Sermon for February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

       The first lesson is from the first chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. This is the beginning, the call of the prophet. In the first chapter, Jeremiah, the ancient Hebrew prophet living perhaps four hundred years before Jesus, is called to become a prophet, to carry the message of God to the people.

You can tell even from this brief passage that Jeremiah’s ministry had difficulties from the very beginning. Apparently he began his prophetic work at a very young age, and he was discounted because of his youth. He appears to be tentative and afraid. He may have not had much in the way of formal religious schooling. He faced rejection from the beginning. People did not like what he had to say. He was not a popular preacher.  But Jeremiah senses that he has been chosen by God for this work, that this is his life work, and that he will put his trust in God who will give him the words to say.

     The second lesson does not continue the themes of Jeremiah. We are reading it today because this time of year we have been reading the ancient Corinthian letter, a chapter or so a week. Today we have arrived at the famous chapter 13. Many scholars feel that this passage was not written by Paul himself, but inserted from other sources. It interrupts the flow of chapters 12 and 14 which go smoothly together. The language is not the usual language Paul uses. This might have been an ancient hymn that the first Christians sang often, knew and loved. It could have been an old favorite. It may have been adapted from various odes to love rumbling around Greek culture at the time, like many Lutheran hymn tunes were originally 16th century German bar songs, given religious words.

We lose much of the musical quality of the hymn in English, but in the original Greek of the letter we have still has some of the meter and cadence of a hymn with three verses. The first verse speaks to how love is the most important gift of all. The second verse speaks of how one loves on a practical level, and the third verse is that love never ends, it will never cease.

Now in the spirit of complete disclosure, we also have some additional material added to the end of the hymn about mirrors and seeing dimly and childish ways, but that too was probably a second addition to the original letter and not a fourth verse of the hymn or part of the original letter.

Luke’s passage this morning about Jesus may have been constructed on the passage from Jeremiah. For here we have the rejection of Jesus the prophet by those who know him best. It is familiarity that breeds this contempt of Jesus, not his age, but both Jesus and Jeremiah are roundly rejected. Those we know best we sometimes pay attention to the least, to our own detriment.  All prophets are not without honor except in their hometown. But notice that important last verse of Luke: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

I would like to suggest that these three passages, although quite different from each other together provide wisdom regarding three affectionate enterprises. The three affectionate enterprises in which we often find ourselves are: congregational ministries, house-holding or marriage, and citizenship.

The first affectionate enterprise is congregational ministry. At first this might seem like the call of the pastor to serve a congregation. Jeremiah and Jesus are called prophets. And they face rejection by the people they serve. And in the end the most important thing for a pastor is a love for one’s folk, to hold a genuine affection and high regard for these people: a love that does not insist on its own way but rejoices in the right, a love that bears and sustains.

But the affectionate enterprise in congregational ministry may be more about the ministry of the congregation to the people and place in which it finds itself. And a great deal could be said here about how St. Johns may feel inadequate to the task of caring for so many in need, in wondering whether or not we can do it all, deciding to put our trust in God, and to listen for the will of God as we go about the daily tasks of sheltering and relieving. Like Jesus or Jeremiah, as we do our mission, those who know us, may wonder why or how we feel so deeply that we are called for this. And to many we may at times seem arrogant even when we are anxious and fearful for our own capacities. We are who we are in mission because God wants us to help those in need. That will not be popular or easy thing. It just is.

But in this congregational ministry of sheltering, relieving, caring, and learning, the most important thing is love. We are called to love this neighborhood, these homeless, those struggling with finances, these people who need a place to just sit. Love is the most important thing. It requires humility of spirit, and it is what keeps us going and going and going, especially on those days when it appears we see things dimly.       These passages speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as congregational ministry.

But they also speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as house-holds, partnerships, and marriages in which people grounded in their love for one another share all of life together. Notice that Jeremiah’s enterprise is built not on his talents and capacities but on his being chosen. A partnership or marriage works not because we all are just incredible people. A partnership or marriage works when we realize that we have been chosen, warts and all, by another. All of us are too flawed to base a marriage on our personal strengths. Somebody chose us and loves us and makes us special. That choosing is the thing to cherish. We have chosen each other.

And, oh yes, as in the lessons, there is the pain of rejection in partnerships, households and marriages. And that rejection hurts more because when it comes we are being rejected by the one who knows us best.

