31 January 2008

Page 123 Tag

Thanks, Tripp!

The Rules:-
Pick up the nearest book of 123 pages or more. (No cheating!)
Find Page 123.
Find the first 5 sentences.
Post the next 3 sentences.
Tag 5 people.

I'm going to look so much smarter than reality by happy coincidence (what Tolkien would have called eucatastrophe). Here's my play:
Contempt for others makes worship dishonest and deprives it of any divine promise. Individuals as well as church communities who intend to enter God's presence with contemptuous or unreconciled hearts are playing games with an idol. As long as we withhold service and love from a sister or brother, as long as he or she remains a target of our contempt, as long as a sister or brother has something against me or Jesus' community, our offerings will remain unaccepted.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (from which the title of this blog is taken: the German title is Nachfolge or "following after"). The only reason this was the nearest book is that I took the new Stephen King novel, Duma Key, upstairs with me last night. Discipleship then became the nearest book because it was in my backpack when we moved - everything else is still in boxes.

I tag Matt, LutherPunk, Hot Cup, Songbird and Church Nerd. Have at it, folks.

30 January 2008

Sermonating on a Quiet Midwestern Wednesday

Wow, is it ever quiet here today. ONE person has walked through the door since I got to the office at 9:30 this morning: my administrator, stopping in for just a little bit of work she had to finish today. I've read two issues of The Lutheran, last week's Newsweek (still getting forwarded to us from Minnesota), this morning's Des Moines Register, and now for the last two hours I've been working on my sermon for Sunday by reading links at Textweek. I'm hoping to have a manuscript by tomorrow afternoon. Shhhhh, don't tell anybody.

There are some great folks out there posting stuff for sermon reflection. Two of my favorites are Dan Clendenin and Brian Stoffregen. Check them out if you need inspiration and/or thoughtful reflection on the texts for the week.

Speaking of helpful sermon stuff, Luther Seminary has a new preaching site: Working Preacher. Weekly commentary on the three lectionary texts is usually very helpful. Plus, Mark Throntveit, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, fellow Tolkien nut and self-proclaimed curmudgeon (though I don't think he's actually reached the age at which one can legally use the term self-referentially) has posted a great piece, "New Year's Resolutions for Preachers" .

I've heard this quote from Annie Dillard mentioned several times this week already:
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.”[1]
That's good stuff there, too. Put that book on my Amazon wishlist, if anyone's so inclined.

Tonight it's going to get busier here. We'll have choir practice at 8:00, followed by Holden Evening Prayer at 9:00 and pizza at 9:30 (again, campus ministry ROCKS). Will we have even more students in attendance this week, again? Hope so. But at some point the novelty of "the new guy" will wear off, and then I can really get to work.

Our good friend, JZ, who is a Baptist sometime-preacher, church janitor, sometime-mortician, erstwhile middle school English teacher and promoter of Public Television, made us a mix CD before we left for Iowa. He's been known to pass on music occasionally, ever since he discovered that we share a love for U2, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I've been listening to it nonstop in the car ever since - it's a neat collection. Here are a few of the selections:
"Gloria" and "40" by U2 from Under A Blood Red Sky
"The Man Comes Around" and "Personal Jesus" by Johnny Cash from American IV: The Man Comes Around (yes, that last is a remake of the Depeche Mode classic. It's incredible)
"People, Get Ready" by the Blind Boys of Alabama & Robert Randolph
Good stuff, all of it. Thanks, JZ - it was a very thoughtful gift. Well, that's about it for this Wednesday - think I'll call the ladies and see if they want to make a Target run before I have to get ready for worship tonight. We need cat food. Well, the cats need cat food - we just need them to shut up about it. Anyway, I'm gonna get going. See yah.


[1] Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk © 1988, Harper Perennial.

28 January 2008

Our Itty Bitty Helper

The unpacking continues. Actually, we're much further along than these pictures show, but I wanted y'all to see our little helper in action.

First, we had to get her unpacked. Man, those movers will pack ANYTHING! :-)

2008 World Man Croquet Championships

This week's entry from the "No, I'm NOT Kidding" department comes from my old college roommate, Coulter, known to friends as "Cousin Eddie." Coulter lives in an undisclosed location in Minnesota, where he has far too much free time on his hands. Thus the following email, which I received a few weeks ago:

It's once again time for what has become an annual tradition. You are all cordially invited to participate in this invigorating winter activity. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, it's quite simple. It's exactly like lawn croquet with a few minor variations. First off, we got rid of those wimpy little wooden balls and upsized them to bowling balls. Then since the balls are much heavier, we've discarded the tiny little mallets that were really only good for whacking your kid brother in favor of something a smidge bigger, sledge hammers. We've also replaced the flimsy wire loops with re-bar. And to really make it interesting, we play it on a frozen pond.

The Man Croquet Championship of the Free World will be held on Saturday, the 19th of January commencing at noon and continuing until it's done, which last year was sometime in the wee hours of Sunday morning. We will be playing once again on the meticulously groomed frozen surface of Lake Libra located at the Libra Ranch, which is just a couple miles west of [Unnamed Minnesota Town]. The address is [Insert Complicated 911 Address Here]. If you require more detailed directions, please ask.

A few other things to note, first off, dress appropriately. It's cold out there. Second, you will need to bring your own beverages. You can also bring along snack items to share as well. Third, be prepared to take penalty shots. We make the rules for these up as we go along. Also new for this year, ice cleats will be allowed and running on the ice will not. Kent can explain why these changes were made if you wish to know.

Hope to see you all there. If for no other reason than just to say that you've seen something new.

And just to make sure you believe me, here are the pictures from this year's event:

Sometimes words just don't do people justice. You rock, Coulter - see you at the ISU game in October. But bring your own beer.

27 January 2008

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany - "Light in the Darkness"

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has come to shine. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Let us pray. Father in heaven, you sent your son Jesus as a light for the world, and He has called us to be bearers of that light in our own lives. We cannot create light in ourselves: shine in us. BE the light in us, a light for dark times and dark places. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, a few chapters take place in the land of Moria, where dwarves hollowed out an entire mountainside in search of mithril, a light, flexible metal that was stronger than steel. During their time in Moria, the group of travelers is led by Gandalf the wizard, who lights a stone at the top of his staff to provide light in the darkness. Other than that light, all is pitch black as the fellowship of the ring travels three days underneath the mountains. We like to think that life is like this, that good and evil are polar oppsites, that the darkness of which Isaiah speaks is as easily identified as the villain in an old western (the black hat, of course). Truth is, though, it’s not that simple. The darkness that threatens us can be much, much harder to see. In movie terms, I think real life is far more like the movie Thirteen, where the light slowly seeps out of the picture until everything is grey and you can’t tell good from evil anymore. That’s more like the darkness I know. That’s more like the darkness I fear. I think of it in terms like The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, where everyone lives in the grey town and nothing has any substance, reality or vitality to it.

