The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement

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Time after Epiphany 2017

Transfiguration A 2017: The God Who Changes

This sermon was preached on February 26, 2017, the Epiphany of Our Lord. The readings were: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9.


In the name of Jesus, amen.


Up the mountain they go. Why is it significant that Jesus takes them up a mountain? Well, mountains have been important so far. Jesus is taken by Satan to the top of a high mountain and offered rule of the world for worship of the devil (4:8). Jesus goes up the mountain to deliver the sermon on the mount (5:1). After feeding the five thousand, Jesus goes up the mountain by himself to pray (14:23). Then, before feeding the four thousand, Jesus goes up the mountain to sit and heal the sick and impaired (15:29). The mountain is the place of revelation; the mountain is the place of teaching; the mountain is the place of communion; the mountain is the place of change. The mountain is where God changes, where God brings people into the holy place and changes them with the promise that the changing is not over. The promise is that this form, this present, this current reality, is not the end of our journey nor the end of our changing. God changes us from sinner to saint, from dust to living branch, from death to life, from complacency to hope, from despair to faith, from darkness to light.


Moses and Elijah, the great figures of the people of Israel, the pinnacle of the Law and Prophets, appear with Jesus, our God, who is changed into a figure with blindingly white robes, with a face shining like the sun. This light is brighter even than the light from Moses’ face after God’s changing of him on the mountain. In fact, the light is so bright that the cloud of God’s presence descends on the mountain, and the voice from the cloud speaks here as in Exodus. But the voice here does not point to itself, but to this shining one who is revealed to be the light that shines in the bright cloud: “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” So far, so good; this is an echo of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. So we have a confirmation of that promise, and a confirmation of the prophet Malachi who said that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord. The mountain so far is the revelation that in this one, in this Jesus, God intends to fulfill all of God’s promise to change death into life and darkness into light. But what come next is yet another change; “Listen to him!”


“Listen to him!” Let us hear, then, what Jesus says when the revelation, the vision, the cloud, the voice have gone; Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” So get up, people of God! The Lord is not served by your falling on your faces and trembling. Get up, for our God is a God who changes, who moves, who speaks, who commands, who reveals, who teaches, who promises. Get up, people of God! Our God who changes intends to change you, to change all of us, to transfigure us into a new thing in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lives and reigns forever. Get up, people of God! The command will not fade and the changing will not end until that day when we shine with the reflected light of Jesus Christ and feast at the great wedding celebration, when God’s changing of humanity is complete and in the face of our neighbor we see in truth only our Lord and Savior Jesus, who lives and reigns in us.


Do not be afraid, people of God! Do not fear the changes that must take place, for the former things must pass away. Do not fear the fall of nations, the wars and rumors of wars. Do not fear the changing of your lives, of your households, of your prospects, of your congregation, of yourselves. Do not fear the changes that God brings, but get up, people of God, and go down the mountain with Jesus! Down the mountain to the plains where healing and changing and commanding continue. Down the mountain to the plains where Christ is despised and rejected. Down the mountain to the plains where Jesus is betrayed and denied. Then, up. Up another mountain, up to the Skull-Place, up to Golgotha where Christ dies and so reveals his glory. This is the change, not the Jesus who blinds us so that we cannot see but the Jesus whose appearance we reject, the broken savior from whom we turn our gaze. This crucified one promises that this, too, is a change. This, too, is God’s saving action, God’s revelation, God’s teaching. Get up, and do not be afraid, people of God! Death comes for us all, but our death is in Jesus Christ so that where he is, we may be also; so that as he is, we too shall be; so that as he was changed, we too might be changed.


Get up, do not be afraid, people of God! This is not the final form of Jesus Christ, on either mountain, for on the day of the Lord we will see Christ face to face in unmatched glory. Get up, do not be afraid, people of God! This is not the final form of the Church of God, yesterday or today or tomorrow, for on the day of the Lord we will gather in joy and gladness around the feast with no end, around the tree of life, around the throne of God, and then our changing will be completed along with our joy! Get up, do not be afraid, people of God! This is not my final form, and it is not yours either. We shall not sleep or tremble, but we will go with joy down this mountain, through the plain, and up the next peak, finding there a revelation, a teaching, a change, but always finding our Lord Jesus Christ who calls us in love to join him in life. Get up, do not be afraid, people of God! This is not our final form! The change in us which we and the world so despise is held in the hands of our God, whose own hands are marked by the nails of the cross, and yet Jesus reigns in glory not despite those wounds but because of them! Get up, do not be afraid, people of God, for who you are is not the end of you but the beginning of you; for what you are is not all you shall be; for what you suffer is not the absence of God but the presence of a God who changes, who works through all things, who is making all things new! Get up, do not be afraid, people of God, for Jesus is Lord!


