Jan 13, 2019
Embraced and Celebrated
Series: (All)
January 13, 2019. As a body of beloved children of God, we hold to a system of beliefs. But we also recognize that being the beloved is a just and generous way of life. Pastor Stephanie preaches today on the baptism of Jesus, and God's love for us and for all people.
 
*** Transcript ***
 
I read from a veteran preacher source that there are two things people want to discover in a sermon: is there a story here, and am I in it? If that is true for you, I can assure you that in this sermon there is a story, and you are most assuredly in it. Please pray with me that the story that is present, and the place where each of us resides in it, might become revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit in these next few minutes as we ponder this together. Let's pray. Holy One, you reveal your truth in your word and through your spirit. As we wait upon you with expectation, enable us to hear what you have to say to us today, we ask of you, so that we might respond to your good news, the Gospel. In Jesus' name, amen.
 
We are dropped into a scene in the Gospel of Luke where a crowd has gathered, exuding high energy. People were restless with anticipation. The buzz in every village was that change could be afoot. Positive change. Thoughts had been shared, perhaps at the city gate among the elders, and those thoughts found their way to dinner table conversations around villages. From there, the ideas and rumors became open wonderings about this unique, shall we say, person named John the Baptizer. His message captivated them. Chaos and corruption in their country had created such anxiety and despair that probably anyone who confidently called for people to repent and change their ways would get some kind of a following. But this John was a different kind of guy, in so many ways from others they had heard. His lack of smooth talk and promises, like so many would-be messiahs before him, somehow made them trust him more. Because he did not make promises that their jaded hearts knew by now could not be fulfilled by anyone but God, they listened to him. He actually pointed them to God, rather than trying to draw people to himself. John reminded them of what they knew to be true. They needed a fresh start, and John pointed them to that.
 
And so they asked John, "Are you the messiah? Are you the one who can refresh our lives and give us a true and lasting hope?" Imagine their surprise then when John said plainly, "No, I am not. I am not the one you have been longing for." But he respects their desire to know anything at all that John can tell them to give them hope. And so he tells them that the one they have hoped for is coming, and coming very soon. Is that the moment when he sees his cousin Jesus out of the corner of his eye, standing in the middle of the crowd, lining up to be baptized? Because Jesus was there standing around with everyone else who had come to be baptized that day. And then in the very process of Jesus experiencing the water of baptism, something remarkable happens. The heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, "You are my son, my beloved. In you I am well pleased."
 
Now clearly this is a story of the baptism of our Lord. Did he need to be baptized as a sign of repentance? No, he did not. But in concert with his entire life's mission of coming to be with us, to demonstrate God's deep love for us, he was baptized. You may remember how frequently he would call people "daughter of God" or "son of Abraham," "son of God." Those are endearing titles that let people know that they, and we, are beloved children of God.
 
Remember the Isaiah 43 reading, where God's love for us is strongly underscored? It says when you pass through the waters of difficulty, they will not overwhelm you. When you go through the fires of challenges, they will not consume you. If you want to flip back a page in your bulletin to see it again, you will see these words from God saying, "I have called you by name. You are mine. When you go through all these things that you might think would separate you from me," God assures us, "no circumstance can separate you from me. No way. I am with you. You are mine. You belong to me. You are my beloved. You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you." Called by name, each one of you is known intimately by God and cherished as God's son, as God's daughter. Known by name, God is always with you. You are precious in God's sight. God honors you and God loves you. Your name might be Luke, or Sylvia, Kate, or Mike. But to God you have another name. So you are Beloved Luke. Beloved Sylvia. Beloved Kate. Beloved Mike. Baptism is a gift for us. It reminds us of our identification as being a child of God. It's about hearing the promises of God to be with us throughout our lifetimes. It is celebrating our belovedness. Knowing this changes everything for us.
 
Do any of you ever do any negative self-talk? Just know, if you do, that does not come from God. Try to root that out. Of course, you are not perfect, but you are not stupid or whatever other label you might put on yourself that denigrates you. You are a beloved child of God. You, and you, and you, and you -- I could point out each and every one of you here present -- all of us who are part of this family, and those who are not present with us today, are the beloved. I am the beloved. We are part of the worldwide community of the beloved people of God. Now children who are secure in the knowledge that they are loved can become more loving toward others. Isn't that true? The more we revel in the love God has for each of us, the more we are able to recognize how very much God also loves others.
 
Christ Lutheran Church affirms that all people are beloved of God. In preparation for the annual report on last year, I was looking through records and I found a statement that you adopted in November of 2017. It's a truly beautiful statement, laced with the understanding that all people are beloved of God. Let me read it to you. Some of you here undoubtedly helped to craft it, and I'm sure it's been shared periodically. But you may not have heard it recently. So here it is. It says, "Welcome to Christ Lutheran Church. We are a growing church community that welcomes and affirms all who seek God's grace. The world is often an unloving place. But as Christ has shown his love for us, we pledge to show love to one another. Members of Christ Lutheran humbly strive to create wholeness, inclusion, justice, understanding, and healing in a world divided. We affirm that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female (from Galatians 3:28). Christ has made us one. People of all sexual orientations, gender identities, ethnic and racial backgrounds, economic conditions, people who are differently abled, and all who may feel excluded, are embraced and celebrated at Christ Lutheran Church."
 
If that doesn't cause a lump in your throat, then read it again, because it will then. We live into our baptism together. Our recognition that we are God's beloved as we extend hospitality, grace, and love to others. It reveals to them that we acknowledge that everyone is beloved of God. That is no small thing. Where this happens, here or anywhere, it is life-changing for people to know that they are beloved. The Christian church in this country and world could be described as the early church was, as turning the world upside down with love, if it majored in communicating belovedness in all that it says and does. But of course, such is not the state of things in far too many sectors.
 
In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren writes this: "For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism, to environmental destruction, subordination of women, to stigmatization of LGBTQ people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, religious leader pedophilia, to white privilege. What would it mean," McLaren asks, "for Christians to rediscover their faith, not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes, and is dedicated to beloved community for all. Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs, to expressing it as a loving way of life?"
 
You know the answer to that question. Yes, as a body of beloved children of God we do hold to a system of beliefs. We affirm those beliefs in the Apostles' Creed and in other faith statements that we make, but we also recognize that being the beloved is a just and generous way of life, is dedicated to the beloved community for all. This coming transitional year has the possibility of seeing this dedication to being the beloved come together in fruition, in ever new and God-honoring ways.
 
At this point I'd like to remind you of a practice that was made and known by none other than Martin Luther. Among many other things, Luther is remembered for passionately reminding people to "remember your baptism," he would say passionately and with fervor. Many, but certainly not all of us, were baptized as babies and can't remember our baptisms. But I think Luther meant something bigger than our historical memory of one day, and I have a feeling he wasn't just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party, and if we're a baby having everyone say how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote this: "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued." His own practice was to place his hand on his head most mornings, if not every morning, and say to himself, "I am baptized."
 
Today as you come forward for communion, I invite you to dip your fingers into the water right here at the baptismal font, and either make the sign of the cross on your forehead or place your hand on your head -- whatever is most comfortable for you -- and say to yourself, "I am baptized" or "I am a beloved child of God." Then you'll be served the bread and the wine. As you do these things, remember who you are. Remember whose you are. And remember how very beloved you are, as you remember what God has done for you in Christ Jesus.
 
Today in churches all around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and the word of forgiveness and life. Still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for their chance to start life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago with Jesus right there in their midst. Maybe you are with them and needing to be reminded of the vastness of God's love in calling us his own and washing us anew with grace, forgiveness, and hope. I think if we're honest, we're all in that place. The voice from heaven says, "You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased." These words may come from heaven, but they do not come out of the blue. They echo God's words from Isaiah, mentioned earlier, from long before. "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you."
 
Thanks be to God for this extraordinary love that is given to us all. Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Isaiah 43
WatchNotesDownloadDateTitle
  • Jan 13, 2019Embraced and Celebrated
    Jan 13, 2019
    Embraced and Celebrated
    Series: (All)
    January 13, 2019. As a body of beloved children of God, we hold to a system of beliefs. But we also recognize that being the beloved is a just and generous way of life. Pastor Stephanie preaches today on the baptism of Jesus, and God's love for us and for all people.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I read from a veteran preacher source that there are two things people want to discover in a sermon: is there a story here, and am I in it? If that is true for you, I can assure you that in this sermon there is a story, and you are most assuredly in it. Please pray with me that the story that is present, and the place where each of us resides in it, might become revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit in these next few minutes as we ponder this together. Let's pray. Holy One, you reveal your truth in your word and through your spirit. As we wait upon you with expectation, enable us to hear what you have to say to us today, we ask of you, so that we might respond to your good news, the Gospel. In Jesus' name, amen.
     
    We are dropped into a scene in the Gospel of Luke where a crowd has gathered, exuding high energy. People were restless with anticipation. The buzz in every village was that change could be afoot. Positive change. Thoughts had been shared, perhaps at the city gate among the elders, and those thoughts found their way to dinner table conversations around villages. From there, the ideas and rumors became open wonderings about this unique, shall we say, person named John the Baptizer. His message captivated them. Chaos and corruption in their country had created such anxiety and despair that probably anyone who confidently called for people to repent and change their ways would get some kind of a following. But this John was a different kind of guy, in so many ways from others they had heard. His lack of smooth talk and promises, like so many would-be messiahs before him, somehow made them trust him more. Because he did not make promises that their jaded hearts knew by now could not be fulfilled by anyone but God, they listened to him. He actually pointed them to God, rather than trying to draw people to himself. John reminded them of what they knew to be true. They needed a fresh start, and John pointed them to that.
     
    And so they asked John, "Are you the messiah? Are you the one who can refresh our lives and give us a true and lasting hope?" Imagine their surprise then when John said plainly, "No, I am not. I am not the one you have been longing for." But he respects their desire to know anything at all that John can tell them to give them hope. And so he tells them that the one they have hoped for is coming, and coming very soon. Is that the moment when he sees his cousin Jesus out of the corner of his eye, standing in the middle of the crowd, lining up to be baptized? Because Jesus was there standing around with everyone else who had come to be baptized that day. And then in the very process of Jesus experiencing the water of baptism, something remarkable happens. The heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, "You are my son, my beloved. In you I am well pleased."
     
    Now clearly this is a story of the baptism of our Lord. Did he need to be baptized as a sign of repentance? No, he did not. But in concert with his entire life's mission of coming to be with us, to demonstrate God's deep love for us, he was baptized. You may remember how frequently he would call people "daughter of God" or "son of Abraham," "son of God." Those are endearing titles that let people know that they, and we, are beloved children of God.
     
