Disrupted Plans & God’s Plan

Latino Nativity 2Christmas Eve Message on Luke 1:26-38, 2:1-20 given on December 24, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Nothing is going according to plan this year. This Christmas Eve we have no choir, no packed sanctuary, no real candles at the Outdoor service. We have had no Christmas pageant, or cookie exchanges, no Christmas caroling or live concerts. Everything is disrupted and we are re-inventing how to do this holiday like we have had to re-invent everything else sonce March.

This year, we find so many similarities with the Holy Family. At every turn in the Christmas story nothing went according to plan. Instead, everyone had to find ways to adjust to a new, jarring reality that had inserted itself.

Mary was engaged, but being pregnant by the Holy Spirit before the wedding, risking her future with Joseph, and even her life? Completely not part of the plan. Joseph was going to dismiss Mary quietly but instead, he is told in a dream to stay with her and raise this child as his own. That was not part of the pre-nuptial agreement nor any plan he ever imagined. Then at nine months pregnant, they had to travel on a donkey for 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the oppressive Roman Governor called for a census—that is part of no one’s birth plan, ever. 

Of course, Joseph and Mary were the slowest travelers on the road, so they are the last ones into town; all of the guest rooms in their relative’s homes had already filled up. The only free space was in the common area toward the front of the house where the animals stayed at night. Mary and Joseph squeezed onto the edge of the raised platform where the animal’s feedboxes hung off the front of the living room floor. No one plans to give birth at the stable-end of a crowded home with distant relatives you had not seen in ages—or ever. That was totally not part of the plan. Joseph no doubt had a beautiful cradle already built and ready to go back home—but they could not carry that on a donkey. Putting their newborn son in the feedbox for animals was for a carpenter, certainly not according to plan. Even the shepherds—leaving their flocks at night—angels or not—risked losing their job. They could have lost sheep to wild animals. Abandoning your flock to witness a birth—even a miraculous one—is never part of the plan.

If you feel that absolutely nothing is going according to plan this Christmas, then I daresay, you can find good company with each character and at every turn in the Christmas story.

Perhaps like Mary, you feel that your life this year has taken a new direction. You did not seek it, but God found you in these changes. Now your life is on a new path—you do not know where it will lead or how it will all work out. You have a myriad of questions, but somehow you are still able to say, “yes.” Like Mary, you are willing to lean into the disruptions, to let it be, and find a way to accept these changes and see what comes. Instead of fighting it, you are becoming pregnant with possibilities. This Christmas, you are taking this disruption of your plans as time to wonder what God is up to, and to ponder all these things in your heart.

Or maybe you identify more with Joseph. You have so many responsibilities and commitments—you want to do the right thing and make sure everyone is ok, and everything is taken care of. You are not a person of many words—who has time for that when there is so much to be done? You look at your upside-down plans and see so much that must be made right, the people you love to keep safe, and obligations to fulfill. Your heart is disappointed at all the things you had hoped for that cannot happen—but it takes all you have to keep providing, to keep up with the changes, and to care for what matters, that you are content to stay in the background. You committed to God to care for your family and you will, adapting as you go. You keep taking care of the next step. Each night you pray that God will give you the nudge for the next right thing to do tomorrow.

Or perhaps, you are more like the relatives who live in Bethlehem. A census or a crisis of any kind means you are going to be in demand—people in need will be crowding in from everywhere. There will be hungry mouths, tired feet, sick people, mothers about to give birth, children needing attention, germs that will spread through the crowds. You adapt your plans to serve others, you do extra cooking, or sewing, you take extra work shifts, or do more childcare, you help your neighbors and family members in need. You have never seen a census crowd like this before, but you have been around the block enough to know that we all must step up and care for each other. You would like a family Christmas, but life has intervened—need is knocking on the door and you find a way to adapt and serve.

