An ELCA pastor shares his thoughts about the Bible, spirituality, the world, and LGBT issues.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Good News? Depends On Who You Ask!

3 EPIPHANY C  Luke 4:14-21
1/24/16  David Eck

     The most interesting thing about our gospel lesson is not Jesus' inspiring words, but what happens next. After Jesus rolls up the Isaiah scroll and proclaims "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," Luke tells us "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth."
     They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In other words, their hometown boy had done them proud. Nazareth was a small village outside of the Roman capital of Sepphoris, which was 4 miles down the road. Sepphoris was a huge metropolitan city with 40,000 inhabitants and an amphitheater that seated 4, 500 people! It was cultural and educational center; one of the crowning jewels of the Roman empire. It is possibly one of the places where Jesus received his formal education.
     Nazareth, in contrast, was a poor farming village that consisted of 12 to 15 extended families. It's the kind of place people are from, but not the kind of place people willingly move to. Needless to say, they were excited to have Jesus pay a visit to his hometown. They had heard about his powerful teaching that was happening in synagogues all around Galilee. There was also talk about miracles and they wanted to see if all these rumors about their hometown boy were actually true.
     Jesus knew what they were thinking. So he told them "You will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.' Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown." People started squirming in their seats but what he said next really got them all riled up.
     "But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when..there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon." In other words, there were many Jews who were hungry and were looking for a miracle but God granted a miracle to a Gentile widow instead.
     If that wasn't bad enough, he continued "There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." In other words, God elected to heal a Gentile instead of a Jew.
     When his hometown folk hear this Luke tells us "all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."
     Oh my! How did we get from being amazed at Jesus gracious words to wanting to hurl him off a cliff? How did this change of attitude happen so quickly in the span of a single sermon? This is what interests me as we look at our gospel lesson.
     At first glance, these appear to be wonderfully inspiriting words. Jesus is quoting from the prophet Isaiah who told the Israelites while they were captives in Babylon: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."
     The people who first heard these words understood the good news Isaiah was telling them. He had predicted that their time of exile was coming to an end. The Israelites, who had been oppressed and held captive by Babylon, were going home. God was preparing a royal highway for them through the desert that stood between Babylon and Israel.
     "Prepare the way of the LORD," Isaiah proclaimed, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain."
     When the villagers from Nazareth heard Jesus proclaim, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," they thought he was talking about THEM. "This is good news! God is going to show mercy upon us! This poor village will be shown God's mercy. We will be set free from our oppression and God's favor will shine upon us."
     Then, Jesus, threw them a curve ball. He told them "the year of the Lord's favor" would be offered to both Gentile and Jew alike. This is where all the trouble started. "The Gentiles? Those dogs! Cruel Roman oppressors. Samaritan half-breeds who corrupted our religion. Foreigners who worship other gods on our beloved soil. God is going to show mercy to THEM?"
     Is it any wonder they wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff? He was stretching the boundaries of what God's kingdom looks like, and they were not happy with it. NOT ONE SINGLE BIT.
     Let's fast forward this story and place it in a modern context. When we hear Jesus' words that he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, we assume he's referring to US. We are no different than those first century Nazareth villagers.
     "Thank you, Jesus!" we say. "You will bless our finances. You will free us from whatever binds our hearts, minds and spirits. If our eyes are blinded by hatred and prejudice you will help us to see more clearly."

[SUNG] Oh happy day! Oh, happy day!
When Jesus washed, when Jesus washed
When Jesus washed. He washed my sins away.
                                    Oh happy day!"

     Then Jesus drops the "truth bomb" on us. "Oh, I wasn't only talking about YOU. I wasn't only talking about Jesus' little sunbeams. Let's extend the "year of the Lord's favor" a little bit wider. Let's include the LGBT community. Let's reach out to our Muslim neighbors whose mosque you graffitied the other day.
     Let's show a little mercy to the folks down the road who you always refer to as "white trash." Let's invite a few Syrian refugees into our town and give them shelter from a lifetime of violence. Let's feed the homeless hanging out at Pritchard Park and not look suspiciously at that young man simply because he is African-American. Are you with me? LET'S DO THIS!"
     Is it any wonder the villagers of Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff? Truth be told, we would probably do the same thing!
     Friends in Christ, let me drop a little "truth bomb" on all of us. I don't know what's happened to Christianity, but the Jesus I hear about these days looks nothing like the Jesus I read about in the Bible. Every day I read about politicians and well-intentioned Christians who spew hate, prejudice and intolerance in the name of Jesus, and they call it things like "religious liberty" and "religious freedom." They transform Jesus into a white suburban middle class capitalist and it makes me want to throw up.
     Now, you know me. I try not to bring politics into the pulpit and I'm not going to do it today. I'm simply saying that if we cannot extend "The year of the Lord's favor" to people who are quite different from us, then our theology is garbage. It has nothing to do with the Jesus who pushed beyond all the social and religious boundaries of his day in order to bring good news to ALL people.
     If we aren't willing to follow the Jesus that made his own people want to throw him off a cliff, then we are following an imposter. If we aren't willing to love and show mercy to people who push our buttons and make us feel a little bit uncomfortable, then our faith is in vain.
     Make no mistake about it our gospel lesson is dangerous, counter-cultural stuff. It is the holy revolution Jesus began and he calls us to follow in his footsteps. Will we choose to accept his invitation? Or will we hurl the real Jesus off a cliff and replace him with a Jesus that is made in our image? That is the question we all need to ponder not only today, but every day God gives us life and breath. AMEN.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Grace Upon Grace

