Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Luke 1.46b-55, Advent 4 B, December 21, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Most of the time, anonymity on the internet is toxic. People can say whatever they are really thinking - without any filter. Usually this leads to cruel, mindless comments. We have seen that Augustana College experienced this firsthand this week. The administration had to put the social media app YikYak behind their firewall because a few people were making hurtful racist comments.

Sometimes, relative anonymity on the internet can be a beautiful thing. Regular, everyday people on Twitter respond to social movements by telling the honest stories of their lives. Gathered together into groups by their hashtags, they tell a story of those in our country who do not have it as easy as we do. 

Some of these hashtags refer to the racism that is still oddly prevalent in our society. African Americans use #alivewhileblack to share their experiences with local cops. For example, Ashley Ford writes:
Another prevalent hashtag is #blacklivesmatter. People of all races use this to share their support for their darker skinned neighbors. Kevin Hendricks writes:
Social commentary on Twitter is for more than just racism. I have shared before how women have used the hashtags #yesallwomen, #whyistayed, and 3whyileft to describe their experiences of domestic violence.Women also share stories of sexism, including street harassment. Cat calling is a serious problem in many urban areas, making women feel unsafe and objectified. #YouOKsis and #notjusthello are ways for women to share their experiences. Candy writes:

These are just a few examples of the racism and sexism that are still prevalent in our society. We may not always see these in our quiet corners of Princeton and Le Claire, but we don’t have to go far into the Quad Cities to find them. This is the world that we live in - where so many people don’t feel safe going about their daily lives.

I cannot help but have these in mind when I hear the Magnificat this morning. Mary’s song, which we read in place of a psalm, proclaims that God through Jesus will bring an end to all of this. When Mary says that she is a lowly servant, I wonder - Did she ever have to experience a cat-calling? Did anybody ever call her a prostitute for no good reason? Did she realize how her poverty ostracized her? I wonder what her life was like. 

We may not know much about Mary, but I think she did have a somewhat rough life. Even if she was never personally attacked, she knew her social status and where that put her in society. In simpler terms, Mary was a nobody. She was a simple girl with a simple future.

Then Gabriel comes and her world is completely turned upside down. Now she will bear the Son of God, an illegitimate son in her fiancĂ©’s eyes. This small baby will save the world. And what will that saving look like? That is what we hear in her song.

We want to relate to Mary, but I think there is something about her lowly status that we have never experienced. All of us are white, so we have never been judged by our skin color. Most of us are comfortably middle class. We certainly have worked hard for what we have earned, but we haven’t experienced as many roadblocks to success that others have. We are not lowly servants, so it is hard for us to hear the true depth of God’s message. God is taking oppressive suffering and overturning it into grace.

Professor Lois Malcolm of Luther Seminary grew up in the Philippine Islands while her parents were missionaries. She found that the poor there experienced Mary’s song in profound ways. For them, it was the first time that they ever felt valued. 

They thought that they were poor because that was how it was supposed to be. They figured God wanted the rich to be rich and the poor to be poor. They believed that they deserved their poverty - maybe they were suffering for their or others’ past sins. They also claimed that they weren’t smart enough to be rich. 

Then they heard the Magnificat proclaim for them. Rolf Jacobson writes, “No, Christ has come to challenge the structures of sin, death, the devil, and oppression. Christ has come in the strength of the Lord to do what the Lord has always done: lift up the lowly, free the enslaved, feed the hungry, give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.” 

These Philipinos hear the profound grace in this song because they are the lowly who need to be lifted up. They are the hungry needing food. They are the ones desperate for God to show them a better life. For them, this passage brings hope. 

We need this hope too. We may not be the ones suffering in desperation, but we do see the proud who need to be scattered. We see the mighty who need to be taken from their thrones. We see the rich who need to be sent away empty. 

Sometimes, though, aren’t we too proud for our own good? Sometimes aren’t we too rich for our own good? Rolf Jacobson also writes, “But God’s people have also been oppressors. We have enslaved others -- and each other. We have stolen from, oppressed, and slain others -- and each other. And when we have done so, the oppressed, the enslaved, the persecuted have sung God’s songs of resistance against us.”