But then there is a song to sing in this affectionate enterprise, a song of love with three verses. Love will get us back on track. It is the most important thing, not that thing we were arguing about. And in the second verse, love requires us to now humbly place the concern of the other before our own. For love can be with us through all of the struggles, changes, transitions, and setbacks. Love never ends. It is what allows us to accomplish that last verse of the Luke lesson: But we passed through the midst of all this stuff and continue on life’s way. These passages speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as congregational ministry and marriage or partnerships.

But they also speak to the affectionate enterprise we know as citizenship.   We are citizens of a republican democracy not because of our special talents or abilities. It is our political inheritance bestowed on us by our God and the accidents of existence. Like the call of Jeremiah, the call to be citizen is thrust upon us. And we face the challenges of citizenship no matter how we feel about them or how well we execute the task or whether or not we choose to accept our responsibilities.

But for both Jeremiah and Jesus, it is important to speak fourth, to declare, to discuss and converse and say how one believes and feels. Without that, public discourse is compromised. Yet the nature of public dialog requires that many of our personal convictions are rejected by the many as a sense of a common good is forged from the public compromises necessary for life together.

And, as Jesus indicates in Luke, often in matters of citizenship, it is those who come from the outside, those beyond our borders or beyond our media feeds that help us see what needs to be done.

And at times it will feel like we or at least something important to us is being thrown off a cliff. As we go about this common weal we will now and then as that last line of Luke says: pass through the midst of all this and be on our way dropping our nagging objections with a sense of humility.

The only way that a democracy will last is if all of its citizens, regardless of their background and convictions, hold each other in positive regard and gracious affection because we are Madisonians, Wisconsonites, and Americans together. Even in the realm of citizenship, love and tender regard for the neighbor is more important than political conviction. Life as citizens requires humility as we lift up even the concerns of those who might be on the other side of an issue. And in the end, that positive affection we have for what we used to call, ‘my fellow Americans” will sustain us as we build and rebuild and rebuild again that foundational core upon which life together is positioned.

As we continue our affectionate enterprises together: in congregational ministry, in our homes, and in our public discourse and affairs, these ancient words about being chosen despite all our flaws, about love, its struggles and importance, and the ways in which we all work through rejection on our way to something bigger; well, these ancient words sustain us on our way.


Sermon for January 27, 2013 Reconciling in Christ Sunday

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, I Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 

     Ezra and Nehemiah are two books of the Bible coming toward the end of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. Usually we do not pay much attention to these particular pieces of the Hebrew tradition, but we are given today a section of the book of Nehemiah.

After defeat, the destruction of their homeland, Babylonian exile as conquered slaves in foreign lands, and generations growing up as aliens in other countries; the people of Israel are returning home to their desolate and destroyed country. They return home under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. Before the people is the long and hard task of rebuilding their homes, their cities, their economy and their nation.

Today’s lesson is from this time and it tells the story of the discovery of an ancient scroll in the midst of the temple ruins. As the people are sorting through their destroyed cities, houses, and buildings, scrolls are discovered in the charred and ruined temple. These scrolls contain the stories, traditions, customs, and guidelines for living that formed and shaped the people for generations before their exile.  They were more or less the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture.

It is an amazing discovery, and the returning exiles stop from their work of reconstruction to gather and to listen to the reading of the scrolls in the public square. The reading takes a long time, but as the scrolls are read by the scribes; people listen to their history, their tradition, the guidelines for living that had shaped their nation. They had forgotten who they were. They remember and they begin to weep. There is a deep sense of how much and how many had been lost in the years of captivity.

Ezra and Nehemiah and the other leaders, however, begin to move the people out of their nostalgic tears of loss, into a resolve to rebuild their nation and their lives upon these stories and these principles. Nourished by the discovery of the lost books, they reconstruct their farms and homes, and their businesses. They also begin to rebuild their temple.

For us, perhaps the discovery of long lost family documents and albums in the attic can bring similar tears, recollection, regret, and loss. And the discovery of who we once were often brings us to a resolve to be that again.

This is roughly the Christian experience we share each week as we gather around the word of God, the lessons of the Bible. Each week we read three assigned lessons, which come from the attic of our faith. They often have been lost to us as we have become less and less grounded in the word and more and more consumed in the details of our modern lives. The lessons often come at us as strange and foreign. Their reading on Sunday mornings is like the discovery of long lost family documents and albums in the attic of the Christian soul. Seldom do the readings bring tears to our eyes. But on many days they should. For after a long, long time, and having gone through so much, we are, through these documents we read, in the presence again of the very first Christians who believed in Jesus, and whose faith continues to mold us.  The discovery of who we once were often brings us to a resolve to be that again.  