    Remember the Isaiah 43 reading, where God's love for us is strongly underscored? It says when you pass through the waters of difficulty, they will not overwhelm you. When you go through the fires of challenges, they will not consume you. If you want to flip back a page in your bulletin to see it again, you will see these words from God saying, "I have called you by name. You are mine. When you go through all these things that you might think would separate you from me," God assures us, "no circumstance can separate you from me. No way. I am with you. You are mine. You belong to me. You are my beloved. You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you." Called by name, each one of you is known intimately by God and cherished as God's son, as God's daughter. Known by name, God is always with you. You are precious in God's sight. God honors you and God loves you. Your name might be Luke, or Sylvia, Kate, or Mike. But to God you have another name. So you are Beloved Luke. Beloved Sylvia. Beloved Kate. Beloved Mike. Baptism is a gift for us. It reminds us of our identification as being a child of God. It's about hearing the promises of God to be with us throughout our lifetimes. It is celebrating our belovedness. Knowing this changes everything for us.
     
    Do any of you ever do any negative self-talk? Just know, if you do, that does not come from God. Try to root that out. Of course, you are not perfect, but you are not stupid or whatever other label you might put on yourself that denigrates you. You are a beloved child of God. You, and you, and you, and you -- I could point out each and every one of you here present -- all of us who are part of this family, and those who are not present with us today, are the beloved. I am the beloved. We are part of the worldwide community of the beloved people of God. Now children who are secure in the knowledge that they are loved can become more loving toward others. Isn't that true? The more we revel in the love God has for each of us, the more we are able to recognize how very much God also loves others.
     
    Christ Lutheran Church affirms that all people are beloved of God. In preparation for the annual report on last year, I was looking through records and I found a statement that you adopted in November of 2017. It's a truly beautiful statement, laced with the understanding that all people are beloved of God. Let me read it to you. Some of you here undoubtedly helped to craft it, and I'm sure it's been shared periodically. But you may not have heard it recently. So here it is. It says, "Welcome to Christ Lutheran Church. We are a growing church community that welcomes and affirms all who seek God's grace. The world is often an unloving place. But as Christ has shown his love for us, we pledge to show love to one another. Members of Christ Lutheran humbly strive to create wholeness, inclusion, justice, understanding, and healing in a world divided. We affirm that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female (from Galatians 3:28). Christ has made us one. People of all sexual orientations, gender identities, ethnic and racial backgrounds, economic conditions, people who are differently abled, and all who may feel excluded, are embraced and celebrated at Christ Lutheran Church."
     
    If that doesn't cause a lump in your throat, then read it again, because it will then. We live into our baptism together. Our recognition that we are God's beloved as we extend hospitality, grace, and love to others. It reveals to them that we acknowledge that everyone is beloved of God. That is no small thing. Where this happens, here or anywhere, it is life-changing for people to know that they are beloved. The Christian church in this country and world could be described as the early church was, as turning the world upside down with love, if it majored in communicating belovedness in all that it says and does. But of course, such is not the state of things in far too many sectors.
     
    In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, Brian McLaren writes this: "For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism, to environmental destruction, subordination of women, to stigmatization of LGBTQ people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, religious leader pedophilia, to white privilege. What would it mean," McLaren asks, "for Christians to rediscover their faith, not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes, and is dedicated to beloved community for all. Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs, to expressing it as a loving way of life?"
     
    You know the answer to that question. Yes, as a body of beloved children of God we do hold to a system of beliefs. We affirm those beliefs in the Apostles' Creed and in other faith statements that we make, but we also recognize that being the beloved is a just and generous way of life, is dedicated to the beloved community for all. This coming transitional year has the possibility of seeing this dedication to being the beloved come together in fruition, in ever new and God-honoring ways.
     
    At this point I'd like to remind you of a practice that was made and known by none other than Martin Luther. Among many other things, Luther is remembered for passionately reminding people to "remember your baptism," he would say passionately and with fervor. Many, but certainly not all of us, were baptized as babies and can't remember our baptisms. But I think Luther meant something bigger than our historical memory of one day, and I have a feeling he wasn't just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party, and if we're a baby having everyone say how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote this: "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued." His own practice was to place his hand on his head most mornings, if not every morning, and say to himself, "I am baptized."
     
    Today as you come forward for communion, I invite you to dip your fingers into the water right here at the baptismal font, and either make the sign of the cross on your forehead or place your hand on your head -- whatever is most comfortable for you -- and say to yourself, "I am baptized" or "I am a beloved child of God." Then you'll be served the bread and the wine. As you do these things, remember who you are. Remember whose you are. And remember how very beloved you are, as you remember what God has done for you in Christ Jesus.
     
    Today in churches all around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and the word of forgiveness and life. Still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for their chance to start life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago with Jesus right there in their midst. Maybe you are with them and needing to be reminded of the vastness of God's love in calling us his own and washing us anew with grace, forgiveness, and hope. I think if we're honest, we're all in that place. The voice from heaven says, "You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased." These words may come from heaven, but they do not come out of the blue. They echo God's words from Isaiah, mentioned earlier, from long before. "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine. You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you."
     
    Thanks be to God for this extraordinary love that is given to us all. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2019, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, Isaiah 43
  • Dec 24, 2018Peer Into the Manger
    Dec 24, 2018
    Peer Into the Manger
    Series: (All)
    December 24, 2018. Pastor Stephanie invites us to peer into the manger this Christmas Eve and be amazed by God's love made flesh.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Well, here we are at Christmas Eve at last. Most likely, you've had at least 24 days of preparation for this night. Now, some of you started much earlier than that, when December 1 arrived and you turned that over in your calendar. Some other people here might be squirming even now and hoping some store is still open because you've just got one more person for whom you probably should get a gift. Or some of you are smiling smugly and saying, "I just started my shopping this morning and got everything I needed, so what's the big deal?" At any rate, I imagine each one of us is experiencing a mixture of feelings this night. There's the eagerness for the experience of sharing this time with loved ones and taking in the lights, the music, and the festivities of the season -- as well as more than a little bit of fatigue and the weariness of perhaps too many late nights and early mornings than usual to get everything ready.
     
    Whatever your routine has been of getting ready for celebrating Christmas, we are grateful to be able to welcome you here tonight. We're glad that you have come to celebrate this special night with us. Even as I say that, I'm wondering about the various motivations represented tonight for being here. Do you know why you are here? What has prompted you to come? We're not taking a poll. But I think it's safe to assume that some of you are here because this is your Christmas custom. You cannot imagine not being in a place where the carols are sung, where the familiar story of Jesus' birth is read, and the candles -- or in the case of this particular service, the glow sticks will be activated -- as we sing during a lovely, peaceful moment the beautiful strains of "Silent Night."
     
    Just as likely, some of you are here because you felt a little pressure to join a family member who wanted to be here. Or perhaps worship is no longer a part of your regular weekly life, but there is just something about this night that draws you in, filling you with good memories of Christmases past, and reminds you of what used to hold meaning in your life, what once gave you a frame of reference. Perhaps you are here because you are searching. You have a deep sense, or a deep hope, that there is more to life than merely what you see around you. And so you have come. And finally, I imagine some of you are in worship on this Christmas Eve because you were lonely or grieving. On this night of all nights, you need to be among people, any people, in a safe space, a holy space, a space where you can just breathe.
     
    Regardless whatever the motivation, whatever has summoned you into this time of worship, at some level it probably has to do with the baby who is the center of the Christmas story. At some level, your reason for being here is intertwined with a desire to peer into the manger, once again, to see who exactly is in that manger and try again to comprehend what that baby means for us, and for our lives. Deep down, perhaps that is the real reason you are here. It is one reason that I am here. I am here to peer into the manger once again. I am here to imagine that baby's face. I am here to listen for, to remember, to ponder the story of God becoming flesh.
     
    I am well aware that this is a concept that is not easily understood, and I've come to accept that this is just part of the mystery that holds me in its grip -- that the almighty God would become human flesh as an expression of love. It's a concept that has inspired all kinds of speculation about a conversation that just might have happened when God told the angels about this plan. In response to God announcing this plan in the Heavenly realm, one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, surmises: This could have happened. We don't know. But the angels might have asked God, "Could you at least create yourself as a magical baby with special powers? It wouldn't take much, just the power to become invisible. Maybe the power to hurl bolts of lightning as the need might arise." The angels all felt like God coming as a baby was a stroke of genius idea, but it lacked adequate safety measures. God thanked the angels for their concern but said no. God thought just becoming a regular baby would be best. How else could God gain the trust of God's creatures? There was a risk, a very high risk, but that was part of what God wanted us to know, that God was willing to risk everything to get as close to us in hopes that we might receive this gift as a love letter from God, for each and every one of us.
     
    That's why we need to peer into the manger to be reminded of this wonder. God has chosen to come near to us, to be with us even in our everyday, normal lives. That's why we need to look at the baby Jesus' face. We need to once again be drenched in the mystery of the Incarnation, the gift of God becoming Emmanuel, God with us. God with us forever. For when we peer into that manger, we believe, we trust that we don't only see the face of the baby Jesus. When we peer into that manger, we believe and trust we also see the face of God. The baby reminds us that God loves us in this world so much that God simply could not stay away. God had to come and be one of us, one with us, so that we would know once and for all that no matter how much darkness we see, and how heavy life can feel, it will not overcome us and it will not last forever. When we peer into that manger, we are reminded that we worship a god who decided to get down into the dirt with us, down into the messiness and complications of life with us. When we peer into that manger, we see that God knew we needed a god, a savior who had tasted the darkness and the tensions of human existence firsthand. The baby in the manger proclaims to us that, because God chose flesh and blood, and we now know that there is nothing we can live with that God has not already absorbed into God's own heart as a result.
     
    Because of Jesus, God knows what it's like to be born, to be pushed out into this world. Because of Jesus, God knows what it is like to be vulnerable, to be a child, to be weak in power and completely dependent on others. And because of Jesus, God knows what it's like to grow up, to hurt, to die, to lose a loved one, and to weep. Because of the face of the one we see when we peer into the manger, we believe and trust that God knows all of what it means to be human, to be a creature, to be you and me.
     
