Grace to you and peace, from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
This week, we are back in the wilderness: that edge between civilization and seemingly empty space; a place visited by those who try to run away from God, and at the same time, those searching for God as well as those being challenged by God. What a difference a week can make, because even though we are back, it feels so, so, so much different. For a number of reasons. And that's okay, it is okay, and it will be okay.
Because with being in the wilderness again, we hear John the Baptist's message of repentance. "Prepare!" John tells us. "Prepare and repent!"
In the life of the Church, today has had a history of being known as Gaudate or Rejoice Sunday. This comes from the first words in Latin of Mary's response to news she was to become the mother of Jesus: she rejoiced. Like Lent, Advent was a season of both penitence and repentance: hearts needed prepared before receiving Christ. With a focus of penitence, Rejoice Sunday was a welcome intrusion of joy leading up to Christmas, in part because of Paul's words to the Philippians, 'Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice,' which was used as part of the service in the Roman Catholic tradition.
Every now and then, the thought has occurred as to how and why joy can be found in preparing and repenting. For example, I love having guests over, whether it be family or friends. Yet the prep work of deep cleaning beforehand can cause moments of feeling frazzled. That is, until the results of elbow grease and hard work becomes visible: tufts of cat hair are gone from the furniture and floors, bathrooms are spotless, and everything is in its proper place in the kitchen. Then, there is a sense of satisfaction and joy in the accomplishment and the work that has been done.
In light of preparing and cleaning a house for company, joy in John the Baptist's message of prepare and repent makes sense. It makes sense because those who heard John's message wanted to hear this message. They were the ones who came into the wilderness to hear this message, looking for good news, looking for new life, and more importantly, looking for the long awaited Messiah. Knowing Who else is to come is joyful. When that day comes of being able to gather together with friends and extended family, our joy will be great. BUT -- our joy will be much greater when Jesus comes again. This joy allows people to be free from every hurt and pain in life. This joy brings healing to the world, to broken relationships, and broken spirits. With this healing comes the restoration of creation and humanity in perfect wholeness.
And here's the best part -- John's message isn't about himself, it's about Jesus, One who is coming after him. John knew this even before he was born that One would be coming after him. John knew who he was, and knew also who he was not. He knew he was not the One.
The same is true for us. We humans forget the reality that God is God and we're not. When we forget this, we neglect to point the way to Jesus and pointing Jesus to others. Sometimes, we need others to point Jesus out to us. During the pericope study earlier this week, a colleague shared of their weekly experience at the grocery store. As shoppers leave the store, an employee tells the shoppers to 'have a blessed day.' For this colleague, it is a reminder of the presence of Christ in a way not always thought of.
Now, more than ever, the world needs us collectively and individually to point the way to Jesus. While it has been an unusually strange year, there have been moments of joy. There will be moments of joy. Find them. Claim them. Name them. In naming these moments of joy, share this joy with others. More importantly, be the joy that points to a greater joy yet to come. Today, tomorrow, and always. Amen.
Biblical Text: Mark 1:1-8
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let me begin by saying the way today is going is NOT what had been anticipated. Months ago, we were making plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Zion's first worship service in the present building. In those plans, we began to explore the ways of sharing our joy with Marietta and the greater community through the Marietta Candlelight Tour. And then, like so many other events and plans, Covid-19 changed everything.
While there is disappointment, if anything the past few months have taught us is the need for flexibility, adaptation, and the need to be prepared -- for anything. To prepare is John the Baptist's message this morning: prepare the way of the Lord. It was a message proclaimed, not from the temple or other building, but a location: the wilderness.
The wilderness is often seen as a location that is dry, barren, lifeless, desolate, and empty. It can be a place where one goes to find God.
Throughout the Bible, the wilderness is seen as both a place of desolation, and a place of life.
Consider Sarah's servant Hagar. Jealous because Hagar was able to have a child with Abraham when she could not, Sarah sent Hagar and Ishmael to die in the wilderness. God had other plans: sparing their lives, including them in God's plan of salvation.
Later the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they entered the promised land. During those forty years, the Israelites found their relationship with God, struggled with this relationship, lost it, found it, and experienced God's covenantal care in ways they never expected or anticipated.
At a critical point in his ministry, Elijah sought relief from his critics by also seeking death. Again, God had other plans: providing food for Elijah to continue his journey, encouraging him to stay with a widow with limited means, yet means that did not run out.
