Nov. 27th sermon: ‘Wonderful Counselor’

I am bad at posting the text of my sermons — mostly because I don’t usually write a manuscript from which to preach and then post. Plus, I’m convinced that sermons are best experienced when heard, rather than just read.

Here then, is the audio from yesterday’s sermon. My editing talents are limited so there is a little extra material at both the beginning and the end. Go to the four minute mark to hear the beginning of the sermon. Or start at the beginning to hear a bit of a song and the two scripture passages for the day, Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 7:17-23.

However, if reading is preferred over listening, I’ve also posted my notes below. The caveat being that I mostly use them as a guide, meaning what I actually said doesn’t completely match up with what I wrote. I doubt I’ve ever had a sermon completely match in that way. I suspect that’s true for most preachers.

We didn’t have time after the message for discussion in church, so I’d love for this to become a conversation here. So comment, question, and critique away.

”Names for the Messiah: Wonderful Counselor”

We are a country divided. From coast to coast, we have an issue that pits sister against brother; child against parent; even spouses against each other. I am of course talking about…

Properly using commas.

Why, what did you think I was talking about?

“To Oxford Comma, or not to Oxford comma, that is the question.”

I can’t and won’t solve this dilemma today, though if you know much of anything about me you can probably guess in which camp I fall. But for our purposes today, let’s at least acknowledge that comma placement affects the meaning of a sentence.

Here’s an example; notice the difference: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain, and God.” OR “I dedicate this book to my parents, Mark Twain and God.”

Comma placement matters. Can we agree upon that?

Here’s why that’s important today:

The key passage for this sermon series, ‘Names for the Messiah”, is, as you might expect, the passage that, you know, names the Messiah: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

Thanks to Handel’s “Messiah”, we are probably most used to hearing that list as five names: Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, etc.

From Brueggemann:

“The two terms are to be taken together. ‘Counselor” refers to the exercise of governance, the capacity to administer, to plan, to deliver policy.”

‘Wonderful’ may suggest the new king will have great wisdom. Or it may suggest that the plans and policies of the new king will be tremendous and surprising.

Here’s my next controversial statement that’s not actually controversial at all: The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE. He was writing about the crowning of a new king of Israel. He was not predicting Jesus of Nazareth, some 800 years later.

The early church read those terrific titles and used them to bear witness to Jesus, connecting the reality of Jesus to the expectation for a Liberating King, a Messiah, to the Hebrew Testament.

So we inherit a tradition that sees these titles in Jesus. And ‘wonderful’ becomes the operative word.

His teaching is ‘wonderful’ because he tells us and shows us that things we think are impossible are actually possible for God. Scriptures tell us Jesus is wise beyond explanation. He open up new possibilities for us. Thus he is a threat to conventional wisdom and conventional power.

The passage from Luke shows just how surprising and unconventional Jesus is. Even his relative, John the Baptizer, the one called to make the way for Jesus, isn’t sure he really is the one! But because of Jesus, the blind see, the lame walk, the sick are healed and the poor have good news.

“The old limits of the possible are frauds designed to keep the powerless in their place.” Jesus exposed this desire of the power order of his day and invited the common people to see that another way was possible, and not just possible but what God actually wants for all people. No wonder the religious and political leaders of his day wanted Jesus dead — he was “teaching them out of their allegiance to the entrenched order!”

Jesus breaks down such conventional wisdom, such as that “wisdom” that says white men should be in authority in order for society to maintain “proper” order.

Make no mistake, conventional wisdom and power are resistant to change; resistant to new possibilities. We’ve seen that in the rise of white nationalism, white supremacy, trying to disguise itself in a new name, “alt-right”, but with the same goals: keep white men at the top of the power structure; at the top of society. These are people who, intentionally or not, feel empowered by this month’s election to come out of the shadows and speak overtly, publicly that all who aren’t straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christians don’t belong.

Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist racism in all its forms.

Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means we who strive to follow in His Way must resist demonizing and “othering” of all groups of people: no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter whom they love.

One way we are living this out is through our new Hospitality Statement. What is that statement? Come to Church Conference Dec. 7 to be part of the group that hears, and hopefully, approves this historic document.

Jesus as Wonderful Counselor means another, better way, another better world is POSSIBLE. Not just possible, but is actually what God wants for the world.

We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of hope, especially for those desperately in need of good news.

