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Sermon: Ready or Not. November 28. 2021

Here’s the sermon from Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, for November 28, the First Sunday of Advent. The service is available to view here and you can also check out the bulletin. The image if of our front-room Christmas tree, successfully procured that afternoon.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Over the long Thanksgiving weekend, our family made several trips to the Indiana Dunes; it’s always nice to get away for a moment to relax. The highways from here to there are, of course, lined with signs. Since the signs blocked out any natural beauty we might have seen along the way, the kids noticed them. Hungry for a burger, one child told me he’d just look for the signs, meaning those blue ones that inform you which restaurants and services are available at the upcoming exit. Wendy’s was the winner, if you’re curious. The same child later asked me why so many lawyers had billboards along the highway; I silently wondered how those lawyers decided which of them got to use “The Hammer” as a nickname. Yes, signs as far as the eye could see. We’ve noticed other signs this week, too. We saw a sign of brokenness and violence last Sunday when an SUV was driven through the barricades of the Waukesha Christmas parade, its driver seemingly unconcerned about the six lives he would take and the dozens of other people he would hurt. We saw a sign of anxiety emerge this week with the announcement that a new COVID variant, Omicron, has been discovered in South Africa and has already made its way to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And we saw a welcome sign of justice with the verdicts handed down in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, which, while hopeful, was also a sign of our sorrow at living in a world where such senseless killings happen in the first place. The signs indeed are all around us. What do they mean?
  2. Jesus, speaking in Jerusalem shortly before his betrayal and death, gives his disciples an apocalyptic vision; he gives us our third consecutive Sunday of apocalyptic readings. He tells us of signs in the heavens and distress upon the earth. These signs, like the signs of our own world, stir up fainting, fear, and foreboding. We look around and see that the signs of the time, signs of doom that block out beauty. But Jesus’ vision seems more troubling still, for it indicates the turning of the ages. The Son of Man is coming in the clouds. Jesus speaks not of his first appearance as the baby of Bethlehem but of his return, the cosmic Christ returning in judgment and glory. It is enough to put the kingdoms of this world on notice. Creation itself is breaking open. And what does Jesus say we should do when this time comes? Fear, cower, grovel? No. Stand up, he says. Raise your heads. Your redemption is drawing near. Just when things look their worst, a righteous branch shall spring up. David’s broken royal line shall be renewed, and peace shall break upon the earth as Jeremiah’s vision is fulfilled.
  3. Jesus, speaking of his return, tells us to remain constantly vigilant, alert to signs of his return, while simultaneously not worrying a thing about it. After all, the signs always seem to be pointing to the end of the world. Things are always falling apart. But everyone who has predicted the end of the world has been wrong so far; while Jesus may return in glory this afternoon, it’s just as likely he won’t. The signs keep appearing, but not only those pointing to the end. There are middle signs, too. Look at the fig tree which, season after season, announces the coming of summer. So, too, do you know that the Kingdom of God is near during challenge and distress. Jesus certainly means that the coming of the Kingdom in its fulness is near, but I think he also means that the Kingdom of God is near to us now. It beckons, calls, invites us to live in the hope of the new world that will one day dawn even as we continue here, now. This is more than simply enduring the present in the hope of a better future. It is the future breaking into the now. The church father Tertullian writes that “already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude?” Jesus tells us that everything will pass away, but his words will not. The words of this Word-made-flesh speak peace, comfort, calm in a world that is anything but.
