Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Turning the World Upside Down - Sermon on Luke 3:1-6

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 3:1-6
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

Well, we seem to be getting closer to the holiday texts we know and love.  Last week we read from Luke 21, where Jesus sits on the temple mount and offers an apocalyptic discourse to the disciples.   Today, we go back just a bit further in time to the time of John the Baptist. Today’s text in the third chapter of Luke actually occurs after Jesus has been born and raised.  

I promise, if you hang in there, we’ll eventually get to the picture perfect holiday texts that we all know and love.  The manger, shepherds, Mary and Joseph. All of the good stuff. I promise it’s coming.

But until then, it is important that we spend some time in Advent being reminded that we wait not only for the story of Christ being born, but also we wait for the second coming of Christ.  We wait anxiously for the time in which God will make all things new. A time when God will turn the world upside down. Restore all of creation and make us whole.

We wait ever so patiently for the completion of God’s kingdom, praying daily for thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  For now, in the season of Advent, it is good for us to dwell with the gravity of what it is we’re actually waiting for.

Today’s text sets up the time of John the Baptist.  We don’t actually hear from the John the Baptist until next week, when he comes out swinging from the wilderness and he shouts to the crowd, “You brood of vipers…”.  

But until then, today’s text only introduces the one crying out in the wild.  We are introduced to his presence, and the stage is set for his arrival. The arrival of the one written about in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

I think it is interesting and worth noting in today’s text, that the text isn’t about Jesus.  It’s actually not even about John the Baptist. In fact, today’s text opens with an unexpected litany of political, economic, and religious leaders and officials.  Luke sets the stage for John’s entrance by rattling off the who’s-who of first century people in power. 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…when pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.  When Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the the region Ituraea and Trachonitis, and lysanias of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

Luke is setting the scene for the time of John and Jesus’ arrival.  And between you and me, Luke is baiting his audience, the readers,...he’s baiting you and me to learn a valuable lesson about God and what God is up to.  This text is about God and what God is up to.

The text isn’t actually about Jesus.  And it isn’t really about John the baptist.  Nor is it about the list of powerful leaders.  This text is really a subtle proclamation about God and God’s intention for the world.  It is a subversive message about God’s plan for salvation to a broken creation. It’s about God and what God is up to. 

During my time at Lutheridge as a camp counselor, I learned a lot of songs.  And one of the camp favorites was a song called One Name. The lyrics read, “One name under heaven, whereby we must be saved.  Forgiven of our sins, baptized in the water, filled with the Holy Ghost, washed by the blood of the lamb. Free to be free my friends, freed by the blood of the lamb.”  

Then the 4th and final stanza of the song goes, “God’s goinna move this pla-a--ace, God’s goinna move this place...God’s goinna turn this whole world, upside down.”

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.  That’s the subtle message of today’s text and I suspect it went right by most of us when we first read it.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius...with Pontius Pilate governing Judea...with Herod and his brother ruling Galilee and beyond.  With Annas and Caiphas ruling the high priesthood.. God is up to something. Something new. Something unexpected. Something that will turn the whole world upside down.  Something that will shake the status quo to its core. 

You see, in those days the world in desperate and eager for a Messiah, a savior.  Someone to fill the centuries of prophecy that came before. Someone who would be raised up as a might ruler, a king of kings, a leader of nations, a great and powerful savior of the people.  

And so with each powerful political and religious leader that Luke rattles off he challenges the expectations of the world.  God’s up to something …but it won’t happen through the mighty Emperor Tiberius. God is up to something, but it won’t be through powerful Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea.  God is up to something, but it won’t be through the revered king Herod or his brother. God is up to something but it won’t be through the religious elites, Annas and Caiphas.  

With each and every name Luke announces he not only establishes a timeline to set up the time of John and Jesus, but Luke announces the mighty and powerful leaders of their time and then sets them aside.   And with the world’s greatest economic, social, and political leaders aside, Luke tells us that the word of God came to a man named John. Not an emperor, not a governor or king..not a religious leader. Just John, son of Zechariah...king of the wilderness.

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.   God’s word...God’s word incarnate...comes in complete opposition to the world’s expectations.  To a wild man in the wilderness...a lowly guy named John, the word of God comes forth as a voice in the wilderness, crying out, “prepare the way of the lord” proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

Do you see what God does?  And honestly, as people who know the complete story it should come as no surprise, but God is flipping the script.  Turning the world upside down. Dismissing human expectations and understandings of power. 

God breaks forth not in the mighty and their thrones, but in the lowest, smallest, most unexpected way.  In fact, it is out of the wilderness, the very place that represents wandering, doubt, darkness, and uncertainty, that’s the place that the word of God shows up.  

That’s where the word of God prevails.  Not in the rich, mighty, and powerful. But in the damp, dark, dirty wilderness...God is up to something. God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.

Luke makes it a point to tell us that God shows up in the most unexpected, counter-cultural way. The fact of the matter is that the systems of power in place in the world will crumble at the presence of God.  God will humble everything that is proud and self-satisfied. God will cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly. Out of the wilderness, God is up to something. 