2 EPIPHANY C  John 2:1-11
1/17/16  David Eck

     During the season of Advent, we looked at the first chapter of each of the four gospels to see how they set up the story of Jesus. Mark jumps right into his baptism. Luke tells us the stories of Mary and Elizabeth. Matthew focuses on Joseph and traces Jesus' family tree back to Abraham. Finally, John gives us a magnificent prologue that tickles our imagination with it's poetic imagery:
     "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people."
     John ends his beautiful narrative with a powerful statement that sets up his entire gospel: "And the Word became and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father's only son, full of grace and truth." and "from his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace."
     Then, after telling the stories of Jesus' baptism and the calling of the disciples, John begins chapter two with the first of seven "signs" that show us what "grace upon grace" looks like. He calls them "signs" instead of "miracles" because a miracle is a supernatural occurrence that bends the laws of biology, chemistry or physics. But a "sign" is something more. It points beyond itself. It says something important about Jesus that John's readers need to know. Signs bear witness to what "grace upon grace" looks like.
     The first of these signs is Jesus changing water into wine. It's a doozy because it tell us not only what "grace upon grace" looks like. It tells us what "grace upon grace" smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like. It is also a sign that is performed for an entire village. This means it's a sign for everyone, Jew and Gentile, young and old, men and women, slave and free. This makes it even more powerful. So, let's jump into the story and see what "grace upon grace" looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like.
     The story begins with four very important words: "on the third day." Make no mistake about it, this phrase is loaded with meaning. Jesus would rise from death "on the third day." New life would burst forth from the tomb "on the third day." A greeting of peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit would be given to the disciples "on the third day." "On the third day" is resurrection language. It symbolizes new and abundant life, given to us by Jesus. It is the language of "grace upon grace."
     But we're not there yet! The story does not begin with abundance. Instead it's day three of a wedding feast, which in ancient Palestine lasted approximately one week. They were not even half way through this community celebration and the wine had run dry. This would have brought the party to a screeching halt and been a source of deep shame for those who arranged the feast.
     Not surprisingly, wine is more than an alcoholic beverage in this story. It is also a symbol of joy and celebration. In other places in the Bible, a lack of wine is used figuratively to describe hard times in Israel. "There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;" the prophet Isaiah proclaims, "all joy has reached its eventide; the gladness of the earth is banished." [Is 24:11] 

     Furthermore, Old Testament prophets used it as a metaphor for the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Isaiah said "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines." [Is 25:6] 
     Amos said that "the mountains will drip sweet wine and the hills shall flow with it." [Am 9:13] 
     Joel said "In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk." [Joel 3:18] 
     And so we see that our gospel lesson has a deeper meaning. It is a metaphor for our lives and what happens when joy is depleted, when "grace upon grace" is nowhere in sight.
     I don't need to fill in all the gory details. We know them by heart. We know what it's like to have the joy sucked out of us. We know what it's like when times of feasting and celebration have come to a screeching halt. We know what it's like to feel like the tiniest drop of grace is nowhere to be found, let alone "grace upon grace." This is the situation John's story places us in, both literally and metaphorically. It's not a pretty sight.
     Thankfully, the story continues! At first, Jesus is hesitant to do something. He tells his mother, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." I don't believe Jesus is sassing his Mama here. Don't put harshness in his tone where it was not intended to be. Instead, Jesus is telling her he's not sure if the time is right to reveal who he is. But for whatever reason, Mary is certain that this IS the time. And so she says the servants "Do whatever he tells you."
     Apparently, Jesus changes his mind. He looks over the gathered crowd and sees six stone water jars. These jars would be used  for the ritual hand washing that would occur each night as the guests arrived for the feast. He instructs the servants, "Fill the jars with water." and they filled them up to the brim.
     At this point in the story, all eyes were on Jesus. After all, he had just breached the social protocols of his day. He was an invited guest but now he assumed the role of the one in charge of the feast. It was a bit out of order to say the least.
     "Now draw some out," Jesus told the servants, "and take it to the chief steward." The chief steward was probably thinking to himself, "Could this day get any worse? I miscalculated the amount of wine needed for the feast. I brought shame to the wedding party. And now one of the guests is handing me a goblet of water. Give me a break!"
     Reluctantly the steward took the goblet. The first thing he noticed was the color of its contents. It wasn't clear, but a deep, beautiful red. Then he sniffed it's bouquet and it filled his nostrils with delight. He took a sip, swirled it around in his mouth, and an explosion of flavors hit his discerning palate. After swallowing it, the chief steward knew he had tasted "grace upon grace."
     "Jesus, I don't know how you did this, but thank you for this extraordinary gift. Everyone usually serves the good wine first. They save the cheap stuff for later when the guests are drunk and can't tell the difference. But you, you have saved the best for last. I don't really know what to say, but I know that God has graced this wedding feast today. Let the celebration continue!"
     John is trying to tell us that this abundance of wine is what "grace upon grace" looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like, and sounds like." It is God making an appearance in our lives when we thought all hope was lost. It is the scent of joy being restored. It is the best wine we've ever tasted at a time we least expected it. This "grace upon grace" warms our hearts with gladness. It fills our cups to the brim and overflows into the lives of those around us.
     If we can't quite fathom the amount of grace that flows thought this story, consider the math, brought to you by Karoline Lewis, Assistant Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary: "Let's round up and assume 180 gallons for the miracle at Cana. A standard bottle of wine is 750 milliliters, so we're talking close to 1,000 bottles of wine. And how many grapes per bottle of wine? Since it takes 2.6 pounds of grapes yields one bottle of wine. we are talking about a ton of grapes, over a ton! What difference do these facts make? It starts breaking down for us, in ways we might better grasp, just how much grace is implied here."
     Friends in Christ, John tells us that we have all received "grace upon grace" from the Word who became flesh and lived among us, Jesus Christ, the true steward of the feast. Therefore, if we feel like our joy has run dry; if we feel like the times of feasting and celebration have come to a screeching halt; if we feel like all hope is lost, may we remember John's story of "grace upon grace" when we least expect it. May Jesus, the steward of this feast, fill our lives with hope as we spread the good news of what God has done, and is doing, in our lives and in our world. AMEN

Special thanks to Karoline Lewis who provided the central idea for this sermon.]

