Category Archives: Lectionary

“No Justice, No Peace” – Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39

Standard

IMG_3855

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” – Matthew 10:24-39


“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to this earth,” we hear Jesus telling the twelve disciples in Matthew this morning. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”

Whew, this is a tough text to preach on!

Breaking up of families. Not bringing peace to this world, but rather division and a violent sword. This seems harsh.

And these words of Jesus have often been used by some Christians to justify war or the breaking up of families because a parent is undocumented or because a family member comes out about their sexual orientation or gender identity. And the list can go on.

But the thing is, if we read the rest of the Gospels, this message seems so out of character for Jesus, the one who proclaims good news to the poor and who brings liberation for the oppressed. The one who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to provide health care to those who are sick. The one who sought to tear down walls that marginalize and who risked his life so that the world might be saved.

And taken literally and out of context, these words we hear this morning are out of character for Jesus. They totally contradict who he is and what he is all about.

And so we need to look a little closer at the context of our passage in order to better understand what Jesus really was referring to here.

You see, our text this morning comes a bit after our Matthew text we heard last Sunday. Just last week we saw Jesus summoning the Twelve together and commissioning them to continue Jesus’ work in the world.

And now today we hear Jesus telling the disciples about what it actually means to be a disciple: one who will bring the good news of Jesus out from the dark and into the light and who will not just whisper Jesus’ good news to those who are willing to hear it, but who will proclaim it from the housetops for all to hear… no matter how people might receive this good news and no matter how they might respond when they do hear it.

And, as Jesus explains this, he gives the Twelve a sharp warning about what they will likely face when they do follow Jesus in this good news work.

And it’s not pretty.

Just before today’s passage, Jesus says to the Twelve: “See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves. Beware of those who will hand you over to councils and flog you in the synagogues. You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me. People will hate you because of my name. Some of you will be betrayed even by those you love. Even brothers will betray brothers, fathers will betray children, and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.”

Why? – we might ask. Because Jesus’ good news is subversive and it disrupts. It challenges the status quo and is a threat to the Empire and those who hold power in it. And when one proclaims this good news from the housetops, there are going to be people who will get ticked off and will resist it… and often will do so with force.

You see, being a disciple of Jesus is risky business. And this is what Jesus is warning the Twelve – and all of us – about in our passage this morning.

Because to be his disciple is to choose to speak as Jesus speaks. To make peace in this world as Jesus – the Prince of Peace – makes. A peace that is not about making sure everyone is happy and being careful not to ruffle any feathers. No, Jesus did not come here to keep the peace. Rather he came here to make peace. A kind of peace that is – in fact – quite dangerous and – for Jesus and his earliest disciples – would bring about the sword from those who found it threatening. Jesus came here to make peace – a kind that will end up causing divisions – even among close family members and friends. A kind of peace that will bring about facebook wars and twitter trolls, uncomfortable holiday dinners, and changed relationships.

Because to Jesus: when there is no justice, there is no peace.

And – as we know too well today – justice does not always win the seat of power.

“But have no fear,” Jesus urges us. “For nothing is covered up that will not eventually be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not eventually become known.”

In other words: the truth will set us free.

Therefore, we should not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, we hear Jesus tell us. We should not fear those who will lash out at us for bringing truth to the light and proclaiming Jesus’ good news from the housetops. We should not let our fear of what others will think of us, or what they will tweet about us, or how they will respond to us, hold us back from making Jesus’ kind of peace in this world.

Instead, he urges us to only worry about how God sees us. For we are beloved. We are cherished. God loves the tiny sparrows. And yet, we are more valuable than many sparrows in God’s eyes. For even the hairs on our head are all counted.

“So,” Jesus concludes: “Take up the cross and follow me. Those who will find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Now, I want to stop right here for a minute. Because this statement has often been used to make a few particularly dangerous claims. I want to make it very clear that Jesus is not saying here that anyone who chooses to follow him must stop taking care of herself or must give up her creativity, unique identity, or deny who God created her to be. And in this important statement, Jesus is not glorifying or condoning self-mutilation, abuse, injustice, or human suffering.

Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.

He is saying that as followers, we must deny our old selves that make the Gospel centered on us while marginalizing others.

We must deny our constant desire to have power over others. We must stop trying to save our egos by striving to always be first: to be the most successful, to have the biggest home, to be the smartest, to be the most faithful. We must give up our need to always be liked by everyone.

We often tend to look at God and conform God into the way we see fit, to the way we want God to be. We put God in our own image. We speak for God with our own interests and needs in mind. We make God look like us.

But the hard reality is that we – as humans – were made in God’s image. Not the other way around. And when we start to deny our old self-centered selves and take up our cross, we actually become more human. We stop reflecting our sometimes grandiose views of self and we actually allow ourselves to reflect the image and love of God in Christ.

To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross. For the early disciples, the cross represented death. And as we now know… What comes after Jesus’ death on the cross is the resurrection. New Life. To take up our cross means that something must die in order for new life to come about. We must allow our old selves to die with Christ on the cross, so that we can be made new in and through him.

The old has gone, the new has come.

To follow Jesus and take up our own cross means we must follow Jesus’ way of the cross – a way of love that proclaims peace and justice for ALL God’s children. A way that sees the imago dei, the image of God, in our neighbors AND in ourselves.

To take up the cross means we will shut down and speak up against any and all forms of hate on social media, in our workplaces and schools, with our families and friends, and in our communities and our country.

To take up the cross means that we will walk to the grocery store or sit on the bus with our black and brown, Latinx, LGBTQIA, Muslim, refugee, and diversely abled siblings when they are scared for their safety. To take up the cross means we will listen to their stories, sit with them in their sufferings, welcome them into our homes and church, march with them in the streets, and join them in this fight for justice, working harder and stronger than ever… Even and especially when we know we will face resistance because of this.

This reminds me of someone who was really special to me in college. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied, even when it meant she would get picked on for doing so. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.
The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.” I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.

And I think this is what Jesus was trying to convey in our passage in Matthew. To follow Jesus and take up the cross means we must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

So may choose to do so, knowing this is not always easy. And when we do, let us “expect a sword,” as Karoline Lewis says in her Working Preacher commentary. “Because God’s peace expects justice. God’s peace asks for righteousness. God’s peace demands value for and regard of all. And God’s peace is what will save us all.”

Amen.

“The Way” – Sermon on John 14:1-14

Standard

url

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. – John 14:1-14

“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” John: 14:6.

To be quite honest, whenever I hear this verse, I cringe a little. Maybe it’s because of the many billboards or bumper stickers I’ve seen it broadcasted on. Or the number of times I’ve heard street preachers yell it at complete strangers. Or maybe it’s because of the ways in which it had been misquoted and used by friends and leaders in the campus ministry I was involved in in college.

You see, this “I AM” declaration by Jesus in our passage from John today has often been used to exclude: determining who’s in and who’s out of the Christian club. Christians often use this verse to condemn those who are not Christians and to point fingers at others whom we determine are not “believers” by our own standards. And in the meantime, while we take this verse out of its context and hold onto this very limited – and what I believe to be often quite harmful – understanding, I think we miss out on a much deeper meaning of this “I AM” statement.

And so, in order to better understand what Jesus meant by this statement, we need to look at what is actually going on when he says it.

And when we do, we might find it a bit odd to be looking at this text in John several weeks after celebrating Jesus’ resurrection. Because we are now going back to the event on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus is gathered around the table with his closest friends, sharing in his last supper with them before he begins his journey toward the cross. (However, I do think it may become a little more clear in a bit about why we are reading this text as we are getting close to Ascension Day.)

Now, throughout this final meal with his disciples, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon, not only in his impending death on the cross, but also in his ascension into heaven, which means he will no longer be physically present with them.

“Lord, where are you going?” Peter asks Jesus right before our text for this morning. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus answers him. “But there will come a time when you will follow me.” Worried about what this would mean for Jesus to leave him (after he’s been with Jesus day in and day out for three years), Peter pushes him: “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

But Jesus urges Peter and the rest of the disciples to be patient and to hold onto hope, assuring them: “While there soon will come a time that will feel hopeless, do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Although we may be separated for a little while, we will one day be reunited. I am going to my Father’s house, where there are many rooms. And I am preparing a room there for each of you so that one day where I will be, there you will be also. For you know the way to the place I am going.”

But the disciples still don’t quite understand. And – possibly out of their grief and concerns about Jesus leaving – they try to convince him to stay.

“But Lord,” Thomas exclaims, “we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way to get there if you are not with us?”