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


7th Sunday after Epiphany A 2017 Perfection – Resistance and Reconciliation

This sermon was preached on February 19, 2017, the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany. The readings were: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48. 


In the name of Jesus, amen.


Today the text from Matthew demands full attention. I commend to you the commandments of Leviticus, noting an emphasis on economic justice, and the community injunction against pride and faction in 1 Corinthians. Both are important articulations of the basic point which Jesus makes in the middle of the sermon on the mount today, and I want to focus on that, and specifically on loving the enemy as perfection. This is important, because loving our enemy is in many ways not only imperfect, but broken. Something is deeply weird with what Jesus says here about being perfect, and I want to address that by reminding us that this God who sends sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and evil, on the just and unjust, is also the God who says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are the mourning, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Our God is not god of the perfect, but the God of the broken who seeks to make the broken whole.


This is a God who took on flesh and lived under oppression. Jesus saw his people beaten and abused and killed, and saw them learning how to sue and beat and kill each other for their own advantage. He saw the farmers and fishers he grew up with become hard and sharp until they went into the hills to become Zealots, assassins who would take the lives of Romans and any Jews who cooperated with them. He also saw their brothers and sisters, cowed by the crosses lining the roads and the corpses on them, wilt into shadows who remained silent and nearly invisible as evil terrorized their neighbors. In Jesus, God saw how it is that we tend to respond to our enemy: fight or flight. Neither worked.


Fighting, playing hardball, killing rather than being killed, vengeance; whatever you call it, using evil to resist evil and violence to stop violence simply does not work in the long term. The conflict perpetuates and hardens into blood-feuds, into wars, into walls that divide human beings from each other. In the time of Jesus, it was obvious to many that there would be no war which saved the poor; war was and remains the domain of the rich, the powerful, and the abusive. There is no future in fighting. In theological terms, this is merely Law, merely judgment, merely the killing of evil. Without a word of life, it can never heal us and make us whole.


But is flight, retreat, passivity, acceptance of abuse, any better? Is this not the mere direction of violence toward the self? Avoidance of conflict, pretending that the unacceptable is acceptable, seeking peace even if it comes with the destruction of values and communities and lives, this is merely the abandonment of the harmed self and the harmed neighbor. This is antinomianism, lawlessness, Gospel without Law, a word of life which brings good into being but has no word of death for evil and sin. To promote this is to fetishize the cross of Jesus and the suffering of our Christian community into masochism. This is enabling abuse, this is bystander behavior, and it is not what Jesus is talking about here.


What is the vision of perfection, what is the way of the cross, and what is the third way that is neither flight from conflict with evil nor participation in evil? How are the mourners to be comforted, how are those who hunger and thirst for justice to be filled, how are the meek to inherit the earth? The answer to this question is the kingdom of heaven, the full participation of and presence of God in our lives through Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ and his resurrection cannot be severed from this commandment to be perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect. But the cross reveals that fighting and fleeing are both tools that serve evil and perpetuate suffering and victimization. The cross reveals that resistance to evil does not have to take the form of evil. The cross reveals that Jesus was not killed for us passively, but instead died for us actively. Christ’s cross reveals that God will not fight and kill us for our sins, but will instead pursue relationship with us to the grave, and Christ’s resurrection promises that God has made this cross the way of life everlasting.


Practically, this means that for Christians we intentionally avoid the fight or flight response that is hardwired into our lives and society. We do not sever community and retreat to safe spaces to be forever away from our brothers and sisters, for we know that in the resurrection every relationship we have on earth will be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured. We neither allow harm to our neighbors and ourselves, nor do we respond to harm with harm. Instead, knowing we must live together, we practice a discipline called reconciliation, which might also be called “healing relationship.”


Reconciliation is neither fight nor flight, because it does not choose between the word of judgment and death and the word of forgiveness and life. Reconciliation does not discard the relationship, nor does it hide from the conflict and bad behavior which harms both self and neighbor. Instead, reconciliation relies upon proclaiming Law and Gospel, the truth of the human condition and the truth of the healing and wholeness God calls us into. Reconciliation is not quick, it is not easy, it is not common, and it cannot be forced. Reconciliation begins with generous invitation into relationship that makes the evil which has been done obvious: turn the other cheek and challenge the one who hits you to meet you in the eye and recognize you as an equal; give more than is required of you so that the one who abuses you economically may see that they have stripped you naked by their greed; go two miles instead of one, forcing the occupying soldier to violate their own laws and perhaps forcing them to see you as a human being who will not accept a relationship of dictated terms and one-way streets.


