Sunday, January 15, 2017

Come and See

Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church on January 15. Text: John 1:35-42.
If you’ve ever watched a cop show on T.V., you’ve seen how the police follow someone. A couple of them will sit in a car outside where the suspect lives and wait for them to leave. Then, when they come out of the house and start moving, whether by car or by foot, the police officers pull out of their parking space and trail behind them. I always have to wonder… how could anyone not notice that? Wouldn’t you notice two people sitting in a car in front of your house? Wouldn’t you notice a car pulling out as soon as you left the house? I don’t get it.

Well, apparently, Jesus’ first disciples were really lousy at tailing him because they didn’t have him fooled for any instant the way they were ducking behind corners and trying to blend in the with crowd. Although they were following at some distance, Jesus was onto them from the get-go.

They had been disciples of John. One day when they were with John and Jesus walked by, John pointed him out and said, “Do you see that guy over there? He’s the Lamb of God.” Well, the two of them weren’t about to let this Lamb of God out of their sight. They had to know more. So, they followed him.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked them.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?”

“Come and see,” Jesus replied.

Now, they weren’t interested in seeing how Jesus furnished his home. They wanted to be with him where he lived. They wanted to experience who he was. So they went with Jesus and spent the rest of the day with him.

One of these two was a man named Andrew. And as soon as he left Jesus, he ran to tell his brother Peter, “We have found the Messiah.” It was quite a claim for one Jew to make to another. Their people had been waiting for the Messiah for just about forever. “You gotta come and see this guy!” Andrew told his brother.

As we enter this season of Epiphany, we draw our attention to the whole idea of sharing our faith with others, particularly those who might be struggling to find their way in the world. The churchy word for that is evangelism. It’s a word that sometimes makes us squirm because it calls to mind men on TV with bouffant hairdos asking us to send them money, or over-zealous Christians out to convert you so they can add another notch to their belt.

But evangelism is really about sharing the good news. In fact, that’s what the Greek word evangel means. Literally, good news. It stinks that in our culture, the label evangelical has come to mean something that we’d like to distance ourselves from because the word evangelical is a part of our heritage as Lutheran Christians who are all about the grace of God. Whether we use the E word or not, we know that, as Christians, we’re expected to share the good news with others. And if that scares the bejeebers out of you, you’re not alone.

I’ve always liked the definition of evangelism that says it’s like one beggar telling another beggar where they can find bread. It’s not about someone who is holier-than-thou telling a miserable sinner how to save their soul. It’s not about someone who has all the answers telling a poor ignorant soul how it is. It’s not about someone who has it all together explaining to another person how they too can get it all together. It’s about someone who has desperately longed for the love of God and experienced that love in her life showing another person who desperately longs for the love of God how he might experience it, too.

In today’s gospel, that’s expressed in three simple words from Jesus. “Come and see.” And that’s it. There is no coercion, no threat, no intimidation. It’s a simple invitation.

Jesus invites Andrew to come and see. And Andrew invites Peter and, over time, Peter will invite others. All this from three simple words. Come and see.

The first leg on our three-legged strategic plan at Ascension is invite in love. A simple invitation we might extend to others is, “Come and see.” And yet, we need to ask, what exactly would we like people to come and see, and why?

Back when I served as an assistant to the bishop of my synod in Ohio, I had the opportunity to visit a lot of congregations that were in crisis. Their numbers were shrinking and they couldn’t pay the bills and they didn’t know what to do. When I would meet with their leadership, I often heard these or similar words, “We need to get more people to come to church.”

“Why?” I would ask. They never liked that question. Because it was clear that the reason they wanted more people in the pews was so that there would be more money in the offering plate. And that’s what it was going to take for them to survive.

So, how many of you would want to join a church like that?

When we make it our goal at Ascension to invite, I hope it’s not so that we can get more fannies in the pews, so we can in turn get more dollars in the plate. I hope our invitation has nothing to do with preserving an institution. I hope we’re inviting people to see Jesus. I hope we’re drawn to Ascension because this is where we see Jesus.

Now, by that I don’t mean that we’re the mirror image of Jesus. But that we’re trying our best to embody a way of life that is the way of Jesus. We don’t have to live the way of the world—ruthless, vengeful, self-centered. We can strive to be like Jesus, together, as we encourage one another along the way.

As your new pastor, I’m very aware of the fact that you’re hoping I came here to grow Ascension. You may be disappointed to know that’s not the reason I came to be your pastor. If you’re talking about numbers, I’m not feeling called to do that. It would be cool if we grew, and that may happen, but that’s not my calling… or yours.