And what about you shepherds? It is not every night that your work is interrupted, and an unexpected event disrupts your plans, causing you to abandon your post and leading you toward a new vision of what God is up to. Perhaps this year is calling you to change directions, make a different choice, respond to the heavenly announcements, and decide to follow the testimony of a miracle. Surely some of them went back to the fields—as different shepherds—because they saw God in new way, and what deeply mattered to them had changed. And maybe some of them allowed the disruption of their plans to lead them in a new direction—maybe they decided to go back to school, or try a new job, or listen to God more closely before they did anything at all. Maybe like the shepherds, your work has been disrupted or completely changed, and now is the time to listen to God, to move toward Jesus, and to look and see what God has in store for you now.

There is no one perfect way to respond to the complete disruption of our life and plans—there are many ways to move forward with Christ as we journey with the Holy Family this Christmas. Because amidst all this disruption, there is one plan that holds steady and will not be derailed—and that is God’s plan of love to save and redeem us and the whole world through Jesus Christ. There is no power, no evil, no disease, no death, no devil—there is nothing that can disrupt God’s plan of salvation for the whole world begun in a manger, and there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is the plan that God wants us to cling to–not to schedules and events, traditions and rituals—as meaningful and joyful as they may be. God’s plan is in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and his salvation—there is no disruption in bringing that plan to reality. Regardless of the up-ended plans and even through the disruptions to Mary, Joseph, their extended family, and the shepherds, Jesus, our Savior is born. Birth does not wait, God does not wait, and neither does new life in Christ—it is available to us here and now, however we celebrate—together or alone, in person or on Zoom, with gifts or none at all. Jesus Christ is the only gift we need, and the truth of God’s love and power in our life can never be disrupted or destroyed.

That is our joy and our hope—we cling to Christ and God’s plan of salvation for the whole world. Christ our Savior is born! No matter how our plans have been disrupted or our life has changed this year, we all are included in God’s plan of life and grace forever in Christ Jesus our Lord. So rejoice, Christ our Savior is born! 

Christmas Prayer
Let us pray: Holy God, we rejoice in your gifts in this sacred night—for your great love in Jesus Christ, that nothing can disrupt, deter or destroy. Help us to cling to Christ and rejoice that our Savior is born. However we respond to changing plans—whether we lean in with Mary, hang in the background and take care of everything with Joseph, start serving with the relatives or change course with the shepherds, help us to know that we are all part of your plan of salvation for the whole world. Bring healing to those who are suffering, especially those close to our hearts..... Bring comfort to those who are grieving, especially to us as a nation with the extreme number of deaths from the coronavirus. Make something star-lit out of the places of sorrow, pain, and struggle in our lives. Help us to trust that no matter what, you choose to work through us to bring your hope, peace, and joy to others and to this world. Make us faithful bearers of Christ-like love so that we might participate in your plan of salvation for the whole earth. We pray in the life-giving name of Immanuel, God with us, Jesus, Our Savior and Lord, Amen.

Image: Latino Nativity, http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/2aa/2aa181.htm



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Choosing Whom To Serve

barn with crossReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 on November 8, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

If you go to London and ride the underground train, you will hear an announcement that always comes on as you enter and exit the train warning you to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform.

In his farewell speech near the end of this book, Joshua tells the Israelites to “mind the gap.” However, unlike the London underground, Joshua is not referring to a physical gap, but a spiritual gap. Having led them into the Promised Land, Joshua details the gap by listing the many gods from whom the Israelites can choose—both past and present. Their ancestor Abraham first served the gods of Mesopotamia, their ancestors in Egypt were enslaved by the gods of Pharaoh, the Amorites that currently surround them in the land of Canaan have another menu of pagan gods. What is more, many of the Israelites carry with them household gods—statues of fertility gods, weather gods, and harvest god’s that they keep in their tents so they can be sure to cover all of their bases. We heard about such household gods when Rachel, Jacob’s second wife, took some of her father’s household gods and hid them under her saddle when they left.