     Each week we read the letters the first Christians sent to one another as they built their congregations. Letters like these were written in Greek, the common language of the time. They were written on scrolls or parchment, and were read and reread during the worship services. They were highly treasured and preserved. They speak of the challenges, hopes, dreams, guidelines, and issues facing the first Christians as they tried to build a compassionate world.

Many of these ancient letters are older than the gospel stories of Jesus. The gospels were written toward the close of the first century as the people who knew firsthand the stories of Jesus were dying. The gospels attempt to record the memories and intentions of Jesus before they are lost. But letters like Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, Romans, and Corinthians, written to the churches in those cities are from the first decades of Christianity.

As we gather in this room today to listen to the reading of this ancient material, we sense in the Corinthian letter this morning that these first Christians were concerned about including everyone in their fellowship. They sensed that all should be not only welcomed but also involved in the community of faith.

They used the image of the body and its various parts to indicate how we all need each other. One senses there were already forces at work in the community which wanted the church to exclude some people. But here, embedded in our most ancient material, is the strong argument that all are needed for the well being of the body of Christ.

Today, on a day we’ve dedicated to the Reconciling in Christ process, we have gathered, in this place, to hear the ancient words that may cause us tears as we recall our past exclusions of others. And we have gathered, in this place, to hear these ancient words calling us to remember that all our welcome: rich or poor or somewhere in between, liberals, conservatives, and moderates, those who are young, or old, or somewhere in between, men, women, and children, Lutherans, and also all who share in the vision of a compassionate and loving God, those who are black or white, or green or blue or whatever the color of our skin, as well as those of all gender orientations. And as we hear those old words we not only regret, not only remember, but we also renew ourselves in this ancient value of this faith: all are welcome in this place.

Several hundred years after Ezra and Nehemiah, but still a long time ago, the community of Luke remembered that Jesus in a synagogue picked up an ancient scroll from the book of Isaiah the prophet, and also reflected on the words of hope. God’s hope for all of us is embodied in Jesus. God’s hope for the world needs to be embodied, in Jesus and in us. Compassion lived is compassion embodied.

As Jesus once embodied the hope of Isaiah, on this day of remembrance and renewal in the presence of these ancient words, let us now embody the hope of our compassionate God: that peace and freedom, justice and love are for all people, all creatures, and all creation. Let us, on this day, renew and embody this sense of hope that is found in the attic of our Christian souls and read once again here in this place.

Lent, 2013

LENT, 2013

February 13: Ash Wednesday Worship at 12:00pm and 7:00pm with individual absolution, imposition of ashes and Holy Communion using the traditional Ash Wednesday liturgy. There is no Lenten supper on Ash Wednesday.

Lenten Midweek Theme for 2013: How Does God Work in My Life? Each week, starting on February 20, as our meal ends, and before we move into worship, in the gathering space at our tables, we will consider questions to facilitate discussion regarding each evening’s dimension of the overall theme: How Does God Work in My Life: February 20 Awareness (Psalm 53:1-4, Luke 17:20-21) February 27 Repentance (Psalm 51:1-12, Luke 18:9-15) March 6 Forgiveness and Acceptance (Psalm 32:1-5, Luke 7:36-50) March 13 Renewal (Psalm 40:4-8, Luke 17:11-19) March 20 Restoration (Psalm 41:1-3, Luke 19:1-9)
February 20, 27, March 6, 13, and 20 Wednesday Schedule:
5:45pm Lenten Supper in the gathering space
Around 6:30pm Lenten Table Reflections and Conversation on the theme for the evening
Around 7:00pm Holden Evening Vespers (Feb 20, Mar 6 and Mar 20) and youth Taize worship (Feb 27, Mar 13).
A Weekly Blog Posting on the Lenten Theme will be published on the website each Wednesday during Lent.
Lenten Supper Hosting Groups: Feb 20 Choir, Music Groups, and Worship Team; Feb 27 Congregational Council; Mar 6 Senior Care Team; Mar 13 Youth Fund Raising (Tentative); Mar 20 Outreach Committee