We’re called to grow in the way we embody Jesus in the world, so that when others come and see us, they see Jesus.

The thing about institutions is that they take on a life of their own and they become all about self-preservation. At Ascension, we’re a congregation of about 750 people. Not too many years ago, we were a congregation of 1200 people. Our numbers have gone down. We’re not alone. Many congregations are in the same boat.

There are lots of reasons for that and I can’t get into them in the limited time of one sermon. There are also lots of reasons to hope in the Christian church today, although the church of the future will not be like the church of the past. But the point I want to make today is that when the institution bleeds, the institution fights for survival.

As much as we may love the institution, we need to remind ourselves that Christ’s Body on earth is not an institution. Churches, and buildings and denominations are not forever. Yes, we need to think about that, even in our 75th anniversary year. Built on rock, the church will stand, even when steeples are falling. Steeples do have a shelf life. Eventually, they fall. That doesn’t mean that the people who gathered for worship under those steeples failed. It’s not a measure of their faithfulness to the gospel.

Last week I was at a pastor’s Bible study group with pastors I haven’t gotten to know very well since coming here, and one of the pastors said, “The most remarkable thing happened in worship last Sunday. We had a young man join the church.”

I’m sitting there thinking, why is this a big deal? I don’t see anything remarkable in that. People join the church all the time. But then, I came to learn that he serves at the interim pastor at Second English Lutheran Church in Baltimore. And today, the congregation of Second English in Baltimore is closing. So, yes, it was mind-blowing to think that on the Sunday before the congregation closed its doors, they received a new member.

It seemed he had been visiting the congregation where people showed him Jesus, and he felt called to join them. On the Sunday before they closed.

And that’s why we invite people to come and see.

Today we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If ever there was a man who took being a disciple of Jesus seriously, it was this man. He understood the darkness of this world only too well. But he also knew that darkness is no match for the light of God. He understood that while sin is present in the heart of the individual, it is also present in the systems of society. And one cannot change the realities of life, without changing the systems of oppression. Motivated by the unconditional love of God, he was called to show others Jesus, particularly those on the margins of society.

Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of people who identify as Jesus’ followers these days who are showing the world someone who is not Jesus. These are challenging times if we want to show the world who Jesus really is.

When we’re baptized, we’re charged to “let our lights so shine that others may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” Letting our lights shine so that others may come and see Jesus.

As God’s beloved, we have light to shine on the world. Dr. King once said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” There is good news to share with the world around us. The light we bear scatters the darkness. It brings an assurance of God’s love to those who live in fear. It’s the light of Christ. In our words and in our actions, we’re called to invite the world to come and see.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Ministers of Music with whom he is well pleased

It’s the day before the day before Christmas, otherwise known as December 23. It’s also a Friday, which is my “day off”, but really, how can a pastor relax the day before what must be the ecclesiastical equivalent to the Superbowl for us? I’ll spend today doing laundry (down to my last pair of underwear), tinkering with my sermon, getting as much rest as possible... And reflecting on the fact that no matter how stressful Christmas Eve is for me, it could be worse. I could be the Minister of Music. 

Sometimes I delude myself into believing that people come to worship on Christmas Eve to hear my sermon. They don’t. I could have the best sermon I ever preached, or neglect to preach at all and I’m not sure if it would matter to most people. That’s not why they come. They come for the music. 

The faithful who have been worshiping with us throughout the month of December, patiently enduring the Advent season while hopefully waiting for what comes next, have more than earned the right to cut loose with Christmas carols. After all, they’ve been hearing Christmas music at Walmart since before Halloween, so it’s high time they get to enjoy it at church. And for those who skip Advent, maybe don’t even know what Advent is, it’s the music that lures them into a pew on a frosty winter night to experience the mystery of the Incarnation once again. 

I suspect a church musician could succumb to the stress of this night and call in sick if they had time to think about it. Instead, they push through, one stanza at a time, looking forward to crossing the finish line when they’ll be able to breathe again. I honestly don’t know how they do it; I stand in awe of them. 

Joy is our Minister of Music at Ascension. (Really, that’s her name. How perfect is that?) On Christmas Eve she will be leading the children of the congregation in their Christmas musical at 4:00. They’ve been working on it for months. This is our best attended worship on Christmas Eve and you’ll need a shoe horn to get in. No pressure there. Then, for the next two worship services, at 8:00 and 10:30, she will be working with a brass quintet, timpanist, handbells and Senior Choir. How does she juggle all those groups on the same night? Of course, she’ll also be poised for action from the organ bench throughout, ready for every cue, prepared for variations with each hymn, leading the congregation through the liturgy, without even a moment to let her mind or her hands wander, from beginning to end. 