Reconciliation begins with confrontation, with truth-telling, with invitation into a critical conversation. It is the work of healing, just like the medical arts, requiring some things to be cut away so that the broken may be mended and the wounds made whole again. Reconciliation is when you refuse to be abused and still insist on seeing that God is in the other, the hurting hurter and in the wounded healer. Reconciliation is possible because we are all captive to our own sin, our own guilt and flaws and errors, and God has chosen to equally save we who are equally guilty. Reconciliation is possible because of the way of the cross, because Jesus bore wounds rather than sever our relationship to God, and yet this is the same Jesus who watched the rich man walk away, who expelled the moneylenders from the temple, who called Peter himself Satan. Jesus, the famous truth-teller, the famous prophet and partier, confused and confounded his disciples and his enemies by refusing to run away and refusing to fight.


Jesus gives us this same way of the cross, the call to come and die to ourselves so that we might mend and be mended, so that we might be made whole and complete and, in that sense, be perfect. Jesus binds us into a community of redeemed sinners and sinning saints who are bound into one body that is wounded and yet being made whole, a severed community that is reconciling in Christ, a hospital for we who have harmed others and harmed ourselves where we can be healed by the truth that we are our own enemies and the enemies of God, who shows us the new way of reconciliation by being the first among us to reconcile to the enemy in Jesus Christ. God welcomes in the broken to be healed and made whole, complete, perfect, because our God is not God of the perfect, but the God who makes the broken whole.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


5th Sunday after Epiphany Sermon: Public Light

This sermon was preached on February 5, 2017, the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The readings were: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:12-20.


In the name of Jesus, amen.


Hiding a light is not a good idea. The whole point of a light is to be seen, in fact to help others to see. A lamp is lit to give light to a whole house, and lighting a lamp means lighting a fire. So, hiding a light isn't just counterproductive, it is also dangerous. Hiding the light doesn't just fail to hide it, and fail to use the light for its purpose, but also burns the house down in the bargain. So, when someone lights a lamp, that lamp is public. Let it shine!


Jesus uses this metaphor to explain who we are. We have been lit by God; there is a fire burning on the wick of our lives. We are the light of the world, and that light is public, given for the sake of the world. We are set on fire - in many ways! Think of this fire as what you are passionate about - your family relationships, your hobbies, your profession, your education - a fire that burns in you that is not only public but that you're so consumed by that you don't often think about who might see it. The flame burns, no matter who is in the room, no matter the temperature of the room, no matter the time of day. God has taken our lives and our gifts and lit them on fire with the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we are the light of the world, and that light is public! Let it shine!


The light of the kingdom of heaven is in our lives, because Jesus is in our lives. Jesus shines in us, to be the light that we share with the world, that we share in public. Jesus also shines in others, so that we can see him and meet him, so that we can be warmed by his presence and his love. This is because this light, this flame, this Spirit, is the good news. God doesn't need your good works, but your neighbor does, and God is already with your neighbor for the meeting! God sent Jesus to light you on fire, to make you a light that shines in public, because it is out there, in public, that God wants to be found by those who cannot see! So if you want someone to see something, you give them light - light that we have because of Jesus, light that says this world is not always and does not always have to be cold and indifferent. The light we have shows that another world is possible, that the fire of our passions and gifts given by God is not a vulnerable flame but a brilliant light, the light of a city on top of a mountain with all the lights on, a light brighter than New York City's on a Saturday night. Let it shine!

We are full of light, full of hope, full of fire and passion, so that we can share with others! We are consumed with shining these little lights of ours because we are too busy burning and loving to be afraid! We are occupied with shining light into the dark places because we know that keeping our light and our flame to ourselves is not only foolish, it is dangerous, and safety will be found not in private pretending to ourselves but in public witness to the good news that God is here, loving us, all around showering us with everything we need. Let it shine!


Our faith is public, because the light that shines in us comes from Jesus, fulfilling the law and the prophets: loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, breaking burdens, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into our homes, clothing the naked, honoring our loved ones. In us, Jesus will fulfill the fast that Isaiah calls for: justice and welcome and generosity and mercy for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the refugee! Our righteousness will be greater than the scribes and Pharisees because it is not our righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ! That is the promise we have, that our public ministry is a light to the world, not to save us but to save and change the lives of the vulnerable around us. Then will be fulfilled the command and promise of baptism to and for us, even as a lit candle is handed to us: let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


4th Sunday after Epiphany: Refugee Just Like Me

This sermon was preached on January 29, 2017, the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. The readings were: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.