Joshua preaches to the people: “These gods have done nothing for you, but the Lord, the one true God, led your ancestor Abraham and gave him many descendants as promised, the Lord liberated your ancestors from Egypt, the Lord brought you through the wilderness, the Lord now gives you this land.” This is the God who has defeated all the other of the other gods, so now, “Choose this day whom you shall serve, as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.”
The Israelites agree with Joshua’s testimony of what the Lord has done for them, and they promise to serve the Lord—“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods….we will also serve the Lord!”

Joshua then offers a warning: “mind the gap”— Joshua notices a gap in what the people are saying with their mouths and what they are doing with their behavior. Joshua instructs them: “put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” You cannot worship the Lord on the Sabbath, and the rest of the week pray to the rain god, the fertility god, the wheat god, the war god, and whatever else you desire. It does not work to offer lip serve to the Lord, and then hedge your bets on other candidates in case God does not come through on your terms, or on your timetable, or with your election returns.

This Post-election season calls each of us to “mind the gap” between who we confess as our Lord and Savior—and how we think and behave. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, we have several realities to grapple with:

• We live in a divided country with very differing ideas what kind of leadership we need and the best way forward through this pandemic, economy, and global state of affairs.
• There is little real listening to other points of view underneath the rhetoric and accusations;
• On all sides, in both parties, underneath all the differences, everyone is really afraid—this deep fear is what we all have in common.
• If we could set aside politics and listen to one another’s real fears as human beings, we could begin to tap in to that great American tradition of working together for the common good.

For it is fear, after all, that drives the Israelites to hedge their bets against the Lord God who has done so much for them, and rely instead on those back-up gods. Do we not do the same? Worshiping at the altar of our bank account, our political party, our success, our control, the rightness of our viewpoint, our pride, or whatever is that drives us?

Joshua reminds us that God gives us the freedom to choose, and that to choose the Lord requires complete trust regardless of external circumstances. “Choose this day whom you shall serve, as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.” Joshua commits his whole household to the Lord—there are no little statues to fertility gods hidden in the house; and no children, servants or anyone else will serve a foreign god—he is talking about complete loyalty. That is what it is to serve the Lord. To serve the Lord entails three things.

First, it means complete loyalty to God and no other. This is the first commandment, “you shall have no other gods before me”—including for us no political platform, candidate, nor government; we participate as responsible citizens, but God always remains number 1. Second, to serve the Lord means to worship—to praise, honor, pray, give thanks, make offerings with a thankful heart, and to support the mission of God in the world which is faith active in love. Third, to serve the Lord means to obey God—to follow the commandments and for us, it means to love our neighbor as ourselves—especially our neighbor who voted for the other candidate. Obedience to God means faithfulness is the only standard, not success; and the same tasks are always required regardless of who is running the government: do justice, love mercy and build the beloved community of the kingdom of God.

We can offer God our complete loyalty, our worship, and our obedience because we do not stand in the gap alone. God, in his infinite mercy, knows that we can never fill the void between our confession of faith, and our fidelity to that confession perfectly, so God sent God’s very self into the center of our fears to fill the gap.
Jesus Christ comes to us now and says, “fear not” for I am with you and in you, and working through, and you are never alone.

So be of good courage. Choose to serve me and me alone with a thankful heart this day, and order your life, your words, and your actions accordingly. Heaven and earth shall all pass way, but I will not pass away. So, act justly, live kindly, walk humbly, serve joyfully, worship wholeheartedly, obey loyally, feed abundantly, clothe warmly, give generously.
As Christians, we are not blue or red, we shine brightly with the golden light of Christ as we choose to serve the Lord, and him only.

