Feb 21, 2021
Wilderness and Baptism
Series: (All)
February 21, 2021. Our readings, and the sermon today, are about wilderness — and also about baptism, and how they were both essential to Jesus.
 
Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
 
*** Transcript ***
 
When you hear the word “wilderness” what comes to mind? You may respond differently depending on how you feel about the wilderness outdoors. If you are one who, like my friend Keith, loves to travel miles by bike and then sleep in a hammock suspended between trees at night, or like the Cub Scouts in the Youth Group, who reveled in the challenge of cooking dinner over a fire the size and shape of a shoe box and were not the least bit disturbed by fire ants or wasps, the wilderness might excite you. If, however, your idea of “roughing it” starts with being without a TV, or if camping means staying in a cabin with a bathroom and a kitchen, the thought of being in the wilderness may make you cringe. I will admit that as much as Karen and I love visiting parks and hiking outdoors and cooking over a campfire, having a solid roof over our heads that we did not need to assemble ourselves, and a bed at sitting height that doesn't require an air pump, has become more and more appealing over the last few years.
 
As we gather today for our first Sunday in Lent, living into our Lenten theme “Called to Truth,” one short line in the Gospel from Mark tells us that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. The gospel today is about wilderness — and it is also about baptism. Because just before Jesus enters the wilderness, he is baptized by John. And he hears the voice of God affirming his beloved-ness, the deep truth of who he is as God’s child. Baptism, followed by wilderness. They seem to be two polar opposites, don’t they? But they are actually inextricably intertwined in God’s world. God is present equally in the wilderness as in baptism. And this, I think, may be the truth that our scriptures have for us today.
 
Jesus is driven into the wilderness, Mark says. In Mark’s telling, we don’t get a whole lot of detail — just one sentence indicating that his wilderness experience was marked by temptation, wild animals, and angels. Matthew and Luke give us some specific information about the temptations, and they note that Jesus didn’t eat or drink the entire 40 days he spent in the wilderness. All in all, even if you are one who loves the outdoors, this wilderness — Jesus’ wilderness — doesn’t sound exactly peaceful.
 
Jesus spends 40 days being tempted and challenged, in a very profound way, having everything he had just been told by God at his baptism challenged. Beloved? Child of God? Prove it. Show me. How do you really know that? For 40 long days, Jesus is tempted and challenged. We also heard today, as Mr. Jesse mentioned, the story of Noah and his family, in the ark, battered around by raging flood waters for 40 days before hearing that promise of God’s love again. And then we might recall the Israelites, and their journey through the desert for 40 years before they arrived at the promised land, and they and God renewed their covenant, their promise. The exact length of time doesn’t really matter. The truth we know from all of these stories is that the wilderness is not an instant process, a quick and easy place to be, but takes time.
 
Another truth we hear from our gospel today is that Jesus’ ministry comes just as much out of his time in the wilderness as it does out of his baptism. After all, Jesus goes straight from the baptism to the wilderness, and straight from the wilderness to begin his ministry. In the wilderness, Jesus learns something of who he is. He is challenged to forget that his identity comes from God, and each time, he affirms his trust in the God from whom he came, the one who called him beloved. And, we are told, the Spirit was with him there in the wilderness, and the angels waited on him. In the wilderness, Jesus learns that even in the midst of trials and temptations, his identity as beloved holds true.
 
In my wilderness times, this truth has not been clear always in the midst of the struggle. Grief, shame, wounded-ness can overwhelm, making it hard to see, leading us to forget. We have all experienced wildernesses of our own: the death of beloveds, miscarriage, extended unemployment, serious illness and injury, divorce. Even the traumas of this last year of life in a pandemic may feel like something of a wilderness. These times can feel like we are on our own, unsure of who we are and what we are called to do. We may even feel that God has forgotten or abandoned us, leaving us to struggle through on our own.
 
This is not something we choose, and despite Mark telling us that Jesus was driven into the desert, it is also not something that God foists upon us as a punishment or a lesson. There is pain, loss, and grief, that is very human, very real. And, the wilderness is a part of life, a part of our humanity, and there are deep truths that can be revealed there, in time.
 
The truth of the wilderness that Jesus shares with us, and that I have learned as I've emerged from my wildernesses, is that nothing can erase our beloved-ness, and nothing can undo the presence of God in all things. This promise is embedded in creation itself, as we also know from the story of Noah like Mr. Jesse talked about, that rainbow that is the promise of God. And that promise is revealed through the rain.
 
Even death cannot undo God’s promise. The parallels in the Gospel of Mark between Jesus’ baptism and his death are profound. Both include a splitting of the barrier between God and us: at baptism there's a tearing in the sky itself, and at death there's a rending of the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies, where it was believed that God lived. Both demonstrate the clear presence and movement of the Spirit, in the dove and in the breath, in the story of Jesus' death. And in both baptism and death, there is that voice proclaiming beloved-ness and identity as child of God.
 
In baptism, we claim our beloved-ness as children of God, embracing the truth that goes back to creation, when God formed us from the earth and breathed life into us. In wilderness, our identities are challenged, refined, claimed, and affirmed in new ways. We aren’t told how Jesus felt during his time in the wilderness, or specifically how he may have been changed, but we do know that he left the wilderness ready to begin his ministry, ready to step toward the pain and grief of John the Baptist’s brutal death. The wilderness, it seems, was just as essential to Jesus as his baptism, preparing him to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
 
Thanks be to God.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15, coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic
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  • Feb 21, 2021Wilderness and Baptism
    Feb 21, 2021
    Wilderness and Baptism
    Series: (All)
    February 21, 2021. Our readings, and the sermon today, are about wilderness — and also about baptism, and how they were both essential to Jesus.
     
    Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    When you hear the word “wilderness” what comes to mind? You may respond differently depending on how you feel about the wilderness outdoors. If you are one who, like my friend Keith, loves to travel miles by bike and then sleep in a hammock suspended between trees at night, or like the Cub Scouts in the Youth Group, who reveled in the challenge of cooking dinner over a fire the size and shape of a shoe box and were not the least bit disturbed by fire ants or wasps, the wilderness might excite you. If, however, your idea of “roughing it” starts with being without a TV, or if camping means staying in a cabin with a bathroom and a kitchen, the thought of being in the wilderness may make you cringe. I will admit that as much as Karen and I love visiting parks and hiking outdoors and cooking over a campfire, having a solid roof over our heads that we did not need to assemble ourselves, and a bed at sitting height that doesn't require an air pump, has become more and more appealing over the last few years.
     
    As we gather today for our first Sunday in Lent, living into our Lenten theme “Called to Truth,” one short line in the Gospel from Mark tells us that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness. The gospel today is about wilderness — and it is also about baptism. Because just before Jesus enters the wilderness, he is baptized by John. And he hears the voice of God affirming his beloved-ness, the deep truth of who he is as God’s child. Baptism, followed by wilderness. They seem to be two polar opposites, don’t they? But they are actually inextricably intertwined in God’s world. God is present equally in the wilderness as in baptism. And this, I think, may be the truth that our scriptures have for us today.
     
    Jesus is driven into the wilderness, Mark says. In Mark’s telling, we don’t get a whole lot of detail — just one sentence indicating that his wilderness experience was marked by temptation, wild animals, and angels. Matthew and Luke give us some specific information about the temptations, and they note that Jesus didn’t eat or drink the entire 40 days he spent in the wilderness. All in all, even if you are one who loves the outdoors, this wilderness — Jesus’ wilderness — doesn’t sound exactly peaceful.
     
    Jesus spends 40 days being tempted and challenged, in a very profound way, having everything he had just been told by God at his baptism challenged. Beloved? Child of God? Prove it. Show me. How do you really know that? For 40 long days, Jesus is tempted and challenged. We also heard today, as Mr. Jesse mentioned, the story of Noah and his family, in the ark, battered around by raging flood waters for 40 days before hearing that promise of God’s love again. And then we might recall the Israelites, and their journey through the desert for 40 years before they arrived at the promised land, and they and God renewed their covenant, their promise. The exact length of time doesn’t really matter. The truth we know from all of these stories is that the wilderness is not an instant process, a quick and easy place to be, but takes time.
     
