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Belonging in Peace

Mary and ElizabethMessage for Advent 2 on Luke 1:39-45 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Our 4 Themes for Advent: 1-Believing in Hope (Zechariah); 2-Belonging in Peace (Mary and Elizabeth); 3-Building in Joy (Mary's Song); 4-Becoming in Love-the Christmas Pageant

I would not say I was one of those women who loved being pregnant. I have met them--maybe you, or your spouse or a relative was one of them. Don’t get me wrong—I was excited, delighted, and grateful for the chance to have children—not all women can. But I did not feel like I glowed with new life. I did not love feeling and looking like a duplex. I did not appreciate waddling like a duck and not being able to turn over in bed. It was such a challenging endeavor to change so much of my life—my exercise, eating habits, rest, vitamins, water intake, wardrobe, house, my car, even my future plans—all for someone I had not even met yet.

Both Elizbeth and Mary are rearranging their lives for the someone they have not met yet, growing inside their wombs. Elizabeth is way too old for this new child—a miraculous birth for a woman in her advanced years. She had accepted her life as a childless woman and found meaning and joy in other endeavors—helping other village women, assisting in the raising of nieces and nephews, serving the community with extra bread-baking, sewing, and other tasks of service. Did she really want a baby? Elizabeth’s back already hurts, her schedule is already slowing down—how is she going to keep up with a child? Why has God waited so long—what is God thinking? Part of her is overjoyed, and part of her feels like it is terrible timing. Elizabeth is not sure she has the energy to make all the changes a new baby requires.

Mary, on the other hand, is way too young for this new child. She is engaged, but not yet married—found to be in a scandalous pregnancy that could completely ostracize her, if not cause her death by stoning. Some speculate that this is the reason Mary hurries to visit Elizabeth in a different town in the Judean hill country--for her own safety. She had her future with Joseph all mapped out and now it is tumbling down around her. Mary needs time to hide and think. Was that angel visitation real? What if Joseph leaves her, how will she raise a baby alone? Why doesn’t God wait until she is married, this would all be so much easier; what is God thinking? Mary is not sure she can make all the changes a new baby before marriage requires.

We all have a hard time accepting new possibilities from God. It’s much easier to accept God’s new ideas and possibilities for our future if we get to remain exactly the same. I would personally love to tell God, “you and Jesus do a new thing over there, grow the church, and fix things up, I will cheer you on from my seat over here with my chocolate and a glass of wine, and I’ll enjoy the show.”

But I have yet to have God take me up on this offer—because God comes through birth, through physical presence, through participation, through relationship, through dwelling in your heart, and mind, and your life and mine—there’s no such thing as a spectator when it comes to a relationship with a God who comes to us in flesh and blood. Ask Elizabeth and her aching back. Ask Zechariah who cannot speak for nine months. Ask Mary as she hides in the Judean hills. Ask Joseph who is the laughingstock of his peers as he agrees to wed Mary anyway.

God’s new possibilities demand our whole being because every genuine relationship rooted in love demands our whole being—just like a new baby does, or an adopted child does, or a new spouse does, or any new relationship does. I bet you cannot think of one significant relationship in your life, be it partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, child, brother, sister, best friend—that has not demanded more of you and changed you in some way.

God wants us to be open to new possibilities in our life together as the church, but we can find this so difficult. Some of you may know the joke, “How many church members does it take to change a light bulb? …..Change? Who said anything about change?”

In the church that Dan served in St. Louis, they had some long-held traditions at Advent and Christmas. Dan tried to encourage the Worship team to incorporate ideas from new members who had recently joined the church and were full of energy and excitement. There was a lot of resistance to changing anything at all. Dan talked to one of the women who was resisting change and tried to explain that just as she had a chance to shape some of these traditions, new people would also like to try out their ideas. The woman’s response was, “don’t you think if they tried it the way we do it, they would love it, too?”

God was opening up new possibilities at her church—with new members, new growth, new ideas, and new opportunities in the community, and she was not willing to embrace God’s new possibilities, nor the people God sent to their congregation to add to the mission and the life of the congregation. She thought church was sitting in the spectator seats rather than engaging in a relationship with God and with new members to give birth to the new life God was unfolding.

