Did God root for the Eagles? And what kind of Transformation does God offer us?

Some of my favorite Super Bowl memories are centered around the church. I remember a former bishop giving me a pep talk from the pulpit that the Denver Broncos would do well right before the Broncos lost 43-8. I remember someone sneaking in a prayer request for the NY Giants that surprised the assistant minister reading the prayers out loud. I remember swapping finger food recipes during coffee hour and arguing which puppy would be the MVP of the Puppy Bowl. When we think of the Super Bowl, church isn’t usually on our minds. We, instead, daydream about nachos, TV commercials, and silver plated trophies. Even though the Super Bowl doesn’t start until this evening, we might be focused on this big event that’s about to come. Today’s text from Isaiah 40:21-31, when read with football on the brain, might make us wonder if God is an Eagle’s fan because the faithful “shall mount up with wings like eagles.” I don’t know if God roots for the Eagles but I do know, like many of us, this text is focused on the next big thing that’s coming. But it isn’t focused on a human event rooted in the spectacle of competition. Isaiah is instead looking forward to the day when everything changes.

To hear the hope in this passage, we need to remember who Isaiah is talking to. Isaiah is surrounded by a community wondering if they should return to Jerusalem. For 70 years, the people have lived in Babylon (in modern day Iraq) after the Babylonian Empire destroyed their nation. Babylon was recently destroyed and their new emperor, Cyrus the Persian, wants to send the Israelites back home. But is Jerusalem still home? The people hearing these words grew up, started families, buried their loved ones, and created new homes in Babylon. They land of Israel is a place they only know about from stories told by their grandparents. They wonder if God, who appeared to be defeated by the armies of Babylon, is even paying attention to them anymore. Isaiah responded by inviting the community to remember who God is and what God has done for them. God is inviting them to return a homeland they do not know but one that gave their ancestors life. God isn’t asking them to go back to what they have experienced. God is, instead, inviting them into a new adventure to create a new home in the place God promises to be. God is giving them a new life.

Verse 31 is beautiful but our translation doesn’t capture what Isaiah is saying here. The faithful will not do their best impression of the Lord of Rings and mount eagles that will fly them into the sky. The faithful will, instead, be like a “molting eagle who exchanges old wings for new.” (Charles Aaron Jr, Working Preacher.com). What God invites us to do is to look forward to our transformation into who God is calling us to be.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany, 2/04/2018.

Foodies: Negotiating Faith and Life.

If you don’t take a picture of every meal you eat, did it really exist?

I know this is a silly question but if you spend any time on social media, you know people love taking pictures of their food. And I love taking pictures of my food too. When I go to a great restaurant, I want to showcase their skill. When I visit a friend’s dinner party, I want to showcase their gifts of hospitality. And when my kids bake cookies, I want to share their hard work. But there’s are food events I don’t take pictures of. You won’t see a picture of lunch leftovers on my instagram and you won’t see the bag of chips I “accidentally” ate for dinner last night. One of the great things about social media is that we get to choose what we share online. But This is also a problem. We usually only share the experiences making us look like we are living our best life. When we showcase the meal at the trendy restaurant, we are doing more than highlighting the skills of the chefs. We’re also letting everyone know that we have the wealth, status, time, and “coolness” to visit this kind of place. 

Social Media is an obvious example of what we do constantly: we curate our own life. We choose what to share and what we don’t. We choose what to tell our friends and what to keep to ourselves. We make the choice to present a pleasant, happy, rich, and strong side of ourselves. We project a certain kind of image for others to see. And this image is developed through a constant negotiation with the world around us. We identify what the culture values and we try to match it. We negotiate what we can share and what we can’t. We struggle with a world that expects us to be a certain way. We want to be ourselves but this constant negotiation means we sometime see wonder if we can. 

In our reading from 1st Corinthians 8:1-13 today, Paul is writing to a community struggling with this kind of negotiation. In their world, animal sacrifices are normal and expected. Animals are killed in various religious temples and the meat is given, or sold, to people. Meat in the ancient world was extremely expensive. For many people, the meat from animals sacrifices was the only meat they would ever eat. Christianity, as we know it, wasn’t a major religion yet. The followers of Jesus in Corinth were small and the only ones in the area. They are learning how live, share, and curate their new Christian identity. And that, even today, isn’t an easy thing to do. 

Paul, I think, is inviting the community in Corinth to be intentional in everything they do. They need to know the truth about who they are, whose they are, and what their wider community is like. They need to know that people will watch what they are doing and they need to know why they do the things they do. They need to negotiate with their culture but always begin that negotiate in, and through, Jesus. Jesus, when he deals with the world, thinks of the other person first. And Jesus always offers a love that is rooted in a God who will never give up on the world.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany, 1/28/2018.

