If any of you are soap opera fans, you know the old casting trick that writers and producers us where children are made to grow up so fast. Someone has a baby, then the baby disappears for a few months, returning as a schoolchild for a while. The cycle repeats a few times until you have a fully mature young adult playing the character of someone who seemed to be born just a few years before. Sometimes, I think that way about the season of Epiphany – actually a season of several Epiphanies when Jesus shows up for the world to see.
We barely get through Christmas and celebrating the miracle of God’s entrance to the world as a human baby. We barely get to wonder with Mary and the Shepherds about what has happened. We don’t get very long to take in the joy and the promise of this new Messiah, this Emmanuel. Because, just a few weeks later, Jesus appears all grown up, and instead of a cooing baby is not a teacher making demands on his disciples.
As a teacher, Jesus does not spoon-feed his followers. He offers no “Intro to Jesus” course; no wine and cheese soiree to “Meet the Master”. Instead, Jesus gets right down to the business of preparing his new disciples for the work to be done. They find a hillside on which Jesus preaches is longest and most radical sermon. What we know today as “The Sermon on the Mount”.
From the outset, this manifesto describing the in-breaking kingdom of God opens the disciples’ hearts, as well as ours today, to the radical transformation of our perspective that discipleship brings. Jesus offers up a list of very unusual blessings, naming groups of people that the world would not recognized as receiving the benefits of God. The poor in Spirit, the meek, the mournful, the merciful and the persecuted are among those whom Jesus considers blessed. In a world that celebrates and honors strength, power, self-confidence and self-importance, Jesus list of blessings seems upside-down. And that is just the point.
The first thing Jesus wants is our attention, and this radical view of the world grabs it from the outset. Because we are told that God blesses those who are put down by the systems and expectations of a disordered world, these are the people who God wants us to notice, and who God wants those who claim to love God, to love as well. Sometimes we see these blessings as the indication of a promise to be fulfilled in later times, and that is part of the truth. But these blessings are also called by God RIGHT NOW, so the work and will of God can be done today.
We are living in a time where the strong and powerful increase their share of worldly blessings at the expense of those whom God values. How will you be blessed and how will you bless others in the name of Jesus?
For the text of this week's sermon, CLICK HERE
Devotions for the Week Of January 29, 2017
Sometimes when reading a Gospel passage for the first time, or for the first time in a while, scripture appears to do a disservice to the church. I think this passage from Matthew is one such reading, because while it illustrates for us the power of the Christ’s call to discipleship, it creates an expectation that if we don’t hear such a call, and don’t react as immediately as did the first disciples, then we are somehow not true followers of Christs and servants of the Gospel.
Many of us have heard this story numerous times about how Andrew, Peter, James and John were out fishing in the sea of Galilee, when suddenly Jesus walked by them while they were working, and it appears that each of the four immediately stopped what they were doing and gave up their livelihoods to become followers of Jesus. We are left to evaluate ourselves as disciples in contrast, and if those first four fishermen are the examples of true discipleship, then most of us are falling well short of the mark.
The word immediately, can be the most misleading term in the entire passage, but also gives us a clue to the true meaning of discipleship and what it really means to be called. Our modern understanding of the word immediate generally has to do with time. When we are asked to do something immediately, there is an expectation that it should be done in the next few seconds. But the word immediate, also means something outside the perspective of time. It can also mean “without anything in between”. In the context of discipleship, we can understand the fisherman’s response as putting nothing between them and Jesus who called them – a single-mindedness, if you will, instead of the image we too often have of fisherman who just abandon their boats, their property and their livelihoods to get up and take a walk with Jesus.
Thinking of discipleship in this way, gives us a better understanding of our call to discipleship. St. Paul writes that each of us has been “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common Good”. It’s true that these gifts which are made active through our calls to discipleship may be present inside the community we call the Church, but for the common good means that they are available to those outside the Church as well.
And so, we can understand this call to discipleship and image of immediate response to be a metaphor for service to others no matter what our occupations. Whether you are a pastor, a bishop, a doctor, a lawyer, a construction worker or a police officer, your call to serve is for the good of others, and when serving others, you are serving our Lord Jesus Christ, and him alone. You have heard the call to follow Jesus, and immediately, without anything in between you and Jesus, have made the commitment to follow and to serve...and to call others to be disciples.
For the Full Text of this week's sermon - CLICK HERE
Devotions for Week of January 22, 2017
Earlier in the week, I was having a dinner conversation with a dear friend, catching up on our family lives and comparing notes on what each of us did during time we had off during Christmas, and looking ahead to the new year 2017. At one point, he asked me what I was planning to do for vacation this summer, and since he and I both have family traditions of relaxing on beautiful Cape Cod, wondered if Ann Marie and I might be spending some time there this summer. I responded that I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, and that usually sometime during mid-winter I would get this yearning inside my soul that it was time to plan a trip to the Cape and to the beautiful sea shore that beckons me. My friend echoed those feelings and told me how he feels like a different person when he gets time near the shore taking in the sights, sounds and smells of water. We both agreed that there was something special about water that expands even beyond its basic purposes as the chemical compound from which all life emerges.