    Another truth we hear from our gospel today is that Jesus’ ministry comes just as much out of his time in the wilderness as it does out of his baptism. After all, Jesus goes straight from the baptism to the wilderness, and straight from the wilderness to begin his ministry. In the wilderness, Jesus learns something of who he is. He is challenged to forget that his identity comes from God, and each time, he affirms his trust in the God from whom he came, the one who called him beloved. And, we are told, the Spirit was with him there in the wilderness, and the angels waited on him. In the wilderness, Jesus learns that even in the midst of trials and temptations, his identity as beloved holds true.
     
    In my wilderness times, this truth has not been clear always in the midst of the struggle. Grief, shame, wounded-ness can overwhelm, making it hard to see, leading us to forget. We have all experienced wildernesses of our own: the death of beloveds, miscarriage, extended unemployment, serious illness and injury, divorce. Even the traumas of this last year of life in a pandemic may feel like something of a wilderness. These times can feel like we are on our own, unsure of who we are and what we are called to do. We may even feel that God has forgotten or abandoned us, leaving us to struggle through on our own.
     
    This is not something we choose, and despite Mark telling us that Jesus was driven into the desert, it is also not something that God foists upon us as a punishment or a lesson. There is pain, loss, and grief, that is very human, very real. And, the wilderness is a part of life, a part of our humanity, and there are deep truths that can be revealed there, in time.
     
    The truth of the wilderness that Jesus shares with us, and that I have learned as I've emerged from my wildernesses, is that nothing can erase our beloved-ness, and nothing can undo the presence of God in all things. This promise is embedded in creation itself, as we also know from the story of Noah like Mr. Jesse talked about, that rainbow that is the promise of God. And that promise is revealed through the rain.
     
    Even death cannot undo God’s promise. The parallels in the Gospel of Mark between Jesus’ baptism and his death are profound. Both include a splitting of the barrier between God and us: at baptism there's a tearing in the sky itself, and at death there's a rending of the curtain in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies, where it was believed that God lived. Both demonstrate the clear presence and movement of the Spirit, in the dove and in the breath, in the story of Jesus' death. And in both baptism and death, there is that voice proclaiming beloved-ness and identity as child of God.
     
    In baptism, we claim our beloved-ness as children of God, embracing the truth that goes back to creation, when God formed us from the earth and breathed life into us. In wilderness, our identities are challenged, refined, claimed, and affirmed in new ways. We aren’t told how Jesus felt during his time in the wilderness, or specifically how he may have been changed, but we do know that he left the wilderness ready to begin his ministry, ready to step toward the pain and grief of John the Baptist’s brutal death. The wilderness, it seems, was just as essential to Jesus as his baptism, preparing him to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15, coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic
  • Feb 17, 2021Broken and Beloved
    Feb 17, 2021
    Broken and Beloved
    Series: (All)
    February 17, 2021. What is truth? Tonight, as Lent begins, we ask God that question, and listen for the truth God reveals to us in scripture.
     
    Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Many years ago, when I was just getting into twelve-step work in Al-Anon, I remember being told that we are “only as sick as our secrets,” and if that's true I must have been pretty ill when I got there. I was really good at hiding things I didn’t want you to know, and especially good at hiding mistakes. I thought that the way to be okay, to be liked, to have friends, was to only let you know the good stuff. The last thing I wanted to do was let people know the truth.
     
    When the Worship Team met last month to talk about Lent and we were trying to decide on a theme, we bounced around several ideas. And then someone said, “What about 'Called to Truth?'” And we all realized that was it: truth. That thing we often want to hide. That thing we sometimes think will be our undoing. That thing that Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John will set us free.
     
    These days, it seems like there's so much misinformation, distortion, and outright lies being shared on social media and the news that the truth feels really elusive. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was reflecting on the situation we and our country are in, and Jesus’ conversation with Pilate came to mind. Jesus tells Pilate he has come to testify to the truth, and Pilate says, “Truth? What is truth?” I found myself thinking yeah, what is truth? I'm sure I'm not the only one who has struggled with that recently.
     
    Jesus came to testify to the truth — the truth that will set us free. And so in this time of Lent, when we are called to take a step back, to reflect on our lives and our relationship with God and others, to acknowledge the sin that binds us and grow more into the people God is calling us to be, we at Christ Lutheran will lean into God’s call to truth. We will start with Pilate’s very real question: what is truth? Tonight, as Lent begins, we ask God that question, and listen for the truth God reveals to us in scripture.
     
    In all of our readings for today, we hear the truth that we have, all of us, turned away from God, in different ways at different times. We have chosen to depend on ourselves and our own power. We have taken advantage of the privileges we have in ways that have done harm to others. We have gotten lost in our attempts to seek approval from others instead of following the way of Christ. We have forgotten our call to care for God’s creation, for the earth and all that lives on it. Tonight, as Lent begins, we hear the truth of our sin and brokenness.
     
    And we also hear the truth proclaimed by the prophet Joel that while we are still lost, God is calling us to return, to seek God with our whole hearts. We hear the truth from Paul that now is the acceptable time, today is the day, and that there is always new life in Christ. Jesus tells us in Matthew that God is with us, knows all the things we hide, and calls us to trust in the love of God to lead us home. The God who sees in secret knows that we have sinned, and the God who sees in secret knows the desire we hold in our hearts to return to God.
     
    We as Lutherans know that we are sinner and saint, and this truth is revealed to us over and over in scripture. Our brokenness and sin, the truth we want to bury, is uncovered. And the call of the God who shaped us out of the earth with their hands and breathed Spirit into us, that promise of faithfulness even when we stumble, the reality of our beloved-ness, the truth that we are sometimes unable to see, is revealed.
     
    We journey these 40 days of Lent together, seeking to follow more closely Christ, who entered into our humanity to show us the ways of God. We follow Jesus of Nazareth, who came to testify to the truth. We receive ash tonight as a symbol of our brokenness and sin, and of our mortality — the truth that we came from dust and will return to dust. The ash traced on our foreheads or on our hands also reminds us of the truth of the forgiveness, faithfulness, and love promised us by the God who formed us out of the dust.
     
    Over the years, I have come to believe and know the freedom that comes from truth. Our scriptures proclaim the promise that the God who created us will never abandon us. The God who sees in secret knows everything about us, and even when we stumble, calls us home. We are called to that truth. And that is good news indeed.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
  • Feb 7, 2021When Jesus Left the Synagogue
    Feb 7, 2021
    When Jesus Left the Synagogue
    Series: (All)
    February 7, 2021. As we gather again for worship in our homes, Pastor Meagan reminds us how Jesus took his ministry out of the synagogue and expanded, into homes and neighboring towns.
     
    Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Last week the Gospel of Mark told us how Jesus got started in his ministry — the calling of the disciples, the proclamation that the realm of God is here, the amazement of the people at the authority Jesus carried in his teaching and the casting out of the unclean spirit. Jesus spent time in the synagogue and embodied, in what he said and did, the good news of God’s love, and claimed in his actions the authority of God, over and above the authority even of the temple.
     
    This week Jesus does something really awesome: he leaves the synagogue. And this feels significant, in this time when it has been almost a year since we have worshipped together in our sanctuary. I personally have worshipped from my guest room, my living room, my backyard, my parents’ backyard, my parents' living room. It's been almost a year of worshipping from homes, vacation places, and even once I think from a boogie board! As many times as I have heard this passage, the detail of Jesus leaving the synagogue and taking his ministry to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house has mostly escaped me. But this year, it seems like just about the most profound thing Jesus could have done as he began his ministry.
     