And whether we like it or not...whether we admit it or not...this upside down turning of the world is what we wait and long for in the season of Advent.   It’s what we hope for. It’s what we pray for. It’s what the world is desperate for.

A savior who turns the world upside down.  Who actively seeks out the outcast, poor, lost, lame, and last.  A savior that proclaims good news to the oppressed and sets the captives free.   A savior who challenges and opposes the systems and cycles of power still rampant today.  A savior who confronts any and all abuse of power and restores justice. A savior who flips the script, restores right relationship, and calls forth all of creation to be made new. 

As you most of you know, I have a 4 month old son, Bennet.  And raising Bennet is a learning curve that I know many of you can attest to.  Well, he recently learned a new trick. He has learned how to roll over onto his stomach.  But...and I think this is the important part...he doesn’t know how to roll back over. 

So while it may be cute and adorable at 3 in the afternoon to watch Bennet roll over on his play mat...it is less than cute at 3am ...and 4am..and 5am...when he rolls himself onto his stomach and then screams because he’s stuck.  He finds such joy in his new ability, but it ultimately leaves him stuck, annoyed, and lost.

The world is just like Bennet.  Infatuated with our abilities, our human-made structures and systems, enamored by power and status.  Humankind is wading in sin, wandering in the darkness...stuck and lost from our ways. Screaming out for a savior.

Two nights ago, in the span of 8 hours...Sarah and I responded to Bennet’s screams for help 10 times.  10 times in 8 hours we awoke to him rolled over..stuck, annoyed, and lost. And each time, we crept into his bedroom, gently turned him over, reminded him that he is ok and he is loved, and then soothed him back to sleep...knowing good and well he’d do it again.

God’s goinna turn this whole world upside down.  That’s how God is with us. In the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, the world had lost its way.  Humankind was living for their own sake. 

The emperor Tiberius, the Governor Herod...the religious and political leaders and officials… they lived for their own benefit.  For their own wealth. They thrived on systems of power the abused relationships, discarded other human beings, neglected the sick, poor, oppressed, lost, last, and lonely.  The world was stuck in sin. Screaming in the night for someone to come and save.

And God did just that.  God became incarnate, took on human flesh to be among us.  God’s word came out of the wilderness...the very place of wandering, doubt, despair, and darkness.  And God’s word spoke. Calling all people into repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sins that got us stuck in the first place.  

Repentance, by its very definition is to turn around...to turn away from harmful, corrupting, and indulging sin...and turn to God.  A complete 180.

And God, gracious and abounding in steadfast love responds every time to our cry.  God’s gonna turn this whole world upside down..

The good news my friends is that God is still up to something.  God is still active. God is still the one meeting us in the darkest wildernesses of our lives and proclaiming a word of hope.  God is still moving among us. God is still calling us to repentance and forgiving our sins. God promises to always be present.  And God promises to turn this world upside down….or perhaps...right side up.

So, I suppose the question is: Do you ever stop, pray, listen, and wonder...what is God up to?  Where is God moving and stirring? Where in life do you find yourself in the wilderness? In the dark, desperate, and despairing places?   Do you cry out to God? Is God responding? 
And if so, is it making you uncomfortable?  Unsettling your foundation? Is God moving in a way that challenges you to evaluate and reexamine your life?  Is God turning your world upside down?


© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached 12.08.2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran JAX, FL

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Perfect Christmas Tree Tradition

Every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, my family and I would travel to the mountains of North Carolina to seek out and cut down the perfect Christmas tree. Once the tree was acquired, we would eat stuffed-crust pizza from Pizza Hut, and then we would return home to decorate the tree while watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Our yearly tradition was never without its hiccups and challenges, but that’s what made it wonderful. That is what made it ours.

Our tradition became bit more challenging once my mom’s health and mobility declined due to her battle with cancer.  But the tradition was important to all of us, and we were not going to let cancer slow us down. So, in 2005, we journeyed up the mountain for what would be mom’s final trip to the tree farm.  And on this particular day, the snow was falling and the ground was icy.

The cancer, in addition to the winter conditions, made it nearly impossible for mom to climb the mountain.  Although her mobility was limited, we searched high and low for the perfect tree as she would point off into the distance and say “what about that one?”  After analyzing her selection, I would trek up the mountain, and shout back, “this one!?” “No? How about this one?!” The search went on and on.

After an extended and fruitless search, my mom turned around and gazed across to the mountain on the other side of the road.  We had never ventured there before. Mom raised her finger and pointed off into the distance and said, “I think I see it. That one. Over there.”  The road was icy and steep. It would not be a welcomed journey down one hillside and up another. But it was our tradition, and if cancer was not going to stop us, then neither was a steep, iced-over road to the perfect tree.
My mom had a deep affection for the holidays, and if I had to guess, I think her love for Advent and Christmas was rooted in the many traditions of the holidays, of the church, and of our family.

Advent and Christmas, more than any other liturgical season, are rich with tradition.  Some families decorate Christmas trees, bake cookies, and hang stockings. Some families travel to distant relatives, exchange gifts, go Christmas caroling, or volunteer.  Some families traverse treacherous winter conditions in their Dodge Caravan to secure the “perfect tree,” eat pizza and watch their favorite holiday movie.

