A Lutheran Says What?

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

Who Are You? Advent 3B Sermon December 11, 2020

This sermon was preached on December 13, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:
Psalm 126
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
John 1: 6-8, 19-28

How many of you hear the words “we’re going to start with an icebreaker” at a meeting or gathering and have a slight shudder go down your back? Yeah, most of us don’t find those contrived “get to know you” activities very enjoyable. Often because they entail doing or saying something that isn’t authentic to us or puts us on the spot with the feeling that we need to perform, to be who others think we are or an image we want to project. It’s just plain awkward. Yet, I confess to continuing to do them in some fashion with children, youth and adults, because despite the awkwardness and pitfalls, as it is important that somehow, we learn who the other people are. Done well, ice breakers can reveal connections, give insights to people’s gifts and worldviews, foster communication skills, and build closer relationships. If we don’t know who people are, we run the risk of false assumptions, judgments, and missteps occurring. Getting to know who people are is vital in any community. And while ice breakers don’t probe the inner lives of people, but they do build trust and confidence that people can be heard, understood and seen for who they really are and not who other’s assume they are. It can free people to be themselves.

Identity, who we are, is a question that has reverberated through the millennia from philosophers such as Socrates and Plato to Descartes, to the self-help industry that exploded in the late 20th century to the present. We link our identity to a myriad of facets: appearance, vocation, education, family, friends, religious organizations, etc. We try and create or recreate our identity at certain junctures in our lives. We like to think that we can reinvent ourselves, recreate who we are, and to a certain extent perhaps we can. Yet, who we truly are, at our core, buried under the layers of appearance and actions, is often a mystery even to ourselves. It’s like we need the ultimate ice breaker to get to know who we are for us, apart from the labels and compartments that other people put us in and we sometimes even agree to. When we chip away at those pieces-what’s left?

I think that the priests and the Levites could have used a good ice breaker or two in their initial conversations with John the baptizer in our gospel passage this week. I have the image in my mind’s eye of this group of men, looking slightly puzzled and agitated, simply walking up to John and blurting out “who are you?” Maybe it was smoother than that, but the gospel writer doesn’t offer any insights that it went differently. And really, it’s the epitome of brazenness and entitlement to waltz up to someone and demand an accounting of who they are. I’m amazed at John the baptizer’s nonplussed response “I am not the Messiah.” John doesn’t answer with a litany of his own accomplishments or pedigrees, but with who he is not. In clarifying his own identity, he starts with who he isn’t and won’t be. Twice more the priests and the Levites press him for who he is, or really, who does he think he is? Are you the Messiah, Elijah or a prophet? The priests and the Levites use up all of their guesses in an attempt to make John fit into their paradigm of how God works and through whom God will work. This weird guy from a nowhere town, living in the middle of the desert, baptizing people with some sort of authority, isn’t it.
John’s humility is extraordinary here. Many of us would get triggered by the constant questioning of our relative value and would defend ourselves. John is clear that he is who he is called to be, the one who will witness, testify and point to the one who God is sending as the Messiah. John won’t be put in the box of who others might want him to be, or even think they need him to be. John stays centered in knowing that his identity, his value, who he is, all rests on one thing: his relationship to God who gives life, breath, and meaning. He doesn’t need to pad his resume to be taken seriously, John is comfortable, naming the truth, that he is simply the voice, the one to announce who is coming and then get out of the way. John is who he is in relationship to the power of God loose in the world. John is the ice breaker if you will, the one who says that the way of God for all the earth is coming, who’s voice prepares us for the One, Jesus, who calls us God’s own, who comes to tell us who we are in the life of God: God’s great joy.
This simple statement is indeed good news and reveals the complexity of who we are.  This statement of humanity as God’s great joy, takes an ice pick to the other identities that people claim for us or we claim for ourselves. It chips away the falsehoods of hierarchy, labels, and segregation. It melts the arbitrary divisions of race, gender and economic statuses. It also cracks open the reality that we are not God, we are not the ones with the answers, and our way is not God’s way. John shows us that it’s important to know who we are and who we are not.
Who we are, is who’s we are. We belong to God, we are people for whom God risks being with us in a frail human body, and we are people invited into Jesus’ work of restoration and jubilee: proclaim liberty to the captives, of binding up the broken hearted, release of prisoners, comfort mourners, and bring good news to the oppressed. For these are the people for whom Jesus also proclaims are God’s great joy. Yes, God’s great joy are people who are unhoused, on death row, who are addicts, who are sex workers, who value money over people, who silence voices they disagree with, and people who struggle with mental health. You see, the is the scandal of God dwelling among us, Jesus in our midst, is that the ice is broken between ourselves, each other and God, our frozen hearts are melted, and we are freed from our own misconceptions about others and ourselves, to gaze upon each other with Christ’s vision of who you are and who we all are: God’s great joy forever. Amen.

 

Little Comfort Sermon for Advent 2 December 4, 2020

This sermon was preached on Dec. 6, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

*The written manuscript contains coarse lanuage that may not be suitable for all ages. This language is NOT in the recording. But it’s an honest account of the dialogue.