    A few years back, a Lakota elder shared with a group of United Theological seminarians that Lakota tradition teaches that our stories are rooted in place, not time. And according to that tradition, the valley below Fort Snelling, just blocks from Karen’s and my home in the Twin Cities, is the birthplace of creation — a sort of Garden of Eden. It is also the literal birthplace of many Lakota people whose mothers traveled days and weeks to get to that place so their children could be born there. No matter how much time passes, their stories and the story of creation itself are alive there in that sacred place.
     
    And in this experience of exile we have realized, if we didn’t before, the sacredness of our temple, our sanctuary where I now stand. So many of you have told me how much it means just to see our altar in my Zoom screen on Sunday mornings. We are all longing for the time when we can return to gathering in person here, hearing the organ live rather than via video, drinking coffee and eating meals together in our Fellowship Hall. If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now: our sanctuary is sacred space.
     
    And this week, Jesus leaves the sacred space of the synagogue. And the first place he goes, just as we did when we left our building behind, is home. Not his home, of course, but a home — the home of Simon’s mother-in-law. And Jesus’ ministry does not pause or end when he leaves the synagogue, but expands, as he continues to preach and heal and the word spreads of what he is doing. In a very real way, Jesus demonstrates for us that it is not just the synagogue that is sacred space. We who have celebrated communion in our homes, heard the word in our homes, blessed and celebrated community and even our furry family members in our homes, grieved the death of beloveds in our homes, know this. Home is sacred space, too.
     
    And still, before the end of that first chapter of Mark, Jesus moves again. After what must have been an exhausting day, as the people of town filled the small home seeking wisdom and healing, Jesus goes to find a deserted place where he could be by himself and pray. Even Jesus believed, as Isaiah so eloquently says, that “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength.” I am probably not the only one feeling especially worn out these days. I am sure many of you are also done with COVID, ready to celebrate with abandon in this time when we're still called to care for one another with caution. In these days when we are often just one step ahead of weariness and exhaustion, how comforting it is to know that we are not alone — even Jesus needed God to renew his strength.
     
    When the disciples find Jesus, he doesn’t return to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house or to the synagogue, but moves onward once again. Sacred space, as Jesus shows us, is bigger than the temple, bigger than Simon’s mother-in-law’s house, bigger than the town, and Jesus’ ministry expands to neighboring towns. That too is sacred space. In fact, Isaiah tells us, there is no place that God isn’t. The God who created all things is present in all, to the very ends of the earth. One of the most sacred places I have ever had the privilege of being was the two-room home of a family in Tanzania, where we sat on bales of hay to eat homemade cakes and drink tea sweetened with rare and precious sugar, served by the mother of five whose face glowed with pride at having something to offer us. All places are sacred.
     
    Mark tells us that one of the things that happens in sacred places is healing. It's worth taking a moment to think about this, as Miss Kate talked about. We are painfully aware with over 400,000 having died from a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be done with us yet, although we are certainly done with it, and with the losses we have experienced in our own congregation and our own lives, that healing as we would wish for it doesn’t always happen. We know from our own experiences that sometimes mental and physical disease persist despite our best efforts. And that can leave us wondering where our healing, our miracle, our resurrection is. Mark starts his gospel by proclaiming the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. But sometimes, when brokenness seems to overwhelm, it can be hard to trust and believe that the good news of Jesus’ presence and healing is still happening today.
     
    We are part of this dynamic, transformative, and yes healing Spirit that is always moving and breathing around us. Do we believe that? Do we believe the sequel can happen? What does healing even mean? A colleague who lives with disabilities suggested that healing is not so much a restoration to wholeness physically, as if the person healed was not a complete or full human before, but a restoration to community, dignity, and agency. In the midst of the stories of healing in our gospels, Jesus so often not only offers physical healing, but raises people up, brings them back into community, names their humanity and their dignity. In today’s story, Simon’s mother-in-law is initially received as one who simply needs care, as an elderly widow who is in fact ill. Jesus goes to her, and yes he removes her fever, but the true transformation is a restoration to dignity and place in community that allows her to serve — to minister, as Jesus and the disciples did — as well as be served.
     
    The question of who receives healing, why and when, is one that we human beings have been wrestling with since the beginning of time, and we still wonder and ask and lament when healing doesn’t come as we hope. And yet, as Miss Kate suggested, the promise of God stands. In Christ, we know that even in the face of illness and suffering and death, God is present with us. In Christ, we are seen and known, our dignity as a child of God is assured, our lament is heard by a God who has experienced suffering and death for themselves. The ministry of Jesus expands again, and again, and again, all the way to the cross. And because of that we can trust that even our places of brokenness, loss, and death are sacred.
     
    All places, all time, all lives are sacred. And today, as we gather and worship together on our Zoom screens, we know that more than ever. Christ is present in the sacred space of our homes, bringing the good news of God’s love, restoring us to our community in sometimes surprising ways, lifting us up and renewing our strength when we are exhausted, naming us and calling us beloved, and sending us outward to discover and proclaim the sacredness of God’s presence in the places — and the people — around us. And when we come back to our sanctuary, and we will return, we will do so with great joy and celebration, knowing that that is only the beginning.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39, COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic
  • Feb 1, 2021Amazed and Astounded
    Feb 1, 2021
    Amazed and Astounded
    Series: (All)
    January 31, 2021. In Mark, the people are astounded because Jesus seems to carry an authority that they are not used to hearing. What does authority look like for us today? When was the last time you remember being astounded or amazed about something?
     
    Readings: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I called a family member recently, and we started our conversation in the way that we have repeatedly nearly every time we've talked recently. “How are you?” “Oh, you know. How are you?“ “Oh, you know. What’s going on?” “Nothing! Just hanging out here, nothing new!” “Yeah, same here, not going anywhere!” Sound familiar? It seems like all of us are feeling this a little bit. These many months of living in COVID have been wearing to say the least, and have left us all feeling perhaps a bit trapped. Perhaps a lot trapped, or bored, or lonely, eager for anything to do, anywhere to go, anyone to see. Someone recently described it as like living in the movie “Groundhog Day,” every day similar to the one before: get up, go to the kitchen, eat breakfast, go to the desk in the den and start work, maybe get kids started in school. Even our clothes may have fallen a bit into a rut — someone recently quipped that they now have a pair of sweatpants for each day of the week.
     
    In the meantime, the last few weeks, we have been watching as Jesus has begun his ministry. He was born, and creation itself revealed just how transformative his life would be. He caused his parents some angst when he disappeared for three days, grew in age and wisdom, and his parents pondered and wondered about what his life among us might mean. He went out and sought disciples, inviting them to come and see for themselves who he was, letting them know that he saw them for who they were, and calling them and us to freedom, transformation, and participation in the realm of God. And today, in our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus’ ministry is about to officially begin.
     
    In each gospel, the good news of Jesus’ first public ministry, his introduction to the people, is told a bit differently, and tells us something important about who Jesus was. In Matthew, we know early on that Jesus is Jewish, and he starts by preaching and healing, and the crowds quickly grow so big that he gathers with them on the mountains because so many are drawn to him. In Luke, who apparently believes in the call of the preacher to afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted, Jesus preaches his first sermon in his home synagogue in Nazareth, and people try to push him off the cliff! In John, Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana, showing that he is the son of God, but also very much a part of human life and celebration.
     
    The Gospel of Mark wastes no time. Jesus has called disciples to join him in his ministry, and today in the last verses of chapter 1, Jesus is in the synagogue teaching, and the people are astounded because he seems to carry an authority that they are not used to hearing. And then, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit, and the people are amazed once more at the authority that he has. Astounded. Amazed. Authority. By the end of chapter 1 of Mark, Jesus has already made quite an impression.
     
    When was the last time you remember being astounded or amazed about something?
     