What makes these traditions wonderful and special are the stories that accompany them.  Traditions create experiences, and experiences make memories. These memories, good or bad become the stories we share with one another.
This is the power of the Advent and Christmas season.  We tell the story of a virgin teenager receiving word from an angel that she will give birth to the son of God.  We tell the story of shepherds in the field keeping watch over their sheep by night. We tell the story of Wise Men from the East.  We tell the story of a scared, vulnerable, young couple trying to find a place to stay for the night. We tell the story of God shining a light in the darkest moments.  

After mom died, my dad, brother, and I journeyed back out to that mountain to find the biggest and healthiest tree we could justify fitting in our house.  Although mom was no longer with us, the tradition continued and the story was told. It may seem trivial, but in the darkness of her cancer and death, our 12’ Christmas tree towered as a symbol of promise and hope.  It was a full of life and growth. It was our story, our tradition, our tree, and I have no doubt that mom would have approved.

We tell these stories and share in the tradition because they are our story, gifted to us by God in a baby boy-- Emmanuel.  We tell these stories, not just as distant memories, but as proclamations of hope. Proclamations of life. What’s your tradition?  What’s your story?

© Originally published in St. Mark's Lutheran Church Jax, FL, Dec. Messenger

Signs: here and now! - Sermon on Luke 21:25-36 - 12.02.2018

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 21:25-36
25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."29  Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.34  "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

December 31, 1999.  New Year’s Eve. My family and I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating the holidays, but by New Years’ Eve the steam was usually waning.   I don’t have very many memories of celebrating New Year’s Eve. At best I remember sitting in the living room with mom watching, napping, waiting,. And then once the ball dropped we called it a night.   But in 1999, this particular News Years’ Eve was different. We did something drastically different; almost as though the world was ending…We went to a party.
Anybody remember Y2K?  

Well, a member of our church hosted a party that evening.  And full disclosure, I was 12 years old…so the concept of the world crashing at midnight because of technology was a bit lost on me.  But I remember walking the house at the party and there being a weird tension in the air. Like an anxiety. Almost fearful. 

I remember seeing a stockpile of bottled water in the corner of the basement along with batteries, canned food, and other doomsday-esk paraphernalia.  I remember thinking, “Goodness, I’ve heard about Y2K, but could this really be it?” 

As midnight approached our parents encouraged us to stay upstairs, playing in one of the teenagers rooms.  I don’t know if they were trying to spate the generations in case we had to lead the world into a new age, or if they were trying to distract us so we couldn’t countdown the seconds to our demise.   

We crept out of the room and down the split-level staircase to peak over the banister as all the adults had gathered in the basement for the final moment.  Ten – nine – eight...do you remember where you where? 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…then in a moment like a movie, where everything freezes into slow motion and the camera circles the room…the clock struck midnight. And do you remember what happened?! That’s right, nothing! 
Jesus sits opposite the temple and talks about the end times, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  It seems that ever since that moment, humankind has worked overtime to predict and prepare for the end. And every time, believe it or not, human kind is wrong.  

Do you remember May 21 2011?  Christian radio broadcaster, Harold Camping told us the world would end on May 21, 2011.  They spent millions of dollars getting the word out. Do you remember what happened? Nothing.  In fact, Camping said he’d rather predict and be wrong then not believe at all and miss out. So, he said the world would certainly end by Oct. 21, 2011.  Still, nothing happened and humankind survived. 

There was the infamous blood moon on Oct. 7 2015.   Spoiler alert, we all survived.
In fact, you may be delighted to know that according to a Google search humankind, you and I, have persevered through more that 150 failed end-of-the-world predictions. 

And just so you can’t say you didn’t know…the world will end in Jesus will return on June 9 next year. That’s my birthday by the way.

Or in case that’s wrong, keep an eye out for an asteroid in 2026…or countless other predictions.  And I suppose the good news is if we make it to 2026, there are no current recorded predictions until 2129.

The point is that Humankind has exhausted itself predicting and preparing for the end times. You ever get tracks on your window shield?  Or the bathroom stall? Or in a case of beer? ..or so I’ve heard.

What’s alarming about all of these signs and our predictions is that not only are they wrong… not only do they negate Jesus telling us that no one knows the hour or day….but they all foster a climate of fear.  They instill fear…fear of the end…fear of missing out…fear of the unknown…fear of what happens next. 

The world seems to always be searching for a sign.  Natural disaster, political uprising, famine, deep space discovery, Biblical numerology…society is obsessed with predicting the end times or spin current events to convince others it’s here.

