Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Pastoral Letter from Pastor McCarty



Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church
2807 N. Augusta St.
Staunton, VA  24401


Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
2 Corinthians 13:11

Dear Friends,

I lament and I grieve for our country as we struggle with the sin of racism. As we are distracted by gripping images of chaos, I will not forget the instigating tragedy in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. 

As I grieve, I do not want to lose sight that this moment is different. For example, the chief of police in Chattanooga, TN said: “If you wear a badge and you don’t have an issue with [the death of George Floyd]…turn it in.” George Floyd died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. Mr. Floyd was already in handcuffs. Three other police officers watched and did not intervene as Mr. Floyd died of asphyxiation. The outrage over this death is wide spread and nearly universal. Criminal charges have already been filed against all four police officers. It is not just the police chief in Chattanooga responding. On Monday, police officers from that city took a knee with community members gathered together to call for racial justice.

Other police officers and chiefs have spoken out against this criminal betrayal. They have taken knees with protestors and joined marches. Sheriff Chris Swanson joined a protest march in Flint Michigan. He said, “I took my helmet off. They [other officers] put their batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest.” A man who marched alongside Sheriff Swanson acknowledged the moment and said, “We don’t need this to be a one-day occasion We need this to be something every day.” On Monday, Flint announced a Black Lives Matter advisory board for their Police Department. The people of Flint have gathered peacefully for three consecutive nights for racial justice.

I lift up the response of Police Chief Joseph Wysocki from Camden, NJ. While Philadelphia struggled with their response and with violence. Camden, just across the Delaware River, had two days of peaceful gatherings. Residents credit relationships that police have made within the community over the last seven years. When one mother organized a march to the police department, police officers and Chief Wysocki joined her.

I also lift up the photograph that comes from Louisville, KY where a group of African American men placed themselves as a circle of protection around a police officer who became separated from his squad during riots in that city.

As I lament and grieve the injustice and cost of racism, I give thanks for these moments of compassion, patience, and respect for the sanctity of life. I find hope in these moments for future relationships that will help heal communities and build the stronger relationships that will address the physical and emotional costs of racism in our nation. I may lament, but I will remain focussed on the issue of justice before us.

As I lament, I will also give voice to my hope and my confidence in God who breaks down barriers and responds to injustice in many and various healing ways. In the days ahead I will provide to the congregation connections to prayers, a message from our Bishop, and a message from the national body of the ELCA to help sustain our human spirit in full confidence of our resurrected Savior. I will continue to reflect on how the Holy Spirit dwells within the church. I will also order several copies of “Dear Church” by Lenny Duncan, an African-American preacher as well as ELCA pastor and theologian. Let me know if you would like to borrow one.

As I said on Sunday, I pray that the Holy Spirit heals us from all that ails us, including racism. I also pray that the Holy Spirit helps us bring about lasting change for our nation, our communities, and our African American neighbors. 