    And then, there is the idea of authority. Mark tells us in this story of Jesus that people were amazed because of the authority Jesus had, both in his preaching and in the casting out of the unclean spirit. What does authority look like for us today? How do we know right from wrong, truth from untruth, authentic leaders from imposters? The information, misinformation, and intentional lies that flood our newsfeeds have made it harder than ever to know sometimes what is true and important, and what is not. And as the Corinthians faced their own confusion, Paul offered the Corinthians some guidance as they wrestle with how to live out their faith in Christ. Bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and religious traditions was challenging to say the least.
     
    In particular today, Paul discusses how to handle the confusion among believers in Jesus when some followed particular dietary guidance, some no dietary restrictions, and some feel newly freed from the rules they used to think were important. In the end Paul says, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Rather than being concerned that everyone follow particular dietary law, focus on doing what is best to support and love your neighbor. Don’t be so concerned about what you know or don’t know, Paul says. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
     
    On this Reconciling in Christ Sunday, we among many other ELCA churches celebrate our commitment to welcome LGBTQIA+ people as they are: beloved children of God. And I think of how much debate, division, and damage has happened — and still happens even in Christian community — as people have debated and continue to debate the rightness, beloved-ness, and even the existence of people different from ourselves. Like Mr. Jesse said, welcome can be hard, right?
     
    But carried to an extreme, this desire to be right and pure has led to unspeakable tragedy. This week, we also honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when arguments of white, Christian, Eurocentric superiority were used to justify horrors that are almost unimaginable, including the death of over 600,000 Jewish people and many others who didn’t quite fit the mold. The evil behind this violence is still pervasive today, in the sins of racism, anti-LGBTQIA violence, anti-Semitism, and other ideologies that oppress, bind, and kill children of God.
     
    Paul seems to cut through all the confusion over what is right and wrong, who is in and out, and all the evil that can ensnare us, and offer Christ as our guide. Love for neighbor and the love of God, Paul tells us, is our authority.
     
    I had the opportunity this week to listen to a webinar called “Responding to Christian Nationalism,” in which our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Bishop Michael Curry, participated. What stood out to me from both of their sharing was two points: among all of the possible voices we can listen to, all of the beliefs we can hold, of all the ideologies we can trust, as Christians we are called first and foremost to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And in doing so, we are called to love and serve others without distinction, as God does for us.
     
    And back to Jesus of Nazareth in the temple. Approaching the person possessed by the unclean spirit was in itself quite an unusual thing. Most others around him would have been stepping away, distancing themselves from the unclean spirit that had invaded the temple. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead he steps toward the unclean spirit and speaks to it, commanding it to leave the possessed person so they could be free again. Rather than aligning himself with the authority and rules of the temple, Jesus embodies the authority of God’s heart in love and service to one in need. And the people took notice. They saw and felt the authority of God in Christ, and they were amazed!
     
    As we live our sometimes “Groundhog-Day-ish” pandemic lives, Christ is still among us. Jesus of Nazareth is calling us to follow him, and embody the authority not of knowledge but of the love of God in Christ. This is not easy — just when we think we've achieved this goal, we'll stumble again, and we'll need to hear one more time Jesus’ call to repentance, and Paul’s direction to let go of the knowledge that puffs up and allow love to build up the people of God again. Like Mr. Jesse said, belonging can be hard. Welcome can be hard. But this is what Christ calls us to.
     
    In a few minutes we'll have our Annual Meeting, a time to celebrate what God has been doing among us in the last year, and ask guidance from God for the year to come. So how have you been amazed by the Spirit of God at work among us? As our Council has spent time envisioning where God is calling us, we invite you to join us in pondering: how is God calling us in this next year to welcome and to serve?
     
    Jesus of Nazareth is calling us, inviting us to bring God’s love to our communities and the world. That amazing call is the only authority that we need.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28, COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, RIC, Jesse Helton
  • Jan 24, 2021Called to Be
    Jan 24, 2021
    Called to Be
    Series: (All)
    January 24, 2021. What has happened for you this week? What if you were asked what happened in the realm of God this week? These feel like very different questions. Today's sermon is on our readings: Jonah being called to travel to Nineveh, and the disciples who are called to leave everything behind and follow Christ. How are we being called to live into the people God created us to be?
     
    Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Jonah had quite a week, right? If I asked you to tell me what had happened in your life this week, what would you say? Things that stick out for me would be watching the inauguration, celebrating my one-year anniversary of my ordination, writing a sermon, Facetiming with my parents, cleaning the house, Karen starting a new job and school, and watching a new garage go up in our back yard. In the larger world, there is the continual news on the virus and the vaccine, and this week the devastating news of the suicide bombings in Baghdad. What has happened for you this week?
     
    Now, what if I asked you what happened in the realm of God this week? That feels like a really different question, doesn’t it? I hold the grief of 400,000 beloveds who have died of COVID in the US as of this week, and their loved ones and their friends, and I think of the country coming together to pray in our grief in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday evening. I think of Worship last Sunday, as we heard the Word of God, and as Jesse reminded us, the invitation to put on our spiritual headphones so that we can hear God’s call in our lives. And prayer all over our country as we witnessed the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris — prayers of hope, fear, joy, anger, and disappointment, prayers for peace, justice, healing, and transformation. And I think of the inspiration and challenge of the example of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and the justice-seekers of today to follow every day the call of God, especially when it's most difficult. Especially when we might be having, as Jonah did, a really bad day.
     
    It does feel like a very different question, doesn’t it? It leads to quite different answers, asking us to shift our view from the events of this world, to the movement of the realm of God. And as I look at our readings today, it seems as if all of them are calling for this kind of turning, this kind of change of perspective. The disciples, and Jonah, and Paul’s readers, are called to see not so much the future, as what God is already doing right in front of them.
     
    Jonah is called to leave his home and travel to Nineveh, and preach God’s word to a people that have lost their way, to call them to repentance, so they have the opportunity to change and turn back to God. Jonah wrestles with this, feeling that they don’t deserve that chance. In the process, Jonah is challenged to recognize that God doesn’t see things as we do, in neat black and white categories, but meets all of us where we are, constantly offering us the chance to let go of our sin and brokenness and follow God’s call. Constantly responding to us and where we are, even if it means changing God's mind, as Mr. Roger pointed out.
     
    The disciples leave behind their homes, their families, their livelihood, to follow Christ who calls them to be fishers of people instead. And as they leave their nets, they also leave the debt and corruption that ensnared them — the fishing industry was controlled by the government, and they barely made a living after the taxes were paid. The word aphiēmi that is used for “leaving” their nets can be translated as letting go of sin and debt, entering into a new freedom, and it is sometimes even called the jubilee verb.
     
    The disciples are called to leave behind the systems that have them bound up, and see what God is up to, as what doesn’t matter so much falls away. They leave behind their blood family, create a chosen family around this new mission and vision of God’s realm, and they continue to widen the circle as they invite others — including their blood family — to follow as well.
     
    And, Jesus promises to make them fishers of people. Fishermen like the disciples were in that time rather unremarkable, holding little notice and claiming little attention from those around them. So calling these people was an interesting choice for Jesus, but not so surprising as God often calls the least expected. And as Jesus called the disciples, he called them not only to leave behind that which bound them, but also called them into freedom, and says he will make them fishers of people. Jesus is promising to transform these unremarkable fishers so they could become their truer selves, the beloveds that God created them to be.
     
    As Paul writes to the Corinthians, he is inviting them to do the same — to let go of being dependent on the things of this world, to leave behind that which binds us, and trust in the God who will always be faithful no matter what is happening in this world.
     
    And we are each called today, as Mr. Jesse said. As Jonah, and Paul’s listeners, and the disciples were called to leave what was comfortable and familiar, to turn away from empire and seek God’s realm, we are called to do the same. We know when Jonah is called, he runs! He doesn’t want to let go of his perhaps comfortable judgement of those he sees as less than, and we don’t actually know if he ever really does. He struggles, as we often do. The disciples in contrast are said to follow Jesus immediately. And that for me begs the question: what was it about Jesus that they were drawn to? What did he reveal to them? Why do we follow Jesus today? Why do we resist, and what do we find ourselves running from?
     