  4. As we enter Advent today, we may be tempted to simply prepare to celebrate Christmas. Don’t get me wrong! There’s nothing wrong with preparing for Christmas, nothing necessarily the matter with holiday busyness. We unboxed our decorations yesterday and are going tree hunting today. But today, Jesus reminds us that he cannot be domesticated; that he has power over heaven and earth, that he is coming back. As these days of December will surely start to fly by, so shall the day of his appearing burst upon us. We might as well be looking out for him! Not because we’ll miss out on his return, but because we might miss the signs of his presence in the meantime, might miss the opportunity to be signs of his presence for others. Advent is a time to cultivate longing, to learn to watch. We are Advent people, always waiting but never without hope. The Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark writes, “Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.” She continues on the theme of longing: “Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry . . . bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”
  5. The signs all around us make us feel as if the world is falling apart. Of course, in a great many ways it is falling apart. But the day is surely coming when Christ, crucified but now raised, shall return in glory. If day is coming, that must mean night is ending. And is the daily-breaking dawn not sign enough for us? Is that not enough to point us back to God, to stir up our hearts in longing for Christ? The poet Mary Oliver asks, “Why do people keep asking to see / God’s identity papers / when the darkness opening into morning / is more than enough?”
  6. Yes, Advent is upon us, and surely the days will pass their way to Christmas, whether we get all the shopping and cooking done or not. Even more surely, the day of the Lord is coming, and creation will quail before him. Just here is our hope, that neither this creation nor any power that dwells therein, neither earth nor heaven, not the sin or worry or fear or hate that dwell in our hearts will be able to refuse or resist him. So why refuse or resist him now? Christ who will bring this old world to its end in favor of the new world that will one day dawn, calls to us in this The Lord, Paul tells us, desires that we would increase and abound in love for one another and for all. After all, we have nothing to fear from this world’s end. We are baptized into Christ. When he returns, we will know the voice of the One whose words will never pass away. We will raise up our heads, hopes fulfilled. So let our concern be for this world, and for those who live here. Perhaps you remember that the world was about to end nine years ago. Or at least that’s what some people thought because the Mayan calendar was coming to an end. In the days leading up to the world not ending, a photo made its way around the internet. The picture was of a handwritten sign affixed to a chain-link fence. Translated from Spanish into English, it read: “I am not afraid that the world will end in 2012. I am afraid that it will stay the same.” In that spirit, while we await heaven’s joys, we pray that the Kingdom would come from heaven to earth, even now, with God’s reign of righteousness.
  7. Friends, Jesus is coming. Be alert! Keep watch! This child of Mary, whose Incarnation and birth we prepare to celebrate, is the One coming in the clouds with power and might. We need not live in fear or give into worry. The signs are clear. In water he has cleansed us; in Word, called us; in bread and wine, fed us. Our future is certain; our hope is secure. May we look for Christ in his return and in his presence even now. May we look for ways to make Christ manifest for the sake of others. As we wait for the dawn may we light up the darkness with the light of Christ. Stirred up, may our hearts cry out: Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Thankfuls, 2021

I almost forgot!

For one thing, I’m not preaching tomorrow, so there’s no need to procrastinate. And I’m not at home; I took the day off and we snuck over to Indiana. I’ll hightail it back to Grace for worship in the morning, then I’ll eat myself silly while enjoying time with friends who might as well be family. I’ll probably take a nap. And, with the rest of the world, I’ll enjoy the colossal showdown that is Bears v. Lions.

Anyway, here at the blog, tradition holds that Thanksgiving Eve yields my annual thankfuls. Each night at bedtime, our family takes turns during prayers to share our thankfuls, those things for which we give thanks to God at the close of each day. So, without further ado, here’s the 8th Annual Edition of my Thankfuls.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with the gifts of faith, family, and all the stuffing you could want. Be well, friends. You are loved.

  • Torsten, our boy of thunder, bringer of irresistible joy
  • The poetry of Mary Oliver
  • New shoes
  • Old fashioneds, strictly ‘sconnie style
  • The lake house in Indiana, and the friends who let us use it
  • The almost-undefeated Vipers, t-ball behemoths
  • Hoodies
  • Green bean casserole
  • Salvador Perez, who can flat out rake
  • Grace school and its teachers, including all the new ones this year – they’re amazing
  • Thaxted, Holst
  • Anders, double-digit Renaissance man
  • The saxophone, from whom no mortal can hide
  • The Blue Ridge Mountains
  • The joy of coaching third base; I was made to yell “Go home!” while waving my arms wildly
  • The quiet moment before Once in Royal David’s City
  • Carli Lloyd
  • Wario. I’ma gonna win
  • Cheese Shop house dressing
  • My DMin cohort, from whom I continue to learn so much
  • A new sound system
  • Éomer, Third Marshall of the Mark
  • Bryndzové halušky
  • Gerhard Forde and his constant reminder of what matters most
  • New staff members at Grace; you’re awesome!
