Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Love comes to us in Jesus

Luke 2: 1-20

We are used to seeing Jesus look like us white people. Well, maybe Jesus looks like we did 500 years ago, like this Madonna and Child by Fra Bartolomeo. Or maybe Jesus looks like this image of Jesus painted in 1940 by Warner Sallman.

I went through a phase a few years ago, thinking that Jesus should look like an ancient Israeli. So, when I saw this a few years ago, published by Popular Mechanics, I was excited. Some forensic scientists used data from archaeology as well as some details found in scripture to construct this possibility. 

But then I realized the images from Bartolomeo, Sallman, and even the one made by the scientists didn’t look like some of my friends and coworkers, and in my congregation. To correct that imbalance, I want to share with you some images of Jesus and Mary as portrayed in other cultures. 

Why is it so important for us to see the variety of images for Jesus and his mother? Because Jesus came for everyone. He came for white folks, and he came for Asian folks and Native American folks and for African folks, and for South American folks. 

Jesus came for people in all sorts of economic and political circumstances: wealthy and poor and middle class; Republican, Democrat, and Independent; dressed in our finest suit and dressed in blue jeans.

And, just as we like to see Jesus looking like us, so does everyone else. It’s when we can see Jesus looking like us that we can feel the love he gives to us.

Although Jesus spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, and probably Greek, Jesus also speaks our words, our languages to us.

If I say to you “ya tsebya lyublyu”, chances are good you have no idea what I am saying. It is “I love you” in Russian. If you speak other languages, it is likely that you know how to say “I love you” in those languages as well. For example: Te quiero, Je t’aime, Ich liebe dich. 

How many of you know what this means? It’s American Sign Language for “I love you”, and it is formed by a combination of the three words into one.

When we see a baby, any baby, or a pregnant mother’s belly, we can scarcely take our eyes off the baby. We want to reach out and love on them, because we are filled with love just at the sight of them, even if we don’t know them.

We need to see God in our own image and hear God speaking to us in our own language in order to know how much God really loves us. This is how God loves us. This is why God chose to come to us as an infant, so we could know the extent of God’s love for us. God will try anything to reach us, anything!

Tonight we focus on God’s birth as the infant Jesus. It won’t be long before we are focusing on the crucifixion and resurrection, other signs of how much God loves us. 

In the meantime, because God has come to us as a human, as the Incarnation, as God-with-skin-on, as God-with-us, as Emmanuel, we can pause to feel the love. And we can take the opportunity to share God’s love with others. 

One closing image. Can you see the love and delight in this mother’s eyes? This is how much Jesus loves and delights in you.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Joseph, the Father

Matthew 1:18-25

We tend to focus on Mary, Jesus’ mother, at Christmas and other times. Rarely do we pay attention to Joseph, Jesus’ father. Today, we have our chance. Remember that we are reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, not Luke, and the details are different.

 The story begins with the complication that Mary’s news of her pregnancy adds to their relationship. Their conversation must have been intense, as Mary insists the Father of the baby is God’s Holy Spirit.

In ancient times, a betrothal is more than an engagement. It is a legal document that begins their relationship. It means there is to be no hanky-panky for either Mary or Joseph. So, when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he assumes that Mary has been unfaithful. This calls for a legal action, divorce. But instead of announcing it publicly and shaming her, he plans to end the engagement quietly.

 As Joseph sleeps that night, Gabriel, one of God’s angels, appears to him. He affirms what Mary has said: that the child is the son of God and he will be called Emmanuel and Jesus. This child will be God’s way of saving God’s people, bringing them back to God. Joseph will be the child’s earthly father.

 These two names are important, so let’s consider them. Hebrew reads right to left, and the vowels are not included in the main text but inserted underneath. Ima means with; nu means us; and el is one of the names for God. Right to left, the Hebrew reads with-us-God. In English, we get God with us. That Emmanuel will come is a promise made to Isaiah. And in this moment, it is a promise about to be fulfilled.