Specifically, I fear this darkness of a grey life because I know how easily it can swallow us whole. The battle we fight against it is never-ending and all-encompassing. It takes us in many ways: a gradual de-valuation of the dignity of human life, a refusal to allow any difference of opinion within our government or our society, celebrity worship and a lust for living vicariously through people selling their lives on reality television – all of this, I fear, is creating a world of greyness filled with emotional and spiritual cannibalism. I think this is what causes drug abuse and a host of other problems: we’ve allowed our lives to become emotionally and spiritually empty, and it’s easier to fill them with booze or drugs or sex than it is to fill them with faith, love and service.

I’ve got some personal fears, too. I’m afraid that 10 or 20 years from now I will look back and realize I haven’t been faithful to my calling as a pastor. I’m afraid that I will call attention to myself instead of Christ, that I might become a seller of religious services instead of a servant who listens and invites others to follow Jesus. I’m afraid that I might be missing the point right now.

What’s your darkness? What are your fears? Maybe you’re afraid of disappointing your parents? Maybe you fear the consequences of working to hard to please your parents. Maybe your job is unstable or your career field is shrinking. Maybe you’ve worried about a relationship, or whether you’ll ever have a relationship again. Whatever your fear is, that’s is the land of deep darkness, and whether it’s grey or black, it’s there and it’s real and you know it.

“ The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” This is the promise that’s come for us today: Jesus Christ is the light in the darkness, for people in all times and places. He is a light that comes at unexpected times and in unexpected ways, but He comes, friends – have no fear. In our gospel reading today, we read how Jesus came to Peter and Andrew. Peter and Andrew weren’t seeking a teacher – they weren’t on a spiritual pilgrimage – they weren’t looking for a new vision for life – they were at work and Jesus interrupted them. In the midst of a day like any other, Jesus intruded and brought light into their world.

Think of how Peter and Andrew were fishing, and think of it in terms of what Jesus did. Peter and Andrew weren’t fly-fishing or lure-fishing: they were fishing with nets, not lines. Net-fishing involves casting a wide net into the sea, grabbing everything you can and sweeping it out of the ocean into the boat. There’s no bait involved, no lures, no twists of feathers and string to dance and invite fish out of the water into the boat – net-fishing intrudes like light intrudes into darkness. Jesus will not coerce us into the kingdom of heaven, either: he comes like a slap to the head or a net sweeping you out of the sea: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

In The Great Divorce, a bus comes to the grey town for the people who live there, and they are taken to a place of vibrant colors and intense reality. It is so intense, in fact, that it is painful: the blades of grass are so real that they actually cut the feet of those who live in the grey town. But friends they have known come to them and say that this is a good place, that life is good with such colors and intensity, once you learn how to live in it. As Lewis writes, “Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.” In the same way, when Jesus comes to us it might be painful and harsh at first. The good news is that when Jesus claims us, He claims us as we are, in our present darkness, whatever shade of grey that darkness may take – but He loves us too much to leave us in our shades of grey. We will be changed, transformed into something new, something vibrant, something more real than we had been before. We will become those who fish for others – transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit into children of the light.

The light of Christ comes for two reasons: to claim us as its own and to transform us into those who fish for others. This is why the church exists, the two core values of the body of Christ. If being transformed and seeking others for transformation aren’t happening for us, then nothing else will matter – we will become a grey church, whistling in the darkness that surrounds us. God has promised a light in the darkness, and God will not have that promise broken by anything, real or imagined, of the devil or of our own sin, death and destruction.

We are children of light, but not because we love the light: we sometimes prefer the darkness, where our sin and evil can remain hidden. We are children of light, but not because we choose the light: we sometimes choose darkness so that our sin may remain concealed. We are children of light, but not because we deserve the light: we deserve our darkness, because we have loved it and chosen it so often. We are children of light because Jesus is the bringer of light, even when the darkness threatens to kill and destroy that light.

In the gospel of John, we hear that Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The message of cross, the moment of God’s greatest glory and the most brilliant embodiment of Jesus’ love for us, seems foolish and weak and a scandal to the powers of darkness that threaten us. But to us, who need that light, who cling to the light because it is our only hope, our greatest need, our fairest vision, the cross becomes the very power of God, the light of Christ shining into the darkness to claim us again and again as its own. In our lives, the darkness may appear to win at times. Our fears may overwhelm us. Death will circle us like a lion stalking its prey. Marriages will flounder, careers will end, life will become grey and meaningless and troublesome. But into this darkness Christ will come and offer a simple invitation: “Follow me.” And thus light will shine. For we who live in a land of deep darkness – on us, light has shone, is shining and will shine again. In Jesus Christ, the light and vision of our faith, the kingdom of heaven is coming near. Repent, friends, turn away from your darkness, and follow the light. Amen.

25 January 2008

25th January - A Writer's Almanac Kind of Day

I get The Writer's Almanac from National Public Radio via email every morning. I subscribed in Barrett because radio reception was notoriously poor there - every time we pulled into town most of our favorite stations would go to static. So now I get the WA in my email every morning. It means I don't get to listen to Garrison Keillor read the thing, but I find that's okay; after seven years in Minnesota, you can almost hear him reading it in your head (right up on the mic, breathing through his nose, with his red shoes on, of course).

Today's WA was pretty potent - I had no idea that 25 January was such an important date for writers. The Bard, Robert Burns, the famed Scottish poet; W. Somerset Maugham, a British writer of the early 20th century who is still fairly well-known today, and Virginia Woolf, the great American modernist writer whose classics Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse changed American fiction forever (and doomed her to forever haunt the halls of sophomore level Literature classes, where she is vilified as one of the most unreadable writers in history by college students too busy to take the time to challenge themselves with good literature. Present writer included, natch) were all born today. Huzzah for writers!

24 January 2008

C-c-c-c-lasssss M-m-m-eem-m-me (Sorry, But It's Frigging Cold!)

As in 0 degrees all finking day. The draft from the leaky old windows that flows directly under my desk at the office drove me out into the lounge area for an hour over lunch, just so I could feel my feet again. Now I'm home and it's still pissing cold around here - I can't imagine how bad it must be for my friends back in northwestern Minnesota. Uff da, indeed.

