Advent 1 C
November 28, 2021
Waiting, Longing, Yearning

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Advent is a season of waiting. Not just waiting, but waiting expectantly. It’s a season of longing and of yearning. This year, our waiting may be colored by uncertainty about how the newest Covid variant will affect our holiday plans. With next day delivery, we may barely have time to long for something before it’s on our doorstep.

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Advent 1 C November 28, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 21:25-36 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Waiting, Longing, Yearning

Advent is a season of waiting.  Not just waiting, but waiting expectantly.  It’s a season of longing and of yearning.  This year, our waiting may be colored by uncertainty about how the newest Covid variant will affect our holiday plans.  With next day delivery, we may barely have time to long for something before it’s on our doorstep.  And, certainly, some of what we yearn for – pre-pandemic times, for example, or an end to partisan posturing and leaders’ refusal to compromise – well, those things aren’t sitting on a ship that’s waiting to come into port somewhere.  Advent waiting this year seems more fraught and complicated than usual.  But I wonder whether all of our waiting, longing, and yearning – in whatever guise it appears -- is at heart waiting, longing, and yearning for God.

Augustine, one of the early church fathers, spoke of God this way: “You have made us for your own, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Maybe this Advent is a time to acknowledge our restlessness, to explore it, and even to dare to trust that, built into us is a desire for God, a yearning for God, that reflects God’s own desire, God’s own longing, God’s own yearning for us.  Maybe during Advent we could be present to our own lives and to the life of the world in ways that bring us through Advent and to Christmas feeling as awake and alert and alive as Jesus invites us to be.  Maybe during Advent we might wait expectantly and hopefully – even when the darkness comes early, even when the cold settles in our bones, even when fear or sorrow or struggle might shape how we experience Advent this year.

A new church year begins today, and this year we’ll hear most of our gospel readings from Luke.  Strangely, during Advent, we’ll start near the end of Luke’s gospel and work our way back to the beginning.  The week that will end in Jesus’ death is where we begin.  Having entered the city as a king, albeit on a donkey, Jesus is in the temple teaching, watching, contending with the religious authorities, and speaking of times and signs in ways that unnerve those who hear him.  He gets people’s attention when he talks about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  He gets our attention, too, when he recounts what we don’t want to hear about chaos, confusion, and distress that feel all too similar to our own day.  We just want to catch our breath after reading the news – or the Bible -- sometimes.

“What’s loose in the world,” Jesus says, “reveals how near the kingdom of God is.  Things look like they’re falling apart, but such things actually reveal that ‘your redemption is drawing near.’  Stand up and raise your heads – and notice what’s coming your way.”  Jesus is concerned that his followers might not feel the urgency he feels and that they might give in to whatever takes the edge off their fear and worry, instead of paying attention to his words and living as people of hope in the midst of the chaos that is threatening to engulf them.  Some days, chaos threatens to engulf me, for sure.  Maybe that’s true for you, too.

The conventional signs of an “end time” continue in our own time.  A second coming didn’t come – or hasn’t come, at least.  Jesus’ generation passed away without the things he spoke of taking place, which, needless to say, created a crisis for believers.  How were his followers to live now -- in the meantime?  In the time when their redemption was drawing near, when the kingdom of God was near, but it wasn’t fully here yet, how should they live?  How shall we live?  Jesus’s call was and is to notice what’s going on, to be alert, and to not give in to what is less than truly living here and now.  We’re called to look alive, to recognize that the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is close by, and to act for the sake of what we pray for – that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

When we stand up and raise our heads, we’ll meet each other’s gaze over our masks in worship.  We’ll listen and sing and pray and be fed and be sent out to care for the people and the world God loves.  When we stand up and raise our heads, we’ll see our neighbors in need and respond out of love.  Maybe we’ll offer a listening ear or send a card with words of encouragement or perhaps we’ll provide a gift for a child or youth in foster care or a Christmas dinner box for a Wellspring client.  Maybe we’ll give a hygiene kit or an eco-friendly cookstove through ELCA Good Gifts for a neighbor we’ll never meet.  When we stand up and raise our heads, maybe we’ll see injustices that we can do our part to address through advocacy or action that tends to the suffering of people and creatures and the planet itself.

If our own hearts are weighed down by worry, we know we’re not the only ones, so maybe we’ll go through the prayer list, holding those we and others love before God in prayer.  If we find ourselves just squandering hours on end, we might take Jesus up on his invitation to be alert, to notice what’s around us.  I love writer Debi Thomas’ suggestion that we take Jesus’ advice:  “’Look at the fig tree,’ Jesus says. ‘Look at all the trees.’  Be attentive to the details.  Don’t theologize, don’t revel in abstraction, don’t assume that God is present only in creed, theory, and doctrine.  Look at the sprouting leaves.  Notice the changing sky.  Attend to the mighty movements of the oceans – and the tiny movements of your soul and spirit.  The God who shows up in a teenager’s womb might show up anywhere.  Pay attention.”

  In these and myriad other ways and places, we live more fully “in the meantime.”  We live more alert to where we might be encountered by the God we know in Jesus --  God in flesh like ours, God near us and with us, God present here in the real world that we live in.  We live together in Advent – not necessarily physically so, but together in heart and mind, in seeking strength and experiencing joy.  Our second reading for today comes from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonika, the first little community of faith he gathered together.  They know Jesus’ story, and they know that the second coming that many expected has not yet come.  And yet they are present to their moment, and Paul is longing to be with them.  He writes, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”  Surely he would ask that for us as well – that we would, through God’s presence in us and with us, “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” – for all people, all creation, all that sustains and gives meaning to life and is part of truly living here and now. 