Holy Week:
March 24:
Palm Sunday worship is at 9:30am
March 28: Maundy Thursday worship with individual absolution, shelter mat washing and Holy Communion at 7:00pm
March 29: Good Friday worship begins at 1:00pm and 7:00pm
March 31: Easter Festival Worship at 9:30 with coffee fellowship after the worship service


Sermon for January 20, 2012

Isaiah 62:1-5, I Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11 

Today we continue Epiphany with the third of the three classic Epiphany stories of the beginnings of Jesus. First we read the visit of the sages following the star, the first Gentiles to engage with Jesus. Last week we read the baptism of Jesus as he starts his ministry.  Today we have the third story associated with Epiphany, the first miracle of Jesus at a wedding at Cana in Galilee as he changes water into wine.

Water becomes wine. In the gospel of John, everything is a metaphor. Water symbolizes the mundane. Wine symbolizes joy and celebration. On this day when we are still surrounded by frozen water, the graying ice and snow of mid-winter, and the coming cold,  let us take some time to reflect on the wine of life. How does water turn to wine?

First, water turns to wine when water is appreciated. Appreciated water becomes the wine of life. The miracle of the mundane bringing joy takes place when we appreciate the water we have, the everyday. You know, we have trouble drinking “just water.” We want to drink something else. And yet water is the most wonderful of fluids, so essential to our being. It is our nature to overlook the mundane, everyday wonderful things that surround and sustain us. But when we appreciate the everyday blessings, these blessings are transformed into the joy of life.  Water turns to wine.

So think now about those everyday things that matter. Stop taking so much for granted, and let the joy flow again. Tuesday night after council, I walked past the entrance for the night shelter on my way to the parking lot. I had all sorts of details from the meeting in my mind. But on this cold winter night, as I walked through the line of men waiting for the doors to open, I felt the burdens of being homeless in the winter. And I was glad, genuinely glad, that I had a home to come home to, where I could talk with Judy for awhile, and pet the dog, before I went to bed. I appreciated what I had, and my heart was filled with every joy. Water becomes wine.

     Second, as we dig more deeply into this miracle, we sense that this passage is about the miracle of delight. Wedding wine is about joy. Our lives are miraculously changed when we recovery the capacity to be filled with delight, ecstasy, and joy. The Christian life may be seen as all about behaving, ethics, staying out of trouble, politics, justice, living up to our responsibilities, giving all we can, etc. and etc. But the Christian life may be more about the cultivation of delight than being responsible. When we are happy and when have a good time together at church, in our relationships, in our families, and in our community; the wine flows.  Joy is the matter. And it is an especially important matter in Wisconsin in January. We may need to work on the gift of ecstasy a bit as January Lutherans.

Joy is the matter in the lesson from I Corinthians. This Corinthian congregation is so filled with the joy of the spirit that occasionally they erupt in what can only be described as religious babbling. Well, joy never really makes any sense. Laughter is beyond understanding. The speaking in tongues in Corinth may be something we Lutherans don’t get into. That’s ok. But let us appreciate how important it is to babble together about the joy of living because we have confidence that God will not abandon us, because God will bring us together with others as we rebuild the world around compassion. So what really excites you, gets your juices flowing, renews and refreshes your spirit? That is where God is dwelling in you. And living out that joy is what the Christian life is all about.

Third, all this talk about the wine of delight reminds us: do not drink alone. Now there are many AA groups meeting in this building. Probably about twice as many people come to AA meetings here than to worship each week. These people will tell you things like take each day one day at a time. And they will also say that it is not a good idea to drink alone. Celebration is meant to be shared. Relationships are part of the miracle of water to wine, the mundane bringing delight. The setting for this miracle is a wedding at Cana. In the first lesson Isaiah uses a vision of a wedding to describe the relationship we have with a joyful God.  Celebrations usually involve parties. And whether we are talking about wedding receptions, coffee fellowship, or watching a football game; parties require people. If you want to have a good time, share the celebration as well as the sorrow. Sorrows shared are halved. Joy shared is doubled.

And it may be the case that in the name of joy and delight, you may want to work on a particular relationship so that the joy may flow again. Every relationship is different, so it’s hard in a sermon to say what you might need to do. But remember that today’s lessons about relationships, weddings and the like, remind us that joy is an important part of the miracle of togetherness.