Anyway, LutherPunk posted an interesting meme - not the fun, "gee, isn't this funny" type of meme, but a thought-provoking one. Consider yourself tagged: here we go.

Later addition: From What Privileges Do You Have?, based on an exercise about class and privilege developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University. If you participate in this blog game, they ask that you PLEASE acknowledge their copyright.

Bold the statements that are true.

Bold the statements that are true.

1. Father went to college
2. Father finished college
3. Mother went to college
4. Mother finished college
I'm not sure what program my dad took, but I think it was more of an agriculture certification program, not a degree program.

5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers.
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home.
Mom & Dad both love to read, and they were in a B00k-of-the-Month club for a while. Lots of Time/Life collections, too.
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home. Don't like to read THAT much.
9. Were read children’s books by a parent. All the time.
10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18. Piano, guitar, trombone, singing - you name it, it happened, at least for a while.
11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18
12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed
Not sure what that one's supposed to mean, so we'll leave it alone.
13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs
16. Went to a private high school
17. Went to summer camp Five summers - but not East Coast, "gonna be there ALL summer camp, just one week in a sleeping bag in a tent/bunkhouse/covered wagon (yes, that last bit is true; ask any Carol Joy Holling camper from the mid-80s and they can remember the wagons.)
18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18.
19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels.
20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them. BOUGHT me a car? HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
22. There was original art in your house when you were a child.
23. You and your family lived in a single-family house
24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home.
25. You had your own room as a child. Well, sort of - we were short one bedroom, so for a year or so I had my own, but Baby Brother and Middle Brother didn't always get along so well, so we switched back after a while.
27. Participated in a SAT/ACT prep course
28. Had your own TV in your room in high school. Carting up the portable black-and-white from the kitchen doesn't count as "your own TV."
29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA in high school or college. Shoot, I STILL don't have "my own" IRA - Beloved and I share one that she started after college.
30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16. Once, back home to Nebraska from Seattle, and my grandparents flew standby on the way out and drove our car back a few days later. Had an aunt who worked for Northwest in Seattle. We had a layover in Vegas and I remember the slot machines in the airport, like we had entered some bizarre parallel dimension or something.
31. Went on a cruise with your family
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family
33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up. My dad LOVES museums. We went to the Harry Truman museum in Kansas. When I was 12. B.O.R.I.N.G.
34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family. But I knew that heating the house cost money - because every winter I had to help dad stack straw bales around the foundation to keep the house warmer in the wintertime.

I dunno if I'm supposed to learn anything from this, but it does make you think a little more clearly about where you come from. Ainsley will answer this lots differently than I did, and for that I think that I, my parents and our whole family will be grateful.

23 January 2008

Waiting To Sing, To Drink, To Stop Waiting

Psalm 40.1-8
"I waited patiently for the Lord, who stooped to me and heard my cry.
The Lord lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a high cliff, making my footing sure.
The Lord put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many shall see, and stand in awe, and put their trust in the Lord."

Matthew 9.14-17
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.’


I waited patiently for the Lord.
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the miry clay.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?

You set my feet upon a rock
And made my footsteps firm.
Many will see, many will see and hear.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song
I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?

You're familiar with the idea that wine takes a certain amount of time to fully mature. I know that I often struggle with waiting; for a winemaker, who has to wait until just the right time to enjoy a wine at its best, I imagine the wait must be intolerable. How many of us have developed the capacity to wait well? We shuffle from foot to foot in the checkout lane, groan and grumble in traffic, fidget at the doctor's office. My brother and his family, and my sister-in-law and her family, are on their way here for a visit this weekend and we just can't wait to see them in our new home. The snow is keeping us from fully unpacking my tools and shop materials, and it's getting to where we're grumbling about the wait. Even when there are good things in store, when we know the outcome will be something desirable and enjoyable, it's hard to wait in a world of drive-thru meals, automatic payments and instant credit.

Jesus was asked by John's followers, "Why aren't your disciples fasting like everyone else?" The assumption behind the question was that followers of a great teacher would strengthen their faith and their learning by fasting and other "waiting" disciplines. But Jesus wasn't a teacher: he was the Messiah, and fasting in the presence of the Messiah would be akin to fasting during a wedding feast. When the wine is ready, you drink it; when the wedding feast has come, you eat and drink and dance and celebrate; when the Messiah has come, the time for waiting is over and the time for celebration has come.

Jesus said that the days would come when the wedding party will be gone and the time for celebration will be over. I wonder if these days are what he was describing. The Messiah seems distant at best and absent at worst. One celebrity dies tragically young and receives more attention than thousands of children suffering and dying every day in countries around the world. Churches splinter and fall apart for reasons they can no longer remember. God has promised us a new song, but how long until we will be able to sing it? How long until the song will be heard?

Here, in this moment, God answers the prayer: NOW. Now is the moment to sing. Now is the moment to let the new song sound forth. It may not seem like the right moment, but the moment is not what matters: the song is what matters. Even if the song is a question, like "How long?", the fact that we're singing at all says something about the God who created us and in whom we trust. Earlier in Matthew's gospel, Jesus told his followers, "You are the light of the world...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Here, now, in this present darkness, our song is the light God has given us. When Jesus is present, that is the moment to sing, regardless of what that moment might look like to the world around us, because the song has the power to change the world, to bring light into darkness.

In the movie Sideways, Paul Giamatti's character, Miles, is a dedicated wine snob who's been holding a bottle of Pinot Noir for years, waiting for the absolutely perfect moment to enjoy it. When that moment comes, it's not what any wine drinker would expect - but what matters is that the wine is ready, the moment has come, the song must be sung, so to speak: so Miles drinks his Pinot Noir and he is changed, forever. For us, who ask God, "how long?", the answer returns: "Now. Sing now - and see how the world may be changed, how you might be changed, through My song, My new wine, My love." It's time to sing, friends. Amen.

22 January 2008

Baby Noises

In which Ainsley makes noises guaranteed to bring her parents to hysterics...

Tuesday Lectionary Thoughts

Isaiah 9.1-4
1. "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light." Light and Epiphany go together like ham & cheese. Peanut butter & bananas. Pretzels & Nutella. 'scuse me a second - I need a snack...
2. One historical reminder from earlier in Isaiah is that Judah found itself under a yoke of oppression because they bought their "freedom" from the Assyrians to protect his reign from Israel and her co-conspirators. (see Second Kings ch. 15-17). God said "do not fear human conspiracy," but Ahaz made self-protective deals and thus sealed the fate of Judah as well.
3. Continuing through Isaiah 9.7 gives us the "Wonderful Counselor" text that is so familiar from Advent readings. Possibly this was kept out of the pericope to keep the focus on Matthew and the "land of Zebulun & Naphtali" connection.