 The other name Gabriel speaks is Jesus. Well, actually, Gabriel says, Yeshua or Yehoshua, which means God (Yeh) saves (Shua). This image shows how the language goes from the Hebrew Yeshua or Yehoshua to Greek to Latin Iesous. Eventually, the I was changed to a J to match Joshua. Gabriel promises that Jesus/ Joshua / Yeshua will come to save us.

Now, back to Joseph. Can you imagine how you would respond if you were told that you were about to be the father of the child who will be God-with-us, who will save God’s people?  It seems overwhelming, that’s for sure.

 Joseph is convinced by the angel, and he and Mary get through the months of her pregnancy together. One day the baby arrives and while Mary rests from the ordeal of childbirth, Joseph enjoys his first moments as a father.

It is a time for him to reflect on what it will be like to raise this child. Joseph is just a simple working man. How can he possibly be a good father? It is a scary enough thought for any of us, facing parenthood. But to be the father of God’s son? Terrifying!

We don’t know much more than this about Joseph, especially in Matthew’s Gospel. Tradition says that he died before Jesus began his ministry, because there is no record of him in Jesus life during his ministry. Tradition also says that he was significantly older than Mary, but there is little foundation for that. For me it is enough that he did whatever he could to be a good husband and father, as long as he could.   

Several years ago, I heard for the first time a song by Michael Card called Joseph’s song. It is also called How could it be. Joseph wonders how he will be the father this child of God needs.

I’ll let the song finish my message.

Here are a couple options on YouTube.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11


Go and tell!


This Gospel reading could be confusing to us. Why, we wonder, is John asking Jesus if Jesus is really the one he was expecting? It is easy to forget that we are reading Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story, not Luke’s or John’s. In Matthew’s version, Jesus and John do not know each other as cousins. In Matthew’s version, John does not point to Jesus and tell his disciples that Jesus is the Lamb of God.


No, this is Matthew’s version, where John is reluctant to baptize Jesus, whom he has never met before. This is Matthew’s version where John and Jesus are sort of competing for followers. John thinks there is something special about Jesus, but he is not sure. John seems surprised that Jesus does not yet have an army preparing to go into battle against the Romans. John seems surprised that Jesus is not like him, loudly expressing anger at the way things are. But John is aware enough of scripture to wonder if Jesus is the expected Messiah that John has been promising to the crowds.

At this moment, John is in King Herod’s prison for daring to accuse Herod and his wife Herodias of having a sinful relationship. Herod is fearful that if he kills John, the crowds will protest. So, he has kept him alive, but soon, Herodias will arrange for John to be executed.


While John waits in prison for the death he knows is coming, he sends a few of his followers to Jesus to ask: “Hey, Jesus, are you the one who has been promised? Or is there someone else?”

Jesus does not answer the question directly, but instead invites John to look at the facts. Jesus says, “Go and tell John that just as God promised through Isaiah, people who were blind have now received their sight, people who were lame are now walking, people with skin diseases have been healed, people who were deaf can now hear.”


Jesus is sending the message to John that these and many other signs demonstrate that Jesus is indeed bringing God’s ancient promises into being. This is good news to all people, especially to poor people who have so little good news in their lives.


John’s disciples returned to John and Jesus praises John for his ministry of proclamation. John is indeed the messenger who is preparing the way for the Messiah. While Jesus does not specifically state here that he is the Messiah, most people in the crowd believe it is true. Some are excited at the news, and some are fearful. We know the end for Jesus is the cross, and we also know that the story does not end with the cross.


… Jesus has just told John’s disciples to “Go and tell John what I have said.” At the end of Matthew’s story about Jesus, he tells the disciples to “Go and tell” the world the good news. 19 Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, 20 and teach them to do everything I have told you. I will be with you always, even until the end of the world.


As spiritual descendants of those first disciples, we, too, are sent into the world to “Go and tell” the good news. Mostly, we tell the good news to those who already know it. And our tongues refuse to utter the story to someone we don’t know well.


