Epiphany 5 A
February 9, 2020
Being Salt and Light

“Be who you are, and see what you have, for the sake of doing what matters to God.” That is Lutheran Kelly Fryer’s call to those of us who are friends and followers of Jesus. Be who we are. See what we have. And do what matters to God.

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Epiphany 5 A February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-12 Pastor Susan Henry

1 Corinthians 2:1-16 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Matthew 5:13-20 Hingham MA

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

Being Salt and Light

“Be who you are, and see what you have, for the sake of doing what matters to God.”  That is Lutheran Kelly Fryer’s call to those of us who are friends and followers of Jesus.  Be who we are.  See what we have.  And do what matters to God.  In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us who we are:  “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  He doesn’t say, “Try to be salt and light” or “If you do this or that, then you will become salt and light.”  He says, “You already are salt.  You already are light.  Be who you are!  It’s a gift and a commission – so go live into it!”

As a teacher, Jesus is big on images and metaphors and parables, but what might he mean when he calls us to be salt and light?  Let’s think first about salt.  In Jesus’ time, salt was precious.  In fact, Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, and that’s where our word “salary” comes from.  Today, we’re so used to finding salt on the grocery store shelf that we take it for granted -- although if we didn’t find it there, we’d have a very hard time producing it ourselves.  When a clergy friend who has traveled many times to churches in Zimbabwe regularly comes home with a cloth bag of salt that she has received as a gift, she’s reminded that salt can still be a scarce and valuable commodity. 

If Jesus calls us “salt,” perhaps he wants us to remember that we are precious – and not only precious, but also useful.  And not only useful, but downright necessary – just as salt is.  Our bodies’ nerves and muscles need just the right amount of salt to function well.  Our tears and our blood are salty. Salt is central to life itself, and everybody needs it.  Back in 1930, so that every citizen of India would be forced to buy expensive British salt, the colonial rulers had constructed a massive barrier that separated Indians from the salt-producing area of their own country, and the British made it illegal to pick up salt.  In protest and as an act of civil disobedience, Gandhi walked 240 miles to the sea itself to gather salt, and Gandhi’s Salt March precipitated India’s revolt against British rule.  Salt matters.  Jesus tells his disciples – then and now -- that we matter, that we are precious and useful and necessary.

He says, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  Now, as far as I know, salt can’t lose its taste.  It’s a nice, stable compound.  It is what it is.  We can dilute it to the point where its taste isn’t discernible, but if we evaporate all that water, there it will be in all its flavor-enhancing, life-preserving, precious, useful, necessary, salty self.  Despite Jesus’ dismissal of salt that gets thrown out, a lot of salt today is used for de-icing, and it gets “trampled underfoot” for a good purpose.  Jesus’ words are confusing because salt seems always salty, and salt proves useful in surprising ways.  It’s a conundrum, a puzzle.

Maybe Jesus is actually pointing out the utter absurdity of salt becoming tasteless or useless or without value.  Maybe he’s solving his own riddle -- saying, hey, salt is salt.  You are God’s salt.  Be who you are.  Enhance the flavor of life itself by sprinkling kindness on whatever your life touches.  Preserve the lives of those who are barely surviving by sharing your bread with folks who are hungry and by caring for people who are experiencing homelessness.  Know that you are precious to God and treat everyone as equally precious in God’s sight.  Make yourself useful, and partner with all who seek justice and wholeness for people and creatures and the planet itself.  Be one of even a few grains that are shaken out to do the right thing for the sake of confronting injustice.  See your faithful way of life as a necessary part of God’s bringing forth a kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  You are the salt of the earth, so be who you are, and see what you have, and do what matters to God. 

  Jesus also says, “You are the light of the world.”  We would no doubt say that we reflect the light of Jesus Christ, who in John’s gospel referred to himself as the Light of the world.  But maybe that’s a theological nicety because here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says straight out that we are the light of the world.  Again, not that we might be or could be or should try to be – but that we are the light of the world.  So let’s think about light.  We take it for granted in ways that Jesus and people in his time (and in places in the world today) could never do.  We flip a switch and, behold, there is light.  Although when the wind blows hard enough to take down trees and wires like it did in some of our towns yesterday, behold, there is no light – for a while at least -- and we have to cope with darkness and difficulties.  Even a little light can make all the difference.  Flashlights and candles and fireplaces dispel the darkness, give us courage, and calm our uneasiness as we wait for the power to come on or for morning to come.