Psalm 27
1. There are a ton of hymns with this psalm at their core - might be a good Sunday to sing the psalm in an entirely different way.
2. 27.13 is not in this year's pericope, though it was in the past. The "land of the living" is the opposite of Sheol, a place of darkness & shadows = God's light intrudes where darkness reigns.
3. This is one of the more poetic psalms - our local text study group spent some time talking about the beauty of what God provides "in the shelter of the sanctuary" (ELW translation), and also the evil that comes when we do evil to one another in the holy place.

First Corinthians 1.10-18
1. Baptism is not Paul's goal (and all the Lutherans gasped in horror) - for Paul, baptism serves as a means for PROCLAMATION. Paul's ministry was focused on the spread of the gospel and the planting of churches, not initiation rites and sacramental theology. There is some evidence that baptism was far more visionary and far less initiatory in the early centuries of the church.
2. I had a note to myself to preach a series involving last week's epistle, this week and next week, since the first chapter of First Corinthians is so potent. Due to the liturgical schedule and our move, I elected not to do it this year, but I might in 2011 (once I convince myself that 2011 is a real date. Sheesh this new millenium bit is a lot to handle sometimes!).

Matthew 4.13-25
1. Ties to John's ministry:
a. there's a chiasm with 3.1-2, where John and Jesus proclaim, but John decreases while Jesus increases.
b. the word used for John's arrest, "paradidomai," is the same word used when Judas "hands over" Jesus at the end of the gospel.
c. In Matthew 14.13, Jesus also withdraws "anachoreo" when John is killed.
2. Ties to Isaiah: Nazareth is in the land of Zebulun, Capernaum is in the land of Naphtali.
3. M. Eugene Boring draws a parallel between the Exodus and Jesus:
Israel = Red Sea birth - Wilderness Wandering - Nation
Jesus = Baptism - Wilderness Temptation - Messianic Community

Big Long Wrap-Up Thought: Fishing with nets is not fly-fishing, and what Jesus does to the disciples, though Norman Maclean suggests otherwise in A River Runs Through It. Fishing with nets is disruptive, intrusive and non-coercive; so, also, is faith that comes through the intrusion of the Holy Spirit. Boring, again, says that Jesus is "not filling a vacuum or meeting an obvious need." I don't know how that fits with modern faith, though - most intrusive forms of evangelism tend to be pretty offensive to me these days. Somehow I think character might be wrapped up in it as well: I'm certainly not Jesus, nor have I met Him face to face, but I have met folks whose faith and discipleship has shaken up my own. Maybe that's the disruptive part of living in the church today.

21 January 2008

Pics of the Birthday Girl

Hard to believe it was a year ago today that we first said hello to our little girl. Here she was, all seven pounds and two ounces of screaming fury that first night:

AAAAnd here she is today, twenty-some odd pounds of still screaming fury, as we've found out the last two nights about 4:00 a.m. But we had a good moment this morning:

Happy Birthday, Tootie. We didn't get you a present yet because we're going to celebrate with Grandma & Grandpa Johnson and Uncle Brian & Aunt Donna & Zach in a couple of weeks. Grandma Mooneyham was here today, but we needed to take her to the airport, so we didn't even have a cupcake with a candle in it for you. Yeah, we suck. But we love you!

20 January 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany: "Invitation and Information"

Jesus and his disciples were walking along one day when Jesus said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples answered, “You are the incarnational essence of all that is divine. You are the eschatological in-breaking of God’s future. You are the kerygma through which the world is interpreted. You are the source and ground of all existence.” And Jesus said, “Huh?”[1]

Information is seductive. A friend of mine just got back from a conference on healthy congregations. He said, “when [they] speak of “keys” [to healthy congregations], I get a little lost in "silver bullet" thinking. You know, if we just do these three things, then everyone will come! Yahoo!” [2] We need to know better than this. We need to understand that life is about far more than information – especially in an information-saturated environment like our own.

Here in John’s gospel we see that information is not the only show in town. What gets things rolling in John's gospel is invitation, not information; "Come and see," not "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" Both are important. Both are necessary components of the story. Both have their place within our own lives of faith. But the invitation is the catalyst for the information to take root and grow. Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you have found us here, listening to your summons to “Come and see.” Help us to see you rightly, as the One who gave us His life on the cross. Help us to hear you rightly, to remember your promise of love and mercy. Help us to witness to you rightly, to offer the invitation we have received to others: We have found the Messiah – Come and see!” Amen.

So: how did you get here this morning? Let’s share some invitation stories, shall we?

Invitation is more than someone asking you in, or tricking you into coming through the door. Invitation is being made to feel welcome, wanted, part of a larger whole. To be invited into a faith community is to be told that you have something of the image of God within you, something that makes you a part of the body of Christ – and at the same time, to be told you’re not welcome, not invited, is in some ways a denial or rejection of that same image of God. All of this, and much, much more, rises out of these three words from the gospel of John: “Come and see.”

I’d like to share two stories of invitation with you this morning. The first happened when I was a college freshman. It was just after spring break and I hadn’t found any summer employment around my hometown. The prospect of another summer working for my dad on our family farm wasn’t really inspiring for me, but I’d just about run out of options. During the school year I was working in one of the dormitory snack bars, and one night Mike, the boyfriend of one of my coworkers came down for a burger and fries during a study break. He happened to be wearing a staff shirt from Camp Carol Joy Holling, the Lutheran church camp I’d attended when I was a kid. I asked him if he worked for CJH, and he said he had, and that he was planning to return for one last summer that year. I mentioned that I’d always thought that being a counselor there would be fun. Mike said, “Well, we’re still looking for male counselors – why don’t you apply?” He immediately went back to his room, grabbed the program director’s business card and brought it back to me at the snack bar. I called the camp, interviewed the day after I finished my finals, and two weeks later I was in staff training to be a counselor. All because Mike had seized an opportunity to simply offer an invitation. Mike didn’t know me particularly well: we’d never once had a conversation about faith or camp or anything that would have indicated the slightest possibility of my working at camp. But when the moment came, Mike allowed it to happen – he simply offered the invitation and let things go the way God wanted them to go.