During Advent, we wait expectantly for God to come and be with us in Jesus.  That is the first coming.  But we long for and yearn for God here and now – and in bread and wine, body and blood, we experience a second coming.  It’s a healing, renewing coming that “strengthens us in holiness,” as Paul put it, so that we can wait together -- alert, alive, attentive to how God might show up and does show up.  We wait eagerly and expectantly for God’s gracious coming in love to our life as the people of God in this time and this place and this Advent.

Amen

Christ the King B
November 21, 2021
A Sacramental Coming

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While I was on retreat this summer, one of the meditations assigned to us asked us to imagine an ideal leader whom we would gladly follow. Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish contemporary of Martin Luther, asks retreatants to envision how “everyone of good will, whatever their age, is drawn to be in the presence of such a leader, to listen, and to follow.”

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Christ the King B November 21, 2021

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 Pastor Susan Henry

Revelation 1:4b-8 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 18:33-37 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from the One who is and was and is to come.

A Sacramental Coming

While I was on retreat this summer, one of the meditations assigned to us asked us to imagine an ideal leader whom we would gladly follow.  Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish contemporary of Martin Luther, asks retreatants to envision how “everyone of good will, whatever their age, is drawn to be in the presence of such a leader, to listen, and to follow.”  Ignatius goes on, “The challenge of this leader rings out in words like these: ‘I want to overcome all diseases, all poverty, all ignorance, all oppression and slavery – in short, all the evils which beset humankind.”  “Go contemplate that!” Ignatius challenged us.

And so I did -- or at least I tried to.  Reality intruded, however, and it was sobering to realize how far short of such a vision of leadership those who make the headlines nowadays often fall.  “Sobering” slid pretty easily into “depressing” as I considered powerful and petty leaders in our country and in the world whose goals are not overcoming the evils that leave people sick, homeless or as refugees, in poverty, imprisoned unjustly, or at the mercy of those leaders’ self-interest rather than their commitment to the common good. 

I could picture terrible human leaders and okay human leaders, but I was at a loss to even imagine an ideal human leader whom I would follow.  I could think of some doing-the-best-they-can leaders or hearts-in-the-right-place leaders, but they all fell short of inspiring me to follow them.  As prayer goes, it was sobering stuff.  Depressing stuff.  Lack-of-imagination stuff. 

I got stuck on actual human leaders despite knowing that Ignatius’ intent in asking us to contemplate an ideal human leader was to move us toward this realization:  If I were willing to follow such a remarkable human leader, how much more would I desire to follow Jesus whose call is to join him “to overcome evil with good, to turn hatred aside with love, to conquer all the forces of death – whatever obstacles there are that block the sharing of life between God and humankind.”

Jesus’ call becomes a breath of fresh air in a toxic environment, a lifeline that hauls us out of the depressing muck we find ourselves in, a sign of hope when we’re tempted to feel hopeless.  Jesus’ call is to follow him and to share in his work of turning loose powerful forces for good, for love, for whatever gives life.  Jesus’ call is to pay attention because the world is about to turn, not to end.    Catching a glimpse of Jesus as the leader to follow is energizing.  It’s invigorating.  It nurtures courage and hope in us when courage and hope can be in short supply.

Hope is what our reading from Revelation nurtures in us, too.  “Grace to you and peace,” John the visionary writes, “. . .from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”  Now, even if you or I have trouble —which I certainly do -- seeing Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” even now, we do recognize Jesus’ faithful witness to the power of God to bring new life out of death, to drag us out of cynicism into praise, and to turn us from despair to hope.  Such things may happen in chance encounters with friends of Jesus, as we worship together, or in loving and serving our neighbors.  New life, praise, and hope might even come to us as we watch whimbrels take to the sky after they’ve had a little time to rest so they can continue their long journey together. 

The seven churches to which John of Patmos wrote struggled under the rule of far-from-ideal, oppressive rulers, and believers found hope and gathered courage through trusting not just a second coming of Jesus in power someday but what scholar Katherine Shaner calls a sacramental coming of Jesus now.  The little portion of Revelation we read today may sound vaguely familiar with its language about the one “who is and who was and who is to come,” with its testimony about Jesus who loves us and saves us, and with its responsive “Amen”s.  Yes, there is more to come, but the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end, is also with us now.  In the seven churches and here at House of Prayer, in worship, in praying together, in story and song, and in bread and wine, body and blood, we experience the overcoming of “obstacles that block the sharing of life between God and humankind,” as Ignatius put it.  In this sacramental coming, we are fed; we get to rest and gather our strength for the next part of our journey; and we are sent out into the less-than-ideal world as followers of Jesus and people of courage and hope.  So it is – and so it is to be.

And let all the people say,

“Amen.”           

                   

Pentecost 25 B
What Church Looks Like
November 14, 2021

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Years ago, I asked a confirmation class to show me what “church” looks like. I had a stack of blocks and a vast array of stuff they could use to tell what it means to be church together. Baffled at first, they sorted through the odds and ends in a big, shallow box: random puzzle pieces, buttons and beads, miniature plastic fruit, a tiny white plush duck, play money, shells and corks, the caps from dried out magic markers -- you name it, it was probably there.

