Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Saturday, December 24, 2022

YEAR A 2022 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2022
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 96

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Now that the sun has set, I can safely say, Merry Christmas to you all.  To those foolhardy enough to come out tonight, as well as those joining us online at home.  It has been a bitterly cold couple of days across the country, which has led us to check in on our family and neighbors, even more than usual.  To make sure they’re okay, and that they have everything they need.  And in many ways, this fits perfectly with the entire concept of Christmas:  That God was born a human being and became one of us, fully human, in every sense of the word.  Needing help from those around him.  Our savior was born as a helpless baby; God has taken on human flesh.

And there are important changes in our world because of that.  God becoming human is a reminder that life is sanctified, a stamp of approval on creation.  As we are told in the creation story in Genesis, we are made in the image of God.  And Jesus taking on human form completes that cycle.  You could say,  we are made in the image of God, and now God is made in the image of humans, in the person of Jesus.  And, what’s more, every single person is made in the image of God.  Whether we like it or not, God’s image is standing right in front of us, sitting right next to us.  Gay, straight, or trans, Democrat or Republican, Ohio State or Michigan fan.  No matter what we think of that person, we are looking at the image of God.

And thinking back on the story we heard, just imagine what the glorious angels thought of those lowly shepherds.  What the shepherds thought of the selfish innkeeper.  What humble Mary thought about the angel Gabriel.  What Joseph thought about his mysteriously pregnant fiancee’.  And later on, what the wise kings  thought of the disgusting manger setting.  Each and every one of them made in the image of God.  None of these people belong together.  And yet, here they are, altogether, in one of the most well-known stories ever told.

And why are all these people gathered together tonight?  Well, the shepherds told us:  because this thing has taken place.  This event brings them all together.  The shepherds say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  This thing.  They don’t even know what to call it; they certainly don’t understand it; they don’t even know what has happened.  But they leave their flocks behind, because this thing has taken place.

Which leads me to ask, what brings you here tonight?  Why did you bundle up and drive on over to this lovely old building with the red doors?  I’m sure some are home visiting family, and it’s a tradition.  Some came because you come every year.  Some because your grandparents came every year.  Some came because your mom made you.  Some because you like to sing the Christmas carols, or look at the pretty lights.  Some because it wouldn’t be Christmas without coming to this place, on this night.

But why?  Why do we go through all this, despite the weather and the hassle and whatever else?  Why are any of us here tonight?  Well, the answer is THIS THING.  We are here because this thing has taken place.  And we keep coming back.  We come out of hope.  We come out of duty.  We come to see the spectacle.  We come wondering if it all just might be true.  We are all in the same boat here.  Whatever you think about God and Jesus and humanity the rest of the year, you’re here tonight.  Because of this thing that has taken place.

The story is the same every year.  And it will never change, no matter why it is that we show up.  Because THIS thing has taken place:  God, the creator of all that is, has come to dwell among us.  The One in whom we live and move and have our being has shown up, and keeps showing up.

In the midst of despair and sadness and tragedy and grief, there is also hope and joy and laughter and babies.  Because God has come to dwell among us, and is still here.  Don’t ever lose sight of that point: because Jesus was born this night, God dwells among us.  No matter what or why or how, this thing HAS taken place, and it changes everything.
Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

MACCA Advent Service

Thoughts on The Innkeeper
St. Jacob’s Lutheran Church, Massillon OH
Luke 2:1-7

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

First off, I used to play in a band.  And we actually played two concerts in this church.  The most-recent of those was in 1987.  So . . . it's good to be back

So the assignment for the preachers these four Wednesdays in Advent is to put ourselves in the place of one or more of the characters in the Christmas story.  I decided it would be fun to go with the Innkeeper, since I had some thoughts about that already in my head.  Except here’s the thing:  There really isn’t an Innkeeper in the story.  At least not in the way that there are shepherds, or Joseph, or angels.  The only mention of an inn is in Luke, the verse we just heard, and that mention is simply “because there was no place for them in the inn.”

An Innkeeper might be implied in our 21st century hearing, but there certainly isn’t one in the text.  The inn itself is just sort of mentioned as an afterthought.  An explanation for why they’re out back in the stable.  We aren’t given a whole lot to go on here, but we can imagine.  

First of all, I’m intrigued that it says, “There was no room for them at the inn.”  Is that because nobody wants all that noise in the room next to them?  Is it because the last place a pregnant mother wants to give birth is at a crowded inn?  And it raises the question, did the innkeeper reject them, turn them away, or is it that there just isn’t any room?  Both of those questions can sort of turn back on us.  Jesus is coming.  Do we reject him?  Or do we turn him away because there’s just no room for him in our lives?

Of course, that idea could be used to make you feel bad for focusing too much on buying presents and stuff.  Like I could shake my fist at you and ask, “ARE YOU MAKING ROOM FOR JESUS THIS CHRISTMAS?”  But that’s not really my style, and it’s not very grace oriented, is it?  I’d be chased out of a Lutheran church for suggesting that you could be guilted into welcoming Jesus.  Martin Luther would put me on his naughty list.

But how about this idea.  Maybe the Innkeeper is actually being a gracious host.  Like, imagine that the Innkeeper sees Mary is about to give birth.  The inn is crowded with noisy strangers.  And in an act of compassion, the Innkeeper takes her around back and finds a quiet stable for her to bring this baby into the world.  Maybe the Innkeeper is compassionate and caring, rather than someone who slams the door in the face of stressed-out parents.

My thinking is that the Innkeeper is all of these.  A perfect metaphor for whatever you need to see.  Some of us don’t have room for Jesus, and need to be reminded to make room for Jesus in our lives.  And some of us need to look outside ourselves, and to be reminded to watch out for those who need our help.  The Innkeeper is sort of the perfect blank slate for all of us at Christmas time:  Some of us are ready.  Some of us turn him away.  Some are making extra steps to make others comfortable.  

And in a way, it doesn’t matter how the Innkeeper treated Mary and Joseph when they knocked on the door.  Because Jesus came into the world either way.  Whether welcomed or rejected, this baby is coming.  Salvation is coming, ready or not.

The song we’ll be singing in just a few minutes captures this idea perfectly, in my opinion.  The fourth verse says, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”  Our hearts, our lives are like that manger.  And you notice that it’s not up to us to get that manger ready for Jesus?  The song asks for God to cast out our sin and enter in.  The Innkeeper might have rejected Jesus; the Innkeeper might have had compassion and set Mary up as comfortably as possible.  But it is God who sends the baby, whether we are ready or not.  Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.  Indeed.  Come, Lord Jesus.


Sunday, December 18, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 4

Advent 4, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So this gospel text we just heard, you probably know it very well by now.  The angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, even though she is pregnant.  It’s kind of key to the story, right?  Or at least key to how Matthew tells the story.  And speaking of how Matthew tells the story, there are couple things we need to know in order to understand the story correctly.

First of all, Matthew is writing for the Hebrew people.  Mark wrote for the Romans; Luke wrote for the Gentiles; Matthew wrote for the Jews.  And for this reason, Matthew is always emphasizing the connections to the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old Testament.”  In Matthew, we are likely to find phrases like, “This happened in order to fulfill the scriptures.”  So for Matthew it’s important to make these connections to the Jewish faith, so his audience would understand that Jesus is the Messiah.

That’s why in the first chapter of Matthew, we get what is called “The Genealogy.”  The first 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel never come up in the readings in church (thankfully), because it’s just a long list of names to you and me.  However, that long list of names is important to his Jewish audience.  Because it ties Joseph all the way back to the beginning of the line of David, and to Abraham.  

On the other hand, this is an odd thing for Matthew to do.  Because although it proves that Joseph is descended from Abraham, Joseph is not the father of Jesus, as we just heard.  I have never understood this, and I’ve never seen a good explanation for it, so I probably shouldn’t have brought it up.  But I did.

But there are two things I want to talk about from this reading we just heard.  Mary is great with child, and “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That doesn’t seem too crazy to you and me, right?  It’s like, Joseph is a decent guy, and he’s just going to kind of do right by Mary, even though he is probably personally devastated to find his fiancĂ© is pregnant.  Except here’s the thing . . .

A righteous man would not dismiss her quietly.  A truly righteous man would report Mary to the authorities, and she would then be publicly humiliated and stoned to death.  A righteous man does not ignore the religious codes in order to save a sinner, even a sinner whom he loves.  A righteous man follows the rules, even if that means a horrible outcome.  That’s what it means to be righteous.