The second invitation story I’d like to share with you happened the following summer. Roger, our executive director had been out among the campers that day, and he’d spent several hours at the site where I was working as a counselor. At the end of the evening, after worship was finished and the campers were heading off to bed, Roger threw his arm around my shoulders and asked, “Scott, have you ever considered ministry as a career?” To that point, I hadn’t: I was a dedicated music major with plans to become a band director after college. But once Roger offered the invitation, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ministry as a career. Again, there was nothing to suggest to Roger that the possibility was even there: but Roger sensed something and allowed the Spirit to guide him, to see how God might be at work in that moment in my life and his own. Those two invitations, and many, many more, have made me the person of faith that I am today, and I sense the same is true for you in your own story of faith.

In the body of Christ, invitation doesn’t happen by accident. Turn in your hymnals to page 1162, where you’ll find the Small Catechism. Now look at the bottom of the page, to the explanation of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed. Martin Luther wrote “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with its gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”[3] We don’t come to any of this on our own strength or power: it is the power of the Holy Spirit that brings us here, the work of God that invites us here, just as it was the power of the Holy Spirit that brought Andrew and Philip and Nathanael and Peter and all the disciples to Jesus through one simple invitation: “Come and see.”

At the same time, the power that calls us in is the same power that sends us out to invite others to experience the same welcome and belonging that we have experienced. This, also, does not happen by accident. Just as you were called and gathered by the Holy Spirit, not through your own strength or understanding, so you can be the one inviting, calling and gathering others into the same body of Christ, through simple invitations: “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found here in this place!” As you’ve heard from my stories and from your own, it isn’t the information that creates the sense of belonging and desire for community: it is the invitation that makes the information worth knowing and experiencing.

“Once a young student asked [Karl] Barth [perhaps the most influential theologian of the 20th century], if he could sum up what was most important about his life's work and theology in just a few words. The question was posed even with gasps from the audience. Barth just thought for a moment and then smiled, ‘Yes, in the words of a song my mother used to sing me, 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’” [4] Barth was a scholar whose grasp of the faith and the love of God had revolutionized the Protestant church in the 20th century. Barth was an ardent opponent of the Nazi Party and one of the most courageous voices against Hitler in the 1930s. Yet this giant of theology reminded his listeners that information alone cannot reach the human heart: without the assurance of love, faith cannot grow into the life-altering experience it is meant to be. It has nothing to do with how much we know and everything to do with how much we love and are loved in return. John the Baptist himself knew that this was so: he said, “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John’s ministry was never about himself – it was always about inviting people into repentance and a relationship of faith with the God who loves them. And so it is for us today: invitation is the name of the game.

Audrey West, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, said that “Jesus' ministry begins not with a mighty command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew; and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God's favor, as in Luke, but it begins with a question: "What are you seeking?" What are you looking for? What do you need? It is a question worth wrestling with—as individuals, as congregations, as communities—since our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are you seeking? What motivates you? What is that you really need, not just on the surface, but deep down into the core of your being? What are you looking for?[5] Whatever it is we are looking for, whatever it is we have found here, it came through invitation, through someone being willing to say, “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found!” Be joyful, friends, for the invitation to which you listened today is and invitation that will fill you with love, mercy and grace to meet the week ahead of you. And when the Spirit opens a door for you to offer the same invitation, don’t be afraid to ask, “What are you looking for? Come and see what I’ve found!” As you’ve been invited, so you may invite others, and in that invitation you might find your own faith challenged and strengthened as well. God’s blessings be with you in the week to come. Amen.

[1] This is a great joke that I haven’t told entirely correctly here.

[3] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, © Augsburg Fortress 2006, p. 1162.

18 January 2008

Friday Five: Read Any Good Books Lately?

The website promoting this piece of art says, "For the first time, the worlds most influential religious texts are brought together and presented on the same level, their coexistence acknowledged and celebrated”. The shelf is made of reclaimed wood that contains seven religious books. The designers have put them – literally – on the same level.

Well, pish posh! I think that some books ARE better than others! How about you?
  1. What book have you read in the last six months that has really stayed with you? Why?

  2. What is one of your favorite childhood books?

  3. Do you have a favorite book of the Bible? Do tell!

  4. What is one book you could read again and again?

  5. Is there a book you would suggest for Lenten reading? What is it and why?

And because we all love bonus questions, if you were going to publish a book what would it be? Who would you want to write the jacket cover blurb expounding on your talent?

Ooooh, this will be fun!

1. The book that has had the most impact on me in the last six months was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I think one of the reasons it hit me hardest is because I listened to it on my iPod, downloaded from audible, and the author read his own text. The book packs an impressive emotional wallop on its own: add in the authentic Afghan accent and true pronunciation of names and places that would have tripped up a midwestern boy like me and you've got yourself a wondrous epic. I'm hoping to see the movie very soon.

2. One children's book I loved was a version of stories from the Arabian Nights. Now, I don't remember the whole "king who kills each new wife" backstory, and I certainly didn't get the erotic aspect that Sir Richard Burton and others have included in their adult translations. What I do remember was the thrill of the stories of Sindbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin and the many other adventures of all the characters. I'm fairly certain the book my parents gave me was a children's collection of the stories, sans eroticism/homicidal kings, etc.

3. I've been astonished at how much the book of Ecclesiastes has to say about my life and the lives of those around me at present. So much of what we do is often "chasing after the wind" - it is helpful to realize this has always been a problem (though I don't think it's ever been as endemic as it is today).

4. The Lord of the Rings. Have done. Will do again. Greatest book of the 20th century, hands down. Tolkien created something incredible - calling the saga a "book" barely does it justice.

5. The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. This would be a tough read for the RevGals crowd, as it is ridiculously male-dominated and gender-biased. That having been said, it is a book about failure, repentance and forgiveness, that helped me when I was first starting out in the parish. I may just pick it up again for Lent this year.

Bonus: I've had an idea about a series of essays on the beneficent intent God has when restraining creation through the Law. At one point I even developed a title: Creative Morality. For a gnesio-Lutheran like myself, of course, this is treading dangerously close to heresy, but it's still something that intrigues me, and I'm hoping to make time to develop it further once the kids are a bit older and a bit less labor-intensive.

As to the book jacket, well, if I can't have Martin Marty or ELCA Presiding Bishop Hanson, I suppose my good friend Matt over at LutheranHusker will do. Perhaps LutherPunk or Tripp might add a review blurb on the back? :-)

16 January 2008

Getting My Feet Under Me

I just got back from a walk over to the Union for a cup of coffee and copy of today's Iowa State Daily. Day three of this new adventure is going well, if a bit snowy and cold, but I must say that this is some of the prettiest snow I've seen in a while. If we're going to get dumped on, as the weather folks are predicting, at least it'll look picturesque while it's happening.