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Water Stories

BAPTISM OF JESUS  Luke 3:15-22
1/04/16 David Eck

     Standing on the shoreline looking out over the vast expanse of ocean. Spending a lazy summer afternoon tubing down a river. Hiking through the mountains and coming across an unexpected waterfall. Hearing the crunch of snow under your boots on a frosty winter morning.
     Our strong connection to water cannot be denied. Perhaps it's because our bodies are 60% water by weight. Perhaps it's because we spent nine months swimming away in our mother's womb before we were born. Whatever the case may be, water plays an important role in our lives. We literally could not live without it. With this in mind, today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. As we remember his baptism, it also gives us an opportunity to think about ours.      
     There is a lot that can be said about baptism. Lutherans heap lots of fancy language on it, saying that Baptism is a sacrament and a means of grace. We are "marked with the cross of Christ" and "sealed by the Holy Spirit." They say in baptism, "God liberates us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ." And "Born children of a fallen humanity, in the baptismal waters we become God’s reborn children and inherit eternal life."
     All of this is fine and good…but it's sort of a buzzkill. It takes the wonder and mystery out of the rite of baptism. It disconnects us from what our hearts tell us every time we encounter a magnificent display of water in the natural world. So, today, we are going to reconnect baptism with its elemental origins. We are going to "wade in the water," both literally and metaphorically, and see what it can tell us about what baptism means to us. I'd like to tell you two personal stories of profound connections with water that happened to me this year. It is my hope that in the telling of my stories you will be inspired to think of your own waters stories and what they tell you about your baptism.
     The first story happened in January on the shores of Lake Galilee. It was our first day in Jerusalem. We had already visited Bethsaida and Capernaum and had received communion on the Mount of Beatitudes. If that wasn't amazing enough we ended the day at the place I'd been longing to see ever since Gary & I knew we were going on this trip: Lake Galilee.
     First we took a boat ride around the Lake. Then we had a wonderful lunch of St. Peter's fish which is the same kind of fish Jesus and his disciples would have eaten. Finally, we ended the day at a site called Tabga, which is the traditional site where Jesus cooked a meal of fish for his disciples after the resurrection. As I stood on thr shoreline I felt so connected to all the stories and history I've read and studied and preached about all these years. It was a holy moment that brought me to tears.
     But it was also a moment when I knew I was not content to stand on the shoreline. I took off my shoes and socks. I rolled up my pants as high as they could go and I waded into the waters of Lake Galilee. It was cold, but warmer than I expected. The feeling that welled up in my heart was one of profound gratitude. I had finally arrived at the place I had longed to see ever since I graduated from seminary: Lake Galilee. I had sailed it's waters, ate it's fish, and walked along its shore. In that moment, time had disappeared and I could almost smell the aroma of cooked fish on a charcoal fire. As I waded out of the water, I chose two stones to take with me as a memory of this holy moment. Every time I hold them in my hands, they connect me back to that indescribable experience on the shores of Lake Galilee.
     As I think about what this "water story" tells me about my baptism, it reminds me that we are all connected to something far greater than ourselves. Baptism connects us to Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter and Thomas in ways we cannot fully comprehend. It ties us into the larger story of  the swirling waters of creation, a people saved from a cataclysmic flood,a sea that was miraculously parted, a stream that appeared in the desert, and a river where people went to be baptized. It welcomes us into the big, crazy, dysfunctional family we call the Body of Christ. I wouldn't have it any other way!
     We can attach all the fancy theological language to this experience our little brains can think of. But, simply stated, baptism tells us WE BELONG to something far greater than ourselves. In a world where we often feel small, insignificant and ignored, the gift of belonging should not be underestimated.
     My second water story happened later during my trip to Israel. The weather had been challenging at times. It was much colder than any of us ever anticipated. In fact, we had snow in Bethlehem which tells me all those Christmas carols where we sing about bleak midwinters and cold winter nights, have some validity! Not surprisingly about half of our group caught a nasty virus, where we experienced a seemingly endless cycle of fever and chills, fever and chills. Because of this, some elected to stay in the hotel while the rest of the group went on an exploration of the area around the Dead Sea.
     I didn't care how sick I felt in that moment, I wasn't going to miss out on the experience of seeing the Dead Sea. So I grabbed a few bottles of water, put them in my day pack and dragged myself onto the bus. We first visited the amazingly rugged and beautiful hills around St George's monastery. Then we traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho [Now where have I heard that before?] and we arrived at Qumran which is within sight of the Dead Sea. It was an amazing sight but I felt my strength failing rapidly.
     Our next stop was a wadi called En Gedi, which is a nature preserve that is an oasis in the midst of the dry desert. Our group was going on a hike but I was feeling weak and light-headed so I knew that was not a possibility for me. Instead, I chose a spot along the trail where a small, crystal-clear stream flowed and became a waterfall. The sun was warm and it felt SO good after the surprising snowstorm in Bethlehem. As I sat there, an amazing thing happened. no one walked by me for 20 minutes! I had the whole place to myself. I used the time for meditation, prayer and reflection. I thought about the countless pilgrims who had visited this very spot as a respite from the harsh heat of the desert. This stream is one that never runs dry but continues to flow even in the hottest of summers.
     Not surprisingly, a few Bible verses came to mind. I thought about the woman at the well to whom Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."
     Then the opening of Psalm 23 emerged: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restore my soul." It was a holy moment I will treasure forever. Not surprisingly, I also took a stone from this stream as a memory of the experience.
     As I think about what this "water story" tells me about my baptism, it reminds me that Jesus is the water that never runs dry. I know sometimes we don't believe it, but it's true nonetheless. Through baptism we are deeply and profoundly connected to this source of living water. Jesus is there to refresh our souls when life gets too hot and dusty. When we feel faint and are weary, he is always, always there to renew and restore us. He is our wadi, our desert oasis, our fountain overflowing with love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.
     In baptism, we have access to this source of living water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As we venture out into the world  we walk wet because this living water goes with us. The words of Romans 8 remind us there is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I can think of no better news than this!
     Friends in Christ, baptism is an amazing and wonderful gift given to us by God. In a few moments we will have the opportunity to remember and celebrate that gift though the rite of Affirmation of Baptism. As we make our way to the font that is located in the gathering space of our church, let's take the time to recall our own water stories and ask what they teach us about the nature of baptism.
     I also invite us to dip our hand into the font, swirl it around a little. and feel that cool, refreshing water flow through our fingers. Then, if we like, take that water and place it on our forehead in the sign of the cross as a reminder of who we are, as well as whose we are. 
     Baptism is a wonderful gift given to us by God. Through this gift we are reminded that we belong to something far great than ourselves. It connects us to the saints of every time and every place and the big, big story of God's people that has been told since the beginning of creation. It also connects us to Christ, our source of living water that never runs dry. AMEN