Fourth, as we delight in the everyday waters, as we remember that Lutherans can be filled with the spirit of delight, as we drink with others from the font of ecstasy, as we deepen our relationships, we may notice in the story that the best wine needs to age a bit. At the Cana wedding, the best wine comes later. Good wines grow better with a bit of time.  Sometimes we think that ecstasy is for the young. It is. But delight in more muted shades is for all of us. No matter where we are in life and the shape and condition or our relationships, this is a day to be happy, to enjoy God’s abundant blessings, and to share with others who are special to us, the wonders of God’s love. There is a depth, texture, and body to the older wines. Older joys express the complexity of God’s graceful presence.

So wherever we are this day, these lessons call us to joy. They call us to the wonders of God’s love. Joy to the world, the Lord has come, and the brew is still aging in our hearts, as we recall the 157 years of winemaking that has marked this congregation’s life. Remembering that the good wine comes later, let us sense that the best did not happen long ago. The best of the wine is yet to come.


Pastor Ken’s Reflection on St John’s Financials for 2012

Reflection on our Financial 2012

The Good News
     Certainly 2012 was another good year for us financially at St. Johns. For all causes and from all sources it appears that we raised just over $550,000. This is an amazing amount since 2012 was a year in which we did not have a six figure building project in progress. Our general fund received from all sources $344,246. Out of the general fund we spent $342,000. So we ended the year at $2,246 dollars in the black.

It also was the first year in several decades when we did not at any time during the year dip into reserves to meet our expenses. Hardly anyone can remember the last time that happened.

And this was an amazing year for the emergency relief fund which is not part of the general fund. In 2010 and 11, the fund was averaging about $27,000 in contributions from others in addition to the $5,000 given by the congregation to the fund.  This $32,000 yearly average was substantially higher than the $10-$15,000 given away annually in the early part of this decade.

This year the emergency relief fund received over $35,000 in contributions, in addition to the $6,000 given by the congregation, and another $20,000 given to the fund from additional grant resources. At the end of 2012, we were given a challenge grant by Thrivent to raise $10,000 for the emergency fund between November 18 and March 31. We raised $14,000 in less than six weeks. This means that the emergency fund received in total over $61,000 in 2012. Given our barebones staffing and the fact that the average gift received from the fund is a check for $25, it will take us awhile to distribute that income. In 2012 we did distribute over $44,000. The remainder is being fed into the emergency fund a little at a time.

Another remarkable fund was the capital campaign. Once again contributions flowed into that fund from many different people and sources. This year the fund received $127,000 in contributions and a $25,000 grant from the foundation. The fund balance at Oak Bank remains strong. We have wanted to keep the balance at $50,000. Right now it is at approximately $70,000.  And this year the successful renegotiation of our construction loan increases our capacity to quickly repay that loan. In 2012 the outstanding balance on the construction loan dropped from $650,000 to $550,000 which means we retired about $100,000 in principle in one year.

And all of the account balances seem fairly healthy with $39,000 in the general checking account, $40,000 in the memorial account, $27,000 in emergency fund reserves and $33,000 in the Mission Investment Fund account. Coupled with the $50,000 at Oak Bank, we have in reserves as of December 31 approximately 120 days of operating expenses, a healthy figure for churches and non-profits.

And Now for the Challenges We Face
     However, buried in the details of the successful year, are some things to ponder.  This year envelop giving dropped by $7,000.  This is probably due to the loss of giving members due to death, and the financial stresses of this particular year. We have mitigated this difficulty with income from additional sources and also by reducing expenses. This year’s (2012) expenses were $13,000 less than expenses for 2011.

And last year as in previous years, St. Johns received more financial support from non-members interested in our mission. Non-member giving jumped from $7,000 in 2011 to $16,000 in 2012. Still the slide of member support will be challenging for the general fund.

Second, Christmas offerings dropped dramatically in 2012, from $22,000 in 2011 to $5,000 in 2012. Why the drop? Well there are several reasons, I think. One is that 2011 was an unusually strong year for Christmas. The second is that we are tracking non-member gifts better so that the general Christmas category would have less assigned to it. Third, there was a great deal of financial anxiety, something called a fiscal cliff and a drop in the stock market just as the Christmas giving season was developing. People remembering the problems of 2009, were less able to give with joy. And finally, the Thrivent match on the emergency fund probably caused people to give to the emergency fund rather than Christmas. All these possible explanations are reinforced by the fact that Easter for 2012 was up almost $1,000 from 2011.