Sometimes irony isn't a strong enough word to describe what this life is like. I was walking around the union thinking, "Man, it's going to take a while to get my feet under me here." I don't know many students, faculty or staff, and in some ways it's more intimidating to be in this new campus ministry setting than it would have been in a congregation. But I digress. As I was thinking about 'getting my feet under me,' I was approaching a revolving door, where I was going to exit the Union. I stepped out the door and got distracted by the sight of ISU's lovely campus, made even lovelier with the falling snow. Gaping as I was at the beauty around me, I missed the step down from the door and nearly fell right on my ass. As it was, I spilled a good sip or two of my coffee and soaked the front page of my paper in a couple of spots.

That's the way it goes sometimes. We just don't know when life is going to surprise us by following exactly what we're thinking. But it's often funny when it does. Unless you spill your coffee - then it's just sad.

13 January 2008

Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord - "Called Beyond Ourselves"

Woo-hoo! My first sermon at the University Lutheran Center in Ames. Definitely different than our former home, which we do still miss. But a good start to ministry here. More tomorrow when home internet is connected.

One of my favorite musicians is Rich Mullins, and the album A Liturgy, A Legacy, And A Ragamuffin Band has been one of my favorite recordings for years. At the very beginning of the album, the Ragamuffin Band gathers to warm up before launching into the song Here In America. You can hear some tinkling of guitar strings, a few laughs, and then one of the musicians says, “I just want to make this clear: I’m barely ready to do this.” Everyone laughs, then Rich calls out the count and the band launches into the song.

I’m feeling much the same way this morning: I’m barely ready to do this. We moved to Ames from Minnesota all of this week: we packed on Monday, loaded the truck on Tuesday, I drove down with our cats on Wednesday, bought our house on Thursday and we’ve spent the weekend unpacking and digging out from under the mess. We didn’t find the silverware until yesterday afternoon. I’m wearing a tie this morning because I haven’t found the box where I keep my clergy collars. Our daughter has worn the same pair of sweats all week because most of her clothes are buried somewhere in the garage. We just found out yesterday that one of our dear friends we left behind in Minnesota has advanced lung cancer. With all of this going on, the thought that I’m supposed to have something worthwhile to say about God’s word this morning is more than a little intimidating. But this is where I’ve been called today. This is how it works: God comes to us where we are to call us beyond ourselves to something greater. Would you pray with me? Heavenly Father, we often don’t understand Your will, Your hopes, Your heart – You seem greater than anything we can imagine. And yet You have called us here, to hear Your word, to receive Your promises of forgiveness, life and salvation, to trust that You are indeed alive and active among us this day. Fill us with Your Spirit. Redeem us with Your grace. Empower us with Your love, that in all we say and do we may live out the holy calling of life lived in Your name. Amen.

John the Baptist was right to be humble in our gospel reading for this morning. He should have been the one receiving a baptism from Jesus – the baptism of spirit and fire which John prophesied would come from Jesus alone. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of John and Jesus being related: their status as cousins comes from Luke’s gospel. For Matthew, John is “the voice crying out in the wilderness;” John is the one preparing the way for the Lord’s anointed One. John’s message in Matthew’s gospel was simple: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” When the king comes to his throne, no one expects the herald to do anything except get out of the way.

But Jesus turned the tables on John. If this was a coronation, it was a strange coronation indeed. Jesus of Nazareth revealed the kingdom of God to the world, and the first act of that kingdom was not a royal decree, a splendid feast or a spectacular display of power and might. When the kingdom of God came near, it came in humble submission and quiet consent. Jesus did not stand and sound the trumpets to inaugurate His reign as God’s Son: he knelt and asked to be washed, washed in waters of dedication and righteousness. This was the first sign that God’s kingdom would not be what the people had expected – and it was the first instance where God called someone beyond their own faith into something remarkable.

I wonder if John felt the same way that all of us do at the beginning of something for which we are barely ready. He had to know that the Messiah he was prophesying would come eventually: but did John know that this was the hour he had foretold? I woke up this morning and had a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee, just like most mornings – did John wake up, grab some honey and a locust or two and think, “the Messiah is coming today!” Scripture doesn’t tell us. What it does tell us is that John knew that Jesus was the one who should be doing the baptizing, that John was no longer the big man on campus. John’s humility and desire to submit to Jesus’ authority and position was right and proper. But something bigger than John’s humility was happening that day on the Jordan River near Jerusalem. John was being called into something beyond himself, changed by Jesus’ own humility into something far different than he had been before.

We often read Jesus’ words here as if they are a commentary on His own need for baptism. Scholars present different interpretations of what Jesus meant by seeking to “fulfill all righteousness.” But what if this had nothing to do with Jesus at all? What if Jesus’ desire for baptism was about John’s ministry? What if Jesus came to be baptized by John for John’s sake?

One of the great problems with which we struggle is our desire to be safe, to find the point where we know precisely what’s going on and how we fit in the world in which we live. Modern Lutherans are particularly well-known for a reluctance to change, to experience new things, to move out of our comfort zones. Personally, I’m no different: I’ve always felt very uncomfortable about being “the new guy.” I don’t like not knowing where everything goes, stumbling around, always asking for help. But safety is not the essential characteristic of a Christian’s life: faith is the essential characteristic of a Christian’s life. Faith is what allows us to meet new experiences and challenging situations with grace and mercy. Faith is what gives us hope in the midst of suffering, calm in the midst of anxiety, trust in the midst of those times when everything around us seems foreign and unfamiliar. Faith is what helps me stand before you today and trust that God is up to something here. Faith is what allowed John to believe that he really could be the one to baptize the Messiah, whether he believed he was qualified for the job or not. Habakkuk 2.4 says “the righteous shall live by faith,” and Jesus said to John, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Perhaps the point of Jesus’ baptism was to awaken even greater faith in John the Baptist, to fulfill all righteousness in John’s own life and ministry, to create within John the trust and hope that comes from believing that God really is at work within the world.

John the Baptist was called beyond himself, to believe in what Jesus was saying even if it seemed to be beyond anything John had considered possible before. Maybe these “Am I really supposed to do this?” moments are where God calls us most fiercely into new life. What seems beyond us might just be exactly where God is calling us. For John, in that moment, baptizing the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the matter of greatest importance was the baptism John could give, not the baptism John could receive. And the same could be said for all of us.