Moses wrote down the rules for the children of Abraham to follow.  It is clear in the Torah exactly what is supposed to happen to a woman who has sexual relations before marriage.  And a righteous man would follow those rules.

So why do we hear that because Joseph was a righteous man, he is going to violate the religious laws?  Well, I think the answer is one that we have run into before.  God loves people more than rules.  Or, in the words of Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Or to put it another way, because of Jesus, the very definition of righteousness has been transformed.  Compassion and sympathy are what is righteous.  No longer is strict adherence to the Law more important than saving human beings.  Joseph, in his righteousness, saves Mary from the righteous Law.  A righteous man saves her from righteousness.  Everything has changed, because Jesus has come to fulfill the law, not to replace the law.

And the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  Because she will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  She will, you will, he will.  Isn’t that interesting?  In one sentence, she will, you will, he will.  She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  And what I love is how all three wills work together.  Mary must give birth.  And Joseph must name him Jesus, because the name Jesus means “God saves,” and that’s what Jesus does: he saves.

And here’s where maybe there actually is a connection to that Genealogy I brought up earlier.  Joseph is descended from the House of David—from Abraham’s line.  In giving this child the name Jesus, Joseph is making the connection for us.  Joseph, a descendant of David, a child of Abraham, is announcing to the world that God saves, because of Mary’s son.  

But there’s another name we heard this morning as well.  We heard it in Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahaz, in the first reading.  Isaiah says, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  And then in the Gospel reading, Matthew writes,
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Which is a very Matthew thing to do, as I mentioned earlier.

So, today we hear that Jesus means, “God saves.”  And Emmanuel means, “God is with us.”  God is with us, and God saves, both promises coming together in the birth of this Messiah.  God is with us, and God saves. 

And here’s what I find truly important about Joseph’s situation here.  It is messy and confusing and by no means what we’d call “neat and tidy.”  And not coincidentally, the birth of a baby is also not neat and tidy.  And when it comes right down to it, life itself is not neat and tidy.  In our day to day lives, we never know what is coming, and when it arrives, it is rarely what we expected.

But notice how God meets Joseph where he is, in the midst of the not-neat-and-tidiness of his life.  The angel brings a message from God that there is another way.  That he need not be afraid to do what his heart tells him to do: to let Jesus be born into our messy world.  The story of Joseph and the angel and Mary and the baby are reminders to us, that God has not given up on this world.  God meets us in the not-neat-and-tidiness of our lives, and reminds us that we are not alone.  God is with us, and God saves.  And this morning, you will stretch out your hands and receive that reassurance in bread and wine, the body of Christ and the cup of salvation.  You are not alone, and God is with us, and Jesus saves.


Thursday, December 15, 2022

Ordination of the Rev. Maureen Major

Ordination of the Rev. Maureen Major
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 132:8-19
Philippians 4:4-9
Matthew 9:35-38

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As we heard, Paul wrote to the Philippians, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.  But first . . .

This is the first Ordination I’ve ever preached at.  I’ve been to a few, and been ordained twice myself.  So let’s start with that famous opening line from Admiral Stockdale at the 1992 Vice-presidential debate:  Who am I, and why am I here?

I’m Fr. George Baum, Rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, where the football comes from.  I was Mother Mo’s fieldwork supervisor, and I’m here to support her, and also to preach this sermon.  Now, if I ask you who you are you and why you are here, your answer will be different from mine.     Mother Mo’s answer will certainly be different from all of ours. As will Stephen her husband’s answers. And the Bishop’s answers, and so on. Each one of us will have a different answer to those two questions.  Who am I and why am here? 

Now, the Philosophy major Mo Major knows there are deeper existential questions at play here.  Because it gets to the heart of our existence to really probe these questions.  Who we are, and why are we here, and who God created us to be, and who we will one day be. They’re not the same for any of us, because we are constantly changing. 

I am going to risk alienating some of my clergy colleagues by saying that I am a big fan of Process Theology.  (We burn our bridges where we dare.)  But one aspect of Process Theology is that part of us remains the same, and yet we are constantly changing, being shaped by our experiences.  Always being lured into what we were meant to be.  And at the same time, never what we will one day be.

I have had the unique privilege of watching Mother Mo growing into the person God is calling her to be. And she has had a unique vantage point of watching me continue to grow into the priest God is calling me to be.  Point being, we are who we are, and yet we are always changing.

There’s a scene in Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where Lord Henry says, "You don't really object to being reminded that you are extremely young.”  Dorian responds, ”I should have objected very strongly this morning.”  And Lord Henry says, “Ah! this morning! You have lived since then.”  We are who we are, and we are always changing.

Today is a landmark day.  But it is also really at heart just all of us watching Mo continuing to respond to God’s call on her life.  And it is also a landmark day for the Universal Church. Because as Mo becomes a priest, the Church itself will be changed as well.  Ordination to the Priesthood feels like the end of the road. Crossing some finish line. But it’s not. It’s more like opening a gate, into an endless field of possibilities.

It all led up to this . . . so that this can lead to something else.  You will be made a priest so that you can do priesty stuff.  A long and twisty process to get you here, and the process has transformed you to do the next thing.  And here’s a secret that I’m probably not supposed to tell you:  The next thing will never be what you expect it to be!  Many people will say, this is the most important day of Mo’s life.  But I will paraphrase the great homer Simpson and say, It is the most important day of Mo’s life . . .  so far. 

Who am I and why am I here?  Mo will have even different answers to those questions when she leaves this room today.  She entered as a deacon, and she will leave as a priest, but will still be a deacon.  I don’t want to go too far down this inside-church-baseball track, but this is because of what we call “ontological change.”  These Ordination mysteries mark a change in who we are, and they cannot be lightly undone.  Mother Mo will always be a Deacon, and starting tonight, she will always be a Priest.  

But everything is also about to change for Stephen Major.  Last September he underwent his own ontological change when he became a husband.  And now, he’s going to be married to a priest.  The ones closest to us see the changes most dramatically, because they know us the most intimately. This morning, Stephen woke up married to a Deacon.  Ah, this morning. But you have lived since then. 

And of course, everything is also about to change for the people of St. James Church.  The good people of this parish are willing to take a chance on someone new, knowing that who you are and why you are here are always changing as well. You are not who you were, you are not who you’ll be, but you know why you are here.  And now, this Sunday, you will once more have a priest standing at this Altar, bringing the priesthood into your midst.

Back to where we started . . . Philippians.  I feel like Paul gives us the answers to our two questions tonight.  Do you want to know who you are, and why you are here?  Think about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Sounds almost desperate, doesn’t it?  Like Paul has stripped things down to their essentials.  Think about those things.  It’s like, when Sam says, “there’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo.”  It’s a ray of hope, in case you run into the absolute depths of despair.  Like Paul is saying, if you live in NE Ohio as we approach the winter solstice, look for this light.  Think about these things.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

And if we think about these things, with God’s help, we will know who we are, and why we are here, and where we are going.

God bless Mother Mo and Stephen Major.  God bless the people of St. James Church.  May you all be reminded every day who you are, and whose you are, and why you are here.


Monday, December 12, 2022

Installation of Fr. Alex Barton

Installation of the Rev. Alex Barton
Church of the Redeemer, Lorain OH
Joshua 1:7-9
Psalm 146
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
John 15:9-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

For those I haven’t met, my name is Fr. George Baum, I am the rector at St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, where the football comes from, and I’m honored to be here with you on this festive night.  I grew up in Niagara Falls, where the carbon plants used to be, which is very close to Buffalo, where the steel mills used to be.  And now we live in Massillon, where the steel mills used to be, and we’re gathered tonight in Lorain, where the steel mills used to be.

The common thread there, of course, is the phrase, “used to be.”  So many cities in this part of the country hit their peak of success in manufacturing a particular thing that was once in high demand.  The people who owned those plants and mills got rich, and the workers got by.  When factories close down, the rich folks move on to the next thing, and the workers tend to be stranded, needing to find new ways to support their families, in a town that has lots of empty buildings.  And that cheerful opening obviously brings me to the sewers of London in the 19th century. 

Henry Scott Holland was an Anglican priest in the slums of London in the 1890s.  He campaigned for better sanitation in the city’s poor districts, and was told to stop interfering in secular affairs, because priests’ opinions don’t belong in such earthly matters.  You know, stay in your lane, as they say.  His response was, "I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.”

When I first read this, I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever heard.  As he later wrote, “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  I find it’s such an important and moving idea.  And when I quote that line to people . . . well, I tend to get a blank stare in response.  You know, like I say to someone, “It’s like, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains, right?”  Nothing.

