"Amazing Grace!"

    Last Sunday, January 7, I preached a sermon that has garnered several requests for the written version.  So I'm sharing it here.  Plus it includes some choice stories from my recent trip to London.  Here's thoughts on many levels about living life, and experiencing God, through the Comic Lens.  

AMAZING GRACE!

Sermon Preached by Rev. Jane Voigts

Based on Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

    As many of you know, I had the opportunity of a lifetime this Christmas and got to spend it in London with my sister and her family as we traveled there for the last two weeks of December.

    And, because I’m a pastor, there were a few pastor-ly things that I wanted and sought to do on my own, while the others were going to more museums and shopping and the like.  

 Yup!  10 minutes EARLY!

Yup!  10 minutes EARLY!

    One of my big wishes - Number One on my list, actually - was to attend a regular Sunday morning worship service at the glorious St. Paul’s Cathedral.  And, as it turned out, the one Sunday morning I could go was the Sunday morning that was also this year Christmas Eve morning!  What fabulous fortune!  I could not wait.    

    I checked the St. Paul website, and it said the regular big Sunday morning worship service was the one that began at 11:30.  This would be perfect for me, as I’m not a great early morning riser, especially after being on leave for a few years!

    That Saturday night before I checked the web site again and, yup, the Sunday morning December 21 service was at 11:30.  I got to bed at a reasonable hour, got up and out the door without a fuss and arrived at St. Paul’s EARLY, at 11:20!  That gave me time for a leisurely nose powder so I’d be right as rain to worship God in one of the world’s most beautiful and inspiring structures at 11:30.

    I walked into the spectacular sanctuary at 11:29… and guess what?  Service that day started at 11:00.  Ugh!  

    One of the big things we’re taught as new pastors is the importance of keeping your website current.  It’s THE way newcomers will seek you out and if your information is wrong, your newcomer is going to feel unwelcome when they arrive.  And that’s certainly how I felt.  Clearly the “insiders” in the congregation knew about the time change, but none of us visitors!  Shame on St. Paul’s and their sloppy communications.

    Before I could give one of the ushers a piece of my angry and disappointed mind he seated me in a row of chairs to the side of the altar where many were coming to sit.  Clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d thought worship started now.  I’d missed the sermon (major bummer) but at least I was in time for the Eucharist, which was sung by the Boys/Men’s Choir and was quite beautiful.

    After worship was over, I was still stinging and, knowing misery loves company, I turned to the woman sitting next to me who arrived when I did.  I asked her if she’d arrived late because she’d thought worship was at 11:30 and not 11.  

    Yes, she said, she had, but that was okay.

 The St. Paul's crib.  I love the dog in the forefront.  Makes the scene cuter, don't you think?  Good to remember what dogs were thought of in the ancient world, too....

The St. Paul's crib.  I love the dog in the forefront.  Makes the scene cuter, don't you think?  Good to remember what dogs were thought of in the ancient world, too....

    She told me she usually attended church in her neighborhood on the edge of town, but a mentally ill congregant had committed a robbery there last night, and things were closed for a police investigation.  She wanted to attend some kind of service, so she tubed it to St. Paul’s.  She then laughed and said because she was a lecturer at the university, she and her colleagues were always receiving some sort of criticism, so it gave her a sense of relief that even St. Paul’s could screw up sometimes.  Yes, I realized, there’s that!  When I told her I was a pastor from America her eyes lit up.  She told me her dad was a retired Anglican bishop and her sister was a pastor and she was working on a book about children’s religious education in the 19th century and when I told her about my work looking at the Bible as a comedy she was enthralled with that….

    Sitting in the now-almost empty sanctuary, still closed to tourists until we left, we enjoyed lots of laughs and a nice dose of truly warm conversation.  She said, “Let’s go find the crib!” meaning the manger - and when she asked one of the priests nearby he thought she said “crypt” which was also a hilarious irony we both thoroughly enjoyed.  

    We left St. Paul’s promising to stay in touch.  I crossed the street in a most joyous mood - very grateful for the many gifts worship at St. Paul’s gave to me on Christmas Eve morn!

    Then there was the day after Christmas, Tuesday, December 26, and another of my pastorly-exploits.  This time it was to the Wittenberg of Methodism, Wesley Chapel, where the founder of my denomination, John Wesley, created a chapel for his preaching and shaping the denomination.

 No words.

No words.