You might recall how a few years ago one of our ELCA Good Gifts projects provided almost 50 solar lanterns for people in places in the world without electricity.  The sun’s light recharges those lanterns so that women who are out after the sun goes down are safer, so that children can study after dark, and so that work around the home can continue past sundown.

To take Jesus at his word is to believe that we are the light shining in the world’s darkness, the gleam that reveals what was hidden, the steady glow that may keep danger at bay or help someone gather their courage, the lamp that fosters learning and growth, the glimmer of a hoped-for future, or the radiance that makes eyes shine and faces smile and bodies dance and worshippers give praise for the glory of God revealed wherever light shines in the darkness.  We underestimate the power of even a little light, and we downplay how our light may offer insight or encouragement, safety or comfort, help or hope for those around us who know more darkness than light.  Jesus calls us – commissions us – to be who we are.  And who we are, he says, is the light of the world. 

He adds, “A city build on a hill cannot be hid.”  As the Puritans sailed toward New England, John Winthrop preached to those with whom he had set out in hope, and he cited this phrase from Matthew’s gospel.  Even if people today don’t know where it came from, it’s pretty well known.  Rather than thinking of Winthrop or Jesus, though, we might recall Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase in the 1980s when Reagan spoke of America itself as “a city on a hill, radiant and “shining,” “a tall, proud city.”  Conservative and liberal speech writers and politicians have continued to quote Winthrop and to use language like this to express the conviction that America brings exceptional moral leadership to the world.  It’s a conviction that’s rightly being challenged in our time.

Writer Daniel Rodgers invites us to go back and look again at Winthrop’s intent in his use of Jesus’ words.  Rodgers writes, “At its heart, Winthrop’s text was not a sermon about future glory.  It was a radical exhortation to love and fellow-feeling, a plea to lay aside self-interest when the social good demanded it.”  Rodgers continues, “[Winthrop] had worked out its core phrases months before he boarded the ship, in a meeting of the projects’ investors where he had insisted that the normal rules of market capitalism should not apply to a venture as sacred and precarious as this.  Most important, Winthrop’s ‘city on a hill’ was not a site of radiance but a place of exposure, open to the sight of critics, where any slip would make the new settlement a ‘story and a byword through the world.’  In Winthrop’s words of 1630, scrutiny was the condition of living in a city on a hill.”

Winthrop knew the Puritans’ experiment would require self-scrutiny, humility, selfless love for others, and a commitment to the common good.  To be “a city on a hill” was neither a gift nor a right.  To be a Christian community faithful to Jesus’ call to be “the light of the world” was to be out there for all to see, to be exposed, to be vigilant, to be rightly vulnerable to critics if the community faltered or failed to be what Jesus said it was.  Self-scrutiny, humility, selfless love, vigilance, and a commitment to the common good, along with the awareness that the world is watching, will serve us well as individuals, as a congregation, as the wider church, and in our nation.

Jesus tells his followers that “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.”  Hiding our light doesn’t serve Jesus well.  Covering it renders it ineffective, and if we are to be who we are, see what we have, and do what matters to God, being effective matters.  Jesus has work for us to do – and we’re doing it!  Maybe we’re not shining in all the places Jesus would have us shine, but we shine “all around the neighborhood,” as the song puts it.  It’s not about pride when we acknowledge the ways and places people come to know Jesus’ love through the light we shine.  It’s about faithfulness to Jesus’ commission:  Be who you are!  See what you have!  Do what matters to God!

What are some of the ways we do that?  We take dinner to the veterans and lunches to the folks at Father Bill’s.  We bring sheets and blankets and towels for people who are moving into permanent housing.  We gather in offerings of food and money so that hungry people will be less hungry.  We put up a huge tent and invite our guests to eat and drink and enjoy Oktoberfest, and, as they watch, we deliver some of the proceeds to representatives from Ascentria, Habitat, Wellspring, the Hingham Food Pantry, and Camp Calumet.  Our light gives light to a very big house. 

Whenever a baby is welcomed through baptism into God’s family, someone – usually Ingrid – lights a candle, stands before the baby (who is often transfixed by the flame), and speaks Jesus’ words directly to him or her:  “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  All of our being salt and light isn’t for us, it’s for glorifying God.  Remembering that will keep us humble and remind us who we are.  Remembering that may give us the courage to act when our light exposes the cruelty or faithlessness of leaders who inhabit “a city on a hill.”  We are the salt of the earth, and we are the light of the world – not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world God loves and for the sake of giving God glory.