Well today Jesus sits on the temple mount and teaches about the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The disciples demand a sign. And Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

He goes on to say that Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   For Jesus, the signs of the final judgment will be crystal clear for those who live by the way of Christ.  But until then, no one knows. No one knows. And when it happens, you’ll know….so don’t ask for the signs.  Don’t fabricate signs. Don’t exaggerate what you think could be signs. Don’t stir up fear for fear’s sake. 
In fact, Jesus says, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…so that the day does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap.”   Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
It seems to me that Jesus is less concerned about that signs of the end times as he is about the signs and actions of the disciples then and there…of you and me, here and now.   To be not s focused on signes of the sun, moon, stars…signs of the heavens and the son of man, but focused, called, committed to the signs of the kingdom here and now.

Rather than seek out signs of the final day and be drowned in fear of the end, perhaps Jesus would have us be signs to the world.  Signs that dispel fear, darkness, and endings…Signs that point to new hope, new beginnings, a new heaven and a new earth. Signs that point to the nearness of the kingdom of God now.  Jesus is a sign that the kingdom of God has come near.  And perhaps that is the only sign we need. The only sign needed to know that repentance begins now, a new beginning is ushered in.  Be alert! Wait, sure, but wait actively.

Today we enter the Advent season.  The colors have changed, the Advent wreath is up, the Chrismon tree is standing tall, and the crèche is on our front lawn.  Today begins a season of waiting and anticipation…not only as we remember the Virgin Mary and the world eagerly waiting for a Messiah and Savior…but as we continue to wait today.  Actively waiting for the return of Christ to reconcile the world and make all things new.

We begin Advent not with our typical story…Mary and Joseph, a manger and no room in the inn.  Shepherd and wisemen. No, we begin this season with a reminder that the Advent season is one hope and anticipation…anxious and active waiting for the return of our savior – the messiah – Emmanuel.  

And with Jesus as our sign we proclaim a message of hope.  Of love, grace, joy, and peace. Not fear. Jesus is the first fruit, the first sign in God’s grace-filled kingdom.  Jesus calls us to lives of joy and abundance, love and hope. And until the kingdom of God comes to complete fullness, we are called through baptism to be visible, tangible, and faithful signs to the world.  Signs of hope.

That is why today, we light the 1st candle of the Advent wreath, also known as the hope candle. It is also sometimes called the Prophet’s candle.  Until that candle is lit, the wreath stands in darkness. After lighting, the darkness is dispelled and the promise of hope is ignited.  

It burns as a sign that it is only the beginning.  There are more signs to come. As the prophets of old, when given the world of God upon their lips, they could not help but proclaim the good news of God.  
We too have been blessed by the waters, nourished by the body and blood, called and sent into the world to dispel darkness and fear, burn with the brightness of God’s promise for everlasting life.   Called to be a sign of hope, peace, joy, and love. 

And friends, if God calls us as Christians to be a sign unto the world, then we better be crystal clear about our message.  Go out of our way to articulate and proclaim without a doubt the goodness of God’s love. So that all the world may take notice. We live, serve, and act with clarity and humility.

So for the poor, hungry, and…the very people Jesus spent his life loving hear of a message that God’s kingdom is open to all, it’s welcoming, generous, and full of hope.

            So the oppressed and discarded of society read a message that God’s kingdom is just, equal, and equitable. 

            So that victims to unjust systems of power and cycles of abuse and neglect see a sign that declares God’s kingdom as a home for all people.  
So that the ill, lame, and unclean...those kicked down by the stench and darkness of disease or death may take sight of the kingdom of God.  and know that in Jesus the burden is light and the Kingdom of God thrives to heal, restore, and make whole. 

As a system of love and justice that cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifts the humble of heart. 
So that the outcast, the different, the abused, the neglected, and the bullied find a light in the kingdom of God that welcomes all and celebrates each and every individual gift and ability.
So often the voice of opposition…those who misinterpret the promise of God. Those who abuse the prophecy of final judgment and act out of fear...they carry big posters…big signs...celebrating injustice and fostering division...those are signs of fear.

But as Christians, the signs we are called to proclaim take form not in banners, posters, and billboards...but in action.  Tangible and visible witnesses...testimonies. Signs that God’s love dispels all fear and and infects the darkness with hope beyond hope.

My friends, oh my friends, what an opportunity and privilege we have to be claimed by God…to know the ending of the story…to know and believe in the promise of a new and heaven and new earth…and to be called by Jesus to worry not about the final day but to live here and now proclaiming the goodness of God’s love.  

When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.  Speak with authority and love.  Act with humility and justice. Serve with patience and kindness.  Love without fear. Hope without a doubt. Welcome all. Proclaim, cry out, share, witness, testify, and be alert.  Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape the fear and trembling of the world, but rather stand before the Son of Man….in the promise and hope of Jesus Christ.  God’s gracious sign for the world. Amen. 

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Dec. 02, 2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Jacksonville, FL

Sunday, November 11, 2018

80th Anniversary and Renovations of Growth

Let me first say, Happy 80th Anniversary!!  On October 14th we celebrated our anniversary with worship and a pig roast.  Former Florida-Bahamas Synod bishop and St. Mark’s pastor, William Trexler, joined us as our special guest to preach.  It was an incredible event and I am so thankful to not only everyone who volunteered their time and energy to make the event a great success, but to all of you who made the trip to be with us as well.  It was joy to see old friends reunite, share stories and memories, and honor St. Mark’s history in this community. St. Mark’s has a rich history and we excitedly look to the future as we continue to grow, learn, and serve.  May we always be asking, “What is God up to in this place?”