Mary’s song is one of extreme opposites. We certainly don’t belong in either extreme. I think sometimes we are a lot closer to the “rich” side of the scale than we are to the “hungry” side. We don’t struggle to put food on the table. We don’t face adversity when looking for a job or planning to retire. We don’t worry that a cop will pull us over for no good reason. Even so, God shares a word of grace for all of us. This Christ child, already growing in Mary’s womb, will bring about an end to extremes. 

Jesus our Lord lived among us. In time, Jesus would gladly sit among the prostitutes, the convicts, the social outcasts, and other sinners. He would experience street harassment from anyone and everyone who felt threatened by his message. The Pharisee prosecutors would set a case against him, making him look guilty for crimes he did not commit. He would experience police brutality when the Roman soldiers mocked him and put a crown of thorns on his head, pressing down until his head bled. 

Mary may not have known all that was to come, yet we hear in her Magnificat that she knew that this all would be worth it. Through Jesus, God is turning the world around. There are moments today when we experience God’s cosmic grace, but the day is coming when Jesus will return. He will complete the overturn of the haughty, the powerful, and the rich. When that time comes, the humble, the weak, and the poor will experience God’s grace in all its fullness. We await that coming day when together we pray, “Stir up your power Lord Christ and come!” Amen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pointing to Christ

John 1:6-8, 19-28, Advent 3 B, December 14, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

As we wait for the light of Christ to come, sometimes we are overwhelmed by the darkness of the world. In the news, we are saturated by stories of racism, inequality, and of torture. On the ads that surround us, we are overcome by rampant consumerism. Everywhere we turn, we seem to encounter people making bad decisions.

Sometimes the darkness comes not from outside but within. Take Julius for example. He immigrated from Germany in 1929 ready to work. He always believed, "What you give is what you get. Work hard, be honest, obey the law, and you will receive your reward." (p. 6) Not only did he work hard in his profession, but he worked hard at home too.

After fifty years of marriage, his wife Lina suffered a stroke. She lived, but she could no longer take care of herself. So Julius took care of her and did all of the chores that she used to do. He cooked and cleaned, paid the bills and maintained the house. Now that his wife has passed away, Julius lives at a retirement home.

He can't stop complaining about the food, though. After so many years of his wife's excellent cooking followed by his own careful food prep, he couldn't stand the fact that he had to pay so much more for low quality food. (Gather Magazine, June 2013)

All Julius wants is a good plate of food. He wants something to remind him of the wife that he loved so much. What Julius wants is a little light to shine in the darkness of his grief.

Sometimes a better way to describe this world is wilderness. Sometimes the world is a barren wasteland like the wilderness of the Bible. Other times, our world is more like the chaotic wilderness of an overgrown forest without any paths. Those who live in poverty certainly experience the wilderness of this world. Take Helen, for example. 

Helen lives below the poverty line. In her small home, she has two daughters, a niece, and two toddler grandchildren. The sole provider for her family, she relies on a welfare check and a disability check. When one of her welfare checks got lost in the mail, Helen was at a loss for what to do. When she reached the point of desperation, her family had already gone two days without food. She only had $1.25 to her name, and that wasn't enough to buy anything. 

So, Helen went to the dollar store. Not knowing what to do, she took five eggs from a carton and put them in her jacket. Before she could even leave the store, the eggs broke. Her failed attempt was obvious. As she said later, "You know what they say about karma, right? Of course when I put them in my jacket pocket, they broke. I'm not a good thief at all." The clerk approached her, and Helen admitted everything. The police were on their way.

Helen lived in the wilderness of poverty. She relied on two small checks every month to pay her bills and feed the five in her care. All Helen wanted was for someone - anyone to show her the path to clarity and comfort.

Detail of Isenheim Altar by Matthias Grunewald, 1516, pointing to Christ on the cross.