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Sunday Sermon: Epiphany, The Three Gifts

EPIPHANY  Matthew 2:1-12
1/03/16 David Eck

 "On entering the house, the Magi saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
     The story of the Magi has been the subject of legend and speculation ever since it was first told. Over the years I've done quite a bit of research regarding the identity of these mysterious sages who came from afar to worship the Christ Child. In addition to the story we have from the gospel of Matthew, there are other accounts of the wise men from Gnostic writings such as The Book of the Cave of Treasures, and The Book of the Bee. There is also a New Testament apocryphal writing known as the Arabic Infancy Gospel.
     While it's interesting to read all these texts, they don't help to narrow down the identity of the wise men. In fact, they add even more detail and expand the possibilities of their identity. They could have been Zoroastrian priests, Babylonian astrologers, alchemists and spell casters, or merchants from Arabia or Syria. Their number ranges anywhere from 3 to 12. Their names are impossible to pin down.
     However, in the midst of all the stories that surround the identity of the Magi, there is one detail that remains consistent: the gifts they present to the Christ Child. In every story they are always gold, frankincense and myrrh.
     What I would like to do this morning is explore the significance of these three gifts and see what they tell us about the identity of the one who received them. My inspiration for this exploration came from a Gnostic writing known as The Book of the Cave of Treasures.
     In it, the author writes: "Understand, O my brother Nemesius, that the Magi knew the whole service of the Dispensation of our Redeemer through the offerings which they brought: The gold was for a king, the myrrh for a physician, and the frankincense for a priest, for the Magi knew who He was, and that He was a king, and a physician, and a priest."
     With this in mind, we begin with GOLD. In many ancient religious traditions gold is one of the highest offerings one can present to the Divine. Because of this, it is the material of choice for sacred statues and altar decoration.
     Gold is associated with the power of the sun. It was used as a tribute to the sun gods such as the Greek Helios, the Egyptian Ra, the Roman Apollo and the Babylonian Shamash.
     Finally, gold has always been sought after by royalty and the affluent as a symbol of power, strength, success, achievement and triumph. Others associate gold with the qualities of justice, health and purity of thought.
     As we contemplate the meaning of this gift, it calls us to ponder who our king is. In other words, it asks us who or what is the ruler of our lives. In Matthew's story the Magi recognized that a new king had been born. This king was worthy of their worship as well as the effort it took to find him. Somehow they new this king would be different from other kings. Instead of ruling with an iron fist Jesus would rule with justice and purity of thought. His power and strength would lie not in military might or brute force but in the qualities of mercy and compassion.
     Likewise, we need to decide who or what will rule our lives. Will it be Jesus?  Will we put him in the center? Or will we let other things take his place? Some people allow their lives to be ruled by fear, anger, depression, addiction or sorrow. Others serve earthly kings such as wealth, power, fame and the like. The Magi's gift of gold calls us to follow the Prince of Peace whose reign will have no end. It calls us to pay homage the One who is a king of love and justice. This is the significance of the gift of gold.
     Second on the list of gifts is FRANKINCENSE. Believe it or not, in the first century this was a more precious gift than gold. Frankincense is a resin. It comes from trees in the Boswellia family. It was expensive because it was not native to Israel, and had to be imported from North Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
     Frankincense has been cultivated for over 5,000 years and was used as incense by ancient Pagans in Persia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Eventually both Jews and Christians incorporated this fragrant resin into their worship life as well, making frankincense the universal resin that ties us all together! Jews used it as part of a special blend of incense that was burned in both the tabernacle and the Temple. The exact formulation of this incense is up for debate but there’s no doubt that frankincense was a part of it. The qualities associated with Frankincense are protection, cleansing, consecration and purification. The essential oil, which many of you have smelled on Christmas Eve, promotes spirituality and meditative states.
     I believe the Magi gave the Christ Child this precious gift because they thought he was a priest in addition to being a king. By priest, I mean he is the one who brings us closer to God. of the three persona of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he is the easiest to understand because he is most like us.
     The book of Hebrews states this beautifully: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." [Heb 4:15-16]
     With the gift of frankincense, the Magi honored Jesus as the great high priest. Somehow they knew he would bring the world closer to God and this is why they gave him such a precious and costly gift. 
     As we contemplate the meaning of this gift it calls us to ponder who our priest is. Yes, it's great to learn about Jesus from pastors such as myself and from books and TV programs. But these are no substitute for meeting and discovering Jesus ourselves. We all need to be students of the gospels. We all need to be people of prayer and meditation and contemplative thought. We need to give our "inner-Martha" the day off, and let our "inner-Mary" sit at the feet of our Savior; to soak up his wisdom and dwell in his presence. I fear there are far too many Christians who do not do this. Frankincense is the gift that call us to connect deeply and intimately with Jesus, our great high priest.
     The third and final gift is MYRRH. The song "We Three Kings" does not do this gift justice. The verse pertaining to myrrh goes as follows: "Myrrh is mine it's bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in a stone cold tomb."
     First of all, myrrh does not have a bitter perfume. In fact, it is quite sweet and fragrant when it is burned. It often accompanies frankincense in incense blends because of this very quality. Frankincense tends to smell bitter the longer it is burned but myrrh is sweet from start to finish.
     The second thing that is misleading in this verse is that it gives the impression that myrrh is only used in connection with burial and death. While it's true the Egyptians embalmed mummies with it, in traditional Chinese medicine it is valued for helping to cure circulatory problems, arthritis, and uterine tumors.
     Myrrh also has a rich history in the Judeo-Christian community. Exodus 30 lists myrrh as the first ingredient in a recipe for anointing oil that was used to consecrate the tent of meeting (tabernacle), ark of the covenant and all ritual tools used in this sacred space. It is also mentioned in Psalm 47 as an ingredient in the "oil of gladness" that is used to perfume the robes of the groom in a royal wedding.
     In terms of its alchemy, myrrh purifies the area and creates a feeling of peace. Some believe it increases the power of any incense to which it is added and it is often used in healing incense blends. I believe the Magi gave the Christ Child this precious gift because they thought he was a healer in addition to being a priest and a king.
     As we contemplate the meaning of this gift it reminds us that Jesus is our great physician. He can heal broken hearts and deep emotional wounds. He can surround us with his peaceful presence when we are troubled and afraid. He can move in our lives and in our bodies to promote a sense of health and well-being. 
     This does not mean everyone will receive a miraculous cure if they ask for it. Medical miracles and spontaneous healing are few and far between. However, it has been my personal experience that Jesus works through doctors and other medical staff. I always pray for them any time I pray with a patient at Mission Hospital. He also gives us the wisdom and clarity we need to make decisions regarding our physical, emotional and spiritual health. He is a powerful source of healing in our lives.
     So that's the list of gifts given to the Christ Child by these mysterious strangers from a foreign land. They speak of Jesus as a king, a priest, and a healer. My wish for all of us is that we will have a deeper appreciation for these special gifts and the reason why they were given. Happy Epiphany! Amen.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Eve Sermon: Where is Baby Jesus?