So Where Does This Leave Us for 2013?
     Well, to be honest, the first quarter of 2013 will be tight for the general fund, especially if we wish to continue our streak of not dipping into assets in order to continue our program. And we can do several things to help ourselves.

First, I would like to suggest that we consider developing a small team to work on our 2013 financial situation. I think as far as most congregations go, we are managed well. And adjusted projections for 2013 show stability. We actually are in a strong financial position in many ways. But we also face several challenges in the coming years, and it might be good for us to carefully think and talk things through at this point in time.

Some of the things to consider are whether or not at the end of the capital campaign pledge period we should fold both income and expenses associated with the renovation projects and capital campaign into the general fund or continue to operate with a separate building fund? Another issue is whether or not we are managing the emergency fund in the best way possible in light of the size of the fund. Another issue to consider is what we might do to encourage both member and non-member giving.

Second, I would suggest that the council and lay leadership consider delaying funding to mission partners and general fund contributions to the emergency fund until after Easter when we have weathered this difficult first quarter.  Since Easter is March 31, neither of these involve that much of a delay, and it might just give us the breathing room we need.

Third, the capital campaign and building area are strong, and it seems to me that despite our issues with the general fund, we should continue our aggressive stance toward retiring debt principle even though our monthly payments have dropped.

Fourth, I would suggest that we pay for the Hancock Street door replacement with building funds rather than from the general fund, even though it had been accounted for in the 2013 general budget. That bill of $3,000 coming out of building would help us through the tight first quarter.

Fifth, it may be important for all of us to be patient with a high balance in the emergency fund reserves. Because so much was given to that fund and general fund dollars are tight, we don’t have the additional general fund dollars needed to distribute and process relief money more quickly than we are currently doing. Or if we are not comfortable with that, we will need to figure out how to finance an expanded distribution system.

Sixth, sometimes the general fund just needs our tender love and care. People like to give to help the poor. People like to give to support special projects. People like to support the redevelopment of St. Johns building. But underneath all of that is the basic day to day expense of keeping it all together and keeping it going. So give that some thought.

Finally, I would like to thank all of you for your gracious support. Our challenges and adjustments should never detract from the sense that this group of faithful people has once again this year accomplished so much in the name of Christ in the capitol east neighborhood of Madison. I am honored by our partnership in the gospel.

Pastor Ken

Sermon for January 13, the Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-22

Grace and Peace. Usually, building a sermon is a lonely process, involving quiet time and reflection on the lessons. Mondays usually bring a reading of the lessons assigned for the next Sunday. Every three years, we read the same lessons in a cycle, so often this Monday reading is like visiting a friend I have not seen for awhile. With a few cups of coffee and alone time to think, at first the Bible passages seem strange since they come from another culture.  By Tuesday several themes emerge, and an initial sense of the three passages develops. I begin to write. By Wednesday afternoon, I’ve become suspicious of what I’m writing and the sense I’ve made of things. Does this really hold together? How have I distorted this passage? What do others say about this? But by Thursday afternoon, I’ve generally worked through my private suspicions of the sense I’ve made of things, done background research, and then develop and rework things in earnest. Sometime just before the weekend, the final draft and posting on the web take place. Usually, the building of a sermon follows this quiet, personal, reflective path.

But not today. This sermon on the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist started in a completely different way. Last week, after confirmation and while the youth were still thinking about Lent, Anya, Caden, and Esther came into the room and said they thought the next time we talked about John the Baptist in church, we should get everyone wet. And so that is what we did today. Aspersion, sprinkling folks using evergreen branches has been a custom or historic tradition of the church especially at the vigil of Easter, but can be used at any time, to recall that we are baptized people of God.

But in fairness to the grade school children, this aspersion was not really what they had in mind. Their initial suggestion was to use the branches left over from the Christmas trees and also buckets of water. And not only to use the font here in front as we did, but also to drop buckets of water on everyone during the processional, so that we all got completely drenched.

After some reflection and conversation, what grown-ups call negotiation, a skill needed by preschool teachers and church members, but currently not used much by members of Congress; we decided that dousing everyone from the balcony may not be what we really wanted to do after all. So we fell back to aspersion with the promise that I would be willing to get very wet for this service.

In complete transparency, another skill needed in church life these days, I want to clarify that the branches we are using are not from the Christmas trees. After a meeting with Chuck, the custodian, we decided that those branches were too dry to effectively do the job. You would have been sprayed with dead needles rather than water. So we have alternative branches from some of the evergreens that collapsed in the big snow storm in the back area where the day shelter OTSC meets. So today, on a day when we recall baptism, we use a bit of water to remind ourselves that we are all baptized children of God.