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Pentecost 25 B November 14, 2021

1 Kings 17:8-16 Pastor Susan Henry

Mark 12:38-44 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

What Church Looks Like

Years ago, I asked a confirmation class to show me what “church” looks like.  I had a stack of blocks and a vast array of stuff they could use to tell what it means to be church together.  Baffled at first, they sorted through the odds and ends in a big, shallow box:  random puzzle pieces, buttons and beads, miniature plastic fruit, a tiny white plush duck, play money, shells and corks, the caps from dried out magic markers -- you name it, it was probably there.  Somebody started to lay the blocks out in a rectangle because that’s what church looks like – a building.  But then they began to put things inside:  a laundry detergent lid for a baptismal font, a box with a book on it as the pulpit and Bible, a cork and some plastic grapes for wine and grape juice, and a wooden disc as the bread for communion.  They laid a couple popsicle sticks at right angles to make a cross. 

That seemed to do it until someone said, “Wait, we need some people.”  Spools and magic marker caps turned into a congregation and pastor.  A row of buttons became the choir.  They put the duck and a feather – as close to a dove as they could get -- near the font.  They made an opening in the rectangle so people could come in and go out.  Then somebody found a plastic donkey and a puzzle piece with two cows on it.  Those were for Sunday School where they had learned stories about Noah’s ark and Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. 

They arranged Mardi Gras beads as stand-ins for the people at coffee hour.  A tiny apple and banana and a wooden spoon showed how the congregation supported a food bank and made meals for people who were sick or had new babies.  They found a Matchbox car for giving people rides to the doctor, and a butterfly as a sign of new life.  It was pretty amazing, and they hit all the high notes – Word and sacraments, people and pastor together, things happening both inside and beyond the building, the cross front and center.  Pretty good theology around those things, too.

I asked them, “Is anything missing in this story about being church?”  Nope.  They felt like they got it all.  But then somebody added a fish because Jesus said we should fish for people.  “Now it’s done,” they agreed.  I double checked: “How about this wishbone?  Or this rooster?”  No need for either.  “How about this money?” I asked.  One of them said, dismissively, “God doesn’t care about money.”

I’m pretty sure we discussed that the next time we were together, but I’ve always been curious about why that young person thought money didn’t have anything to do with being church and that God didn’t care about money.

Looking back, though, when I was in confirmation, I probably felt the same way.  I knew almost nothing about my family’s income or how it was spent, but I also knew it would be considered none of my business if I asked.  I knew my dad’s job as a draftsman paid the bills and my mom’s part-time job as a bookkeeper meant we got to go to Michigan on vacation for two weeks every summer.  I got an allowance, and I was given money each week for my Sunday School offering, but to this day I have no idea what my parents put in their church offering envelopes or how they decided what to give.  I might well have thought that God cared way more about us going to church and about us “being Christian,” whatever that meant, than God cared about money.  The unspoken message I got was that “our” money was our business, not God’s.

It took a long time for me to question that, and even longer to think theologically about money, probably in part because I often didn’t have enough of it.  But I hung around with some thoughtful, generous people of faith who truly believed that everything they had came from God, and they were simply trying to manage it in ways that would honor God.  They saw good stewardship of the money they had not just as a responsibility, but as a privilege, as a way of life.  I got to overhear their conversations about their giving, about growing in their giving, about telling their pastor they were retiring and wouldn’t be able to continue giving as they had in the past – but then discovering that, actually, they could, and so they did.  Early on, I had been baffled by their understanding of money as something that matters to God, just as my confirmation class was many years later.  But their gracious example and the witness of scripture have deepened my own understanding through the years, thank heavens.

  God’s own generosity and hospitality pervade the scriptures, from the abundance of goodness in creation to the abundance of grace in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to the abundance of promise in the future that is drawing us to it.  And even stories about scarcity might teach us about generosity and hospitality when the currency of a bit of bread or a little water or the meagerness that is all that one has – the equivalent of money -- is offered, shared, or given sacrificially.

The gospel story today, sometimes called “the widow’s mite,” takes place in the Temple in the city of Jerusalem where Jesus has recently ridden in on a donkey and been acclaimed as a king.  Since then, in Mark’s gospel, he’s turned over the tables there in the Temple, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers.”  He’s had his authority questioned by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.  He’s been teaching in parables and engaging with the scribes, one of whom he commends as being “not far from the kingdom of God.”

Jesus critiques others among the scribes who like to parade around where they can be noticed and shown respect and honor, even as they “devour widows’ houses” – which may mean that they intentionally mismanage the assets of vulnerable widows for their own benefit rather than stewarding those resources so those widows don’t end up destitute.  There in the Temple, Jesus sits down where he can see what people put into the treasury.  He sees wealthy people put in large amounts, and he watches as a poor widow puts in two coins, two lepta – worth what a worker would make in eight minutes of an eight-hour day.  In other words, almost nothing.  Almost nothing – but all she has to live on.

Many a stewardship sermon has been preached on this remarkable offering of all she has, but there are things about this gesture that might give us pause.  We don’t know the “why” of her giving.  Does she give out of sheer love for God?  Does she trust that, even if she has nothing, protecting and caring for widows like her is a given among the people of God and that she will be okay?  Does she do what she feels is expected of her, especially because her giving is quite public?  Or does she feel angry yet somehow still obligated to give to a religious institution that leaves her with nothing while those in charge of the Temple buy fancy clothes and seek out the best seats in the house at dinner?  We just don’t know why she gives all that she has.

