A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

The Gifts We Bring Epiphany Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 January 9, 2019

There are people with the love language of giving and receiving gifts, like my sister and my son. They both of that knack of picking out just the right thoughtful object with a personal touch complete with impeccable gift wrap. I, on the other hand, am not a good gift giver. At Christmas time and for birthdays for my friends and family, I literally freeze up with indecision on what to purchase or offer. And usually it’s lame. I personally love the invention of gift cards, as then I can let other people pick out what they want, but this also feels hallow, insincere and impersonal, even when I don’t intend it to be. And my presents always look like a three year old wrapped them-and now that my kids are grown and I can’t pass it off that I had them help me.

Gifts are important-not for the material objects that are traded back and forth, but for the personal connections that they signal. The proclamation of the deep and abiding relationship that exists between the giver and the receiver. Receiving gifts can be tricky as well. When I receive a tangible gift, my first reaction is almost always guilt. Guilt that I could never come up with as thoughtful a gift as was offered, or was what I offered as thoughtful or equal? Or the worst-I receive a gift from someone whom I never expected and I didn’t have anything to offer in return. Ugh.

Gifts are the center of our Christmas and Epiphany season. Yes, the tangible gifts we give and receive, but the unexpected gift of God’s love made flesh in Jesus. A gift that we tend to take for granted in the Church and yet, when I reflect, meditate and ponder on this gift-occupational hazard-I realize how incomprehensible it is that God would take the form of a BABY. That God would take on human skin, human joys, human sorrows, human sickness, human messiness and human death-all to be with us, redeem us and love us.

And what do I offer in return? Everything I have seems inadequate in comparison to the gift of Jesus-and yet, I’m always stunned by this story of the Magi and how they enthusiastically, reverently and unswervingly simply offered what they had. Gifts that don’t match what a baby or a young family need. Gifts that in many ways seem useless and frivolous. Gifts that we might say (except maybe gold) “now what am I going to do with that?” Even with just straight up gold, you have to go through a process to have it translate into anything useful-a gold bar or necklace isn’t going to buy your groceries without some work.

And we simultaneously get hung up on the monetary value of the gifts-these were not cheap, chinzy, dollar store gifts-these gifts had some value as well as meaning in Jesus’ time. It makes me wonder-what gifts would I bring to Jesus today? How do we respond to the greatest gift we’ve ever received in God’s love incarnate? Do my gifts need to be flashy and expensive? What if we look at these gifts from a different perspective?

Gold was the first gift mentioned: possessing value in nearly every time and culture. Giving money in our time and context has become common place and can distance us from ministry. I can placate myself by saying “well I gave money to the rescue mission, so maybe I don’t have to actually go down there where it’s dirty and feels less safe.” But what if the real treasure is the giving of our hearts to God’s people, what if the true gold is the risk of allowing our hearts to be broken open and offered wholly to God’s people for the sake of sharing the gift of heart moments-deep relational connections?

Bev (8:15) and Keri (10:30) will walk forward at this point and will put an object by the manger that represents their heart work/ministry and say “I offer my gift of connecting my heart with other people’s hearts to be with them on the journey.”

We all have hearts of gold to offer God and God’s people.

The second gift is the perfume, frankincense. It was used in religious worship in the time of Jesus and is still used as an essential healing oil. Traditionally, it is also affiliated with wisdom and spirit. What wisdom do we offer God’s world as disciples? I know that the wisdom of God is often at odds with the wisdom of the world. The apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians. The wisdom of loving one’s neighbor as much as ourselves is in direct opposition of a world that says worry about yourself first, fear anyone who isn’t like you and we must be autonomous and able to take care of ourselves. But like perfume wafts over us and we all breathe in the same fragrance, so the Holy Spirit fills us all and connects us with love, grace and mercy-God’s wisdom that can heal the world. How does God’s wisdom change the world?

Doug (8:15) and Josh (10:30) will walk forward at this point and then place their symbolic object at the manger and use the microphone to say something like: “I offer my gift of connecting with God’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit so that all people know God’s healing love, grace and mercy.”

We all share in God’s wisdom and Holy Spirit to change the world.