The reading from Isaiah this morning is the first of what have come to be known as the “servant songs” from Isaiah. They are traditionally connected with the Messiah, and rightly so, for they paint a picture of one who will undergo great suffering and even death for the sake of God’s name and the benefit of God’s people. But what if we looked at this song this morning and saw ourselves as the ones about whom Isaiah is speaking? What if we had the audacity to trust that we, too, are God’s chosen ones, upheld by God’s power, the delight of God’s soul, a repository of God’s spirit? What if we, too, believed that we are being called beyond ourselves into something greater for the sake of the kingdom of God, which is at hand? Regardless of whether we feel ready, willing and able or not, we are here, today, believing that God might be up to something in our lives. I believe that is precisely the case. I believe that God is here, that God does care about your life and how you live it, that you are the ones God is sending into the world as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind. More than that, I believe that God will go with you in this adventure of faith, for in the next chapter Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I am with you.” As we are called beyond ourselves, sent forth by God in faith and righteousness to serve our neighbor, we are upheld by the power and strength of the One who stretched the heavens across the sky and breathed Spirit into us that we might have life.

In my former synod, we elected a new bishop last June. One of the first things he asked from our entire synod was a spirit of adventure in the years to come. He said, “Let’s get out there and make some really wonderful mistakes.” It takes faith to believe that new things can be good, because there are always missteps in the beginning. You’ve asked me to come and begin a new journey with you, and even though I’m not sure I’m ready, I know that God is here with us, and that is what makes all the difference. You, too, might be feeling the same way. Maybe you’re a senior looking at job prospects, or graduate school, wondering how in the world you’re ever going to make the right choice. Maybe you’re a sophomore, wondering if maybe your major was the right choice, how to recapture the stirrings of your heart’s desire in the midst of term papers and projects. Wherever and however you may feel about the adventure before you, trust and believe that God is with you, that you are not alone. Trust that the moment when you think “Am I really supposed to do this?” might be the moment where God is most fiercely calling you into new life. For the righteous will live by faith, and through believing, you will be righteous, and you will find life in God’s name. Amen.

10 January 2008

Moving In

I'm sitting in a hotel room in my new hometown, waiting for Beloved and Child and Mother-In-Law to arrive so we can go off to our new house, do the final inspection and sign the papers. At which point I'll be a homeowner. Gulp. Kind of intimidating for a guy who once thought he was going to wind up homeless if he couldn't figure out how to do this whole "responsible member of society" bit better.

I've got a couple of blog posts in the works, but in a remarkable sign of intelligence and maturity, I've spent the last hour working on my sermon for Sunday morning instead of blogging. Though this might jeopardize my membership in the "Stop Screwing Around On Facebook and Get Back To Your Sermonating!" group, I'm pretty pleased with what I've gotten done.

Hope everyone has had a good week - I'll tell you about the move and post pics of the new house as soon as we find the computer. And a phone jack. And get signed up for internet access. And the kid goes to sleep. Yeah, I'll be back sometime in February, I think. :-)


07 January 2008

Monday Meme: The Year In Review

If it's been going around my friends, is it a viral meme? I dunno. Anyway, the idea is this: go back and find the first sentence of the first blog post of each month for the past year. Consider yourself tagged if you've stayed with me this far.

When the song of the angels is stilled...

Okay, I'll beat that dead horse again...

One of the casualties of having a one-month-old in the house has been writing.

This will be a quick & nasty report on yesterday's big run.

No, we don't let her sleep like this - I propped her up in our comforter so I could get dressed quickly Monday morning.

Checking in from Swampscott, MA while Beloved and Child sleep next to me (typing. very. quietly).

You all know very well that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Nebraska Cornhusker.

I think my trip to Wittenberg, Germany would definitely qualify as a pilgrimage, though of course dear Martin would cringe at the thought

Gilead by Maryilynne Robinson. It is such a heart-rending book about the life of a pastor; it made me realize what a lifetime of this work might do to me, and yet it helped me realize that it's worth the cost.

I stopped growing up
some time ago.

I'd like to begin this morning with a piercing statement about the patently obvious: life changes constantly.

Every once in a while you read (or, in this case, listen to) a book that stimulates your mind in a new and exciting way.

06 January 2008

Sermon for Epiphany - "Found In Faith, Not In Fear"

While we were in Oregon this past week visiting Kristin’s family, we went to our favorite Japanese restaurant, Shoji’s. It’s one of those places where they cook the food on a grill right in front of you, with the flashy knifework and spinning spatulas and the like. The whole family was there: Grandma & Grandpa Mooneyham, Kristin and me, her siblings and their spouses, and the three grandkids: Faith, who is nine, Quinn, two and our Ainsley.

One of the flashiest moments at Shoji’s comes when the cook lights the grill on fire. There are four cooking stations in the restaurant, and when we arrived at our seats, one of the other stations lit up in flames across the room. Both Ainsley and Quinn noticed the flash of light right away; it’s hard not to notice when flames shoot up two or three feet in one big roar. But when our personal cook lit his own tower of flames, there were two very different reactions: Quinn was startled by the light and heat, screamed at the top of his lungs and lunged for his mother’s arms, while Ainsley just sat and watched, open-mouthed, as the cook continued his show. Eventually, Quinn realized he was safe and he enjoyed watching the show as well, and both kids wound up applauding as the cook sliced, stirred, fried and served a delicious meal.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Epiphany” in Greek means “manifestation,” or, literally, “shining through.” We celebrate the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to the place where they found Jesus, but we really celebrate Jesus Himself as the Light of the World. As the gospel of John says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[1] Jesus Himself says later in that same gospel, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[2] Now, light is welcome at times, but not welcome at others, and in the case of our dinner at Shoji’s, the light that came near to us was both welcome and unwelcome to different people at our table. When the light was far away, distant and flashy, no one was bothered by its presence. But when the light came close enough to us that we could feel the heat and see just how powerful that light really could be, one of the kids reacted in fear, the other in faith. It doesn’t matter which child did what – it could have easily been our Ainsley who reacted in fear, and it probably will be at some point in the future. But when that particular light came into our world, some of us were found in fear, others in faith, and this is exactly what was happening when Jesus, the Light of the World, was born in Bethlehem of Judea, heralded by angels, adored by shepherds, sought by magi in faith and kings in fear. The birth of Jesus revealed Herod’s fear and the faith of the Magi: what does the presence of Jesus, the light of the world, reveal in us today? What happens when Jesus comes close enough to us that we can feel the heat of His presence and sense the power and majesty that His light brings into our lives? That’s the essential question of Epiphany: shall we be found in fear, or in faith?