I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus replies. “You have already seen the Father. If you know me, then you will know the Father, also.”

But – still confused – Philip chimes in: “Show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied.”

By this point it makes sense that Jesus might be a little frustrated with his friends. “After following me day in and day out for the last three years, you still don’t know who I am?” he asks. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Believe me, that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

—–

I’ll never forget what one of my friends who was involved in my college campus ministry said to one of our agnostic friends one day. The friend involved in the ministry said: “You don’t want to burn in hell for all eternity after you die, do you? Because the way to heaven – where you will not burn in hell – is easy. You just need to believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior and ask him into your heart.” Then she opened her bible up to John 14 and quoted Jesus’ “I am the way…” statement.

I was a little taken aback by what seemed to be pretty harsh words by my college friend, who took pride in being a Christian.  And I was also a bit concerned about how my agnostic friend was feeling at that moment.

But what really caught my attention was what our agnostic friend said in response to this. “Really?” She asked. “It’s that easy to not burn in hell? So all you have to do is believe that Jesus is your Savior and you can continue to openly be a jerk to everyone who doesn’t believe what you believe? But those who don’t believe that Jesus is God and yet they love others the way Jesus loved others are going to burn in hell forever? That doesn’t really sound like Jesus’ message at all.”

This conversation – along with many other similar ones I’d observed during my time in that campus ministry – opened my eyes to the fact that just about anyone can shout out that Jesus is their Savior until they’re blue in the face. But that still does not guarantee they get who Jesus is or understand what he’s all about.

And what really struck me in this particular conversation was that it was my agnostic friend who seemed to get who Jesus is more than my Christian friend.

You see, if we read Jesus’ entire farewell discourse to his disciples after his last meal with them before his impending death, we will recognize that the way to God Jesus is telling his friends to take is not as easy as my Christian friend explained it to be. It’s not having belief ABOUT who Jesus is, asking Jesus to come into our hearts, and then going on our merry way. Rather, it is about following Jesus’ way. A way that – as Jesus explains just before our passage for today – involves a commandment to love one another, just as he has loved us… Something that is not – in fact – very easy to do

And yes, Jesus tells his close friends to believe in God and to believe also in him. But he does not say that if they don’t, they will burn in hell for eternity.

Actually, his message to his close friends is quite the opposite. Even though the disciples are still a bit confused at times about who Jesus is, Jesus knows they have already put their faith and trust in him – at least, as much as they possibly could at this point in time. I mean, they gave up everything they had to follow him and stayed with and learned from him for three years, even when it wasn’t the most popular or safe thing to do. If that isn’t putting their faith and trust in him, I don’t really know what is!

“Believe me,” Jesus is urging them.  “I have prepared a room in my Father’s house for each one of you.  We will one day be reunited.”  This is a guarantee.

So now, when the disciples are worried about what their future will entail when Jesus leaves them – Jesus assures them that they are going to be okay without having Jesus physically by their sides. And so they should hold onto this hope, no matter what comes their way.

“Continue to have faith in me,” he urges them. “You have a loving God. You know this because you have already seen God. Because you have seen me. So when you wonder what kind of a God you have and where God is when you encounter times of great trials and suffering, look to me, and there you will find God.”

—–

I think this is a great reminder for us.

In a world that is full of violence, hate, and exclusion of all kinds, many of us may be wondering – like Thomas – where God went and what the path is that we need to take in order to find God. Or many of us may be calling out like Philip, “Show us God!” and demanding to see some proof in the world that God cares.

And so when we begin to wonder what kind of a God we have, we can look to Jesus. We can look to his teachings and look to his works. Look at the ways in which he proclaimed good news to the poor, released those who were captive, gave sight to those who couldn’t see, and liberated the oppressed. Look at the ways he fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick. When we begin to wonder where God is, we can look into the faces of the last and the least and look for the people around us who are following Jesus’ way of life and sharing his love to a hurting world.

When we wonder what way to go in order to find Jesus, we can look for the people and the places in this world that need healing and Jesus’ good news the most. “This is where you will find and encounter me,” Jesus is saying. “This is the way to God.”

And Jesus doesn’t just end here. He continues with a commission for the disciples and for all of us to continue this work when he is physically gone from this earth. “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

In other words, Jesus is saying: “Now it is you who will be my hands and feet in the world.”

I think our ELCA moto says this well: “It is God’s work, our hands.”

And soon – on Ascension Day – we will be reminded that we are not alone in this work. The Holy Spirit is with us always, giving us strength, comfort, and guidance every step of the way.

Amen.

 

 

“Nevertheless, She Persisted” – Sermon on John 11:1-45

Standard

IMG_1240

Try to imagine yourself in the story. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 

11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

As we get to act two in our story, take note of the emotions of and the interactions between the women and Jesus.

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when (Mary) heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 

In act three of our story, pay close attention to how Jesus takes on the pain of Mary and Martha and how he responds to it.

34(Jesus) said, “Where have you laid him?” (The women) said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 

41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the (crowd), “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. – John 11:1-45

If we keep reading past our assigned text for this morning, we would see that this very loving and compassionate act of raising Lazarus from the dead is what leads to Jesus’ death sentence on the cross. Take a few moments in silence to reflect on what this means about Jesus’ love for Mary and Martha and what it means about his love for us.

 IMG_1237

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

These words – which were originally used to quiet the voice of a woman senator in February – have been turned into the powerful battle cry for many women this past month. It didn’t take too long before these words were made into a hashtag, were being shared through memes, and were even being proclaimed on tattoos and t-shirts.

While many women today know quite well what it’s like to be quieted, nevertheless, they have persisted.

I love how these words especially ring true this morning.

For one thing: here we are, on the first Sunday after the one Women’s History month has come to a close. And while women still continue to be silenced at the pulpits… Well… let’s just say I’m very thankful for the many women who have gone before us to pave the way and for the many communities who do support women in ministry.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

But these words can also be heard crying out this morning through our Gospel text in John.

Here, in the midst of our very long story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, we keep hearing the voices of Martha and Mary.

And despite the fact that their female voices had no importance or place in society: nevertheless, they persisted.

Now, as we are getting ready to follow Jesus toward Jerusalem beginning next week, some of you might be wondering why I would focus on these women rather than focus on what might seem to be the obvious good news of this story: Jesus’ act of raising Lazarus from the dead and thus foreshadowing his own death and resurrection that we will soon encounter.

And, yes: this is – indeed – good news.  Through Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life… And not just in a heavenly kind of sense somewhere “out there” in another time and another place.  But the resurrection of Lazarus shows us that we don’t have to sit around and wait until our physical bodies die before we get to experience this new life Jesus offers us. And we don’t have to wait until Easter before we get to live as resurrection people. Rather, in Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus actually brings about new life right here and right now.

You see, just as Jesus calls Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, he calls us to do so, as well. Jesus calls us out of the tomb, from our own sense of lifelessness, and he frees us from the worldly expectations, insecurities, and sin that bind us. Yes, Jesus offers us new life, calling us to no longer live as we are dead, but rather to choose to live our lives fully.  This is, indeed, good news!

But the thing that I think is often missed when we look at this resurrection story in John is that this good news would not have been proclaimed had it not been for the two women. The resurrection of Lazarus would not have even taken place if it weren’t for the persistence of Martha and Mary.

You see, it was Martha and Mary who sent a message to Jesus letting him know Lazarus was ill in the first place. And when Lazarus died because Jesus had waited around for two whole days before going to Bethany to see him, it was Martha who confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when it seemed like Jesus was not going to do anything about the death of Martha’s brother, it was Martha who ran to her sister, Mary, and told her to go find Jesus.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when Mary was distraught over the death of her brother, it was she who fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

You see, it was the persistence of these two women (whom Jesus loved dearly) that opened his eyes to their pain, which greatly disturbed him in spirit and deeply moved him to tears.

It was Mary and Martha’s persistence that moved the one who is the Resurrection and the Life to compassionately respond to their suffering by raising Lazarus from the dead, calling him out of the tomb, and inviting Jesus’ disciples to help free Lazarus from all that kept him bound.

So may we too – like Martha and Mary – keep on persisting, even and especially in times that feel hopeless. May we too – like Jesus’ disciples – open our eyes to the good news being proclaimed through those who do persist. And may we too – like Jesus – be greatly disturbed in spirit at the suffering and injustice around us and thus be deeply moved to respond.

“The Gospel in a Nutshell” – Sermon on John 3:1-17

Standard

IMG_1057

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

When I was growing up, I never understood why some of my friends would try to do things they were not supposed to do or do things they didn’t want others to find out about in the middle of broad daylight… where the likelihood of getting caught was quite high.