A few comments on all this will complete the sermon today. This is the season of Epiphany. The Baptism of Jesus – the beginning of his ministry is one of three lessons historically associated with this season. The other two are the stories of sages following the star and Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding – his first miracle. So as we recall the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the children among us, it is good for us to consider beginnings.

For some of us, it may seem like our lives are all about endings. Life may seem to be winding down. We may be saying good-bye more often than hello.

Or some of us may be finding ourselves in the middle of things, and cannot possibly think about beginning something new.  But the sense of new things, of freshness, or sheer delight in something about to happen, which is a gift of childhood and baptism as the beginning of life in Christ, is not meant only for children. As Jesus begins his ministry, as we begin this year, let us delight in something new happening in our lives.

Second, John the Baptist and Jesus in this story this morning remind us that the two were related, that the missions of John and Jesus were similar and that their followers united somehow as Christianity emerged as a religion. If you follow the family relations in Luke, these two, Jesus and John, were cousins. In some ways this may be “Cousins Sunday.”

Now, who are your cousins? Think about that for a minute, and then give some thought to being in touch somehow with your cousins. Is it time to reconnect somehow? But also remember that the word cousin refers to any loose relationship. And that sometimes cousins are related and know each other but really do not have intimate relationships. We Lutherans say we have cousins in the faith. Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are our cousins, even though we disagree about many things like the ordination of women.

And other Christians are our cousins too. Evangelicals, Methodists, Presbyterians, U of C and Roman Catholics are our cousins, even though we may disagree on a whole host of issues. One cannot choose one’s relatives. And sometimes relationships in the extended family can be rocky. That’s what makes the annual January call for Christian unity important. People notice whether or not we can just get along.

But in the end, our young people may have pointed us to something more important than ecumenicity or our relationships with our Christian cousins. Their original concept was water in mass quantities poured down upon us all. Their first draft was for all of us to get soaked on the Sunday when we remember John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus. And in fairness to their first idea, we should think about that for awhile.

We Lutherans are really good at moderation. And that has served us well. But there are times when we really should dive in feet first, and get really wet in the waters of grace, drowning our sorrows, our old Adam, as we get completely soaked in the compassion of God. Compassion and love, in all their forms, are not things metered out, but a headlong dizzying process. We fall in love. With others. And with God. That is the only way to the ecstasy that comes with unbridled compassion. The kind of compassion where we see visions of doves and hear voices of affirmation in our own souls, and feel the spirit as they do in Acts this morning. Or hear God call us by name as in the first lesson.

In January in Wisconsin, our all or nothing experience of water is sometimes frozen and involves skis. If we ski downhill and are tentative, going slow down the slope, we will never learn to ski. To enjoy the frozen water, requires at least a bit of speed, so that we can lean into the edges and feel the exhilaration of the slope as we swoop downhill. Perhaps the most important thing about this lesson from the point of view of those who would soak us from the balcony, is that we should not be timid in our love of one another and our compassion for those in need. Soaked in God’s grace, recalling the emersion of Jesus in abundant streams of love and justice, let us boldly love one another and show amazing compassion as we begin this New Year.

Sermon for Epiphany, January 6, 2013

Isaiah 50:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

In the northern hemisphere, about this time of year, for centuries, no for thousands of years, humans have been noticing that the days are getting longer. Each day now there are a few more minutes of light from the sun. The time of warmth and spring is still a long way away, but as the days lengthen, there is hope that spring will come again.

In many cultures, this ancient vision of the cycle of the growing sun was marked with solstice festivity. As calendars of stones and poles in the ground allowed the tracking of the path of the sun and then as calendars developed with more precision, the rhythm of winter and summer solstice was learned. The ancient ones marked these days of mid-winter’s growing light as the time for fires and the dawn of hope.

As Christianity spread into Europe, it assimilated the solstice sense of growing light and the fires of renewed hope for the world in the festival we know as Epiphany. In European Christianity perhaps the only festival older than Epiphany is Easter. In the tradition of the Roman Church, Epiphany eventually became fixed on January 6. Today we have this festival once again. This is our Christian solstice or growing light.