  • Flip flops
  • Downtown weekend getaways
  • Busch Light, for when one needs to hydrate
  • The U12 Chiefs
  • Having a catch (say yes every time; you never know when they’ll stop asking)
  • Jonathan Franzen, who has returned to form
  • Benny and Michael A., golden in the outfield
  • The possibility of returning to Europe next year
  • Vaccines
  • Greta; her talent pales only in comparison to her kindness
  • Ballpark hot dogs
  • Cuddles
  • Oshki
  • Hermione Granger
  • Playing the guitar, which I should probably do more often
  • Vern’s cheese curds
  • The joy of preaching Christ and him crucified
  • Naps
  • Erika, who continues to put up with me, for whose love I continue to gives thanks
  • Jesus Christ, Alpha and Omega, in whom all manner of things shall be well

Happy Thanksgiving! Image: Us, caught in the rain, Georgia, 2021.

Sermon: An Everlasting Dominion. November 21, 2021

This is the sermon I preached on Christ the King Sunday, 2021, at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the service and the bulletin. The image is an icon of Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai (public domain).

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Trials are, by definition, uncomfortable. For everyone involved. Trials result in verdicts that are final, at least until appeal is made to a higher court. Guilty or innocent? So much hangs in the balance. I suppose that’s why the word trial, which narrowly refers to legal proceedings, has a far broader colloquial meaning. Trials and tribulations and all that. Trials are tests of patience and stamina, examinations of the faith of all participants, not just of the person in the dock. In our broken world, trials are – at their best – attempts by faithful servants of the law to establish truth and justice. At their worst, trials invert that for which they ostensibly stand, with puffery, posturing, and political undertones overwhelming any actual search for truth. And in the hands of empire, trials are nothing more than kangaroo courts handing down outcomes and verdicts long preordained, reinforcing systems of oppression and injustice.
  2. On this final Sunday of the church year, we are in the courtroom. Today is Christ the King Sunday, although the moment seems anything but regal. Jesus, abandoned by his friends in the dark hours of the night, finds himself before Pontius Pilate. Jesus, the defendant, is forced to take the stand. He is not, however, that interested in defending himself. The charges against him carry capital burdens, but Jesus seems oddly unconcerned. Unlike a guilty man doing whatever he can to find acquittal, Jesus leans into what he knows is coming. Jesus, of course, is not guilty of the charges before him. He is not seeking to overthrow Rome’s earthly power or start a revolution. On the other hand, he’s guilty and he knows it. He has come to overthrow Rome; he has come to undo the power of the oppressive religious elites; he has come to topple regimes of injustice and violence. He has come to start the revolution. But he has not come to do so with power; at least not with the sort of power that this world so often wields.
  3. Make no mistake; this world wields power. Our reading today from Daniel only tells half the story. Perhaps the arrangers of the lectionary, the series of readings, thought us too squeamish to hear Daniel’s full, apocalyptic vision. Daniel’s dream, which you can read in chapter seven, paints a picture that is fantastical on the surface but all too real underneath. His vision is of four beasts, emerging from chaos, that seek dominion through violence. One after the other, a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a ten-horned monster arise, dominating humanity and subjugating creation. Who can stand to face them? Will their reign last forever? It’s tempting to see Daniel’s vision as a code to crack or as a picture of what will literally unfold in the future, but things are not that complicated. The simple fact of the matter is that these are the beasts the seek to reign over us in world, the forces around us and the monsters inside us. Evil, we are reminded by Daniel, is real. It is all around us. It is inside us. Unchecked, sin rules in our hearts and our minds, perverting the truth and seeking to enthrone us in the place of power that belongs to God alone. But this way leads always to death.