God is opening up new possibilities for us at St. Luke’s—God is providing us with an exciting and expanding vision for our future and with Capital Campaign to repair and improve our building so we can fulfill our mission more faithfully. Already this year we have witnessed God at work! We have taken in 10 new members already this year, we have 6 more joining today, and we have several more ready to join in the new year. These are all people God has brought here with gifts and ideas, prayers and blessings, talents and skills.

I invite you to get to know them—not just names but really know their skills and passions and ideas—one of them has a great idea for Holy Week, another for the community garden. One has served a Council president, two have served in the military and one has a great testimony about seeing God at work in his former congregation. I also invite you to share your own ideas as we move into the future. We have trees in the sanctuary because someone shared an idea, and I said “yes! if there were ever a time for more beauty and light and joy in our lives, it is now!" We may not be able to do everything, but I can promise we cannot implement ideas that are not shared. As we hear new ways of doing things from new members and each other, as we listen and learn, we will change and grow because God is in all of us, and we belong together for God’s mission.

We are pregnant with possibilities, with new relationships, with new opportunities and new ways to grow. There are no spectators in God’s future. As we upgrade our building, like every pregnant woman, we prepare for people we have not even met yet—we get ready for the future God has in store which we cannot even ask for or imagine. But it is a future where we are changed by love and the new possibilities that God is giving birth to here.

Elizabeth and Mary’s circumstances were opposite, yet they were bound together and found belonging with each in their uncommon pregnancies that would have otherwise left them isolated and alone. When they came together, the Holy Spirit was alive and active in their lives and in their conversation—because they were both women who were willing to change and say, “yes” to the new possibilities God was unfolding for them.

Even though their lives were at different stages, but they belonged together in sharing the value of desiring God’s plan for their lives. The two babies that were coming changed their present and their future, but they were at peace. They were at peace, not because everything went according to their plan, but because they had accepted God’s plan and being changed by it together.

God calls each one of us in love through this community to join together in bringing forth new possibilities. With each new person who joins our mission, and as we live this mission out in our neighborhood, we see the face of Christ, we grow in faith, and we are changed by love. Not everything will go according to our plans, but we will be at peace as everything goes according to God’s plan because we belong together in unity for mission.

Image: Creator and Copyright: Fr Lawrence Lew, OP flickr.com

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Believing in Hope

Gabriel 13046cMessage for Advent 1 on Luke 1:5-20 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas (I am not preaching the Lectionary for Advent, but I am sticking with Luke!)

You realize when you read this story of Zechariah in the Temple with the Angel Gabriel that there’s nothing new under the sun. We thought the mute button was invented with advent of the TV remote. I think the Angel Gabriel deserves the patent for that one. I am not sure the punishment fits the crime, however. Nine months of not being able to talk simply because Zechariah asked for a little proof of this impending miracle? Even though he was a priest, it was not like Angels from the footstool of God were appearing in the Temple every other week. Zechariah was an old man having spent years at the Temple with no other-worldly spiritual action. This angel manifestation was so shocking and terrifying, he nearly lost his lunch. Clearly, Zechariah had not heard about any theophanies by his contemporaries or his mentors or he would not have been so terrified. Sure, he knew the story of Abraham and Sarah having Isaac in their old age, but that was centuries earlier—was God still paying that much attention?

Zechariah asked the one question all of us would ask, “How will I know?” I have danced to this question many times--Whitney Houston sang “How Will I Know” and it became the #1 Pop song in February of 1986. You did not know that she was quoting Zechariah, did you? But, whether it’s proof of love or a sign that God’s promise is real, we all want the evidence—of course Zechariah asked, “How will I know?”—we all want to know—and waiting for a baby bump in three months is not good enough. But that was all he got—and worse. Absolute silence. A nine-month mute button. And you thought your mother came up with, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Apparently, the Angel Gabriel is like—if you cannot believe my message about God’s future, you cannot say anything at all. Which is an interesting evangelism tactic when it comes to getting the word out that the forerunner to the Messiah is coming. Which means the Messiah is also on his way. Biggest news of the Millienia! You would think Gabriel would want Zechariah telling everyone about his angel visitation. That they are having a baby in their old age like Abraham and Sarah. That the Holy Spirit will be upon this child, and that people will turn from disobedience. And the publicity strategy is…. silence? It seems Gabriel would rather have no press, than bad press.