Later, as he began his ministry, Jesus was led into the wilderness for forty days. As he neared the end of those forty days, Jesus was tempted by the devil.
Yes, the wilderness: a place both of struggle and of the Holy Spirit; a place both problematic and promising at the same time. And yet, there is something about the wilderness where faith grows, is encouraged, and is even strengthened.
There was something about John the Baptist's location in the wilderness AND the message John preached that led many in Jerusalem to come, to hear John's message, and to repent. Often the wilderness is seen as an edge: an edge of civilization, and edge of unknown, a margin. Here, at this edge of the unknown, John the Baptist encouraged people to repent, to change their ways.
Had we used it this morning, our first lesson would have come from the Prophet Isaiah, the 40th Chapter. In this chapter, Isaiah uses beautiful imagery of mountains lowered, valleys raised and filled in, rough places smoothed out, curves straightened. Being intentional in righting wrongs, mending hurts, repairing or restoring relationships -- that's the preparation we are called to do this Advent season. The other aspects of this season, while important in their own way of helping us celebrate, can often run us ragged, taking from us the joy of the season, prompting us to miss the true meaning and original point of preparing and repenting.
In many ways, this past year has felt like a wilderness: a season of unknowns, change, and constantly shifting sands. Yet in this wilderness and these constant changes, God continues to reveals God's self to us. We've learned, as much as we have memories of activities, ministry, events, and people from the past fifty years, that we are church, and continue to be church outside of Zion's walls. You, as a community of faith, as people of God, have continued to care for one another, and for our neighbors in need: with donations of food and blankets for the food bank, gift cards for the needy families, bringing in toys for the Toys for Tots campaign. It was noticed yesterday as community members dropped off toys to help with the Toys for Tots drive. It has been noticed as you have contacted one another while we are apart. The past few months have encouraged us to be creative as we think about God's calling on our lives outside the proverbial box, and how it is we understand God's work in our lives and the world.
Fifty years ago, when members of Zion planned to move outside of Marietta, they could not have known we would be worshipping online, or event that a pandemic would take place. What they did know, was a change in location, one the edge, was needed to continue the work, the ministry, the mission, the witness, and the sharing of the good news of the Gospel. In the same way, we don't know what life will look like fifty years from now. What we do know, is even in the wilderness of 2020, God continues to remain faithful. In this faithfulness, we are called to repent, to prepare, to watch. Above all, we are called to have hope. A hope that sees the pain of the world; a hope that sees the need of the world; and a hope that also sees the presence of God in the midst of this pain. There is hope. There is always hope -- a hope that invites us to prepare, to repent, to come to the wilderness, and experience new life -- today, tomorrow, and always.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Biblical Text: Mark 13:24-37
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whether or not it was intentional, Mark's Gospel was taken to heart last night in not being able to sleep. The what, the why, and the how of not being able to sleep is a mystery. What is known is the frustration of looking at the clock repeatedly throughout the night, thinking it time to get up, only to see not much time had passed since the last time of looking at the clock.
Somehow, the ability of not sleeping at night is not what Jesus is referring to when he tells the disciples, 'Keep awake.'
Before this passage, the disciples are amazed and impressed with the grandeur of the temple, marveling at the craftmanship, the skill, and the detail that went into building it. In their marveling, Jesus warns them of the day to come when the temple will be destroyed. Peter, James, and John approach Jesus later, privately asking him when this event will take place, and how will they know when it will happen. They want to know so they can be ready and prepared.
The answer Jesus gives is one they do not expect: Be watchful, be ready, be alert for those who would bring deception instead of good news about the Son of Man returning. Be ready for moments of being under attack by those who fail to understand the good news of Jesus' coming. Be ready because no one knows when that day will come.
Jesus continues with what TO expect: the sun will become dark, and a full moon (like last night's) will not shine. Stars will fall from heaven. In short, Jesus warns it will not be pretty. Yet, in that warning, Jesus offers words of hope, words of encouragement: keep awake.
Keep awake for those moments the reign of God breaks into our lives without realizing it.
Keep awake for those times we encounter God in our neighbor or in creation or in the beauty of song.
Keep awake to notice the way our hearts, our souls are touched by a gesture of kindness, a memory, a random experience with God.