Blessings,


Pastor McCarty

Sunday, April 19, 2020

From Lent to Easter Joy

Robert McCarty
Sermon from Christ Lutheran Church
Staunton, VA
April 19, 2020

From Lent to Easter Joy
A sermon on 1 Peter 1:3-9

1 Peter 1:3-9
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

John 20:26-29
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


We all have favorite stories from the four gospels: I like this story about doubting Thomas. I love how Jesus stretches his blessing across all time and space: “Blessed are those who have not seen but have come to believe.” There is a blessing for us today. 
But the lesson from First Peter struck my heart as I read it. Actually, here is the verse that caused me to open eyes and take notice: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.” That describes my Easter right now and probably yours right now as well.  This verse caused me to stop, and double back, and read it again. Just like today’s gospel has the wonderful blessing that sounds like Jesus speaks directly to you and blesses your faith, this verse also strikes me as Peter reaching across time and space and speaking directly about our situation today. It is as if Peter is speaking about the transition this year between Lent and Easter, because I do not want Easter in the middle of an ongoing Lent.
We have just come out of a season of Lent, that felt like the most truest Lenten experience I have ever lived through. At times, I felt like I was with Jesus in the wilderness, or with the Israelites wandering in the desert. I thought about equating the Babylonian captivity with our stay-at-home captivity, but decided not. Yes, we are staying more at home, but very few of us reside exclusively at home. Most of us have a variety of conveniences at home such as heat, food, running water, television and internet to help us live out day to day.
Actually, I believe what set this Lent apart from other years was more widely experienced feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. First, because of the risk to our health and the health of those around us. Many people my age worry for our parents and yet can do little to protect them. Second, we cannot forget that more people now live with an economic risk that threatens the daily bread that we often take for granted. Twenty-two million people filed for unemployment in the last four weeks, that approaches somewhere around 14% of the workforce, with more filings coming. We all probably know someone who has lost their job or is struggling to keep their business running.
The season of Lent and the stories of Sunday worship in Lent gave expression to our vulnerability and helplessness. I think of the blind man, and the Samaritan woman at the well, along with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Throughout all of these encounters, the consistent response to their vulnerability (as well as our helplessness) over and over again was Jesus can help, Jesus can help, Jesus can help, Depend on Jesus, Depend on God. 
Looking from the other side of Easter still mired in the pandemic, I find the best parallel is the gains and losses of the man born blind. How he gains his sight but loses his place in the Jewish community, but then gains a new place in the following of Jesus. The man born blind, his life changes irrevocably because of what happened. And as part of his life altering experience, he places his trust in Jesus. Moving forward, he will depend on God through Jesus the Son of God. The first Peter reading really helps me to cement the difference between Lent and Easter. Throughout Lent, our helplessness and our vulnerability helped me to give words for our dependence on God. That dependence on God has not disappeared. 
Peter’s words again with the verse that follows as well: “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials,7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” For me, this explains how Easter differs from Lent this year. Peter tells you that you can rejoice that you are dependent on God and on Christ. Too often we think of dependence on others as a sign of weakness. Instead, Peter describes this dependence on Jesus who sustains our faith through the fires as a gift for which you can rejoice. 
Consider daily bread as an example. We depend on God for daily bread and right now you are more aware than ever of the people who help place your daily bread on the table, grocery store workers, those who work on production lines, those who work at the distribution centers. Our communities have defined these folks as essential(and rightfully so). They are essential for the maintenance of life and health.  For their presence we give thanks and praise. We depend on God. and God responds through those around us. At times we overlook them, but now we see these connections as essential. 
God changes the world but not always how we expect. These current trials and tests of the world will still exist even after this pandemic begins to dissipate and fades into the distance. The world will be different, but more importantly God will make you different. God will make you stronger and that strength and that difference is good for the world.

First Peter calls on us to rejoice, not because the trials and testing has passed. Peter calls on us to rejoice because Jesus victory over death and our dependence on him is worthy of our thankful hearts and our praiseful songs. Dependence on God for life is strength not weakness. When you recognize that dependence, you see more of God’s blessings that surround you.
Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Broken Vessels

Robert McCarty
Sermon from Christ Lutheran Church
Staunton, VA
March 15, 2020


Broken Vessels

Once upon a time, [in a time and a place before indoor plumbing], a young woman worked for a merchant [family] who lived on top of a hill. She worked as [their] laundress and every day she had to walk down the hill to collect water from a stream. She had two pots to carry water, which she hung upon a pole she could carry over her shoulders. With time one of her pots got a slender crack along its side. She observed the cracks on the pot and decided she could still use it.
Every day, the woman carried those pots down the hill to the stream, filled them to the brim, and  walked back up the hill, balancing the pole across her shoulders. By the time she reached the house, the [broken]  pot would be only half full while the other pot delivered a full portion of water.
The [broken] pot glanced at the other pot and saw water filled to the top, and it began to feel desolate. The full pot was proud of its accomplishment while the cracked pot felt ashamed and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it was meant to.
After a few years of what the [broken] pot perceived to be a failure, it spoke to the [laundress]. “ I apologize for my flaws. The crack on my side, has made me useless. I spill half of the water. I’m of no good!” the pot said.
The [woman] felt sorry for the old [broken] pot, and she said,”But pot, you don’t understand, You haven’t been paying attention. Look around you. As we return to the [family’s] house, I want you to look at the path we traverse.”
The next time when the lady carried the water up the hill, the pot carefully observed the path along the way. For the first time the pot stopped looking inward and instead looked out. On his side of the trail the pot noticed beautiful flowers growing in abundance. While the other side was still dry.