Originally this Epiphany festival of light was more important than the celebration of Christmas, a religious festival that developed much later in our history. And in the Christian festival of growing light, several themes began to emerge. Epiphany means “manifestation.” It means in Greek “to see something.” It is by growing light we see: the light of the sun and the light of a star in the gospel of Matthew.

Epiphany is also the festival of inclusion. Everyone is invited to the bonfire. There is no insistence on theological propriety or pedigree. All humanity shares in the warmth of the growing light. The sages in the gospel of Matthew are Gentiles, well versed in astronomy and astrology, knowing very little about the Hebrew Scriptures or traditions. In today’s epiphany story, it is the outsiders, the foreigners, the ones on the edges, those who are different, the strangers, and the unusual who are lifted up as seeing something happening in Bethlehem. All are included in the arc of God’s grace.

Epiphany is a time of new things, when the sun rises on the horizon, when the sense of winter’s end can be felt and new hope first wells up in the human heart. No wonder we start our calendar with this month of January. The fullness of the lush light in this coming cycle of seasons begins with the growing light of January. So this is a time of fresh ideas, seeing something new, fresh wisdom, and starting things over. This is the season of resolutions for the coming set of seasons.

For Christians, God’s new initiative for the world through the birth of Jesus is now seen in a new and fresh light. Calendars and year counting are reset for a common era with this event. This is a time to start new initiatives, to follow our stars and dreams as we work together on our lives and mission for the coming year.

And the three traditional stories of Epiphany: the baptism of Jesus, the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding of Cana, and the first foreigners to find Jesus, lift up newness, the start of something fresh, and brand new beginnings.

Epiphany is a time for gifts. The winter rations that needed to be secured for the coming snows can be now be somewhat shared in light of a coming spring. The sages bear gifts in Matthew. Originally Christians shared gifts on Epiphany, in memory of these first gifts, and as a sign of graceful generosity, confident hope that the warmth would return, and mutual affection. As Christmas became more dominant in our culture, gift giving has been transferred to this day. But Epiphany remains a day of gifting in our minds.

Above all, Epiphany has become the time we celebrate sages, wisdom, and insight. The word means that we have an insight or vision or discernment or revelation into deeper truth.

So today is a day when we celebrate wisdom, gifts, new beginnings, resolutions, including all people, and the growing light of sun and stars.

That’s a complicated list. But it does raise several questions for us modern Christians as we go about our daily lives in 2013. What gifts have we been given by God through others? And how might we share those gifts? What are your gifts? What are our congregational gifts? How might they be used? Who should receive a gift?

What is new in your life? Perhaps this is a time for a fresh start, a new beginning. Or perhaps you feel caught on an endless treadmill and need to intentionally start something new. What thresholds are you crossing or need to cross?

As we recall the sages, we might also remember that all are welcome to the arc of the grace of God’s love. This is a month of inclusion regardless of political affiliation, economic or social condition or situation, family configuration, race, creed, gender, or orientation. In this particular piece of Matthew, it is precisely the outsider who has the important insight. Who needs to be included in our lives and prayers?

And what does the growing light reveal to you these days? What are you seeing in a new way? What fresh insights do you have? What is the wisdom, the revelation, the manifestation that is growing in your mind’s eye as the light of the sun and star and word of God give us a better capacity to see?

At least one of these questions is important for each of us this day as we celebrate our solstice. And there is also an important Epiphany issue to consider. Epiphany in the Christian tradition is not just any manifestation, but the manifestation of Jesus as a window into the nature of God.  What about God and Jesus impacts all humanity from its most ancient days well into our future? How does our faith relate to this vision of God born as a child?

I think in this we are into the wisdom of that second lesson from Ephesians. Here in this later piece of the New Testament, we have an expanded vision, the full discernment of God’s intention and relationship with the world. In Ephesians, the world, from the beginning and through all time is held in the arc of God’s loving grace. From before God’s creation, God intended to hold us and all creatures in the curve or arc of that love. Jesus is the expression of this love of God, this grace of God that lifts humanity through the dark shadows and valleys of injustice, cruelty, destruction, and death into new and radiant life founded on compassion, forgiveness, love and fairness. That is the vision of Jesus as a window into the nature of God. For God in Christ reveals a loving God that leads us through the shadows, walks with us through the struggles, helps us find our way back to peace and justice, and eventually brings us all home. This is the design of the graceful God in Ephesians. The wisdom is that love is born to us, all of us.

And that is the gift, the insight, the discernment, the new thing, the growing light we share and celebrate this wintry day.