Throughout Mark's Gospel, there is a sense of urgency, and a sense of immediacy. This immediacy is because Jesus knows his purpose and why he is here. Jesus knows too, there is a task ahead of him bigger than him: to go to Jerusalem as part of God's plan of salvation for the entire world. There is work to be done on the way to Jerusalem: the message of repentance to be proclaimed, sick to be healed, disciples to be called and made. For Mark's Jesus, there is no time to waste.
Knowing what is ahead of him, Jesus does his best to prepare the disciples for the time when he will leave AND return. He knows the human spirit far better than we often know ourselves; waiting for anything can be a challenge. In our waiting, we may grow tired. We may lose interest, or become discouraged, or become distracted.
Jesus' words to the disciples are words to us as well: Keep awake. Not a twenty four hour remain awake and vigilant at all times matter of being awake. Rather, an awake that is alert to the presence of God working in our lives.
When Zion entered the Lower Susquehanna Synod's Renewal Journey a few years ago, one of the questions frequently asked was "how did you see God at work in your life this week?" It was a question to encourage reflection, to pay attention to the ways of experiencing God working in our lives. At times, there were questions back of "Pastor, why do you keep asking this question?" The question is asked to remind us of the need to stay awake, to pay attention to the ways God works in the world and in the everyday 'stuff' of life. The question encourages us as disciples to notice the ways we too are part of God's work already begun.
To fall asleep noticing God's work among us, in us, through us, with us, and all of creation, means missing opportunities to continue God's mission and God's ongoing work in the world. In the work of renewal, it is often said, "The church doesn't have am ission, but rather God has a mission for the church." When we remain awake, we open ourselves to the ways we can be of help to God in the world. When we fall asleep, we miss options and possibilities.
Jesus reminds us, "Keep awake." Keep awake, dear friends, this Advent season. We know not what is to come, especially in these next few weeks of coronavirus. But we do know Who is to come, and Who will come again. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Note: This is what SHOULD have been preached on November 8th, not what was preached.
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Of the parables Jesus tells, this is one of the stranger ones:
A wedding where the groom is late to his own reception.
Bridesmaids who fall asleep waiting, and when they are awakened, half are unable to keep their lamps lit while those who can, send the others out to get more oil.
The actions of the bridesmaids always leaves me wondering and questioning where it is the bridesmaids go? With no WalMart or Target or other 24 hour super-store open in the middle of the night, where do the bridesmaids go for more oil? Then, when they do return with extra oil and ask to be admitted to the reception, the groom refuses to let them in. Worse, the groom denies even knowing them.
The behavior of the bridesmaids and the bridegroom are almost as bad as the wedding guest a few weeks ago who is physically removed from the reception because of not wearing the appropriate wedding clothing.
We could look at these two parables and wonder what Jesus has against weddings or other social gatherings. Only, social gathering are not the issue at all for Jesus.
What is an issue is there were some in Jesus' day who were not ready for Jesus' coming. Even with Jesus present in their midst, many waited, failing to see the work Jesus was doing, failing to hear the message of repentance, of hope, of love Jesus proclaimed to everyone. Those who failed to see Jesus present with them were not ready for this bright reality: they had fallen asleep.
In all honesty, I can't fault the sleeping bridesmaids for falling asleep while waiting.
Even if they were excited, happy, and joyous about the bridegroom's marriage to the love of his life, these emotions can prevent sleep from coming in a timely manner. These emotions are like the energy of a child on Christmas Eve -- so excited and unable to sleep because of not being able to wait to see what's under the tree.
Nor can I fault them in falling asleep because there have been those times in life where there is a need to remain awake, beyond what the body is used to, and it is difficult:
For anyone who has ever worked third shift, you have my deep gratitude for working hours when most others are sleeping. Tried it, didn't like it, especially adjusting to a new routine of hours flipped between being asleep and being awake.
As a hospital chaplain, there were nights the pager would go off, piercing sleep with a reality of a need for pastoral care. Calls like that took time for the heart to settle, the brain to calm, and the body to relax before sleep returned.
In your children's younger years, or if you attended a lock-in, sleep is the last item on the agenda. There's the unwritten norm no one wants to fall asleep before anyone else. No one wants to be the first person to fall asleep.
It wasn't the fear of being laughed at that Jesus told this parable.
Nor was it fear of not being able to return to sleep, or exhaustion from working third shift.
