Sunday, December 10, 2017

Be Alert to the Work of God

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
B Advent 1 – 3 December 2017
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Happy New Year! And welcome to the First Sunday of Advent. While the world pushes us ever closer to a merry and bright Christmas – every year, earlier and earlier – the church season of Advent urges us to walk slower – to mark our steps toward Christmas, so we don’t forget God in the midst of it all.

Marking time...
This is why we’ve created this little stone walkway for our Nativity scene this year, and why I’ve done the same at home. Marking the time slowly, one stone per day, helps us notice more of what’s going on around us while we walk. For me, anyway, when I just plunk down Mary and Joseph and company into the crèche and check that off the list, I’m not really paying attention. I’m checking it off a list!

Not only does Advent ask us to walk slowly to Christmas, but this season begins with the soft glow of candlelight, and with powerful words of lament found in our Isaiah lesson today. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” cries out the ancient voice. This is the voice of one who is searching for hope in the midst of a hopeless situation.

Today’s lesson comes from one of the last few chapters of Isaiah – the part of Isaiah written after the Israelites have returned to Judah after their exile. Their temple lies in ruins; their lives are bleak; and where is God? “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The author of these words cannot find God anywhere.


He tries to remind God of greatness in the past:
·      The mountains used to quake with your greatness, God!
·      You used to show yourself through fire and boiling water!
·      And you did other things we couldn’t even imagine!

But somehow, waxing nostalgic about the way things used to be isn’t helping the writer feel any better. He struggles to find God in the present day.

But, typical of a biblical lament, the writer eventually finds a corner and turns it. The lament begins in the previous chapter and continues, and then we get to verse 8: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father…” So here, finally, the writer has found a way to trust in God again.

He builds on that image: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [pull out clay]

This passage from Isaiah can show us some important things, if we only walk slowly enough to pay attention. First, it can show us that lament can be an important part of our walks with God, even during this holiday season – maybe even especially during the holidays. Lament helps us search for God in ways that are meaningful, even if they are painful.

But this passage also helps us turn the corner toward hope, along with the writer who says that God is the potter, and we are the clay and the works of God’s hands. And, even when we cannot see God at work, God is at work as a potter – shaping, molding, creating.

Throughout the centuries, potters have made what they or others need. Go to an ancient site, one that’s dug up for excavation, and you’ll often see pieces of clay pots, bowls, and other implements. In some ancient world, someone came to a potter and said, “I need a pot,” so the potter made them a pot.

That’s the thing about clay: it doesn’t shape itself. If I need a bowl, I have to shape a bowl. If I need a plate, I have to shape a plate. So, in using this image of a potter working with clay, this writer of Isaiah is asking us to consider what God is shaping in us, and why?

Put another way: What does God need, so what is God shaping?

Advent helps us answer these questions by urging us to remain alert with expectation and hope. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus again talks about his second coming – a day and hour that no one knows, so we all must remain awake and watchful. Advent helps us see that we are often numbly awake – stumbling along - needing more coffee, needing more bright lights and shiny stuff to stimulate us.

Yet, Jesus says, the work of God is found in something as simply beautiful as new Spring growth on a fig tree. 

We don’t have a lot of fig trees growing around here, and at this time of year, especially, new growth on plants might be hard to find. But his point is well taken: pay attention, Jesus says, to even the small acts of God. Be alert to all the ways in which God is working in your life, in the life of this faith community, and even in the world.

We may want God to tear open the heavens dramatically and come down that way, in big, dramatic fashion.

But our hope is found in a God who appears at the end of a stony path. We’ll get there – but in the meantime, allow your heart to be shaped by God who loves you. Slow down, look around you, pay attention, be alert to the work of God.

Amen.


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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Surprise!

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
A Christ the King – 26 November 2017
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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There’s a tv show called “Undercover Boss,” in which the CEOs of some very big companies go undercover to see how things are managed by the employees of his or her company. So, the CEO of a delivery company goes on a bunch of deliveries, or the CEO of a waste management company goes out to pick up trash. The employees (supposedly) have no idea that they’re taking their boss out on the job.

As you might expect, the bosses learn some things while they’re out doing the jobs that their employees do every day. They see how hard it is to accomplish tasks that should be easy; one boss even saw how hard it is for his employees to find time (or a place) to go to the bathroom when needed. In the episodes that I’ve seen, the boss is usually surprised by their discoveries.

The employees themselves are surprised, too, to find out that this “new guy” is really their boss – and not just their supervisor, but their boss. I’m absolutely positive that when they find out who they’ve spent the day training, they go over and over in their brains: “Oh my – what did I say to her? What did I do? How did I treat him?”

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day that marks the ending of our church year. Christ the King Sunday is a rather recent addition to the church calendar  – it was added in 1925, so less than 100 years ago. Taking one Sunday each year to focus on Christ as King was meant to remind the Christian faithful that it is Christ who is our head, our sovereign, and our king.