Okay.  The “Incarnation.” This is the fancy word for God becoming a human being.  To incarnate something is to bring it into the flesh, right?  So the Incarnation of God is just church speak for Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem—same name as the steel plant outside Buffalo.  Now we already make the connection between people’s physical wellbeing and the Incarnation, even if we don’t know it.

When you put your loose change in the Salvation Army kettle.  When you cook a bunch of turkeys for people on Thanksgiving.  When you offer community meals with produce from the church gardens.  When you gather up toiletries and fill an entire room with them to give away to your neighbors in need.  Whether we know it or not, we are proclaiming the link between the physical person of Jesus and caring for people’s physical needs.  We could say, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about children having enough food to eat.

Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex have already done so much together, and it looks as though you are just getting started!  You’re making the rest of us look bad.  And that’s why I’ve often thought, if I could serve at any church in the Diocese, I would choose to work alongside Fr. Alex and the people of this parish.  And if you tell anyone in Massillon I said that, I will deny it till my dying breath!  But together, you all seem to be doing the exact work that Jesus would have us do, rather than what Jesus himself would do.

And speaking of that, I’ve never found it helpful to ask ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?”  Asking ourselves what Jesus would do sets up a whole list of things we cannot possibly do, including ushering in the Kingdom of God and redeeming all creation.  I feel like a more helpful question we might ask is, say, “What would Karl Marx do . . . if Karl Marx believed in the Incarnation of Jesus?”  Not what would Jesus do, but rather what would a Christian version of Karl Marx do?  That gives us a completely different list than what Jesus does.  A list that is directly connected to the Incarnation of God and caring about the drains.

Because that question leads us to fight against systemic injustice, to defend those who are oppressed, to help those who are out of work, to give food to the hungry, to make sure everyone has enough.  That question would lead us to buy up abandoned property to plant organic gardens, and use the produce to cook food to feed our neighbors delicious healthy meals.  Doing all the kinds of things that the church should be doing everywhere all the time.  In a very real sense, the Church of the Redeemer is redeeming the Church . . . from the inside out.  “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  You folks believe in the Incarnation, and it shows.

But enough of me talking about you.  Let’s talk about marriage.  That gospel reading we just heard, from John, is often used at weddings and is also used at a celebration of new ministry, like this one.  As we heard, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  And I think our immediate takeaway is, “Oh no!  I have to keep a bunch of commandments in order to abide in the love of Jesus?”  I can hardly keep my calendar straight, how am I going to keep all these commandments?  If it’s up to me, I stand little chance of abiding in God’s love.  And that’s true.  However . . .

Jesus goes on to say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  It turns out, it’s just one commandment.  It’s not a long list of behavior modification requirements that we can never fully achieve.  It’s just one thing:  Love one another.  But there’s a catch!  Love one another as I have loved you.

As I have loved you.  And that’s exactly why I love using this reading at weddings.  Because we can then ask ourselves, okay, so how does Jesus love us?  And the answer is, unconditionally.  Jesus loves us for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, and even beyond that veil when we pass into the arms of angels.  Jesus loves us unconditionally, and that is how we are to love one another.  Without regard to any of the things society tells us are important.  Without regard to status, or wealth, or social position, or anything else.

And when it comes down to it, this celebration of a new ministry is very much like a celebration of marriage.  The people of the Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex Barton are finally getting hitched tonight!  For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.  You are all taking your relationship to the next level, where you will abide together in the love of Jesus, keeping his commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.

And the love you have for one another is what will carry you into the future together.  A future of feeding those who are hungry.  Of reclaiming blighted plots of land and turning them into a source of food.  Of welcoming every person who walks through those doors and loving them unconditionally.  In short, of caring about the drains.

Fr. Alex, people of Redeemer, you are an inspiration to so many across our Diocese and beyond.  May you continue to walk in love, as God loves us.  May you abide in the love of Jesus, following his commandment to love one another unconditionally.  And may your ministry among the people of Lorain continue to be a beacon of hope, and a reminder to all who meet you that God has not given up on this world, and God still cares very much about the drains.


Sunday, December 11, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 3

Advent 3, 2022
Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11
Psalm 146:4-9

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”  That question cuts to the heart of the readings today.  Essentially, what were you expecting?  It fits perfectly with our journey through this Advent season.  We’re all waiting; but what are we waiting for?  Put another way, depending on our expectations, we might end up mightily disappointed.  But we’ll get to that.

The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah is just beautiful.  I love this reading so much!  Even though it’s from a completely different part of Isaiah, it fits perfectly with last week’s reading, where the lion and the lamb will lie down together and a little child shall lead them.  And in this section today, we hear all about the setting that will one day be.  The desert shall rejoice and blossom.  Water in the wilderness, burning sands will become pools.  A hostile environment shall become lush with greenery and growth.  

And the best part of is right toward the beginning.  Like the crocus, the desert shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.  That phrase, “like the crocus” really speaks to me, because where we live now, every spring those little guys just pop up all over our yard.  At first it’s just a few, and we treat them like little sacred beings.  Be careful not to step on those scarce fragile beautiful signs of springtime and renewal.  And then there’s a few more, and a few more.  And then one day, we come outside and they are everywhere!  Rejoicing and laughing and singing.  To say that the desert shall be like the crocus, well, finally there’s a metaphor that I get!

And speaking of metaphors I finally get, another line I love in this Isaiah reading is this:  A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way . . . and no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  Not even fools can miss it.  Not even fools can get lost.  As my wife well knows, after all those years of touring, I can easily find my way around Omaha, and Des Moines, and a hundred other random cities in America without a map.  But ask me how to get from our house to somewhere five miles away, and I’m hopeless.  But one day, there shall be a highway where no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  Excellent!

But back to flowers.  The reading we heard from James offers up this analogy about expectations:  "The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”  Last month, a certain lady I know planted 1,350 tulip bulbs in our backyard—perhaps trying to upstage those crocuses.  She put those things in the ground, and now she waits with patience for their arrival.  Sure, it’d be great to have tulips popping up out of the ground during the bleak midwinter, but that’s not how flowers work.  You plant the seeds and bulbs, and then you wait.  You let them do the thing that makes them into what they are meant to be.  And, hopefully, what you get is exactly what you were expecting.  She waits with expectation.

And Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”  What were you expecting?  And his follow up questions tell you what they were expecting.  A frail reed.  Someone dressed in soft robes.  A prophet.  That’s what they were expecting.  And what did they get?  Well, you remember, we heard it last week.  A socialist who wears camel fur, eats grasshoppers, and yells at respectable people.  Not what they were expecting, to put it mildly.

But before that part, John the Baptist sends his disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask Jesus a straight-up question:  Are you the one we are expecting, or are we to wait for another?  It’s a bold question, but quite simple.  Either Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for, or they will be waiting for another.  Simple as that.  Jesus could have told John’s disciples, yes or no.  A simple up-or-down vote, as the politicians like to say.  I mean, it really is a yes or no question.  Just answer the question Jesus; it’s just one question.

But Jesus gives them a completely different kind of answer.  He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  That’s his answer to the yes or no question.  And why does he say all that, of all things?  

Well, remember what Isaiah says in the first reading today?  When the Day of the Lord comes, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John was expecting a vengeful warrior on horseback who would overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  John was tough.  John expected the Messiah to be tough.  John was expecting the arrival of the ultimate fighting machine.  John is not expecting the arrival of  . . . a baby.

 But Mary is.  Mary is expecting, and in fact, there’s probably a whole lot of stress in your life right now because Mary is expecting.  And so are we.  We’re expecting a baby.  Kind of.  I mean, we all know that Christmas is about a baby being born.  But it’s very easy to let that thought go on December 26th and start wondering, like John did, when we’re going to get the vengeful warrior on horseback who will overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  

We look around and we don’t see God crushing our enemies underfoot (whatever that might mean), and we don’t see God fixing all the problems in our lives (whatever they might be).  Something is not living up to our expectations here.

We understand that a baby is coming in a couple weeks, sure, sure.  But I suspect that around mid-January or so, we’re all going to be a bit like John the Baptist.  We’ll look out from inside the contained space of our lives, and we’ll want to send our friends to ask Jesus that question:  Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?  Because right now, we’re not seeing a whole lot of kicking things and taking names on our behalf.  Of course, we don’t dare say that.  Aloud.  No, we just kind of press on, secretly waiting for the God who is going to clear the threshing floor and trample our problems underfoot.  But inside ourselves, at some point or another, we’re each going to be asking: Is this the Savior who is to come, or should I wait for another?  What are we expecting to see?