Amen      

1. Kayce Basques, “Why Salt Was So Important Throughout History,” posted July 29, 2018 at bookworm.club.

2. Daniel T. Rodgers, “What We Get Wrong About ‘A City on a Hill.” Washington Post, November 13, 2018.

3. Ibid.

Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2020
Knowing Who We Are

Almost every year I give my daughter two calendars at Christmas. One is a big monthly wall calendar with breathtaking nature photos by Ansel Adams where she keeps track of the priceless or crazy-making stuff her kids say and do. The other is a little page-a-day calendar with illustrations by Mary Englebreit and amusing or thought-provoking quotes.

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Baptism of Our Lord January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9 Pastor Susan Henry

Acts 10:34-43 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Matthew 3:13-17 Hingham MA

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

Knowing Who We Are

Almost every year I give my daughter two calendars at Christmas.  One is a big monthly wall calendar with breathtaking nature photos by Ansel Adams where she keeps track of the priceless or crazy-making stuff her kids say and do.  The other is a little page-a-day calendar with illustrations by Mary Englebreit and amusing or thought-provoking quotes.  Several years, one page has featured a drawing of a long-legged, spunky girl with braids flying and the words “Stand in your space and know who you are.”

That quote came to mind when I read the gospel for today.  At his baptism, Jesus stood in his space and knew who he was.  He chose that space, that time, that act.  The writer of Matthew tells us that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.”  He didn’t just happen to be standing along the bank of the river and got carried away by John’s preaching. 

Since John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the Church has actually struggled with part of this story.  Here’s the tension you may have noticed:  why did Jesus, who was without sin, submit to – and, in fact, even insist on – being baptized by John?  It doesn’t really make sense.  But although it’s not logical, it’s extraordinarily gracious.  In his baptism, Jesus enters all the way into our human condition, submerging himself in the fallen-ness of our humanity.  In his baptism, Jesus totally identifies with us, standing in our space and knowing who we are.

Jesus’ baptism was a signifying moment in his life.  Drenched and dripping, he came up out of the water and “suddenly, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon him.”  Although there’s no indication in this gospel that those who were with him heard it, a voice from heaven proclaimed, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus is sealed by the Holy Spirit; Jesus is beloved of the Father; Jesus is the one with whom God is well pleased.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Those are quite the affirmations.  Talk about standing in your space and knowing who you are!

For us as Christians, calling Jesus “God’s Son” carries very specific theological meaning, but do you ever wonder how, in Jesus’ time and culture, people thought about family relationships in general – and specifically about fathers and sons?  Episcopal scholar Sarah Dylan Brauer offers us some insight into “a son’s status as one who inherits the family name, the family honor, and the family’s estate or business, and whose call includes building up all of these.”

“In Jesus’ culture,” she writes, “family members share the family honor; the son of a great man is automatically great, and the father of a son who behaves shamefully is shamed right along with the son.  Insult either one of them and you insult both.”  In the ancient Near East, “like father, like son” is about how the honor of one is the honor of the other.

Sons had a big stake in any family business.  A father’s wise decisions benefited the son by increasing the family’s wealth; a son’s good decisions helped provide for a father’s old age.  A son was agent for his father, acting in his father’s name and with his father’s authority in the family business.

You can see, I’m sure, where this is going.  Dylan continues, “. . . [W]hen we say that Jesus is God’s son. . . [w]e’re saying that Jesus has authority to act in God’s name.  We’re saying that God is honored by our honoring Jesus.  And we’re saying that Jesus’ activity is Jesus’ going about the family business.”

“Like father, like son” works both ways.  Based on what we see Jesus doing, we know what God is like.  So -- in his life and ministry, what will Jesus do?  He’ll eat with whomever he pleases, Pharisees and sinners alike.  He’ll keep company with those who are most vulnerable, most marginalized, and most despised in his culture.  He’ll welcome women into his circle of close friends.  He’ll heal the sick, feed the hungry, forgive sin, love the unlovable, proclaim the reign of God, and offer God’s own grace and mercy.  He won’t defend himself or retaliate against those who are responsible for his suffering and death, and he won’t abandon even those who betray him.  “Like father, like son.”  “Like son, like father.”  All this is God’s business on earth.  All this is what the family business was about – and still is.