    What is it that we see when we peer into the manger? We see a god who is strong enough to become a baby. We see a god who is powerful enough to take on human weakness. As former Yale chaplain John Vannorsdall once proclaimed, "By coming to be with us as a baby, God was demonstrating unilateral disarmament with humanity. Any concept we might have formed that God relishes coming to us in judgment can just go away in the face of the baby Jesus. Any god who comes as a baby," he preached, "is a god who intends us absolutely no harm." No harm. Only life. Only loving relationship. The kind of god is the one we see when we peer into the manger on this night. So whether you are part of worship on this Christmas Eve out of curiosity, or guilt, whether you are part of worship out of a routine and a deep desire for meaning, whatever has called you to this set apart moment, I hope you'll take the time tonight to look again and see.
     
    Every Christmas Eve I want to do that, to peer into the manger, to imagine that baby's face. I hope we will all indeed pause and consider what it means that God did not decide to simply act from above to save us, that God did not decide to swoop in with all power and might to force us into some kind of redemptive relationship. Nor did God simply decide to create us and just walk away, leaving us to stew in our own brokenness and despair. Rather, the baby in the manger proclaims to us that in Mary's body and with her consent, God became one of us. Not in theory, but in truth, so that we might know forever how God embraces us and this world, the world that God created and continues to redeem, and is making new, bit by bit.
     
    In the baby Jesus, God became one of us, one for us, one with us, so that we could see that indeed Isaiah's promise has come true. The people who walked in darkness will see a great light. This light shines for all, and the darkness shall never overcome it. Indeed, one day the darkness will give way to everlasting light. That proclamation is what we see when we peer into the manger this evening. That proclamation is what we most earnestly longed for. That proclamation is the promise that's already on the way. That proclamation is Christmas. So come, look, and be amazed. It's God's love made flesh to show us love.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot
  • Dec 23, 2018Bending Toward Justice
    Dec 23, 2018
    Bending Toward Justice
    Series: (All)
    December 23, 2018. On this Fourth Sunday in Advent, Pastor Stephanie preaches on reasons to be hopeful, the Magnificat, and the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I first heard the proclamation on the radio in the morning news several days ago: Merriam-Webster declared that its chosen word of the year for 2018 is "justice." Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large, explained to the Associated Press why this word was chosen. "Searches for 'justice' throughout the year, when compared to 2017, were up 74% on the site that has more than a million page views a month and nearly half a million entries. To be word of the year worthy, an entry has to show both a high volume of traffic and a significant year over year increase in lookups," he said. "We are not editorializing. We looked at our data and we were ourselves surprised by this word. This is a word that people have been clearly thinking about for this entire year."
     
    Why would you suppose this would be the case? Yes, there was the Supreme Court Justice nomination and confirmation process that dominated the news for weeks. And yes, there is the ongoing story of the Mueller investigation, with the various courts of justice involved. Both of those undoubtedly prompted many of the lookups. But also, Sokolowski noted that there are verifiably more stories and op-ed articles with a high degree of reader interest on where we are in this country in the areas of criminal justice, racial justice, and social justice in general. These are hopeful signs. At least I want to believe that the curiosity in referencing this word is borne out of a longing for true justice to reign. Don't you hope for the same thing? I think we have reason to hope for what is happening. There is a deep restlessness to see justice given and received as normative. For justice to describe the way things are rather than merely what we feel they should be.
     
    Well, the theme of justice in Mary's song in our gospel reading, commonly called the Magnificat, is unmistakably present. Mary praises God for scattering the proud, for bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Mary's song celebrates that the least of these, the lowliest and the humblest, are lifted up, while the injustices perpetrated by the high and mighty will come to an end. You've probably heard the phrase "those who sing pray twice." There's something about a song that reaches us to the depths of our being. A song can put into words what we are often incapable of expressing in other ways, and Mary's voice echoes throughout the years as a refrain of hope, joy, and praising God for reorienting actions of justice. She voices the hearts and minds of generations of people for whom injustice has long been the norm. She uses verbs that indicate that there is a reason to hope in the present, that God has already done marvelous things like bringing down powerful ones from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things. She sees that God is also currently showing mercy for those who honor him.
     
    When my husband shared an article with me a few days ago, I could not help but see how it illuminates God bringing justice around the world. Even if the author did not use the phrase we use in the ELCA, "God's work, our hands," his conclusions are the result of many, many hands engaged around the world to bring about God-inspired justice. The article is titled "Four Reasons to Be Hopeful," and it starts out by saying that 2018 has not been an easy year in many senses. Kind of an understatement, I thought. But I kept reading because I'm a sucker for anything that promises hopeful news. The author writes, "Under the radar, some aspects of life on earth are getting dramatically better." I will share three of the reasons here.
     
    Extreme poverty is falling. You've probably heard over the years, and the decades actually, that millions of people in underdeveloped countries have been living on roughly one to two dollars per day, as inconceivable as that is to imagine. But many studies have shown that there has been a huge decline in the number of people for whom that is true. That statistic has gone down, from 36% of the world's population in 1990, to 10% percent in 2015. That's still too many to be sure for those people affected, but it's a hopeful trend.
     
    A second hopeful sign is that child mortality is falling. It has plummeted from 1990 to 2017, according to the United Nations Population Division. An overall improvement in global public health has accompanied the decline in extreme poverty. One good example: kids who were born in 2017 in developing countries are much more likely to not only reach five years of age than they were before, but to be able to live many more years after that -- well beyond the same kids who were studied in 1990.
     
    A third hopeful sign: we're getting better at preventing preventable diseases. One of the most effective preventative measures in this report is the one I chose to highlight because it's the growing use of bed nets to prevent malaria. Bed nets are a highly effective intervention that prevent infections that can lead to death. The number of people contracting malaria in Africa in the last couple of decades has dropped dramatically. For several years, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other churches and agencies have advocated for donations to be sent to purchase these bed nets. It's always great to hear how effective our giving has been in being a blessing to the lives of others. These gifts have fostered health and extension of life. Justice for the lowly is being served. Martin Luther King Jr. was fond of saying, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." God has done and is bringing down tyrants from their thrones. Whether they are actual people or whether they are systems of discrimination and oppression, God is lifting up the lowly. We can sing about that along with Mary.
     
    Now we said that this is the fourth Sunday in Advent. I will bring you back to the first Sunday, if you can remember some of the readings from that day. But that is the time when we celebrate John the Baptist crying in the wilderness for the low places to be raised, for the mountains to be raised up, for the rough places to be ironed out, and he concludes, "Where all people will see the action and the salvation of God together." Advent now comes to a conclusion with the proclamation by Mary that God is the great leveler of all of those things that have been uneven and unfair. God is the great judge meting out justice so that all people, whether they are brought low or raised up, can see the goodness of God as God turns the world as we have known it in its struggles upside down. Mary's song is a celebration of what God has done for her and does for everyone. That is why Martin Luther wrote about this song of Mary that, "She sang it not for herself alone, but for all of us to sing it after her."
     
    And sing it we will. We will close the service today by singing the "Canticle of the Turning," with the passion and fervor of Mary for the great things God is doing. We'll sing these words:
     
    My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the
    Fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the
    Dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
     
    This morning we will sing. And we will pray. And we will gather at the Lord's table for all people as expressions of our faith in the God who brings justice and makes all things right. And today also, we will baptize a little baby boy, because we also affirm our faith in the God who is making all things right in the Rite of Baptism. It calls for followers of Christ to live into reality that is not yet fully seen, but coming into being because of God's trustworthy promises. As people of faith, we baptize our children as a sign of hopefulness. It is a sign of our trust in the God who is degree by degree turning the aspects of the world that need correction upside down. Or you could also say that God is turning the world right side up.
     
    In faith we say together: amen Lord, may it be so. Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot
  • Dec 2, 2018All the Signs Point to Christ
    Dec 2, 2018
    All the Signs Point to Christ
    Series: (All)
    December 2, 2018. Be prepared, for Jesus is coming. Jon Heerboth preaches on this first day of Advent about the preparations we Christians make for the Christmas celebration.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Be prepared, for Jesus is coming. It's the first Sunday in Advent, as we've been hearing all morning. And for us it's the beginning of a new church year and the time when we prepare for Christmas, which is our celebration of the first coming of Jesus Christ. When I think about getting ready for Christmas, I think about the little baby Jesus in the manger, the stable, the peaceful quiet night, the choir of angels, the pretty things that make me want to go home and set up my tree and my humble decorations and get out my Christmas Lego. I don't think about things that are mentioned in the lesson today. So we have to be prepared because there are no gentle images in today's gospel lesson. In fact, those images are anything but gentle. They're pretty brutal, and they were pretty brutal in Luke's time as well, when he read them. The people who heard this story from Luke the first time were worried, because the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the temple had been sacked, and the walls were pulled down stone by stone. It was a complete disaster.
     
    But today, it's not the helpless infant, but more of that. Images of the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. In the Christmas story, we see almost a paradox. The humble baby Jesus and then in today's gospel, the coming in clouds. Power and might. Glory. Maybe the destruction of the earth. God keeping the rest of his promises. And so we have to be prepared, because as Jesus tells us in Luke, the signs are all around us. Signs in the sun, the moon, the stars. Signs in the news, in shootings, in tragedies. Earthquakes in Alaska. Fires in California. Mayhem everywhere. Corruption. Hunger. And if you look at today's Post Dispatch, homelessness. Signs in the distress in families. Signs in the tragedies caused by a warming planet. What in the world is going on? What's the world coming to, we ask?
     
    Well, what happens to you when you're frightened, when you're pressed down or dismayed? I know sometimes we can't even concentrate because of what Jesus called the "roaring of the sea and the waves," or to us, the many distractions and stresses of our lives in a sinful world. We even have trouble in the month of December just getting ready for the Christmas holiday, which should be a time of peace and joy and families thinking about the first coming of Jesus Christ. It seems like everything can be difficult. In verse 26 today, Jesus said that people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaking. What is my life coming to? I ask when I'm weighed down by cares and worries. I might walk more slowly. My shoulders sag. I might be burdened by my own actions or behaviors that I wish I could set aside.
     
    Earlier in chapter 21, Luke warned that things will not be easy as the end times approach. They're not going to be easy for Christians, either. Our lives will fall apart, he said. We will face hostility from neighbors, legal problems even, or even conflict within our own families. But for us though -- and this is almost a paradox -- all of these signs, all of these troubles, all of these trials in our lives point to Christ. When these things happen, our redemption is drawing near.
     
    Now, redemption already came to us in the past once and for all, with the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now that redemption is available to us, now and into the future. Even though the world around us may fall apart, that's not a sign of God's absence or lack of concern for us. We are still God's people. We have the promise of God's presence in our midst, even in the middle of all of our problems that we face from day to day.
     