    In the end, from all these stories we see that the core of the call is to understand that God is present in it all: the garage, the new job, anniversary, housecleaning, and tragedy and joy of world events — and Worship, prayer, and the call to justice. Because ultimately the call we hear in all of our scriptures today is a call to see all things in this world with God’s eyes and heart. To open our heart and align our spirits to the vision God has for us and for creation.
     
    We are called to live into the people God created us to be, to be transformed by knowing the presence of God in our lives. There is so much about our world that is broken today, so much that binds us, so much that blinds us from seeing God at work. And there is profound hope in the promise that the realm of God is growing, transforming, and bringing life all around us every day.
     
    National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman shared on Wednesday a poem for our times that speaks to this promise, and our call. I leave you with some of the words from her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
     
    “When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade We’ve braved the belly of the beast We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace And the norms and notions of what just is Isn’t always just-ice And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it Somehow we do it Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished”
     
    She ends with this line:
     
    “When day comes and we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid The new dawn blooms as we free it For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20, COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, Jesse Helton, Roger Rose, Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb
  • Jan 17, 2021Listening, Truth, and Relationship
    Jan 17, 2021
    Listening, Truth, and Relationship
    Series: (All)
    January 17, 2021. Pastor Meagan's sermon today is on the importance of listening to God and to one another, speaking the truth even when it's hard, and being in relation with and really seeing one another during this difficult time.
     
    Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20], Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 1:43-51
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Is anyone else feeling kind of overwhelmed and muddled in the last couple of weeks? It kind of feels like there is no end to the information, the emotion, the events, challenges that are presenting themselves at a pace that's almost impossible to keep up with. We talk about listening, and sometimes I wonder, how do we even begin to do that, where there is just so much coming our way all the time? And as I sat down to read the scriptures and prepare for Worship and to talk with you today, I struggled for a long time to focus on what God was saying to me, and to us, this week. However, you might know I am a firm believer, as Melissa pointed out, that no matter what is going on in the world — no matter what the confusion, no matter the emotions, no matter what — God will always speak to us through our scriptures. And there is no reason why today should be an exception. So, in the spirit of keeping things simple, there are three things that jumped out at me from our readings today that I think can help guide us as people of faith who are struggling to navigate an ever-more chaotic world.
     
    The first is, as we've said, to listen to God — and to one another. I spoke with a family member a day or two after the events at the Capitol last week, to see how they were doing with all that had taken place. She shared the fear, the disillusionment, and the horror that we're all feeling, of course. But what really stands out from that conversation is a plea: we have to listen to one another. Everyone is upset, angry, frustrated, and feels left behind. We have to listen to one another.
     
    And we are called to listen to God. In our reading from Samuel, we hear the story of a young person — Samuel was probably only about 12 years old — who was awakened by the voice of God. He didn’t recognize it at first, but he heard it, and he did his best to respond saying, “Speak, your servant is listening.” And we too are called to listen for the call of God in our lives. It says in the Samuel reading that the voice of God was rare in those days, but still God spoke to Samuel, and Samuel heard him. God has always spoken in many ways, throughout the scriptures — sometimes through a literal voice, a burning bush, angels, dreams, prophets, a rainbow in the sky.
     
    God has spoken throughout history, and even into modern day. If you have seen the movie “Selma,” you may remember that very profound scene where the marchers for justice arrive at the entrance to that bridge, and they pause when they see all of the police waiting there for them. And then, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, followed by all of the marchers behind him, kneeled and bowed his head, seeking guidance from God as to what he should do next. Then he rose, and in silence he turned around and left the bridge. His fellow leaders were in disagreement about whether or not they should have done that, but Dr. King knew that God had called him, in that moment, to wait for another day. And we know the rest of that story — the day did come, and the marchers went to Selma to claim their rights as citizens and human beings.
     
    And God still speaks to us today — through our scriptures, through the prophets of our time, through our neighbors, family, friends, and sometimes even through those we disagree with the most. And God speaks to us in prayer, too. Where is God calling you, today? How is God speaking to you, in these most chaotic times?
     
    The second thing that stood out to me in today’s readings is that we're called to speak truth, and receive truth, even when it's hard. Young Samuel hears God’s voice, and when he responds that he's listening, he is called to share the truth of sin and brokenness with Eli — his elder, his mentor, his adopted father. We know that Samuel was scared to do this, but Eli was ready and invited — even commanded — Samuel to tell him everything that God had said. So, Samuel tells Eli of God’s anger at the way he has allowed his sons to act out of selfishness, greed, and abuse, disregarding the human dignity of those visiting the temple, and dishonoring the God whom they were to serve. Samuel shared the hard truth, and grew into a person who everyone knew they could trust. Eli heard the hard truth, owned the mistakes he had made, and he was changed.
     
    Dr. King also told hard truths. He shared a vision of community where all lived with one another, seen and accepted as they are. And he said, to white religious leaders of good will who nevertheless criticized his actions, “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
     
    That is what Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham Jail. And I hear this same hard truth from my colleagues and friends of color today: when we don’t embrace the dignity, challenges, oppression, and pain of others, we do them violence, just as surely as if we wielded a weapon. We are called to speak hard truths, as Samuel did. And we are called to listen and receive hard truths when they are given to us, as Eli did.
     
    The third thing that stood out to me in our readings today is that we're called to be in relationship, to see one another. We're together in this journey, of speaking and listening, called to fully see and know one another as fellow beloveds of God. Eli has been deaf to God, but when God persists in calling Samuel, Eli understands and can guide Samuel in how to listen for what God is saying. Samuel doesn’t know it’s God calling until Eli points it out. In our gospel today, having received an invitation from Jesus to come and get to know him, Philip invites Nathanael to join him. We hear in the reading that Nathanael is skeptical at first, wondering if anything good can come from this itinerant preacher from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” See for yourself who this Jesus is. Hear his words, get to know him, and then you can decide.
     
    So Nathanael goes, and what he discovers is that Jesus really sees him. Jesus even sees his doubt, identifying Nathanael as a person in whom there is no deceit. And being seen, being known, and embraced as he is, transforms Nathanael.
     
    Have you ever had a moment when you felt really seen or heard? What were the things that helped you to know you'd been seen? What did that feel like? I have been fortunate to have many people in my life who have seen me as I am. Those experiences of being fully seen and known have been some of the most transformative times of my life. Seeing and hearing someone as they are is love at its best. When people have truly seen me, or heard what is in my heart, I've been able to see things in myself that I hadn’t heard before, as they have shown me who God created me to be, and revealed what God is calling me to. The psalmist today sings of the God who knows us intimately, every part of us, from whom we cannot hide. And we are called to offer that gift to one another: the gift of seeing others as they are, letting God love them through us.
     
    These are, I believe, prophetic words for our time. God is calling all of us to listen, to God and to one another, to speak and receive hard truths, and to be in deep relationship with one another and the God who created all of us. This is not easy, but it is our call, and we are not alone on this journey. Back to the story of Samuel, you may notice that God calls Samuel not just once, but three times. God didn’t give up on Samuel, and he doesn’t give up on us, either. God is calling us, and together we can hear the voice and respond: speak, your servant is listening.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20], Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, John 1:43-51
  • Jan 10, 2021Truth, Empire, and the Long Road Home
    Jan 10, 2021
    Truth, Empire, and the Long Road Home
    Series: (All)
    January 10, 2021. Pastor Meagan's sermon today is on the feast of Epiphany, and what it means for us in these days of racism and violence.
     
    Readings: Matthew 2:1-17
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Today, we are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany. We are celebrating Christ with us and God leading us. I was finishing my sermon on Wednesday afternoon, January 6, when Pastor Kendra came across the hall from her office and told me to turn on the news. I watched with a mix of shock and horror as thousands of armed white people climbed walls, broke windows, and entered and interrupted congressional session in what was by clear definition an attempted coup. I have been sickened as I have heard the pain of colleagues and friends of color who know just how differently this would have turned out if the coup had been led by people of color.
     