You and I know who we are – not just part of a fallen humanity but also children of God, siblings of Jesus through our baptism.  And we are called to be about the family business, too.  We are called to honor and to follow Jesus, to stand in our space and know who we are.  The best model for that is Jesus, the one who even at age twelve told his parents that he needed to be about his Father’s business.

Knowing who we are, how might we be about God’s business?  What will we do?  How will we live out our baptism?

One place to begin is to ask, “What would Jesus do?”  To be honest, that’s not my favorite question, in part because sometimes I know the answer, but I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it.  But it’s also not my favorite question because it’s tempting to think there are easy or self-evident answers to it, when in truth sometimes it’s really hard to know what Jesus would do.  But it can be a helpful question to ask if we’re willing to live with ambiguity and paradox and with hard answers sometimes and no answers other times.  Lutheran Frank Fry said years ago that “In any moral dilemma, Lutherans are committed to giving it our reverent best guess.”

What would Jesus do to relieve the suffering of children and parents separated by the current administration’s immigration policies?  What would Jesus do in response to the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor?  Who would Jesus hang out with – and if it wasn’t us, how might we feel about that?  If we watched Jesus weep over what humankind is doing to his Father’s world, what impact might that have on us? In our time and our culture, what would Jesus do? Asking that question and being willing to act on what we discern is one way to be about our Father’s business, one way to live out our baptism.

How else might we do this?  We can be channels of the grace, mercy, and forgiveness we ourselves receive from God.  Our building can be a “house of prayer” that welcomes people in recovery – a few of whom sometimes tell me how thankful they are for our hospitality because what happens here makes for a better life for them, for their families, and for the people they work with.  We can be a community of faith in which it’s okay to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn and grow and be changed – transformed -- by the grace of God.  We can be who we are and see what we have for the sake of doing what matters to God.

How else might we carry out God’s family business? Live lives of compassion, humility, and integrity.  Work for justice.  Care for creation.  Look for ways in which the God who loves us may be doing new, surprising, even scandalous things in the world, in the church, in this congregation, in each of our tender or hard hearts. 

At his baptism, Jesus stood in his space and knew who he was.  At our baptism, we were given a space and an identity, given standing as a member of God’s own family and called to a way of life that reflects honorably upon that family.  When we stand in our space and know who we are, the Holy Spirit may nudge and empower us to get our priorities straight.  To love God more than we love our money and our stuff.  To love our sisters and brothers in Christ – the ones around our kitchen tables and the ones around the Lord’s table and the ones whose tables and cupboards are bare.  The Holy Spirit may call us to bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys. 

Such a way of life takes courage and, honestly, it asks a lot from us.  It’s about following Jesus, the one who stood in our space.  It may take some sacrificial giving for the sake of supporting this “house of prayer” as we stand in our space – this space – and know who we are.  It means going where Jesus goes and trusting that the Spirit will help us and encourage us, because following Jesus isn’t always easy to do.  Such a way of life means giving our Father’s business priority over our own wants and wishes.

Such a way of life also brings great joy.  Pigtails or not, we get to stand in our space and rejoice in who we are – sisters and brothers in Christ, beloved daughters and sons of God.

Amen       

     

Christmas 2 A / Epiphany
January 5, 2020
The “Before and After” Story

We’re a tiny bit ahead of how the church tells time when we hear the readings for Epiphany today, but if you have a nativity scene at home, perhaps you’ve been moving the wise men a little closer to the stable each day, anticipating their arrival on January 6th.

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Christmas 2 A / Epiphany January 5, 2020

Isaiah 60:1-6 Pastor Susan Henry

Ephesians 3:1-12 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Matthew 2:1-12 Hingham MA

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

The “Before and After” Story

We’re a tiny bit ahead of how the church tells time when we hear the readings for Epiphany today, but if you have a nativity scene at home, perhaps you’ve been moving the wise men a little closer to the stable each day, anticipating their arrival on January 6th.  Maybe you can picture them finally getting there, worshiping the newborn king, and opening their treasure chests to offer strange gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- presents fit for royalty, for a priest, and for someone’s burial.  Surely Mary pondered all those things in her heart – and perhaps Joseph did, too.