    Now after Jesus listed all the depressing signs in his world, he stopped for a minute and spoke to his listeners in a very pastoral way. God's words, his reassuring promise of salvation, will last and will not fail. He said that while Heaven and Earth will pass away, his promises to us, his assurance that he is with us, God will remain with us always, and his promises will not fail. What the world sees as signs of despair, and heaven knows there are plenty of signs of despair out there, we see as signs of hope, because our redemption is here and now and will come again, Luke says, in power and majesty. Because everything points to Jesus Christ. Now we are all God's children, claimed and named in baptism. We are assured of eternal salvation by faith, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. By God's grace our sins are forgiven. We are redeemed and reconciled before Christ because of what Christ has done for us. This morning here in church we confessed our sins once again and received absolution, God's reassurance that our sins are forgiven. We are redeemed now before God so we can pray "Thy kingdom come" and mean it.
     
    In Advent, we remember God's coming in history, God's presence among us now, and we prepare for Jesus' return in majesty at the end of time. We pay attention to so much more than just the birth of Jesus. But how do we prepare for Christmas with the deep sense that God's work is still unfinished? There are still promises that we expect God to keep, so we have a sense of longing inside of us for the ultimate redemption and fulfillment of all God's promises that we encounter in the Bible. And we pray for him to come and fulfill those promises.
     
    We Christians prepare for Christmas in lots of ways. We go ahead and decorate our homes, light up the street even, go shopping for gifts, and we celebrate like everybody else. But we are also nonconformist. Our preparations, and you can see them here -- the blue paraments, the color of hope we say, we can come to church and see that. We can attend Advent services, the Holden Evening Prayer -- that beautiful, short reminder of God's promises to us. We can read daily Advent devotions. We come and practice for the cantata once a week, sometimes twice a week -- which I would recommend to anyone. (You know, the choir pays for advertising, so...) So we decorate the church, and we do what we have to do to remember God's promises to us. Our goal as Christians is to find God in our preparations for the Christmas celebration. We have to be able to see the coming of Christ, even though we have cares, burdens, fears, and sins -- even though it's often very hard to see God's work in the morning paper. We have to remember that for us, all of the signs point to Christ.
     
    In the reading from Thessalonians this morning, Paul explained to his readers what it means to be waiting for the Lord's return. Now, he wrote directly to the Christians at Thessalonica. He also speaks to his brothers and sisters at Christ Lutheran Church in Webster Groves. In verse 12 and 13 he hoped that the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Here at Christ, we will prepare by being a distinctive and loving community while we await the Lord's return. We will pursue holiness by obedience to God's wishes, and through everyday discipleship within our community and out in our daily lives. So, we prepare for this upcoming event, the final turning point in Christians' experience: the second and final coming of Christ. So we may go shopping for Christmas gifts. Let us also find God this Advent season by attending church.
     
    We find God by hearing the word. We find God in the bread and in the wine. We find God in our prayers for one another and for the people of the world at large. We will surely find God in each other, in our sisters and brothers who wish us God's peace every Sunday. In verse 28 of our text today, Jesus says that when the signs of his second coming appear, we should stand up and raise our heads because redemption is drawing near.
     
    Here at Christ Lutheran Church, when we raise our heads and look up (you can do that now, raise your heads and look up) who do you see? You see the face of Christ over this incredibly beautiful altar. So we encounter Christ here the same way we should be encountering Christ everywhere, a constant reminder of God's promise of salvation and God's love for all people. Most important, we have to remember that Jesus, who died and rose, is still here with us and will return again at the end.
     
    Now before we end, I ran across something. My dad died about six-and-a-half years ago, and he was quite a scholar. He loved languages and spent a lot of his time studying. And he left a pile of books. Ordinarily you would just pass them on or get rid of them, but I don't think he wanted us to do that because in the books, he left notes. He left his old textbooks. He had cartoons of his professors that he drew. He left little notes here and there. Even in the pages of the book there would be little nuggets. But when I was preparing for this, I took his relatively new Greek New Testament and I opened the front cover, and as he would do there was a paragraph and so I ran into it. I hadn't seen it before, and it was in Latin. Of course. He knew that would drive me crazy. So I got his old lexicon out -- it's literally almost 200 years old -- and started trying to translate it. And then I realized my translation was no good, but I recognized what he had written. And it was the prayer for the first Sunday in Advent. And next to it, he wrote, "This prayer is the gateway to Eden for people who study the word of God." And I just thought we should end today by repeating this little prayer that we've already said. I like the little different translation of it better than what we said earlier. So let's pray together the words of the prayer for the day:
     
    Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Rescue and protect us from the threatening perils of our sins by your might. For you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
     
    The hymn for the day is 246, "Hark! A Thrilling Voice is Sounding!" Take a look as you sing. Concentrate on verse 4, the words of comfort:
     
    When next he comes in glory
    And the world is wrapped in fear,
    He will shield us with his mercy
    And with Words of Love draw near.
     
    And so we rise, if we're able, for the hymn.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth
  • Nov 25, 2018Authority Issues
    Nov 25, 2018
    Authority Issues
    Series: (All)
    November 25, 2018. How do you respond to authority? Pastor Stephanie preaches on John 18 and the interaction between Pilate and Jesus, two people who each have authority vested in them.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I have a question for you: How do you respond to authority? Don't worry, it's a rhetorical question, since I can't go row by row getting your responses right now. Even if I could, there would be many of you who would probably say, "Well, it's complicated." It's a difficult thing to answer, and I completely understand that. After working with a very authoritarian pastor in my first seminary fieldwork experience until I could take it no longer, I learned that I have authority issues. Never had to think too much about that before that year. And thankfully I had professionals around me who could help me to process the interior work that I needed to do around that issue. It did help to soften it some, to know that other seminary students had had issues with that same pastor. And so after my experience, the seminary little longer sent any students over to that pastor to work with him.
     
    But still, since I was bound to encounter others who exerted authority in the same manner in which this guy did, in ministry and in life in general, I had to learn and grow from that experience. Even with the self-reflection I took on after that, that is not to say that all of my authority issues have been resolved. I'm still a work in progress on that, and in so many other ways. We may like to think that not many people do have authority over us, because we like to emphasize our freedom and our autonomy, don't we?
     
    I'm reminded of the time when our oldest son expressed so emphatically one day when he got home from school, "I am the boss of me." If you're a parent, you'll know how glad we were to hear that. It took a little debriefing for Phil and me to understand where that had come from. But as we talked with Andrew more, we began to understand that his class had been listening to the school counselor that day, and she was helping them to understand boundaries of how to operate and respond with strangers. That all made perfect sense, and I was grateful for that reinforcement of what we were also teaching him. But it didn't mean that his father and I were less authority figures than we had been before that day.
     
    Because it is complicated to figure out how we relate to those in authority over us, the interaction between Pilate and Jesus in John 18 is intriguing, if we stop to analyze it. These are two people who each have authority vested in them. They are each called by various names by those around them and many of the titles imply elevated leadership, even though the power dynamics in this instance seem very unequal. Pilate seems to loom larger, since from a purely human point of view it would appear that he holds Jesus' future in his hands. But let's look at this as objectively as we can. Pilate has subjects who follow based on coercion, and structures set up for him to be obeyed or else. We don't even want to know what that might mean. But Jesus has followers who come by way of invitation and response. Pilate has soldiers all around his palace that would do his bidding on command, in an instant. Jesus is standing all alone before him with no apparent support system, much less foot soldiers nearby. Pilate is in control of this interview, yet he is the one who is threatened by Jesus. He must inquire as to whether Jesus does claim to be a king, as his followers have designated him, whether or not Jesus is guilty of committing any crimes. The one thing Pilate wants to know most of all: is this guy a threat to me and my authority? We've all known people like that, haven't we?
     
    Jesus, by contrast, is not threatened by Pilate in the least. He is calm, he is confident, and he speaks with authority that allows him to turn the question of whether he is the king of the Jews back to the questioner. "Do you ask this on your own, or have others suggested this to you?" Jesus is amazing in that he is clearly not anxious in this situation. I think we can perceive from his demeanor that he is communicating, "You, Pilate, are in authority within your own little kingdom, but you cannot stir me up because you are not in authority over me. And as a matter of fact, I have a question for you to ponder. What is it about you that worries you so much about me? Your own insecurity, or your desire to please others so you can retain your power?" If we are at all honest with ourselves, questions like that, when addressed to us, can be unnerving as well. We really don't want to probe that deeply to find out why we act or react as we do in our most anxious moments at times. At this point Pilate is not interested in probing his own motives. No, this is way too scary for him, or perhaps unlikely. He was too pompous to think that it might even be relevant. You can almost hear the fear in his voice when he nearly spits out, "I'm not a Jew, am I?" He refuses to let this be anything about him. So he throws it back on Jesus, reminding him that he must have done a terrible thing to have his people handing him over to Pilate.
     
    Well, one of the most common human responses to fear is to run and hide or, as in the case of Pilate, to double down on the power that we can grab to protect ourselves. Pilate has power. He likes power. He wants to keep it that way, and he's willing to use force, if necessary, to secure his lock on his position. He has been taught a way of being an authority for so long that he doesn't question whether there is a better way. His way of wielding the kind of power uses weapons and soldiers, invasions and persecutions to protect what Rome already has, and seeks to expand. And let's be clear, he was very interested in securing his own place in that hierarchy as well. The trappings of power might reassure Pilate, but he's clearly unsettled by a different kind of power that he senses in this stranger from the hinterlands who stands before him. He wonders, "Who is this guy who is not cowering before me and pleading for his very life?"
     
    So, Jesus decides to let Pilate in on the basis of his confidence. It's as if he's saying, "You see Pilate, your frame of reference about your kingdom causes you to think and to respond in a certain way. For me to be a king threatens your kingdom. But I am the king of a kingdom of which you are not familiar. You were talking apples. I am talking oranges." In Jesus recorded words, we have this: "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." This has to be mind-blowing to Pilate. Who has ever heard of such a thing? How does one keep a kingdom intact without force, without fighting back rivals? And if his kingdom isn't from this world, then from where does it come?
     