When you want to eat that extra cookie Grandma said you can’t have, you wait until she is watching her evening show before you tiptoe through the dark kitchen and sneak into the pantry.

Or when you try to avoid the teasing of your older sister, you snatch up the cordless phone, slip into the dark hall closest, and talk softly to your new boyfriend so your sister doesn’t figure you out.

Most of us know that it is in the dark where we will least likely get caught or found out by others.

And I think this is why Nicodemus chooses to go to Jesus at night just before today’s Gospel passage in John. It is in this darkness where nobody would be able to see where he is going and find out what he is up to.

You see, not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who knew the Mosaic law backwards and forwards and strictly followed it. But he was also a member of the Sanhedrin court, an elite group of Jewish leaders who taught and enforced the Mosaic laws. He was an expert and a rule-enforcing judge, and when someone broke any of these stringent rules or threatened the religious legal system, Nicodemus was one of the few who would get to determine the rule-breaker’s punishment. (Which – as we know in Jesus’ case – could be quite merciless.)

And, of course, by the third chapter of John, we see that Jesus had already become quite the rule-breaker and was gaining influence among the people. He had been performing miracles and was developing many followers. He had started to challenge the ways of the system, angrily turning over the tables in the Temple and driving out the money-changers who were taking advantage of the poor.

People began to talk. And some were even saying he was the Son of God, the King of Israel, or the Lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.

This Rabbi named Jesus was unorthodox, and he was beginning to pose quite a threat to the religious system.

And so as word about Jesus spreads to the Pharisees and some of the members of the Sanhedrin court, they begin to talk, as well. But as they voice their concerns to one another in broad daylight, they likely don’t speak too kindly of Jesus.

And yet, for some reason, Nicodemus decides to go to this Rabbi, himself. To see him with his own eyes and to hear this rabbi’s words with his own ears. Nicodemus is curious. Maybe even hopeful. And so he sneaks off to see Jesus through the darkness of the night.

And when he reaches Jesus, Nicodemus says to him: “We know you are a teacher who comes from God because those great miracles and signs you have performed could not occur without the presence of God.”

However, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is unclear: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew.”

This concept is foreign to Nicodemus, and he doesn’t understand. So Jesus further explains: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”

Now Nicodemus is really confused. Not only is Jesus saying that one cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but one cannot enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.

*****

It makes sense that Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He was born a Jew, was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader who had devoted his life to studying the Torah, and a member of the elite Sanhedrin court, who strictly enforced the Mosaic law. If anyone were to see and enter the kingdom of God, it would be Nicodemus. He had all the credentials and was more religiously qualified than anyone else. How could Jesus tell him that his heritage, obedience to the law, and positions of leadership counted for nothing?

And not only that, but was Jesus saying that this kingdom of God might be accessible to anyone who was born anew, to anyone who was born of the Spirit? To those who were not even ancestors of Abraham? Or those who did not even observe the Mosaic law? This was completely unheard of.

*****

Jesus continues to explain these things to Nicodemus. But this time Jesus makes reference to a story that – as a dedicated Jew – Nicodemus would have known quite well. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

To give you a little background of this story: the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for a while and were getting impatient. And as their impatience increases, they loose site of where they came from – oppression and captivity in Egypt. And they loose site of how they got into the wilderness and away from Egypt in the first place: God – by way of Moses. And as they wander in the wilderness with their eyes closed to what God has and was doing for them, they begin to complain about their food and their living conditions to Moses and they complain against God.

So God punishes the Israelites for rebelling against God. And how does God punish them? By sending them poisonous serpents, which would have immediately reminded them of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the evil in the world. Many of the Israelites are bitten. And some of them even die.

And as more and more of them are infected by the venom of the serpents, their eyes are opened and they begin to see and gain a bit of perspective. They repent and cry out to Moses and God. They are ready go back to living in covenant relationship with God.

And so God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. And if they were bitten, they were instructed to look at the bronze snake, and they would be healed.

Now this story is very bothersome for me. Honestly, I don’t like that God punishes God’s people by infecting them with poisonous snakes. This doesn’t seem like good news to me at all.

But for Jews in the ancient world, this story was very good news. It was a story that represented God’s mercy, love, and grace. It was such an important story for the people of God in the ancient world, that the bronze serpent was placed in the Temple for hundreds of years so that whenever they looked at it, they would remember this event that took place in the wilderness. They would acknowledge and call out the evil systems in the world, they would recall their own sin – their own snakiness and rebellion against God, and they would remember that God extended grace and salvation to God’s people despite of it all.

*****

And Nicodemus would have immediately known this when Jesus referenced it.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

God’s saving acts in the wilderness. God’s mercy and grace for God’s people. The Son of Man is offering this kind of mercy, salvation, and grace. Now Nicodemus is finally starting to see…

But Jesus continues. And this is when he goes on to say the most well-known verse of the New Testament, the verse that Martin Luther describes as the “Gospel in a nutshell.”

“For God so loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, the eternal life Jesus is speaking about is not necessarily what we often think of when we see this verse on bumper stickers or hear it quoted by street preachers. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-like” or having “the quality describing a particular age” or period of time.

According to Strong’s Greek Concordance: this eternal life “operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. [It] does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the age it relates to. Thus believers live in “eternal life” right now, experiencing this quality of God’s life now as a present possession.”

To put it in other words, eternal life is an age of being in the presence of God. Eternal life is an age and a state of being in which we experience and understand the love and grace of God that is realized in and through God incarnate, God in the flesh.

And for the author of John, eternal life is not just about some kind of life after death that we can only reach in a different time and a different realm. God is not in a place that is distant and separate from us. Rather, God is always with us in our current place and time. Thus, eternal life is a new life we are born into from above, when we are born anew. A life that we may experience in the future, but one that begins in the here and now, as we believe in, put our trust in, and follow Jesus Christ in his radical and inclusive way of love.

Eternal life is a new life we enter into as we are born of the waters and Spirit… a baptismal life that is full of grace. A transformational life that is experienced when we open our eyes, look to the cross, and bring to light our own snakiness. A life that is experienced when we recognize and begin to let go of our fleshly and worldly desires to put ourselves first, to strive to be on top, and to dominate over others… And when we start to repent of our own participation in and benefits from today’s oppressive systems.

This eternal life is experienced when we remember what God has and is doing for us. That God offers us salvation from the evil in the world and calls us to take part in freeing ourselves and all our neighbors from it. That God saves us from the sins we have been in bondage to and from all of our past snakiness that haunts us – no matter how snaky it may have been.

This eternal life is one in which we can experience because of God’s great love for us, not because of anything that we have done.

*****

The eyes of the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus are finally beginning to open. He is starting to come into the light. The kingdom of God Jesus is telling him about involves grace, justice, and abundant love, which is extended not just to those in the inner-religious circle. For God does not only love the descendants of Abraham and those who are good rule-followers and meticulously obey the Mosaic law. Rather, God loves the cosmos.

God loves the whole world.

And God loves the whole world in this way: that God gave his only Son – not so that God would condemn the world, but rather so that God would save it.

Save the whole world from captivity and oppression. Save the whole world from the bondage that evil and sin has on it.

And those who believe in Jesus, put their trust in him, and follow him in dismantling the evil systems of this world and sharing God’s inclusive love to the world will begin to experience this eternal life Jesus speaks of.

Now this – I think – is good news. It seemed to be good news – for the law-abiding and law-enforcing Nicodemus, who later defends Jesus at a meeting with the Sanhedrin court and who – after Jesus’ death – takes his body from the cross, lovingly wraps it with spices in linen cloths, and lays it in the tomb.

And I think this is good news for us, as well.

For God so loved the whole world. For God so loved Nicodemus.  For God so loves me.  For so God loves you… in this way: that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in, trusts, and follows him, should not perish, but may have eternal life.

Yes, this truly is the Gospel – the good news – in a nutshell.

 

 

“What Kind of King?” – Sermon on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday

Standard

4344638

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:33-43

Today is Reign of Christ (also known as Christ the King) Sunday, the last Sunday in our church calendar year before we begin our journey through Advent as we expectantly wait for the coming of our Savior.

Now, many Christian leaders have struggled to know whether or not they should drop this feast or change its name. And I can understand why they live in this tension. King, Lord, ruler, reign, and kingdom are all titles that refer to worldly and often exclusive and oppressive governmental systems.

But – before we jump too quickly to writing these titles off or skipping out on the feast of Reign of Christ/Christ the King that we celebrate this morning – I think we might look at why Christ’s Lordship has been emphasized and why this feast was established and has been celebrated in the Church in the first place.