    And so, the sermon I had written has changed, as our worship has changed, in light of what has unfolded in front of us the last few days. Epiphany tells us a story about the three kings, following the star, traveling from far parts of the earth to see what God is up to. They make a pit stop at the palace of King Herod when the star disappears, before continuing on their journey. It's a familiar story, showing us that even the kings come before Jesus to bring gifts from all corners of the earth, so that they can worship God, Emmanuel. And this is certainly an important message of this story. But what I have realized in this time more than ever is that Epiphany is teaching us about truth, and empire, and the persistence and faithfulness of God’s surprising guidance and work in this world.
     
    Epiphany literally means, in one definition, a sudden revelation or insight, an awareness of a truth that wasn’t apparent before. I think about when I realized that I was not, and never would be, perfect, a revelation that left me at once horrified and giddy with relief. Or that moment when I saw my parents as actual human beings for the first time. (Yes kids, this may happen to you too.) I think about those major national events of my lifetime that have changed forever how I see the world, like the explosion of the Challenger, the attempted assassination of President Reagan, the attack on the World Trade Center, and of course the events of January 6, 2021.
     
    Epiphany is about truth revealed, and that is not always a comfortable or welcome thing. Because often the truth God shows us challenges us to see things differently, to acknowledge issues and problems and barriers within ourselves, to change our minds on things we thought we were certain of. And often, the truths God reveals are a threat to the empire, the powers and privileges that shape our world, in some ways making us feel safe. The three kings brought news to Herod of what they saw God doing — bringing a new king into the world — that threatened everything he had. And look at what Herod did — when the wise people, who he tried to make allies to his empire, failed to return to tell him where he could find Jesus, he sent his soldiers to kill all the babies, to try to prevent this “new king” from taking his power. We don’t really know how many children were slaughtered on Herod’s orders, and he may in fact have done many worse things, but it was certainly among the worst things we can imagine empire doing.
     
    And in our country, these last months, we have empire threatened now, willing to use any means to hold onto the little power they have left — even if, we realize especially after this week, it means figuratively speaking burning everything.
     
    The good news is, Herod, the empire of Jesus’s time, didn’t succeed. And neither, Christ Lutheran family, will the empire of today. The journey will not be easy, far from it, and we are a long ways from the end of it. But still, God is here, among us. The good news of God in Jesus Christ is that God’s work in this world cannot be subverted, or prevented, or even delayed. Empire notwithstanding, God continues to guide us in the most surprising of ways.
     
    As the three wise people, these three kings, arrived in Bethlehem, they had been on the road for months, perhaps even years, as they studied the skies, following a strange convergence of stars or planets that seemed to indicate something amazing was on the horizon. They weren’t sure what would come of it all, but they did believe that whatever they found when they got there, it would be worth their trouble. We don’t know where they came from, except from “the East.”
     
    We do know, from Matthew’s telling, that they travelled together at least part of the journey, and they all ended up in the same place: a stable, not in Herod’s throne room, not in Jerusalem or any of the other large imperial cities, but in Bethlehem of all places, where a baby had been born to a poor couple who were far from home. And as surprising as the scene might have been for its seeming insignificance, the wise people somehow knew that they were exactly where they were supposed to be.
     
    There was no way to tell what would happen from there, and the journey was not over for these kings who had already traveled so far, but they had seen what they knew to be truth. Matthew tells us they resisted Herod, the empire, and continued on a different path. And God continued to lead them.
     
    We are in our own time in a moment of Epiphany. On our TV screens and laptops and newspapers on January 6th, we saw clearly the truth of the damage caused by the sins of racism, violence, individualism, and lies. We saw unfolding in real time what the empire of our day is willing to do to hold onto power. And in the days since, we have seen hope, as conflicts have been resolved (at least for now) and the immediate questions that led to Wednesday’s events have been answered. But Christ Lutheran family, just as the three kings continued their journey long after they left Bethlehem, our journey continues also.
     
    Colleagues from across the country who gathered for a January 7th Zoom meeting exhorted us to recognize that part of the challenge for us as people of faith is to see the brokenness in ourselves, as well as in the world. We as Lutherans know we are sinner and saint, and we have all benefited from, and contributed to, the broken systems of racism, poverty, oppression, and division that have led us to this moment in our history. The full truth that is being revealed in our Epiphany must be heard and embraced, before healing can begin.
     
    We as people of faith know that God is present and at work. God is even now guiding us to leave behind the empire of our day, to renounce systems and powers warped by racism and greed and untruth, and follow where God is leading us by another path, guided by truth, justice, grace, and love, as frightening or unfamiliar or surprising as it might be.
     
    We have been on a journey of our own this last year, haven’t we? We were just beginning to get to know each other when the pandemic came and so much of what we had planned, and what was familiar to us, was necessarily changed. In our own lives and homes, we have made countless decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe, navigated new ways of working and studying in person or online, watched and prayed for family members who were ill, cancelled and changed plans for holidays and vacations, said goodbye to loved ones who died, and welcomed new life. We have grieved countless losses and celebrated joys of all sizes. We have been tired, lonely, anxious, giddy, grateful, and so many other things. So much has happened, and we have traveled so far in the year that seemed to go on forever.
     
    And God has been with us through it all. Guiding us, as the star guided the three kings. Giving us hope. Bringing us together, as our Isaiah reading says, from all corners of the world, even if it is over Zoom. God has shown us that new life comes out of death in Christ’s resurrection, even in a pandemic. That we can share the abundance of God’s table in communion, each from our own homes. That prayer can cross oceans in ways that seem tangible. That simple things like a bag of groceries, Advent gifts, Christmas lights, sidewalk chalk messages, phone calls and emails and notes, can mean more than we ever knew before.
     
    So in the midst of the sometimes frightening and ugly truths we are faced with, we know we can trust that God is with us now. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which we will sing in a minute, in the midst of the Civil War when his son had just died, offering profound witness to this truth. The journey of the wise men, the revelation they experienced, their courage in defying Herod, and God’s faithfulness in guiding them through the unknown teaches us this. God is here, showing us truths we need to see, leading us away from brokenness and death, and guiding us on a new way home.
     
    Where have you seen the star, this last year? What truths have you learned, about yourself and the world? What signs have you seen of God’s transforming, creative, life-giving, abundant love, in this community, your families, our world? And where is God leading you, and us of Christ Lutheran, next?
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2021, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Matthew 2:1-17
  • Dec 27, 2020Now What?
    Dec 27, 2020
    Now What?
    Series: (All)
    December 27, 2020. From the small snippet we have about the adolescent Jesus, we are assured that in Jesus, we have a God who knows exactly what it means to be human. Pastor Meagan's sermon today is on the good news of Christmas for us as Christians, that in Jesus we are never alone on our human journey, because God is there, in the tiniest details of our daily life.
     
    Readings: Luke 2:22-40
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Christmas Day 2020 is over. We have gathered for Christmas Eve Worship, in the ways we could this season. We gathered in our households, Zoomed in our extended family to share Christmas greetings, opened presents, ate special meals with those closest to us. We probably haven’t taken down the decorations yet, but we might be starting to think about it — even if there are still almost two weeks left until Epiphany arrives and Christmas is officially over. And in this pandemic time, we may be feeling extra lonely, missing those we couldn’t be with this year. We may be feeling tired, from working hard to find new ways to celebrate Christmas. We may be feeling discouraged, wanting this pandemic to be over and feeling like Christmas just wasn’t what we hoped for, and wondering when we will finally be able to celebrate together. We may be joyful, having been surprised by the new and creative things that happened this year. Or peaceful, knowing that God is present in this messy world after all.
     