We who strive to follow Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, must be agents of God’s better way that includes ALL people.

That, I am convinced, is our way forward, together. Amen?

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Happy Christmas 2014

Merry Christmas!

It’s my Christmas day tradition to post this Isaiah passage (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year), Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” (the world’s best – and most challenging – Christmas song), and a lighter second song that changes each year. You’re welcome. 😉

Isaiah 9:2-7:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-less future.

Yes, our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Nigeria, Mexico, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. The Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopeless! It means we’ve got some work to do.

(Trigger warning: some images involves children, many are difficult to watch.)

Still, childlike joy is also an important part of Christmas. This song has got to be the weirdest I’ve heard in a long time. But that’s what makes it so awesome. Go ahead, just try to refrain from singing it constantly; I bet you can’t! I know I can’t stop singing/mumbling it, much to the delight, and disgust, of my family.

Merry Christmas from the Buerstetta’s to all who celebrate! Happy Thursday to all who don’t! 

Celebrating Sabbath

Note: Celebrating Sabbath is my attempt to begin each week with a reminder of our true identity: whose we are and who we are called to be.

I find these word from Isaiah doubly good as they are the ones Jesus references, according to the gospel of Luke, in his first public speech. In other words, this text from Isaiah also serves as Jesus’ mission statement. We who would follow Jesus’ Way in the world must make it our mission statement as well.

Isaiah 61:1-2a

The Spirit of the Lord, the Eternal, is on me.
    The Lord has appointed me for a special purpose.
He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to repair broken hearts,
And to declare to those who are held captive and bound in prison,
    “Be free from your imprisonment!”
He has sent me to announce the year of jubilee, the season of the Eternal’s favor.

The Gospel According to Thor #sermon

You might think that putting up a sermon is the easiest kind of post. I mean, really, the content is already created, how hard could it be? Yet, somehow, it never ends up being that easy for me. Once again, here it is Thursday and I’m just now posting my sermon from this past Sunday (January 26). Which still beats the many times I didn’t post my sermon at all.

I’m sure this pathetic pattern is largely due to me being an inept blogger. But my particular process of sermon preparation plays a role as well.* I think a sermon is, first and foremost, an oral/auditory event. So I hope to add the audio soon. In the meantime, here are the notes I used as I spoke. Below I mention some of Julie Clawson’s writing; additionally, her 7-21 talk at Christianity 21 also informed my thoughts here.

Let me know what you think.

photo credit Colleen Erbach
photo credit Colleen Erbach

“The Gospel According to Thor”

Isaiah 9:1-4 & Matt. 4:12-23

Realms collide as the only son of God comes to earth, offering displays of power, bringing his light into places of darkness, saving the world. I am, of course, talking about…Thor!

Why Thor? A quick search on Amazon of “Gospel according to,” yields 39,647 results. I am not making that up. Results include:

Pop culture icons: Dr. Seuss, Sopranos, Simpsons, JRR Tolkein, Peanuts, Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Disney, Star Wars, Hunger Games

Other bible stories: Job, Daniel, Jonah, Isaiah, and, my favorite, The Other Mary.

Even some, er, really creative ones: Coco Chanel, The Beatles, Jazz, Waffle House, Hoyle, Elvis, Patti Labelle, and Starbucks – which I’m pretty sure is, treat others the way you want to be treated…unless they say ‘ex-presso’ instead of ‘espresso.’ Then you are to mock them mercilessly.

So really, why not Thor??

Still, I’ll forgive you if you’re a little skeptical.

Heck, my own son – who has become a bit of a comic book geek himself (not sure how that happened) – even thinks it’s crazy.

“Hey Josh, look at this cool picture we’re using in church this week!”

“Why?”

“Whaddya mean ‘why’?? Isn’t that awesome?!?”

“You should’ve used Captain America; he’s cooler.”

“What! How do you figure?”

“His shield can stop Thor’s hammer.”

While Joshua hasn’t seen it yet, in The Avengers movie we have the video evidence that he is correct.

So why Thor? He’s become a fascinating and complex character. His stories are almost all about hope overcoming fear. And aren’t those the kinds of stories we need right now?

A recent story arc had him pondering the very nature of gods, had him questioning his own existence, had him flying all over the multiverse teaching people to pray.

When his not flying around the multiverse or smiting frost giants, what does Thor do? The answer might surprise you.