While the Church has upheld the belief that Christ is King and Lord throughout much of its history, Christ the King Sunday is actually very new to the church calendar. The first feast was instituted in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1920s and soon thereafter was celebrated by many other Christian traditions.  It was not only established in these traditions in response to the Church’s concern with the rise of secularism, which led many to deny that Christ was central to all parts of peoples’ lives.  But this feast was also instituted and began to be celebrated in a time when dictatorships were on the rise in Europe. And it was during this time, when many within the Church who rejected such dictatorships began to strongly reemphasize Christ’s Lordship over all things.

We can hear an example of this in the Barmen Declaration, a document that was written in Germany in 1934 by theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran Hans Asmussen. The document was a statement that refuted the dangerous teachings of the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement, which glorified Hitler as a leader and – in the name of Christianity – justified his exclusionary and violent actions both inside and outside the Church during his early rise to power.

Part of the Barmen Declaration states:

“We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.

‘Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.’ (Eph. 4:15-16)

The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.”

You see, many churches and Christian leaders at this time reemphasized Christ’s Lordship as a means to oppose such oppressive worldly governmental systems. And for the churches that celebrated it, the feast of Christ the King became a reminder that it is Jesus Christ – and no other worldly leader – who has authority. It is the Kingdom of God – and no other worldly government – that reigns over the heavens and all the earth.

****

And now, we hear a similar message as we celebrate Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday this morning. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from Jesus’ glorious power,” our author in Colossians urges us. “And may you be prepared to endure everything. For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers. ALL things are created through him and for him. It is Jesus – himself – and no other worldly ruler – who is above and before all things. He is the beginning. Therefore, he must be placed first in everything.”

Yes, our Savior, the One whose coming into the world we will begin to prepare for this week, is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords, whose reign does not only last a few years, but lasts for all eternity.

Yes, it is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in whom Christians and our church institutions are to pledge our allegiance to.  And there is no time or part of our lives that is not subject to his reign…

But our Scriptures this morning remind us that this King and Lord is not the kind of ruler our world expects, celebrates, or uplifts. And our Gospel text in Luke shows us that our King and Lord is not the kind of leader who would have won an election… or even a popular vote.

Rather, here in Luke, we see a different kind of king in which we are to follow.

Here, in Luke, we see a king in the middle of a crucifixion scene. We see a king who is wearing a crown of thorns rather than a crown of jewels and gold. We see a king who is stripped down to his skin, bullied and spit upon, beaten and mocked for proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is not just for those on top, but rather it is a Kingdom for all.

We see a king who shows up in the midst of great suffering and fear. Who hangs on a cross between two criminals on death row – offering forgiveness and compassion to those who are most vulnerable and even to those who put him on the cross in the first place.

We see a king who chooses to save the entire world rather than to save himself.

And as we look at this crucifixion scene in Luke this morning, we are reminded that our king is one who brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives, gives sight to the blind, and lets the oppressed go free.

With his arms outstretched, we hear him crying out to us: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

And in his final breaths, we hear him reminding us: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

You see, for the one in whom we proclaim is Lord, the way to greatness is not to be first, but rather it is to put others first.

To live as servants, providing love and grace to those around us. To put the well-being and basic needs of others in front of our own wants, our sense of security, our concerns of offending others or being rejected, and our temptation to want to get ahead.

Our Lord’s path is not about climbing the social latter and befriending and caring for only those who have something to offer us.

Rather, Jesus’ path to greatness is servanthood and taking up our cross. For those of us who have been on the front-lines in our society, this path to greatness is putting ourselves last so that others who’ve been last can move into the front-lines. For all of us, this path to greatness is welcoming, embracing, loving, and walking alongside all who suffer, including and especially those whom the world deems as the last and the least.

 It is proclaiming that Jesus Christ is indeed King and Lord and in doing so, tearing down all walls that divide and speaking out against any and all forms of hate.

 You see, the thing is, we have a King and Lord who flipped the worldly systems of injustice upside down. We see that in and through his life, death, and resurrection he was radically transforming and redefining kingship. He was reigning in a kingdom of God that was nothing like the oppressive governmental systems of this world.

****

And so today, on Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday, we are being reminded of who exactly reigns in our lives, no matter what title we might give him. We are being called to boldly pledge our allegiance to Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ in all areas of our lives – no matter how difficult this might be. We are being asked to follow Jesus toward the cross, where he – our loving God who is with us in the flesh – performed a radical act of love that did and continues to trump hate.

Yes, Christ is King and Lord of all! So let us boldly and loudly proclaim it. Let us “testify [to it] in the midst of the sinful world.” “Let us speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.”

And let us choose to follow Christ, our King and Lord, to the cross.

Amen.

 

 

“Now Is Our Opportunity To Testify” – Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

Standard

img_8869

“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” – Luke 21:5-19


In our passage in Luke this morning, the disciples are adorning all the beautiful stones of the Temple – the place that was so important and central to their community and their faith. And I can just imagine how they must have felt as Jesus told them that all of those stones are going to come crashing down. That their beloved Temple would soon be destroyed.

I think I can imagine how they must have felt because I think so many of us feel this way right now.

I am going to be completely honest. This week has been incredibly difficult. I can’t remember the last time I have cried as hard as I did on Tuesday night while I was watching the election. And I think the last time I woke up feeling like I was in a living nightmare like I felt on Wednesday morning was my sophomore year of college on Sept. 11th – as I watched the twin towers collapsing in New York on tv.

Now, the reason I was so distraught this week was not because a particular political party or my politician of choice was not chosen. But I have been so upset because of the incredible hate that has been spouted out by the politician that was elected and by several of his supporters – the kind of hate that is a direct attack on the personhood of so many of us and our neighbors and is incredibly dangerous.

And I know this week, I have not been the only person overcome with pain and fear of what this might mean.

The past few days I’ve heard the many hurts and fears voiced by family members, friends, neighbors, parishioners, parents, children, and youth.

On Wednesday night during youth group, as we gathered for prayer, anointing, and communion, several of our youth expressed that they were extremely worried about what this meant for the people they cared about or for themselves, as a youth of color or as a refugee, as a member of the Latinx or LGBTQIA communities, as a young woman or a youth with special needs, as a victim of sexual assault or as a youth whose family is economically disadvantaged.

“Will my family get deported?” “Will he take away my right to same sex marriage?” “What will happen to my food stamps?” – our youth asked.

“I don’t understand how anyone could ever vote for someone who treats women that way,” one of our young women said, crying. “Do they think that’s okay to treat us like that?”

“I don’t think he should be president,” an autistic youth stated. “He’s racist and mean to lots of people. I think he is just a big baby.”

“I’m worried about the safety of one of my Muslim friends,” another youth explained. “Her mom even asked her not to wear her hijab in public because she fears for her daughter.”

“I feel accepted here in this community,” one black male youth expressed. “But seeing how many people – even Christians – voted this way makes me scared that I will not be as accepted and safe in other places outside of Chicago.”

The pain and fears are deep and real for so many right now.

But too often – in times like these – our tendency is to deny or quickly skip over those fears and that pain. We can’t bear the reality, and it feels too painful to face our feelings or to see those whom we care about suffer. So we try to fix it. We tell ourselves and others to just “look on the bright side.”  “God is in control.”  “Everything will be okay.”

But the hard reality, as we see in our Gospel text in Luke this morning, is we are not guaranteed that everything in our world is going to be okay. At least, not immediately with the snap of our fingers.

Just as we see in Luke, there are going to be times of great trials and sufferings. There are going to be (and there currently are) unjust systems in our world and in our nation that divide and oppress.

“So stop adorning the beautiful stones of the walls of the Temple,” Jesus tells his disciples in Luke. “Stop focusing on other things so as to avoid the reality of what is to come and what already is. Soon, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. All stones of the Temple will be thrown down. There will be destruction and violence. You will be persecuted in my name for proclaiming my good news, even by some of your own friends and family members. So stop focusing on other things. Instead, be alert. Beware that you are not led astray by others who falsely speak of doing works in my name.”

*****

These are hard words.

Stop focusing on other things. Beware of those who proclaim hate in the name of Christianity. Stay woke.

Face and name the reality of the suffering and injustice around you. Because it is there. It is real.

I know this is not what we want hear. But it is the harsh truth, and if we don’t face and claim it, we will have harsh consequences.