As the [laundress] reached the top of the hill, she asked “Did you notice the beautiful flowers on the path? They are only on your side of the path. I had always known about your cracks and I took advantage of it to water [seeds I planted along your way]. Without you being just the way you are, the path uphill would not have this beauty [and these flowers would not grace our family’s home].”
The broken pot was overjoyed. All its sadness was gone. He understood that the very thing he thought to be his flaws turned out to be a blessing for the flowers along the path….
[This version above, attributed to Anonymous, comes from alltimeshortstories.com with modifications indicated by brackets.]

The Samaritan woman of our gospel story is a broken vessel. Though, as I say this, be careful about guessing at her brokenness. Perhaps five husbands have died and she is five times a widow. Perhaps, as Moses allowed, five husbands have divorced her. The law allowed men to write a certificate of divorce, however a woman could not initiate the proceedings. So perhaps she has been dumped five times. Perhaps some combination of divorce and widowhood has plagued this woman’s life. If she was guilty of adultery, however, especially if she was guilty of serial adultery, the community would have stoned her. The law prescribed that punishment. Still, something strikes an awkward tone with this woman and her current living situation and her presence at the well. Typically women gathered together at the well. Typically a Jew and a Samaritan would not meet at the well. Typically a man and a woman would meet at a well. And typically, a Jewish man would not share any eating plate or drinking vessel with a Samaritan. We only have hints at the truth, enough to know this woman is broken, but not quite sure how.
I heard Pastor Dave Daubert speak last October. Daubert, an ELCA pastor, specializes in revitalizing congregations. He serves a congregation in the Midwest, he writes books, he gives presentations. He talks about the importance of facebook and your church website. And he shared this about the person who walks through a congregations doors the first time. The person who walks through those doors the first time does not come because they need more friends. Most people feel like they have enough friends, maybe too many friends, although maybe not enough really good friends. Daubert said people come through those doors because something hurts, something is missing, or something is broken. People do not often say, I feel great, I think I will start going to church. —  Does that part of it make sense? 
People do not start going to church because they have a good job, they have a good wife and the family is fine, to paraphrase a Billy Joel. Something is hurting, something is broken, something is missing, that is what drives new people to church. Perhaps one should also know, that people who have worshiped regularly for years can come here feeling broken or hurting. A reality that rings especially true today.
Why have church today? Because the anxiety is through the roof. And right now, we are all feeling helpless and vulnerable for the same reasons. Perhaps today, like no other Sunday, we all have an inkling of what it is like to walk through the doors of the church for the first time just hoping for a hint from God that he hears us and our feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. And if you confess that, then maybe, maybe you can catch a glimpse of the brokenness of the woman at the well. 
Jesus does not gloss over her brokeness. He does not tell her it will be alright. Instead, he offers her living water, which is a powerful force for life. I am not sure how best to describe her response.  She does not quite believe, but almost does. That is also probably typical of someone walking through the doors for the first time. How best to describe her reaction: trust, amazement, hope, some combination of the three. She goes to the people. I do not know why or how she and her community became so broken that she goes to the well alone, but now she goes from Jesus to her people and back again. “This cannot be the Messiah can it.”
I chose to use the New Living Translation Bible this morning for our reading, because the ending is nuanced slightly differently, in a way that I believe is important for the day. They tell her, “Now we believe because we have heard him ourselves, not just because of what you have told us.” The community recognizes the woman’s testimony is part of their conversion. Also, the community answers the women’s question. “He is indeed [Jesus is indeed] the savior of the world.” You could say something similar. Her testimony is part of your faith today.
Here is the great thing about Jesus, and it is true today. We talk about the woman’s brokenness, but again we are not quite sure what it is. It does not matter. Now, she is no longer defined by that brokeness. Now she is known for the trust she places in the one, Jesus, who stands before her. Now, she is known as one who received living water.
The same holds true with you and those who come here hurting or broken, vulnerable and unsure. There comes a point when you are known by the living waters of baptism that you have received, drowned and reborn. There comes a time when you are known for the one, Jesus, in whom you trust and his living water. There comes a time when we, those gathered around you can not even imagine you as broken but as blessed. 
There comes a time when you are not defined by the crack or cracks like the broken pot of our story, but you are known for the flowers along your side of the path. And Jesus is the one that helps you to see those flowers of grace and beauty. I pray for you this week. And I pray for those amongst you who long to be here, but join us in spirit. 