    And however we are feeling, Jesus was born. God is among us. And the Spirit is at work in this world of ours, just like she has been since creation. So, now what? What happens next? Because the birth of Christ, we know, was just the beginning of the story.
     
    We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood, really. Luke provides us with a detailed story of Jesus’ birth — where he was born, who was there, the shepherds visiting after the angel came to them. We are told in Matthew of the visit of the wise people, and the Holy Family leaving soon after for Egypt, when Jesus was probably no more than a couple of years old. Then, there are just two stories of Jesus’ childhood, before the story continues with Jesus as an adult.
     
    In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph, faithful Jewish parents, bring their son Jesus to the temple to fulfill the rites of dedication, and once again the prophets speak. Anna had been in the temple much of her adult life, waiting for the arrival of the one she knew God would send. She tells everyone there that Jesus, this little babe-in-arms, is the one for whom they had all been waiting for so long. Simeon sings one of the most beloved prayers of our scriptures, proclaiming that in Christ all that God has promised has been fulfilled.
     
    Then, in the verses following today’s gospel, we have a story of Jesus around the age of 12, leaving his parents and going to the temple, where they finally find him. And then, nothing, until Jesus is somewhere around 30 years old, and he begins his public ministry.
     
    One can imagine Jesus’ baby book, the first several pages full of pictures from his early days, a note stuck in the back about how Mary and Joseph found him in the temple when he was 12, and then, blank pages until he was a grown man and the world around him started to really take notice of what he was saying and doing. So parents, if you ever feel guilty about not having a complete baby book for each of your children, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.
     
    But let’s go back for a moment to that scene at the temple, and Jesus wandering away from his parents. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for three days. It reminds me of when I was young, and my grandmother was visiting us and babysitting while my parents were out of town. All of a sudden, my younger brother Phil was nowhere to be found. Panic ensued, as my grandmother started looking for him anywhere she could think, enlisted the neighbors to help, and we all went around yelling his name.
     
    They were just on the verge of calling the police when someone finally thought to look in the boat, which sat in the driveway with a cover on it to keep rain from getting in. Sure enough, my younger brother, who loved (and still loves) boats, had managed to undo enough snaps on the cover to slip inside, and he had climbed in and taken a nap. Found at last. It probably felt like forever to my poor grandmother, who was dreading the thought of having to call my parents to let them know she had lost their child. But really, it was likely only about 20 minutes or so.
     
    Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus for three days! Three days of walking, asking everyone they encountered if they had seen Jesus, trying to come up with more ideas of where to look, imagining the worst. If my grandmother dreaded calling my parents, Mary must have been horrified at the thought of having to account to God for losing track of His son!
     
    And then, after all of that, there he was: confidently and clearly explaining the scriptures to the temple teachers, while they asked him questions and were astounded at his wisdom, and the young Jesus seemingly unconcerned about how desperately his parents must have been searching for him. It is no wonder then that Mary is at once flooded with relief, shocked at finding him in the temple, where she and Joseph hadn’t thought to look until then, and angry at seeing him so calm when they had been so worried about him.
     
    This is not a peaceful, serene Mary, but one as frantic as my grandmother was at losing my brother, as panicked as any of us would be if we could not find a child in our care. And so, Mary calls Jesus, the 12 year old Son of the living God, to account. “How could you do this to us? Wander away for so long? Did you not ever once think about how terrified we would be, searching for you all this time?”
     
    Jesus’ answer doesn’t really satisfy his parents, as they don’t understand it. But as we listen today to Jesus’ words we notice that at the age of 12 Jesus already related to God as his father, and knew he belonged in his father’s house — an unusual thought at the time. It’s as if Simeon and Anna’s inspired words had seeped into his heart and spirit, and he knew God in a surprising way. Luke also tells us that, having wandered away from his parents so disrespectfully, Jesus went home with them and obeyed them, and grew up and learned and gained wisdom, as we hopefully all do. And the next we hear of Jesus, he is an adult and preparing to enter public life, after so many quiet years of living the seemingly ordinary life of a young Jewish boy/man in first century Palestine.
     
    And so, we know that Jesus did not just go straight from innocent baby to preacher who was known to everyone around, including the Roman leaders, with nothing in between. And Mary and Joseph raised Jesus just as all Jewish children around them were being raised: loving him, teaching him, bringing him to the synagogue, and yes, freaking out when they thought he was in danger. Jesus lived, as we do, with parents, family, friends, work, synagogue life, school, and everything else that went along with being human, just like we do. He upset his parents, as all children do. He grew up, as we all do. From the small snippet we have about the adolescent Jesus, we are assured again that in Jesus, we have a God who knows exactly what it means to be human.
     
    In the midst of this ordinary life we lead, knowing Jesus means that God is right here with us — not just in the big things, but in all of the ordinary, everyday things that go along with being human. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, shows us that there is no place and no thing where God is not. And this is the good news of Christmas for us as Christians — in Jesus, we are never alone in our human journey, because God is there, in the tiniest details of our daily life.
     
    With Anna and Simeon we can rest, knowing that in Christ, God has broken into this world of ours. We can rejoice, knowing that God’s promises have been, and are being fulfilled. With Mary and Joseph, we can ponder all of these things in our hearts, and grow in our awareness of God in our midst.
     
    Christmas Day is just the beginning of the story. The Spirit of God that created all that is, and came to earth in human form in Christ, comes to heal, transform, redeem, and create today. On this first Sunday of Christmas, 2020, I leave you with these words from Howard Thurman:
     
    “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”
     
    And now let us sing, as Simeon did, of the trust and the hope that we have in Christ.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Luke 2:22-40, Howard Thurman, COVID-19, coronavirus
  • Dec 24, 2020Nine Months Later… Ready or Not!
    Dec 24, 2020
    Nine Months Later… Ready or Not!
    Series: (All)
    December 24, 2020. On this Christmas Eve, God comes to us not in the big things, but in the smallest of the particulars.
     
    Reading: Luke 2:1-20
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Nine months ago we took, as Bishop Candea suggested, a pause in gathering in person. The pause grew, and we celebrated Easter and then Pentecost on Zoom. We have celebrated baptism, and communion, and funerals. We have continued to adapt as summer moved to fall, and Advent began. And here we are, nine months later, greeting anew the birth of God in the flesh, ready or not. Whether the tree is trimmed, or not. Whether the presents are bought and wrapped, or not. Whether the food is ready, or not. Whether the house is clean, or not. Whether our church building is open, or not.
     
    And that is quite fitting, really. Because when you think about it, how ready could Mary and Joseph have been to welcome this new babe, when they were many miles from home, having barely finished a long and exhausting journey before Mary goes into labor, only to find out that somehow or other, their reservation at the inn must have gotten lost? And yet, the labor continued, somehow they found a place to stay, and Jesus is born. Ready or not.
     
    And yes, the angels sang, and the wise people are on their way, following the star — that amazing light in the sky that is marking the place where God has just broken into the world. But inside the stable, what you see when you look in the door is Jesus lying in the manger, Mary resting, and Joseph keeping watch. Nothing there gives any indication that the whole world is about to be transformed.
     
    The world Jesus is born into — under Roman governors and emperors, and puppet religious leaders appointed by Rome — is about to be turned upside down. But in an ironic sort of way, most people have no idea what has taken place. Jesus was born to parents whose job is to follow directions, present themselves where they're told, for Joseph and Mary to work as hard as they can to support the growing family, to care for and protect their child from all the dangers that may present themselves as Jesus gets older. There is nothing remarkable, as you peek in the windows, about this family. And yet, it is this family to whom Jesus is born.
     
    And the first people to hear that news, that the promise of God to bring justice and healing and redemption to this broken world is being fulfilled, are not the wealthy wise people, or the emperor, or the high priest, but the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds were not ready, either. While the rest of the world was following the order to go and be counted, they were in the fields, watching their sheep, almost oblivious to the chaos around them. They were people without a home or a family heritage, or money. They were, in the eyes of the emperor, not worth counting in the census, not worth sending soldiers to usher them to comply with the law. And it is to them, these herders of sheep without a name or a country, that the angel first announces the good news to all the people. It is for them the angel came, and the heavenly hosts sang. And they were the first to go to the place where Jesus lay to see for themselves what God was doing.
     