It is in this dark, wild, chaotic world that we live. It is in this space of despair and confusion where John proclaimed, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" And prepare he did. John spent his life preparing the world for Christ. He baptized many, telling all that one more worthy than he is coming. John preached and proclaimed wherever he went, so that all might be ready to receive Christ.

John made it quite clear that he was not in fact the light shining in the darkness. Instead, he testified to the light. John himself was not the Messiah, no. He wasn't even Elijah or the prophet. John readily quoted Isaiah yet he did not feel as important as such a prophet.

No, John in his own right wasn't much to look at. He didn't try to make a name for himself. His identity didn't matter. All that mattered was Christ. All that mattered was that he testified that Christ would come. As John waited for Christ, he witnessed to him. What a beautiful way to live out the Advent which was his life. 

We can witness for Christ in this world. We can be more like Diana. Diana is Julius' daughter. She is the one who arranged for her father to move into the retirement home. She felt horrible when her father was so tough on their food. So, she worked with the staff there to offer alternatives on "bad meal" days. Diana stocked his mini fridge with sandwiches for lunch.

She helped him learn how to get a taxi and go out to a restaurant on his own. The staff at the diner learned to love Julius, always seating him at the same table. He enjoyed the food there, but it still was not like his wife's cooking.

Julius liked it best when Diana took him to her home. There, she would cook dinner just like her mother used to. Julius savored his daughter's pork roast, red cabbage, potato pancakes, and spaetzle. With good food and his daughter for company, Julius could be happy, at least for a little while. Diana was not the light shining in the darkness, but she pointed to it. Diana revealed Christ's light to her father by sharing Christ's love with him. Like John, Diana testified to the light. Then her father was ready to receive the light of Christ.

John also said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'make straight the way of the Lord.'" (1:23) In the wilderness of poverty, Helen never thought that she could find the path. Then she met police officer William Stacy. Officer Stacy, moved by her plight did not arrest her. He made sure that the dollar store would not press charges. Even more, this officer purchased a dozen eggs for Helen.

Officer Stacy himself struggled to find food to eat as a child, so he had some idea of her desperation. Not only did he buy her the eggs, but he also signed her up for a toy drive and helped her find the nearest food pantry. Helen later said, "I don't know if he's an angel or God-sent, but he was there for me and I appreciate every minute of it." 

Helen was in the wilderness, and Officer Stacy pointed her on the right path. He himself is not the path - Christ is. Even so, Helen could not have found the right way forward without him. 

This Advent, let us be like Diana and Officer Stacy. Let us find the people in our lives who are lost or lonely and shine Christ's light for them. Let us find those around us who are confused and desperate, and point them on the right path. For when we witness to Christ, then others - and we ourselves - are more ready to receive Christ.

In closing, listen to these words from our bishop, Michael Burk, "Let the shape of our waiting-in-the-world reflect a deep awareness of this world's brokenness and need. And at the same time, let our lives and ministries witness to our conviction that in Christ Jesus, hope abounds.

"What does that look like? In the face of violence and war, we actively seek peace. Aware that too many are hungry, we share our bread. Grieving the loss of loved ones, tending to the sick and lonely, lamenting the breaking of relationships, knowing that too many experience estrangement, we love, we share, we welcome, we pray. And, as often as possible, we do it together, in Christ's name." Amen.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who is the Son of God?

Mark 1:1-8, Advent 2 B, December 7, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Have you ever heard of Advent Conspiracy? It is an organization that encourages giving to charities instead of to each other at Christmas time. There is a similar organization called “Simple Christmas.” Their YouTube video from 2011 uses bright colors as simple message flashes across the screen. Watch it now: 

Isn’t this Simple Christmas message a good one for us? It is a reminder that Christ should be at the center of our Christmas celebrations - not just here in worship but in our gatherings with friends and family too. This is a reminder that our consumer society has tried - and succeeded - in turning a simple Christian holiday into a profit.

There is nothing wrong in giving presents to the ones you love. There is nothing wrong in traveling to be with your family for Christmas. There is nothing wrong in enjoying the good food this season. What is wrong is when we let all of these social expectations overwhelm us. What is wrong is when the stress of the holidays blinds us to the joy of Christ’s birth.