Artists through the ages have shaped how we picture the remarkable scene that the writer of Matthew describes, but I wonder if today we might focus instead on what happened before the wise men’s visit and what followed after it.  We can start where Matthew starts:  “In the time of King Herod . . . .”  Now, Herod was not so much a king as a ruler permitted by Roman leaders to oversee a small portion of Rome’s empire, someone simply appointed, in Herod’s case, as the king of the Jews.  When strangers from Persia show up in Jerusalem wanting to know where they can find “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” Herod immediately feels threatened.  Herod the Great is suddenly Herod the Fearful, an insecure man unnerved by a perceived challenge to his power and authority.  Herod’s fear is contagious, it seems, infecting all who have to live with the results of his unpredictable and often cruel orders and decisions.  What disaster might befall them if Herod’s obsession with holding on to his power and authority isn’t pandered to?  An angry Herod is a dangerous man.

Calling on those who would surely have the answer to the wise men’s question, Herod consults all the chief priests and scribes.  They find in scripture an expectation that Bethlehem, a town just a few miles south of Jerusalem, is where “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel” will come from. 

Herod then has a secret meeting with the wise men, and he finds out when they first saw the star they have followed.  Passing on the religious leaders’ conclusion that Bethlehem is their destination, Herod sends the wise men on their way, cunningly telling them to come back and let him know where to find the child so he too can “go and pay him homage.”

The wise men, in failing to recognize Herod’s blatant lie, seem not-so-wise then, but later, when they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they go home by another way.  I imagine them talking together about how their journey was nothing like what they had expected when they set out to follow the star – no infant king born into a rich and powerful family, no joyous celebration of his birth in the capital city; their own instinct to bow before the child despite finding him in such a humble place and their sheer joy in offering him the treasures they had brought; the weird vibes from the king they had met and the weird dreams about him later.

That’s really the end of the story we read on Epiphany, but the little stories that follow it are also set “in the time of King Herod.”  After the wise men have departed, Joseph too has a dream.  An angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Joseph takes the angel’s warning to heart.  He wakes Mary and, taking the baby and little else with them, they set off in the dead of night for Egypt because it is not safe for them to stay in their own country.  Can you imagine that journey?  They’ve told no one where they’re going.  They will have no one to welcome them when they arrive in a foreign country.  They will be strangers in a strange land, seeking refuge, hoping for safety, starting from scratch to make a new life.

Meanwhile, Herod, realizing he’s been tricked by the wise men, flies into a murderous rage and orders that every child under two years old in and around Bethlehem is to be killed.  And his orders are carried out.  I cannot imagine the grief experienced in family after family, household after household, town after town at the deaths of those innocent children.  I can hardly bear to think of it, even though I know that war and cruelty and obsession with power still lead to the suffering and death of the innocent and continue to shatter parents and communities who are crushed by unspeakable grief.  Honestly, sometimes it is hard not to despair over the power of evil despite trusting that the power of love is far greater. 

The antidote to despair is hope, of course, and we return to Matthew’s gospel for one more story that references Herod.  Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus have been living in Egypt as refugees, making a life in a place that is not quite home, when an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream.  This time, the angel says, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  Herod’s death opens a way of return for the little family, although since Herod’s son has taken his father’s place in Judea, Joseph is afraid to go back there, and they settle instead in the district of Galilee. 

For a while, as Jesus grows up, we can breathe easier along with Mary and Joseph, even though we know that the powers of this world that sought Jesus’ death as an infant will seek it again.  They will apparently prevail when he dies on a Roman cross.  But grief and despair do not get the last word.  God gets the last word, and that word is a word of life.  New life.  Resurrection life.  Hope-filled life that allows us to live amidst the sorrows and struggles of this world.  Sometimes in our grief and pain and bewilderment and anger, we are hanging onto hope by a thread.  And sometimes we are hanging onto others’ hope when our own is not even a thread.

One reason we gather together as people of faith is to lean on each other’s hope when our own is shaky.  In stories from scripture, in songs we sing, in prayers we pray, in the meal we share, and in one another’s company, we bear witness again and again to the power of goodness that is stronger than evil, of love that is stronger than hate, of light that is stronger than darkness, and of life that is stronger than death.  And so we are sustained.