In preparation for the 80th anniversary, I reviewed the history of leadership at St. Mark’s.  You can read a brief synopsis of our history on our website under the “history” tab. And as I reread our history, I noticed that under the tenure of each pastor we lift up not only the flourishing ministry and mission during their time, but also significant changes and additions to our physical building.  From the beginning, during the tenure of Pastor George Hart, our history notes purchasing our first property as well as constructing the original church building at our current location. During Pastor Nordsiek’s tenure history notes new plans for a Fellowship Hall and Education Building. During Pastor Biemiller’s tenure renovations were made to the education facility and faceted glass was added to the chapel.  During Pastor Trexler’s tenure a new nave was built. During Pastor Scholl’s tenure, the church expanded to include a new fellowship hall, music suite, kitchen, and offices.

This observation made me reflect on why building renovations are important to our history.  Why take the time to honor and record renovations and updates within our church’s history? Is it that building renovations and additions are the most tangible result of a pastor’s tenure?  Or, perhaps, building growth is a parallel to membership growth and mission outreach.

Perhaps a thriving congregation necessitates updates and renovations and, therefore honoring those physical changes honors our congregation’s vitality.  After all, it is the continual update, improvement, and modernization that allows St. Mark’s to have such an impact in the community. The Nordsiek building is home to 120 preschoolers and more than 30 staff.  The music suite and nave ensure safe venue for not only worship, but Bach Vespers, San Marco Chamber Music Society, Organ Concerts, guest musicians, clinicians, and other artists. General repairs and updates exemplify our commitment to being a warm and inviting, albeit temporary, home for Family Promise.  Additions and renovations like Hart Hall and the Fellowship Hall allow us to host groups and partners in ministry like Lutheran Social Services, yoga, community band, chess tournaments for kids, and more.

I am excited that 80 years later, renovations and updates continue still today.  Most recently the library and office (rooms used for hosting Family Promise) received a fresh coat of paint and new flooring.  Over the next six months the catalog and content of our library will be updated. As our new collection grows, I invite you to check out a book, offer a review, share with a friend, or start a book group.  The library is an incredible resource and we are working hard to restore its relevance. In the weeks to come, we will be replacing our Nave roof, which is our oldest roof. As we look to the future, plans are in being put in place for the installation of a fire protection system and grants are being written for updates the St. Mark’s Ark playground and kitchen.

I never imagined that my first year at St. Mark’s would involve so many conversations regarding facility maintenance, renovations and upgrades.  I am beyond excited that they are happening because these conversations are a testament to the Spirit’s movement here and now at St. Mark’s. God is always forming and reforming us.

It is an exciting time to be a part of this community of faith, and if you have ideas, interests, or a heart for handiwork, please contact me.

© Pastor Daniel Locke, originally printed Nov. 2018 in the St. Mark's JAX Messenger.

Noticed - Sermon on Mark 12:38-44 - 11.11.2018

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Mark 12:38-44
38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

At first glance it would seem as though today’s Gospel text has all of the makings for a good, classic, and what most folks would call, a “stewardship sermon”.  More specifically a sermon about, dare I say, money. Financial stewardship. After all, it is the season of pledge letters and budget planning.

And honestly, I lament that we wait until November, which is ironically budget season, for the church to talk about the stewardship of money.  It seems to me that if the conversation of financial stewardship was daily, weekly, even year-long, then a sermon on today’s text about stewardship and generous giving wouldn’t be so taboo.  We might not be so hesitant to talk about giving, if we talked about it more often.

Quick poll, how many of us have heard a sermon on stewardship around this time of year?   More specifically, how many of us have heard today’s story of the poor widow as a text used to encourage us to be generous, faithful givers?  Giving all we have back to God, even if it leaves us with nothing? 

Too often we reduce this poor widow and her miserable experience of life into a model of faithfulness by which we should tithe our money to the church.  Her experience is manipulated and set it as the benchmark of generosity. How often do we exploit her story of financial and social emptiness for the sake of our church budget and annual pledge campaigns?   Too often, perhaps.

Well today’s sermon my friends is not that.  This is not going to be a sermon that critiques the giving of the rich, haughty religious elites against the poor widow.  Furthermore, it is not my intention to abuse the widow and her story for the sake of convincing, convicting, or guilting anyone into a more faithful and generous way of living and giving. 

I don’t want to give a good ol’ classic stewardship sermon today.  And I should be clear, I believe that faithful, generous tithing is important.  More than important, it is part of our life in Christ. It is part of our fellowship within the Body of Christ and our membership in this community of faith.  I believe that God has first given all things to us, ourselves, our time, and our possessions. God has gifted us with every gift, financial and otherwise, and has called us to be stewards.  Managers of those gifts. None of it is truly ours. God’s has just called us to faithfully and generously manage it. 