Videos from groups like Advent Conspiracy and Simple Christmas are subversive. They overturn societal expectations and bring us back to the church, to Christ. These videos make it obvious to us how our American consumer culture has abducted the Christmas holiday for its own purposes. 
In a similar yet opposite way, the author of Mark took common cultural language from the first century and turned it on its head. Mark took all of the words and phrases used for Caesar and put those words on Christ. Take the first line of the gospel, for instance.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 

When we hear this in our modern context, we do not think much of it. Why not start a gospel by saying that it is the beginning of the good news? Jesus Christ is the Son of God, is he not? We use all of this as standard religious language. But for Mark, the first line is a political statement.

You see, Caesar was “the beginning of all things.” He was called Lord. He expected people to worship him, treating him as semi-divine. Caesar was called “son of god.” The term “good news” often referred to political victory. Caesar was emperor, leader, warrior. He was all of this. Caesar was the beginning, the good news, king, and son of god.

Caesar was all of this, and everyone knew it. The entire empire was expected to bow to this mighty ruler. This was the context when Mark wrote his gospel. When he wrote, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark knew that he was committing political blasphemy.

In one short sentence, Mark proclaimed that Jesus is the beginning. Jesus is the good news. Jesus is king. Jesus is the Son of God. Not Caesar. No human could dream of legitimately holding all of these titles. But Jesus isn’t just human.

Jesus is the beginning. Jesus was there for the beginning of the world. Jesus is the beginning of salvation. Jesus is God, the beginning of all things.

Jesus is the good news, yet his victory is non-violent. He did not charge into battle trying to kill as many as possible. Instead, he offered his life in our place. 

Jesus is the Christ, the anointed king, chosen and blessed by God to be the savior of the world. Jesus is connected through biology and tradition with the kings from Jewish history, including the mighty King David.

Jesus is the Son of God, literally the begotten child of our Lord, born to Mary and Joseph. Jesus is fully God and fully human, all at once. Jesus is all of this, not Caesar. 

Jesus never intended to be like Caesar. Mark attributed all of this violent, victorious language to Jesus. Mark will then spend the rest of the book showing the world how Jesus is still victorious, even if he is nonviolent. 

At the end of the gospel according to Mark, the story isn’t finished. Jesus never appears resurrected. Instead, the women run away from the empty tomb, too scared to tell anyone. The entire gospel is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. It is our task to take up the gospel and share it with all who will hear. 

Today, we would never proclaim, “Caesar is Lord.” We never would proclaim that anyone other than Christ is the Son of God. Yet, even so, our actions proclaim our beliefs better than our words. This holiday season, don’t spend your time alone in the stores or in your kitchen. Don’t stress yourself out so much that you can barely survive the season.

Instead, spend quality time with your family and those dearest to you. Don’t worry if it doesn’t all get done. Life is too short to stress this Advent and Christmas.

In addition to your family, spend some time with Christ. Come to worship this Advent and on Christmas Eve. Attend the Sunday School Christmas program. Spend time in prayer, guided by the Advent star. 

By doing all of this, we all can find Christ in our lives. This season, let Christ shine in you and with you. Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Out of Control

Mark 13:24-37, Advent 1 B, November 30, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

There are certain times in our lives when God reminds us that we are not always in control. Take driving for example. Here in the Quad Cities, there isn’t much traffic. “Morning rush hour” means that there are more people out on the road, yet traffic is rarely every at a standstill like in Chicago. 

Yet, the one time that you have to cross over into Illinois before 9 a.m., of course there is an accident on the I-74 bridge. You were on time, but not any longer. You are not in control of your time stream.
Here’s another example: It has been snowing all day. You are grateful for the plows on the roads who enable you to get home safely. Your whole family is home safely, and you are considering what to cook for dinner. Then the power goes out. You call it in, and you discover that almost everyone in the QCA is out of power. 