Because if we continue to avoid the suffering and the fears that our neighbors or that we – ourselves – are facing, we will loose sight of the real unjust and oppressive systems that are causing such suffering and oppression. And if we loose sight of these unjust systems, there will be no room for us to move beyond our fears and suffering so that we can begin to move toward hope. We will only be left with a false sense of optimism, which will keep us from seeing the opportunities we do have to move toward reconciliation, justice, and peace.

Because we cannot begin the path to reconciliation without tearing down the walls that divide and the systems that oppress.  And we cannot tear down these walls until we first recognize and confess that those walls and systems actually do exist.

Likewise: we cannot start to move beyond our fears and anger nor heal from our pain and suffering without first recognizing these feelings exist and then doing the important grief work so that we might begin to move THROUGH these feelings.

****

Now I know this is heavy. But please bear with me. Because there is good news.

Because as harsh as this all sounds, our reality does not have to end here, and Jesus calls us to not let it end here.

You see, in our text in Luke, Jesus does not just leave his disciples alone in that place of suffering and despair as he opens their eyes to the reality of what was to come and of the systems of injustice that were already present.

“Stay woke,” he urges them. “Because now is your opportunity to testify.”

You see, we can find hope in the promises that we hear in Malachi and 2 Thessalonians this morning that “there is a day coming when the evil will stumble… and the complacent and the lovers of the status quo will one day be revealed” (as Pastor Rachel Hackenberg paraphrases.)

We can find hope in the Kingdom of God that Jesus began to reign in 2000 years ago – a kingdom where the worldly throwns of injustice will be overturned.

But this Kingdom of God is not something we just sit around waiting for. And our hope in it is not passive. Rather it is active. And it involves us. Yes, God is creating new heavens and a new earth, but we are being called to join God in this creation process. And so even when the stones of the Temple walls come tumbling down before our very eyes, through us God is making all things new.

And so it is in times such as these, when we have this opportunity to testify.

You see, to testify is to love as Jesus loves. To speak as Jesus speaks. To make peace in this world as Jesus – the Prince of Peace – makes.

To testify is to proclaim the good news that Jesus proclaims. The good news, which can be summed up at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, where he stands before the crowds, unrolls a scroll and begins to quote from the book of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (And this year of the Lord’s favor in which he was to proclaim was the year of Jubilee – the year that the Jews had been waiting for – which was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free, and all debts would be remitted. It was the ordered way of breaking down dividing walls of injustice and making peace).

Now, Jesus says, is our opportunity to testify this good news.

“Now is our opportunity to speak the gospel to the brokenhearted,” as Christian blogger Jill Duffield puts it. “Now is our opportunity to speak the truth in love. Now is our opportunity to let the world know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another in a very unloving and too often unlovely world. Now is our opportunity to testify to the power of Jesus Christ to reconcile and forgive, to transform and redeem.”

“Consider all the tumult, the war, the earthquakes, the suffering and the cruelty,” Jill continues. “Does not God have a Word to say in the midst of it? Have we not been given a purpose to fulfill in the face of it? Are we not to be a light to the world? Didn’t Jesus ask, “Do you love me?” [And his disciples answered:]”Yes, Lord, you know that we love you.” [Didn’t Jesus then say to them – and to us]: “Tend my sheep.” Now is our opportunity to testify.”

****

You see, to testify means that in times such as these, we create holy spaces for one another – like our youth group did on Wednesday night – where we are free to lament and share and hold one another in our fears, anger, and pain. Because these feelings are real. And we have a God who is real. A God who meets us where we are. A God who came in the flesh so that he might know our sufferings and walk alongside us in the midst of them. A God who – as poet Paul Claudel said – “did not come to take away our suffering. [But who] came to fill it with his presence.”

Now is our opportunity to testify.

To testify means that we will walk to the grocery store or sit on the bus with our black and brown, Latinx, LGBTQIA, Muslim, Jewish, refugee, and diversely abled siblings when they are scared for their safety. To testify means we will listen to one another’s stories, sit with each other in our sufferings, welcome those who are hurting into our homes and church, march with one another in the streets, and join in on this fight for justice, working harder and stronger than ever before.

To testify means we will shut down and speak up against any and all forms of hate on social media, in our workplaces and schools, with our families and friends, and in our communities and our country.

To testify means we will believe and proclaim the truth that both we and all our neighbors are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God.

While many of us are still feeling overwhelmed with fear, anger, and pain right now, these feelings don’t have to have control over us.  Because we can also hold onto hope.

 Because love can and will trump hate.

****

As I read and heard the kinds of fears and pain many of those I care so deeply for were feeling this week, I said to them what I would like to say to you this morning:

I see you. I hear you. I love you. You matter.

My heart aches with you. I stand with you.

You are not alone.

May those who need to hear these words today hear them, and may we all share these words with our hurting neighbors.

In times like these, we must come alongside one another. Because we need each other. We are BETTER together.

Amen.

“Two Kinds of People In this World” – Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Standard

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

Someone once said: “There are only two kinds of people in this world – there are those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord,” and then there are those who wake up in the morning and say, “Good Lord, it’s morning.”” (To be quite honest: I have to say that I am definitely the latter kind of person.)

“There are only two kinds of people in this world…”

We hear this saying fairly often.

According to author Alan Cohen, these two kinds of people are: “those who make excuses and those who get results.”

Marlo Thomas looks at this duality a little differently. She explains that the two kinds of people in this world are “the givers and the takers. The takers may eat better,” she explains. “But the givers sleep better.”

And of course, Woody Allen gives his two-cents, saying: “There are two types of people in this world: the good and the bad. The good sleep better, but the bad seem to enjoy the waking hours much more.”

On the surface, the parable in Luke this morning seems to affirm this view that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who are like the Pharisee and those who are like the tax collector.

At the beginning of our passage, we see Jesus telling this parable to a group of people “who trust in themselves that they are righteous and who regard others with contempt.” In the parable, the Pharisee and the tax collector both go to the temple to pray. When the Pharisee sees the tax collector, he thanks God that he is not like other people: he is not like the thieves, the liars, the adulterers, or even that tax collector who is praying in the temple over there. He goes on bragging about how he does not just fast during High Holy Days, but he fasts twice a week and he gives away way more money than what is required of him – a tenth of all his income. The tax collector – on the other hand – can’t even look up to heaven. Completely repentant, he beats his breast and cries out to God: “Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

What happens in this parable is what many of us might expect would happen. We are so accustomed to hearing that the Pharisees are self-righteous and judgmental of others. We even sometimes refer to other Christians as “pharisaical” when they are being legalistic or hypocritical. And when we think of the tax collectors, we usually just think about how Jesus welcomed them – even though they were considered to be extreme outsiders by the faith community. And so it is not a surprise to us that Jesus finishes his parable by explaining that it is the tax collector who goes to his home justified rather than the Pharisee…

 “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus concludes, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The message we are supposed to take away from this parable seems to be quite obvious. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are humble like the tax collector, and those who are prideful, hypocritical, and judgmental like the Pharisee. In other words, Woody Allen is right:

There are two kinds of people in this world: the good and the bad.  Tax collector = good. Pharisee = bad.  Don’t be like the Pharisee. Be like the tax collector. End of sermon. Amen. You can all go home now.

And this is a fairly easy sermon to hear and to accept.

Because, let’s just face it: it’s pretty easy to point out those self-righteous, prideful, and judgmental “Pharisees” we see around us, especially in times like these. While we might not have come right out and said this directly to God, haven’t there been times when we have at least looked around and thought to ourselves how thankful we are that we are not like those other people over there?

Those legalistic church-goers or those un-committed Christians. Those particular Lutherans or those evangelicals? Those Republicans or those Democrats?

And as we have thought these things, haven’t we also patted ourselves on our backs… I am welcoming, I don’t judge others. I am involved in church or in my community. I give my money to charity or do acts of service. I speak out when I hear homophobic, racist, or sexist comments or I march with community members when I see injustice.

In other words, as columnist Dave Barry says: “There are two kinds of people in this world, and I am one of them.”

But let’s wait just a minute… aren’t we doing the very same thing that the Pharisees are doing in Jesus’ parable in the first place…?

“God, I thank you that I am not like those other people, especially that Pharisee over there…”

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

No, this parable is not quite as straightforward or as easy to hear as we might have hoped.

And the thing is, there is a lot more to the stories of the Pharisee and the tax collector than what we may have first assumed.