We only see what Jesus sees, and he observes that she has given more, given proportionately way more than those who’ve given out of the abundance they have.  “She, out of her poverty, has given everything she had, all she had to live on,” he says.  We don’t know how she feels, nor do we know how Jesus feels about what she has done.  Words printed on a page don’t reveal Jesus’ tone of voice, do they?  Is he amazed by her generosity or is he indignant over her now-even-greater vulnerability?  His has been a ministry of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, so her well-being matters to him.  Her vulnerability in a culture that can be caring or callous matters to him, and it is surely meant to matter to us.

How will we give in proportion to what we’ve been given by God?  How will we give for the sake of our whole community of faith, for the sake of respecting those who have little, for the sake of the vulnerable among us and in the world around us?  This is a more nuanced story than it may have been for us in the past, so perhaps it’s a good story to pray with in the week ahead.  We might imagine ourselves in the widow’s place or imagine seeing her through Jesus’ eyes.  We might ask her why she gave all that she had to live on, and we might ask Jesus how he feels about that.  We might ask Jesus what he’d be glad to see us give.

Another tried-and-true stewardship text comes from a cycle of stories about the prophet Elijah, but this one is more complicated than it first appears, too.  This story about a widow who is close to starving to death along with her son because of the drought and famine in her land has a context we might not be aware of.  This widow lives in Sidon, the home of Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab of Israel, the worst king ever.  He has not only permitted the worship of Baal, the storm god, Jezebel’s god, but he himself has joined in on it.  An epic battle is about to begin over who is God -- the god of Israel or the god Baal.  The storm god was thought to control nature – the rain, the wind, the fertility of the land.  Elijah comes on the scene and declares that there will be no rain because the God of Israel, not Baal, rules over nature.  And so a drought begins, and then famine follows because the crops fail.  Ordinary people like the widow eke out an existence, and God sustains Elijah with water from the Wadi Cherith and food brought to him day after day by ravens.  In time, even the wadi dries up, which is when God sends Elijah to live in Zarephath where, God says, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”

When Elijah comes to the town gate and sees a widow gathering sticks, he calls to her and asks for a drink of water.  He also says, “Bring me a morsel of bread as well.”  She replies, “’As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.’  I’m about to prepare a last meal for my child and myself, and then we will surely die.”  Elijah says what messengers of God often say: “’Don’t be afraid.’  Go make something for me and then for yourselves, and trust this promise from the God of Israel: the meal won’t run out and the oil will not fail until God sends the rain again.”  Remarkably, she does as Elijah asks, and “she as well as he and her household ate for many days.”

Who is this widow?  Someone who is caught up in the theological and political conflicts of her time.  We know of places now where drought and crop failure upend ordinary people’s lives and leave them desperate to provide the bare necessities for themselves and their children.  When the wolf is at the door, so to speak, how is it that someone who has almost nothing, someone who worships another god, might still offer hospitality to a stranger -- and graciously feed him first?  I want to know how that widow in Sidon did that, how she was generous under such trying circumstances, and how she let go of her fear.  Maybe you wonder that, too.  We could pray with this story this week, too, wondering how she could be so gracious, so generous, in the midst of a crisis not of her own making.  We might ask her, “How did you do it?  How did you trust a future that you couldn’t see?  How did you let go of what you really wanted to hold onto?”

I invite you to sit with these stories from scripture in all their complexity and let them shed their light on my long-ago confirmation youth’s insistence that God doesn’t care about money – or about whatever currency we’re tempted to believe we own, rather than being stewards of.  Trust the sustaining power of the water and Word of baptism, and of the morsel of bread and taste of wine in holy communion.  Listen for a trustworthy voice that whispers, “Don’t be afraid.”  And next Sunday, bring what just might come out of your prayer – your financial commitment to House of Prayer for the year ahead.  We’ll be church together as we offer to God our pledges, our estimates of giving, our desire to be faithful stewards of everything we have, of everything that comes from God.

Amen              

All Saints
November 7, 2021
Go Ahead and Hope

It’s been a brutal year and a half of pandemic uncertainty, fear, loss, and grief. Only a few of us were here in the sanctuary when All Saints came around last year. The familiar rituals that can offer comfort when death swallows up someone we love were disrupted. We couldn’t gather for funerals or luncheons afterwards, didn’t get to share meals or memories, couldn’t weep in one another’s arms or hold each other’s hands in shared sorrow over deaths in our congregation, in our families, or among our friends. Covid deaths now number five million worldwide -- and seven hundred and fifty thousand in our own country.

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All Saints November 7, 2021

Isaiah 25:6-9 Pastor Susan Henry

Revelation 21:1-6a House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 11:32-44 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Go Ahead and Hope

It’s been a brutal year and a half of pandemic uncertainty, fear, loss, and grief.  Only a few of us were here in the sanctuary when All Saints came around last year.  The familiar rituals that can offer comfort when death swallows up someone we love were disrupted.  We couldn’t gather for funerals or luncheons afterwards, didn’t get to share meals or memories, couldn’t weep in one another’s arms or hold each other’s hands in shared sorrow over deaths in our congregation, in our families, or among our friends.  Covid deaths now number five million worldwide -- and seven hundred and fifty thousand in our own country.  On All Saints, we commemorate the lives of those we knew intimately and those who were strangers to us.  We remember and give thanks for the saints who went before us, those who are among us, and those who will come after us.  It’s a holy thing that we do on this day – holy, but heavy.