Living in Princeton, you wonder how long it will take MidAmerican to restore your power? What can you cook for dinner without opening the fridge? What will your family do all evening? Will you have to sleep without heat? When the power goes out, you are certain that you are not in control of your time stream.

Being stuck in traffic and losing power are just two small examples of being out of control. They are reminders that no matter how carefully you plan your life, you cannot control every aspect. Some things will go wrong. Appliances will break when you can’t afford to replace them. People will get sick, having you spend more time than you would like in the hospital. 

We may not be in control, but God is. God knows what will happen to us - when we will prosper and when we will falter. God knows when we will be overjoyed and when we will grieve. Even so, God is in control of a lot more than our small lives: God is in charge of the whole world.

Jesus tells us today that no one knows when the Son of Man will return. None of us knows - even Jesus doesn’t know! Only God the Father knows when Jesus will return in glory. Only God is in control of the world’s time stream.

This may seem uncomfortable to some of us. How could Jesus not be in the know? This certainly made Gerald uncomfortable. Gerald was a member of my internship congregation in North Carolina. After I preached on a similar lesson from Matthew, Gerald could not believe that Jesus didn’t know when he would return. Gerald assumed that I didn’t know better, who he approached my supervisor, Pastor Fred. 

He said, “Vicar Julie said that Jesus didn’t know when his second coming would be. She must be wrong. How could he not have known?” Then Pastor Fred gently showed him the gospel lesson for the day where Jesus directly says that he does not know the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come in glory. Shocked, Gerald still could not accept that no one on this earth ever has known when Jesus would return.

We have no control over when Jesus will come, yet we pray for Christ to return. We see the terrors in this world, and we want them to end. We wish that everyone could live without fear of running out of food, being captured in a war zone, or being struck by a stray bullet. We pray for Jesus to return, and we wait. 

Jesus tells us to stay awake, but he doesn’t mean to keep our eyes literally open. He means to be aware of the abundance around us, and to be aware of the needs as well. He also means to be alive, not to go through the motions but to appreciate every living moment. 

Sometimes, we do this best when we are actively waiting in our own lives. For example, when I was in seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, I and a twelve hour drive to come home to Chicagoland. Coming home for Christmas was always a challenge. Would the roads be clear on the drive? Would I find an unexpected snowstorm? Would it be safe for me to leave at all?

Each time I traveled home, I would agonize for days wondering what I would do. Then my family would worry for me when I was on the road. They would pray for my safety, and keep a close eye on the weather. My mother was always ready to buy a hotel room for me if I couldn’t finish the drive. Thankfully, I never had to take her up on that offer. While I was literally keeping awake during the drive, my family was figuratively keeping awake. 

Another example: During my senior year of seminary, my father fell off a ladder and thankfully only broke his arm. For the average person, the worry would end there. Fixing a broken arm is pretty standard surgery, but I wasn’t worried about the surgery.

After I got the phone call from my sister, I sat in the hallway of my dorm. My friends, worried for me, sat with me as I told them about my father. I told them how my family has a genetic blood clotting disorder. I told them how my uncle died from a blood clot after a successful surgery. 

When my father came out of surgery, that was when the true waiting began. I stayed awake, wondering if my father would live or die. My friends stayed awake with me, praying that he would be ok. Thankfully, my father did survive that surgery. That day, I was painfully aware that neither my father nor I was in control of his time stream. 

Not being in control of our own time stream - of when we live and when we die - may seem like a burden. It certainly felt like a burden when I was halfway across the country as my father’s life was in danger. Even so, not being in control can be a blessing too. For we know that God is in control - of our lives and of the whole world. We need not worry, for we cannot change when our loved ones live and when they die. 

It is often in these moments of uncertainty over life and death that we feel God closest to us. When we are at our worst or facing the worst in others, all of our worries and fears expose us vulnerable. This creates a “thin space” where we can touch a part of God that we usually cannot reach. There, we experience God. There, we hand over all of our worries and fears to God. When our burdens are too much to bear, we can hand them over to God.