What if we look at this challenge to "go and tell" the way Jesus does? What if we give witness to what is happening right before our eyes? There are so many good things that are happening in Jesus’ name, or at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Let’s consider a few:

The ELCA and other denominations and organizations have been encouraging us to include people who have traditionally been excluded. I recently saw an advertisement for some Christmas ornaments that celebrate inclusion. The ornaments declare that You Belong!

The "You Belong" message is expressed in sign language and braille (just an image, not raised bumps) images, as well as four ethnic-specific languages, and includes an image of the LGBTQ ribbon to represent the ELCA's call for total inclusion of all of God's people as members of the body of Christ.

Isn’t it true that having Lori as our intern pastor is a sign of this movement of inclusion? Don’t we all smile when Riley and Eve imitate their mother and father, either leading worship or helping the congregation understand what is being spoken?

We pray, sometimes constantly, for ill and dying loved ones. Recently Kevin, the son of a friend, has been in the hospital and undergone numerous surgeries. He has been at death’s door several times. Each time the friend posts a “Please pray” request on Facebook, there are about 100 people who respond that they are praying, and countless more that don’t use Facebook. That Kevin is still alive is due to the skill and persistence of his medical team, and to the prayers that support him and his family.

Last week the Church Library, otherwise known as Lori’s Office, was full of gifts for needy children and their parents and guardians. This was the fulfillment of the promise of the Angel Tree to provide Christmas for families who could not afford gifts. Why did this happen? Because we love giving gifts in Jesus’ name.


Jesus promised that lame people would walk, deaf people would hear, blind people would see. Because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, scientific studies, and the persistent work of many inventors:


There are hearing aids and cochlear implants to help some deaf people hear.


There are artificial limbs to help many people with missing arms and legs walk and reach things.



And there are great strides in helping some blind people see, with the use of technology. Perhaps the Star Trek dream of Geordi LaForge will someday be a reality.


There are generous people like us who preach good news to the poor by sharing Christmas with them year around, by feeding them with bags of food, with household supplies, and basic hygiene items.


The way today’s disciples can “go and tell” the story of Jesus is by sharing what is happening at St Matthew’s Lutheran Church, in the church at large, and inspired by the Spirit in the scientific and medical world.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Go Tell It on the Mountain, because the shepherds do just that. They go and tell everyone, everywhere, that Jesus Christ is born. 

It is now up to us to:

Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is God-with-skin-on. Because of Jesus, we can trust that God knows what it is like to be human.

Go tell it on the mountain that the tomb is empty, and that means anything is possible. 

Go tell it on the mountain that deaf people hear, that blind people see, that lame people walk, and that poor people hear good news, because God's Spirit inspires people to bring healing and wholeness into the world. 


The Gospel, the Good News, is not ours to keep to ourselves. Our faith in Jesus is meant to be good news for all people. 

So, Go and tell.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Ready for wonder

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Advent, as a season, leads us to wonder. First, we may wonder why the Lectionary committee chose these particular texts for the season of Advent, especially for today. We are ready to hear once more about Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. We want to hear how Joseph reacted to Mary’s news that she was pregnant.

Instead, we are led to wonder why we are starting Advent at the end of the story, with the disciples wondering when the Son of Man would return. … And we wonder, along with the first disciples, when Jesus will return. Why did he say that even he didn’t know? … And we wonder at the whole story. Did Mary really give birth to Jesus, who became the savior of the world?

This week, in our season of wondering, Jesus once again answers the disciples’ questions about the coming of the end of the age with the claim that he doesn’t know. No one knows, not even the angels, who are God’s messengers, and certainly likely to know, if anyone knows. Only God knows, and God is not telling.

… One question we have is, “What is the end of the age?” Is it a cataclysmic event? Is it what the book of Revelation describes, with the earth on fire and the four horsemen coming? Or is it something different, life-changing, but not cataclysmic?

Jesus says the end of the age will be like Noah’s neighbors, who went on with life as usual, until the rains came and washed them all away. It was cataclysmic for Noah’s neighbors, and life-changing for Noah and his family.

In the first century, the end of the age was the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, just 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This event changed the lives of the Jews forever, forcing them to worship differently forever, offering sacrifices of prayer instead of animals and grain.