  4. So, into the kingdom of death Jesus goes. In his trial before Pilate, Jesus slowly turns the tables. Pilate, representative of the greatest power on earth, expects Jesus to respond as victims of his regime always do, reacting to power with power until they realize they are powerless before Caesar. But Jesus claims no such power. He has not come to take Caesar’s place as a new worldly emperor. Jesus has another end in mind. He stands before Pilate, willingly submitting to the power of the empire while also asserting that that power – this world’s power – is nothing compared to the radical nature of God’s power. A power built not upon fear or violence or oppression, but upon a love that gives itself away for the sake of others.
  5. Both Daniel and John the Revelator pull back the curtain today to show us a vision of God’s future, and in God’s future the powers of this world are always in the past. Yes, sin and death and all their forces lay claim to the thrones, but they cannot – they will not – hold power forever. Today, we see the vision that is unfolding, that is already assured through the death and resurrection of Christ. Today we hear that Jesus is King. And if Jesus is King, then all other would-be rulers are not. Try as they might, they cannot hold power forever. Today we hear, and today we proclaim, that Christ is King. And this means that Pharaoh is not, and Caesar is not. Neither is Trump, and neither is Biden, for that matter. Only Christ shall rule. But he doesn’t only displace the broken governments of our world. Christ will rule all in all. If Jesus is King – and Jesus is King – then all other powers will be dethroned. Their reigns will come to an end. Oppression and injustice, racism and white supremacy, poverty and hunger and war. These shall be kings no more; their power shall come to an end. And the good news continues: If Jesus is King, then all the beasts that afflict us are kings no longer. Cancer isn’t king. Dementia isn’t king. Depression isn’t king. Addiction isn’t king. Estrangement and alienation and all forms of brokenness shall be cast down from the dais, exposed as the pretenders that they are. Christ is King, and Christ alone. He is the One who went down into death to restore us to life. He, in his refusal to claim earthly power – the power that always seeks dominion over others – has shown forth the power of another world, of God’s reality. Jesus has established the power of truth. And the truth is that love, the love of God that always gives itself away for the sake of others, is the power that will outlast all others. By his blood has he freed us from our sins, and all other powers wail before him. In Christ, the dominion of God has begun, and it is unlike any other. For Christ does not seek to dominate but to free; not to bind but to loose; not to grind down, but to lift up.
  6. In the Kingdom of God, we are free from all that would rule and oppress us. We are free, most importantly, even from ourselves and our desire to lord over others. We are called, therefore, to be citizens of the new world that God is creating. Frank Thomas – the preacher, not the White Sox Hall of Famer – writes in The Christian Century, “Ultimately, the reign of God is God’s government set up in the human heart. God comes into the human heart at the point of regeneration and makes that heart a holy habitation. … When God occupies a human heart, then the kingdom has come to earth. When God sets up government in a human heart, then peace shall reign. When God sets up government in a human heart, then we shall beat our swords into plowshares. When God sets up government in enough human hearts, then we shall study war no more.” Amen and amen. As Luther reminds us in the catechism, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer,” but we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “that it may also come to us.”