CHRISTMAS EVE  "Where is Baby Jesus?"
12/24/15  David Eck

     Everyone has their own special traditions when it comes to celebrating the birth of Christ. When my cousins were young, my aunt used to play a game with them that involved their nativity set. Each year, at the start of Advent, they would place the stable on the fireplace mantle in their living room. Then they would add all the figures with one exception: Baby Jesus.
     My aunt would then hide baby Jesus somewhere in the house. It was up to my cousins to find him and return him to the stable. Each time they found him my aunt would hide him again, and again and again. Needless to say, baby Jesus did a lot of traveling at my cousin's house during the month of December! He was likely to be found tucked away in a dresser drawer or a kitchen cupboard. He occasionally lounged on a pillow in one the the bedrooms or had a North Pole adventure in the refrigerator. Finally, when Christmas Eve arrived, Baby Jesus was returned to the stable. He remained there for the twelve days of Christmas.
     My cousins had a blast with this holiday tradition. I always thought it was a bit strange. But now that I'm older, it makes perfect sense. We often look for the Christ Child in predictable places. We assume he'll be in the manger asleep on the hay with Joseph and Mary staring blissfully down upon him. We assume he'll be surrounded by shepherds and livestock and all the pungent smells of a country stable. We assume he'll show up every time we gather for worship. His presence is felt warming our hearts as we sing carols such as "Joy to the Word" or "Silent Night."
     But what about the other times in our lives? What about the times we face as individuals and as a nation when darkness surrounds us on all sides? Where is baby Jesus when we're facing a chronic illness or mourning the loss of loved ones? Where is baby Jesus when we're worried about how we're going to pay the bills this month? Where is baby Jesus when terrorism threatens to plunge our world into chaos and gun violence in the United States happens on a weekly basis?
     During the dark times we face, it's easy to feel like baby Jesus is missing in action. "Where is baby Jesus?" we cry. We can't seem to find him anywhere!" And so, like my cousins,we begin searching for the Christ Child. First, we look for him in obvious places such as worship and prayer and hymns. But, sometimes, even when we surround ourselves with these activities, it can still feel like baby Jesus is hiding somewhere and we just can't seem to locate him.      
     During the dark times of our lives we're also tempted to ask baby Jesus to send us a miraculous sign so that we can locate him more easily. But these kinds of signs and wonders are few and far between.
     So, where is baby Jesus tonight? Where has he been this past month as we've faced personal and global tragedies? Sure, there's a figurine of him on our altar tonight. But where is baby Jesus...really?
     We'll if we listen to our gospel lesson, we hear that the Christ Child is often found in small places rather than big ones. Like my cousins, searching for that hidden figurine, Baby Jesus is more likely to show up tucked away in a corner somewhere than he is accompanied by angel songs and trumpets blaring.
     Consider the facts: Luke tells us that baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He wasn't born in a place of power such as Rome where Emperor Augustus reigned; or Jerusalem which was the center of Israel's worship life. He was born in a small rural town about five miles outside of Jerusalem.
     But the story is even smaller than that! Baby Jesus was not born in the center of town, or the local Bed and Breakfast. Instead, he was born in a stable that was located in a hillside cave "Because there was no place for him in the inn."
     But the story is even smaller than that! There was no fancy baby stroller or deluxe play pen for Jesus to lay down his sweet head. Instead, he had to settle for the straw of a feeding trough that was probably filled with the spit of cows and sheep who had dined there moments before his birth.
     Wow, talk about humble beginnings! Talk about being tucked away in a hard to find place. Baby Jesus was born in the simplest of circumstances. The Son of God could not have picked a more humble place to arrive on earth. But this should tell us something, tonight. This should remind us where baby Jess is found in our day and age.
     "Wait a minute," you might argue. "Wasn't Jesus' birth announced to a band of shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night? That's pretty flashy, isn't it?
     Didn't the angel of the Lord say to them, "Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." That's kind of miraculous. Strike up the band.  Cue the lights. Launch the special effects and angels singing. Surely, this tells us God likes the miraculous. God makes a grand entrance from time to time. Doesn't it?"
     Well, think about the guest list of those who appeared on the night Jesus was born. His parents were there. Lots of noisy, smelly animals were there. The Magi or three kings were NOT there. That story belongs to Matthew. If we read  the story of the Magi carefully we will discover that they greeted baby Jesus at a house on a later date. The only guests to show up that first Christmas Eve were the shepherds. If you know anything about first century shepherding, it was a humble profession to say the least.
     There is a tradition in the Jewish Mishnah that a father would not recommend certain vocations to his sons: First, not to be a butcher; second, not to be a doctor; and third, not to be a shepherd. Shepherds were among the least respected vocations in the first century. They had no status.  They were lower class guys, out in the fields, keeping watch over the sheep. The literal translation of Luke is that they were actually living in the fields. Trust me, these guys were solidly a part of the 99%! They were about as low as one could go.
     Yet, these humble, blue-collar shepherds were the first to find baby Jesus and welcome him into our world. Again, Luke is telling us that the Christ Child is more often found in small places than he is in big ones. He is found among the little people more than he is among the powerful and influential.
     Friends in Christ, this is certainly good news for us as we gather together to celebrate the birth of Jesus. For those who have been pondering "Where is Baby Jesus?" these past few weeks, Luke reminds us that the Christ Child is with us. We just might have been looking for him in all the wrong places. We need to stop looking for signs and wonders. Instead,we need to look for baby Jesus in quiet, out of the way places; among humble people and ordinary circumstances.
     Therefore, I proclaim to all of us tonight that baby Jesus in not missing in action, as some might think. He is Emmanuel, God with us, here and now in this very room. Take a moment…and feel his presence among us.
     Baby Jesus will also be tonight making room in a homeless shelter where a family of four will have a warm place to sleep. He will also be fixing Christmas dinner for the hungry and giving gifts to children who live in poverty. Baby Jesus will be found in the encouraging words of a friend, a hug from a total stranger, and an unexpected check in the mail.
     If we feel like baby Jesus is missing from our lives; if we wonder if someone has hidden him so well that he may be impossible to find; Luke's gospel reminds us that Jesus is with us. He is often found in the smallest of places, among the humblest of circumstances. May we all seek him there so that the Christ Child may fill our lives with  love, hope, peace and joy. Merry Christmas and Amen!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sunday Sermon: The Darkness Did Not Overcome the Light

