired relationships, bring balance to our overstressed lives, and shine a light of love, allowing us to relax, receive, step into the stream of God's ever-present goodness, and be agents of his love toward others?
     
    The people who walked in darkness have beheld a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them and on us a light has shined. Friends, let us be drawn to this light like a child before the scene of Christ's birth. We have beheld him in his glory, full of grace and truth. By his grace, may we continue to do it every day and every year.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, John 1, Isaiah 11:6
  • Dec 11, 2019The Shoot of Jesse
    Dec 11, 2019
    The Shoot of Jesse
    Series: (All)
    December 11, 2019. Pastor Stephanie's sermon in this Advent evening service is about the shoot of Jesse from Isaiah 11, and how God is bringing new possibilities all around us.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Advent is a time of taking stock of reality, and it's a time of promise. That's quite a profound combination. Usually when we take stock of reality, we realize that we have a lot of work ahead of us. It might be that our cholesterol or triglyceride numbers need to improve, or our financial picture needs to be turned around, or maybe a reality check reveals a relational difficulty which will require much more time and attention than previously. We hold promise for ourselves in believing that with enough effort, we can turn things around. But sometimes even with extraordinary effort, or with loss or brokenness, there is no fixing of a broken heart or a discouraged spirit on the horizon.
     
    Now in the chapters prior to the reading that I read tonight, the prophet Isaiah has been telling the people that difficult circumstances will be their reality. The tallest trees, Isaiah says, will be cut down, and the lofty will be made low. There will be no human effort that will be mighty enough to turn that situation around. So why then does Isaiah get to speak into Advent? Where's the hope? Where's the waiting for God to do something big to turn things around? Well, Isaiah does go on to say a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. From what looked hopeless and lifeless, God says, new life will emerge. In God's timing, and by the mercy of God, the people will see life arise from destruction.
     
    Now, Phil and I have a hiking and photography trip planned in March, going to some of the most spectacular national parks in Arizona and Utah. If you've ever been anywhere where there are sheer walls of granite such as those present in Zion National Park, you've noticed with wonder how seedlings appear in the most unlikely places. You will find them in places where the environment seems most inhospitable. It's quite amazing that a seed that lodges in a narrow crevice could ever have enough soil in which to develop roots and to draw nourishment for growth. But it happens. In the same way, Isaiah tells us, out of the stumps seemingly given up as a lost cause, God brings forth life -- sometimes in very small, barely noticeable ways -- but life nonetheless. A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight.
     
    When I was growing up there was a sweet, elderly couple who lived around the corner from our home. Mrs. Bumgartz always had fresh cookies that she shared with the many, many kids in our neighborhood. And Mr. Bumgartz always had a smile as he walked past our house to join his friends for a cup of coffee and some lively conversation downtown. Then one day we learned that Mrs. Bumgartz had died. When Mr. Bumgartz ventured out of the house again after several weeks had passed, he would walk his familiar route past our house. But now his head was hanging down, the weight of his sorrow causing his shoulders to sag. His smile was gone. He did not even seem to notice us playing nearby anymore. He was like a barren stump, cut off from the life that he had known and had loved. Then, much later on, we started to notice that he would say a few words to us as he walked by while we were playing in our front yard. It seemed like an overnight change. But for him, it must have been painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward sunlight, a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse.
     
    We often decide too soon when things can't grow. "Surely not there," we say about some things. "The rock is too hard, the stump too dead." There are times when we assume whole groups of people cannot grow or thrive. Or the years of seeing cultural trends heading one direction can keep us from noticing when the tide begins to turn, bit by bit. But hope is nothing if not stubborn. All kinds of obstacles can be present, and yet something unexpected pushes up through the surface. A shoot breaks through the rock where you'd least expect it, and a renewed life appears in a broken-hearted old man.
     
    A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair? I've sat there myself. Perhaps you have, too. You might be there just now, at that place where hope seems cut off, where loss and despair, or just resignation to things being the way they are with no relief, have perhaps deadened your heart.
     