And what does Jesus say to us?  Pray harder?  Be stronger?  Straighten up and fly right?  No.  Jesus sends the messengers back to us to proclaim the gospel:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And if that is true . . . if that is true, then there is hope for me and you.

Because if Jesus can heal the sick and cure the lame, then Jesus can heal us too.  If Jesus can rise from the dead, then Jesus can raise you from your grave as well.  We may not be literally blind, or lame, or deaf, but we have something like those things going on in our lives.  Something that needs the healing touch of Jesus.

We have our expectations.  But we never really know what to expect.  We have an idea of how we want God to show up.  Maybe in a big red suit, rewarding the good people, and punishing the bad ones.  That’s what we expect, but that’s not what we get . . . thank God.  Because God does not save you because you are good.  And God will never reject you because you are bad.  In all cases, God saves because of Jesus, whether the things you do are naughty or nice.  

And speaking of expectations . . . In a little while, you will come up to this altar, expecting to get some bread and wine.  And you’ll get those, when you hold out your hands.  But you’ll also get much more than that.  Because God is always giving us more than we expect.  More than we can think to ask.  God is always giving life, and forgiveness, and a chance to start again.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been.  Jesus is the one who is to come.  You do not need to wait for another.

Go and tell the world what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  No matter what we might have been expecting, Jesus is coming to save us.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 2

Advent 2, 2022
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here we are in our second scary week of Advent.  I hope you’re enjoying our journey toward Christmas as much as I am preaching about it.  But let’s start here . . .

It’s important to keep in mind that every word spoken in the Bible does not get equal weight.  The words of God in the beginning of creation, speaking everything into existence, are not on an equal plain with Job’s friends telling him to curse God and die.  And in a similar way, the words of John the Baptist today are not on the same level as any words spoken by Jesus.  In fact, at this point in the story, John has not even met Jesus, and does not know who Jesus is, so he’s definitely not speaking for Jesus.  Just a point to keep in mind.

Now, specifically, the reading we just heard, that confrontation between John the Baptist and the Pharisees and Sadducees needs a little context.  As the historian Josephus tells us, there were three main political groups operating among the Jews in Jesus’ day.  You had The Pharisees, who had extra rules and believed in the resurrection.  And you had the Sadducees who stuck to the written word with fewer laws, and denied an afterlife.  But John, they say, belonged to a third major group, called the Essenes, who shared all their possessions in common, and stayed out of public life.  Pharisees and Sadducees would have been John’s political enemies.  

So the situation we just heard would be like a group of republicans and democrats heading out together into the wilderness and walking into a Bernie Sanders rally.  “The Pharisees and the Sadducees are nothing but a brood of vipers!”  So, yes, this is a religious confrontation, but it is also a political confrontation.  And it’s important to keep that in mind when we hear this episode in Matthew.  Like, these guys have history, as they say.

And then John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Now I’ve talked about this before, but I want to ask again: whose fault is it when a tree does not bear good fruit?  Sometimes it’s the gardener’s fault; sometimes it’s the soil’s fault; sometimes it’s the insects’ fault; but under no circumstances is it the tree’s fault.  There is nothing within a tree’s power to control the quality of fruit it produces.  If what you want is to change people’s behavior, this is just a bad metaphor John, because trees have absolutely no say in what kind of fruit they produce.  They are what they are; they produce the fruit they produce given their circumstances; just as God created them to do.

So let’s forget about the “brood of vipers” and the trees with bad fruit, and let’s look at what else John says here.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The word “repent” comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind,” or, “a change of heart.”  So John is saying, “change your minds, change your hearts, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  So what does that mean?  Well, first off, saying the kingdom of heaven has come near implies that it was not near before, right?  God’s kingdom coming near to us is a new thing.  And so, hearing that the kingdom is now near to us, how should we change?  What would be different from how things were in the past?

For this, we can helpfully turn to the other readings we heard this morning.  And I think all of these readings can best be viewed by looking at the distinction between hope and fear.  Who has hope, and who is afraid?

Let’s start with today’s Psalm, from Psalm 72.  You may remember last week I said that peace and justice must go hand in hand.  In an unjust society, there will be no peace, since inequality causes violence and unrest.  So, look at how Psalm 72 starts out, “Give your King your justice, O God, that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice.”  And it goes on . . . rescue the poor, crush their oppressor . . . the righteous will flourish and there will be peace until the moon shall be no more.  So, who’s got the hope here?  Well, the poor and the oppressed of course.  The poor and oppressed have hope.

And the fearful ones would be the oppressors and the wealthy.  Their fear would come from losing power and wealth; and the hope would be for a just and peaceful society.  You see how the goal of hope is NOT to become the oppressor?  Hope wants equality and justice; fear wants the status quo, where some people are oppressed—as long as I’m not one of them.  Hope and Fear stand opposed to one another, and they have different goals.

In the first reading, from Isaiah, it’s even more pronounced.  From the opening verse, we have a stump (which we might consider dead) and we have a shoot growing out of it (miraculous life, in the midst of death).  The “stump of Jesse” here refers to King David’s father, Jesse; so this is a new and surprising branch growing out of the line of David.  And, as with any family in power, fear is what kept David’s line going.  All sorts of scandalous things along the way, but David’s line continued all the way to Joseph.  Fear kept the family line limping along until it was all but dead, but Hope appears in this little shoot growing out of a stump.  

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.  The spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge.  But I find it fascinating that he will judge not by what his eyes see, nor by what his ears hear.  How would it affect our judgment not to use our eyes and ears?  Not to accept society’s standards of value, and judgment, and justice?  Not to judge with eyes and ears, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  The spirit of the Lord rests upon him, and he will judge the people with righteousness.

And then what?  What difference would that make in the world?  Well, just look at that list!  The wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion and the calf, and the little child shall lead them.  But it gets worse!  The cow and the bear will graze together?  The lion will eat straw beside the ox?  Children playing with poisonous snakes?  What kind of crazy world is this?  I imagine this is a world that scares us, to be honest.  This is not the way the world is, according to our eyes and ears.  It’s not the world we expect, and maybe it’s a world we have some fear about seeing.  But imagine this for a minute . . .

What if that crazy world, the one where the wolf and the lamb are at peace, and where lions and bears eat grass, what if that world IS the normal world?  What if that’s the way things are supposed to be?  What if the way things are is the wrong way?  What if in order to truly judge with equity we had to close our eyes and ears?

We can’t imagine a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together because the images burned into our heads are the ones from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  We think of lions taking down gazelles, not lying down next to them.  But this impossible branch from the stump of Jesse sees the world differently than we do.  “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”  Hope and fear.  Do we hope for that day?  Or do we fear that day?  

Which brings us back to John the Baptist.  Repenting: changing our minds, changing our hearts.  Knowing that this kingdom has come near, this world where lambs and wolves live peacefully together, where the lion and the calf are friends, where a little child shall lead them.  Knowing that kingdom has come near, how does that change our minds?  How does that change our hearts?  

Maybe you felt a jolt of fear when John the Baptist says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Scary stuff!  But maybe that’s because you are worried about the chaff.  The extra.  The shells.  Jesus saves the wheat and gathers it into his granary.  It’s the other stuff, the useless stuff that is carried away and burned.

You and I are the grain in this imagery.  All that extra stuff that gets burned away is what keeps the world from being what it is meant to be.  Our fears and our prejudice and our selfishness, those are the chaff.  And when those are burned away, there will be nothing left but good fruit, in a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together.

The little child who will lead them is on his way, and as we anticipate his birth, we are reminded that a different world is possible, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  And together, we are filled with hope for a better world.  A world of peace, and justice, and righteousness.  Where a little child will lead us.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and lead us into that world.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 1

Advent 1, 2022
Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44
Psalm 122

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So . . . as I remind you every year, the church and the society around us are not in sync when it comes to Christmas.  Five seconds after Halloween was over, people started putting up Christmas decorations.  Stores started selling wrapping paper and lawn displays.  And, best of all, the breweries started releasing their Christmas ales.  

HOWEVER, in the life of the church, we don’t celebrate a thing until it happens.  Easter begins at sundown on Holy Saturday, and goes for 50 days.  Christmas begins after sundown on Christmas Eve and goes for the 12 days of Christmas.  (If only there were a song to remind us of that.)  Point being, in the church, we are now waiting for Christmas, no matter what the piped-in music in the stores might be telling you.