In the name of Jesus, amen.


He was born in Palestine. His parents were poor peasants, who radicalized him into their faith from an early age. He was carried in his mother’s arms as his family fled political persecution. He grew up seeing his people hated, persecuted, and executed by the soldiers of a foreign empire who gave him no rights, no citizenship, no protection. His language was not the language of the soldiers who built roads through his country, and watching closely to ensure “law and order” and “peace in our time”. He was, grudgingly, allowed to exist in the backwaters of the world, until he began to teach.


He taught that the powers which killed the weak and robbed the poor were evil, forces which defy God. He taught that there was no victory in using the tactics of the devil to oppose evil. He taught that those who sought their own safety would lose their lives; that the only way to save ourselves was to give ourselves away for the other. He taught that the God of his life and of his people was one whose kingdom was eternal, but it was not a kingdom like the empire but more like a household where all are known and fed and loved and welcome. He healed, he forgave, he freed the people who had no one to help them, because it’s what God does. When he saw the crowds coming, he decided to teach. And the first public speech of Yeshua opens with words to the crowded, poor, sick, powerless people gathered around him – that the poor, the humble, the mourners, the refugees, the powerless, the persecuted, the despised, the lowly, the rejected, are blessed. They are blessed because they are the ones whom God chooses to save, whom God loves and cares for, and for whom God promises not only comfort but justice. These, the refugees and immigrants and minorities, are equipped to be disciples of Jesus Christ, because they are in the weak situation, and to follow Jesus is precisely to live in the weak situation and among those who are powerless.


The ones Jesus calls are the weak, the powerless, those born in poverty. Not the well-educated, not the strong, not the upper-class, not the elite. The followers of Jesus have no security. The followers of Jesus have no power. The followers of Jesus are occupied with humble lives, with repentance, with mercy, with peacemaking, with seeking justice for the oppressed and poor, because that is who the followers of Jesus live with and that is who they know. The followers of Jesus are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers, who are starving for justice and suffer for the sake of justice.


And so when we are the disciples of Jesus, when we suffer with the weak, when we are in the weak situation, and when all kinds of evil is said about us because we are not silent but continue to plead for and seek justice for the poor and meek because they are us, that is when human power is broken by the weakness of God, human wisdom shamed by the foolishness of God, and when the cross is the mark not of death but of our lives together. When we look into the eyes of Jesus and realize that here is a refugee, just like me, and recognize that to exclude the weak and the refugee and the humble and the hurting is not only to exclude Jesus but to exclude us, his disciples, then we can recognize what it is to sing the song of the resurrection. Because God sides with the weak, goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through God who loves us in Jesus Christ, the refugee. +


Sermon 3rd Sunday after Epiphany A: The Gospel is Bigger

This sermon was preached on January 22, 2017, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The readings were: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.


In the name of Jesus, amen.


The Gospel is Bigger, brothers and sisters. It’s bigger than our concerns, our worries, our fears, our protests. It’s bigger than the inauguration crowd, bigger than the women’s march, bigger than Atonement, bigger than Lutherans, bigger than Christianity, bigger than the whole world. It’s so huge, so monumental, that it dwarfs everything else by comparison.


Dropping your nets and leaving behind all that you are and have ever known


- dawning light in our dark lives, showing us what is and is not, allowing us to move


- same mind and purpose, because the things that divide us are petty and small compared to the light which shines in all of our darkness and unites us in this place


But if the gospel is so big, why can’t others tell how big it is? Why do they talk about how small and broken and vulnerable and even irrelevant Christianity is? When we look at the light of the gospel, at best, it’s a small candle in a big black space. How can it be bigger than our darkness?

Because a small candle can light a whole room. The gospel isn’t bigger because it is everything, but because everything is visible, is revealed, is put into perspective by it. The good news of Jesus is bigger than us because it frees us from ourselves, our worries and fears, our schemes and failures, and shows us how small we are, how small our chains and oppressions are, compared to the incredible hugeness of God’s loving kindness.


We have limits; God has no limit. We are cold in love; God is the fires of love which burn hotter than the big bang. We are clumps of stardust; God is the one who knows every hair on our heads and dotes on us as a generous parent, larger than our imagination and stronger than our dreams. God’s good news is that we are children of God, given a light bigger than ourselves, so that we can carry it out into our tiny world and light it up.


Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


The Baptism of Our Lord: All In
This sermon was preached on January 8, 2017, the Baptism of Our Lord. The readings were: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

What if God preached the sermon? We know that God speaks. God speaks throughout Scripture, not only to Jesus, but to prophets and saints before and after the events reported in the gospels. God speaks to Moses on the mountain, to Isaiah and Ezekiel, to Abraham and Sarah. God speaks to Peter and Paul, to John of Patmos. God speaks to the saints throughout our story as Church, and we believe that God speaks in the sermon, in the water of Baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. And we might expect the ground to shake, the trees to shatter, the kingdoms to scatter and the skies to fall when God speaks. We might expect the kind of power we hear in Psalm 29. And yet, we find a different power in the voice of God, a power that does not break a reed or even put out a candle. The voice of God does not appear in glory and terror for us; God speaks differently. 

When God speaks God speaks to all. God shows no partiality. God has no interest in playing favorites in playing us against each other or in favoring some over others. In fact, God speaks the whole world into being, calls us all to faith, points out Jesus Christ for all to see and hear and follow, and pours God’s self down in dove and voice and body for the life of the whole world. God does preach, not only for the length of the sermon, but for the length of all history. God never shuts up, because God will not give up! God speaks, and will not stop, because God is completely committed to bringing us from death to life. God is all in! 

That is what God’s voice says: “I’m all in!” That is the content of everything God says. God has just finished the work of creation when the walks with Adam and Eve begin in the garden; God is asking where Adam is by Genesis chapter 3. Why? Because God is wholly committed to Adam and Eve, to the creation God made and loves dearly. God hears the blood of Abel cry from the ground, and is right there to ask Cain what he’s done. God hears and sees the inhumanity that destroys creation, and is fully committed to wiping it out in the flood so that Noah and his family and the animals he cares for can live in a good world, a world of life instead of death. God is all in with Abraham and Sarah and their children, and their children’s children, down to Egypt with Joseph and his brothers and back out with Moses and Miriam; God is all in through the judges and the prophets and the Kings – Saul, David, Solomon – and even when the nation splits, when the kings go astray, when the city falls, when the Temple burns and the people are carted off to Babylon, God is all in with Daniel in the lion’s den, and Shadrach, Mesach, and Abed-nego in the fiery furnace. And it’s at that time that God preached in the words of Isaiah: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them!” 

God’s voice is always reminding us of God’s endless commitment, God’s endless resolve, God’s bottomless love for us. God is always preaching, again and again, about how our darkness is never deeper than God’s light, our selfishness never harder than God’s embrace, our pain never stronger than God’s healing care. God’s always ahead of our troubles and trials, sending promises ahead of our needs so that we might hear and one day even trust that God is all in, completely committed, absolute and resolute in the project of saving us, of bringing light to our darkness, freeing us from our prisons, restoring sight to us wherever we are blind, and taking us by the hand as we move through the dark toward the light. No matter how wrong, or despicable, or violent, or evil we are, God does not refuse us; God’s light shines for us, for all of us, in Jesus. Jesus, the Word of God, the message God has been proclaiming since the beginning, in flesh and blood, here and now a light to say that God will accept all the weakest and darkest and evilest things about us. God will crush our evil and shape us again into who we are called to be. God will heal our wounds so that we may run and play and dance and work again. God will feed us with Jesus Christ to strengthen us so that our weakness turns into yet another way for God to preach. 

So that’s the point of Jesus’ Baptism. It’s a teaching moment. Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, but he does it for us, just as God is always doing what God doesn’t have to do for our sake. Everything that is true of God is present in this story, in this moment, in this revealing, in this sermon about who God is. God is present in a body, dunked in a muddy river in the wilderness, to say that God is all in for us. God rips the sky open and pours out in a dove, God’s Spirit hovering over the water, to say that God is all in for us. God speaks in the Father’s voice from heaven, saying that this is totally happening – God is all in for us. God gives us everything that God is, that God has, that God hopes. God holds nothing back from us, but loves us enough to jump completely into our world, into our lives, into our pain and loss and fear. God is all in for us, and so the only way for us to lose is for us to lose with God.  
And that is how Christ’s baptism affects ours. God is all in for us; and we are all in for God. So we pray, we worship, we preach, we work, we give, and in all that we do we are all in for Jesus Christ, for this project which has always been God’s only mission: to save the world, one life, one service project, one budget meeting, one food bag, one dollar, one moment, one smile at a time. A billion billion water molecules that make a flood; a billion billion candle-flames that light the whole world; a billion billion moments of grace and mercy making the Body of Christ the life of the world. God, embodied, for us, among us, with us; God, poured out for us, among us, with us; God, preaching for us, among us, with us. God, all in, wholly committed to this life for us, with us, among us. Emmanuel in the manger, in the water, in the bread and wine, in the face of the neighbor and stranger. God, for you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.