    From looking at the website, I knew the house he’d lived in next door and the adjacent Methodist museum were closed for the week of Christmas.  The Chapel was closed, too, except, as the web site said, that Tuesday, when they’d be having their usual Tuesday lunchtime recital at 1:00.  It announced the December 26 recital in a special box on the front page of their website, plus it was in their monthly calendar.  I figured this would be a great way to experience at least the Chapel, so I sacrificed the trip my family was making to Westminster Abbey to go instead to a northern part of the city and check Wesley Chapel out.

    I arrived by 1:00 and guess what!  NO CONCERT!  CLOSED!  There were chains around the gate as thick and ominous as the ones that loaded down Christmas Carol’s Jacob Marley.  Ugh and double ugh!  Now it’s the Methodists who are bad with their online communications!  Maybe it’s the BRITS!

    I was feeling very ugly inside and there was no one walking by to commiserate with, or, really, anyone on the streets, because it was Boxing Day, when everyone tends to stay home.  

    So I decided to walk off my frustration by checking out the neighborhood.  Maybe there was something to get me out of my funk.  

    Unfortunately, it was a pretty boring neighborhood, but as I walked, in the distance, in the midst of several indistinct shops, I noticed a small building that stood out because it looked like it had just been newly painted in that color of “sea green” that was popular in the ‘60s.  

    As I got closer, I realized it was a donut shop!  And as I got right up to it I saw they sold about the wackiest donuts I’d ever seen!   “The Prince Charming” was vanilla with vanilla frosting and Lucky Charms cereal sprinkled on top.  The Hans Rolo - a tribute to Star Wars film just released - was chocolate with chocolate frosting and Rolo chocolate caramel candies on top.  I purchased a red velvet with cream cheese frosting holiday special, “All the Jingle Ladies” topped with a  candy cane.  It came in it’s own sea green colored box.  

 Beyond words!

Beyond words!

    I was suddenly overwhelmed with delight to have found this place bursting with such fun and creativity!  And, I thought, this is perfect - a donut to make everything better, just like it does for many a Methodist congregant on Sunday morning when the sermon is lacking.  Maybe that’s true for many a Lutheran, too!

    Those were my favorite experiences of my trip…well there was a third that happened in-between these two…on Christmas Day night.  We were trying to figure out where to have a nice Christmas Night Dinner, and as we called around we began to realize most things in London are closed on Christmas Day night and people had warned us of that, why didn’t we remember, and then we called places that said they were open and they didn’t answer their phone so either they were too busy to answer the phone or THEIR websites were inaccurate, too!  We were starting to panic and pick fights with one another, not knowing who to blame or what to do!  So we all just got in a cab and told the cabbie to take us someplace he might know was open and good.      He had the perfect place and after about a 30-minute ride we arrived..and IT was closed!  He was very sorry and then drove us a little further to a row of Lebanese restaurants bursting with activity.  

    He left us off… and it started to rain.  Those bustling restaurants were all booked up till the end of the night.  It was raining even harder now.  Our only respite was running into the neighborhood deli next door, where we could order Lebanese food over the counter.

 Beyond-Perfect Christmas Feast 

Beyond-Perfect Christmas Feast 

    Nothing at all fancy, but this would have to do.  And as we ordered our falafels and kabobs and baklivahs the staff there could not have been nicer and more gracious to us, the sole “whities” in the place, and dumb tourists at that; everyone there made us feel so at home and comfortable.  And as we ate our truly yummy down-home Lebanese food out of our styrofoam containers we thought this is perfect…it’s MORE than perfect!  After all, here we are on Christmas Day, among the Middle Easterners and eating Middle Eastern food!    

    These were my three favorite memories of London, or at least my three most holy experiences, and not just because they took place over very holy dates in the calendar.  Each of these experiences began with something going wrong, with the carpet unexpectedly pulled right out from under me leaving me in a state of free-fall and making me angry, upset and in a panic.  Then, something fell into my lap, just because.  Something unexpected, something that seemed to have nothing to do with what I needed or was looking for.  But then I came to realize it was the perfect answer.  More than perfect!  

    And realizing all of this transformed me into a vessel of love and joy, with a sense that this must be God at work!  Nothing here I could have concocted on my own for sure.  I was reminded that God is real and God is here.  God truly is love, and I am not alone.