12/20/15 John 1  David Eck

     The introduction to John's gospel reads a bit like the prologue in the first Star Wars movie. Since this is the week that the new Star Wars film has arrived, I thought that it was the perfect illustration to understand what John is trying to do as he begins to tell the story of Jesus.
     As Star Wars begins, we see the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" emblazoned on the screen. This is followed by a column of scrolling yellow text whose background is the vastness of the cosmos. The words on the screen tell us the story of how everything began. It's an epic battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The purpose of this text is to bring us up to speed, so that we can understand the heroic story that is about to be told. Cue the music…(Dum, dum, dum-dum-dum, dum, dum) This is what John does with his first chapter. But instead of saying, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," he quotes the first three words of Genesis 1: "In the beginning…"
     You see, John is not content to start his gospel with Luke's stories of Elizabeth and Mary's pregnancies. He's not interested in Matthew's chronology of Jesus' family tree nor a tale of Joseph's consideration of divorce. John says that the birth of Jesus is much bigger story than all of this. It is an epic battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light:
     "In the beginning…was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."
     John's story of the birth of Jesus takes us back to the time when light came into being. Evoking the imagery of Genesis, it was a time when the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep." The Message paraphrases this darkness as "a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness."
     In the midst of this darkness, this inky blackness, the RUAH, the Spirit of God, fluttered her wings, stirring up this cosmic soup of nothingness. As it swirled, God spoke. Word took on form. "Let there be light," God said, and light was born in the midst of the darkness." God saw that it was good. Then God separated the light from the darkness, calling the light Day, and the darkness Night. This was the first day of creation.
     As the epic story continues, we learn that there would be many attempts by humanity to snuff out this light. Adam and Eve would betray God in the garden. Cain would murder Abel. God's covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah would be tested time and time again: slavery, wilderness wandering, exile. Yet, in spite of all these attempts to snuff out the light, God's light continued to shine. God continued to create, to redeem, to heal, and to restore. "The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
     I believe John intended to attach all these images and stories to the birth of Jesus. He is telling us that the birth of Jesus is the sequel to the original story. In Episode 2, the Holy Spirit is stirring up the darkness again. God is speaking. Word is taking on form, just like it did when the world was created: John writes, "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."
     There is so much going on in this single sentence that it's hard to know where to begin. Here are two highlights: The first is the Word became flesh. We have a fancy word or this: Incarnation. Simply stated, it is "God in human form." John is telling us that the Word who became light at the beginning of creation, has become light once again. This time it is Jesus Christ, the light of the world. He is the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." [Is 9:2]
     This light would shine on the darkness of other people's lives. Water would be turned to wine for a wedding feast. 5,000 people would be fed from a few loaves and fishes. The blind would see. The lame would walk. The diseased would be made well. The dead would be raised to new life. The outcasts would be welcomed into fellowship. The exalted would be humbled, and the humbled would be exalted.
     As this light continued to shine, people would try to extinguish it as well. Religious leaders would plot and scheme his demise. Two of his closest friends would betray him and deny even knowing him. Roman authorities would arrest him, beat him, and sentence him to death. They would place his body in a sealed tomb, thinking they had killed the light. But three days later, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, would shine even brighter than before. His light continues to shine in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
     What John is trying to tell us is that if we don't get past the birth of Jesus, we miss the whole point of the story. If we stop with the shepherds, angels, and magi, we miss the opportunity to encounter the Light that cannot be extinguished.
     The second thing I'd like to look at is the phrase "and lived among us." The Greek word used here means "to tabernacle," or "to pitch a tent." It calls to mind the "tent of meeting" the Israelites carried with them, as they wandered through the desert. It was a portable worship space where they would go to commune with the Almighty.