Amen

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Light of Justice Breaks Forth Across the Morning Dawn

February's Posted Sermon
Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA 
February 9, 2020
Pastor Robert McCarty
  • Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12] 
  • The fast God chooses
  • Psalm 112:1-9 [10] 
  • Light shines in the darkness for the upright. (Ps. 112:4) 
  • Matthew 5:13-20 
  • The teaching of Christ: salt and light
Barrow Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States, finally has some daylight. Barrow has a new name. Actually, a new old name—Utqiagvik (pronounced UUT-kee-AH-vik), which is the town’s original Native American name. A couple of weeks ago dawn broke forth in Barrow for the first time in two months. From end of November to end of January, Barrow goes through two months of night, where the dawn never breaks. The sun lies tantalizingly just below the horizon for a couple of hours each day, but morning never breaks out over the southern landscape. The stars cast light through the evening, along with the moon and the northern lights, but night and darkness prevail for two months. People will call the police just to ask for the time. Imagine what it must be like to read the opening verses of Genesis in the prevalent darkness of Barrow’s winter: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” Imagine reading the verse and stopping there in the darkness and letting the verse linger incomplete. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the waters.” Frozen waters lie north of Barrow, a coastal town that actually had to move because of rising sea levels. And “the wind” is the Hebrew Ruach, which could mean "wind" or "breath" or "spirit." “A breath from God swept over the waters.”

The sun returned to Barrow this year on January 23 at 1:10 PM. Just imagine having lived through two months of night, and for two months you have left the opening verse of Genesis incomplete with the breath of God hanging over the frozen waters. Then on January 23 on the edge of the Arctic Circle, at 1:09 PM, a minute before dawn, you finish the quote, and the sun rises. 

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the breath of God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” God creates light. “Let there be light.” God creates light and finally (finally) after two months of darkness in Barrow Alaska that sun rises and shows itself from over the horizon. I wonder how residents respond: relief, jubilation. God creates light.

Our Isaiah passage lives in the night of injustice with the darkness of poverty and nakedness and oppression that has lasted longer than two months. In this darkness God creates light by the words of Isaiah that call for justice. The ministry that Isaiah describes takes place around God who creates light.

Isaiah Chapter 58 starting at Verse 6:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then, then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
and your healing shall spring up quickly(.) (Isaiah 58: 6-8)

God creates light, and we tend to think about His created light in terms of the stars and the sun. The greater light of the sun and the lesser light of the moon to guide the night. Isaiah expands this metaphor of creation and light to breaking the bonds of injustice. Clothing the vulnerable and the naked becomes a point of light like a star in the sky. Housing the homeless, another star in the sky, every shelter is a star breaking down the darkness. Sharing your bread with the hungry becomes a point of light like a star in the sky. Not just a single solitary dot lost in the vastness of the night sky, but a thousand, hundred thousand, million points of light, shining forth justice and hope so that the darkness does not overwhelm like an unending Barrow winter’s night. God creates light in your ministry that cuts through the darkness of poverty and hunger and homelessness. Isaiah gives us this metaphor of light, justice and hope. This is God’s metaphor not mine, entrusted to the scripture to enlighten our lives.

Jesus in our gospel lesson reminds you that the light already shines in you. 

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16)

God created the light in you when God formed you in the womb. Jesus sees that light in you, and his ministry becomes a ministry of revelation. Jesus helps you to see your own light and to let it shine for others to see. 

Perhaps, you might remember President George H. W. Bush sworn into the presidency in January of 1989. His inauguration included a proclamation called “a thousand points of light.”

“I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding.”

During his four years as president, the White House acknowledged a thousand points of light in our nation—individuals and organizations that sought to use their gifts to improve the lives of the oppressed and vulnerable. Today, the foundation President Bush started continues to reveal a daily point of light in an individual volunteer who serves his or her community. Jason Farmer recently received the daily commendation for his volunteer efforts with St. Jude’s hospital. He benefitted as a toddler from a St. Jude’s childhood assistance program. For nearly fifty years, Farmer has stayed connected as a volunteer to St. Jude’s in Memphis Tennessee. Most recently, in the last couple of years, he began an event during African-American history month to celebrate the support of St. Jude’s African-American volunteers.