    God's Advent word, about a dead stump bringing forth a new shoot, comes to us. It's not a quick panacea, but it's a hopeful message. Even if it comes in a form we don't easily recognize, something small -- nearly imperceptible -- appears and grows. It's often sometime later that we recognize it as the work of God, bringing a hopeful situation out of a very tiny beginning. After all, the prototype shoot of Jesse of which Isaiah speaks, the promised Messiah, seemed to appear out of a very inhospitable situation, and grow without much fanfare or notice, until people looked back and saw him for who he really was. For he grew up before them, like a young plant. And like a root out of dry ground, he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
     
    Yes, a shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse, fragile yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock hard tomb.
     
    God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to notice where God's spirit is bringing new shoots of possibility all around us. Even when all we can see at times is a stump, God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us. "Look. Look over there. Look on the stump. Do you see that green shoot sprouting up?" Do we? Do we wait and wonder and look for God's presence in small and sometimes mysterious ways? Blessed are those who do look and see.
     
    Amen.
     
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    2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Isaiah 11
  • Dec 8, 2019A Proper Introduction
    Dec 8, 2019
    A Proper Introduction
    Series: (All)
    December 8, 2019. The hope of something better is the heart of what repentance truly means. Pastor Stephanie's message is on repentance, introductions, and John the Baptist introducing Jesus.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Grace and peace to each one of you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
     
    Would you pretend with me, for just a few moments, that you are planning a special event? I mean beyond your Christmas dinner, as special as that is. I'm thinking of something in which you might be passionate about, and decide that you want to have a uniquely qualified speaker come, to enlighten people that you will invite, on a specific topic. So, you would reserve the Mead Center and develop a list of things to be done for the preparation of the success of your event. There is one key aspect that can be easily overlooked in such a situation. But it shouldn't be. You can have all the big logistical matters covered and checked off your list. But if you neglect one important element, the stage for your event has not been properly set for maximum effectiveness. Its importance can elude us, because it can seem like just a polite nicety that's added only to provide a little transition to the main event. What is this of which I speak? You probably already guessed it. It's the way that you frame what you want in advance for your audience to be prepared for, so that they will be ready to get the most they possibly can out of what the speaker has to say. It's a proper introduction to the main event.
     
    A thoughtfully prepared introduction heightens the hopes and expectations of what is to come. It provides a context for understanding what will follow. Those who come for the talk, then, need to feel that they have made a good decision in coming, and need to be made ready for what is about to unfold. Come to think of it, I heard a very good introduction made yesterday by Jadee at the women's brunch. As she introduced Katie as the speaker, even though I knew generally what Katie intended to speak on, I found myself leaning in to listen more closely to what Jadee said about how Katie would deal with the topic that already interested me, and clearly the others around me.
     
    Having said all of that, would you laugh out loud if I told you that John the Baptist actually made a very, very good introduction? Or would you just smile inwardly and think I must have him confused with someone else? Because I know after reading the gospel lesson today, there are certain phrases that can just stick in our head that don't sound like they would be part of a good introduction. "You brood of vipers!" Not so much. But there was much more going on in John's message than that. It helps a lot, I think, to view what he said as an introduction, a setup, rather than to view it as the whole message. He was clearly pointing to someone else, the One who would be coming after him. John saw it as his job to prepare listeners to really hear what would be coming next. His role was to create a thirst for what could only be quenched when the Holy One of God would arrive on the scene.
     
    Now we may question his choice of words. But the power, the urgency, and the raw honesty within them was very, very effective. People responded. It says they came in droves, from all parts of other regions, to hear him set this stage, if you will, for the one whom he promised was coming to bring the full message. John's message of making the way prepared for the coming of the Lord was personal, and it transcends time. It is just as relevant for us today as it was for the original audience. Now here, we've had plenty of messages, especially since All Saints' Day, about how the coming of the Lord will make all things new, how all the corrupt will be wiped away, every tear will be dried, peace and justice will reign. It's so easy to rejoice in the news that God is going to address the inequitable systems and the big picture items.
     
    But this message from John, chosen for our attention early in Advent, is to focus on each one of us and our personal need. Praying for the presence of the Lord coming to us takes some internal work for each of us to be made ready. Lest we think we are pretty much already ready to receive him, John makes it clear that each one of us is in need of some wholesale change. When he says of the One to come that he, John himself, is not even worthy to carry his sandals, he's letting us all know that true greatness is about to appear.
     