    While we may think the main ways God interacts with us are:  to tell us what to do, punish us when we don’t, and sometimes answer prayers when our loved ones are sick; the Bible tells us it’s more like the kind of journey’s I took these three times in London:  from chaos - where suddenly everything is going wrong with no relief in sight and lost of accompanying consternation - to crazy creative connection - something seemingly random comes into our midst that ends up helping us, truly helping us even though it’s so unexpected, maybe initially disappointing, certainly offbeat! - to clarity - we realize that indeed this random surprising offbeat gift is THE perfect answer for what we’re looking for, more than perfect!, and we’re once more grounded, in a better place than before - to complete celebration - we are transformed and aware of God’s continued gracious hand in our lives and can’t help but worship Him in gratitude and joy.  

    This movement - from chaos to crazy creative connection to clarity to complete celebration - we see described throughout scripture, beginning with the very first section, our Old Testament Reading today, Genesis 1:1-5.  It says that in the beginning there was what?  Chaos, as the earth was nothing but formlessness and void.  And the first thing God does in the chaos is create and what does that creation bring?  Light…not just sunlight but, as spiritual people we know the most important light is the inner light that brings awareness and understanding to what’s going on.  And what happens next?  God celebrates!  Calls it good!  

 They can hardly find a place to kneel!

They can hardly find a place to kneel!

    Yesterday was January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas and the day we traditionally celebrate Epiphany.  And the story of the Wise Men who journey from the East to behold the Christ Child and offer their fine gifts.  While that may seem to be the whole of the story, I suspect it was more than that.

    After all, these Wise Men are from Babylon, a foreign culture, and they’ve been told go where the star leads and welcome the birth of a king.  I’m sure they were expecting what was always promoted as proper for welcoming royalty:  a fancy palace, lots of pomp and circumstance and grandeur, and the Ancient Near Eastern counterpart of souvenir tea cups and t-shirts. 

    Instead, where were they led?  To a stable and a baby in a feeding trough, surrounded by animals and peasants and lots of dirt and dung.  I’m sure they were just as flabbergasted and maybe even angry as I was upon arriving at St. Paul’s to learn I was late or Welsey Chapel to learn they were closed.  Did this God have His information right?  They traveled all this way for…this nothingburger?  And then that light from the star, shining not just any light but heavenly light, allowing them to see this baby as God does…hmmm, aha!   If this indeed is not just any King but the King of the Universe, we can understand why we’d find him in such a vulnerable, earthy place.  This is King is present for ALL people, not just the wealthy, proper people, “clean and good” people.  No matter what dirty, difficult circumstances they may find themselves.  Of course!  What an odd place…but a perfect place, more than perfect, to find this King!  Yay God for showing such compassion and insight!   They joyfully bow down and offer their gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Complete celebration.   

 A thousand words

A thousand words

    Today is the day we remember Jesus’ baptism, the next part of his earthly journey.  And we wonder why in the world he’d be baptized?  Our gospel reading, and the epistle reading today also, emphasize what Christian baptism is really about:  receiving the Holy Spirit.  The living, present, connection with God.  And what’s the symbol we usually associate with the Holy Spirit?  A flame.  That miraculous phenomenon that brings us light to see.  See as God sees, as Jesus saw, with endless crazy creativity.  

    Our baptism is, perhaps more than anything, about embracing the fact that we've received that light that helps us discern how the chaos in our lives and world is, was, or is about to be gifted with something offbeat and surprising that indeed is/was/will be what we need, something that that’s the perfect/beyond-perfect answer and something that will once again cause us to celebrate and praise.  God is here!  God is at work in our lives!  God is indeed love!  We have nothing to fear!!

    Today as you come forward to receive Holy Communion, I invite you, as you pass by the baptismal font, to put your fingers in the water and however you wish, remember your baptism.  Or, if you’re not baptized, consider if now might be the time you’d like to be baptized.  Before, during, or after you come forward, think about a time in your life when you’ve found yourself moving from chaos, to crazy creative connection to clarity and complete celebration, and how that indeed spoke to you about God’s life in your life.  Pray perhaps about the chaoses currently in your life, and for the Spirit to give you eyes to see what’s really going on and where God might really be leading you, perhaps (probably) weirdly and unexpectedly.  

    And following today’s sermon, celebrate, no matter where you are on the path, with a donut!  Or a bar!  Regardless of whether you think today’s sermon is bad or good!!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

 A sort-of Lutheran cross between London wacky donuts and Lebanese take-out, don't you think??

A sort-of Lutheran cross between London wacky donuts and Lebanese take-out, don't you think??