For Matthew, the underlying theme throughout his Gospel is that of wakefulness and watchfulness. Matthew wrote to a community that had separated itself from the synagogue. In this separation, many wondered when, even IF Jesus' coming would indeed happen as they hoped and waited. Matthew reminded them -- continuously that the reign of God, the kingdom of God was present with them at that time and place in Jesus' words: "Keep awake."
By this, Jesus does not mean for us to remain awake at all times. To be awake all the time creates its own problems for the human body. Nor is it healthy for the human body.
Elsewhere in the Scriptures, Jesus encourages, invites, reminds, and teaches the disciples the importance and the need for rest, to take a break, to be renewed.
What Jesus does mean in telling the disciples and us to “Keep awake” is the reality to be on the watch for the reign of God, the kingdom of God present with us here and now even in this moment. Watching and waiting for Jesus presence in life can at times catch us unprepared. We’re unprepared because these moments, these little God moments are not expected or anticipated. Because they’re not expected or anticipated, we miss seeing them until it’s too late.
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus tells the crowd listening to him, “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
These same words – words that are part of our Baptismal liturgy, remind us to let our lights shine so others may see and come to know the Father through us. Being human, we find ways without realizing it to prevent our light from shining: hiding it under a bush, trying to blow it out, allowing someone else to blow it out. As the song reminds us: it will point the way to heaven, all around the neighborhood, shine, shine, shine. Keeping our light shining, means being prepared, being ready to see Jesus, being ready to respond to a need, big or small.
Our special music this morning, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” comes to us by way of an African American Spiritual. A song of hope, a song of promise, a reminder to keep hope, and to keep faith, even in the darkest of days and the darkest of times. Faith shines brightest in the dark. Oil lamps and candles shine brighter in the dark than in daylight. We who carry the light of Christ with us wherever we go, need to be ready to carry this light into the darkness of the world – “For this work’s almost done.”
”Children, don’t grow weary, for this work’s almost done.”
May God who is gracious keep our lamps trimmed and burning, so others may see our good works, and give glory to God, who is in heaven. Amen.
On June 17th, 2020, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America remembers the Emanuel 9 -- 9 members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, who were gunned down during an evening Bible study five years ago. I will admit not knowing any of the victims, yet news of this one hits hard for several reasons. It hits hard because Dylan Roof, the convicted killer went through confirmation at an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation. It hits hard too, because of the longstanding relationship the ELCA has with the African Methodist Episcopal Denomination. It hits hard, too, because at least one person killed had been taking classes at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. And, it hits hard because the lives of these faithful nine were prevented from sharing their God given gifts and abilities with the rest of the world.
Five years ago, I don't think I had words to express what I was feeling. I'm still not sure I have the words to express the emotions feeling this day. What I do know, and maybe you have experienced it too, is a weariness. A weariness that wonders why we STILL haven't learned the simplest, yet hardest lesson in Sunday School; a weariness that wonders why we as humans have to be so dense and stubborn learning this lesson; a weariness that wonders when God is going to get tired of our behavior.
Sadly, I don't have any answers to why we can't accept the reality Jesus loves everybody, or why people would rather hate than love, or when God will call "Time Out!" on us. What I do know is too many people are weary, tired, and hurting.
I know too, we can do better than this. We have to do better than this. We don't have to save the world -- that's already been done for us through Christ. One small step, one small thought or attitude adjustment can and will make a difference.
Feeling a need to do something, I've started an online book discussion on the book "Be The Bridge: Having God's Heart for Racial Reconciliation." We will meet on Thursday evenings at 8:30 p.m. online. If you would like to be part of the discussion, please let us know through the contact form on this website so we can share details and information with you on ways to participate in the discussion.
It's a start, and we have to start somewhere on a path towards repentance, reconciliation, and loving our neighbor. Taking the first step on anything is a challenge, but not impossible with God. Every trip has to have a beginning. It doesn't matter the path we take as long as we get there.
I hope you will join me in this beginning!
"I can't wait for things to return to normal" a church member shared. "It will be great to be together and see everyone again!"
While I share the hope of seeing everyone again, my mind wrestles with the understanding of this new normal. Yes, I have missed people and things during this time. I miss physically seeing members on Sunday mornings or during the week for meetings. I miss running down to Sheetz for a cup of hot chocolate in the middle of the afternoon, or my favorite lunch. I miss being involved within the community.