In contrast to all our grief and heaviness, did you notice that all of the readings for today are full of extravagant, life-giving gestures:  God spreading a rich feast with fine wine, God swallowing up death itself, God wiping away all tears, the holy city coming down out of heaven, Lazarus – dead for four days – called forth from the tomb.  These are astounding images of the generosity, the mercy, and the power of God!  With God, we are in such good hands.  With God, the present and the future are in good and loving hands.

Now, I know this is going to sound a little bizarre, but if I could listen to, say, Barry White reading these scriptures in his rich, round, deep voice, I would listen to them over and over and over.  Maybe you’d do that, too.  We’d let all these words sink deeper and deeper into our hearts and minds and bodies because what we hear in them is the antidote to the whole world’s despair and fear and grasping and loneliness and sorrow.  Maybe you can hear God saying, “I know how some things look now, but this is how it’s going to be, so go ahead and hope!”

In order to go ahead and hope, we don’t have to deny the struggles of the past or the present.  Death is real, and grief can lay us low.  Evil is real, and its sorry effects are evident wherever we turn.  Life can be hard, and way harder for some than for others.  Death was real, and evil was real, and life was hard in the time of the prophet Isaiah, too.  When the people of God returned from exile, they anticipated an easy re-entry and a quick return to prosperity.  But the adjustment was much harder than they had imagined.  The land itself had been depleted; conflicts arose among them; and many people became disillusioned.  Today, coming out of a different kind of exile, expecting life to easily return to normal, coming to grips with harm to the earth, and having to cope with division and conflict, we can relate.  In the face of all this – for then and for now – Isaiah lays before God’s people some marvelous, hope-filled images.  He describes the great feast that God will make for all people.  “Here,” God will say, “Never mind the calories or the cholesterol – this is for you.  Enjoy it.”

Isaiah also declares the destruction of the sheet and the shroud.  “Finally,” God says, “you won’t need anything with which to wrap the dead, because death will be no more.”  The culture of Isaiah’s time pictured death as a monster with a cavernous mouth that swallowed people up, but Isaiah says, “Oh, no, it’s death itself that God will swallow up and be done with.”

And Isaiah helps people imagine how they themselves will gather together and bear witness to how the God for whom they waited has indeed come to save them.  Can you envision God’s people wanting to picture these hope-filled images over and over so that they can see beyond their current frustrations, disappointments, sorrows, and fears?  Together, we can picture Isaiah saying, “It’ll be okay; go ahead and hope.”

Life was hard, too, for those who heard the vision described by John of Patmos in the book of Revelation.  It was late in the first century, and the believers to whom this was addressed were either being persecuted by Rome or were, at the very least, in fear of that.  They were living as marginalized people in an empire marked by violence and social disintegration -- two unnerving characteristics of our own society.  It must have been hard for those early believers to be hopeful about either their present or their future.

But as John shares the vision entrusted to him, his hearers get a glimpse of the future God has in mind and will bring about.  God, not empire, is the world’s future, and it is a future in which chaos will not reign.  Death will be no more.  Mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because God is intent on bringing about an almost unimaginably loving, just, and beautiful new order of things.  Mere words can hardly describe this, but these words and images gave comfort and courage to those who heard them – and that is still true for us today.

I sometimes suggest this as a reading for a funeral.  When we most need to trust a future in which God’s home will be with us and God’s love and compassion will enfold us and those we love, this is one of the passages from scripture that we read.  We are assured that these words are “trustworthy and true.”  “Oh, yes,” we say, “what God has in mind for us and for those we love is good, so it’s more than okay to go ahead and hope.”

Now, wishing and hoping are two very different things.  Years ago, in the midst of a situation that any rational person could see wasn’t going to get any better, I was claiming that “hope springs eternal.”  But really that was just wishful thinking.  A friend who was willing to speak the truth in love told me that the difference between wishing and hoping is that hope is grounded in something.  That rang true, and I’ve never forgotten it.  When we as Christians go ahead and hope, it’s because we are grounded in the witness of prophets like Isaiah and seers like John of Patmos and saints throughout the ages and today who bear witness to what God has done, is doing, and will do.  When we go ahead and hope, we will discover that some of what God wants to do can be done through us.

We are grounded, too, in the work and witness of Jesus who knew that the glory of God would be revealed in the raising of Lazarus and in the raising of Jesus himself, first on a cross and then out of death to new life.  And we are grounded in worship and in the sacraments – in water and the Word, in a taste of the rich feast and the Word.

On All Saints, we remember and give thanks for all those who remind us to be the people of hope God calls us to be, people of hope who live and act in the present with trust in God’s future.  Granted, it’s not easy to live ‘now’ with confidence in a ‘then’ that we’ve barely gotten a glimpse of.  We can get stuck in the sheer daily-ness of life, in crises that drain our energy, or worry that saps our strength.  We can experience sickness that wears on us, consumer culture that seduces us and our children, fear that confines, diminishes, and debilitates us.  And that’s probably just the short list.

Hope can be hard to hold onto, so we need to keep hearing God’s promises, but it doesn’t have to be Barry White who proclaims them.  We can hear these promises in worship together here and online so that we can more fully live into some of God’s extravagant vision for us and all creation.  We can listen to the hope-filled witness of those who’ve been part of this congregation for a long time and those who are new to House of Prayer.  We can call to mind the gracious witness of those among us and those who’ve gone before us.  We need the powerful witness of the Word made flesh in Jesus and of those whose lives were and are made new by their encounters with him.