    Now the words from Malachi, well-known from Handel's oratorio Messiah, come to mind: "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? He is like a refiners fire." No, we are not ready for his coming, John concludes. Not even close. He dares to say that you and I are rehabilitation projects. We need the old ways cut away. We need to be cleansed by water and fire. We need some serious work done on us. Such audacity, we might think. He doesn't even know us. Or does he? Maybe he knows enough of the human condition, in which each of us is caught, to know that even on our best days there's some interior demolition to be done and plenty of rebuilding needed. This is how he says it: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Repent, turn around to leave behind the unhelpful, and be ready to turn toward something vibrant and full of grace and goodness.
     
    Repentance often sounds to us like having to take the awful-tasting medicine that we had to endure as children. We don't like it, but it's supposed to be good for us. So we think it's about getting it over with, and then having some candy afterward. But John's introduction to the coming of Jesus was more compelling than that. Even in his harsh language, he was able to communicate that repentance leads to a chance to take hold of something far, far better than that which we are giving up. That had to be what attracted all those large groups of people as they hiked out to see what John the Baptist in the wilderness was up to. It wasn't just the chance to admit how bad they were -- it was the hope of something better. That is the heart of what repentance truly means. The word in Greek is "metanoia." It's turning away from something toward something better, a transformation of the mind accompanied by changed behaviors and actions, or in John's words it is bearing the fruit of repentance. When true, heartfelt repentance occurs, we begin to see our fallen inclinations the way God does, and we realize how deep-rooted is the corruption in our hearts. This awareness grows slowly over many years, because God mercifully deals with us a little bit over time.
     
    But God sees it all. God's is like the eye of a surgeon which sees through to the sickness deep within. There is no other way for us to be healed. John says the axe is laid at the root of the tree. That's his way of saying some skillful surgery is needed on us. And here's the good news: God wields the axe. But with no harm intended, but only to bring healing and restoration. Seeing what we really are is a hopeful thing. It's hopeful because we're seeing ourselves through the eyes of God, who won't leave us where we are, but wants to transform us into being fully human, fully alive. You've likely heard the saying that God loves us just the way we are, but far too much to leave us that way. God has so much more in store for us. And far better than any self-help book can offer, where we're left to muddle on trying to make improvements on our own.
     
    As we repent and turn toward God, it is actually God who is doing the work of transformation in us -- through Word, through the Spirit, through the cleansing water of baptism, and the nourishment at the table. With a steady diet of repentance, we are able to be prepared, more and more, for God to do more and more rehabilitation within us. And then our defense mechanisms, the layers of denial we built up over the truth about ourselves and coming clean, begin to be replaced by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Daring to stand exposed and vulnerable to God, the skilled surgeon who cuts away the unhealthiness, yields something far better for us to receive than we ever have to give up. It's the wise person who begins to hear "repent" more as an invitation than as a threat. "Repent!" the prophet cries. "Come home." "Repent," God calls. "Turn to me." "Repent," we hear. "Walk into freedom."
     
    Yes, John provides a lovely introduction to the One who is coming. He sets up our receptivity to the message of Jesus as he describes how great is our need for this One to whom he pointed, so that we would welcome him wholeheartedly. Unless we see our need, we cannot appreciate the greatness of the gift of the child born in Bethlehem, the One called Emmanuel: God with us, the One of whom the angel spoke when telling Joseph to take Mary as his wife and to name the child Jesus, because he was to save his people from their sin. He's introducing us to our need, as well as to the One who can cleanse us from all unrighteousness and make us ready for the kingdom of righteousness, simply by his grace and mercy. So, John the Baptist's message of repentance fits well in Advent. It's only in recognizing our need for the One sent to save us from our sin so that we can be open and gladly receiving the One to whom he introduces us.
     
    Thanks be to God for this introduction, preparing us to receive the greatest presence of all time, that God is continually coming to dwell within us and to make us whole people to his glory. Please rise as you are able to sing the hymn of the day in response to God's word.
     
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    2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Matthew 3:1-12, Malachi 3:2