The texts were:

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8

It seems right now in our world that there is little comfort. We look around for what might make us feel secure, hopeful, or safe and it’s scarce. We see death tolls mounting, people suffering long term effects of a new virus, thousands of cars lined up to receive food assistance, a surge of unhoused people, continued violence and oppression of a people who only want the humanity,  justice and equality denied to them for over 400 years, and politicians on every side posturing for their own gain and comfort and not for care of people. There seems to be little to give us comfort. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be uncomfortable if I can help it and it’s uncomfortable to watch other people be uncomfortable so I do whatever I can to maintain the comfort of myself and everyone around me. So I avoid difficult conversations, binge on Netflix, snack on chips and guac, hide out in my beautiful new home office and read all the books I’ve been buying off of Amazon. But there’s a fine line between comfort and denial.

Comfort is a tricky concept, and there have been more times in my life than I can count when I’ve been uncomfortable: being the new girl at school every two years or so (sometimes less), first day of college, graduate school, jobs, parenting, and, I don’t put this in sermons much, but it’s apropos here, I’m permanently uncomfortable with missing our child who died, Ben. When he died, so many people watched my discomfort and wanted to avoid it or fix it. Some brought meals, cards, flowers, spoke words like “it will be ok,” “you won’t always be this sad,” which were kind and appreciated actions but sometimes people also avoided talking to me or even looking at me and if they did, said really unhelpful things like “God needed another angel,” “God has a purpose for this” or “God is teaching you something.” To be clear, God didn’t need another angel and no God doesn’t use a 15-month old to teach his 32 year-old mother “a lesson.” I learned that when people offered platitudes that those words were more about the other person’s discomfort, their need to distance themselves hoping this horrible thing couldn’t happen to them. And I learned that all of the well-intentioned help didn’t really bring comfort. No one could fix this and pretending that they could or pretending that it didn’t happen, brought my family and me little comfort. A few weeks after Ben died, I had gone back to work at St. Matthew Lutheran church and was having a hard day. I went into Pastor Jim’s office and just sat silently slumped in a chair. He studied at me for a few minutes and said, “this is bullshit isn’t it?” “Yes!” I cried, so much bullshit! (*I said “crap” when I preached this….) and we spent the next 30 minutes proclaiming with every expletive we knew how horrible Ben’s death was. And you know what? I felt comforted. Because the truth of my pain, suffering and sorrow was named, given the space that it deserved and acknowledged. Because Pr. Jim was willing to sit in the discomfort with me and not try and fix it. I learned that real comfort, is naming truth and not being alone. Attempting to give comfort that doesn’t name the truth, or isolates a person, only leads to more discomfort, pain and suffering.

This is a truth that God knows and understands. When Isaiah proclaims “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” he’s not saying that it’s time to find a cozy blanket, a television show and chips, he’s saying that God is naming the truth of the Israelites situation-the sins that they committed resulted in these harsh consequences that perhaps had gone too far. The comfort that is needed is for the Israelites to hear, acknowledge and then act on is the truth that God is serious about how they lived together and treated each other, and that worrying about one’s own needs isn’t actually comfort. Isaiah also names the truth that the people are flaky and inconsistent and likely to stumble again. And yet, there is the comfort of the truth is that God is present and where God is, grace, mercy, love and hope are also present for all. “Here is your God,” Isaiah proclaims, God is here, with you in your discomfort, and in the truth of who you are and whose you are.

The truth of the matter is that we try to comfort ourselves. We substitute false, quick, cheap and easy comfort for the true comfort that comes from God. When true comfort comes, it names the truth, the truth of who we are and what God’s coming kin-dom means for us all. It lays us bare, like a desolate desert, and reveals the fact that we have been trying to hide from God’s truth because it’s painful, hard, and will require something from us. John the baptizer declares that we have to face the truth of the consequences of our actions, confession and repentance, for healing to begin. And it’s not individual, it’s communal, it’s always about all of us together. God’s truth is that all people, from every corner of the earth, from the rural country sides, the cities, the suburbs, are gathered equally in the comfort of the God’s presence. The good news of Jesus Christ, God with us, is found in the least of these, in the wilderness, in the poor, in the disenfranchised, in the silenced. The truth that this good news of Jesus is here to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Being comfortable by worldly standards of wealth, status, power, isn’t the comfort that Jesus brings. Jesus brings the comfort of truth telling that frees us from own false comforts in our racial, gender and sexual orientation caste system, from consumerism, capitalism, hierarchy, self-agency and autonomy. Jesus names the truth that these comforts only lead to the discomfort and reality of communal oppression and death.

Jesus does indeed come to bring comfort, true comfort for our lives. The truth that we are a captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, the truth that we have harmed and not loved our neighbor or ourselves in the things that we have done and left undone. The truth that we contribute and fall prey to the idols of false comfort in our midst. And the truth that we can step into the discomfort of our brokenness to receive the comfort of God’s grace and mercy, together, as one people. Jesus comes to us each day, to reveal the truth that he dwells with us in the discomfort of humanity’s suffering, to be with us and surround us with God’s comfort. Jesus comforting truth is God’s kin-dom is coming: that the world will turn upside down and those of us who think that the world will always be as it is with some holding all the power and others disempowered are about to be shown something new where power is not to be hoarded but shared, where rhetoric doesn’t separate but words heal. The comforting truth to those on the outside, on the bottom rungs will be brought up and filled and those who stand as mountains will be leveled. Jesus reveals the comforting truth that no matter our discomfort, we are loved today and forever. This is comfort and good news indeed.