    Well, the Gospel of John has been building, building, building toward a climax of demonstrating the truth of this very kingdom to which Jesus refers. The opening chapter in the gospel shares with us that the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory of grace and truth. So, Jesus responds to Pilate saying, "You see that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world. To testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." There you have it: Jesus' authority rests on the fact that he is the truth. He doesn't need a campaign or soldiers to stand guard in his kingdom. All that is good and kind and right is part of his kingdom, because his kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His royal mission began in heaven and he came to earth with a divine mandate. He was sent to unveil the truth. When Jesus talks about truth, he's not just talking about honesty or truthfulness -- although he is talking about that. He's not saying merely that he's going to say true things. He says he embodies, and he is the truth.
     
    The irony in this story is that truth is the only authority and power that Jesus wields. He stands as the naked truth that upholds the universe before the lies of religion and power politics, and any other kind of lies you can think of. As we know, lies undermine. Lies erode trust. Without trust there can be no genuine relationships. Marriages, friendships, partnerships all rely on trust born out of thankfulness and truthfulness. If anything makes us suspicious it's when lies, untruths, and deceptions become accepted as, "Oh well, the way it is." Nothing good can be built on a foundation of lies. Only truth will bear the weight of building something with integrity and strength, and foster good and decent relationships. So Jesus spoke the truth to Pilate, just as he had spoken truth to the religious leaders. But neither the religious leaders would listen to the truth nor Pilate. Together they would conspire to destroy Jesus.
     
    But here's the good news, folks: the truth cannot be overcome. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that Jesus, in all of his truth, overcomes all kinds of lies and deception. His is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it. They could take Jesus' life, for a time. But as God raised him to life, truth won the day. And truth will ultimately always win. So what can we say about Jesus' kingdom versus other lesser, rival kingdoms? First of all, Jesus' kingdom is a kingdom of truth. It's not a kingdom that lies and manipulates others by striking fear into people's hearts. His is the kingdom of mercy. It's not a kingdom of coercion, where the strong dominate the weak. His is the kingdom that frees the enslaved. The truth shall set you free. It's not a kingdom that enslaves to keep control. His is a kingdom that has a wide circle of inclusion where all belong. It is not a kingdom where the king asserts his superiority and all the subjects live in fear as to whether they are in or out. His is the kingdom where love and service for the good of all creation is the mode of operation. His is the kingdom that can never be toppled by rival kingdoms, because it is the one true kingdom that goes on and on, forever and ever
     
    I know Brent referred to this as well, but this is the end of the liturgical year. I could wish you a Happy New Year. We think it's December 31 to January 1 where we observe a new year, and that's true on our calendars that we observe in this society. But for us this Sunday is the end of the year, and it is most appropriate that these readings come to us to remind us that Jesus is from the beginning to the end, and on and on into eternity. We can close the liturgical year affirming and rejoicing that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father. All things are under his guidance, and he will come again to wipe out warfare and sorrow and sickness. As we prepare to celebrate Advent, that is exactly what we'll be doing. We'll be celebrating the fact that our king is coming, has come, and will come again. With such a king we need not have authority issues, because he is no bully. His authority over us yields love, forgiveness, and wide acceptance. That is compelling and deserves our worship and praise. Our hymn of the day seems to take on some of the language of kingdoms that do battle and strive to conquer others, but please listen carefully to the language of this hymn as you sing it. It transforms concepts like battle and conquest, and points out that the king whom we serve brings an entirely different kind of kingdom than the one the world has to offer.
     
    Let's honor Christ for this as we sing hymn number 805 using some of these words:
     
    For not with swords' loud clashing
    Or roll of stirring drums
    With deeds of love and mercy
    The heavenly kingdom comes
     
    Lead on, O King eternal
    We follow, not with fears,
    For gladness breaks like morning
    Where'er your face appears
     
    We pray with the church worldwide. Come, Lord Jesus.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot
  • Nov 11, 2018Serving in the Midst of Our Deficit
    Nov 11, 2018
    Serving in the Midst of Our Deficit
    Series: (All)
    November 11, 2018. Do we know God? Guest pastor Rachel Asen preaches on the story of the Widow's Mite and of her dying father's last request, and says that to know God is to serve others through our gifts, even in the midst of our deficit.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Good morning, everyone. Thank you for having me here today. It's truly an honor to be here. I pray that the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart might reflect even a morsel of the everlasting love of Christ. So I watched a video not too long ago of a social experiment, in which someone pretended to unknowingly drop money from their pocket while walking down a busy street. Time after time, the hurried pedestrians watched the money fall, they picked it up, and they placed it in their own pocket. The only individual who returned the cash was homeless. All he had were the clothes on his back and a small duffel bag filled with treasures that many of us might simply view as trash. When asked why he did this he answered, "I might not have much, but I have more than nothing."
     
    When we hear the word "poverty" we often assume it's referring to economic lack. After all, we don't have to go far to witness the impact of its devastation. Every day on my way to school I'm met by faces of those without shelter, without food, without medical care. Our brothers and sisters stand in the midst of idle traffic, draped in cardboard signs and weathered smiles. May we remember that each of us is merely one tragedy, one choice away from laying our head alongside them on a concrete pillow in the chill of night. Economic poverty is real and it's crippling. Yet so too is poverty of the spirit. I spent the majority of my life running from my gifts. Some of us jog. I preferred to sprint. Nonetheless, I was desperately trying to find a way out of what I consider to be God's suffocating embrace. I was a wayward lamb, smothered by the gift of my woolen coat. Our society is ever seeking ways to escape spiritual poverty, through social media, entertainment, drugs, alcohol -- each an attempt to evade the discomfort of our reflection, a reflection often fractured by personal and societal expectations.
     
    Yet, in our brokenness, in that debilitating state of loneliness and self-doubt, there is hope. Leonard Cohen writes, "There are cracks in everything. That's how the light gets in." Though poverty restricts our movement in society, it is not an absence of strength. Let us consider for a moment the word "mite" from the Widow's Mite story, not merely as mite, M-I-T-E, a few meager coins, but rather might, M-I-G-H-T, as in courage and vitality. When we acknowledge that lack is in fact not weakness, we divest ourselves from the shame that hides in the shadows of our inadequacy.
     
    Through faith, we are offered freedom to transcend terrestrial boundaries, despite the narratives into which we were born, and even those we've written for ourselves from remnants of our wounds. In the words of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, "Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother." Christ is the sacred salve that fills our cracks, turning rivers of our brokenness into gilded veins of grace undue.
     
    There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt my own gifts were greatly insufficient. During my father's illness, he suffered from frequent bouts of uncontrollable sorrow. I would visit him often, and there at his feet listen to the pain of his neglected wounds and do my best to reassure him that, despite his perceived failures, he was loved. "What happened to you?" he asked me one evening. "You weren't struck down like Paul on the road to Damascus. Something happened. Well, what was it?" I smiled softly, "I found peace." "How?" he pleaded tearfully. "I learned to love myself," I answered. My father began to cry. "Rachel, I don't know how to do that," he said. I leaned over, I gathered his hands into mine, and I seized his gaze. "We're going to do it together, Daddy. We'll build a bridge from your head to your heart." During my father's memorial service, I raised my eyes to the heavens and I asked God if I had been enough. Could I, amid the debris of my own poverty, have added even a mite to his eternal treasury?
     
    In the midst of my uncertainty, a family friend began to tell a story describing his final visit with my dad. My father shared with him that the longest and most challenging journey of his life was in fact, not his disease. He said, "Johnny, the longest journey is from here to here." In that moment, like a jewel interred in ice beneath the noonday sun, my inadequacy melted away. I began to weep. Yet my tears were not born of anguish, but a blessed joy, gratitude for the gift of reconciliation, and reverence for the miracle that lives within the power of selfless love. We have nothing to give but all of our self.
     
    Jewish Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, "The affection and care for the old, the incurable, the helpless, are the true gold mines of a culture." In many cultures around the world, both impoverished and otherwise, elders are revered. Their wisdom is prized. They are not cast aside, but embraced. They are not forgotten, but admired. To discount the value of our elders is to effectively devalue ourselves, our poverty magnified by our unwillingness to treasure that which is most valuable.
     
    Three days prior to my father's death, he requested a bath. My mother dipped a blue washcloth in a tub of warm, soapy water and she offered it to me. I paused and looked down at my dad. "Are you sure you want me to bathe you?" I asked. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable." He nodded and whispered softly, "Just don't forget the cologne." As I swept the cloth across his chest, my hands seemed to capture the gravity of his condition in a way my vision simply could not. Mapping the peaks and valleys of my father's frame with my fingers formed a land defined by ubiquitous shadows of the setting sun. I paused as I neared his hips. "Would you rather have Mom do this part?" I asked. He shook his head. "Are you sure?" He nodded. I continued to bathe him and with every stroke, I became increasingly aware of the blessing that lay before me. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "For what?" I asked. "That you have to do this." I turned to meet his gaze. "You did it for me," I said through silent tears, "And now it's my turn." The act of bathing my father was one of the most sacred moments of my life. It was an honor to prepare him for his eternal journey home.
     
    I inherited a few pretty amazing friends after my father's death, one of whom died in hospice just a few short weeks ago. Her name was Marie, and she was a beautiful soul. During one of my last visits with her, she asked a question which encompassed the crux of nearly every conversation we had ever had. Her eyes filled with heartfelt wonder as she asked, "Rachel, do you know God?" True to her nature, she embodied the essence of a curious child, hungry for the zest of knowledge. And true to mine, I grinned playfully. "Well, that would depend on one's definition of 'no.' " She flashed her beautifully crooked smile, shook her head in a gesture of joyful exasperation and chuckled. "I'm so glad we're friends," she said. Marie was a widow, and through her gifts she enriched the lives of many.
     
    Still, her question lingers. Do we know God? In our poverty, will we add to the treasury both earthly and divine? Will we care for, and seek to learn from the gold mine of which Rabbi Heschel speaks? In the classic Christmas song "The Little Drummer Boy" the child sings, "I am a poor boy. I have no gift to bring that's fit to give the king." So he plays his drum for him. He plays his best for him. And then Jesus smiles at him. The Little Drummer Boy had nothing to offer but his gift of music. He had nothing but everything to give.
     
    To know God is to serve others through our gifts, even in, and especially within, the midst of our deficit. Just as the widow gave out of her poverty, we too must give of our lack, knowing that we will never be empty in the arms of Christ.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Asen, Anthem, Mark 12:38-44, Widow's Offering
  • Nov 4, 2018God With Skin On
    Nov 4, 2018
    God With Skin On
    Series: (All)
    November 4, 2018. Pastor Stephanie's sermon on this All Saints' Sunday recalls the many kindnesses of others who have lifted us up by their words of encouragement and their actions of love, the saints of God with skin on.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Once again today during our worship service, we will be repeating the words of the Apostles' Creed together, as you see in your bulletin. If some here are not familiar with it, it helps to know that it is the most ecumenical of all Christian creeds, meaning it's widely accepted among the various denominations as containing essential truths about the nature of God and elements of our faith. In the last paragraph there's a phrase that I'm going to highlight today, since it's All Saints' Sunday.
     