Meghan Chen, another recent Point of Light recipient, started an urban garden initiative in her home city. She explored the challenge of cities becoming food deserts, where people lack access to fresh food. After studying the problem, she started a container gardening program where she goes to schools and teaches students how to grow vegetables in containers that can sit out on porches or in sparse backyards that lack fresh soil. 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn.
[[then your light shall break forth like the dawn in Barrow Alaska]]
and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58: 8, with added metaphor)

The Virginia Synod has a “Do Justice” newsletter and blog that lifts up similar points of light in our commonwealth.  They recently lifted up a day of advocacy, January 22, where faith leaders across denominations and faith traditions all gathered in Richmond to hear about social justice concerns and meet with lawmakers to advocate justice “For All People.” 

The newsletter also provided information about FeedVA, a statewide information database about hunger and health issues. They have a map of all food pantries available in the commonwealth as well as the regional service maps for the six food banks that support hunger initiatives in Virginia. 

The season after Epiphany celebrates God who creates light and reveals light in this time of year where the days grow longer and night diminishes. Days finally feel like they are stretching out longer—more sunlight and less darkness. At the same time, in the spirit of Isaiah, we strive for more justice and less darkness. This morning’s scripture uses the visual of light breaking forth from the darkness as a visual description for justice breaking into the world and that light shines in each of you. Jesus sees you and blesses you as a light of hope and a light of ministry. Praise God. 

Amen

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Baptism of Jesus

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
The Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord
January 12, 2020
Pastor Robert McCarty

John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you,
and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." 
Matthew 3: 14-15

As pastor, I get to give out generously the gifts of God. The church understands baptism as giving the recipient everything they need for salvation. Baptism conveys these gifts where God: 

  • administers the blessings of grace and mercy, 
  • pours out the activity of the Holy Spirit, 
  • brings the recipient into a community of faith, 
  • instills into them the Holy Word of God, the scripture, 
  • opens up the table of the bread and cup of the holy meal. 
A person’s baptism, whether a child or an adult, provides this generous moment of God’s love with gifts to unwrap and rediscover over ones lifetime. 

Baptism gives another gift, besides what I mentioned above, and this gift stands out in Matthew’s gospel. I will get to that in a few minutes. But first, Matthew’s gospel has this strange little twist that we need to talk about, because it sort of goes against a spirit of generosity. Perhaps John the Baptist’s generosity stays intact, but some congregations sometimes (sometimes) twist out this awkwardness in their ministry.

Baptism Makes All Better

John the Baptist stands at the River Jordan living out his ministry. Here comes Jesus, and John struggles with what to do when someone better comes to the waters. John gets use to baptizing soldiers and tax collectors and ordinary people. Here comes Jesus, and that causes John to stutter. As if John thinks baptism does not work when someone better comes to these waters. Not many people greater, better, than John the Baptist at the time, but Jesus definitely matches that criteria. John says, “I should get baptized by you.”

John the Baptist falls into a trap and thinks that status matters. The status between the one baptizing and the one receiving baptism does not matter, but John all of the sudden thinks it does. Sometimes the church falls into a similar trap, where we apply language of status to baptism. Some churches and some people start believing that they have better standing than the one who does not have baptism. It is a failing in the humility of the church if we think ourselves better than the unbaptized.

I have a story about Sean Connery that might give us some perspective. For those who do not follow movies, Sean Connery, as an actor, played the classic Bond—James Bond, 007—for several movies. He also won an Oscar for the movie The Untouchables along with several other awards over the course of his career: tall, handsome, dashing, actor. He continued to be tall handsome and dashing even as an older actor. An interviewer once asked him, “why, at age sixty-two, he continued to act?” He gave this reply: “Because I get the opportunity to be somebody better and more interesting than I am.” [Larsen, “750 Engaging Illustrations,” Baker Books: 2007, p 9.]

The church can learn something from this—from Sean Connery’s answer. Why does the church baptize? We baptize because God commands us to baptize the faithful. (Baptism is a part of us like acting is a part of Sean Connery.) Also—and this is the learning—the church is better because of the people we baptize along with those who we welcome through the affirmation of baptism. The people we welcome through baptism strengthen our faith. Just as important, we truly believe that baptism also makes the recipients better through the gifts of God: administration of grace and mercy, the activity of the Holy Spirit, the gathering of a community of faith, as well as the Holy Word of God and the Holy Meal.

I have several friends—family members as well—who do good every day without really believing in Christ. Some who are skeptical about Jesus as the Christ, Messiah, Son of God, and Savior. You probably have friends and family members like this as well. I wish they were present today to hear this passage from Matthew about Jesus coming for baptism. I am glad though, you have come to hear it.