We get to soak up four weeks of blue before Jesus gets here.  (Well, plus also a little bit of rose two weeks from now, thanks to our awesome sewing guild.)  Nonetheless, the contrast between what is happening all around us and the Gospel reading we just heard is pretty stark.  But speaking of scary readings, let’s start here . . . 

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Left Behind” series.  If you haven’t, good for you!  Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins teamed up to write a bunch of books based on their premillennial dispensationalist interpretation of the end times.  (I’m just gonna let that sentence sit there because we don’t have nearly enough time.)  The first book, called “Left Behind,” was inspired by the Gospel reading we just heard, based on what some people call “the Rapture.”  In a nutshell, some Christians believe that God will snatch away the believers to a safe place and then let evil take over the world.  In this misunderstanding of the passage, you do not want to be left behind, because that means you will have to go through the great tribulation to come.

But if you look at the words we just heard, that has it all backwards.  In the story of Noah, which Jesus mentions, the other people are swept away, and Noah is left behind.  If there is a big flood that sweeps away everything around you, you want to be left behind, in that ark, with the animals.  And, though I don’t want to get too deep into the Greek weeds here, a legitimate way to interpret the other two examples Jesus uses is that one woman will be “taken away,” and the other will be “forgiven.” 

Being left behind means you are spared, not cursed, is the point I’m making.  Not only that, since all the biblical references to heaven indicate a time ON EARTH in the future, rather than a time right now SOMEWHERE ELSE, the place you want to be is right here, in the future.  You want to be left behind.  So, please leave behind any “Left Behind” thoughts you might have from this reading, because those books are just misinformed fantasy writing.

Now.  The two things I want to talk about this morning are promises and hope.  Promises and hope are tied together, and especially in today’s readings.  When we go back to the text we heard from Isaiah, we hear a promise that, “in days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”  It is a promise for the future, though we are not told when it will come to pass.  And here’s a tricky thing about promises and the future:  God can already see that future.  It is not a thing that might happen, if everything goes according to plan.  It is not a promise that will occur, if we all behave, or whatever.  No, from God’s vantage point, it is a done deal.  We just can’t see it because we are constrained by time.  But, in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.  Shall be.

Promises and hope. If God has promised something will happen, and we trust in that promise, then we hope for the future.  Our hope roots our focus in the future, you could say.  We’re not there yet, but when we have hope, we have a stake in that future promise.  Hope keeps us in two places at once, confident that a thing will happen in the future, and living in the present, before that thing takes place.  You can maybe see how that is different from just wishing a thing might happen.  Hope anchors us in the future, a lifeline to the time when God's promises shall be fulfilled.

But, of course, we want to know when these promises will be fulfilled.  In fact, a few verses before today’s gospel reading from Matthew, the disciples come to Jesus asking him when the end will come.  And Jesus says that he “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”  But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Salvation will come.  But we don’t know when.  And the angels don’t know when.  And Jesus doesn’t know when.  So we live in the sure hope that it shall happen, because God’s promises are true.  Our salvation is already accomplished, but it is not yet here.

So, it’s like Advent.  As you and I move through the Church year together, we always know what is coming before it gets here.  We know there’s a baby coming, but he is not yet born.  We know who his mother is, and we know he will grow up and gather his disciples, and be arrested, executed, and rise from the grave, telling his disciples to tell the world that we too shall rise from the grave and  . . . But he is not yet born.  We know what is coming, but it is not yet here.  The cycles of our church year get us in the habit of trusting a thing is coming, even though it is not yet here.  We know it will happen, even though we still wait for it.  That’s Advent.

I want to briefly touch on the Psalm we read together a few minutes ago.  “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’. . . Pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you’.  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”

There is a theme throughout the scriptures that peace is always accompanied by justice.  I don’t mean 21st century legal punitive justice.  I mean a just society, where the naked are clothed, and the hungry are fed.  And if you give it some thought, you’ll see this is not just a biblical concept.  There really can be no peace where there is no justice.  Even if you take compassion and love out of the equation, if some people have nothing while others have everything, no one will ever really have peace.  There will always be anger and bloodshed and violence.  And look at what the psalmist says in that closing line:  “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”  

If I truly seek what is best for you, truly love my neighbor as myself, there will be peace on earth.  From Isaiah today, we heard “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”  And here we see, it’s not just that war stops, or that the need for war stops.  There’s a second step, a constructive step.  A step where we stop turning the tools of violence toward our neighbor, and instead turn them into a means of helping our neighbors.  Swords into plowshares.  Fists of violence into hands of help.  Peace and justice go hand in hand.

And so, back to waiting for Jesus . . .
The sudden and unexpected return of Jesus we heard about means . . . what?  Well, clearly that will vary according to what you’re expecting, and what you feel is expected from you.  But the Spirit of God convicts each one of us to do something to get ready.  And the reason we want someone to tell us the exact date is because deep down we’re each afraid we’re not doing enough to get ready.  

Sure, the Spirit convinced Noah to build an ark.  But remember the other examples:  two people working in a field, two women grinding grain.  We are not all called to build arks.  (If we were, the world would be awfully crowded, and there would be no trees.)  We’re also not all called to work in the fields or grind grain.  But in our baptismal covenant, we do all promise to work for justice and peace.  We can’t all clothe the naked, or feed the hungry, or do whatever.  But you are uniquely called and equipped to do something to bring about God’s Kingdom.  

There is some part of preparing for Jesus’ return that you alone can do, because of who you are, and where you are, and because of what you are:  a claimed and redeemed child of God, a living witness in the world, proclaiming the hope of the one we are longing to welcome.  That same one who offers himself to us this day, at this altar.  

We do not know the hour that Jesus will return, but we do know that in this hour he is present among us.  We know that when we gather together in his name, he is already here.  So, as we wait for God’s promises to be revealed, I invite you to come to this altar, and welcome Jesus into your life once more, in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.


Sunday, November 20, 2022

YEAR C 2022 christ the king

Christ the King, 2022
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, this is the last Sunday before Advent starts.  No more green!  It’s the end of our year spent hearing from the Gospel of Luke.  We call this day Christ the King Sunday, and it signals the close of the church year.  And knowing that it’s Christ the King Sunday might lead you to ask the obvious question:  Why is Jesus the king on a cross?  Why don’t we hear instead about Jesus’ resurrection?  Or, you know, some part of the story that looks a little more like reigning victorious rather than dying beside a couple two-bit thieves?

Well, since we’re right on the verge of Advent, it will probably help to start with how God arrives on the scene in the beginning.  As you know, the Jewish people were waiting forever for the Messiah, the anointed one.  They wanted and expected God to send someone to knock the Romans off their perch and throw off the yoke of oppression.  You know, someone riding in on a white horse with a blazing sword who could set things right.  A king of restoration, when it comes right down to it.  

But let’s take our minds back to what we vaguely remember from the Hebrew scriptures.  God told Moses, if the people would serve God as King, they would have no need for kings. They needed a leader, yes, but not a king.  (And Moses, you’ll remember, was a shepherd, not a king.)  So God says, I the Lord shall be your king.  And Israel was led by prophets and judges for generations.  (I’m paraphrasing whole books here, so bear with me.)

After 400 years of being led by prophets and judges, the people approached the Prophet Samuel, clamoring for a king “like all the other nations.”  This desire to be like other nations is the root of the problem for them.  God did not want them to be like other nations; God’s ways were not their ways.  And having a king (as they would soon find out) would lead them right down that same path.  Then we get Saul, and David, and a whole list of kings who do what is evil in God’s sight.  The kingdom splits in two:  Judah and Israel.  The people are taken away to foreign lands in captivity, and the Jewish people start coming back five hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

(Almost done.)  Then Alexander the Great takes over Palestine in 331 BC; then the Jewish people revolt and take it back (which you’ll find in the books of Maccabees); then the Romans take over, the Parthians invade, and Herod gets the Romans to support him in taking it all back.  Herod dies, and his three sons take over (two of whom also named Herod, because of his creative child-naming skills), and this leads us right up to what we could call year zero.  Or, maybe more accurately, 4 AD, but who’s counting?

After all this violence and oppression, God’s chosen people again want a mighty warrior king who will overthrow the Romans and restore them to their land and heritage as a free people.  And what do we get?  A baby.  Born to an unwed mother.  In a feeding trough, behind a sold-out hotel.  This Jesus cannot possibly be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for.  He’s a defenseless baby.  He is no king.