    That phrase, as you're probably guessing if you're scanning ahead in your memory, is the one that affirms belief in the "communion of saints." Perhaps it's been said so often that we don't stop to think about it very much, regarding that particular phrase as we say it together. I will admit that growing up, I didn't ever think that phrase had very much to do with me. I figured we were just referring to that special relationship that those bigger than life super Christian-types labeled as "saints" must have had with each other. My concept was that they were on some kind of higher spiritual plain -- lower than Jesus but way, way higher than the rest of us -- in some kind of spiritual hierarchy. That kept me from sensing that this phrase had anything to do with me, or people that I knew. Eventually though, I learned that the New Testament refers to the people who form the Christian community, the baptized and the called, as "saints" over 50 times. The idea still took some getting used to, because we're not commonly used to calling each other saints in our everyday life, even within the church.
     
    After all, the very word "saint" means holy one, and that's hard for us to accept as a designation for ourselves, isn't it? As is often the case though, the way we use the word "holy" in our daily conversations isn't really what is meant in the New Testament language. Throughout the New Testament the word for saint, hagios, refers to Christians, whatever their personal sanctity or holiness might be as individuals, being called "holy" because they are made holy by the redeeming work of Christ on their behalf.
     
    That changes the way we look at ourselves and others significantly. If we realize that we are made holy and that other people have been made holy too by Christ, then our relationships are more communion, or interacting, or a deep fellowship with one another, than they are mere friendships. If we are related to each other primarily through God who made us, that's a closer relationship than even parent-child, siblings, or even marriage relationships. God is in the midst of our relationships, uniting and bonding us together.
     
    The vision in the Book of Revelation helps here. It says, "The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them." Here it might be helpful to imagine a triangle, with God at the apex and then the two angles on the bottom -- one consisting of you and me, of ourselves individually, and the other angle perhaps of all the people who have gone before us, who are living today, those who have yet to be born. And so there's a kind of a dance going on in which we are all connected, communing with one another simply because God is communicating with us and has chosen to be in the midst of us.
     
    The communion of saints then, is a joyful, hopeful dance where the influence we've had from being in the dance with God rubs off on one another, and their influence certainly rubs off on us. As father Henri Nouwen once wrote, the ground between us then is sacred ground, because the Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you. Or, as Martin Luther taught, we are all little Christs interacting with each other. Now, God has come near to us in many forms, and we long to have communion with God in a high touch, deeply communing kind of way. Many times God chooses to let us know of his presence through his people, the saints.
     
    Perhaps you've heard the story of a little boy who was frightened one night during a big thunderstorm. Terrified, he cried out from his room, "Daddy, I'm scared!" His father, not really wanting to get out of bed, called back, "Don't worry, son. God is with you and will take care of you." There was a moment of silence. Then the little boy said, "I know God loves me, but I want someone with skin on."
     
    God with skin on. God demonstrates coming down from on high and dwelling with us mortals by enfleshing his love, and wrapping it up in surprising packages of people like you and I, made in God's image. Taking imperfect human vessels who are made capable of holding the treasure of God's love and grace, God's love is spread far and wide. As we experience something of God and other people, the enfleshment of God is among us. God with skin on through the saints, who have gone before. Whose stories we continue to remember and celebrate, and those who live among us. We celebrate All Saints' Day because people recognized long ago: it's a good thing to honor those whose lives have witnessed to the grace of God, and have positively impacted our own faith. Heaven knows we have enough sad stories circulating of people who have hurt or marginalized us or others. I hope we'll use this day, this All Saints' Sunday, to recall the many kindnesses of others who have lifted us up by their words of encouragement, and their actions of love, the saints of God with skin on affecting us and others.
     
    It is the "count your many blessings" month anyway, since we will soon be celebrating Thanksgiving. I can only imagine how much more meaningful this entire month could be for all of us, if we would take stock of the people that God has used to bless us in our lifetimes. Even if you're out there and you're 5 years old or 12 years old or only 14, and you think you don't have a lot of life to draw on yet, you still have a lot of people on your list, once you start thinking of all the people who have made your life good and comfortable and joyful. There are people who've inspired each one of us to be more loving and kind. There are people who have comforted us when we have felt vulnerable and afraid, who have listened to us and communicated our value as a human being, who challenge us to use our talents and our gifts, who walk with us as companions. The list could go on and on, but you get the drift. Saints lift us to higher levels of living than we could have ever achieved by ourselves, because there is something within them that is inspired by God, who is perfect love.
     
    I asked for examples of saints who have influenced us, and received this lovely one from Susan, which I share with her permission. "My parents are my examples of saints. He was a physician and felt such awe for God the creator. She had a deep love for Jesus, and started telling me about him at such a young age that I can't remember a time when I did not think of him as my friend and my savior." Saints indeed.
     
    As I shared with the children a few minutes ago, my maternal grandmother Jenny was a saint in my life. She endured many hardships and losses over her 91 years, yet she exuded the peace and joy of Christ as she taught me to pray and to trust God. She was the grandmother who had the well-worn Bible next to her favorite chair, and she read to me from it often. As I've been asked in various settings, whether on retreat or in some occasion, who had the most influence on my life of faith as a child, it is without a doubt my grandmother Jenny, whose faith in Christ was compelling and winsome. I suspect Susan and I would both say that her parents and my grandmother were God's love, wrapped with skin on them, for us. Saints, people made holy by God's presence within them. Someday friends, we will all gather as the vision of Saint John in the Book of Revelation shares with us, with all the saints of God around God's throne.
     
    For the glory of God will be overwhelmingly beautiful, too hard to describe or to really comprehend. There it says God himself will wipe away every one of the tears in our eyes. There will be no more death. There will be no mourning or grieving, no more crying and no more pain. It will be no more. All these things will pass away into a new reality when God makes all things new. In the meantime, we can thank God for the saints living among us who ease our pain and sorrow, who increase our joy in living, who help us to sense God's nearness and care, even as we remember those who have gone before who have done the same. In a few minutes, we'll be acknowledging the saints who have gone before us in this past year, and of course that brings to mind other saints who have died in previous years. As we remember them, let us continue to give thanks to God for the ways these dear people have influenced our own faith and the faith of others.
     
    Those of us who were able to attend the excellent presentations at "Views and Brews" on Friday night saw a chart that shows how steadily, over the last several years, news sources we are exposed to are moving more and more to granting coverage of tragic and disappointing storylines. Don't you often say with your friends as I do, that we just don't hear enough feature stories anymore of people doing heroic or even quietly significant things for the common good? Well, sharing stories of people exhibiting self-giving love, and going out of their way to be of service to others, can remind us all of the activity of saints among us.
     
    By God's grace, we too are the saints who helped to carry the burdens of others by exemplifying the love of God within us. We are in communion with God and with others to allow the light to shine through us, to bring hope and healing and encouragement to others. So saints, let's look for ways to be God's agents of love with skin on for one another, and let's continue to celebrate the ways God has shown us his love through the saints who have gone before us. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot
  • Oct 28, 2018Saved By Grace Through Faith
    Oct 28, 2018
    Saved By Grace Through Faith
    Series: (All)
    October 28, 2018. Pastor Stephanie considers different ways to relate the story of Bartimaeus to the Reformation, in her sermon today.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    So as we've said, it's Reformation Sunday. And that should mean something, shouldn't it? I know those of you who were here last year commemorated this in nearly every conceivable way, according to the reports I got, as the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg Castle was observed. My husband Phil and I joined in with several friends at the worship service that was held in the Basilica as part of that commemoration. So, even though we're operating on a little smaller scale this year in 501, it seems that we should be remembering what prompted the Reformation in the first place.
     
    The appointed gospel reading is of course the story of Bartimaeus receiving his sight. I guess we might look at this interesting story of the blind man, Bartimaeus, who calls out to Jesus, for some way to see how that might be attached to Reformation Sunday. Just like when we read any gospel story, we can get hooked on one aspect or another and wonder what it is about that aspect that calls to us. This is a short reading, and yet I saw several things that might be good food for thought.
     
    We could look at the name "Bartimaeus," for example. You know that "bar" in Hebrew means son, and "mitzvah" means commandment. So if you're invited to someone's bar mitzvah, that means it's about son of commandment and bat mitzvah means daughter of commandment. So Bartimaeus the son of Timaeus is spelled out in that way. Here's where it gets interesting: "Timaeus" can be interpreted in a couple of different ways. In Aramaic, one of the languages in the New Testament, it means defilement or dishonor. The listeners who heard this story originally would have also realized that in Greek the word means honor. So Bartimaeus could then mean son of honor. This guy is simultaneously a son of honor and a son of dishonor. Isn't that the story of all humankind, really though, the state in which each one of us find ourselves some parts worthy of honor, some parts not so much? When we are honest with ourselves, it's the mixture that we all have within ourselves. But that's not the primary theme of the sermon.
     
    We could look more carefully at the response of the crowd, including the disciples, to the cries of this blind man. There was not much compassion given. They tell him to be quiet. If you've been on this journey with us through the Gospel of Mark, you've already seen plenty of instances where the disciples are just not getting it. They don't know what Jesus is about yet. So they've been telling people not to bring children up to Jesus, and now they want to keep a blind man away from Jesus. Well, we've had enough on this topic too, so that's not the theme of the sermon either.
     
    Here's another aspect we could consider. Maybe we could consider the part about Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak. He springs up and he goes to Jesus, leaving his cloak behind. Now, that detail must be there for a reason. What does this cloak signify? Could it be that he is leaving behind the only security as a beggar that he has known? He's probably spread out his cloak in front of him at the roadside, receiving gifts and alms that people have dropped on his cloak over and over again. So is this his act of faith that he isn't going to need his cloak anymore, since he's so sure Jesus will help him? Interesting to consider, but still not the main subject of this sermon.
     
    Because as I've said, this is Reformation Sunday, and I hope you take away from this service another point. It's something that transformed the way Martin Luther viewed his relationship with God and wanted everyone to focus on, more than the outward rituals of religion. And that is that it's God's desire to lavish grace and mercy on us, not because we deserve it, but because God is love and wants so deeply to have a vibrant relationship with us through faith.
     