The End of the World is Tomorrow

Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 is not, in some ways, the best advice to give to others. I wouldn’t tell a married person to live as if they were single. I wouldn’t tell someone who is mourning to act like they are not. And I wouldn’t tell anyone to pretend as if they are not living in the real world. This passage shows us why knowing the context of biblical writings is important. If we take these verses at face value, we would end up making some un-Christian life choices. But if we remember who Paul was and what he believed, this passage makes a little more sense.

Paul honestly thought the world was going to end tomorrow. The end times were not metaphorical, symbolic, or something that will happen “in the near future.” For Paul, if today was Sunday, the world is ending on Monday. He had no idea that there would be a Christian church 2000 years into the future. Paul wrote, preached, and shared Jesus with an incredible sense of urgency. The current structure of the world was about to be undone. Everything, including our relationships, society, and culture was going to change in ways we couldn’t imagine. Paul could, in the same breath, encourage slaves to not worry about being free and spouses to act as if they are not married, because the world was about to change. And even when Paul did act like relationships were important, he always assumed they wouldn’t last. Living a long and faith-filled Christian life was not something he spent much energy on.

As Paul aged, his writing slowly changed. His ministry lasted over twenty years and the amount of urgency in his writing dropped (but only by a hair). He never lost the hope that he would see Jesus’ return in his lifetime. And in some ways, the Christian life is rooted in that expectation. Every Sunday, we say out loud that Jesus will come again. And we, as a congregation, mean it. But the questions we ask about daily living are different. We don’t assume that because Jesus will return tomorrow, we can ignore today’s responsibilities. Instead, because we know Jesus will come again, we live everyday as he did. We heal what needs to be healed. We repair what is broken. We take seriously our relationships. We care for the earth like God does. We bring good news to the poor. And we think about others before we think about ourselves. Since we expect Jesus to return, we live as if he is already here. And, in away, he already is because he is present whenever we gather together.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany, 1/21/2018.

How Does God Love the World? John 1

This morning’s gospel (John 1:43-51) reading is unexpected. We are in the year where we focus on the gospel according to Mark but today we detour to the gospel according to John. In John’s narrative, this scene takes place after Jesus meets John the baptism. Jesus begins to find his disciples. Peter and his brother Andrew are two of the first disciples Jesus calls. And then Jesus goes to Galilee to find Philip. Exactly where Philip was, scripture doesn’t tell us. In fact, scripture doesn’t tell us much about Philip at all. We really don’t know who Philip is or what he was doing when he met Jesus. We don’t know if Philip was religious or if he attended synagogue every week. We don’t know if Philip was seeking the Messiah or if faith was important to him at all. All the gospel according to John tells us is that Jesus went to Galilee and found Philip. For John, what Jesus does here and what Philip does next is what being a follower of Jesus is all about.

If we want to follow Jesus, we need to trust that we cannot follow Jesus unless Jesus comes to us. And that visit by Jesus happens in a variety of ways. Jesus comes to us in the moment of our baptism, when we gather to worship in church, when we sing together as a community, and when we share Jesus’ body and blood in communion. Jesus also comes to us when we are praying for a friend, when we are hiking far from civilization, and when we are stuck on a crowded subway car. Jesus makes himself known to us by by sending us a feeling of peace when peace feels impossible. He sometimes speaks words of hope that only we can hear. And he shows up by pushing us to love our neighbors even when we don’t want to. There’s no “right” way that Jesus comes to us. Rather, Jesus comes to us over and over again wherever we are. Jesus finds us because we are worth being found.

And once we are found, we are sent to find others. As we see in this text, following Jesus means living like Jesus does. Jesus finds Philip and so Philip finds Nathaniel. Our faith isn’t a commodity only for ourselves. Our faith, instead, compels us to share it with others. We are called to invite folks to know Jesus. We are called to invite folks to church. We are called to listen to the questions others have, to answer them as best we can, to be honest if we don’t know the answer, and still to be brave enough to tell them to “come and see.” We are called to be like Jesus and to be like Philip. Because when Jesus finds us, we become more than just ourselves; we become part of Jesus himself (aka the body of Christ). And when we find others, God is using us to love the world (John 3:16).

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany, 1/14/2018.

The Light was Good: Genesis 1

In the beginning, a lot of things were called good. The motion of the sun and moon, the monsters in the sea, and the critters on the land are all called good in the first verses in the book of Genesis. God does more than just create; God also gives everything in the universe worth and value. Water, land, animals, and people are created by a God who loves and values them. And since God, without prompting, has decided that everything in creation has value, we are called live lives that value everything. Much of what God creates in the book of Genesis are orders: systems of relationships where everything has a place and everything takes care of everything else in the system. But there is one thing, standing on its own, that God called good. We discover that goodness in our reading from Genesis 1:1-5 today. God created light and calls light, in itself, good.