And as we are beguiled again and again by the Christmas story, especially when we hear it told or sung by children (as it will be tomorrow morning), we discover anew that underneath its sweetness is the sturdy, solid, you-can-count-on-it reality that the babe in the manger is the in-the-beginning-was-the-Word who is now made flesh.  In Jesus, God is with us.  Nothing about human experience is foreign to Jesus who knew the perils of human birth, the comfort of nursing at his mother’s breast, the protection of Joseph when danger loomed, the plight of a refugee – and all of that when we’ve hardly begun to hear the whole of Jesus’ story.  Like our own stories, it is not a story without struggle, sorrow, betrayal, danger, suffering or death.  But it is a story suffused with love, a story that ends in new life, and a story that will sustain us in hope.

In light of Jesus’ story, we can follow a guiding star like the wise men did, but not abet the destructive plans of the unwise rulers we encounter.  We can gather our courage, call out cruelty when we see it, and model compassion instead.  We can heed the very ordinary messengers of God who call us to protect the vulnerable among us, including our Jewish sisters and brothers who, anxious and fearful over the rise of anti-Semitism, wonder if they can count on us.  We can be with those who are devasted by loss, accompanying them in their grief.  We can advocate for refugees and immigrants in our right-now not-so-welcoming country.  We can stop being naïve about the power of evil – refusing to give in to despair and choosing to live as people of hope.

We who know Jesus -- the Word made flesh, the Light of the world, God with us – find our hope in him, and we carry that hope into a world in great need of it today.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, will not, cannot overcome it.  In that light, we find faith and hope and joy.

Amen      

  

  

                       

        

             

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019
Close to Jesus

Years ago one Christmas, I was a stranger in a strange land – far less of a stranger than I had been the year before, when our family had been in Taiwan for only a few months, but still very much a foreigner far from home. That second Christmas I knew more about what to expect: a Christian holiday, not a commercial one; a simple season, not a hectic one; and Christmas Day worship at the Chinese Lutheran church we went to.

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Christmas Eve December 24, 2019

Luke 2:1-20 Pastor Susan Henry

    House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Hingham MA

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

Close to Jesus

Years ago one Christmas, I was a stranger in a strange land – far less of a stranger than I had been the year before, when our family had been in Taiwan for only a few months, but still very much a foreigner far from home.  That second Christmas I knew more about what to expect:  a Christian holiday, not a commercial one; a simple season, not a hectic one; and Christmas Day worship at the Chinese Lutheran church we went to.  The previous year’s homesickness had diminished; my Chinese was pretty decent; and along with Hannah, our five-year-old, we had a new baby who was just two months old.  As Christmas came closer, I thought a lot about Mary, very pregnant and far away from her home -- Mary, soon to be a new mother, soon to give birth to a son.

We were out doing an errand one evening when we heard something faint but familiar.  It was clearly a Christmas carol.  Following the music, we threaded our way through the back alleys and found ourselves outside the open doors of a small Chinese church where the Christmas pageant was about to begin.  The ushers at the door said, “Come in, come in,” so we did.  Every pew in the little church was full, so my husband and I stood in the back.  Baby Joel was asleep in his Snugli, resting his head against me.  An usher took Hannah’s hand and led her up to the front so she could see better.  As she sat down on the floor with the other children, she was surprised to see some of her Chinese kindergarten classmates.

The carol ended, and the pageant began.  An eight- or nine-year-old Mary and Joseph walked slowly down the center aisle.  Looking concerned, Joseph asked, “Are you tired, Mary?”  She nodded yes as they arrived at the front of the church.  On the left was the Inn of Happiness, its name written across a banner stretched between two bamboo poles.  Joseph knocked, but the innkeeper said there was no room.  On the right was the Inn of Good Fortune, but the innkeeper there turned Mary and Joseph away, too.  At the center was the Inn of Peace, but still there was no room.  There was only a stable with a manger, and the innkeeper led the weary couple to it.

Mary and Joseph took their places beside the manger, and, thanks to some sleight of hand, a baby appeared in Mary’s arms – perhaps her own doll wrapped in a blanket.  And then Mary gently placed the baby Jesus in the manger.  The children sitting on the floor up front could now see that Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus were settled in the stable, and they crept closer and closer.

They had watched and patiently waited, but now the waiting was done, and they wanted to see the baby.  They wanted to be close to Jesus.  From the back of the church, we could see them collectively inch their way closer, a slow, little, uneven surge of dark-haired children, with one little blond head edging right up there, too.