  7. So, friends, whatever trials you are enduring shall come to an end. The powers of this world, rage as they might, will not reign forever. Whatever injustice occurs, whatever oppression endures, shall not rule forever. These trials and tribulations shall end. Sin and suffering have an expiration date. But Christ shall reign forever. Today, seek justice and love mercy, for God has had mercy on you. While the world seeks power and speaks hate, listen to the voice of the Shepherd King, speaking always truth and love. His Kingdom is not from this world, but it is the only Kingdom that will last. Thanks be to God, by the grace of God, we are citizens of this Kingdom forever. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Sermon: Promised Peace Amid the Rubble. November 14, 2021

This is the sermon I preached at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 2021. You can watch the service and view the bulletin. The image is me, on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount (2107). I’m sure you’re thinking, “Did he really wear that ratty old Royals hat all around the Holy Land?” Yes, yes he did.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Yesterday was the end my family has been waiting for. The end of holding our breath. The end of waiting for trials and approvals. The end of searching for available appointments. Yesterday, our two sons, both within the five-to-eleven age bracket, received their first vaccinations against COVID-19. I know I’m not alone among parents of younger children in breathing a huge sigh of relief. And for those of you with children or grandchildren under five, keep hanging on. We’ll get there! Of course, the funny thing about endings is that they’re usually not. Yes, my kids now have greater protection than before, but this pandemic isn’t over. Despite vaccines for children and widely available boosters, the pandemic is raging again, with case counts going up and up. And that’s not all that’s going up these days. Inflation is through the roof, driven in part by snarled supply chains. Political rhetoric is on the rise, with threats of violence made by politicians becoming sadly commonplace. The temperature of the planet keeps going up, too, and it seems the recent climate summit will leave us wanting in terms of action to reverse the trend. With everything going up, up, up it feels like things are tumbling down, falling apart all around us. Our best laid plans seem to come up short; those things we thought so solid turn out to be anything but. Never mind our overt sin; even our best intentions leave us wanting. No matter what we do, we cannot hold everything together for long. It can feel like the end, and not an end that we’re excited to reach.
  2. Mark locates us today in Jerusalem. It’s Tuesday of Holy Week and things seem to be looking up. Fresh off his triumphal entry, the disciples feel that Jesus is moving up in the world. Coming out of the temple, they comment on the impressive size of the stones, wondering at the sheer stature of God’s home on earth. Surely this is Jesus’ future, they think. As God’s presence was most directly available at the temple, what better place for Jesus to finish his rise to power? From the temple to the city and into the world, Jesus would restore his people’s position and power. Rome would be cast off! Right worship would be enshrined forever! From such a solid base, on such a solid foundation, how could it be otherwise? The end of their hopes was near; soon it would be fulfilled.
  3. But instead of the end of their hopes, they find the end of their hopes. Instead of fulfillment, despair. Instead of ascendency, collapse. These impressive stones; this great temple? Not one stone will be left upon another. It will all come crashing down soon. Jesus is not being hyperbolic. By the time Mark got around to writing down Jesus’ story, the Jerusalem temple would be destroyed, razed by the Romans during the First Jewish Revolt. The illusion of the people would finally collapse. There was no earthly hope, not even in the great stones of the temple, that would restore their fortunes. The end was coming, like it or not. And not only would the temple collapse, stone from stone, but everything else would fall apart, too. Wars and earthquakes and famines, and that’s just for starters. Sound familiar?
  4. To see our hopes come crashing down around us is difficult. We love our illusions too much to let go of them willingly. Disillusionment is not an enjoyable experience. But perhaps disillusionment is central to the Christian life. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.” And oh, what lies we mistake for the truth. We believe we are on the right path, until the career or calling we envisioned eludes us. We feel, all evidence to the contrary, that our health will hold. Until it doesn’t. Until disease and death creep in. Not even this magnificent edifice will last forever, and yes, it was interesting writing the beginnings of this sermon with scaffolding outside my office window. Don’t get me wrong; this is a beautiful building in which God continues to do amazing things, but there is no permanence here.