Without all these witnesses to God’s extravagant vision, we will get caught up in our own not-so-extravagant visions.  Instead of living in trust and hope, we will be tempted to live small lives, constrained lives, bound lives.  We will be tempted to put our trust in ourselves.  If we listen more to our fears than to Isaiah and John and Jesus, we will be tempted to hunker down and hold on to whatever we have or can get, instead of being caught up in God’s hope-filled, extravagant, gracious vision for the world.  We can be as bound by our fears and our lack of trust in God as Lazarus was by the gravecloths wrapped around him.

We can think small, cling to what we have, and become turned in upon ourselves or we can allow ourselves to be drawn into the service of God’s great vision, to give more fully of ourselves, and to make more of what we have available for mission and ministry.

In the gospel for today, Jesus not only boldly and lovingly calls Lazarus out of death and back into life, but in doing so he breaks the hold of a small and ordinary vision, one that sees dead as dead forever.  Jesus gives to all who have witnessed this astounding event a glimpse of God’s own great and extraordinary vision.  And then Jesus enlists all who are there – Lazarus’ sisters, the friends and mourners, and those who are on the road with Jesus – in making God’s vision more of a reality.  Lazarus stands before them alive but still bound, and Jesus gives Lazarus’ community a task: “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

Lazarus got his old life back, kind of, and we get a new life in baptism.  Lazarus needed not only Jesus, but also a community of believers who put their hearts and hands into untangling what still kept him bound.  We need Jesus, and we need one another’s encouragement, help, presence, and witness to untangle us, individually and as a congregation, from all that binds us and keeps us from living more fully and faithfully.

The bread and wine we share, the body and blood of Christ that we receive, is not the whole feast.  It’s a foretaste of the feast to come, a glimpse of the banquet where those we love who have died already have a place at God’s table.  Together, we are the communion of saints.  As we emerge from the pandemic like Lazarus from the grave, our eyes may have to adjust to the light and to future toward which God is drawing us -- whispering, calling, confronting, maybe even shouting, “Come on out, and go ahead and hope!” 

Amen    

 

Reformation Sunday
October 31, 2021

Saint and Sinner at the Same Time

Live-streamed worship service

Most Fridays, I’m part of a group of clergy who have lunch and then study together. After months on Zoom, we’re back together in person: a Baptist, an Episcopalian, two Unitarians, a Lutheran – that’s me – and three rabbis. We’re currently working our way through a social justice commentary on a collection of Jewish ethical teachings called Pirkei Avot, and I count myself very lucky to be in the good company of these friends and colleagues in ministry.

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Reformation Sunday October 31, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34 Pastor Susan Henry

Romans 3:19-28 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

John 8:31-36 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Saint and Sinner at the Same Time

Most Fridays, I’m part of a group of clergy who have lunch and then study together.  After months on Zoom, we’re back together in person: a Baptist, an Episcopalian, two Unitarians, a Lutheran – that’s me – and three rabbis.  We’re currently working our way through a social justice commentary on a collection of Jewish ethical teachings called Pirkei Avot, and I count myself very lucky to be in the good company of these friends and colleagues in ministry.

Over lunch, we catch up on each other’s lives and on our synagogues and churches, and we talk about what’s going on in our communities and in the world.  A number of years ago, as Holy Week was approaching, Rabbi Shira Joseph said, “Jews get nervous when Good Friday comes around.”  It’s a measure of my naivete that I was shocked to hear that.  Apparently I shouldn’t have been.  At a high school basketball game that took place around Holy Week one year recently, when a Catholic boys’ school taunted Newton North students, many of whom are Jewish, with “You killed Jesus!  You killed Jesus!” I understood better what Rabbi Shira had meant.  Anti-Semitic acts and attacks have increased in recent years, and they continue to create pain and distress.

Not all that long ago, the Duxbury football team’s play calls included “rabbi” and “Auschwitz” – audibles that outraged and shook both the rabbis in our study group and their congregants, as well as the Duxbury community.  After a gunman entered Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh three years ago, shouting “All Jews must die,” killing eleven congregants and wounding six others, our little group grieved together, acknowledging the fear that Rabbi Shira and the people of Sha’aray Shalom and Jews everywhere were experiencing and standing with them.

Lutherans and Jews have a complicated history, which is understandable, given Martin Luther’s writings that early on advocated for religious tolerance but later called for the burning or razing of synagogues, destroying Jewish homes, confiscating Torahs, forbidding Jewish worship, and deporting Jews.

Add to that the Nazis’ appropriation of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings in the service of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and you can see why Jews might still be wary of us Lutherans.  In 1938, just a couple weeks after Kristallnacht, when broken glass from the windows of destroyed synagogues and ransacked Jewish-owned stores covered the streets throughout Germany after a pogrom against the Jews, the Lutheran bishop of Thuringia approvingly wrote these chilling words: “On 10 November, Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning. . . . At this moment, we must hear the voice of the prophet of the Germans from the sixteenth century, who out of ignorance began as a friend of the Jews but who, guided by his conscience, experience and reality became the greatest antisemite of his age, the one who warned his nation against the Jews.”  Rabbi Noam Marans, Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations of the American Jewish Committee, observed that “That polemic, with a print run of 100,000 copies, connected the dots between Luther’s aspiration for the burning of synagogues to its fulfillment by the Nazis.”  This is the dark side of Luther’s legacy.