You see, too often we give the Pharisees a bad rap. While they were not perfect and definitely made some mistakes (even pretty big ones at times), for the most part, the Pharisees tried to do the best they could. The Pharisees were actually progressives of their day. They maintained a liberal interpretation of Scripture and recognized that the Law could be adapted, based on the “changing conditions of life.” They cared about their faith, and they took it seriously. And they also actually cared deeply about their faith community – everyone in their faith community. Much like Martin Luther, they believed that everyone in the faith community – not just the priestly elites – should have access to the Torah and should be able to observe it. And so they advocated for and established a free, universal Jewish education system that was accessible for all – even the average everyday person. Sure, there were some Pharisees whose intentions and actions were not so great or even downright wrong. But this is the case when we look at every group of people. For the most part, though, the Pharisees meant well and were doing the best they could.

On the other hand, while the tax collectors were considered outsiders and were excluded from the Jewish community, we have to understand that the Jewish people had very understandable reasons for their distain toward them. You see, many of the tax collectors were Jews who were collaborating with the despised Roman Empire. The Jewish community viewed these tax collectors as traitors, who chose to help the oppressive government rather than fight it. Additionally, the tax collectors’ salaries were very high, which was quite a low blow to the Jewish community, who knew that the tax collectors were gaining their wealth off the backs of fellow Jews. To make matters even worse, it was fairly common knowledge that many of the tax collectors cheated the people they collected from – including those who were most vulnerable in society. They often took more money than they needed to take and kept the extra money for themselves. And yet, Jesus welcomed tax collectors, dined with them, forgave them, and offered them new life. And here in Jesus’ parable, we see a completely repentant tax collector going home justified.

So let’s just say, there is a little more to the story than we might have originally assumed.

And as we start to wonder where we might fit into this parable, maybe we need to reshape the way we think about this parable. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is not: which of the two people might we be? But rather, maybe the question we should be asking is: when do we see ourselves as the Pharisee and when do we see ourselves as the tax collector (with all the complexities that make up their stories)?

Because maybe it is author Tom Robbins who has it right about the two kinds of people who are in this world: that there are “those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and [there are] those who are smart enough to know better.”

Because maybe, just maybe, there are not just two kinds of people in this world. Maybe there are multiple kinds of people who have complex stories and multiple parts to their identities.

Or maybe there is just one type of person in this world: human. Maybe – as humans – we are not either one type of person or another. Maybe we are both/and. Both Pharisee and tax collector. Both created good and in God’s image, and yet fallen at the same time. Maybe we are – as Martin Luther explained it – “simultaneously [both] sinner and saint.”

And maybe, while this is all true: each one of us – no matter how great a sinner and no matter how big our mistakes – is a beloved child of God, with the ability to be redeemed and transformed, by the grace of God.

I think this is something we must keep in mind at all times… and especially in times such as these.

During this incredibly contentious presidential campaign, I’ve seen a lot of nastiness… more than I have ever seen during a campaign before. There has been a lot of hate being thrown around.

And while there are definitely places where the hate is much stronger than in other places, the hate is not just coming from one side. It’s coming from all sides. And it’s affecting and hurting a lot people.

I was saddened the other day to read a Facebook post by an acquaintance who said he has decided to stop posting anything about politics for the rest of the election season because one facebook debate got so heated and so hateful that he lost a close friend of over 30 years because of it.

While as Christians – and as humans – we are absolutely called to speak out against any and all forms of hate, we are also called to do so with love. Yes, this may be a strong and firm love at times, but it is always love. And one way to love our neighbors with whom we so strongly disagree is to try to never lose site of their humanity.

To never forget that they – like us – are both/and.

To remember that they – too – are always – no matter what – beloved children of God.

We have been granted this incredible gift of grace. And so – too – have they. May we never forget this.  For, as Maya Angelou wrote in her poem called Human Family: “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Amen.

Love is Love is Love is Love – Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

Standard
Love is Love is Love is Love – Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

 

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. – Galatians 3:23-29 

A few weeks ago, Trey, a friend of my husband’s, came out publicly. Not only was this a difficult thing to do when he told his wife – who is his best friend and the one he shares two kids with… And not only was this difficult when he told his parents – who are members of a church that does not affirm people who are LGBTQIA… But this was particularly difficult because he is a very public figure. Trey is the lead singer of Everyday Sunday, a Christian rock-band, and has more than 25,000 followers on social media – many of whom are non-affirming Christians.

Although Trey has received incredible support from many people – including Christians – since he came out, it has been heartbreaking to see the nasty and hurtful comments Trey has received from so many other Christians. I will not quote these hateful jabs. But to sum it up, lets just say that Trey has been told by several people – who once esteemed him as an important person in the Christian community – that because Trey is gay, he cannot be a Christian and that he cannot be a part of this Christian club unless he “changes” and thus denies who he is.

*****

As I was heartbroken when I watched this unfold on Trey’s facebook and twitter accounts the past few weeks, I was reminded of what was going on in the early church in Galatia. This issue of determining who is “in” or “out” of this early faith community – of who can be included or excluded – was at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church. For the earliest Jesus followers, this was not as much of a problem because most of the Jesus followers were Jewish, decided to join this Jesus movement within the synagogues, and therefore continued to worship and to observe the same customs and the Jewish Law as they always had before.

So for these Jewish Christians, things in the early church did not look much different from how things were in the Jewish community before Christ. However, as more and more Gentiles (or non-Jews) began to convert and join the movement, this new growing community had to begin to define what it believed and required of its new members. These Gentiles were different than the Jewish Christians: they were different ethnically and culturally. Many of them may have looked and dressed very differently than the Jewish Christians and possibly spoke dialects or with accents different from the Jews. They had different customs, eating practices, and world views, and they did not observe the Jewish Law – which defined the Jewish people as a faith community.

In addition to this, for centuries, the Jewish understanding was that the Jews who followed the Jewish Law were THE children of God. So now all of a sudden as Gentiles were joining this movement, the Jewish Christians had to begin to ask the question: what does it mean to be a Jewish-Jesus-follower worshipping alongside these very different NON-Jewish-Jesus followers? And what is required of those non-Jews in this growing faith community?

Some Gentiles were accepted into this new faith community by many Jewish Christ-followers. However, there was also a large group of Jewish-Christ-followers who claimed that the Gentiles could only be included into this community and could only become children of God under one condition: they had to first convert to Judaism and observe the Jewish Law and customs. And when some of these Gentile Christians didn’t believe in or do things the way the Jewish-Christians did, they were condemned and demonized. They were called sinners and were told they were not children of God. They were excluded from participating in the life of the faith community. We even see this right before our passage for today in Galatians 2, where Paul explains that several of these more conservative Jewish-Christians – including Peter – refused to eat with the Gentiles in Antioch…

*****

This is all too familiar to us today, isn’t it? The judging, the demonizing, the othering, the excluding… that often creates and goes hand in hand with the hating… Because of one’s differences in religious beliefs, customs, country of origin, color of skin, sexual orientation, gender identity, and the list goes on.

We see it in the nasty comments on Trey’s facebook and twitter accounts by some of his fans. We see it in much of this country’s political discussions about our brothers and sisters who are immigrants, refugees, or Muslims. This week we have seen it in many of the comments that devalue the victims of the shooting in Orlando because they were LGBTQIA or Latinx. And when we see such horrific acts of hate toward our LGBTQIA and Latinx siblings in the shooting in Orlando last Sunday and toward our black brothers and sisters in the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church a year ago this past Friday, we realize how much deep-rooted isms and phobias continue to prevail throughout our country and even within our faith institutions. And we see that this kind of othering and hate seeks to dehumanize and take away the beloved-ness and the imago dei – the image of God – in those who appear to be “different.”

*****

And so was true in the early church.

But Paul had something to say about this to the early Christians.

And so in his letter to the Galatian church, he responds to the conservative Jewish-Christians who claimed that the Gentiles could not be children of God or part of the Christian community unless they first converted to Judaism, were circumcised, and began to observe the Jewish Law.  Just before our passage in Galatians 3, Paul explains that it is not the Law that justifies, but rather, it is only the work done through Jesus Christ “for in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. The only thing that counts for anything is faith working in love.”

Paul then goes on to say in our passage that before there was faith in Christ, the Law was a disciplinarian.  It was a temporary guide that helped the people of God discern how to live, interact with one another, and be reconciled to God. However, now that Christ has come, proclaimed the good news of God’s love to all, died on the cross for the ENTIRE world, and has risen from the dead, Christ’s followers are no longer subject to the Law. Therefore, ALL in Christ are children of God no matter if they obey the Jewish Law or not. For the whole Law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your God with your whole heart and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

I think what Paul is talking about here is the kind of love of neighbor that the Musketeers – the men who swore to serve and protect the French king – had for each another.