Today, we are also ending another year of gospel readings drawn from the Gospel of Matthew. So on this Christ the King Sunday, today’s lesson from Matthew shows us what kind of king Jesus is, just as other parts of Matthew also show us. In Matthew 1, Jesus is “Emmanuel” – or God with us. At the end of this gospel, Jesus says he will be with us, to the very end of the age. So, Jesus is a king who is with us, but as today’s reading shows us, he is with us in some ways that might be surprising to some.

As I said last week, the end of the church year brings us again and again to stories about the end of time, and the lesson I just read is no exception. Jesus says that when he comes again, much will be revealed about how we have cared for the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

The surprise for some is who Jesus identifies with in this story he tells. He aligns himself not with the well-fed, not with those who wear the best clothes, not with the healthy and strong, or those who live with the privilege of freedom. “I was hungry,” Jesus says, “and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was naked, and you gave me clothes. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was imprisoned, and you took time to visit me.”

Jesus then tries to head off any confusion by reiterating his point: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” And so, in this story, we find that Jesus is God with us, but also, that God is with us in some very surprising ways.

God is with us in the ones who need food. God is with us in the ones who need clean water. God is with us in the ones who will receive the clothes we’ve collected this month. God is with us in the loved ones and the strangers who are sick. God is with us in the ones imprisoned by addiction, or the ones who are bound by oppression. God surprises us by showing up in the unlikeliest of places, present in those whom society loves to hate.

Take an early look at the Christmas story. We will, of course, spend time on this at the end of December, but the very circumstances of Jesus’ birth and early childhood show us the surprises of God. Jesus, born to a young and probably poor woman, someone not settled into married life. Jesus, a child refugee with his family, on the run from a dangerous government hell-bent on ending his life.

Surprise!

And how about the surprises found in Jesus’ death and resurrection? We’ll get to those stories next Spring, but the circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and rising again also show us the surprises of God. Jesus, executed by the state as a criminal. Jesus, dead in the tomb – and then, three days later – Jesus is risen! (He is risen indeed!)

Surprise!

What kind of king is Jesus? A king who loves us so much, that he has come to us, to live as one of us, to die, and to be raised to new life. What kind of king is Jesus? A king who surprises us with grace and mercy, and this grace and mercy also show us the surprises of God.

For maybe we are the ones in the story who are hungry or thirsty, maybe we need care or company. Maybe we are hungry for peace. Maybe we are thirsty for justice. Maybe we feel vulnerable, or unsure, or we are just plain worn out. Surely, then, Jesus is the one who steps into our world of need.

Surprise!

Amen.


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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wisdom Appears to Us On Our Paths

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
C Lectionary 32 – 12 November 2017
Text: Proverbs 8:1-11; Wisdom 6:12-16
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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My sermon text today is primarily the reading from Proverbs 8.

A couple of years ago, I had the honor of walking with a family as the matriarch’s health declined and she prepared to die. My friend Vicki’s mother, Prue – short for Prudence – was 100 years old when she died, and Vicki asked me to lead her memorial service.

As we began planning the service together, Vicki brought out notes, written in Prue’s own handwriting, giving us instructions for the service. The notes were written confidently, asking us to sing a favorite hymn of hers. But Prue added one very specific direction for the singing of this hymn: DON’T DRAG.

And that was Prue. Up until the last few weeks of her life, she didn’t drag, and so it’s fitting that she would tell us not to drag, either.

There is wisdom in these words of Prudence, telling us not to drag. “Sing it,” she’s saying, “And don’t mess around. Don’t drag these words about Jesus out of your mouth. Sing. Proclaim. Tell it.” There is an urgency in her instruction.

There’s another Prudence character who appears in several ancient writings as a woman named Wisdom. One of these documents is called the Book of Wisdom. This two thousand year old Greek text, written by an unknown author, describes the character of Wisdom as “radiant and unfading…easily discerned by those who love her, and…found by those who seek her.”

As presented here, Wisdom sits at the gate of the city, ready and waiting to be found by those who are looking. We may not know who wrote about Wisdom in this text, but the writer introduces Wisdom to the reader, just like I would introduce you to someone you don’t know.

 Similarly, in our own Scriptures, the book of Proverbs introduces Wisdom as a woman walking all around the ancient streets - streets that are filled with people. She’s raising her voice, she’s calling out, she’s taking a stand – she really wants us to hear her:

“You are so limited in your thinking!” she says. “If you’re lacking wisdom, you can learn from me – I am Wisdom, in the flesh!”

Why? What does Wisdom offer to us? Why should we listen to Wisdom?

She tells us why – because Wisdom speaks honorably, she always speaks up for the right, and she won’t ever lie to us. Did you hear that last one? In a world that is full of lies, Wisdom won’t ever be untruthful. Wisdom will always say words that are just and straight as an arrow. The words of Wisdom won’t go from truth to untruth back to truth again.