On Reformation Sunday when we read in John’s gospel Jesus’ words, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” we may not be all that eager to hear the truth about Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.  The truth may make us free, but first it will make us miserable.  I mean, Luther is a larger-than-life figure, and we who are the Lutheran kind of Christians bring to the table gifts that serve the Christian Church and the whole world.  We have a deep commitment to caring for others, a long history of building hospitals, schools, and care facilities, as well as welcoming immigrants and resettling refugees.  We bring an openness to paradox and ambiguity.  We take scripture seriously, though not literally.  We understand ourselves to be “saints and sinners at the same time,” always forgiven and always in need of forgiveness.

It may be that last quality that is most relevant on this day when the church remembers the age of reformation that began when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, posted 95 theses for discussion on the door of a Wittenberg church.  We might be tempted to idealize Luther, given his outsized personality and influence, but he, like us, was saint and sinner at the same time.  We live with the legacy of both his accomplishments and his failures.  His bitterness toward Jews and how he expressed it was surely one of those failures.

Where did it come from?  There’s debate about that, but it is perhaps a noxious combination of many things.  Anti-Jewish sentiments were nothing new, and, although Luther didn’t buy in to some of the typical tropes, he had his own list of grievances.  He didn’t really know any Jews.  He came to believe that, because Jews didn’t accept his reading of scripture and therefore come to know Jesus as Messiah and Savior, Lutherans, not Jews, were now God’s Chosen People.  The arrogance of ego, a willingness to trust his own gut instincts and emotions, and the influence of his particular psychological makeup surely had a part as well.  Luther penned rants and diatribes that, as scholar Lyndal Roper writes, tended to feature “pigs, excrement, and bodily fluids.”  It’s disgusting stuff.  Acknowledging this aspect of Luther’s life and the harm his writings have caused will surely make us Lutherans miserable – and it has.  That’s the bad news.

The better news, the hopeful news, and maybe even the good news is that, as Rabbi Marans writes, “Lutherans and other Christians confronted their anti-Jewish past during the second half of the 20th century.”  Self-reflection on the part of Christians led to the writing of documents that addressed Christian anti-Judaism and responsibility, and Marans notes that “Lutheran documents are remarkable in that they confronted the challenging task of rejecting Luther’s anti-Jewish teachings while sustaining an appreciation of his religious heroism and legacy.”  Marans quotes the 1994 ELCA Declaration to the Jewish Community: “In the spirit of . . . truth-telling, we who bear his name and heritage must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribe, and the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews.  We particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day.”  Such a declaration matters to Jews, as does action by Christians to stand with Jews when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head today.  Luther was bold in both right and wrong ways, but we are called to be bold for the sake of our Jewish siblings, called to not be naïve about the impact of anti-Semitism on individuals or on our whole culture, and called to honor and respect the everlasting covenant God made with the Jewish people.

If we’re looking for an example of someone who was neither timid nor naïve, we might recall the witness of Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the founding members of the Confessing Church in Germany that was intent on not being co-opted by the Nazis for their purposes.  Arrested, tried, and convicted for his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was hanged only days before the end of the war.  A statue of Bonhoeffer as a modern martyr stands in Westminster Abbey, and a window here in our sanctuary recognizes his courage, his integrity, and his witness to his faith.  He’s part of our Lutheran story, too, but his reading of scripture led him to stand up for the Jews of his time.  While Luther’s relationship with Jews has become a cautionary tale and a lamentable part of his legacy, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to put his life on the line for the sake of truth is a remarkable living out of his own Lutheran faith.  It’s a reminder to me that standing up for and standing with Jews matters.  It does my rabbi friends and their congregants no good if I remain naïve or timid or uninformed, so I listen to their grief and fear, to their worry that Lutherans, especially, will not stand with them when the going gets rough.  I pray that I will not disappoint them, that we will not disappoint them, that we will live out the faith into which we have been baptized.

Luther’s insight that we are saints and sinners at the same time offers us not only the opportunity to give thanks for much of his legacy but also to lament the ways in which he did harm and his writings continue to do harm.  I wish he’d had a lunch and study group that included some rabbis because, even as I’ve had to uncomfortably contend with Luther’s legacy of anti-Judaism, I’ve been welcomed and challenged and taught by the rabbis I count as colleagues and friends.  I’m standing up for them as I preach this Reformation Sunday sermon about Luther’s anti-Judaism, the Lutheran Church’s bleak legacy of anti-Semitism, and our Lutheran willingness to confront and confess that sin and all sin with confidence in the mercy of God and in the Spirit’s help as we live more fully into the lives we’re called to live.

Luther, Bonhoeffer, you, me – we’re always forgiven and always in need of forgiveness, always sinners and saints at the same time.  That’s both the bad news and the good news, the hard truth and the blessed freedom of living as followers of Jesus.

Amen                  

           

               

     

Advent 1 C November 28, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Luke 21:25-36 Hingham MA

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Waiting, Longing, Yearning

Advent is a season of waiting.  Not just waiting, but waiting expectantly.  It’s a season of longing and of yearning.  This year, our waiting may be colored by uncertainty about how the newest Covid variant will affect our holiday plans.  With next day delivery, we may barely have time to long for something before it’s on our doorstep.  And, certainly, some of what we yearn for – pre-pandemic times, for example, or an end to partisan posturing and leaders’ refusal to compromise – well, those things aren’t sitting on a ship that’s waiting to come into port somewhere.  Advent waiting this year seems more fraught and complicated than usual.  But I wonder whether all of our waiting, longing, and yearning – in whatever guise it appears — is at heart waiting, longing, and yearning for God.