     The beauty of John using this imagery here is that it means Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, chose to tabernacle with us. The Message paraphrases this concept beautifully: "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." In a neighborhood that is sometimes filled with deep darkness, it is comforting to know that we walk with the Light who cannot be extinguished. Amen?
     The beauty of John's telling of the birth of Jesus is that he is able to pack all of these images and stories into the span of 14 verses. It is deceivingly simple, and theologically profound.
     But guess what, that's not the end of the story. Just like Star Wars, there is a Part Three: In John 6, Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." Notice Jesus didn't say "Whoever follows me will ONLY OCCASIONALLY walk in darkness." He says "Whoever follows me will NEVER was in darkness."
     The third part of the trilogy tells us that the Holy Spirit is stirring up the darkness again. God is speaking. Word is taking on form, just like it did at the beginning of the creation of the world; just like it did when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Only this time, the Word takes up residence in us.
     In John 20, Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection and says, "Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then he breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit." The imagery used here also comes from Genesis, where God forms a human being from the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life.
     In John 20, Jesus infuses his disciples with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, and they go out onto the world to begin creating it anew, once again. By the time we reach the end of John's gospel we discover that the Light of Christ now dwells in us. And it is a light that cannot be extinguished.
     Furthermore, just like Jesus did before us, we are called to reflect this light into the darkness of our world. In Matthew 5 Jesus reminds us "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." [Mt 5:14-16]
     Friends in Christ, this is how John wants us to understand the story of the birth of Jesus. It is a story of the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. So, if we're feeling a little dark this Christmas season, maybe our task is not to FIND the light, maybe our task is to BE the light. Since the Light of Christ has taken up residence in us, this means it's our responsibility to share that light, and let it shine for all the world to see.
     John tells us this light that dwells in us cannot be extinguished. It is indestructible. Bad Christmas music can't kill it! Crazed shoppers can't kill it! Annoying relatives can't kill it! The stresses and challenges of life can't kill it! May we claim this truth for ourselves and become the shining lights we were created to be. AMEN

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sunday Sermon: John the Baptist, the Grumpy Cat of Christmas

12/13/15 Mark 1  David Eck

     This morning we have surrounded ourselves with the story of the birth of Jesus. Everything feels like it's in its place: Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, a shepherd, an angel and three magi. They are all present on our altar and we have heralded their story in word and song. Our worship space is aglow with a sparkling tree and candlelight. The feeling in our hearts is one of "Peace on earth, good will to all people."
     But there's one person missing from this nativity scene. Can you guess who it is? His presence is hinted at in our First Lesson. We have to deal with him every Advent season (Place the figure of John in the creche.) Ta-da! It's John the Baptist. And when we drop this guy into the story, everything comes to a screeching halt.
     John is the Grumpy Cat of the New Testament. He's a bit of a downer. In the midst of angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest," and shepherds kneeling before the Christ Child, John the Baptist says cheerful things like "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!" "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." And my personal favorite "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance." Grumpy Cat, indeed!
     But this is the how Mark starts his gospel. He skips over Luke's stories of Elizabeth and Mary. He ignores Matthew's grand genealogy and tale of Joseph. He knocks all the shepherds, angels and magi out of the way like a Tyrannosaurus Rex gone wild! Mark is not sentimental at all. He could care less about baby Jesus and gets right down to business. The first sentence of his gospel is "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."
     He follows this up with a quote from Isaiah "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" Then he jumps right into the story of John the Baptist where it's all camel's hair tunics, leather belts, locusts, wild honey, and baptizing people in the Jordan River.
(Sung) Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God's gonna trouble the water. 