Then there is myrrh. This gift is one that points us from life to death. Myrrh is a spice/oil that was used in preparation of bodies for burial. It’s mentioned in John 19 and Mark 15 at the death and burial of Jesus. This embalming oil offered to baby or really toddler Jesus, is a dark reminder of what is to come. Death on a cross, burial in a dark tomb. But it also points us to the resurrection, life eternal with God. God overcomes death, all the little deaths of our daily lives and the finality of the end of this existence to point us to the promise of life without end, life in wholeness, life in love and life in the light of God. Myrrh also heralds that God holds nothing from us and the life of Jesus draws us all back into the life of God. And not just for us individually, or for a certain few, but for all. When we live our lives for God, people notice, even if we don’t say a word about God.  People notice that there is something different, that we aren’t focused on the same things as everyone else, we have different priorities. Our lives are not for us alone but for others. This is hard as we are in some ways wired for self-preservation too. But when we recognize our lives as already belonging to God, what changes? And so how is it that we offer our lives, our whole lives to God too?

Evan (8:15) and Brian (10:30) come forward at this point to the manger and place the symbolic object at the manger and say something like “I offer the gift of my life to God’s work with God’s people so that they will know God’s promises of life, love and light forever.”

We all share in the promises of life forever with God and in the call to live our lives for others.

Gifts. We all have them. God has given each of us something unique and important to share that the world needs. The gift of our hearts, the gift of our spirits that connect with God’s Holy Spirit and the gift of our very lives to live not for ourselves but for others. We have these gifts from God through Jesus. God gave God’s heart, spirit and life in the coming of Christ to reveal that we are part of this great gift, we are offered this great gift unconditionally, and we are free to respond. God doesn’t offer this gift expecting reciprocation, as the honest truth is that we can’t fully reciprocate the splendor of God’s grace and love for and with us forever. But we can respond. We can respond with our hearts, spirits and lives in overt and subtle ways. We respond with a diaper drive for Inner City Health Center, we respond with the Souper Bowl of Caring to feed the hungry, we respond with college and military care packages, we respond by building a Habitat House, we respond by supporting refugees and immigrants seeking safety and stability with our partner churches. We respond with our actions and voices to say “NO” to systemic injustices such as racism, gender and sexual orientation discrimination and like the Magi defying Herod’s order to return to him, we follow God’s way and not the way of powers and principalities. The most powerful response to hate in the world we have as followers of Jesus is radical, risky all-in love and acceptance of all people. Jesus always responded to people with love and so we are called to do the same. We have the gifts the world needs, God has made sure of that. If you think that you don’t have anything to offer, let me assure that you do. And like the Magi, we don’t stay at the manger, we go back to our homes, communities, work places and daily life, bolstered by the gift of God’s love that we receive and we give.  Amen.

*We have a prayer station as part of our Epiphany celebration in the fellowship hall. You can take a star and write the gift you offer to God and place it on the banner. We will fill the banner with our gifts to God!

 

Looking for Power in All the Wrong Places Mark 6: 14-29 Pentecost 7B July 12, 2015 July 16, 2015

When I was two, I learned a new word and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to use it. (Now don’t worry this is a family friendly sermon.) One day I had my chance. My parents had taken me to a beach in northern CA where we were stationed at Vandenberg AFB with some friends. After a full day of playing on the beach and in the water, it was time to go home. My mother went to scoop me up and put me in the rather rudimentary 1972 car seat and I realized my chance to try out this word. I did not want to get into my car seat and I now had the vocabulary to articulate my desire for power and control. I put my hands on my hips and looked at my mother and said, “Now, wait a minute dumb-dumb.” Where I had heard that pejorative word, who knows, (older kids probably) but my two year old brain had quickly recognized that I could own more power by trying to take away someone else’s. What my two year old brain had not processed is that my parents were still bigger and waaaaaay smarter. I ended up in the car seat, screaming I’m sure, with my parents wondering why they bother to ever leave the house with me. *Kids-it is never ok to call names or say something mean to anyone-especially your parents! *Parents-you’re welcome.