Will the end of the age be a catastrophe, or will it be something smaller, a lot of little things, that change our lives? Jesus describes women and men living their normal, daily lives, who are suddenly gone, taken forever away from their families and communities.

For most of us, it will be “life, interrupted”. It may be a health crisis. It may be a breaking relationship. It may be a recognition that we are addicted to something unhealthy. It may be a wildfire that destroys an entire town. These heart-stopping, life-changing events bring us to our knees in prayer. They are the end of the age of our old lives and the beginning of our new lives.

For Mary and Joseph, the sudden appearance of the Angel Gabriel was life changing. Their betrothal suddenly became a marriage. Their first child was not really their own. They must have wondered how they could be the parents of the Messiah, how could they raise the Son of God. Jesus’ birth was the beginning of the new age, and the ending of the old age.  

In the last week, at various times and places, I have spoken with some people who in their own ways are making themselves ready for an end to their old age and the beginning of their new age. It is as if Jesus interrupted their old lives and helped them begin new lives.

If we are to be ready for Jesus to interrupt our lives, we must be ready for anything. We must be open to recognizing Jesus’ presence in little and great ways. Sometimes, that recognition will lead us in new directions, a new age in the same life.

A story: One day a few weeks ago, “Joe” asked me to pray for him. When I ran into him a week later, he thanked me for praying for him. He said he has been attending a 12-step program and wants to get closer to God. He is not sure how to do that, other than to add time for prayer to his life.

I naturally invited him to St Matthew’s because a prayer life should be cross-shaped, with both vertical and horizontal relationships. Our vertical relationship with God, one on one, is essential to our faith life. But Jesus also wants us to have a horizontal relationship with others, with those who believe, and with those who don’t yet know him. Joe said he would think about it.

In the last few weeks I have been visiting our home-bound members. They share with me how different life is since some “stuff happened” in their lives, and how, for some of them, that stuff has brought them closer to God.

Our homebound folks know they are all facing an end to the current age of their lives.  … They are lonely because they can no longer drive. … They work on regaining what has been lost by doing therapy. … They know God will get them through the losses they are facing. They are filled with wonder, and some worry, at what God is doing in their lives.

Advent is a time to pause, to openly wait for new things to happen. Isaiah shows us what is possible: swords becoming plows; an end to war once and for all. Paul encourages us to put on Christ, to put on the armor of light. These possibilities can only become real if we work for them to become the new way of life, the new age.

Life happens. God often interrupts our every day living with something new. Are you open to letting it happen? Are you open to seeing a new age? Let’s spend this Advent in a spirit of openness and wonder, for all the new things God is doing among us.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


This week, Intern Pastor Lori Fuller gives the message. 

John 6:25-35

We know the story of where Jesus fed 5 thousand people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and had enough to feed them all. We’re going to look at the next day after this happens. The people go looking for Jesus and wanted more “Bread. “However, Jesus responded with “You’ve come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs and for free.” In the end Jesus shares that I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me, hungers no more and thirsts no more. Even though you have seen me in action just yesterday you do not believe in me.

How many of you have heard of the book of, “The Giving Tree” written by Shel Silverstein?
This story is about a boy and an apple tree who develops a relationship with one another. The tree is very “giving “and the boy evolves into a “taking“ teenager, man, then elderly man. We know in his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swimming from her branches, and eating the apples and so on and on. Years pass and the boy grows older, he spends less time with the trees and only visits when he wants something at various times of his life. The tree gives him parts of herself, which he can transform into materials, such as money (from her apples), a house (from her branches), and a boat (from her trunk). With every stage of giving, “the Tree was happy.” In the end, he has grown up and is now an elderly man. And by now the tree has nothing left to give him. However, the elderly man is content to just sit on the stump.

I look at this story as the giving tree is Jesus. Jesus did the same thing for those whom he loved. Thankfully though Jesus did not stay as a stump.