Now . . . fast forward 2,000 years and here we are.  Gathered on a Sunday morning, and looking for a king.  It’s Christ the King Sunday, so we’re expecting to see our Savior in the most elevated position possible, right?  Jesus our King, lifted high in glory, having defeated all his enemies and ours.  A king who will overthrow the evil forces all around us and restore us to our heritage as free people.  And what do we get?  Not a king lifted up in glory, but a man on the verge of death, hung between two thieves.  One who is beaten and mocked and disgraced.  God’s people wanted a king, and instead they got a baby.  Now we want a king, and instead we get a man about to die.

You know what we have in common with God’s people across the ages?  We don’t understand kingship the way God shows kingship.  We associate being kingly with being powerful and getting our way.  We expect a ruler to force their will on others, for better or worse.  In fact, we have come to expect a ruler to act like the people all around Jesus in this gospel reading.  Mocking, taunting, humiliating, full of arrogance and spite.  We expect the king to be the one who sentences someone to death.  You know, like your Pontius Pilate, or your Herod, son of Herod, brother of Herod.

But, turns out, the King is the one on the cross.  The King is the one who is willing to suffer, and willing to lay down his life for others.  Not what we would expect.  And that leads us to the disconnect in this gospel we just heard.  

Notice how everyone is setting up these if/then scenarios for him.  
The people say, If he is the Messiah of God, let him save himself.  The soldiers say, If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.  One of the criminals says, Are you not the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.  And we might say, if you are a king, come and save us as well!  Come and make things better.  Come and save us from the senseless violence and creeping despair.  Come and save us from the pain and darkness in our world.  If you are the Messiah, come and save your people!

You see where that puts us, of course.  If we are expecting that Jesus, the Christ the King who will squash our enemies and stamp out evil . . . well . . . we kind of end up sounding like the people mocking Jesus, don’t we?  Jesus has to prove himself to us through his mighty deeds.  And we end up speaking the words of the angry crowd, the mocking soldiers, the taunting thief on the cross.  And that’s the natural reaction to this scene, isn’t it?  Jesus never claimed to be a king.  But the people wanted a king, like the Israelites wanted a king, and so they made him a king.  And when the king can’t defend even himself . . . well, what kind of king is that?  Off with his head!

But today we see God offering us a different way.  We see that victory is through surrender.  We see that serving is winning.  If our way of life requires others losing, others dying, others suffering, then it is not the way of God.  Because here we see that God loses, God suffers, God dies.  God sacrifices for us.  This is kingship.  This is royalty.  Christianity turns everything on its head, every time, and God’s ways are not our ways.

And this is the point where you say, okay Father Preacher man, that’s all well and good.  But it sure doesn’t sound like . . . you know . . . good news.  We get that Jesus came to serve, and we get that Jesus is willing to lay down his life, but . . . well . . . so what?  But maybe we ask those questions because we’re still thinking like the crowd, and the soldiers, and the mocking thief.  So let’s look at the other person in this story.

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

When we set aside our natural drive to get Jesus to prove himself, when we set aside our quid pro quo of “if you really are who I say you are,” when we step back and focus on what we really need from a savior rather than from a king, then we can say to Jesus what we really need to say.  And it is just this:  Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

That’s the one request that matters.  That is the true sign of faith in the midst of turmoil and despair.  If we ask one thing of Jesus, it should be this:  Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

And it is interesting, to me, that this other thief on the cross should word it this way.  The others are saying, if you are a king, then save yourself.  And if you are a king, then save us.  But the thief on the cross is saying, when you are a king.  When you come into your kingdom.  When you come into your kingdom, remember me.  When you are seated at the right hand of God, remember me.  When the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven forever sing this hymn . . . remember me.

Which brings us to this Altar.  That hymn, that song, is going on at this very moment.  You and I are remembered in that kingdom, a kingdom that is not of this world.  And in a few minutes, you and I will once again join in the timeless stream of that eternal hymn.  It is not a song sung to some ruler on earth, as though we were just paying homage to some temporary ruler.  No, it is a song that goes on forever, to a Savior who rules our hearts forever.  It is a song that unites us with people of every time and every place.  A song of praise to the King of heaven, and the Savior of the world.  Christ the King, who rules this Sunday, and all the days to come.  Lord Jesus, ruler of our hearts, remember us in your kingdom.  Remember all of us in your kingdom.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 23

Pentecost 23, 2022
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, this is quite a collection of readings this morning, I think you’ll agree.  To quote Gimley: Certainty of death; small chance of success.  What are we waiting for?

We don’t have sufficient time to fully deal with the reading from second Thessalonians, but I feel like I have to say something. It really needs its own 40 minute sermon, which you won’t be getting from me.  But it is important to remember that not everything in the Bible has equal weight.  A letter written by an apostle to the church in some city is not the same as the words spoken by Jesus in one of the four gospels.  Whatever this Thessalonians reading is, it is not the heart of Christianity. It most certainly is not what Jesus taught.

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  It sounds like something we intuitively agree with, which is why it’s so dangerous. It fits with how we view the world. We pass laws saying parents receiving government assistance must also work while also watching their children.  And it’s a quick slippery slope to talking about the “worthy poor,” which somehow implies the existence of the “unworthy poor.”  And don’t even get me started on that blasphemous concept!  But we can see that this is not the message of Christianity by just asking a few questions . . .

If those who don’t work should not eat, explain to me the parable of laborers in the field, where those who show up at closing time get the same amount as those who worked all day.  Or, how has Mary “chosen the better way” by just sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha toils in the kitchen?  Or, taken to it’s extreme, why should we ever feed babies or our pets, since they clearly haven’t worked a day in their lives?

This reading is a red herring for Christians. Don’t believe the hype.  Whoever wrote second Thessalonians was writing to a specific group of people experiencing specific problems in a specific time and place.  We are not those people.  So let me just say this:  People who do not work still deserve to eat, no matter what you just heard in this reading.  Rant over.

Now, about that Luke reading.  In some ways, this is the perfect Gospel text for our politically troubled and divisive times.  Some people see what has been happening in our country as a good and proper thing.  And others sense that everything has been torn down.  We are in one of those times where two people can look at the same exact thing and yet somehow see exactly the opposite.  Some see a restoration of goodness, and others despair over something that has already been thrown down.  And the problem with both those views is that we are putting our trust in things human.  We are putting our hopes in things that will ultimately pass away, whether those things are currently ascending or descending.  We cling to what is fleeting and temporary, just as the disciples did.

But, Jesus says, “do not be terrified.”    We are used to Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid.”  He says that a lot.  But here, he says “do not be terrified”—or, what he actually says is, “may you not be terrified.”  These things will happen, yes.  And when they do, may you not be terrified.  Personally, I prefer that Jesus says “may you” here.  Because when he says “do not be afraid,” that sounds more like a command . . . like it’s up to us to do that thing.  But “may you not be terrified” sounds more like a blessing to my ear.  “May you find peace” as opposed to “FIND PEACE!”  But I digress.

When we hear or read this part of Luke, we get focused on the destruction and despair.  The wars and insurrections, the nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  We fixate on the great earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.  You know, the timeline we’ve all been living in since 2020.

It is an unsettling text, yes.  But it is meant to be settling . . . or, I mean, reassuring.  Bottom line: Jesus is not telling us what the future holds.  He is telling us who holds the future.  He is not saying, “Though there will be suffering . . . you got this.”  He is saying, “Though there will be suffering, God has got you.”  God holds the past; God holds the present; God holds the future.  Our story is God’s story; the two are interwoven from the very beginning, and God will not let us go until the story is entirely written.  Jesus is saying: what is important is not what the future holds, but who holds the future.  Remember that.

When bad things happen (and they will), may you not be terrified.  You and I are not likely to be dragged before kings and rulers.  We probably will not be handed over to prison for our faith.  And some of the things Jesus describes will probably never happen in our lifetimes.  But there will be suffering for each of us, in one way or another.  Marriages will fall apart; family members will disown one another; jobs will be lost, and loved ones will pass away.  These things will happen . . . and may you not be terrified.

We want to be saved from suffering.  We want God to prevent sorrow and pain.  But God does not save us from suffering.  God saves us in the midst of suffering.  Since our story is God’s story, God continually meets us in our pain.  I don’t need to tell you that suffering is part of life.  Being a Christian does not mean you will not suffer.  In fact, based on what Jesus says to us today, being a Christian just might be the cause of suffering.  That was certainly true for his disciples, who suffered horribly under Roman persecutions.  Our suffering is different from theirs, but it is still our suffering, and we still need God to meet us in our pain, just as much as the disciples did.

We look for God in our suffering.  But we should never look for God as the cause of suffering.  There are people who like to say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  
Please.  Just.  Don’t.  