Water is an intensely spiritual element. Water actually calls out to us – and does so in many ways. When our throats are parched, water calls out to quench our thirst, and sustain our activities. When we are tired and run down after a hard day at work or play, water calls out to us to be cleansed and refreshed. When we become overwrought by the stresses and challenges of living in difficult times, a spell by the water helps us reconnect with what is important in our life, renewing our minds, bodies and souls in ways no magic pill can do.
But as life-giving as water can be, it has properties that can be quite dangerous, even life threatening in certain proportions, and certain conditions. Not taking care with a boiling pot of water can land you in an emergency room with 2nd degree burns. When water freezes, people slip and fall, and cars skid out of control, sometimes with tragic results. Hurricanes and torrential rains bring floods to densely inhabited areas, leaving behind drowning victims, destroyed homes, and foundation for water-borne plagues. While water holds life-giving properties that sustain us physically and spiritually, we know that by misuse or randomness, water is not always our best friend.
Water has existed since the before the beginning of history. Our creation story tells us that God’ Spirit spread over the pre-creation waters, a symbol of the chaos and disorder of things which God observed. The Spirit of God commanded the waters, first to separate and give order to the new creation, then to feed the land with life-giving nourishment, and finally to be the source of all life in God’s creation. In many ways, Baptism is a reminder to us that God has set the world in motion, and has the power to bring order out of chaos, and safety out of danger.
Christians understand baptism based on the many properties of water; its power to cleanse; its power to heal; its power to quench our thirst; its essence for life. But we also remember water’s power to destroy and to drown, to cause harm and death. But when God’s word is present above the water, it is completely under God’s control, and by God’s creative and performative Word, the water that drowns us, also then seals us and freshens us for our new lives in Christ.
This is why a Baptism brings so much joy to Christians all over the world. It is a celebration of life, a celebration of God, and a celebration of what God is doing in the world. It is a celebration of God’s promise to nourish us and sustain us, even when the world seems completely disordered against us. It’s a celebration of the water that God has given us to pass through to eternal life.
For the full text of this week's sermon - CLICK HERE
Devotions for week of January 15, 2017
Each year we close our Christmas celebrations, we remember an unusual event of mysterious visitors from the East who seem to drop in on Mary and Jesus and shower them with valuable gifts. The visitors seem to photo-bomb our Christmas celebrations by showing up unexpectedly, dropping off their presents, then disappearing into the horizon, never to be heard from again. Many legends have formed over the centuries about these men, including that there were three of them, and that somehow the church even knew their names. But Matthew’s story does not tell us how many visitors attended Mary and Jesus, and their anonymity suggests that we focus less on them as individuals, and more on their actions and the message they bring to us today.
The word Matthew uses to describe these visitors is Magi, a term that historically was used to refer to a class of priests practicing the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians were known for their work in astrology, and their efforts to divine God’s work in the world by studying the positions of stars in the sky. One particular star caught their attention, and it led them to the house where Jesus and Mary resided. While Zoroastrians were not active in deeds of sorcery, their practices were misunderstood and the term “magic” has its origins in the word Magi. Translations and interpretations of the event have called these visitors, wise men, or even kings. But whether they were priests, royalty, or learned folk, they were important men who stepped way out of their comfort zones to find an ordinary family residing in an obscure village in Palestine.
The Magi were important enough to get an audience with King Herod, and seek direction from him as to where to find the child Jesus. Herod thought enough of them to be both threatened by their information, and to receive counsel from them on the whereabouts of Jesus, should they find him. Perhaps referring to Magi as wise men is most appropriate because they discerned that Herod did not have pure ambitions in asking about Jesus, and they decided to travel home without returning to Herod.
These men, who were not Jewish, and obviously not even Christian, still saw God at work in Jesus and not only sought him, but honored him with lavish gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of course, we all know that gold is a precious and rare metal, even today, but frankincense was a valuable resin used in temples as a symbol of divine presence, and myrrh was another type of resin used in the embalming of priests and kings. The Magi were among the first to see that God gave the world a new priest and a new king to lead us. The generosity of the Magi, became the example for our own practice of gift-giving during the Christmas season.
The story of the Magi continues to speak to us today to remind us that even the most celebrated or self-important people of the world, are not nearly as wise as the one who created us…and recreates us, each time we are in the presence of Christ. While we may think we are wise, we are reminded that wise people always seek Jesus to find a greater wisdom, a greater purpose, and a greater light to illumine our lives. Come find Jesus, and lead a wiser, freer, and more generous life.
For the full text of the sermon - CLICK HERE
Devotions for Week of January 8, 2017
A special edition of the Soul Cafe
Today, January 6 is when much of Christianity observes the Feast of the Epiphany, a day on which we remember the visit of the Magi, or wise men from the East, who sought to give homage to the newborn savior and shower him with valuable gifts. This event is the inspiration for our modern tradition of gift-giving during Christmas. Pictured below is a newspaper article - yes a real newspaper article - about a wise man from the East Side of New York CIty, who in the age of hi-tech social media, has done something special with one of the oldest of all social media platforms - the sign at the front of the church!
I've received many comments about the pictures of the sign outside my church here in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. My inspiration for doing that came from my internship work at the New York City church mentioned in this article. I thought it might be a nice way to spend some time today in the Soul Cafe.
CLICK HERE for a PDF version of the article.
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About this website
Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.