I can hardly get my head around what that must be like and wouldn’t trade places with Joy for a bazillion bucks. Well, that’s not exactly true. The fact is, I couldn’t trade places with her because I could never do what she does. Few people could, and even fewer than that could do it as well.

I know that when most people worship on Christmas Eve they are unaware of all the work that was involved in making the sacred portion of their Christmas celebration possible: a janitor who cleaned before they arrived, the office staff who printed the bulletins, people who prepared the altar, decorators who tied the bows on the wreaths and decided just where to place the poinsettias, a choir that is rehearsed and ready to sing, ushers greeting them at the door… A team of faithful people, many of them invisible to people in the pews, comes together to make Christmas Eve worship happen.

Of all those who make our Christmas Eve worship possible, the ones who have put their heart and soul into the evening above all others are our church musicians. Try to imagine what your Christmas worship would be like without them, and be glad you won’t have to experience that. As you're recognizing those who share gifts with you this Christmas, don't forget to thank your church musician. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Radiant beams from your holy face

Preparing this week for my first Christmas Eve with the people of Ascension, I have a sense that I need to experience this holy night with them before I can really feel like this is where I belong. And yet, there's another side to Christmas Eve that's so familiar to me that it doesn't really matter a rat's patootie where I am. On this holy night, I am transported to a holy place.

I’m talking about that transcendent moment in our worship that always seems to come crashing over me like an emotional tidal wave. If you’re a pastor, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s that kairos moment when I stand behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand, and I look out into the nave of the church, which is lit by hand-held candles like mine. With all the other people worshiping, we are creating a great sea of light shining in the darkness. And the words we sing squeeze my throat so tightly that I can hardly get them out:
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
radiant beams from your holy face,
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth,
Jesus, Lord, at your birth.

It’s a moment like no other. And here’s the thing about it that just blows me away. I get to experience this blessed moment from a different vantage point than the rest of the congregation. From where I stand, behind the altar, I look out into the congregation and behold teary-eyed faces looking back at mine, each one illuminated by the small flame of a candle. I wish everyone in the congregation could have the opportunity to experience this as I do. I also wish I could hold onto this moment that rushes by so quickly that I can never fully absorb it.

This will be a mystical moment for me. I won’t only see the faces of those physically gathered in the candlelight. I'll see other people as well, including my daughter Gretchen, her husband Jon and sweet baby Nick, who was with me last Christmas Eve but will be in New York this year. I'll see my son Ben, too, although it's been a while since he was with me on a Christmas Eve. And in the sea of candlelight, I'll catch a glimpse of every face I have ever seen illuminated from that vantage point, from every congregation I've served over the past 40 years. They'll all be there. Folks from St. Martin's in Marine City, Michigan, where I interned. The dear people of Trinity, Jamestown, North Dakota, my first parish. All the congregations in Ohio where I spent Christmas Eves along the way: Trinity in Carrollton, Emmanuel in Kilgore, St. Paul in Waynesburg, Advent in Uniontown. And my church families in Charlotte, NC: Advent and Holy Trinity. I'll be seeing them clearest of all on Saturday night. I'll look out into the pews and see Mitchell, Bobbie, Sandy, Roy, Laura, Bailey, Joseph, Ruth, Tom, Linda, Sheila, Steve, Ryan, Ron, Bill, Corky... They will all be there, all the saints who have had such a profound affect on the person I've become. I know it will happen because it's happened to me so many times before.

This year, I'll be seeing new faces in the candlelight--the faces of my family at Ascension. Some of them I've come to know well in the few short months I've been here. Others are still relatively unknown to me. And yet, I know that as each year passes and I look out at them on Christmas Eve, our stories will intertwine, and I'll grow to love them more deeply.

In that radiant moment on Christmas Eve, the people of Ascension will never know that, when I look at them, I see them standing beside so many other people I love. I suppose if they read this blog they may think of it, but I hope that, like me, they'll be caught up in their own radiant moment, as we're being washed with the light of "Silent Night."

Let me assure you that I’m a relatively sane person. I don’t see people who aren’t there. I will see these people because they are there. The light of God that shines in my life has come to me through these blessed people who have been a part of my life. I’m looking forward to being with them again this Christmas Eve, even if only for that brief, holy moment.