 Reflection Questions

• Where do you notice the gap between your faith in God and your words/thoughts/behavior most noticeably?
• What are the “back-up gods” that come between you and complete trust in God? Can you name what insecurity drives you? Is it money, success, political views, recognition, control, love, relationships, worthiness, security, the rightness of our viewpoint, fear, insecurity, pride? Ask God to help you trust in Christ instead of this “god” in your prayers.
• What external circumstances challenge your faith and trust in God?
• How does choosing to serve the Lord show up in your daily life? Can you choose this for your whole household, like Joshua did? If so, how? If not, why not?
• To serve the Lord means three things: loyalty, worship, and obedience. Which of these is most natural for you? Most challenging? An area where you would like to grow?
• What does it mean for you that Jesus Christ stands in the gap between your confession of faith and your inability to be completely true to it? Try a prayer of imagination, picturing Jesus standing in this gap with you, offering grace, love, forgiveness and help with whatever you need to trust God more fully.

Photo by //unsplash.com/@introspectivedsgn?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&;utm_content=creditCopyText">Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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A Narrow Escape into Faith

KnockersPictureRed balloons on the microphone seemed like a good idea at the time! Last Sunday was Reformation and Confirmation--two youth were affirming their Baptism and becoming adult members of the congregation. But no one could see their faces above the balloons when they were ready to share their statement of faith, so I untied them after the first prayer. Thankfully, there were no microphone balloons for the rest of the Confirmation service! But I am glad they were there long enough to take this picture, because I have laughed more in the last week looking at this picture than I have in a long time. It has been truly healing and spiritually transforming. I try not think too much about breast cancer or worry about it coming back, but this is harder during October when breast cancer awareness is everywhere, and as I approach the anniversary of my diagnosis. Battling fear of not surviving COVID-19 as a high-risk person compounds this anxiety. British playwright Christopher Fry said, "Comedy is an escape, not from truth, but from despair, a narrow escape into faith." Laughing at this picture gave me an escape route out of fear back into faith. I hope it makes you laugh as much as it did me.

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Doing our Kingdom Work in God’s Story of Salvation

Reformation Confirmation ImageReflection Series on a semi-continuous reading of Hebrew Scriptures: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 on October 25, 2020 for Reformation and Confirmation Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

It is all so disappointing. Moses standing there looking over at the Promised Land, but not being able to enter it. He had done so much to bring the people of Israel there—challenging Pharaoh, calling down the plagues, fleeing Egypt on the night of the Passover, crossing the Red Sea, and then 40 years in the wilderness, no less—and all the while the Israelites whining and complaining!

He received the Ten Commandments, guided the people, helped repair their relationship with God when they strayed – Moses did it all. Certainly, he made his mistakes, but he proved faithful to God and to Israel when it mattered most. Now here he is, ready to cross the finish the line—and God says, “you’re going to sit this one out, you can look, but you can’t touch.” Such a disappointing ending for Moses, whose grave no one can even find.

We are living through our own time of disappointment during this global pandemic, when memorial services are put off or done outside. When familiar worship and family gatherings cannot be experienced, and we are bereft and disappointed. We have to re-imagine how to plan Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who can gather together, should we try to eat outside? Do we quarantine the college kid for two weeks so grandpa can come to dinner? Do we put the computer at the head of table so we can eat with family on Zoom?

When Natalie and Sam Sherrod started Confirmation two years ago, we never imagined their Confirmation service would be anywhere but, in the Sanctuary, kneeling at the Communion railing with a full church celebrating their Affirmation of Baptism as adult members of this congregation. Instead, they will be kneeling on pillows on the curb. Natalie and Sam and all of us join Moses looking out at a Promised land, imagining how things could have been and should have been.

Was Moses himself disappointed as he stood on the brow of Mt. Pisgah and beheld a future that was not open to him? Our story does not tell us, but rather, it focuses on the work that Moses had done, rather than the reward we feel he should have received. Our passage highlights Moses’ role in God’s larger story of salvation. There are four patterns of Moses’ life and ministry that are instructive for us today as we celebrate the Reformation and Confirmation for Sam and Natalie.