There’s this book, a filler of sorts, an issue between story arcs. But this stand alone issue continues a theme from the beginning of Thor: Thor always returns to Midgard. (That’s earth to the uninitiated.) If the tech will work, I’ll show you what Thor does on earth:

[I showed a few panels from Thor: God of Thunder #12]

-Thor drinks with friends. Ok, maybe not too surprising; he is a Viking god after all. Though I seem to recall another story about a son of God who made sure a party he was at didn’t run out of good drink…

-Thor visits a friend on death row and brings him his last meal.

-Thor brings food to seemingly orphaned children.

-Thor entrusts nuns with the seeds of an extinct orchid.

-Thor sits and talks with the proverbial wise man at the top of a mountain.

-Thor drinks with wounded soldiers; brings rain to dry land; scatters a crowd that claims “God hates you”; and hangs out with some fishermen.

-like a good celebrity, Thor responds to video invitation to attend a ball

-Thor grieves with a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer.

-Finally, far ahead in the future, Thor returns to Midgard…no matter how much it pains him.

Thor learns from and is inspired by his interactions with people on earth. The son of the highest god belongs on earth.

So what is the gospel according to Thor? Seems like it is “bring light and life into dark and dying places.”

“I could use a good saving the world story,” said Jane Foster as she was dying of breast cancer.

We need stories that inspire us; stories that remind us that hope doesn’t die; stories that remind us that fear, intimidation, injustice, oppression, and even death – as ubiquitous and implacable as they may seem – do. Not. Have. The. Last. Word.

As Julie Clawson writes, “We need as a culture to see that if we are creative and brave enough sometimes the biggest and baddest dragons can be defeated. Only story could do that for us.

Julie also points us to this quote from author Gerard Jones:

For young people to develop selves that serve them well in life, they need modeling, mentoring, guidance, communication, and limitations. But they also need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. That’s how they reorganize the world into forms they can manipulate. That’s how they explore and take some control over their own thoughts and emotions. That’s how they kill their monsters.

Or consider this from CS Lewis:

“Since it is likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Stories within stories within stories.

In Matthew, Jesus has gone through the water via his baptism, has been sent by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, and is about to, in chapter 5, go up on a mountain (of sorts) to offer his fresh take on God’s law.

Through the water –> into the wilderness —> up the mountain… remind you of anything??

Matthew references Isaiah. Isaiah references Judges and the story of Gideon. And really, what is the book of Judges if not tales of superheroes? Men and women who display immense courage, who overcome their fear and their people’s fear, to defeat an enemy.

Gideon’s story is one of Israel’s deliverance from oppression – and all such stories of deliverance are references to the Exodus, when God delivered the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.

So we’ve come full circle once again, from Jesus back to the Exodus, God’s great deliverance of God’s people.

Stories within stories within stories.

There is a shadow side to superhero stories: apathy. If we are so wrapped up and addicted to the need for a super power to save us – whether religion, technology, or political platform – we might never live the courageous path the stories inspire us to take.

(paraphrased from Kester Brown: “We need also to let go of our hope that some other superpower—whether religion, technology or a political formulation—will bring eternal peace and equilibrium.” and Julie Clawson)

God continues to delivery us from oppression and misery. God does that by continually calling us to live lives of grace and peace and hope. God loves us and call us to live lives of love.

Do you know that? I mean really know that in the very center of your self? That at the core of your identity you are God’s beloved child? No matter who you are or who you aren’t; no matter who your parents are or who they aren’t; no matter what you’ve done or what you’ve left undone…you are God’s beloved child. Do you know that?

Well the story isn’t over. Because you are also called by God. You are called by God to be God’s agents in the world – this world, our world, God’s world.

One biblical commentator wrote, “God designates human agents whom God empowers and authorizes in the public process of history. Such human agents turn the public reality of politics and economics toward the will of God.”

You are called by God to be agents in the world fighting, what are our vows?, “fighting evil and oppression in whatever form they present themselves.”

Frankly, there’s plenty of evil to go around. Not to go all “We didn’t start the fire on you”, but we know the big evils:

-1 Billion w/o clean safe water

-800 million hungry

-27 million trapped in slavery

-1 in 5 women sexually assaulted

-climate already 50 parts per million above sustainability

There’s plenty of actual, real evil to go around. We can’t afford to waste time making up pretend evils, like fighting about which particular consenting adults are allowed to get married.