Because if Zechariah is full of doubts and “where’s the proof,” and “maybe’s and probably nots,” and “I don’t see how it’s possible,” and “it happened but I’m not sure,” and “what about this consideration,” and “he didn’t talk about these factors,” and “we’ve never done it that way before,” “I don’t like the looks of this,” and all of these insecurities, well, then yes, perhaps silence is better than negativity. 

Zechariah had nine months of being mute to ponder his encounter with the Angel Gabriel and really think about what he wanted to say, why it was hard to believe at first, the impact on his relationship with God, and how this was going to change his behavior going forward. And you thought your dad invented being grounded and “go to your room to think about it.”

Which begs the question, “Why is believing in God’s promised future for us so challenging?” Doubt and negativity can come so easily. There are more, but I can think of three basic reasons why it’s easy to fall in with Zechariah.
• It’s a way of protecting ourselves from disappointment
• It allows us to remain the same –we do not have to grow and change if God is not doing anything new
• We do not like feeling out of control and trusting God means accepting not being in charge

But nine, silent, thoughtful months later, when Zechariah’s son was born, there was not a single cell of doubt in his body, there was not a shred of fear, there was not a second’s hesitation about believing God’s future and trusting God’s control over his life and all of Israel. The moment Zechariah wrote on a tablet that his baby was to be named John, (and would become the future John the Baptist) his tongue was released he began a song of prophecy and praise glorifying God for his faithfulness to their ancestors, and reciting the promise given to him from the Angel Gabriel:

God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.

 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah was full of belief in what God could do, was doing, and will do in the future to fulfill God’s promises. God has a future in store for all of us—in our personal lives, yes, absolutely—God has a purpose for each one of us. And God has a purpose and a future for St. Luke’s—it’s a future that’s beyond my lifetime and your lifetime. In order for that promised future to come true, it matters what we say and what we do today.

Zechariah knew in his bones and in his vocal cords, that belief in God’s promised future mattered. Believing with hope in God’s promised future –in your future and St. Luke’s future, matters. There can be no doubts, no ifs, ands, or buts about the future God calls us to. Zechariah shares a beautiful mission as part of that future:

• To give knowledge of salvation
• to offer forgiveness of sins.
• to share the tender mercy of our God,
• to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
• to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and peace—these are not states of being, but the actions of people who believe with hope in God’s promised future. These values define and describe the way we live our life together in community with each other and in mission with people around us. The details may shift as we grow, but forgiveness, compassion, mercy and peace include feeding hungry neighbors, it includes connecting with at risk high school youth down the street, it includes growing a Spanish-speaking outreach ministry, it includes connecting with our neighbors—almost every demographic from young to old of whom is experiencing loneliness.

People in our community need our belief in God’s promised future to help them get through this pandemic. We are in the business of hope, in believing in the power of life over death, the power of love over loss, the power of community over isolation, the power of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy over all that separates us from one another, and in the power of God’s vision to make us new.

When I moved to Texas, I never planned to be the pastor of a congregation like this again—I was going be an interim pastor, a hospital chaplain, do spiritual direction or some combination of the above (I called it "free range ministry!"). You can see how well that worked out. God always has something better in mind for us than we can ask or imagine. Last week I told you that I have a hard time working with coaches—guess how many I have had since starting here? I am on 4th—about one per year. God has been messing with me since I touched Texas dirt. Why? Because God has a promised future for us, and like Zechariah, I cannot be the same old person, doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts, and move into the future God is leading us into. God wants us leaning and growing into the future God has in store for us.