Just like in the gospel today, the problem Jesus faced then and now is that people were shortsighted. People weren’t following Jesus because of his teaching as much as they were hoping for an easier lifestyle. Jesus had given them a starting point with the bread and fish. They followed him to the other side of the lake to see now if it would continue. The people were only looking to satisfy their immediate physical needs. They couldn’t even see how empty their souls were. Too many people just keep taking in the stuff of this world and don’t realize how empty it will prove in the end. The things of this world will never fill us. Jesus feeds our soul.

It’s about choosing to see and making this a priority. This leads me to ask you my friends, what are you thankful for?

Anyone brave enough to share what they’re thankful for today with everyone?

Now, let’s turn and look at the person closest to you and say, I’m thankful for you.

So when we ask ourselves where is God in the amidst of all this? Am I choosing to see or am I being shortsighted?

Let’s choose to see this Thanksgiving.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Do not be weary in doing good

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19


I grew up in the south, south suburbs of Chicago. Since we could get everything we needed where we lived, we rarely went into the city. Even decades later when I went to seminary on the city’s south side, I rarely needed to go into the city itself. When I did go downtown, I was a classic rubbernecker, staring in awe at the skyscrapers.

When I was in Jerusalem in 2010, I was just as amazed. I chose this photo to reflect the size of the stones in comparison to people. They are HUGE! So, I know how the disciples felt, that day in Jerusalem with Jesus. They were from the countryside, a day’s journey north of Jerusalem. They might have gone into the city every few years for religious festivals, but probably those trips were rare. They are amazed at the size of the stones that form the buildings. They were amazed at the gold that covered the temple and other buildings.


But, Jesus tells them to not pay much attention to the buildings, because they will not stand much longer. The disciples were worried, scared about this. They want to know when and how. In fact, about 40 years later, the Romans would conquer the city and destroy the temple. This is definitely bad news, devastating for the Jews. It changes forever how they worship. But, instead of focusing on this coming disaster, Jesus tells the disciples there will always be disasters and wars and bad news.


2,000 years later, we know this too. In 1989 Billy Joel got to thinking about his life as he turned 40, and he wrote a song about it. This video has an image for each thing he mentions, and you won’t catch them all. Just notice the common themes of 40 years of US history.


Billy Joel video: We didn’t start the fire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDPnsTRAvIM&t=112s


A video made today of the last 40 years would look much the same, except we would also see repeated incidents of school shootings. The same kind of things just go on and on and on, as Billy Joel says.


Jesus would tell us, stuff will always be happening. No matter what it is, I will be with you. I will give you words to speak and my Spirit will fill you with courage.


Paul, writing to the people in the church at Thessalonica, said, While you are waiting for Jesus to return, do not get tired of doing good things for others.

Martin Luther said, God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does. And that’s what I say to y’all, too.



For this reason, we stock a food pantry and give bags of food to our hungry neighbors.




For this reason, we visit people in the hospital, and those who can’t get to church anymore.



For this reason, we tell others about how important Jesus is in our lives. We tell them how he loves us and how he teaches us to love others.


Here’s a story about how easy it is sometimes to love others. Ethel was a big black woman in one of my congregations. She told us this story of a trip to the grocery store.


There were lots of people standing in line and all the registers were open, so the only thing they could do was stand there and wait. Ahead of her was a young mom and her baby. The baby was not happy. First, she was a bit fussy, then she got louder. The harder the mother tried to quiet the baby, the harder the baby fussed. Other people in the store were looking. It was obvious they were annoyed. Why was this baby still crying?


Ethel watched this mother and baby for a few minutes. Then she asked if she could hold the baby. The mother thought about it, wondering if Ethel was a safe person. Finally, she said, yes. So Ethel took this baby and held her against her ample chest. The baby must have felt safe there and settled down. Soon her cries slowed and stopped. The mother was grateful, and Ethel got to cuddle a baby. Who doesn’t like to do that?


It was a small thing, but it was a blessing Ethel could give. There are always little things we can do that pass on some Jesus to others. We don’t always even have to use words, just our hearts.


This week, perhaps you can take a break from worrying about the news, about what is happening in Washington and Tallahassee, and give people in need some love and care. Give them some Jesus.