God is not sitting around handing out suffering to see how much you can bear.  Let me say this clearly:  God does not cause the suffering in your life.  God meets us in our suffering; but God does not cause it.  Sometimes it’s us; sometimes it’s other people; and sometimes it’s just the way things are.  But no matter the cause of our pain and grief and sadness, the important thing to remember is this:  God does not cause it; but God meets us there.  

In today’s gospel text, Jesus tells the disciples, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  He has just warned them about the persecution they will face, and says that persecution will give them a chance to testify.  But he tells them not to plan what they will say in advance, because he will give them the words they need.

How does that relate to us?  Well, let me suggest something like this:  Maybe we should avoid having prepared bumper sticker slogans, like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  Maybe we should resist the temptation to always have a pat answer to explain away evil, and pain, and heartbreak.  God does not cause the suffering in your friend’s life; but God meets them there, and we meet them there.

Maybe we should face whatever suffering comes our way by finding where God is meeting us in that pain.  Because God is there.  Perhaps it is more helpful and faithful to seek God in the moment, trusting that God is there.  That God will give us a word when we need it.  Rather than preparing in advance to explain God’s absence in our pain, we’d be better off looking for God’s presence in our pain.  Trusting Jesus when he says, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

But enough of that.  Here’s what I really want to get to this morning.  This section of Luke’s Gospel finishes with Jesus telling the disciples, “You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Let me start with that last sentence.  Though the translation we get sounds like a thing we have to do—that is IF we endure, we will gain our souls in the future—the actual wording is more like, “keep your souls in patience.”  Which is more akin to saying, “do not let your soul be anxious.”  It’s not an if/then, meaning “If you want to gain your soul you must endure.”  Rather, it is more like, “Keep your soul at peace.”  Two very different things.

And secondly, the hair thing.  Jesus promises, “not a hair of your head shall perish.”  This is a metaphor.  I point to my own head by example.  I have lost a lot of hairs over the years.  They are lost to me, but they are not lost to God.  I’m not saying God has a bag of my hair on a shelf in the closet—since that’s weird, and kind of gross.  This is obviously a metaphor.  And the metaphor can be interpreted as something like this . . . 

Whether or not elections turn out the way you wanted, and whether or not you got the job, or kept the marriage, or made it through the operation . . . you are never lost to God.  The Temple that Jesus talks about was the center of Jewish worship—the very place where God was thought to dwell.  People marveled at its beauty  And it was utterly destroyed. 

Yet even in the destruction, it is still known to God.  Just as you and I are known to God.  The hairs on your head, and the love in your heart, and the despair you may sometimes feel, all of these are known to God, and all held close at hand.  God knows you intimately, because your story is part of God’s story, and that story is still being written.  And for that reason, no matter what may come, the blessing from Jesus remains:  may you not be terrified.  May you never be terrified, because God holds your past, God holds your present, and most importantly, God holds your future.  God has got you, just as God has always had you.  May you never be terrified.


Friday, November 4, 2022

Rhea Oberlin Hollar

Rhea Oberlin Hollar, 11-4-22
Psalm 121
Romans 8:14-19, 34-35, 37-39
Psalm 23
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 35-38, 42-44, 53-58

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In most cases, when it comes to planning a funeral, I find myself sitting with family members suggesting which readings to choose, and I usually end up choosing those readings myself.  As you probably know, this was not the case with Rhea Oberlin Hollar.  The readings for this service were chosen long ago, as was the music for this service.  The one person who had input on what we will hear and sing today was Rhea.  The rest of us are just along for the ride.

And I have to say, I wish more people took time to plan out their own funerals.  Because, in some ways, doing so sends a message to those of us who gather to honor and to mourn.  In a way, it’s one final act of evangelism.  A chance to remind the living that there is hope, that God is present, and that we will be together again.  And, I can tell you, Rhea chose well.

For example, as we heard in Paul’s letter to the Romans, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God.  We sort of give intellectual assent to that claim, but I think we also carry around a secret list of the exceptions.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God . . . except, you know, drinking and smoking, or voting for the other party, or loving the wrong kind of person.  We all want to add the “except for” to Paul’s words.  But the word here is “nothing.”  Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  Nothing.  We are safe, and we are loved.  Thanks for that reminder Rhea.

And then that reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  How a seed has to die in the ground before it can blossom into what it was meant to be.  There is no better metaphor to hear at a funeral than this one.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  A seed goes into the ground, and a beautiful flower comes forth.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  Where indeed!

And then, we come to the beloved 23rd Psalm.  And many of us share a love of that little piece of ancient poetry.  Maybe it’s the pastoral imagery.  Or maybe it’s the assurance of God’s presence in our lives.  Or maybe it’s just that final line, about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

But what I really love about Psalm 23 is the actual language of the part that gets translated as God’s goodness and mercy following me.  The Hebrew word that becomes “follow” is actually more aggressive: like chasing, or hunting down.  Goodness and mercy don’t just follow us home, like a stray kitten, or something.  No, God’s goodness and mercy hunt us down, like a tiger.  We cannot escape them, even if we wanted to.  And notice that it is not God’s wrath that hunts us down: no, we are being relentlessly pursued by God’s goodness and mercy.

Rhea lived her life hunted down by God’s mercy and goodness, and she did not mind getting caught.  And receiving that goodness and mercy from God, she turned right around and passed it on to others, her family, her friends, and her church.  I hope you will find inspiration in that, and continue to do the same in your own lives.

In these readings this morning, we have heard of God’s love and mercy.  We have heard that we do not need to be afraid.  We have heard that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And that God’s goodness and mercy will never stop pursuing us.  These are good lessons for us to hold onto as we leave this place.  No one is ever beyond the reach of God, and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  Because everyone is constantly being chased by God’s love and mercy, even when we see them no longer.  God loves you, and God will catch you, no matter where you are.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  Where indeed!


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

YEAR C 2022 all souls

All Souls, 2022
Wisdom 3:1–9
Psalm 130
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
John 5:24-27

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we observe the Feast of All Souls, now unfortunately called the Feast of All the Faithful Departed.  That puts up something of a wall between ALL the departed, and the faithful departed.  I know that wasn’t the intention of the name change, but—in my opinion—it takes us a step backward.  But never mind all that; let’s take a moment to distinguish between All Saints Day from All Souls Day.

The Feast of All Saints is intended to honor all the saints who have gone before.  You can quickly get the gist of the intention by looking at hymn #287 in our hymnal, “For All the Saints.”  The Church sets aside All Saints Day on November 1st to remember all the heroes of the faith.  But it does not necessarily include all the heroes of our own personal faith.  The ones who drove you to Sunday School, or mentored you through middle school, or who brought you back to Jesus after your own personal time in a “distant land.”  Not to mention the people of a different faith or of no faith who still impacted your faith.

All Saints Day is a little muddy about whether my grandma Baum and your Aunt June are included in the feast.  And that’s why I’m so grateful that we have this day, All Souls Day, set aside to honor those we love but see no more.  These ones don’t enter into the level of having the Pope notice them, but if we’re honest, we might place them above the Pope.  For each of us, there are people we remember because of their incredible impact on our lives, whether or not anyone else remembers them at all.  In a sense, as long as we have breath, these loved ones will be remembered and celebrated, whether or not anyone else still remembers their name.

And so All Souls Day is set aside for us to remember and mark them as beloved of God, and beloved of us.  They may not have a feast day in the Church, but they have feast days in our hearts.

As we heard, Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

That can sound strange to our ears, as though Paul is telling us not to grieve for those we have lost and loved.  But that is not what he is saying at all.  When Paul writes, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he is not suggesting that we should not grieve.  The key to that sentence is the phrase “as others do who have no hope.”  

It’s a different kind of grieving, you see?  We all mourn losing the ones who mean the world to us—the All Souls for whom this day is named.  We grieve and we mourn because it is how God created us to be.  It is right and good that we should grieve, because the measure of our pain is an indicator of the depth of our love.

But we should not grieve “as others do who have no hope.”  We do not grieve as others do because we grieve with hope.  We grieve as people who have hope in the promises of God.  We grieve as people who have hope, because we trust that no one is ever beyond the reach of God’s loving embrace.  We grieve as people who trust that those who are gone to us are not gone to God.

It is good and right that we should mourn and grieve the absence of those whom we love yet see no longer.  But we grieve and mourn as people with hope, because we worship the God who created it all, redeemed it all, and saves it all.

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”  All are made righteous in Jesus, and they are all, ALL in the hand of God.