If you have ever read or seen any of the versions of the Three Musketeers, you probably know what I’m talking about. At the end of the story, D’Artagnon, the newest member of the Musketeers – has a personal duel he has to attend to. And when he tells his new friends – the Three musketeers – that he will take care of the matter himself, the three musketeers interrupt him, saying: “we Musketeers not only protect the king, but we also protect each other.” The story ends with D’Artagnon shouting out: “All for one,” and the rest of the musketeers answering together, “and one for all.”

We can learn from this kind of unity and loyalty of the Musketeers. As followers of Jesus Christ, not only do we strive to serve, protect, and love God, but we are ALSO called to serve, protect ALL of our neighbors and ALL in Christ.

You see, for Paul, ALL in Christ Jesus are children of God through faith – no matter who they are. And ALL should be invited and included – without any conditions – into this community and cared for with love.

But for Paul, this does not stop here… In our passage for today Paul goes on to describe an even more radical reversal that has taken place through Christ.

And as he describes what it means now to be IN CHRIST – to be and to live as the Christian faith community – he 
addresses the issue of hierarchy and classicism.

You see, within the Jewish community before Christ, there were several strong divisions and class distinctions between particular groups of people. An ancient Jewish daily prayer explains it well, saying: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has created me a human and not beast, 
a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.”

This prayer describes three major divisions and hierarchies: based on one’s identity: gender, social and economic status, and ethnicity.

Every morning Jewish men would have prayed this prayer, and Paul would have been very familiar with it as he, who was once a Jewish Pharisee, would have prayed it every morning, as well.

And yet here in Galatians, Paul takes this prayer and he reverses it, saying to the Galatian Church: “There is now no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, in Christ there are no longer unjust societal and cultural divisions. And so now all “in Christ” are one. Differences no longer divide. There are no longer hierarchies: where some are more valued than others.  

Whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, straight or gay, binary or non-binary, white or black, rich or poor, native or immigrant: ALL are beloved children of God. ALL are beautifully and wonderfully made just the way we are.  ALL are created in God’s image, and marked with God’s unconditional love before we even left our mother’s wombs.

And nothing and nobody can take that away from us.

Not a bunch of nasty comments on facebook or twitter. Not a politician’s policies or a faith leader’s statements.

Not even a horrific hate crime.

So may we have the courage and the confidence to claim this. May we whole-heartedly believe it.  And may we proclaim it as loudly and as often as we can both about our neighbors and about ourselves.

And in painful times such as these, may we hold onto the beautiful words spoken at the Tony Awards last Sunday night by Hamilton the musical star Lin-Manuel Miranda:

We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger. We rise and fall and light from dying embers; Remembrance that hope and love last forever.

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.

Cannot be killed or swept aside… Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.

Amen.

 

 

 

“Jesus’ Mission Statement” – Epiphany 3 Sermon on Luke 4:14-21

Standard

week10-large

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21

If you have read any of my faith reflections or have heard me speak a lot – whether in church or at community events – you may have noticed that I love our passage from today’s Gospel.

I like to reference it… A LOT.

I often quote this passage – not only because of its content (which I DO, in fact, love), but also because it is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and message. It is Jesus’ inaugural address… His thesis… His mission statement. And it foreshadows everything we are about to hear him say and see him do for the rest of Luke’s 24 chapters.

*****

We are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has already been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and it’s not been long since he left the wilderness, where he spent 40 days and nights being tempted by the devil. And now here – in our passage for today – Jesus, who is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, returns to the region of Galilee.  And after teaching in several area synagogues, has reached his hometown of Nazareth to preach his first recorded sermon in Luke’s Gospel.

It’s the Sabbath day. And so, just as he had done throughout his life, Jesus goes to the local synagogue where he and his family worship. And as was the custom in the synagogue, Jesus stands up to read the scripture: an action that almost any male attendee could do. When he is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he unrolls the scroll, selects a few verses from the 61st chapter in Isaiah, and begins to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant, and sits down. At this point, everyone’s eyes are fixed on Jesus. It was custom for the reader to sit after he read the scripture and to give an interpretation of what the scripture meant. So everyone in the synagogue was anxiously waiting for Jesus to do just that.

*****

I sometimes wonder what this crowd in the Nazareth synagogue was hoping to hear from their very own Jesus. While they first find his words to be gracious, their approval of Jesus’ message does not last very long, as we will soon see when we continue to read the rest of Luke 4 next week.

This Isaiah text speaks of hope and justice for those most vulnerable in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day: the poor, the blind, the prisoners, and the oppressed. This text even gives hope to the slaves and to those in debt. This year of the Lord’s favor that is mentioned in Isaiah is the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to occur every 50 years and was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free and could go home to their families, and all debts would be remitted.

For those who were suffering and most vulnerable, this was not just good news. It was great news. It was liberating news.

And as Jesus sits down, he explains to the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is taking place right here and now.

*****

While this may have sounded too good to be true to some who gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue that day, I wonder if this started to make others feel a little uneasy. I wonder if some of Jesus’ neighbors and acquaintances started to question how this was good news for them. Where was the good news for those who were not the poor nor the blind, not the imprisoned nor the oppressed, not the slave nor those who were in debt? Didn’t their lives matter, too?

This sort of reminds me of a common response many people have made this past year to the blacklivesmatter movement. Some people have not felt comfortable with the phrase blacklivesmatter because they feel it suggests that other lives don’t matter. Many of these individuals have responded to blacklivesmatter with the phrase: “all lives matter” because – they often state: “don’t we believe that all lives matter equally” or “don’t we believe that all lives matter to God?”

I understand where the question is coming from.  But the answer is: “Yes… AND…”

Yes… As people of faith, and as Christians, we DO believe that all lives matter to God. Because they do. And yet, this is the very reason why saying blacklivesmatter is so important today… Because while we know that all lives do matter to God, 400 years of systemic racism in our country has claimed otherwise. To say blacklivesmatter doesn’t mean that black lives matter more than other lives. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. To say blacklivesmatter is to admit that in our culture and throughout our country black lives have not mattered and still do not matter as much as white lives have and do. To say blacklivesmatter is to say that systemic racism is wrong. It is to say that black lives DO matter, too!

One way many people have explained this is through a metaphor of a burning house. If there is a house that catches on fire, you send a firefighter to that particular house, not because the other houses on the block don’t also matter, but because the house that is on fire especially matters in that moment. Blacklivesmatter activists are saying: “right now, our house is on fire.”

I heard another great metaphor explaining blacklivesmatter from a fellow pastor. He said that if one of his children came up to him and said: “Dad, I don’t feel like you love me as much as you love my sisters,” that child doesn’t need her father to respond to her: “Honey, I love all of my children the same.” Rather, she needs her father to say: “Honey, I hear you. I see you. I love you very much. I am sorry for the things I’ve done to make you feel this way, and I will do whatever I can to make sure you know that you matter to me just as much as your sisters matter to me.” And this daughter may need her father to give her some extra attention for a while.

*****

I think this is similar to what Jesus is claiming in his mission statement at the beginning of his ministry as he reads from Isaiah in front of his home congregation in Luke. The lives of those whom the world has cast away – the poor, the blind, the prisoner, the oppressed, the slave, the one in debt: the last and least – DO in fact matter to God. Their houses have been on fire. And now Jesus – this God in the flesh – has come to say: “I hear you. I see you. I love you. You matter.” And this God in the flesh comes, proclaiming good news full of justice, equality, and liberation for those who need it most.

As David Lose states in his commentary on Luke 4: “In this first sermon of Jesus, we cannot avoid the conclusion that perhaps one of the chief powers of Jesus is to declare that God sees all of us – not just those the world sees, but everyone. Because the very fact that Jesus’ sermon is all about what God will do for the least of those in the world tells us that God gives special attention to those whom the world doesn’t want to see.”

*****

In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming this radical mission statement in the synagogue in his hometown. And then throughout the book of Luke, we see this mission statement being carried out as Jesus continues to love the last and the least: the women, the widows, the children, the sick, the poor, the blind, the lepers, and those who are held captive in a variety of ways. But Jesus doesn’t end there. He commands his followers to do the same: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

*****

I love that our second reading from 1 Corinthians is paired with Luke 4 this morning. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is writing to the early Christians in the Corinth church, calling them to unity and to embrace and celebrate their differences rather than allowing their differences to divide them. Essentially, Paul explains that contrary to what the world says – in Christ, there are no last and least. There are no outsiders. For ALL are welcomed into the body of Christ. And ALL members of the body are needed.