Figuring out what you have power and control over in your life starts nearly at birth. Learning to control our limbs, head, and neck is about three months of work right there! Then there’s rolling over, crawling, walking, running, toileting, riding a bike and all of the gross motor skills. Alongside control of our physical bodies, we learn that our emotions can control our actions and how that can be good and bad. As we mature, we begin to want more power and control in our lives. The teen years are all about power and control. Figuring out what you can and can’t do without negative consequences is a major part of adolescence, as well as learning where you don’t have power in your life.

We are wired to like power, control, and agency. Unfortunately, we struggle to move past what my two year old brain had put together, that in order to have power, control and agency, we must diminish someone else’s.

On a cursory reading of today’s gospel text, we could say that the theme is power. Herod’s power over John, John’s unlikely power over Herod, Herodias’ (Herod’s wife) power over her daughter, Herod’s daughter’s power over Herod, the power of keeping up appearances, and then we have the power of Jesus and his disciples with the crowds that frightened the puppet king. Power is indeed a key player in this text. We see people entangled in a system solely based on the need for personal power over and against other people. In this ancient soap opera, the most powerful person-the person with the most political clout, the most agency, the most status-wins. And it’s all about winning with Herod. He is in a power struggle with Herodias and John. John had exposed Herod’s wrong doings in marrying his brother’s wife (Days of Our Lives, anyone?)  and that threatened Herod’s power. Herodias had obviously traded up in husbands and married for money and power. In first century Palestine, Herodias only had as much power as her husband, so if Herod lost power so did she. Herod must maintain control and agency over John, even though Mark tells us that he kind of liked John. John told the truth to Herod of his abuse of his power; Herod deep down knew it but was too afraid to act. What if he lost all of his friends, his pawn throne of the Roman Empire, the lavish banquets, and all of the royal trappings? What if he became a nobody in Jerusalem?

At the end of the day, power is about ensuring that we are a somebody. We are worthy, important, special, famous, a mover and a shaker. This means that if I am all of those things, then you can’t be. There is not enough power for all of us to share. We can’t all be important! What if you have more influence and control than I do? Then what?

Power is definitely a theme in this story. But not the power that Herod desires, Herodias fears and kills John. It’s not power that is control and agency over and against someone else, but it’s the power of presence. The kind of presence that is hard to grasp, seems elusive and yet is palpable all through this story that seems to be about human power at its worst, human agency at its worst and human fear at its worst.  There is another power at work that is barely named and appears to not be part of the equation: Jesus. Counter to the power of humanity that seeks power for its own sake, for its own elevation, for its own sense of control and self worth, Jesus offers the power of his presence. This presence gives away power instead of accumulating it. Jesus and the disciples are busy giving away God’s power of healing, mercy, grace and love, while Herod is busy hoarding his power. Power of presence is power that seeks to elevate others, offers freedom to others and empties itself out to others.

Too often we think of power as personal, individual and scarce. Just like I was sure that I needed to assert power over my parents to be happy and have well being, we look for ways to take power and not share it and the world encourages us to do this. But God proclaims that in God’ creation and kingdom that is a lie that we choose to believe. God emptied power into the most powerless creature on earth, a newborn baby. Through Jesus Christ, God reveals over and over again how real power is given away. When we put other people’s needs first, when we understand and say “no” to the world’s system that wants us to compete with our neighbor for money, resources and status, when we stand in solidarity with people whom are told that their lives don’t matter, when we act to support the black churches that have burned down, when we see past labels and see people as God sees them, beloved, no matter where they live, what they believe, whom they love and who loves them, we reveal the power of the presence of Christ. God’s power is love for all people no matter what and this power conquers all fear, all hatred, and all sin, which is anything that separates us from this power of love in Christ.

This power of love is not a theoretical concept or a sappy philosophical thought but is embodied in Jesus and his actions on the cross where the loss of worldly power became the ultimate of God’s power of love, reconciliation and presence in the systems that lead to suffering in this world. This power of God’s presence is tangible in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the wine and in each one of us. Through the Holy Spirit we live this powerful presence that is Christ’s power of love. In Christ’s power, God declares that we are all somebody; we are all somebody in the body of Christ and beloved children of God marked the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s power is at work in you, in me and in the world. Thanks be to God.