And to be even more clear, this IS a generous and faithful community with regards to giving.  It’s no secret that St. Mark’s has experienced a time in which it felt poor.  Like the widow.  Poor, with not much to give.  And yet, this community of faith was faithful. Trusting. Giving...of yourselves and your time and your money. Investing in this community for the sake of our call to ministry and mission of the gospel in this place.  This is a generous and faithful congregation. It is also a generous congregation with regards to money. It is budget season, and the finance committee is hard at work. But the generous commitments of this body of Christ make the finance committee’s work so much easier.  And rather than scrape and squeeze, thanks be to God, we celebrate a time of growth with great excitement. We look to the future with assured hope, new vision, and opportunity. Because God provides.

But as for today’s text, as promised, I want us to notice something that perhaps is more often than not overlooked.  I think we’re so quick to juxtapose the giving of the richest with that of the poor widow against our own generosity, that we miss a bigger picture.   And feel free, pull out the bulletin, or I dare you, the Bible in front of you and look at today’s text. 

In the 12th chapter of Mark, Jesus is constant conversation with the Pharisees and Scribes on the Temple mount.  Their conversations have not always gone well, and they seek new ways of challenging Jesus. Jesus confronts them of the topic of taxes, convicts them with a parable.  He schools them on resurrection and finally, right in front of them ridicules them for their excessive egos.  

He critiques their pompous presence and their self-absorbed show of false religious piety.  Jesus tells the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,to have the best seats in the synagogues. They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Then notice verse 41.  “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money in the treasury.”  Jesus noticed the rich elites putting in large sums from their abundance. But then Jesus notices a poor widow, who comes forward and drops two small copper coins, the worth of a penny into the treasury.  

Now Bible scholars have concluded that within the Temple Treasury there were 13 coffers for the purpose of receiving offerings.  And I imagine the rich elites carrying their abundant offerings to the treasury and dropping their coins in one by one by one. Taking their time so all could here the excessive clanging of their generous gift.  And then the widow, who I suspect no one notices, approaches the treasury and lays in her last two coins. 

Offerings were given in the Temple treasury as part of their religious obligation.  Their offerings went to support the Temple, it’s leaders and workers. We might understand this as say that the offerings not only kept the lights on, and the leaders employed, but the offering was intended to support the mission and ministry of the Temple mount as well as those who members of faith who sought the Temple mount for spiritual needs.

So in comes a poor widow.  And she’s not poor just in the sense that she has no money, no earnings.  She is socially, physically, emotionally poor.  Because she is widowed, she has no status in society.  She is ostracized and on the margins.  She in vulnerable and cast out.  And as she approaches the treasury she offers her last two coins. Everything she had, Jesus says.  Every she had to live on.  As to say that offering those two coins may as well have sealed her fate.  She had nothing left to live on.

And if we walk closely with the text, we might notice that as Jesus pulls the disciples aside, he doesn’t lift her up as an example to the disciples or us.  Jesus never says, “be like this poor widow..” Jesus doesn’t commend her sacrifice or even her faith. Simply, he notices her.

Rather, we might notice, as Jesus does, that this woman who has nothing due to the societal and cultural systems in place...is giving all she has back into that very system.  

She invests her tithe into the Temple.  The very religious community that wouldn’t even give her the time of day.  She invests into the same community that views her as an outcast, oppresses her status, and removes her voice.  The community that will take and demand her offering, but fail to notice her as she fades to nothing. She places her offering into the very Temple system that Jesus vows to destroy.  She gives, out of faithfulness to God, to a broken system. 

Reading closely we might notice that this story isn’t so much about the generous and faithful stewardship of a poor, discarded widow, but rather this story might notice and call out atrocious, broken, and abusive stewardship of the community of faith that surrounds her. 

Jesus doesn’t elevate her as an example to the disciples.  I think Jesus laments and offers a stern warning to the disciples that systems of power have as great a responsibility, privilege really, to be good stewards of the resources invested in them.  To care for each and every person, especially those who have nothing left to give. 

Jesus does, what Jesus always does he notices those afflicted by unjust systems.  He notices those ostracized and abandoned by the very community called to support them.  Jesus notices this poor woman, and even more so I think Jesus knows that after giving all she had to live on, she was destined to die, lonely, unnoticed.  

Friends, I think the significance of today’s text is not about individual piety or individual stewardship.  I don’t think is about faithfully and generously giving everything you have left to live on. 

Rather, I think today’s text is a lesson and reminder about the stewardship of trust and commitment to the other.  About the stewardship of community. Confessing that the size of the offering is irrelevant because it isn’t ours in the first place.  Confessing that generosity has less to do with the amount given, and more to do with sharing in the abundance God has given us.

Today, we might be reminded that regardless of who pledges and tithes, and regardless of how much or how little, the call of this congregation is to be a communal steward of God’s resources.  

That together, as a community of faith, share all that God has entrusted to us, we might live in such a way that no one goes unnoticed and no one is in want.  That together, we might faithfully and generously steward each and every coin of our tithes and offerings.  That is our responsibility. It is our privilege. It is God’s gift to us.  Together as a stewarding community, we are called to do so much more than we can on our own.  Together we provide housing for families who may feel unnoticed by the systems of power. Together we are able to provide a place of education for children 6 weeks to 5 years of age, for kids like my son. The St. Mark’s Ark also provides employment to more than 30 siblings in Christ.  Our collective stewardship empowers LSS and their presence in the community, as they provide food pantries, refugee resettlement, an AIDS clinic, and much more.  