Genesis, I think, invites us to play around with light. We don’t have to, at first, immediately place light in competition with its opposite. Even before darkness is created, God called the light good. Light does not need to be defined as the opposite of darkness. Instead light, on it’s own, has value and worth. We should explore what light is and does before we try to see what light struggls against.

So what does light do? Light illuminates. Light exposes. Light uncovers what we try to hide. Light, above all, shines. There is a reason why so many of our hymns and songs talk about light. When we focus on the light, we learn how we can act like the light. What, in our own lives, is God’s light trying to expose? What, in our world, is God’s light trying to uncover? How can our community let God’s light shine?

The light God called good is a light that is still in our universe and in our lives. And God gives us that light at different moments in our lives. When we were baptized, we were united with the light that was there at the beginning of creation – God’s true light – God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This light is a light we all carry. This light that God called God is a light that leads us. And we are invited to be just like this light to everyone we meet.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the Baptism of Jesus, 1/07/2018.

How did you countdown to Christmas?

This year, I spent each day helping my family countdown to Christmas using three different Advent calendars. One calendar told a part of Jesus’ story each day through scripture, hymns, and stories. Our second calendar was all about Santa. Each window in the calendar opened to reveal Santa doing different things to get ready for Christmas Eve. Our last calendar was a bit different. Instead of opening a piece of the calendar to reveal Jesus’ story, we instead added something to a nativity scene. Geese, cows, cattle, camels, angels, stars, and more needed to be placed on that nativity scene. And we could put those characters wherever we wanted. On some days, a cow ended up in the sky. Mary had to spend time on the roof. Joseph slept in a tree. This kind of calendar was a lot of fun because it invited my family and I to make God’s story our own. And when we play with God’s story, we discover how much that story makes a difference for us.

An Advent calendar isn’t the only way to countdown to Christmas. We can also cross names off our “to buy” list, put x’s through all the holiday parties we attended, or count the moments we sat in silence as moments of sadness and mourning flow through us. Christmas can be a difficult holiday because we expect so much out of it. We expect joy, comfort, happiness, and snow. We struggle when Christmas doesn’t match what we want it to be. Yet, as we will hear tonight, Christmas isn’t a moment where God meets our expectations. Instead, God does something brand new. No one in Bethlehem expected God to show up in a barn behind the inn. Only Mary and Joseph knew what God was up to and even they were unaware of what Jesus’ story was all about. The angels told the shepherds but the rest of the townsfolk, city dwellers, local farmers, and even the distant Roman Emperor were not even looking for God to show up, in the flesh, on that first Christmas night. All of us countdown to Christmas in different ways. We expect Christmas to show up and a “good” Christmas will match whatever our expectations will be. May this season invite all of us to discover the God who doesn’t let our expectations be the limit to what God will do.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Christmas Eve, 12/24/2017.

Mary Sings

If you look at the readings today, you’ll notice we’re doing something different. On a normal Sunday, we hear one or two scripture readings before I read a piece from the gospels. The lectionary, the 3 year cycle of readings we use every Sunday, gives us three readings and one psalm (or a poem) to look at every Sunday. Some churches read all four pieces of scripture every Sunday. It’s the tradition at CLC to share the gospel and one or two more readings. We rarely read the psalm or poem. But today we’re breaking our local tradition by singing that poem out loud.

Today’s second piece of scripture is a sung version of the Magnificant, aka Mary’s song. In the gospel according to Luke, Mary is pregnant and she visits her cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the child in Elizabeth’s womb (aka John the Baptist) leaps for joy. Elizabeth celebrates and tells Mary what just happened. Mary responds to this amazing moment with a song.

Mary’s words are powerful. She celebrates God, God’s relationship with her, and the way God moves in the world. God, according to Mary, reverses our expectations. The powerful, rich, and proud lose their status. It’s the hungry who God feeds. God lifts up the poor and protects the vulnerable. God, according to Mary, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away. In our culture and context, we routinely separate people into groups and we decide who should be listened to and who shouldn’t. As human beings, we are very good at choosing sides and giving power to the privileged. According to Mary’s song, God chooses sides too. And the side God chooses might not be one we expect.

Mary’s song is a song of celebration. But it’s also a song that gives us pause. The journey Mary is going on will be difficult. She is pregnant but she has no prenatal care. She is going to give birth in a time and place where women routinely died during childbirth. Her son will grow up, challenge the religious and governing authorities, and they will respond by sending Jesus to the cross. Mary will see her son up there. She, as a parent, will see God act in ways she doesn’t expect. There will be much for her not to celebrate. She will have to live through a difficult story. But maybe that is part of the hope that is a big part of Mary’s song. The God she will give birth to is the same God who will help her live through whatever comes next.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 12/24/2017.