  5. To give up the illusion, however, is to begin to see clearly. Our hope is not in staving off collapse; it is in the Christ who rises from the rubble of sin and death. The temple was holy to be sure, but never enough. Day after day the priests had to make sacrifice, barely keeping up with the need to atone for humanity’s sin. Falling behind, in fact. But in Christ we see a new priest who is also sacrifice; indeed, who is himself the new temple. God is manifest in this One, this Christ who plays in ten thousand places, not constrained to bricks and mortar in Jerusalem. This Christ, as we remember most clearly during Advent, is Emmanuel, the God who is with us wherever we are. As Debie Thomas writes, Jesus “invites them to look beyond the grandeur of the temple, and recognize that God will not suffer domestication.” “God,” she writes, “exceeds every edifice, every institution . . . and every human symbol human beings create in his name.” That’s not to say, of course, that we should stop using our art and our craft to honor God, simply that we must always remember God’s transcendence of such efforts. It is in transcendence, in God’s everywhere-ness, that God is immanent, directly present to and for us in all the times and seasons of our lives.
  6. As those whose lives are founded on the new cornerstone that is Jesus Christ, our call is to build up others. We build up and send out disciples for the sake of the gospel. Today we rejoice with Cole and celebrate the affirmation of his baptism, rejoicing at what God will build through him in this broken world When we end a budget year with a surplus, as we did this past June, we release money into the world, not to build structures, but to build equity and opportunity and the West Side; to build rescue and relief for those struck by disaster; to build welcome and rest for refugees. We do this and so much more because God has given us all we need – not a strong, stony refuge from the problems around us, but Jesus himself, whose presence in this falling-down world calls and empowers us to lift up our neighbors. So, as the author of Hebrews puts it, let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.
  7. Yes, things are falling apart all around us. Within us. They always have been. It can feel like the end is near. But do not be alarmed, Jesus tells us. In him, the old temple gives way for the new, and endings yield new beginnings. Death opens unto resurrection and all manner of things will be well. Today’s apocalyptic readings do not instill fear; they pull back the curtain so that we can glimpse what God has in store. The old falls apart, but Jesus has planted his feet in the rubble and promises hope and offers the peace that transcends whatever we are living through now. As the saying goes, “Everything will be alright in the end; if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” Or to put it more theologically, Christ is the Alpha and the Omega; when we get to the Omega, Christ will be all in all. Three days after this conversation occurred outside the temple, Jesus was nailed to a cross. It sure looked like the end, but endings aren’t always what they seem. Turns out God was just getting started. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

Reformation Sermon: Be Still! The Son Speaks

This sermon was preached on Reformation Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL. You can view the service here and the bulletin here. The image is Schmorsten in his church pajamas.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. Reforming has not been easy for our family. I never experienced worshipping via livestream from a parishioner’s perspective, but I’ve heard about it. From what I can gather, for a large chunk of the pandemic, worship involved staying in pajamas while drinking coffee on comfy couches. Worship was accompanied by movement, by other activities. Our children worshipped while building LEGO sets. They worshipped while having Nerf gun fights. They worshipped, in short, while free ranging around the basement. To the best of my knowledge, they never hit the mute or fast forward buttons, for which I’m grateful. Especially considering that my sermons, according to one of my children – I don’t want to name names but it rhymes with “Schmorsten” – feel like they last thirty minutes or more. All of which is to say, reforming – coming back into form – has not been easy for our family. There was a fair amount of comfort and joy in worshipping online in our basement. Coming back to worship in person wasn’t easy, but so it goes in the lives of a pastor’s kids. The biggest problem? All of a sudden, just like that, worship meant sitting still again.
  2. Stillness is not a natural state of being for humans. We’re not good at stopping, resting. But this goes beyond the ever-increasing busyness of our lives, our exhaustion, our need to rest. A question lurks underneath: Why can’t we be still? The answer, I think, is our deep-seated need to justify ourselves. To prove that we are enough, that we can do it on our own. To put it theologically, to save ourselves. And we’re often successful at creating the illusion that we’re doing just fine. We can take care of ourselves. At least until a job is lost or unexpected expenses pile up. Our future is limitless and in our hands. At least until a diagnosis is declared as illness comes upon us. Everything is fine, so long as we keep our eyes shut to the systemic injustices that play out in our peripheral vision. Our forecast is sunny until the storms of life roll in. Life, which we think we control, has a way of bringing us to a standstill. Of forcing us to realize the truth of our situation.