Baptism gives us the chance to welcome ordinary people, and be better because of them. But also, we know and believe by giving them the gifts of God and everything necessary for salvation we make their lives better as well. Stephen Covey, who wrote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, would call this a “win-win” situation. Baptism is a “win-win” for the church and for the baptized. We are all better because of baptism. 

Baptism Gives Us Orientation

Now, I want to return to another gift that baptism conveys. It gets back to that awkwardness of John the Baptist when Jesus comes. The awkwardness when John seems to ask “Why does Jesus need baptism?” Jesus responds, “To fulfill all righteousness.”

You may have noticed this morning that worship began with “Thanksgiving for Baptism” rather than”A Word of Absolution.” I did that because Matthew steps away from the emphasis of baptism on forgiveness and instead emphasizes the orientation of righteousness. Both relate to John’s ministry of repentance. In Jesus’ ministry, his baptism gives us the moment where he turns towards the ministry that God the Father always intended for his life. 

Jesus journey of righteousness truly begins with his baptism. When baptized, we estimate that Jesus was about thirty years old. We only have two stories about Jesus' life before this moment: the long detailed story of his birth and one short story about a Passover when Jesus was a boy. Everything of meaning in Jesus’ holy journey of righteousness begins now. Jesus from this point orients his life towards the will of the Father.

I mention having some friends and family who I wish could hear this message, because one of the gifts of faith is that good people get lost too, and the gifts of grace help us to get our lives on track even when we get lost. 

Another story offers another example.  A news station in California wanted to do a segment on what to do when you get lost. So they found two volunteers from the community—a young man and a young woman who did not know each other. They covered their eyes and took them into the middle of a national forest. With just a few basic supplies, they set the couple off on their own, except for  a cameraman to record what they would do. They said the cameraman was just there to videotape these two as they tried to figure out what to do when lost in the wilderness. Then they would work clips from the video into the news segment.

The cameraman recorded this man and woman start to get to know each other. He recorded how they walked a bit around to get some bearings as to their surroundings. A clip showed them gathering some firewood. They used some matches they had to make a fire and settled down for the night close to one another, huddled together.

Now the cameraman was actually a wilderness survival expert and medic. The lost volunteers did not know this. Overnight, when the temperature dipped and the situation became a bit more risky, the cameraman called off the experiment. He called in the news van and the newscaster who was producing the segment. The cameraman who witnessed the couple now stood in front of the camera lens and explained to the couple, as well as the audience, the things that he saw that had happened. 

The wilderness expert/cameraman had a long list of things the couple did right: they stayed together rather than separating, they got their bearings, they stayed in one place. Staying in one place was hugely important. So many people go wandering. By staying close to where they were dropped off, it made them easy to find. Two things they did well for warmth: they made a fire for in the evening and they huddled together even though they did not really know each other. The cameraman mentioned two things they could have done. They could have made some sort of lean-too shelter above their heads with sticks and branches to capture some of their body heat and heat from the fire. Also, they could have gone searching for water. I remember how many things they did right, and yet they still got in trouble. 

Even when we do good and our lives are working out you can still get lost, and yet God can reorient you; He can redirect our lives towards the good He would have us do and the good He would have us be. Also, of course, God often calls in help, and that help often surrounds us in prayers and worship.

Wrapping up, I want to go back to this story from Sean Connery. I received this story from a preaching journal written by Craig Larson. I like how he sums up his story which relates to both of our points. He writes:

“Many people feel like Connery. Their lives aren’t all that they could be. They aren’t as good as they should be. Something is missing that even glamorous acting roles cannot fulfill. Only Christ makes a person’s life what it can be, should be and [will] be.” [Larsen, “750 Engaging Illustrations,” Baker Books: 2007, p 9.]

Baptism benefits everyone. Everyone can do good and still get lost. Baptism directs our way towards the generous grace of God. We celebrate that life today. And I get to celebrate with you the generous gifts God gives you to bring about that life. God be praised. 

Amen.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

A Beacon of Light as We Wait for Justice

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
October 6, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently…
 Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not be provoked; it leads on’ly to evil.”

Psalm 37 7-8

If there was ever a time for American Christians to call out with the apostles, “Increase our faith.” Now might just be the time. If there was ever a time for American Christians to stand troubled with Habakkuk, “Strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” Now might just be the time.