Then, we are better able to stay awake. Then, we can be fully alive, fully aware of God’s love for us. In those darkest moments, we shout out, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come!” If we are awake enough, we just might sense Christ’s presence. Right there. When we need Christ most. Amen.


Philippians 4:4-9, Thanksgiving C, November 25, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”

These are familiar words. We hear them in worship, sing them in Sunday School, and study them in the Bible. Sometimes we can capture the joyful pleasure of this verse, yet I wonder if we truly can capture the pure joy when this verse was first heard?

Maybe some of the back story will help. Paul had many missionary journeys where he would travel from city to city around the region, proclaiming Christ and starting churches. When Paul came to Philippi, he stayed in that Roman colony for some time as he helped establish the house churches there. The Christians came to respect and care for Paul and his colleagues in ministry. 

Even after he left Philippi, he remained in contact with the house churches there. He would send a messenger with his letters, and they sent their messenger Epaphroditus with financial offerings to Paul. Along the way, Epaphroditus (let’s call him Fred) became ill and nearly died.

By the time that Paul composed this letter to the Philippians, he is under house arrest, possibly in Rome. He has heard from Fred that the churches in Philippi are doing well. They rarely have disputes, and they are sharing the Good News. Paul knows that the people there care greatly for the servant Epaphroditus. So, Paul plans to send Fred to them with this letter. Paul dictates while E. writes the letter. Then Fred memorizes the letter, carefully internalizing the message. 

So, Fred travels to Philippi, carrying Paul’s letter in his hand and on his heart. All of the people of the house churches gathered into one location, much as we are gathered here. Just as we do on a Sunday morning, I can imagine them greeting each other with hugs and kisses. They are excited to hear a word from Paul, and they are also so happy to see Fred They had heard that he had almost died, and they worried about him. They are chatting loudly as they anxiously await their beloved servant to rise and speak. The air in the room is thick with happiness when Epaphroditus begins.

There is an audible gasp of joy when they see Fred alive and well. They become quiet as Fred composes himself. He smiles at them as he begins, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…” Epaphroditus can see their smiling faces as he recites the entire letter. The people there can feel Paul’s joy even as Paul tells them to rejoice!

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” 

That is exactly what the people of Philippi did, and this is what we are called to do. The Lord has blessed us in so many ways. Christ’s gift of new life in him is such an astounding gift. How can we not rejoice? Even as we hear on the news of tragedies, we are reminded here, in worship, of how grand our God is. We may not find joy in the world, but we can find joy in our Lord.

Many of us will find joy in community this weekend. This Thanksgiving, many of us will gather with our family and friends, greeting each other with hugs and kisses. We will wait anxiously for our distant relatives to arrive, bringing messages from those who cannot make it. Reunited with our families just as the people of Philippi were reunited with Epaphroditus, we cannot help but rejoice.

We also are helping other families to have good food on Thanksgiving. Our churches have provided dozens of food baskets to needy families around Princeton, Pleasant Valley, Argo, and Le Claire. Our food baskets are small yet important gifts of joy. 

Not everyone will have a place to go this Thanksgiving. Some may feel lonely as they eat alone. I pray that you might consider who these might be, that you might bring the joy of Christ to them. 

For Christ is the true joy. Without Christ, we would have nothing. We would be nothing. Without Christ, our lives would be meaningless. Yet we do have Christ. Christ died and rose to new life for us. Christ is the reason why we are here today. Christ is the reason why we can be grateful this Thanksgiving. Christ is in whom we rejoice. 

This Thursday, or whenever you celebrate this holiday with your family, I hope that you share your thanksgivings in prayer. For everything that we have and everything that we are is from God. We can rejoice in the Lord always, because the Lord is good to us. And what is this joy in the Lord?

Joy in the Lord is when the point keeping is done.
Joy in the Lord is in the telling of the truth.
Joy is sharing ministry, working together.
Joy is living practice and discipline, not just emotion.
Joy doesn't supplant grief; it accompanies grief.
Joy is living in that relationship in Christ.

So, let us rejoice in the Lord always, not just during this season of Thanksgiving but throughout the year. Amen.