Now if you have big questions about faith and doubt, please come and talk with me—we can always talk about your faith questions of any nature. As a community, we want everyone leaning into the future believing in God’s promises with hope and a willingness to grow. I had a friend in St. Louis who worked hard at her own business and one of the ways she kept up a positive, growth-minded attitude was that she kept a rubber band around her wrist and when she got into what she called, “stinkin’ thinkin’” she would snap that rubber band as a way to snap out of her insecurities, fears or negativity, and she would change her thoughts to believing in hope.

Guess what I have at the back? Rubber bands. So, if you catch yourself in “Pre-muted Zechariah moment of insecurity” and you fear God is not going to show up, and you are tempted to rain negativity down on the future God calls us to, you can snap out of it, and we will all pray that the Angel Gabriel has lost his remote mute button.

How will we know that God’s promises are good? Well, God showed up for Zechariah, God showed up for Mary & Joseph, God showed up for Jesus in his death with resurrection, God has shown up for St. Luke’s in the past, and I believe in hope that God will continue to show up for all of us now and in the future. Amen.

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Waking Up Before You Die

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep BlueMessage for the All Saints Sunday on John 11:32-44 for November 7, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I apologize for being remiss in posting this fall! I will catch up with November sermons and post Advent as well. If there are any particular Sundays you would, like please email me and I will send them to you!

My mother-in-law Joan, who is one of the saints that I remember today, died in 2007 and I still remember the sermon the pastor preached at her Memorial service. He told a story of a little girl being tucked into bed at night by her dad—a job usually done be her mom. It came time to say the prayers and her dad said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I wake before I die ….wait minute, that’s wrong—isn’t it If I die before I wake?” And the little girl said, “no daddy—you’re right, I think we are supposed to wake up.”

The pastor went on to describe Joan as someone who had woken up in her life before she died—that she had woken up to what God was up to, and how God wants us to live. Joan woke up to compassion, and justice for the marginalized; Joan woke up and championed LGBTQ inclusion way before anyone else in the church was even thinking about it.

A few verses earlier than our passage today, Jesus describes raising Lazarus from the dead as “awakening” him from sleep. Theologians like to argue about whether he was really resurrected or resuscitated-–but I am not sure it really matters—the point is that he is sealed in a tomb wrapped in the grave cloths of death for four days. He is not serving, working, loving, providing, speaking, or doing anything. The grief and mourning rituals have begun, and Lazarus is as good as gone. He was dead long enough to stink.
But for Jesus and his power, he is only sleeping. And it is time to wake him up. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I wake before I die…” First, Jesus thanks God the Father for listening to him always, and to clue in the crowd that what is about to happen is through God’s power, and that Jesus is sent from him. Then all it takes for Lazarus to wake up from the grips of death is for Jesus to call him by name, “Lazarus, come out!”

The Word that called creation into being in the beginning—"let there be light”—this Word that became flesh—now speaks life and creation again—"Lazarus come out!” Jesus has to call Lazarus by name because there is so much power in his Word that if he would have said, “dead man, come out” all the tombs would have opened, and the saints would have arisen as if it were the last day.

So, Lazarus wakes up! And out he comes, still wrapped in the cloths and the bindings of death–but Lazarus is awake to what God is up to and the extent of God’s power in Jesus! He has power over death, even before Jesus’ own resurrection—God has power over death, and he changes it into life—real life!

But we know that already, don’t we? God has shown us that death is transformed into life over and over again—in the cycle of the seasons, in the spring that comes after winter, in the butterfly that emerges from the tomb of the cocoon, in the seed that falls to the ground and dies before it becomes a new stalk of wheat, in the painful breakup that prepares us for a successful marriage, in the loss or grief that brings new growth or positive change over time. God is in the business of bringing full and abundant life even in the face of death, even in the midst of hardship. This is the core of faith in Jesus Christ—we call it the paschal mystery—out of death, life.

Jesus invites not only Lazarus, but Mary and Martha, and the whole community gathered around them—to stop grieving, and to wake up before they die—to wake up to life, to God’s power over death to bring life! Wake up to love, wake up to service, wake up to belief in Jesus’ power, wake up to what matters to God and what matters to building God’s kingdom on earth.