First, Moses did his job. God had a specific role for Moses, and he fulfilled his calling in a way that only he could do. Moses argued, challenged and negotiated with God along the way, he made mistakes, and he bore the brunt of Israel’s sin—but he remained faithful to God and stayed in relationship with God, doing all that God asked of him as best he could. All of us have a unique way to serve God whether in or out of pandemic. How we serve may have changed, but that we are called to love and serve our neighbor as ourselves has not. Some do it through prayer, through card ministry, through phone calls, through giving, through caring for neighbors. Some serve on ministry teams or in leadership roles, others through the care they offer at work. Martin Luther taught in the Reformation that we are the priesthood of all believers and each one of us is called to serve Christ where we are with the what we have; and St. Luke’s, we are a church that models this for our new confirmands, Sam and Natalie.

Second, Moses trusted God’s promises and spent time with God regularly. Moses modeled spiritual practices for us, spending time apart with God alone, and engaging in conversation with God. As God shows Moses the promised land, God says, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, "I will give it to your descendants.’ Because Moses spent so much time with God—the only one who saw God face to face, or in the burning bush, he never doubted God would keep this promise, so Moses could die in peace. We too, can trust God to fulfill God’s promises.

Martin Luther taught that prayer was crucial to human life and that we respond to God by praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. We can engage in our deepening relationship with God, spending time apart, and with Sam and Natalie today, re-affirming our commitment to engaging in this relationship with God, so that no matter what goes on around us, our faith remains a stable source of peace.

Third, Moses empowered the next generation of leaders in Joshua and Caleb. Moses anointed them with the spirit and power to become the new leaders of Israel, taking over for him as they enter the Promised Land. Sometimes we forget that everything is not up to us. God always calls us to be raising up the next generation of leaders with new skills, new faith, new perspectives, and new energy to lead the upcoming step into the future. The folks who started this congregation in 1957 did not know who would serve on Council in 2020, but they trusted every generation of leaders to raise up the next generation. That is what Confirmation is today—raising the next generation in the faith, learning from them, listening to them, allowing our ministry to be shaped by them so we can grow into the future. Do you remember eight months ago none of us considered worshiping with screens, and now we cannot imagine being without them? How will Sam and Natalie’s generation help us expand sharing the Gospel with digital ministry?

Martin Luther wrote the Catechism to equip every household to teach the basics of the faith to the next generation. Natalie and Sam are our Joshua and Caleb today, helping lead us and see our way into a new future.

Finally, Moses held onto a vision of the future. As he stood on the mountaintop, Moses could see that future stretched out before him. To be sure, Christians need to be informed and know what is going on in the world. But there comes a time when we turn off the news and social media and instead, envision what God’s kingdom of love and justice really looks like, so we always have a clear picture of what we move toward. In our worship, at the Lord’s Table, through our study of scripture, God endows us with a divine imagination that empowers us to glimpse God’s future for us and the world– a future that is more peaceful, more just, more connected, more hopeful for more people.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was named for our reformer, Martin Luther) had a gift for turning present day conflicts into a clear vision for the future. The night before he was assassinated, he spoke on this very Bible passage with these words:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land.1

We trust this vision, we hope for this vision, we work for this vision, and we confirm Sam and Natalie into this vision today. And so with Moses, we do the kingdom work that God calls us to do. We train and raise up a new generation of leaders. We commit ourselves body and soul to God, praying regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently. And We hold onto God’s vision that we as a people will get to the promised land. 

1A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 286.
Reflection Questions:

• Have there been times when you have done the right thing, what God desires, but no reward is forthcoming? As you look back on those situations, can you see yourself in God’s larger purpose and story of salvation?
• How does God call you to love and serve others today, right now? Has this changed given our pandemic circumstances? Are there new ways God has called you to serve?
• Have you thought of yourself as “priest” by nature of your Baptism, as part of the “priesthood of all believers” as Luther taught? Does thinking this way increase the urgency of your service and gifts offered in the world?
• How is your prayer life? Does having more time at home give you an opportunity to pray “regularly, forthrightly, honestly, and frequently?”
• What do you think St. Luke’s can do to connect more with teens, and with Millennials in their 20’s and 30’s? What relationships do you have with people in these age groups?
• What is your vision of the promised land and the kingdom of God here on earth?

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.