There’s another character appearing in Proverbs – the character that I’ll call Foolishness. Foolishness is the one who leads our hearts off track, and eventually, Foolishness will cast us down – way down.

Last Sunday morning, a small, rural church community gathered for worship, not unlike how we gathered here. Their worship of God was interrupted by horror and injury and death.

In response to this incident, a local group called the Grand Prairie Police and Clergy Coalition held an emergency meeting this past week. The room was full to overflowing with officers and clergy, and one of the Grand Prairie SWAT officers gave a brief presentation on church safety. My own heart was heavy within me as I listened and reflected on the plans we must now discuss and implement in our churches, and in our schools, and really, in every public meeting place - all in order to try to be more safe.

It is Foolishness who leads us to think that all of the violence in our world will go away simply by wishful thinking. Foolishness says that we can have all the freedom we want, without much responsibility or many consequences. 

So where is Wisdom to be found? She’s there, too. Foolishness is seductive and is sometimes noisier, but Wisdom is there, too. Wisdom is found in people who take a stand and say, “We have had enough of Foolishness.” Wisdom is found in those who remind us that the choices we make today shape our world tomorrow.[1] Wisdom is found most of all in the very love of God for us, and in the love we offer to those around us.

Because, if you think about it, Wisdom walks hand-in-hand with Love. And they don’t drag – they walk side-by-side, leading us to action, so that violence and hatred will not win the day. 

If we try to understand Wisdom’s ways, we will learn from them, especially if we remember that Wisdom’s constant companion is Love. There is much in our world that calls us away from Wisdom, and much that calls us away from Love – but we cannot allow the Foolishness of this world to seduce us away from God’s Wisdom. Loving others depends on it.

Out of deep and abiding love for us, God has shown us the ways of Wisdom, and God calls us to live with Wisdom. In the Book of Wisdom that I mentioned earlier, Wisdom appears to us in our paths, and she meets us in our every thought. And so, we find that Wisdom is ready and willing to be a part of our everyday lives – she is ready and willing to be a daily practice for us, to inform our every idea, our every question, our every concern. Wisdom is there, with us.

Over the days, and weeks, and months to come, in what ways can you grow in Wisdom? 

How is God calling you to leave aside the ways of Foolishness and to follow the ways of Wisdom?

Amen.
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[1] An adaptation of a quote one of my church members – Julie Bothun - uses with the high school students she teaches: “The choices you make today shape your world tomorrow.”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

That We Might Worship Without Fear

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Zechariah and Elizabeth – 8 November 2017
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

What follows is my homily for worship this evening. The text appointed for the commemoration of Zechariah and Elizabeth is Luke 1:5-24, 57-79. But I refer heavily to the paraphrase of Zechariah's song in the hymn, "Blessed Be the God of Israel" (#250 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship).

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Confession: I chose this hymn because I knew it is a paraphrase of the so-called Song of Zechariah contained in Luke 1. I didn’t look over the words of this hymn again before putting it into the bulletin.

So, a few hours ago, as I looked the hymn over, I was struck by verse 2:

With promised mercy will God still the covenant recall,
the oath once sworn to Abraham, from foes to save us all;
that we might worship without fear and offer lives of praise,
in holiness and righteousness to serve God all our days.

These words have always struck my ear and my heart, but all the more so following the violence in Sutherland Springs last Sunday. Following yet another horrific attack in a place of worship, I’m not sure I know what to do with a hymn that tells me that God will save me from foes. I’m not sure I know what to do with a hymn that tells me I can worship without fear.

Today, I drove up to the headquarters of the Grand Prairie Police Department to attend an emergency meeting of the Grand Prairie Police and Clergy Coalition. The room was full to overflowing with clergy and officers. One of the SWAT officers gave us a brief presentation about a few safety measures churches can implement…that we might worship without fear.

The easiest measures to implement mainly have to do with paying more attention. Watching more. Looking out. And there was general agreement in the room that yes, it is sad that we have to take these measures in our places of worship. And my own heart sat heavily within me as I shook my head again and again – thinking about and considering ways we can pay more attention.

Yet, the more I have sat with all of this today, the more I have realized that the modern day calls to pay attention – to watch more – to look out – these calls also ring out through the ancient words of Scripture. The words of the prophets tell us again and again to pay attention – to watch – to look and see.

No, I do not believe that this tragedy or any other tragedy was sent by God to re-capture our attention.

But if we are to learn anything from it, surely the call to pay attention can be a call that we heed. Our lives as disciples of Jesus are best lived when we are intentional in our thoughts and deeds – Who is it that needs our care? Beyond offering thoughts and prayers, what actions can we take as a society to make violence more atypical?

Out of love for us, our God is always calling us to pay attention. Like the mother who tells her child to watch for the car coming on the street, or the father who holds his child’s hand in a busy parking lot – so is God. We are God’s – nothing changes that. Let us offer our lives in praise.

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Our love to the saints of First Baptist in Sutherland Springs.