We inaugurate the season of Epiphany with the story of the Magi. It is one of the most widely known stories about the birth of Jesus – so much so that we often take what we know of this story for granted. For instance, how many magi were seeking Jesus? [The Bible gives no specific number of magi: we say there were three because they bore three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.] Where did the magi find Jesus, and when? [We don’t know where or when they found Jesus. In the gospel of Matthew we only know that the magi found Jesus at a house in Bethlehem, at least eight days after His birth, because male Jewish children were given their names on the eighth day of their life, the day they were circumcised.] We often hear this story as if the three magi wandered into the stable right behind the shepherds the night Jesus was born – but that’s not what the gospel of Matthew tells us. This story is more than the sweet scene we remember from our childhood Christmas programs, and we rob it of its power if we take it too much for granted.

The magi were more than just wandering wise men. They were Gentiles, from lands so far to the east of Judea that it would have taken them months to travel to Bethlehem. They weren’t kings: as one writer puts it, they were “the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious hocus-pocus – dabblers in chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future.”[3] The word “magi” is the root of our modern words “magic” and “magician.” They weren’t necessarily holy men or even spiritual seekers – they might have been nothing more than fortune-tellers, horoscope readers who saw something odd in the stars and decided to come investigate. As one writer puts it:

The Magi should not be there. They are heretics. They don’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don’t know how to worship [rightly]. Certainly they give the child gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, but those are elements used in their magic. The Magi should not be there. They would have been much better models of unbelief and false trust than models of faith, trust and worship.[4]

In contrast, King Herod was, at least outwardly, one of God’s people. King Herod had ruled over Judea for nearly 40 years when Jesus was born. King Herod and his family were best known for the brutal means they used to grasp and maintain power, however, and this is perhaps where the story of the coming of the magi receives its power and importance in the story of Jesus’ life. The magi were pagan fortune-tellers; Herod was an established insider with a relationship to the story of the Messiah. Yet the pagans were called by God to worship, while the pious-appearing church insider reacted to the birth of the Messiah in fear and paranoia. The light had come into the world, and had found people in fear and in faith – but fear and faith weren’t necessarily found where one might have expected them to be found.

But even those who came seeking Jesus in faith didn’t know exactly what they were seeking. Led by a star out of the East to the land of Judea, those in search of the King of the Jews came to, well, the king of the Jews to find out what was happening in his country. The magi assumed that the flash and power of King Herod’s court and temple would show them the source of this wondrous story. But King Herod’s empire, with all its flash and power, was not the source of what the magi sought, and even King Herod’s scribes and the chief priests of the Temple were compelled to admit that Bethlehem, little tiny Bethlehem, was prophesied as the birthplace of the Messiah. Appearances were not important when the time came for the Light of the World to be born – what mattered was the fulfillment of what God had spoken in generations past, no matter how improbable or unlikely those promises may have sounded.

Where does this leave us today? How do we react to the Epiphany in our own lives, the manifestation of God’s presence in the world around us? Where have our false assumptions led us astray, and when do they lead us into danger? First, the story of the Magi tells us that we do not worship flash and power and strength, but a person: we worship God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and not the edifications we have built ourselves. The magi came to King Herod because they thought that the king they sought must live in a palace: how often do we assume that the church’s power comes from its buildings, its worship services, its pastors? The church’s power is found, like the magi and King Herod alike, in its relationship to the child born in Bethlehem. When we seek that child in faith and worship, we seek Him rightly: when we seek that child in fear and paranoia, we seek our own agenda and risk losing all that Jesus has to offer.

Second, the story of the Magi reminds us that not all is as it seems. We dare not believe that only those within the church are righteous and those who are not are beyond God’s favor. The Magi were the outsiders, the pagans, and King Herod was the insider, the seemingly pious person of faith, yet it was the Magi who sought Jesus rightly. Those of us who have lived within the church all our lives must remember that it is God’s work to determine who is righteous and who is not, and when someone who seems to be an outsider comes seeking the one born King of the Jews, we react wrongly if we assume that “they” don’t belong here.

Finally, the story of the Magi and the season of Epiphany remind us that God is always at work in creation, doing new things where we least expect it. Our calling as God’s people is to react to those new things with faith, not fear. Today is a good example of how God is at work among us. For Kristin, Ainsley and I, a new journey awaits us as we say goodbye to you and move to our new home in Iowa. For you, a time of discernment awaits you, a time to think about what it means to be Peace Lutheran Church in Barrett and what kind of pastor might be the best one to serve you in the years to come. It would be very easy for all of us to approach the coming months with fear. For my family, a new home in a new city, with only one income and a second child on the way: it’s a lot to think about as we prepare to make this move. For you, a time without a full-time pastor, when some tough questions about your future as a congregation must be asked: it’s not always easy to look so unflinchingly in the mirror and see where things have been good and where things could be better. But God likes to do new things in ways that seem unlikely to us. Jesus the Christ, God’s only Son, was born out of wedlock in a stable, in the town of Bethlehem, constantly overshadowed by the splendor of King Herod’s court and temple in Jerusalem. The God who did a new thing in such humble beginnings will be with us all as we encounter new things in the world where we live today.

The question is, how shall we receive God’s presence among us? Shall we be frightened by the presence of the Light? Will its power and heat and unpredictability frighten us into turning away, as my nephew turned away from the light in that restaurant? Or shall we believe in the promises of the One who brings the light? Shall we hope that these uncertain times will, in the end, be a blessing to us? Shall we trust that God’s presence can be made manifest among us in ways that we can’t predict? Shall we believe that the One who called pagan fortune-tellers to Bethlehem is leading us on a journey of faith as well?

Friends, God is good and faithful in ways that we can never completely understand, and I encourage you to be found in faith, as the magi were found. Where God is calling you to behold a new thing, kneel and behold it in wonder. When God brings you new friends, companions for your own journey of faith who may not look like anything you expected, give thanks. When God calls you to worship His Son, not His Church, rejoice and sing praises. In all things, brothers and sisters, be found in faith, not in fear, for God is with you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in God’s holy embrace we have nothing to fear. May the power of God the Creator, the overwhelming love of God the Son and the sustaining peace and strength of God the Holy Spirit keep you all, now and forever. Amen.

[1] John 1.5

[2] John 8.12

[3] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt2x1.htm - reference unknown according to Brian Stoffregen.

[4] Ibid.