Sunday, October 30, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2022
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-8
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Something that trips us up with the story of Zacchaeus I think is . . . Well, you know, good manners.  It’s impolite to make fun of someone who is vertically challenged.  We just don’t do that, right?  My wife is around 5 feet tall, and one learns to be careful with the topic of height around her.  In the words of Shakespeare’s Helena, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”  But mainly, we just don’t take kindly these days to pointing out someone as being “short in stature.”  Some scholars claim that Zacchaeus being “short in stature” is really a reference to his position in society rather than his physical height.  Maybe.  And others have noted that, because of the grammar, it’s possible that the short in stature refers to Jesus, not to Zacchaeus.  Perhaps.

However, deflecting the light of Zacchaeus’ being short kind of short-circuits what Luke is doing in this story.  In order to see what is happening, or perhaps what is not happening, we need to turn back the clock to the Ancient World.  We need to put ourselves in the place of Luke’s contemporaries, the people who would have been reading and hearing this story for the first time.

In the Greek and Roman world, the physical and the spiritual state of a person are linked together.  In fact, physical maladies and deformities and irregularities were considered to be caused by inward spiritual dysfunction.  About six chapters earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear of a woman who is bent over from illness and comes to Jesus for healing.  (It came up at the end of August, though you might’ve been on vacation.)  Same thing with her: She was considered unclean spiritually because she was misshapen physically.  Or, perhaps you remember that time Jesus’ disciples asked him whose sin caused a man to be blind, his own or his parents’.  It was an understood fact of life in those days that spiritual brokenness causes physical distortions.  

But Luke the physician is always bucking against this crazy notion.  Luke over and over breaks down this myth, and in order to see him doing it, we have to set aside our “manners” and call Zacchaeus what Luke wants us to call him: A Short Greedy Empty Man.  No dignity, no morals, no height.  Nothing but a scoundrel in his little town.  AND, there’s a connection between the name Zacchaeus and the word “righteous.”  People in Luke’s day would have seen the irony in the name “Zacchaeus.”  Because the last thing this guy would be called is “righteous.”  He’s a short swindler.  And one thing people were sure of back then was that shortness caused greed in people.  A compensation sort of thing.  

So a short man essentially sells himself short at the career faire, and goes with what people expect of him.  He becomes a tax collector, swindling his neighbors in order to make himself rich and satisfy his insatiable greed, which, remember, is caused by his shortness and spiritual emptiness.  Luke’s audience has all these assumptions hard-wired into them, and that is what will make it so powerful by the time it’s over.

A rejected and obviously sinful short man wants to see Jesus, and he runs--totally undignified--runs to climb up a tree.  Luke’s audience would find this highly entertaining, see?  Grown men did not run; grown men did not climb trees; but Zacchaeus is not grown . . . get it?  It’s like a whole package playing right into their expectations.  At best, Jesus would not notice someone like this.  What Luke’s audience is probably expecting is that Jesus will smite him or something for all his wickedness . . . which is all related to his being short.  

And Jesus gets to the spot, and everyone’s waiting to see what happens, and Jesus says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today."  WHAT?!?  No no Jesus, you’ve obviously got the wrong guy here.  Zacchaeus is the ironically named short swindler.  You cannot possibly go to his house!  And all who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."  So not only does the crowd dislike the short little sinner, now they’ve got a grudge against Jesus for going to his house.  It probably even makes some of them begin to doubt who Jesus is, since Jesus obviously doesn’t get who Zacchaeus is.  

And then we come to this tricky spot.  Because our translation has Zacchaeus making a future promise about how he’s going to behave.  But that’s not how it is in the original language.  In the Greek these verbs are past tense, or actually present tense.  Zacchaeus does not say “I will” do these things.  He says I am doing these things.  Half my possessions I have given to the poor, and when I have defrauded anyone I pay back four times as much.  And the reason this matters is because if we’re not careful, we can end up turning this into a story about salvation coming from good works, or buying our way to righteousness.

If Zacchaeus is promising how he’ll act from now on, then it sounds like salvation comes on account of his change of heart.  Jesus comes to visit, Zacchaeus makes some promises to be a good guy, and then Jesus says “Salvation has come to this house.”  Before you know it, this would become a story about how promising to be good is what saves us.  And if promising to be good actually made you good, well, the world would be a much better place, that’s for sure.

So, they’re standing in Zacchaeus’ house now, and Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  This works on a couple levels.  One is that Jesus is Salvation, right?  Jesus is the one who saves.  So, yes, salvation is literally standing in Zacchaeus’ house.  But it also works on the level that Zacchaeus is reminded of his true identity.  You can see that Jesus does not say, “Today salvation has come to this house because Zacchaeus made some good promises.”  No, Jesus says this:  “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”  All your mocking and prejudice and superstition mean nothing, because he too is a child of Abraham.  He’s already in.  Though you want to reject him, he is part of this community.

This is the true identity of Zacchaeus.  He is a child of Abraham.  He may be short, but that is not his identity.  He may make his living as a tax collector, but that is not his identity.  He may be laughed at and rejected by his neighbors, but that is not his identity.  Jesus proclaims to the world who Zacchaeus really is:  A son of Abraham, a child of God, one to whose house Salvation has already come.

And that is why the story of Zacchaeus is so important to you and me.  Because we live in a world that is telling us we don’t measure up.  We live in a place that puts us in our place if we don’t look right, or don’t own the right things, or go to the right school, or get the right job.  Every society wants to have its Zacchaeuses to kick around.  And whether we are the ones doing the kicking or the ones being kicked, it does not change our identity.  Jesus has claimed you as his own in the waters of baptism.  Your identity is sealed by the Holy Spirit, and you are marked with the cross of Christ forever.

No matter what message you may hear throughout your life, that is not your identity.  Because salvation has come to your house as well.  Because you are a child of God.  You are a member of God’s household.  And no one can take that away from you.

All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  Perfect!  He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  This is the best part of the story to me.  Because it’s true.  It’s true for Zacchaeus, and it’s true for me and you.  Jesus comes to be the guest of sinners.

And you will see that it’s true in just a few minutes.  Because as you hold out your hands to receive the Sacrament, you will make a literal home for Jesus to visit: In your own hands, Jesus will come to be the guest of one who is a sinner.  A forgiven sinner.  Right in your very own hands.  Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, redeemed sinners who welcome you this day.


Saturday, October 22, 2022

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service, 2022

Tigers Prayer Service
Hebrews 12:1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, I didn’t grow up around here.  I grew up in Niagara Falls NY, which is near Buffalo.  (Go Bills!)  The high school I went to had about 1,200 students, which is pretty close to what Washington High School has these days.  We had a football team, and I played in the marching band.  Our stadium—if you could call it that—seated, maybe, 500 people.  And I never once saw the stands filled in my four years of playing in the band.  So, of course, that’s how I thought high school football worked.

Imagine my surprise when I moved to Massillon six years ago to become the priest in this church.  A high school football stadium that holds over 16,000 people!  More than 30 times the size of my high school stadium!  A stadium that is filled for most games, and is always filled for the rivalry game.  I hate to sound like an outsider, but this is just crazy to me!  I definitely had a completely different experience than people who grow up in Massillon have.

Which got me to thinking this year . . . why is that?  Why is the only remaining Paul Brown stadium so big?  And how can it possibly still sell out when the school only has around 1,200 students?

And, well, you know the answer before I even say it.  The reason is because of the great cloud of witnesses.  It’s not exactly the same as the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in the reading from Hebrews we just heard.  But the idea is the same.

All those people who keep coming out to cheer you on, they are your cloud of witnesses.  In the good years and in the bad years, the people of Massillon stand behind this team.  They support you as athletes, they support you as students, and they support you as people who will go on to support the ones who come behind you.  Massillon has always had a strong and important football team, because Massillon has always had strong and important people.  You are not the first, and you won’t be the last.

Which brings us to today.  Everyone in town feels like this is their game, like this is their day to beat McKinley.  And—in a way—it is.  But for each of you sitting in this room today, there’s something more.  Because this literally is your game and your day, in a way that no one else will ever know.

Whether you are throwing a ball, or blocking a tackle, or carrying water to the players, or calling the plays from the sideline, this game is your game.  You are the ones who will play this game, in front of—and on behalf of—that great cloud of witnesses who are supporting you, and who will always support you.

Massillon is a unique place, and I am proud and honored to host this prayer service for you each year.  Whether or not we share the same faith tradition, we are still each made in the image of God.  The God who creates, redeems, and strengthens us this day, and all the days to come.  May God bless you all, and may God keep you safe today, and every day.