    I wonder tonight who the shepherds are who are hearing the angels bringing that first word of good news. They may be singing in the tent city here in St Louis of hope for a new life for those who have no homes. They may be offering a gentle lullaby to nurses and aids and doctors and staff and patients in COVID ICU, letting them know that God is present, even in the midst of illness and despair. They may be greeting those desperately seeking a new life in this country as they cross the border, letting them know they, the strangers, are not strangers to God. They may be with those who are not sure where they will find the money to pay their rent, and put groceries on the table, when they are still out of work. As the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol declares, “It is Christmas here too, you know!”
     
    Jesus is the God of all the world, the creator of all that is, breaking into that time and that place — and this time and this place — so that we can all, along with the shepherds who were the first to hear and share the news, know that the God who is bigger than we can possibly imagine, is also as small, and holdable, and accessible, and vulnerable, as this tiny baby, whose fingers and toes we can count once we step over the threshold and draw close to the manger.
     
    God comes to us this night not in the big things — the world and the universe and the mountains and the seas — but in the smallest of the particulars. As we gather, in our cars or on our Zoom screens in our homes, the baby Jesus invites us to pay attention to the details, the miracle that is revealed when God shows up in tiny nose, fuzzy hair on an otherwise bald brown head, in the sound of gurgles and cries and burps, and the wiggling of brand-new arms and legs and fingers and toes.
     
    This night, now that it has arrived, we don’t have to understand or prepare. The angel is calling to us, and we can join the shepherds and go to see for ourselves what God is doing. And the heavenly hosts will lead us in song: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to God’s people on earth.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Luke 2:1-20
  • Dec 20, 2020Following the Star, Claiming the Promises
    Dec 20, 2020
    Following the Star, Claiming the Promises
    Series: (All)
    December 20, 2020. Have you ever had a moment when you realized that your whole life was changing, that something was emerging that you couldn’t quite see yet? This year, of all years, we really need to know that there is something much bigger than us going on, that there is order in this chaos that we are living.
     
    Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Luke 1:26-56
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Have you ever had a moment when you realized that your whole life was changing, that something was emerging that you couldn’t quite see yet? I can think of several times when I knew that transformation and mystery was happening — and fear, even terror. When I first said out loud that I was gay. When I moved into my first apartment, living on my own for the first time. When I made the decision to leave my job of nine years and go back to school full time. And when I got the phone call from the Call Committee here at Christ Lutheran, one Sunday morning just about a year ago. My pastor at my home congregation describes me as having a look of shock and wonder and disbelief as I shared the news with her a year ago.
     
    I'm not much of an astronomer, but my wife knows enough to be able to point out Mars and Venus and Jupiter in the sky at night, and I can usually spot them when she does. And I do enjoy looking at the stars, even if I can’t find any constellation besides the Big Dipper. There is something about the stars that, like the ocean, takes me out of the minutiae of my daily life, and reminds me just how big this world is, and just how small I am.
     
    The wise people knew far more about the night sky than I do. And although Jesus hadn’t been born yet, and they had no idea what it meant, they knew because of what they saw that something was up. The wise people probably didn’t suddenly see the star after Jesus’ birth, and begin their journey after he had been born. They had been watching the sky for years, and the unique star that they saw probably caught their eyes months prior to that sacred night in the stable in Bethlehem. And when they saw it, they knew that the world was about to change. They knew that something was about to happen that was worth traveling for days or weeks or months, worth lying to King Herod, worth giving up their treasure for.
     
    And soon, the wise people will be greeting a child whose birth was revealed to them by the stars they watched at night — the child whose birth, as insignificant as it might have seemed, would change everything. Jesus hasn’t been born yet, but the wise people already see it coming. They are living, as we Lutherans do, in a world that is, and is not yet. Mary sang of it in our gospel today, and in our opening hymn from Holden. After hearing from the angel what was going to happen and traveling to see Elizabeth.
     
    Mary’s song is really quite remarkable, as Debie Thomas points out in her blog this week. The angel brought Mary news that would shake any unmarried teenager — she is pregnant, with no good way to explain how that happened, and by tradition and law could be easily punished, beaten, ostracized, even killed. And yet, when she greets Elizabeth, her first words are ones of deep joy: “My spirit rejoices in God.” I can only imagine that her journey to Elizabeth must have been quite a wrestling — with herself, with God, reconciling and trying to understand what has just happened to her.
     
    Mary goes on to say that God has seen her in her humanness — poor; female in a world that didn’t value women; living in a brutal, occupied land; young, not yet married. God saw her just as she was, and was mindful of her. Somehow, out of all the people in the world, out of all the people in Nazareth, God saw and knew Mary intimately. And he was mindful of her.
     
    Then Mary the prophet, who was living in a broken world, full of injustice and hunger and poverty, saw and claimed the vision of God’s promise already at work. God has not only seen Mary, but all who are on the edge, as the hungry are filled and the marginalized and forgotten and abused ones are lifted up. The strong and the powerful, it seems, are already taken care of in this world, so God is especially mindful of those who have been pushed aside.
     
    And in the middle of the world still bound with injustice and pain, Mary sang of the world she knew God was bringing into being. “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” As Mary sings, she echoes the faith and the hope of many who came before her — Hannah, and Hagar, and the psalmist, and all the prophets, who proclaimed the hope and promise that is now, but not quite yet.
     
    Jesus hasn’t been born yet, but the wise people are on their way, following signs in the world our God created that pointed to things much bigger than themselves.
     
    And this year of all years, a year of pandemics and fires and elections and racial tensions, so much chaos, we really need to know that there is something much bigger than us going on, that there is order in this chaos that we are living. And in our time, that transformation that Mary speaks of, that the wise people saw coming, continues. Christmas isn’t here yet, but we know Christ is coming. And our world is in just as much need of transformation, healing, and re-creation, as the world the wise people traveled 2000 years ago.
     
    The prophets of today are claiming the promise anew, like Kelly Brown Douglas claiming that God is freedom, William Barber II declaring that people on the margins are seeking transformation and justice and healing and not a return to a disparate normal, Valarie Kauer’s revelation that the chaos we are living in is the darkness of the womb, not the darkness of the tomb, and that it will bring new life and not death.
     
    Jupiter and Saturn are close to aligning, and tomorrow they will come together to show us a sign. Astronomers today think that what we will be seeing in the sky if we venture out tomorrow evening after sunset is perhaps the same sign the wise ones saw so many years ago, the star that gave a glimpse of the promises of God to come that led the wise people to Bethlehem. The very same star that showed them that something new, something world-changing, was about to happen.
     
    In this time of COVID-19, as we have stayed away from our church building for a time, we have learned what Nathan tried to tell David so long ago — God is building a house, has been building it for millennia, a house not of brick and mortar but of people, of us. And Christ Lutheran family, God is still building us up, inspiring us, breathing new life, healing, and transformation into this broken world. We can look to the skies as the wise people did, and know that Christ is coming.
     
    We have just a few days left — I bet some of the kids could tell us even how many hours we have left — and in this moment we join all the people who for millennia have been claiming and proclaiming the promise. This was not a one-time event that happened 2000 years ago and was complete, but a movement of the Spirit of God that began with creation and continues on today. We are not alone. We can see the star, hear the words of the angel Gabriel, and know that something new is happening. With the prophets of yesterday and today, we can embrace all the change and fear and grief and wonder that that brings. And then, we can join Mary in joy, promise, and hope, and sing with her as our spirits rejoice in the promise coming to us in Christ.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, YouTube, video, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Luke 1:26-56, COVID-19, coronavirus