And we’re acting on those evils. Sometimes indirectly through our UM connectional system: clean water projects, rebuilding after the Haiti earthquake, UMW demonstrating in Chicago to fight the sex trafficking that accompanies every Super Bowl.

Sometimes very directly: your generosity in Nov & Dec resulted in over $1000 donated to West Suburban Community Pantry. That will allow the Pantry to buy 3 tons of food!

But if those evils I mentioned strike you as too universal, here are some closer to home:

-We have heroin deaths on the rise in DuPage & Will counties.

-we have drug addiction ravaging young people – though not just young people

-I learned this week that 52% of children in Woodridge schools receive free or reduced lunch.

-There are children in our schools in Woodridge who are homeless. Children whose only meals each day are the free breakfast and lunch provided by the school.

How will we address those? Maybe we start with just one. Maybe we need to partner with the Woodridge Resource Center, see how we can go to them with offers of help. Maybe we can help provide meals for children in the summer months when school meals aren’t available. I don’t know but I’m convinced you do know. God is at work in and with and through and even in spite of, you and me and us.

What story will your life write? What story will we write together, as the people of God called Woodridge UMC?

I say let’s make it a story of ordinary people who dared to respond to God’s call and do extraordinary things! I say we overcome fear and evil with stories and faithful actions of hope! Amen?

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*I almost never write a manuscript (that’s preacher-ese for writing out each word of the sermon); instead I use a hybrid style. By which I mean I use a combination of outline, fully-written sections, and, er, inspiration. I always have a thesis so that I know where I’m going with the message. I usually write out the opening and the conclusion and just outline the middle. I find I think about the message all week long, almost constantly playing it in my head, revising it and playing it again. For whatever reasons, I ended up writing almost all of this one. Go figure.

Finding home, living forever

Do you want to your faith to matter? Matter both to you and to the world? Do you want your life to be full, meaningful, deep, resonant, beautiful, everlasting?

jesus reading

I asked this in my Jan. 27 sermon. I said that to answer those questions in the affirmative means making Jesus’ way our home. What is Jesus’ way? He declared it himself in his first public speech according to Luke’s Gospel. Reading from Isaiah 61 (though interpreting it to best reflect the Way he embodied), Jesus said:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed to free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Luke 4:18-19

Want your faith to matter and your life to be everlasting? Then make this way of Jesus your home. Take Jesus mission statement, his thesis, this synopsis of his life’s purpose and work, take this and make it your mission statement, your thesis. Make it your life’s purpose.

That day I shared a poem written in response to that scripture. I often find I’m too dense to get most poetry, but this is too beautiful not to share.

A Prophet’s Blessing by Jan L. Richardson
This blessing finds its way behind the bars.

This blessing works its way beneath the chains.

This blessing knows its way through a broken heart.

This blessing makes a way where there is none.

Where there is no light, this blessing.

Where there is no hope, this blessing.

Where there is no peace, this blessing.

Where there is nothing left, this blessing.

In the presence of hate.

In the absence of love.

In the torment of pain.

In the grip of fear.

To the one in need.

To the one in the cell.

To the one in the dark.

To the one in despair.

Let this blessing come as bread.

Let this blessing come as release.

Let this blessing come as sight.

Let this blessing come as freedom.

Let this blessing come.

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May this blessing, this way of abundant, meaningful, everlasting life – this home – spring forth into life in and through me, in and through you, in and through us.

“That’s some salty language!” – final version of Feb.6 sermon

Not exactly sure why, but unlike many of my more disciplined colleagues, I’ve never been one to post a written version of a sermon. Probably has mostly to do with not preaching from a manuscript. Posting a few notes with a few more-fully written paragraphs and a few other thoughts that end up not being said…well, just doesn’t sound very appealing.

But it also has to do with seeing the sermon as more of a singular, oral event that occurs in a particular context for a particular audience and not as a paper to be submitted. It just seems like something is missing when reading a sermon – it’s meant to be heard!

(Please don’t misunderstand this as criticism of any of who do write out and post a sermon. I’ve read some that were really good.)

Now, as you’ve likely guessed, I’m about to do the very thing I just said I don’t like to do. Sort of. Think of this as the SportsCenter highlights version of my “That’s Some Salty Language!” sermon. I shared some thoughts on this recently. What follows now are my reflections after the fact.

Following the lectionary, the texts were Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20.