The ushers had to shoo them back so there would be room for the shepherds and the sheep.  After the white-winged angels announced the Savior’s birth, the shepherds came to the stable to see the baby.  Chinese shepherds though they were, they looked remarkably like the shepherds in every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen.  They held their ground as the little ones began once again to creep closer and closer to the manger.  The shepherds shot meaningful looks in their direction, like, “Hey, stay put.”

But the shepherds were powerless before that tide of collective wonder. Mere intimidating glances couldn’t thwart the little ones’ desire to be close to Jesus, and once again, the ushers had to come shoo them back to their appointed places.  The magi soon arrived and presented their gifts, and then the pageant ended with another Christmas carol as, wings and bathrobes and crowns askew, the Sunday School children rejoined their parents.

As we left the church, we marveled at this amazing gift we had received.  We were just out on a cold December night, and we found ourselves welcomed and warmed, amused and awed, profoundly touched by this simple telling of the Christmas story in a little Chinese church on a narrow back street half a world away from home.  We loved it.   Hannah loved it.  Her cheeks were flushed; her eyes were dancing.  She’d unexpectedly found herself with some of her school friends right up close to Mary’s baby, to God’s own child. They knew it was not the “real” baby Jesus, but that didn’t matter. The story itself, the very Word of God, opened their hearts and drew them in.

The writer of Luke tells us that the shepherds had gone “with haste” to find the child, and I’ve always thought that since they came “with haste,” they left that way, too.  But maybe not.  Maybe on that first Christmas night, they arrived breathless at the stable -- curious, hopeful, timid.  And maybe, warmly welcomed – “Come in, come in” – they had crept close to see the baby Mary held.  Maybe they even stayed a while, sharing their bread with the exhausted parents, resting in the stable, at ease there among the animals.  Perhaps those shepherds wanted to be close to an infant who, to all outward appearances, could have been born into any one of their families.  An ordinary child.  And an extraordinary child.

The shepherds were drawn into God’s story, drawn close to the manger.  Like the children at the pageant, they wanted to be near the one who is Savior, Messiah, Lord, God-with-us.

It’s not only the shepherds and the children who want to be close to Jesus.  Really, we do, too.  God knows, we long to be close to God.  God knows – and so, in Jesus, God has come to be with us.  God comes as a vulnerable, non-threatening, practically irresistible baby.  It’s a good strategy on God’s part – one that can overcome our defenses and draw us in.

The baby born this night is Mary’s baby and God’s own child.  With Mary we ponder what she has heard and what the angels told the shepherds.  But we ponder more of this child’s story than we tell on Christmas Eve.  His teaching, preaching, and healing.  His betrayal, death, and resurrection.  And we ponder his promise to be with us always.  God . . . with . . . us.

God is with us when we delight in the surprises that come our way and when we celebrate the joys of life.  And God is with us when we confront painful losses, uncertain futures, unfulfilled hopes, complex family histories that shape us, things we don’t seem able to say ‘no’ to, things we’re afraid to say ‘yes’ to, every part of human life.  In all of that, God is with us, near us, close to us.  On this night, we too show up at a stable door, dying to be told, “Come in, come in.”  There we are warmly welcomed and richly blessed, invited to come close to the one in whom God has chosen to come close to us.

Amen

Advent 4 A
December 22, 2019

The Promise of a Baby

During Advent, we are all on the road to Bethlehem, and among those who are showing us the way is the prophet Isaiah. There is a little time-travel involved, of course, since Isaiah’s ministry took place about 2700 years ago in and around Jerusalem.

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Advent 4 A December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16 Pastor Susan Henry

Romans 1:1-7 House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Matthew 1:18-25 Hingham MA

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

The Promise of a Baby

During Advent, we are all on the road to Bethlehem, and among those who are showing us the way is the prophet Isaiah.  There is a little time-travel involved, of course, since Isaiah’s ministry took place about 2700 years ago in and around Jerusalem.  Under three kings --Saul, David, and Solomon -- a few hundred years earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were united.  King David had strategically chosen Jerusalem in the south as his capital, and although David had wanted to build a house for God – a glorious temple -- God had instead promised to build a “house” for David.  Not an actual building, but a dynasty, a reign of kings forever who would come from “the house and lineage of David.”