The saints that you remember today are no doubt, people who woke up before they died—people who’s life and faith testified to something bigger than themselves; people who gave love, and hope, and meaning to your life because they shared God’s gifts and calling on their life.

We have been in our own season when Jesus has called us to wake up. In the last year and half, we have woken up to how interconnected the world is, how our behavior affects others’ health and well-being; We have woken up to the effects of climate change and the impact of our own carbon foot print. And we have experienced as a community how God can bring life out of death—we have experienced worship online, outside, inside, amazing music, and the expansion of our technology and worship in community in so many creative ways. Instead of shutting down we have started new ministries like the free community breakfast and Luke’s Learners—that is waking up to what God is doing to bring life out of death.

As a church we have woken up anew to the fact that we have a really desirable location and building that other congregations want, and we have renewed energy and interest in caring for our property and growing our mission. The beginning of our Capital Campaign is a testimony to this. Our stewardship emphasis for 2022 highlights that we are the Body of Christ together, which calls each of us to wake up to how God calls us to serve in order to grow our mission and outreach as we contribute our part.

Like Lazarus, Jesus calls each of us by name, so we can serve him with the gifts and talents he has given us. For us to fulfill our mission and grow, we need everyone to wake up to their gifts and find one new way to serve.

One of the ways I am waking up is working with a church growth coach who has instructed me to give a behavioral task at the end of my sermons. So, I want you to look at the Capital Campaign Teams listed in the Gathering Area and sign up for one Team—because we need you to wake up anew and join in to succeed in securing our future in this place. If you are hesitant because you do not know what’s involved, then sign up anyway, with a note that says you need more information. There will be lots of training with every Team on the Capital Campaign starting this Saturday, so everyone will know what’s involved. If you are on streaming, you can call Carol Rizzo or Carol Brant, or the office to find out how to sign up.

The Capital Campaign is short-term, so part 2 is this week, I want you to get out your Time and Talent Sheets for 2022 and find one new way you are going to wake up anew and serve our on-going mission here. We need more volunteers for the community breakfast! If Rita Humphrey can stand and roll burritos on crutches, you probably can, too! Or you may not be able to get out of the house much—that’s ok—we need pray-ers; we need phone callers, card writers, we need a Weekly Word editor, and we have more tasks than are even listed on the Time & Talent sheets.

If there’s not something listed you feel you can do, Lyn and I can find a way for you to serve—we are very good this! If you do not know how to do something—great, someone can show you because we are the Body of Christ together. So that’s two tasks—one for the Capital Campaign, one for the Time & Talent Sheet, because we are the Body of Christ with all members working together.

The saints that matter to us woke up before they died and we remember them because of their faith, their love, their service. One day it will be you and me for whom the bell tolls and the candles are lit—what do you want people to remember? I want people to look back at this moment in the life of St. Luke’s and to say we woke up.

Jesus calls us to wake up before we die, to believe in Jesus’ power to call forth new life, and to participate with him in bringing life out death, so that we, like the saints before us can leave a legacy of love, hope and mission for those who come after us.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I WAKE before I die, I pray the Lord my life be thine. Amen.


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Immerse Yourself in God

Van Gogh Immersive PicTwo weekends ago my husband and I went to the Immersive Van Gogh art experience. Using 90,000,000 pixels and 500,000 cubic feet of projection, Van Gogh’s paintings covered all four walls and the floor. They manipulated the paintings with video while set to beautiful music. We were truly immersed in moving art—it was all around us, on our bodies and even covered our shoes.

It was captivating and deeply spiritual, personal and communal.

This is how we live in God, in Spirit—every second of our life we are immersed in God. At the burning bush with Moses God said, “I am that I am”—God is life and breath itself. We have been breathing in God unconsciously since we were born. Acts 17 says, “in God we live and move have our being.” This is why we feel close to God in nature—because God is projected everywhere in creation, the very first Bible with more pixels and cells than we can possibly conceive!

Go outside, listen to the birds, feel the music of the breeze, and breathe deeply today. Immerse yourself deeply in God.

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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.