My synopsis: Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light in the world – to live righteous lives. Isaiah helps us define that righteousness as rescuing the oppressed.

While I didn’t say this exactly, these commentaries on those texts guided my message:

Isaiah 58 mocks worship preoccupied with ritual and blind to human oppression and need. It subverts a religion, no matter how passionate and busy, that ignores social arrangements that leave people dehumanized and enslaved. Authentic worship occurs when liturgy is joined to a hands-on involvement with the hungry and homeless.

Salt and light are functional metaphors. By their very nature they do something, and do it openly. They have an impact on the surrounding environment. Disciples of Jesus cannot retreat into private spirituality. Our call is to the marketplace, the public arena, where discipleship becomes witness and the same commitments Isaiah made are to be practiced.

What are those functions? Salt preserves and protects. Salt brings out the best in food. And, as all of us here in the Chicago area rediscovered this week, salt melts away that which paralysis us, that which causes us to stumble, that which oppresses us. Light eradicates darkness and helps us to see things as they really are, helps us see the truth.

What if we saw church as training ground for teaching people to be salt shakers and flashlights – what if the purpose of church is to transform the world?

That’s what the UMC says it’s for! “Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”

Isaiah and Jesus tell us today what we are to be transformed into.

What if what we do here at WUMC is train people how to be salt and light, encourage each other in those efforts, recruit new agents of change, celebrate successes, commiserate failures, seeing worship as filling us up with the Holy Spirit in order to leave our building ready, bursting even!, to change the world…to be salt and light.

That’s what Isaiah & Jesus are talking about.

So who among us beams with light? Who is providing salty flavor? Who is fasting rightly, bringing deliverance, hope and life to those around them? Who is preserving/protecting? Who is melting away that which oppresses? Who is eradicating darkness?

-Final Bloody Sunday march in Northern Ireland? British government finally admitted its troops were to blame for the massacre, not the demonstrators. Further, British government admitted the troops had no reason to believe they were under threat from the victims, gave no warnings before firing and lied to the official inquiry. This reversed decades of official government explanations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Family of our congregation who takes in young people with no where else to go, young people often rejected by their own parents.

Egyptian protester kissing riot police This is the greatest example of Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve ever seen! Brilliant, non-violent, disarming but still affirms and loves the other, the enemy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Rosa Parks: She would have been 98 years old Friday. We don’t hear that Parks worked with the Youth Council of Montgomery’s NAACP in a “mighty but unsuccessful” effort to integrate Montgomery’s library when she became angry that black children didn’t have access to books.

“As long as people use tactics to oppress or restrict other people from being free, there is work to be done.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Christians encircling Muslims at prayer in Egypt this week

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-In January, on Coptic Christmas, Egyptian Muslims became human shields for Coptic Christians to ward off further violent attacks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-fighting trafficking – slavery – at the Super Bowl. National Hotline gets more calls from Texas than any other state. 1 out of 3 children who become homeless are sold into sex slavery w/in 48 hours of hitting the street. Super Bowl called “single largest human trafficking incident in USA, especially under-age slaves” Consider that when you see how many commercials this evening denigrate women. A South Florida task force estimated that tens of thousands were trafficked through there for a recent Super Bowl.

About 50 girls were rescued during the past 2 Super Bowls

“I’m not buying it” Campaign. Jay Ratlif, 3-time Pro Bowler from Cowboys made PSA for it. “Real men don’t buy children. They don’t buy sex.”

Airlines holding training to learn what to watch for.

Texas Attorney General working on it. NFL and Host Committee are ignoring it.

The group behind Traffick911, the founder of “I’m Not Buying it” campaign? A nondenominational church plant in Fort Worth. They wanted to raise awareness and show Christian compassion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Friday and yesterday, one of our college students, Catie, participated for the third time in the U of Iowa’s annual Dance Marathon. She helped raise over $1.2 Million for U of Iowa Children’s Hospital Pediatric Oncology Unit

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Another of our college students, Nikki, working with Invisible Children campus group to help child soldiers in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-19 year old Zach Wahls speaking before Iowa Senate, shining light on a resolution that would return Iowa to the days of discrimination and oppression

People full of light, speaking a very salty language. May God’s Holy Spirit keep moving each of to be citizens in God’s kingdom, to be light bearers, to speak with THAT kind of a salty tongue. Amen? May it be so!