    Our faith is predicated on God's love for us while we were yet sinners, as we said in the prayer of confession today. Christ died for us before we had a clue that we needed someone to demonstrate love for us in such a self-giving, redemptive way. Before we ever became aware of our need for forgiveness and restoration, salvation even, God was reaching out to us to bring us to a place of recognition and receptivity in order to gain this glorious gift of salvation. As Ephesians 2 says, we were dead in our trespasses. But God, who is rich in mercy (one of my favorite phrases in there) did not leave us there but instead made us together alive in Christ.
     
    So because this Sunday reminds us of the pillars of our theology, I'd like to take you through a little theological reflection on the gospel reading. This section in Mark 10 is an excellent illustration of the belief that we are saved by grace through faith. The blind man Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, who may or may not have been honorable, doesn't really matter to this story because God loves all people. Anyway, Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside near Jericho. He's heard of the reputation of Jesus as a compassionate healer. But the story doesn't really start with Bartimaeus, just as our own stories don't really start with us. God is the first mover. That's a concept familiar to those of you who love philosophy and theology. It means that everything starts with the nature and character of God. Your story, my story, Bartimaeus' story, all start with God.
     
    How do we see this in Mark 10? Well as reports of Jesus circulated, especially of his ability to give life to a little girl who had died, to heal the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, to heal lame people and to calm storms (to recapitulate a little bit of where we've been in the Gospel of Mark) Bartimaeus wants to experience this Jesus for himself. Yes, he was motivated by wanting to receive his sight again, but also even the fact that Bartimaeus can recognize who Jesus is tells us something of God's initial action in Bartimaeus' life. When he was told that Jesus from Nazareth was passing by, it is said, he cried out. They called him Jesus of Nazareth. What does he cry out when he calls him? "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me." Voices in the crowd knew Jesus as being from Nazareth. Bartimaeus recognizes that there's more to Jesus than just being identified as from this town or that town.
     
    Now, that means something to people in St. Louis, as you know. To know that someone came from Chesterfield, or Hazelwood, or Affton is a source of conversation. But identifying Jesus from where he'd come from didn't mean anything to Bartimaeus. He calls out to Jesus, identifying him as "son of David." That's a recognition of Jesus being the promised one that he and his people, the people he knew, were longing for, for the one who was going to set everything right arising from the line of David. This too is a gift from God: that Bartimaeus, in his physical blindness, would have insight into the uniqueness of Jesus. So, God moves first in this story, acting in ways of pure grace, giving Bartimaeus even the smallest kernel of faith. Spiritual insight, if not physical sight, to start with.
     
    I wonder, do you ever stop to think about what you know about God, even if it doesn't seem that much to you, that even any of it is there because God has already done something in your life to draw you nearer to God? It's there because God has prepared a way for you and me to know and to experience more fully.
     
    Well next, we see Bartimaeus calling out to Jesus for mercy. In faith, Bartimaeus calls on Jesus to provide for him what he most desires. He is, at this point, utterly relying on the mercy of God, and not on anything that he can offer by way of earning God's favor. People who like to check out all the ways that Greek or Aramaic words are used in the New Testament provide a lot of help to people like me, who like to know but lack the patience to spend hours poring over comparing where this verb shows up and that verb shows up. Of course, it's much easier now with computers. But it used to be that people had to look and notice and write it down and then compare, so I'm thankful for lots of helps in this regard too, because I think these words are very important. I also appreciate learning from the people in our Tuesday text study, including Pastor Roger, who are really up on these things. They can always shed some light on the significance of the various words that are actually used. In this case, it is noteworthy that the verb used for Bartimaeus calling to Jesus is a strong, strong word telling us that Bartimaeus is begging for mercy. He is crying out. He is intensely calling to Jesus. He's putting all of his hopes on what Jesus can do for him, because he has the faith that Jesus can and will do something for him.
     
    "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me." And, Jesus does show him mercy. He restores Bartimaeus' sight. How he restores Bartimaeus' sight we are not told in this story. All we have is Jesus saying, "Your faith has made you well." Or whole. The word is "sozo." This is one Greek word I really know. And it's an important one because it's the word for salvation. It means salvation, wellness, wholeness, peace, shalom, any manner of well-being, of wholeness. And then we are told that Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on his way. I think that's an important addendum. It's an illustration of what Reformation leaders call salvation by grace through faith -- God's grace, prompting us to see and to receive grace through eyes of faith also given to us by God. It all comes from, and all cycles back to, God's goodness and mercy for God's glory. So, you may wonder, what's our part in this? I guess it could be summed up in one thought: we get to respond to God's grace.
     
    For one thing, we celebrate and praise God for the salvation that has come to us as God's gracious gift in Jesus Christ. We do this each week in worshipping together, and throughout the week as we reflect on the goodness that God has given to us.
     
    Sometimes when we think about these big, sweeping, theological concepts of salvation coming to us by grace through faith, we can forget that this is an ongoing thing. Bartimaeus didn't just thank God and then go back to his old life. Even though he could now see and didn't have to be a beggar, he probably had other relationships, other things he might have done with his time. But he became a follower of Jesus regardless of how those other connections were kept up. Some of what is troubling in the larger church today, and I don't mean here but I mean in the larger scope of the church, is that people can talk so much about salvation as a commodity as though "Will I have my salvation?" And then, "Now that's all I need. And so we can go on our merry ways" If that's their belief. But there seems to be no sense of continuing into the path and recognizing that there's always more. There's always more mercy. There's always more grace. There's always more that we will see and experience with Christ, as we continue to follow him. And God's set up that way because God likes being in relationship with us. So as we follow we are continually in the process of realizing more and more of what God is willing and able to do, in and through and for us.
     
    Like Bartimaeus, we have lots of occasions in which we want to call out for mercy in our own lives and for the lives of others. And like Bartimaeus, we are exercising the gift of faith that God gives us as we do. At least one part of exercising faith through prayer is asking for help, or grace, from the holy one in faith. It is calling to the one who is more willing to respond than we can ever imagine, and more capable of response than we dared to hope.
     
    The prayer of faith we get from Bartimaeus has been simply called the Jesus Prayer. It is practiced by people around the world. It originates in the pleas for mercy in the psalms, and also throughout the ministry of Jesus by those who called on him in various ways, including this call or cry from Bartimaeus. It simply goes like this -- and you cannot forget it, once you've got in your head -- Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me (or on us, as the occasion warrants). You can pray it as a meditation as you breathe in and breathe out. Some people find that a very helpful practice, as do I, to breathe in the words "Jesus Christ," breathe out "Son of God," breathe in "Have mercy on us." I find this especially valuable when I don't have any other words because feelings can be so intense.
     
    When you have a personal need or concern for another that is so great, or circumstances that seem so overpowering, you can simply express your faith in the one who gives grace. It's the kind of prayer I find myself repeating when news such as we received yesterday showed up in news sources of every kind -- that a shooter had entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing and injuring many Jewish worshippers. At times like this our words seem so inadequate. It is difficult to give voice to the anger, sadness, lament, anguish, and sorrow that we feel for the people most directly impacted, as well as for ourselves and our surroundings, our corporate sense of security, our trust, that some places at least are havens from violence and strife, gets shaken to the core. Whether these prayers for mercy are for these intense needs for healing and comfort for others, or of mercy for ourselves and our failures and our remorse, God hears these requests for mercy. Those who know of their need for mercy and of whom they need to ask it, do find mercy, and wholeness and peace.
     
    This is faith. It is the faith which knows that grace and mercy are the gifts of God. It is faith that experiences grace as the gift of utmost importance and returns thanks to the giver of all good gifts. In the words of the Apostle Paul, which so moved Martin Luther to take his stand, it is by grace that we are saved through faith. This is not our own doing. It is the gift of God, not the results of works, so that no one may boast.
     
    We have received mercy through what Christ has done for us, friends. Now we can live in continual relationship with God, who is always rich in mercy toward us. God does have mercy on us. Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot
  • Oct 21, 2018The Path to True Greatness
    Oct 21, 2018
    The Path to True Greatness
    Series: (All)
    October 21, 2018. Pastor Stephanie talks about her recent trip to Georgia, and reminds us that the path to true greatness is not having the places of honor, but rather living lives of service in gratitude to God. And that we are also invited to take that path.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I'm really, really happy to be back with you this morning after a rather busy week of travel. It was certainly eventful, and I'd love to tell you more about it as time goes on. In fact, I could pretty much guarantee you'll be hearing some illustrations and examples of some of the experiences that we had, over time.
     
    I don't expect you to know all the details of the arrangements that were made when I accepted your council's invitation to serve as your resident interim pastor, but there were already several items on my calendar for my previous church calling. And the last one was checked off this week. You provided me the time off to do this, but the finances were paid by Christ's Church in St. Peter's for Phil and me to use our remaining continuing education monies from our time at that church. You see, several months ago we became aware of a retreat that was only going to be held this past week. And so we applied those monies toward that, as we had planned to do a deep dive into some civil rights sites and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Along with 28 others, we participated in a retreat process that took place from Sunday through Wednesday. It was a very, very moving experience.
     
    So naturally, we were exposed to many of the writings and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The very last sermon he delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4th, 1968 -- two months before he was killed in Memphis, I noticed -- was on the same gospel passage we have today. And the message as he entitled it was "The Drum Major Instinct." In it, he described the desire that each of us has to be significant, which often means we want to stand out. We want to be in front. We want to be noticed and recognized for our achievements. You know, like the drum major of your high school band or college marching band. Apologies to any one of you who might have been a drum major or majorette, because I'm not putting them down. Just saying that that is a role in which a person stands out. That person has a responsible position and gets noticed by all. But we all have a natural instinct to want to be a standout. What child does not have a big dream of being someone special? A tremendously talented singer perhaps, or a world-class athlete, or maybe a leader throughout the country or world who is going to make peace and harmony for people. Even as we grow older, we realize that we probably aren't going to be quite as outstanding as our youthful ambitions would have told us. But we still want to see ourselves as being great at something or another.
     
    That is the drum major instinct. And that is how Dr. Martin Luther King depicted this very gospel reading we have before us today. Jesus' disciples James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had some pretty strong drum major instincts too. At least one brother didn't try in this place to outdo the other. That undoubtedly, in my experience, probably showed up somewhere else in their lives. After all, I have four siblings myself. I helped to raise three sons and usually there's some jockeying for position among siblings as to which one will be a little bit ahead of another. Perhaps you don't know anything about that, but many of us do. But here, James and John approached Jesus for a favor. They each want to be in positions of honor next to Jesus -- one on each side, equal really -- but each side of Jesus when he is glorified.
     