The Spirit of the Lord

One of the neat things about the incarnation is how messy it is. The incarnation, if you don’t know term, is what Jesus does on Christmas day: Jesus is born. In his birth, Jesus decided to become a human being. But Jesus doesn’t lose his divine identity when he does this. Instead, Jesus becomes a paradox. He is both 100% human and 100% divine. This is something that shouldn’t be possible because someone who is 100% divine cannot be 100% human (i.e. someone who can die, someone who needs to eat, someone who needs to sleep) at the same time. The incarnation (Jesus becoming human; God being born) is messy because our lives, from the beginning, are messy events. We enter the world covered in goo. We spend time in the dirt and in the grass. We eat, sweat, and sometimes stink. Jesus chose to be messy which, if we think about it, is a surprising thing for God to do.

Yet this messiness is also an invitation brining us closer to God. Instead of viewing the incarnation only as a moment when God comes to us, our reading from Isaiah invites us to wonder what it would be like to go towards God. If we were on God’s home turf, hanging out in God’s kingdom, what would it look like? What would be happening? Isaiah answers those questions with his words here. God does more than just accompany us on our journey. God is also an activate participate in whatever God created. God empowers people to bring good news to the oppress, to heal the broken, and to free prisoners. God’s kingdom is a world filled with justice and peace. God kingdom is, in the end, the place where the vulnerable are made whole, no matter what.

These words from Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 are words that are central to Jesus’ public ministry. In the gospel according to Luke, Jesus quotes these passages and the crowd almost throws him off a cliff. The crowd could see that Jesus’ words were powerful because they knew what Jesus’ words meant. The passage from Isaiah proclaims a promise that God’s kingdom is a kingdom where a great reversal takes place. The situation in our world will be reversed by a God who desires life, love, and peace to all people, regardless of where they were born or what advantages they gained in life. The incarnation isn’t only about Jesus being born. The incarnation is also an invitation for us to realize that a part of our Christian life is to follow Jesus by being Jesus-like to all our neighbors in need

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Third Sunday of Advent, 12/17/2017.

Prepare the way?

Does God need us to prepare the way of the Lord?

Today’s reading from Isaiah 40:1-11 is a text Christians see as pointing to the ministry John the Baptist did. God called a person to bring God’s word of comfort and challenge to all of God’s people. But this text is more than just a prediction of something that happened 600 years after it was written. It’s a passage that also tells the story of a prophet preaching to the Jewish community in Exile. The Babylonian empire had destroyed Jerusalem, burned God’s Temple, and forcibly relocated the survivors to what is now Iraq. The people felt abandoned because the war destroyed their homeland. They wondered where God was because it seemed as if God broke all of God’s promises. Their faith, identity, and sense of self are in turmoil. And that’s when God brings all of them a word of comfort and hope. At first, this new prophet wondered why they should preach at all. The people, the prophet proclaimed, are like grass and flowers – they might pay attention to God’s word when it suits them but, eventually, they will turn away. God, however, responded by reminding the prophet of who God is. The value and worth of God’s word does not depend on what people do once they hear it. Instead, God’s word matters because it comes from God. And even in our moments when we feel abandoned and all alone, God is still with us and will never let us go.

There are times in our lives when we think we can convince God to something on our behalf. We bargain with God, making promises of our own. We tell God we’ll go to church each week, hoping that we will be blessed. We promise to pray every night, and hope God will make a health crisis pass. We see a preacher on tv and send him money because he promises that God will reward us with more money than we give to him. And we sometimes act as if we can force Jesus’ return if we make some kind of political or religious event happen. But does God, the creator of the universe, need us to do that? Can we truly bargain with the one who is the past, the present, and the future all at once? Our God isn’t a God who believes in “pay-to-play” kind of realities. Our God, instead, just loves. Our God, instead, keeps God’s promises. We worship, study, pray, and live generous lives because, in Christ, we discover that is exactly who God is. Jesus knows what it’s like to feel abandoned. He knows what it’s like when people don’t believe the stories he shares. He knows what it’s like when the powerful try to shut him down, refusing to listen to his experiences. He knows what it is like to cry out to God in pain, suffering, and hope. Jesus knows what it’s like to be like us. The story of God isn’t a story where people someone convince God to be on our side. God’s story is about discovering how God is with us, no matter what. When we know Jesus, we see God more clearly. And when we live a Jesus-like life, we discover who God wants us to be.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Second Sunday of Advent, 12/10/2017.