Faithful stewardship leads to partnerships with UCOM, OneBlood, seminaries, camps, campus ministry, and so many local organizations.  Faithful stewardship means joining God’s resources with the whole Christian church by supporting our synod and Church wide expression, as they extend the mission of the gospel in a way we cannot on our own.  As they work globally to combat aids and cure malaria.  As they support future church leaders in education and empower more that 250 missionaries across the globe.  As they provide disaster response, advocate for changes to corrupt and unjust policies, and all their work for peace, justice, and equity.  

The truth is friends, stewardship is so much greater than you or me pledging our tithes for next year.  We give because God first gave to us.  We give because together we can do so much more.  Together we can serve as a beacon of light and hope into our community, so much so that God willing, no one may go unnoticed. And the good news is that it’s not about how much or how little we each can give.  It’s not even about money. 

It’s about noticing that all we have is God’s. Ourselves, our time, our possessions.  Yes, even our money.  It is God’s.  And our ability to give is God’s gift to us.  God notices us. God notices you.  God notices each and every uniquely and beautifully created person.  And God desires us to live abundantly, sharing in God’s good, good creation.   

And as long as we remember that God is our original steward, that God is the provider of abundance, then there will always be more than enough to share.  Amen.

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Nov. 11, 2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Jacksonville, FL

Monday, October 29, 2018

Freedom - Sermon on John 8:31-36 - Reformation Sunday 2018

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

John 8:31-36
31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."33 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?"34 Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever.36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

So what is so special about this day?  Why is today a festival Sunday? Anybody know?  That’s right, it’s my one year anniversary at St. Mark’s!  That’s what you were all thinking right? One year ago today marked my first Sunday in this pulpit as your newly called pastor.  And while it may be worth noting or even celebrating my anniversary, today’s festival actually remembers and honors the 501st year of the protestant reformation. 

500 and One years ago, a good German monk posted 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Luther’s theses kicked up the dust of complacent theology, and sparked a reformation of the church with an outcome that he never imagined, nor intended.  

His 95 Theses were prompts for debate, meant to encourage theological discourse for the benefit of the whole Christian church.  And even more so, his theses were posted to challenge the Pope and the theology of the Catholic church in his day. 

He strongly believed in a more robust, freeing, and grace-filled interpretation of God revealed in scripture.   He was passionate about the Word of God and making it accessible to all people. He envisioned a Christian faith that sought input and perspective from every member of the body, and worked tirelessly to encourage and empower those not privileged by a seat of religious power to explore, discuss, interpret, debate, and celebrate God’s salvific grace.  

And to be fair and honest, while there is much to honor about Luther’s contribution to church history, we should also acknowledge that he was by no means perfect.
It was my first week here a year ago….it was the 500th anniversary of the reformation.  And I noticed, after walking the hall 100 times, that the there was a hallway dedicated to Luther.  Luther paintings and prints. 95 theses, and images of the reformation. There were books in the cabinet.  

And I remember commenting to someone, “So, what will we display next?”  They looked at me puzzled. “What do you mean?” I said, well it’s the 500th anniversary, and this hall is full of Luther-things, so I only assume it’s decorated for the occasion and I was just wondering what we’ll put up after the reformation.”  I remember them laughing at me then saying...No, this is Luther Hall and these pictures have been here for at least 20 years.”      

Even two weeks ago, former Pastor Bill Trexler walked into the hallway and said “Oh, good, Luther is still hanging here in the hallway!”  I have learned not to make assumptions. 

But the question I ask today is why?  Why celebrate the protest reformation?  Why Luther hall? Why Lutheranism? 

In one of Luther’s many works, he wrote: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans, but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3, would not tolerate Christians calling themselves Pauls or Peters, but only Christians. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?”

It seems to me that Luther, and the whole company of protestant reformers had absolutely no intention of being honored or venerated for their work. I suspect Luther, lying in his grave underneath All Saints’ church in Wittenberg would be rolling knowing that there is an entire denomination of Christians who identify as Lutherans.  Especially if he knew how fractured Lutheranism itself has become.  And of course, this is to say nothing of having his own hallway at church in Jacksonville, FL 

So why this reformation Sunday?  Why recognize and honor the reformers, whose only intentions was to elevate debate, challenge religious authority, and point to the freedom of God’s grace in Jesus Christ?  

Perhaps the biggest witness this day, is not the act of the reformers, fracturing a church through theological debate, but rather their passion, dedication, and commitment to the re-forming of Christ’s church.  Above all else, we ought to honor the reformation and its many reformers for stirring up complacent theology and equipping the Christian body for theological freedom by pointing to Christ.  For teaching us that Christ’s church was first formed by God, and as long as we belong to God, the body of Christ will always be forming and reforming in God’s grace.