    Now, the desire to be great isn't really bad in and of itself. We just don't always know what it means to be great until we spend some time, a lot of it in fact, in the school of Jesus' teaching. Notice how Jesus does not chastise them for their request. Instead, he merely tells them that they don't know what they're asking for. They think, since they put in all this time of walking down the dusty roads and interacting with people with all kinds of needs, that they're now ready for positions of authority. But Jesus redirects the entire conversation. "No," he tells them, and the rest of the disciples who are now indignant that they've heard what James and John have requested. Perhaps they wish they had asked first so they might be considered for these places of honor. But Jesus is really saying let's have a little lesson here on what it means to be great. I'll quote again from the gospel. "You know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognized as their rulers Lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants. But it is not so among you. But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."
     
    If this sounds like a radical reorientation, imagine what it sounded like to James and John and the other disciples. They have already identified Jesus as the Messiah. They know he has power and authority like no one they have ever experienced. This talk of being a servant makes absolutely no sense to them. Think about it. It's about as counterintuitive as we experience when we've been playing basketball, if you will, and we know we're doing great because we're racking up lots of points with our superior shots that we are making. And then suddenly we find out that this game of life that we're supposed to be playing is more like another game. It's more like golf, where the object is to get the lowest score possible. Or, it's probably more like playing card games with people who decide to switch games halfway through the evening, from one where you needed to accumulate points to win, to another game where you'd better try ways to give away your high value cards, because now you're going for the lowest score. It is a little disconcerting at first. You can imagine the disciples' thoughts. "What, Jesus? How can this be greatest? Being the lowest, the servant, the slave? That's not winning." And you don't have any leverage in order to do something really great from bottom up.
     
    Last week's gospel reading included a scene with Jesus looking with sadness at the rich young ruler who thought he was playing the game well, according to God's values. (And he was, as far as keeping the commandments went.) He was doing well in terms of society's values too, accumulating wealth and possessions and security for himself. But when Jesus told him that the object was to offload all of that stuff so he could gain what was really important, he just could not adjust to that way of thinking. At least at that point in his life, we are told he walked away.
     
    Well, we have heard more than we can bear these past few years about Making America Great Again. I have heard the laments of so many of you as you reflect on that rhetoric and the ramifications of it, and I share those with you. That phrase and ideology is anything but great for the least, the oppressed, the less abled, the poor, the refugee. Whatever measures have been promoted that this brand of so-called greatness values has actually degraded an experience of seeking the common good, and has made things worse for most people. Instead it's pomposity and glee at taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Well, there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus was well acquainted with such ruthlessness and lack of concern for the poor, the orphans, the widows, the marginalized, and the social outcast. "It is not to be so among you," he says. "These are the very ones to whom we will give ourselves in service."
     
    "Sorry, James and John," we can imagine him saying. "I don't need people to sit in the honored seats, but I do need people to come and to bend down low enough to see what I see, to hear the cries that I hear, to touch the wounds that I notice, to listen to the lonely to whom I want to be near. It's hard to become aware of these things from high and lofty positions, but you will see what I will show you. You will touch and heal and bless people along with me." No one really wants to hear that the path to true greatness goes right to the heart of going the opposite direction of building oneself up as great. It's about seeing where one can lift one another in actuality. It is about focusing so strongly on service to others that caring for needs beyond ourselves becomes more important to us.
     
    I said last week was an eventful one for us. Last Sunday at this time, we were sitting in the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia listening to a 93-year-old man teaching Sunday School, as he does about twice a month. This man is a person who has negotiated peace in the Middle East (at least partial), who has worked to enable people to have access to fair elections in various countries, who has worked tirelessly to eradicate Guinea worms to relieve suffering for thousands and thousands of people, who has helped to build only God knows how many Habitat for Humanity homes over the years, and oh yes, he did get to live in the White House and serve as the leader of the free world from 1977 to 1981. Former President Jimmy Carter now lives in the same home that he and Rosalynn built in Plains in the 1970s. Somewhere along the way, in the school of Jesus' teaching, Jimmy and Rosalynn have discovered that the path to true greatness is not having the places of honor, but rather living lives of service in gratitude to God.
     
    We are also invited to take that path. I see many of you traveling that path so very well. But we all need reminders that, contrary to the messages our culture sends us, it is the only path that leads to greatness in God's eyes. Thanks be to God for these reminders. And let us sing a song that will also remind us about the importance of serving one another.
     
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    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot, MAGA, National Lynching Memorial
  • Sep 30, 2018Stumbling Blocks
    Sep 30, 2018
    Stumbling Blocks
    Series: (All)
    September 30, 2018. Jon Heerboth preaches on Philippians 1:18. We may have many points of view about our best way forward here at Christ Lutheran. Our agreement though should be just like Paul said. "What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice."
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    If I were in a classroom instead of in a church today, I would say that we're going to have a brief review here before we start the lesson for today. Last week we heard Jesus explain that he would be put to death, and three days later he would rise again. But the disciples didn't know what he was talking about. They didn't understand him and they were afraid to ask, so instead they were arguing about who of them was the greatest. Jesus sat them down and explained that whoever wanted to be first must be last of all and servant of all, and then he picked up a small child and held the child in his arms and said that whoever welcomed the child welcomed Jesus, and the one who sent Jesus.
     
    Now, in today's gospel Jesus is still holding the child. He still has the child in his arms while he's talking with his disciples. But John interrupted Jesus to report that some other healer had been casting out demons in the name of Jesus. The disciples went and told him to stop it because he was not one of them. "You can't use Jesus' name unless you're one of us," they said. Now you can imagine the disciples gathering around Jesus closely to hear what he had to say about this. Jesus began to speak, but he could see that they weren't getting it. He had to make his point three times. "Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to soon afterwards speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward." Jesus had to work hard to make that point to the disciples, but it's a point that we need to hear as well.
     
    We are used to hearing phrases like, "If you're not for me you're against me." Pro or con. X or not x. No middle ground. The problem is that this kind of thinking excludes so many people, and Jesus turns it on its head: "Whoever is not against us is for us." Just the opposite of the way we often think. With these words, Jesus moves us from excluding people to being inclusive, from suspicion to welcome, from left out to invited in. The love of Jesus and the power of God can cut through this "friend or foe" thinking, so that we can welcome almost everyone into our fold.
     
    My dad related his experience years ago, before Lutherans were talking about working together as church bodies. It was 1949, just four years after the end of World War II, when my parents arrived in Sapporo, Japan to begin their careers as missionaries. Shortly after they arrived, Dad and his good friend Paul were invited to a prayer group of Japanese Christians. Dad said they really wanted to attend the meeting, but they were troubled and a little worried because none of the attendees was Lutheran, and they were not permitted to pray with people of other denominations. Dad and Paul decided that they would attend the prayer meeting, but they were worried that a very strict colleague might create a problem for them by reporting to the mission board in St. Louis. So, Dad and Paul went and they were introduced to a group of Japanese Christians. Dad said that each one introduced himself with a name and his former Christian denomination. "I am of Baptist antecedent." "I am of Methodist antecedent." "I am of Roman Catholic antecedent," and so forth. Before World War II these Japanese Christians stayed with their denominational groups, but when the war started it turned out the secret police didn't ask their denomination. They all got locked up together for the duration of the war. "When they came for us, they came because we were Christian." Denomination became irrelevant to them. What mattered was that they all followed Jesus. The two missionaries learned what mattered and what didn't.
     
    Now, we worship here among like-minded Christians for the most part. We know we have a lot of work here to do at Christ and in the world at large. We would like to grow as a congregation. Our congregational leaders and our members have been looking at this growth from several directions. The monthly newsletters and weekly announcements remind us of how often we tie in with other Christians in our area and throughout the world. There are many opportunities here to work together for others and to bring others to Christ. Our doors are open and we hope they are welcoming. In addition, we have been thinking about how to improve our outreach by maintaining and improving our facilities.
     
    Now the last thing we want to do is what Jesus warned us against in today's gospel. We want to be open to all, and we do not want to place any stumbling blocks in the path of one of these little ones who believe. Now Jesus was speaking directly of a young child he was still holding in his arms during all of this, but you could substitute the child with anyone who feels like he doesn't quite belong, any one of low social standing, anyone who's felt like an outsider instead of an insider, anyone who is different and feels different and feels like they don't belong with the rest of us. Jesus is talking about doing things that make other people feel unworthy, like somehow they are not good enough or their differences are somehow too great to receive salvation through their faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus has harsh words for them: a millstone, a big one, pulled by a donkey, tied around the neck, tossed into the sea for those who leave stumbling blocks.
     
    Now it's really easy to read through this and skip over those passages about millstones cutting off hands, feet, tearing out eyes, and just say that Jesus was exaggerating and move on. But if we do that we, miss the central point, that we don't want to be the cause of anyone stumbling in faith. Jesus was still holding that small child. He was absolutely serious about stumbling blocks and coming judgment.
     
    Do we want to hear the truth, that we could be the cause of someone tripping up in their discipleship, that we could be the cause of someone stumbling in his or her faith, that we could be the cause of someone questioning whether or not he or she is truly a critical and viable member of God's kingdom. And we would rather blame someone else, or just conduct safe and secure demonstrations of faith, than take accountability for the ways in which we might have prevented others from living into their fullness as disciples, their fullness as children of God. We would like to assume that putting stumbling blocks in the ways of others is just a temporary misstep in their lives. We think they'll quickly get back up on their feet and get over it. A nondescript, almost unnoticeable trip up along the way couldn't lead to a lifelong trajectory, could it? Maybe we could convince ourselves of that. But yet, if we're honest, we know that tripping over something, a little stumble can lead to a major fall, a fall from which it takes a very long time to recuperate, if ever. We learned that this week from watching the news, didn't we? When we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God's call, as they and only they can hear it and live it, we are essentially silencing them. "No," said Jesus. "Don't you dare."
     
    We do not want to feel that unquenchable fire. Now we will have many points of view here and differing opinions about our best way forward here at Christ. Our agreement though should be just like Paul said in Philippians, chapter 1. "What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true, and in that I rejoice."
     
    We Christians here at Christ, and wherever our brothers or sisters gather on Sunday morning, are united in our desire to hear the word, pray together, and to gather at the Lord's table. We don't want to be salt that has lost its flavor, and we sure don't want to be salted with fire. Our salt is from God. So let us all be at peace with one another.
     
    Amen.
     
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    2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Jon Heerboth, Philippians 1:18