But, there are also somethings I don't want to see return in my life in this new normal. I don't want to return to being so busy I don't have time to talk with a church or family member. I don't want to return to ignoring the subtle (or not) cues and changes in nature. Nor do I want to return to ignoring a daily routine that has become so important in keeping track of days and time during this global pandemic.
Perhaps one of the things challenging for so many is trying to establish solid footing on the reality of what our new normal (collectively and individually) will look like. At this point, no one knows, because, we simply don't. None of us here have any idea because none of us have ever experienced something like this before.
As I write this, I am reminded of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians: "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We don't know what this new normal will look like. It might be fluid as it continues to take shape. It might mean making changes, daily, perhaps hourly.
What it does mean, is that God is still working in and with our lives. God has something planned far better than we can ever imagine or thought possible. It means God isn't done with us, and hasn't been done with us. Knowing God is working and continues to work is exciting! Whatever is ahead of us, God has us, and isn't going to let us go. God is going to be with us every step of the way, no matter what. I can't wait to see what this new normal will look like with God part of it!
Over the past few weeks while working from home, I have heard Pennsylvania's Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine address Pennsylvanian's concerns about Covid-19, and the global pandemic. I have been impressed with the clarity and direction each has provided. I have been impressed with their delivery of difficult and heavy information. Each time Dr. Levine finishes her presentation, she ends with the phrase, "Stay calm. Stay safe. Stay home."
There's something reassuring in hers and Governor Wolf's demeanor and presentations. There's something about the phrase "stay calm" that is reassuring as well.
Before life began to completely unravel, we learned in church a new way of sharing the peace with one another. This new way came to us by using American Sign Language and the words for peace and be calm. This word began with putting our hands together, palms touching, as though we were praying, turning both a quarter turn in opposite directions (as though you're getting ready to clasp your hands), and then push away. This sign literally means "peace be calm."
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared numerous times to the disciples: at the tomb, behind locked and closed doors, while they were out fishing. Each time Jesus appeared, the disciples responded in fear. Each time the disciples responded in fear, Jesus replied, "Peace be with you." Or, be calm.
There is much in today's world that leaves us anxious, angry, scared, confused, frightened, worried. We are concerned for the health and safety of those we love and care for. We wonder when life will return to normal, and what it will look like.
In our anxiety, anger, confusion, fear, and worry, Jesus meets us. Jesus comes to us, and says, "Peace be with you."
Be calm. Be safe. Be at peace. Christ is with you.
I feel it -- in my neck whenever I've been carrying my backpack around too much or sitting too long looking at the computer. It's more than a crick in the neck, but a minor irritation.
I feel it whenever there is a lot of stress and tension. It goes straight to my shoulders and neck. The relief? Ice packs, heating pads, even working out helps ease the irritation.
Our Advent theme this year is 'Lift Up Your Heads'. It comes from Psalm 24 (v. 7) which references lifting our heads up to see the coming of the King of Glory. In church, Lifting Up Our Heads reminds us to look up -- to pay attention to the decorations that are gradually being put up in the church. Each week also shares meaning behind various decorations used in the church to get ready for Christmas.
The first week of Advent focused on the decorations of the Christmas tree, and evergreens. The evergreen trees point to heaven, reminding us of eternal life we will one day receive.
The second week of Advent focused on light. Before the invention of electricity, many would add extra candles to their homes to help chase the darkness away. Christmas lights and candles remind us of Jesus as the Light that comes into the world.
The third week of Advent will focus on Chrismons made by members of Zion. Chrismons are initials, if you will, of Jesus and the work Jesus does and continues to do. Chrismons will be hung on the trees during the children's sermon and after church on Dec. 15th. The Chrismons also remind us of God's love for us.
Poinsettias will be in the sanctuary on December 22nd. These red and green flowers serve to remind us of the redemption we receive through Jesus Christ. The Bible reminds us we were bought with a price -- the blood of Christ, shed for us.
With the arthritis in the neck, it is too easy to slouch a bit while sitting, to walk with my head down. Walking with my head up, though, is easier on the body. And, it helps me to also see what is going on in the world around me.
As we continue in this Advent season, take a moment to lift up your head, to look up and to see the world around you. More importantly, take a moment to lift up your head and see Jesus coming!
Pastor Traci Glover