Geopolitics in the Middle East being what they were, by Isaiah’s time, the relationship between Israel and Judah was, shall we say, complicated.  They were now two often-warring kingdoms ruled by two different kings.  Israel in the north had aligned itself with its neighbor Aram (what we know as Syria) in order to invade Judah in the south.  Both Israel and Aram were trying to assure their own survival by becoming vassal states of powerful Assyria.

King Ahaz sees what’s on the horizon.  Full of dread and fearful for his own and for Judah’s survival, he’s about to make a deal with Assyria:  you protect us, and we’ll also become a vassal state like Israel and Aram.

To that plan, Isaiah says, “Whoa!  Wait minute here.”  Isaiah wants Ahaz to trust God’s promise to David and to David’s descendants.  God sends Isaiah and his son out to meet Ahaz, where Isaiah tells him, “’Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands.’  They’re not towering trees, and there’s not much left of them.  Trust God on this.”  But Ahaz is torn between trusting God and trusting in whatever he can cobble together on this own.

    “Ask me for a sign” God tells Ahaz, but Ahaz refuses, saying he’s not going to put God to the test.  That might sound like a humble response to what God is offering, but it’s really just cover for Ahaz not wanting to hear or see anything about God’s plan that will contradict his own plan.  He resists God’s offer, and Isaiah loses patience with him.  “Fine, don’t ask – but God is giving you a sign anyway.  See, a young woman is expecting a child, a son who will be named Immanuel.  By the time he’s no longer a nursing baby, and he can tell what’s good for him and what isn’t, those two kings you’re so worried about will no longer be a threat to you.  Trust God, Ahaz.  Have faith in God’s promises to the house of David, and picture this pregnant young woman whom God is giving as a sign to you .  The child will be called Immanuel, and his name means “God is with you.”

But despite the gift of this sign. Ahaz, it seems, is still consumed by dread.  Fear wins out over faith and leads him to make a costly deal with the Assyrian ruler.  Gold and silver from the temple and from the king’s treasury will be handed over to the Assyrian king, and things that should never happen in the temple will take place.  Rather than being protected by Assyria, during Isaiah of Jerusalem’s time, Israel will fall to the Assyrians and the citizens of Judah will live as a vassal state and suffer greatly.

The child Isaiah had brought along to meet Ahaz was named Shear-jashub, “a remnant shall return,” and that hope will be something for the people of God to hold onto in the years and decades to come.  The child who will be born, perhaps to Isaiah himself and his young wife, will be named Immanuel, “God with us,” and the promise of God’s presence will sustain God’s people through years and decades and centuries to come.

The writer of Matthew’s gospel knows the whole story of Jesus -- his life and death and resurrection -- and he hears in Isaiah’s story a word from God that addresses Matthew’s own time and testifies to his conviction that Jesus himself is Immanuel, “God with us.”  Matthew’s gospel tells us Joseph’s story – a story that lets us imagine Joseph’s confusion and distress and fear over finding out that Mary is expecting a child.  Joseph, being a righteous man, tries to figure out what is the right thing to do.  He makes a plan, a reasonable, rational response to the situation.  But in a dream, an angel of the Lord comes to him and says, “’Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,’ which means, “God saves.”  The writer of Matthew sees in Joseph’s dream a present reality first articulated in the sign that God graciously gave through the prophet Isaiah – that a young woman would bear a son who would be called Immanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

Remarkably, Joseph abandons his own well-thought-out plan, and he trusts the angel’s words.  In faith, he takes Mary as his wife, and when she has borne a son, Joseph names him Jesus.  Joseph, who is “of the house and lineage of David” – just as Ahaz was – puts his trust in God’s plan rather than his own.  And Joseph’s trust in God becomes a model for our own.  In Jesus, God is with us.  Through Jesus, God saves us.  We can count on this.

Throughout Advent, people of faith have been getting ready for Jesus, traveling to Bethlehem with Isaiah as a guide and companion, and taking Isaiah’s prophetic words and God’s promises to heart.  We too are invited to trust, not in ourselves – as we are so often tempted to do – but in God’s promises and God’s presence with us, especially as we know it in Jesus.

Lutheran preacher and professor Barbara Lundblad’s words speak of ancient hopes and trustworthy promises soon to be fulfilled:

O come, dear child of Mary, come,

God’s word made flesh within our earthly home.

Love stir within the womb of night,

Revenge and hatred put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

Amen.