And the best way for us to honor the reformers this day is not to lift them up or elevate their contributions, but rather honor their footprints, hear their message of reform, and trace their finger as they point to Christ.  Christ crucified. And thankfully, in the greatest transformation the Christian church has ever known, Christ conquering death and rising to new life.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is in the Temple Mount and he’s in an on-going conversation with the Scribes, Pharisees.   Through this conversation he begins to win favor among some of the Jews who were listening. Finally he looks to them and says, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

He goes on to say, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”   Well, now wait a minute. It seems only a week ago that I stood here and read from the 10th chapter of Mark, where Jesus tells the disciples if any wish to be the greatest or to be first, then you must be a servant to all.  In fact, Jesus says, you ought to be a slave to all. 

A week ago I preached on Jesus calling us to be servants and slaves to one another..  Yet today Jesus reminds us that we are free and free indeed. So which is it? As Christians, are we free or are we slaves?  

Well, on this reformation Sunday, as we honor our heritage and tradition as Lutherans, it seems that perhaps the best Lutheran answer is Yes.  It’s both And. Yes we are free. Yes we are slaves. After all, Lutherans love paradox.
In fact, this is one of Luther’s biggest contributions to the Christian faith. Luther passionately believed and defended relentlessly that it is Christ alone who makes us free.  Christ alone.

By the grace of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are free from the power of sin, death, and the devil.  We are freed by God. Freedom from the elements of the world that work to disrupt our relationship with God. 

Freed from the lure of a sinful world that thrives on division and destruction, wealth and power.  Freed from corruption of greed. Freed from self-centeredness, standards, judgment, and personal ambition.  We are made free to live life in the God’s creation as God intended.

Freed to live for the sake of the other.  Indebted to no one. Beholden to nothing. God and God alone freely bestows upon us by grace a faith that is rooted in love and service.  And it is through the freedom of God’s grace that we live to serve one another; just as Christ lived to serve.

Freedom from and Freedom for!  To be a Christian is to be totally free from all things and yet to be bound in service to all people.  This is how God formed creation out of nothing to live.  And thank God, that in spite of our faults, shortcomings, or wavering, God continues to form and reform us.  Always making us new. 

One need not look too far now-a-days to see a world in desperate need of transformation.  To see and hear a world that is yearning, groaning even to be re-formed. Groaning as divisions between siblings in Christ deepen and hatred swells.  Crying out as pipe bombs and mass shootings have become a typical news cycle.  Yearning as society dismisses, dismantles, or displaces an entire race, gender, ethnicity, or culture.  Groaning as we live in fear of the other, attacking and accusing rather than listening.   Crying as empathy and compassion are trampled upon by power, fear, and indifference. Yearning as our siblings in Christ risk persecution and judgment in order to just be themselves. As they so desperately long to be seen, heard, recognized, and honored as people of God. One need not look too far now-a-days to see a world in desperate need of transformation.

Luther once said, “The church needs a reformation, which is not the work of humankind…but it is the work of the whole world, indeed it is the work of God alone.”

I think it does us well this day, as we honor the life and work of the protestant reformers, to remember that God is always stirring up something new.  

Since the dawn of creation God has always been about the work of forming and reforming.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God continues God’s promise of reforming and transforming.  Again and again. making all things whole. Making all things new. 

And, friends, hear me when I say this, in the waters, God transforms us.  Frees us from sin death and the devil, and frees us for a life in God’s love and grace. God names us and claims us, seals us with the Spirit and marks us with the cross of Christ, freeing us to serve God and serve one another.  

Freedom to tear down the walls the divide.  Cross the borders, barriers, and aisles.  Reform division into unity and equity.

Freedom to raise up the lowly.  Give privilege and honor to the oppressed and voiceless.  Freedom to work for justice and equality.  Re-form oppressive systems of power..

Freedom to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the other.  Advocate for the downtrodden, dismissed, and displaced.  Stand up to hatred, violence, and abuse.  

Freedom to challenge human-made standards and expectations. Freedom to challenge powerful systems and proclaim peace. 

Freedom to respect our neighbor, honor our unique gifts, differences, and traditions.  Freedom to worship regardless of race, sex, color, gender, ethnicity, or belief.  Freedom to grieve and mourn. Freedom to see and be seen.  To be heard.  To be know and honored as a child of God.

Freedom to NOT live in fear.   Freedom to confess our sins in the promise of forgiveness.  Freedom to love, love, and if God help and guide us to love some more.  

Freedom to admit defeat, share success, and work together for the sake of the world.  Freedom in Christ to always be made new.

Friends, the freedom God gives us through Christ isn’t meant to be stagnant, complacent, or content.  It is a freedom from but it is also a freedom for. Freedom that should burn within us a fire for justice, peace, and love.  Freedom that has the power to heal the world, offer hope, and restore faith. 

By the grace of God, may we, the church, and the world always be forming, re-forming, and transforming until such a time that all will not only be made new, but all will be made one.  

One in Christ, by God, through the Holy Spirit.   Amen. 

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached Oct. 28, 2018 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Jacksonville, FL