  3. Jesus brings us up short today, giving the lie to the belief we share with some of his followers in John 8. In response to Jesus’ invitation to freedom, they reply that they are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves of anyone. Oh, the lies humans tell themselves! To be a descendant of Abraham was to be no nothing other than being part of a people whose story was one of constant slavery and release, exile and return, and ongoing oppression. Their freedom, like ours, is an illusion. This is not only due to external circumstances but to internal conditions. They are slaves because they have given themselves over to sin. Even their assertion of being children of Abraham is sinful; not because they aren’t, but because they think this identity can protect them. We drape ourselves in identities and claim the privileges they offer, but anything other than, less than, living faith in the living God will leave us wanting. Jesus names us for what we are: slaves to our sin.
  4. We are stopped in our tracks, silenced by God’s law. St. Paul drives home the point: No human being is justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. Try as we might, we can no longer pretend that we can save ourselves. We are trapped in chains of our own making. We have, in so many ways, created a world contrary to God’s creative purposes. We have turned from the truth and believed the serpent’s whispering from the garden that we shall be like gods. There is no way forward for us. Having been brought to a standstill, however, we are confronted not just with the reality of our situation but with the surprising reality of God. We look to Jesus, this One who brings us up short, and discover truth itself. The truth that is God’s presence. The truth that God loves us so much that God was willing to be born into this world as one of us; to not simply point out our sin but to suffer and die for it; to name our sin not to punish, but to forgive. The floodwaters that threatened are turned into a pleasing river that flows through God’s eternal city, baptismal waters the drown to bring new life.
  5. Today, on this Reformation Sunday, we give thanks for the witness of the reformers throughout the Church’s life. Martin Luther was keenly aware of the power of the law and his inability to keep it. He knew that life was a continual state of falling short of God’s glory. The Spirit, however, had deeper truths to tell, truths that are as needed today as they were in Wittenberg 500 years ago. That once we stop striving, reaching, all we need is given to us. Through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, life and forgiveness are given as gifts. We don’t have to do, cannot do, a single thing to earn them. Christ, crucified and raised, breaks the chains of our bondage, and makes us children with a place in the household forever, children not of Abraham or anyone else, but of God.
  6. Scholar and translator Robert Alter, in his rendering of Psalm 46, makes a surprising choice in verse ten. Instead of the familiar, “Be still,” his version reads, “Let go.” It’s a choice grounded in the Hebrew, one that calls to mind a vision of a warrior being forced to loosen his grip on sword or bow. To stop, and let peace come. Let go, we hear today. Let go of your need to make it on your own. Let go of your sinful idolatry of the self and your too-easy oppression of others. Let go of the chains you have fashioned for yourselves. Let go. Stop. Be still.
  7. Brought to a standstill, we get to ask the question of freedom: Now that we don’t have to do anything, what are we going to do? Luther writes, “Although Christians are thus free from all works, they ought in this liberty to empty themselves, take upon themselves the form of a servant, be made in human likeness, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with their neighbor as they see that God through Christ has deal and still deals with them.” Freed from sin and death, we are free to love and serve God and neighbor.
  8. God continues to move, live, breathe. God’s Spirit is at play in church and world, not so much doing something novel as simply doing the always new thing that is Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is this truth that confronts us. Trapped in our sin, we are set free by Christ. Free to do what God calls us to do, be who God calls us to be. As this pandemic loosens its grip on us, as we emerge from our basements, so to speak, we find ourselves caught up anew in Christ. Neither the church nor the world is as they once were, but Christ remains. Into our stillness, our silence, his Word still speaks, casting out evil, conquering oppression, comforting the weary, calling us to freedom. By God’s grace, and nothing else, we continue in this Word and claim the freedom to be daughters and sons of God Most High. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.