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Two Decrees

shepherds 13074cMessage for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-15 for December 24, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

“A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered….”

I have read and heard this story hundreds of times, yet I have never thought about what it was like for Mary and Joseph to give birth under Emperor Augustus’s decree until recently—living in a pandemic. Now we know what it is like to live under decrees—about masks, vaccines, whether to work or go to school at home or on zoom, and when to test, and quarantine. Whether or not we like or agree with them, these decrees are intended to keep us and others healthy, but this was not true of the emperor’s decrees at the time that Jesus’ was born.

Emperor Augustus agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that the “only certain things in life are death and taxes” and he wielded both with a fearsome might. The registration Augustus decreed ensured that everyone was being properly taxed for the Roman empire—an oppressive burden on already poor people, many of whom already had their land taken away. They could pay the money or pay with their life, bringing fear and hardship. But decrees by emperors demanded a response; so, regardless of being nine months pregnant, Mary got on a donkey and with Joseph’s assistance, they made their way to Bethlehem to have what livelihood they did earn, taxed for Rome.

But this was not the only decree happening at the time. There was a parallel and much more powerful decree being declared by God in a field outside of Bethlehem. The angels appeared to the shepherds with a message of joy for the whole world that comes for all people everywhere. The angels told them NOT to be afraid, for their decree was one of life and love and salvation. Your God is coming as new life—as a baby in a manger, who will be like you and show you the way, and lead you forward, and walk with you through the valley of the shadows, and bring you through to the other side.

God has come to be with you, and your Messiah and Savior reverses the power of “death and taxes” with the certain gift of eternal life and a promissory note that says, “your debt is paid and your sins are forgiven.”

• This decree of hope and new life has the power to go back into your past and erase everything you have done you wish you didn’t, all you did not do and you wish you did—and bring you peace.
• This decree of hope and new life has the power to fill your present with the presence of the Christ-child, born anew in your hearts with the love and strength to live with the challenges of today knowing that Jesus is always with you.
• This decree of hope and new life has the power to reach into your future beyond the grave and give you a heavenly home with the angels you see around now.

The shepherds were so overjoyed to hear God’s decree of life and salvation from the angels, they, like Mary and Joseph, also went to Bethlehem. But they did not make their way under the heavy weight of obligation. They ran to Bethlehem. They rushed there out of sheer elation that they could live under the decree of God’s all-encompassing love here and now. The shepherds brought their joy and wonder to Mary and Joseph, releasing them and all of us, to live under a liberating decree of joy and glory.

The birth of God’s immense love into our lives in Jesus gives us all the strength and wisdom, power and love we need to live with the rules that order our earthly life, while we give our hearts and minds, our strength and souls—truly and completely—to the decree of Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Building in Joy

Cloth Prayer Cross.jpgMessage for Advent 3 on Luke 1:46-55 for December 12, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, 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

• “Dear God, could you please give me a good work ethic.”
• “I pray for healing after my mom’s passing.”
• “Lord, forgive me for I have lost faith and now I am trying to return.”

These prayers were tied to the cloth prayer cross at the entrance to our parking lot on St. Luke’s Drive. This project was started by the Faithful Innovation team as a way to listen to our community during the pandemic. This team was just getting started on listening and learning experiments in 2020 as the pandemic set in, so all of the in-person events and plans had to be set aside. This one idea was a great, non-contact way to start engaging with the community.

Some of the questions we were encouraged to wonder about in the Leadership for Faithful Innovation process included: What keeps you up at night? What are the losses you are grieving and the longings you hope for? What is God up to in our neighborhood and how can we help?

The prayers on the cloth strips reveal so much about what keeps people up at night in our community, what losses they are grieving, what longings they hope for and what God might be up to in their lives. We could weave them together into an Arapaho Neighborhood Magnificat, for in these nearly 100 cloth prayers, we hear echoes of the song that Mary first sang—a song of God coming in surprising ways, a God who lifts up the lowly, a God who brings justice and hope, a God who remembers mercy is for all.
Mary sings a song of joy because God calls her to participate in building and bringing about a new way of living in the world. God is not coming through the power and aggression of the state, but from down under—through relationship, and family, and community—building with joy from the bottom up.

I am going to read Mary’s song again, interspersed with prayers from the cloth strips from our community so you can hear that the prayers and songs of the kingdom we are building together today are still the same ones that Mary first sang out. Since the beginning of God’s presence in her life, the same Spirit moves forward through time to help us build with joy this kingdom of love and hope today.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

• I love you Jesus for your sacrifice and that I may have eternal life.
• God is the best ever.
• Jesus, Lord and Savior, thank you for loving us.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

• I love Jesus so much.
• Prayers for Divine order: Path, Purpose and Prosperity
• Prayers for growing in my faith
• Thank you for this wonderful life and bringing us to this Earth.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

• Lord, be with those who are gathering and the elderly, and those families experiencing conflict.
• Prayers for faith among our youth and young adults
• God, thank you for my toys.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

• Jesus have mercy on us
• For our leader’s wisdom, patience, and perseverance
• That no more people die because others are selfish.
• Prayers for those who do not know the love of Christ, who have no hope

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

• For all victims of COVID, for kids to be safe in school, and our leaders to know what to do
• May God be with those at the US-Mexico border.
• Prayers for unaccompanied minors.
• Prayers to keep poor people safe.

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

• For those whose livelihood has been hurt by the pandemic
• Prayers for action for injustice.
• For all who are incarcerated.
• Father, forgive us

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

• For nurses and healthcare workers
• Healing for our family members
• Comfort the grieving
• For those in surgery, pain and suffering
• For peace, love, and happiness

according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

• God, teach us to love you, and love others again.
• Prayers for us to feel your arms around us, and for peace.
• Give me your strength to embody your revolutionary spirit even if it causes me to share in your suffering.

What is God up to in our neighborhood? Members of our community are singing Mary’s song with their lives, and St. Luke’s is here to be the community that embodies this song, this prayer of love and hope and action for justice, so people have more than a piece of cloth! We are here so they have

• a hand to hold when they feel lonely
• a table of fellowship to share a meal,
• a prayer team to pray with them,
• a visitor when they are sick,
• a team with which to take action for justice,
• a group to travel with them to El Paso to learn about immigration!
• someone to weep with them when they are mourning,
• and someone to praise God with them when they are rejoicing!

This is what we are building with joy, with our Capital Campaign—a ministry that helps the people who left the prayers outside—feel safe and comfortable coming inside; and, so WE feel awesome and excited about inviting people here (and not worrying about whether there’s plastic on the pews because the roof leaks, whether elderly people or parents with strollers can get in the front door and so on). It is ultimately not about the building at all. It is about the mission with the people who are singing Mary’s song in their daily lives. 

Here is the last prayer from the cross I am going to share today: “Dear God, help me to do this job and do it successfully. Thank you for providing for us while I have been looking. Thank you for this church and for this prayer cross. Amen.”

In your bulletin is a short list of specific prayers from the cloth prayer cross. I invite you to take the card home with you and pray through this list from our community this week as a sign that just as our community is grateful for us, we are grateful for them. There are 12 of these prayer cards so you can exchange them in your household or among your congregational friends. If prayer is your super-power—I have a few rings with all 12 cards! You can ask me for a full ring after the service. 😊

We are leaning in, we are listening to our community, and we are learning how God calls us to build the kingdom here with joy, as our souls magnify the Lord.

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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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Quotation of the Week

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