     This past January I had the opportunity to participate in an affirmation of baptism service on the banks of the Jordan River, in the region where John's story takes place. It's sparse, desert country. Even today there's not much there in terms of buildings and development. After Bishop Bolick politely sprinkled us with water, I promptly went to the edge of the platform took two big handfuls of water and poured them over my head. Next to me were Russian Orthodox pilgrims who bravely waded into the water and were baptized by full immersion. It was a wonderful and powerful sight to see. The shock on their faces as they came up out of that cold, muddy river water was priceless.
     This is how Mark sets up the story of Jesus: John telling people to repent and baptizing them in the Jordan River. While it may seem strange and out of place to us as we surround ourselves with the birth narratives, perhaps Mark has something important to teach us. Perhaps John the Baptist is not such an odd character in this season where we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior. So let's look at the person and message of John the Baptist and see what wisdom he has to share with us this morning.
     Let's start with his message. "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!" "REPENT, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." The word "repent" in Greek is METANOEO. It is the basis for our English word "metamorphosis." It means "to think differently," "to have a change of heart," "to turn from one's sins," and "to change one's ways."
     Let's be honest, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" is hardly going to make it onto a Christmas card. Neither is "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" John's message seems at odds with our celebration of Christmas with its emphasis on sparkly decorations, gift giving, eating lots of delicious food, and remembering the birth of Jesus. But maybe that's the point. Maybe this is EXACTLY the message we need to hear during Christmas season. If repentance means to "think differently," to "change our ways" then we've got our work cut out for us!
     The secular Christmas begins sometime during late August or early September. In the midst of pumpkins and Halloween decorations, we start seeing hints of red and green. This presence grows stronger and stronger until November 1st. Then, all bets are off. Some radio stations begin broadcasting Christmas music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Stores begin pre-Christmas sales that grow with increasing intensity until Thanksgiving Day.
     Then Christmas goes into hyper-drive. The basic message is the more stuff we buy, the better our Christmas will be. Advertisers try their best to tug on our emotional heartstrings so that we are manipulated into spending more money than we should. The quest is to create a "perfect Christmas," which, of course, is impossible. Therefore, after all the presents are unwrapped, the food is consumed, and our friends and relatives have gone home, we are left feeling a little depressed and disappointed. I know we've all been there. It means we were the victims  of society's expectations of what it takes to have a Merry Christmas.
     In the midst of this madness, John the Baptist tells us to repent, to think differently, to change our ways. He challenges us to go against the flow, and create a season that is befitting the babe whose birth we celebrate. He challenges us to shift our focus toward being a light in the darkness of other people's lives. He calls us to be generous with what we have and share with those who are in need. He reminds us that faith, family and friends should be the main emphasis of our holiday.
     Let's be honest, it's hard to resist the lures of society's expectations for this season, but with John the Baptist at our side, maybe we can summon the courage to do thing differently. Maybe we can create a Christmas celebration that brings love, peace and joy into our lives instead of leaving us feeling depressed and exhausted.
      The second thing we need to look at is the person of John the Baptist. If his message tells us to repent, then his person tells us to simplify. Going back to my time in Israel, we had the wonderful opportunity to visit Qumran which is in the Judean desert, close to the Dead Sea. Dr. Monte Luker, who was our guide through the Holy Land, believes that John was most likely a member of this community. I am convinced he is correct.
     The Essenes fled from Jerusalem to the desert 150 years before Jesus was born. They did so because they believed the religious leadership in Jerusalem had become corrupt. Qumran became the place where they could live in ritual purity until the coming of the Messiah. An average day in Qumran included rising early in the morning and doing the manual labor of the community such as farming, hunting, pottery, laundry, and so on. Then, about noon, there was a ritual bath followed by a ritual meal of bread and wine, and sometimes ritually prepared meat. The afternoon was spent in scholarly activity including writing and copying the scrolls they left behind.
     John's life at Qumran would have been simple with an emphasis on spirituality and community. That's not a bad way to live and we might do well to follow his example. At some point along the way, John parted with the Qumran community. They were content to remain isolated from the rest of society. But John felt that their message was so important it needed to be shared with the masses. Therefore, John went out into the desert and began his ministry as described in the gospels.
     What I think we learn from John is that as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, simplicity is the order for the day. We need to do the things that nurture our relationship with God and create stronger bonds of community. We don't need to be willing participants of the secular celebration of Christmas which I believe has corrupted its meaning. Instead we can define this holiday in a way that is both sane and life-giving. We can clear away the clutter that surrounds the celebration of Christmas. In its place we can create a space of peace and goodwill to all people. It's something our society desperately needs the days. We have the power to make it happen!
      The second thing we learn from the person of John is that while it's tempting to create this space of peace and goodwill in isolation, we are called to help it take root and grow in the world around us. It would have been easier for John to stay in Qumran, but he knew he needed to share his message with a wider audience. Likewise, Jesus reminds us that we are not called to hide our light under a bushel basket. Instead we are called to put it on a lamp stand for all the world to see.
     We are called to be peace, in a world that is often hostile and chaotic. We are called to be joy, in a world that is often sad and full of despair. We are called to be love, in a world that is often hateful and full of prejudice.
      Friends in Christ, as I bring my thoughts to a close this morning, it would appear that John the Baptist is not out of place as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. He is as much a part of the story as are Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, shepherds, angels and Magi. Let us follow his example so that this season  might be filled with love, hope, peace and joy. AMEN.