“Indeed,” Paul says to the Corinthians (and to us today, as well), “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? …As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'”

You see, every single one of us here is needed in the body, not despite of our differences, but because of our differences. Each one of us has a different story with different struggles, joys, failures, successes. Each one of us has different gifts and insights to share, life experiences and life circumstances. And each one of us – with our often complicated story – is needed in this body. No matter if the world sees us or not, God sees us. God hears us. God loves us – joys, successes, failures, struggles and all.

And as members of the body of Christ, we are called to see, to hear, and to love our brothers and sisters in this way, as well, and to give special care to those the world casts out.  

Paul continues: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

When Paul was writing to the Corinth church, he was specifically talking to and about members of the body of Christ: that all of us are called to embrace one another’s differences and to see, love, and hear our fellow members of the body of Christ. For us, this means that we are called to embrace the diversity within this body and to offer this kind of love and care for our fellow members here at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, as well for all of our brothers and sisters in the Church (with a capital “C”) – across all denominations and throughout the world. However, our call to love and care is not limited to only our neighbors within the body of Christ. As we see in Jesus’ mission statement and throughout his ministry, the good news is for ALL members of the human family – whether Christian or not.

*****

Here in Luke 4, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we hear him boldly reciting his radical mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As David Lose continues to explain in his commentary: “[This means that] God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. It also means that God sees the parts of us that we don’t want seen. That God sees the parts of us that we deem ugly and unlovable and loves us anyway. That God will not wait for us to improve enough to be loved, and that God is never satisfied that we are all we can be. God loves us enough to see us, God loves us enough to forgive us, God loves us enough to challenge us, and God loves us enough to send us out to see and love others – especially those the world does not see. To do that is to share in the peculiar power that drives Jesus to preach such an odd and inclusive sermon. God sees all, loves all, and intends and promises to redeem all. Good news for those who heard it then and for those who hear it today.”

So may each one of us – cherished and important members of the body of Christ – place Jesus’ mission statement at the heart of our lives and our ministries. May we be bold enough to see, to hear, to embrace our brothers and sisters and to spread this good news to all – especially to, for, and with those who need it the most!

 

 

“A Camel, An Eye of a Needle, and An Upside Kingdom of God” – Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

Standard

camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle

“As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:17-31


Jesus has set out on a journey when he encounters a man who is in need of some answers.

“Good Teacher,” he says, “what must I do in order to inherit eternal life?”

Now, the eternal life this man is asking about is not what we often think of when we see it on bumper stickers or hear it preached about by televangelists. It’s not a life lived forever in an other-worldly place somewhere up there. The Greek word aoinios – which we translate into “eternal” or “everlasting” – is an adjective which means: “age-long” or “partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief or fleeting.” It is having “the quality describing a particular age” or a period of time. And this eternal life the man was asking Jesus about was a life in the “Age to Come.”

You see, many First Century Jews maintained hope that the Present Age in which they currently lived – that was full of inequalities and where many of God’s people faced suffering and oppression -would one day end and the Age to Come would begin – where God would restore God’s kingdom to the earth and oppression and injustice would cease. And the question on many of these first Century Jews’ minds was how they might inherit this eternal life… How they might ensure that they would enter into this Age to Come.

And this rabbi named Jesus seemed to be a likely candidate to have answers to this question. He had been teaching about this Age to Come, this Kingdom of God – he often called it – which he proclaimed was not just in the far future, but was soon to come. And as the early Christian audience of Mark’s Gospel came to believe, this Kingdom of God started to break through into the earth at Jesus’ death and resurrection, and thus was not just something that was in the future when Jesus would return – although it would not be fully realized until then – but it was also something at work in the present. It was an upside down Kingdom of God – both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

But before Jesus’ death, for many of the religious, the inheritance of the Age to Come came by strictly following their particular interpretations of the Mosaic Law. And so on the surface, part of Jesus’ response to this man who is kneeling before him may not have been very surprising. After saying to the man: “What do you mean by calling me good? Nobody is good except for God,” Jesus goes on to say to him: “Now you know the commandments…” and then he lists some of them off. ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

“Of course,” the man jumps in confidently. “Teacher, I have kept these commandments since my youth.”

Now, this man’s response suggests that he may not quite get Jesus’ point.

He doesn’t seem to catch what Jesus is saying about how it is only God – and God alone – who can be deemed as fully good and without flaw or sin, no matter how great of a commandment-obeyer one might be. He doesn’t seem to notice that Jesus did not list ALL the 10 commandments. That Jesus named only the commandments that talk about how to treat some of our neighbors in particular ways, but that Jesus skipped the commandments that relate directly to our relationship with God and the commandments about coveting – or yearning for – our neighbor’s stuff.

“Well,” Jesus seems to be implying by his choice of omitting several of these commandments, “Yes, you may be obeying these particular commandments. Yes, you may be quite the honorable man who does not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, or defraud your neighbors, and you may be one who honors your mother and father. But what about your relationship with God? What about making time for Sabbath? Do you take a break from the business of work and all the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and make time to rest in God’s presence? What about creating other gods in your life that come before God the Father? Do you put money, your personal image, your possessions, and social status before God and turn them into gods, themselves, by idolizing them? What about saying God’s name in vain? Do you misuse God’s name to justify societal structures and your personal actions that contribute to the marginalization and suffering of your neighbors? What about coveting what your neighbors have? Do you long for the kind of status, wealth, power, and possessions that they have – so much that you do whatever you can to gain more for yourself?”

“While you may obey many of these commandments,” Jesus says to the man as he looks at him and feels a deep love for him: “You still lack one thing.  So go, shed from your life the things that get in the way of your relationship with God and with others. Sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.  Let go of the things that keep you from obeying the greatest commandment: to love God fully and in doing so, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked, and he went away grieving, for he was wealthy and owned a lot of possessions.

Then Jesus looked around at his disciples and said: “How hard will it be for those with wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were perplexed by Jesus’ words. But Jesus said to them again: “How hard is it to get into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to get through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God!”

*****

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman I met a few years ago about how hard it was to live in poverty when she was in middle and high school. Because her single mother struggled on and off with unemployment, there were many times when Sarah and her younger brother went to school not knowing if they would have much for dinner that night. And yet, she said that even though she could have used the extra money, there were times when she would babysit the neighbor children for free during the summer when their parents couldn’t pay for daycare. She also told me that when her mom’s job became a little more stable, her mom helped her friend pay her bills for a few months while she was going through a divorce. And there were many times when Sarah’s family had neighbors over for dinner when they had the money to buy extra food or when they allowed friends to stay at their apartment when their friends were temporarily homeless. Sarah told me that she and her family wanted to be as generous as they could be with others in need because they knew how hard it was to go to bed hungry or to worry about being evicted from their apartment because they couldn’t pay their rent.

However, Sarah said that things changed after she got a well-paying job as an adult and began to live very comfortably. She sadly explained to me that the more money she made over the years, the less generous she became. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said: “I think when you have more than enough money to live comfortably, it can become really easy to stay in your own bubble and forget that there are many people around you who are suffering. And I think the more money you have, the harder it is to give it away. At a certain point, it becomes really difficult not to try to keep up with the Jones’… And we all know that once you start that race, it will never end because you can never actually catch up with them. You will never be fully satisfied with what you have. You will always want something more for yourself. And because of this, you focus on your own wants and forget how to love and care for those around you.”

*****

No, it is not easy to enter in this Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of when we idolize wealth and the possessions, power, and social status that come with it – whether we have this wealth or we long for and strive to have it.  It is not easy to get into this upside down Age to Come that is already breaking forth into the here and now – where the last shall be first and the first shall be last… Where we are called to be co-workers with God in challenging oppression, inequalities, and injustice until they forever shall cease.

No, it is not easy to shed from our lives the things that get in the way of loving God fully and thus, in doing so, loving our neighbor as ourself.

But, as Jesus goes onto say to his disciples: while it may be impossible for us to do so on our own, it is not impossible for God. Because for God, all things are possible. And therefore, all things are possible with the help and by the grace of God.

*****

In a little while, we will have the wonderful opportunity of celebrating two baptisms. And in doing so, we are also being called to remember our own baptism. As we look to the cleansing baptismal waters this morning, let us reflect on what it is that we need to be cleansed of… what it is that we need to shed from our lives so that we can love God and love our neighbor fully.

And no matter how difficult it may be for us to let these things go, may we hold onto the promise that with God’s help and by God’s grace, all things are possible.

Because in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our mistakes, failures, and struggles. Because – as our Hebrews text for today reminds us – “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us and others] in time of need.”

Amen.