Augustine, one of the early church fathers, spoke of God this way: “You have made us for your own, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Maybe this Advent is a time to acknowledge our restlessness, to explore it, and even to dare to trust that, built into us is a desire for God, a yearning for God, that reflects God’s own desire, God’s own longing, God’s own yearning for us.  Maybe during Advent we could be present to our own lives and to the life of the world in ways that bring us through Advent and to Christmas feeling as awake and alert and alive as Jesus invites us to be.  Maybe during Advent we might wait expectantly and hopefully – even when the darkness comes early, even when the cold settles in our bones, even when fear or sorrow or struggle might shape how we experience Advent this year.

A new church year begins today, and this year we’ll hear most of our gospel readings from Luke.  Strangely, during Advent, we’ll start near the end of Luke’s gospel and work our way back to the beginning.  The week that will end in Jesus’ death is where we begin.  Having entered the city as a king, albeit on a donkey, Jesus is in the temple teaching, watching, contending with the religious authorities, and speaking of times and signs in ways that unnerve those who hear him.  He gets people’s attention when he talks about “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”  He gets our attention, too, when he recounts what we don’t want to hear about chaos, confusion, and distress that feel all too similar to our own day.  We just want to catch our breath after reading the news – or the Bible — sometimes.

“What’s loose in the world,” Jesus says, “reveals how near the kingdom of God is.  Things look like they’re falling apart, but such things actually reveal that ‘your redemption is drawing near.’  Stand up and raise your heads – and notice what’s coming your way.”  Jesus is concerned that his followers might not feel the urgency he feels and that they might give in to whatever takes the edge off their fear and worry, instead of paying attention to his words and living as people of hope in the midst of the chaos that is threatening to engulf them.  Some days, chaos threatens to engulf me, for sure.  Maybe that’s true for you, too.

The conventional signs of an “end time” continue in our own time.  A second coming didn’t come – or hasn’t come, at least.  Jesus’ generation passed away without the things he spoke of taking place, which, needless to say, created a crisis for believers.  How were his followers to live now — in the meantime?  In the time when their redemption was drawing near, when the kingdom of God was near, but it wasn’t fully here yet, how should they live?  How shall we live?  Jesus’s call was and is to notice what’s going on, to be alert, and to not give in to what is less than truly living here and now.  We’re called to look alive, to recognize that the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is close by, and to act for the sake of what we pray for – that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

When we stand up and raise our heads, we’ll meet each other’s gaze over our masks in worship.  We’ll listen and sing and pray and be fed and be sent out to care for the people and the world God loves.  When we stand up and raise our heads, we’ll see our neighbors in need and respond out of love.  Maybe we’ll offer a listening ear or send a card with words of encouragement or perhaps we’ll provide a gift for a child or youth in foster care or a Christmas dinner box for a Wellspring client.  Maybe we’ll give a hygiene kit or an eco-friendly cookstove through ELCA Good Gifts for a neighbor we’ll never meet.  When we stand up and raise our heads, maybe we’ll see injustices that we can do our part to address through advocacy or action that tends to the suffering of people and creatures and the planet itself.

If our own hearts are weighed down by worry, we know we’re not the only ones, so maybe we’ll go through the prayer list, holding those we and others love before God in prayer.  If we find ourselves just squandering hours on end, we might take Jesus up on his invitation to be alert, to notice what’s around us.  I love writer Debi Thomas’ suggestion that we take Jesus’ advice:  “’Look at the fig tree,’ Jesus says. ‘Look at all the trees.’  Be attentive to the details.  Don’t theologize, don’t revel in abstraction, don’t assume that God is present only in creed, theory, and doctrine.  Look at the sprouting leaves.  Notice the changing sky.  Attend to the mighty movements of the oceans – and the tiny movements of your soul and spirit.  The God who shows up in a teenager’s womb might show up anywhere.  Pay attention.”

  In these and myriad other ways and places, we live more fully “in the meantime.”  We live more alert to where we might be encountered by the God we know in Jesus —  God in flesh like ours, God near us and with us, God present here in the real world that we live in.  We live together in Advent – not necessarily physically so, but together in heart and mind, in seeking strength and experiencing joy.  Our second reading for today comes from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Thessalonika, the first little community of faith he gathered together.  They know Jesus’ story, and they know that the second coming that many expected has not yet come.  And yet they are present to their moment, and Paul is longing to be with them.  He writes, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”  Surely he would ask that for us as well – that we would, through God’s presence in us and with us, “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” – for all people, all creation, all that sustains and gives meaning to life and is part of truly living here and now. 

During Advent, we wait expectantly for God to come and be with us in Jesus.  That is the first coming.  But we long for and yearn for God here and now – and in bread and wine, body and blood, we experience a second coming.  It’s a healing, renewing coming that “strengthens us in holiness,” as Paul put it, so that we can wait together — alert, alive, attentive to how God might show up and does show up.  We wait eagerly and expectantly for God’s gracious coming in love to our life as the people of God in this time and this place and this Advent.

Amen