Now is the time for Christians to trust with the Psalmist, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently. Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not be provoked; it leads on’ly to evil.”

Now is the time for Christians to stand with Habakkuk at the watchpost and keep watch to see what G-d will say and what the Lord will answer concerning our complaint.

Now is the time for Christians to serve humbly, do as we ought, to wait on the Lord and refrain from anger and seek justice and peace.

If to refrain from anger you have turned off the evening news, if to refrain from anger you have stopped reading the newspaper, I cannot say I blame you. No matter which side of the aisle you are on (and by aisle I mean the political aisle) the news will only make you sad or angry and call out for justice. Justice will seem elusive because we all wait on justice that looks different and tests our patience with one another. So if you have turned off the news, I cannot say I blame you. But if you turned off the news last week, you missed the story that unveils the mystery of waiting on G-d with hope and with faith. Do not fret if you have missed the story of Brandt Jean and Amanda Guyger. I will help you catch up.

Texas police officer Amanda Guyger shot and killed Brandt Jean’s brother Botham last year. It was one of a series of incidents involving police officers shooting and killing unarmed civilians, many of the cases with racial implications. Two movements grew out of these incidents Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. Both movements seek justice. Both movements wait for justice, but they wait separately. 

The initial police investigation did not recommend charges, deeming the incident a tragic accident. Amanda Guyger's and Botham Jean's apartments were one over on top of one another, different floors in the same building. Officer Guyger walked into Mr. Jean’s apartment thinking that it was her own and thinking she was looking at an intruder. A grand jury had a different opinion and sent charges to the prosecutor's office. A year later (last week) the trial happened. I watched the case waiting for I didn’t know what. What does justice look like for these two people and their families and their supporters and their common community? The prosecutor’s office even left the decision of the charges up to the jury. What does justice look like when the prosecutor passes that responsibility along to others? The jury got to say whether it was manslaughter or murder or something else. 

We wait on justice. We decry the violence. It does not matter how you pair it: men on women, white v. black, criminals against law enforcement. By the way, this same week a Sikh officer was killed on duty in Texas. Again, it does not matter how you pair it: criminals against law enforcement, law enforcement against the innocent. It does not matter. In all cases we decry the violence. We wait for justice. With tears Amanda Guyger testified in her own defense. The jury convicted her and sentencing began. 

And as part of the sentencing procedings Botham’s brother Brandt took the stand and gave his testimony. This is my own transcription. He spoke slowly, with drawn out pauses with such deep emotion that I can only acknowledge but never recreate.

“I don’t want to say twice or for the hundredth time what you’ve or how much you’ve taken from us. I think you know that. But I just…I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all of the the bad things you may have done in the past. If you truly are story. I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you and if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you. 

I love you just like anyone else and I'm not going to say I hope you rot and die," Brandt Jean told Guyger. "I personally want the best for you. I wasn't going to say this in front of my family, or anyone; I don't even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that's exactly what Botham would want for you. And the best would be give your life to Christ. I am not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you. Again I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad to you. I don’t know if this is possible but can I give her a hug please, please.”

The video shows the full length of their hug. As he reaches out to embrace her, you can see the judge wiping tears from her eyes. Judge Kemp will also embrace Ms. Guyger before she leaves to start serving her sentence and give her the Bible off of her bench, the one she has used everyday. 

Now, after this moment a few activists warned Christians like myself to responsibly approach this powerful moment of forgiveness. I will share one set of comments from Jemar Tisby, a Christian activist and author.

Black forgiveness is costly. It requires us to absorb wrongdoing even as we continue to work for justice. Black forgiveness becomes cheapened when we take it for granted. Black forgiveness is admirable when it is freely given and not demanded or expected. And the best response to black forgiveness is to prevent the harm that makes it necessary in the first place.

I offer my closing words now. Brandt Jean’s words of mercy, forgiveness, and their embrace is not a substitute for justice. But he offers us in his Christian testimony a beacon of light, a glimmer of hope, a moment of reconciliation in a world the remains divided and longing for justice. His Christian trust offers a beacon and a hope and a moment of reconciliation as we wait upon the Lord, or as we say increase my faith. He gives a light and a hope as we serve the Lord and strive to build up the unity of the Church in the name of Christ who saves us.

I speak for myself. I stand here for the sake of the world and wait upon the Lord with a heart that longs for justice not of my own choosing, but a divine justice that holds precious all life.

Amen.