Category Archives: Lectionary

“Paul, Philippi, and Privilege” – Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

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If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” – Philippians 3:4b-14


This August, I took 24 youth to Dubuque, IA for our third mission/service and learning trip. We had so many wonderful experiences, and I really hope you will stop by founders hall today after worship to watch a slide show from our trip.

Every year we’ve had wonderful experiences in Iowa. However, the first year we went – several years ago, there was one experience that was not as wonderful as the rest.

While in Dubuque, we went to the local YMCA to shower each day after our service projects. At the Y, there was one locker room for girls under 18 years old and one locker room for women above 18. Unfortunately, the girl’s locker room did not have any enclosed showers with doors on them and only had one large open, shared shower.   Since I knew this would not be a very comfortable situation for our girls, I asked the manager months in advance if he would allow our girls to shower in the women’s locker room under my supervision so that they could access the private individual showers that were enclosed with walls and doors. The manager had no problem with this. Unfortunately, while we were in Iowa, two of the women in the locker room did… And what was even more unfortunate was that the manager who gave us permission was out of town that week…

Let’s just say that those two women were not very kind to our girls when they walked out of the showers… Or to me, (or to the rest of the YMCA staff) when they explained to these women that we had received permission because the Y was our only access to showers for the week… (Might I add that these same women were also not very kind to one of our other adult women chaperones when she accidentally dripped some water on the locker room floor when she walked into the locker room from the pool.)

In my conversation with these women, I heard a lot of: “this is the way we have always done it.” “I’ve been a member here for 22 years and it’s my right to be able to come to my locker room without having people like you break the rules.” And “I don’t care if you got permission, this is the rule, and if you don’t like it, then you can leave.”

After talking with the YMCA staff and a few other members later on in the week, we found out that we were not the only ones these women had been snippy with or had thrown a fit about… for various reasons…

These two women were long-term members, had established a set of “rules” – both written and unwritten – about the way things needed to be, and they believed that they had the right to enforce those rules because of their seniority. Newcomers and visitors needed to abide by their rules, and there were no exceptions. Period.

*****

Privilege, entitlement, judgment, closed-mindedness, exclusion. These are some of the themes we see in this scenario that took place at the YMCA several years ago. And to be honest, I think these are some of the themes we see quite a bit today as our country is trying to determine who is welcome to live in this country, who gets to receive needed services and has particular rights, which victims of natural disasters should receive aid, who and how people should speak up against injustice, and how we might address local gun violence and world violence. And the list could go on.

And this scenario at the YMCA also reminds me of the situation Paul is addressing in his letter to the Philippian church. You see, the city of Philippi was in the center of Macedonia, and yet since it was considered a colony of the Roman Empire, all residents had Roman citizenship and therefore received the benefits that were awarded to the citizens of Rome, such as property rights, exemption from taxes that were enforced upon non-citizens of Rome, and civil and legal protections. Because of this, most citizens of Philippi were very proud of their Roman citizenship, viewed themselves as the elite residents of the preeminent city in the center of Macedonia, and often boasted about their status.

In addition to this, as with a few other churches Paul communicated with, within the church at Philippi there were some Christians who were insisting that any converts to Christianity must first take on the Jewish identity, such as observing the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws and being circumcised, a practice that was viewed by many Greeks as revolting. In some instances where non-Jewish Christians did not observe such laws and chose not to be circumcised, they were deemed as “un-savable,” inferior to those who were “saved,” and were even excluded from meals and other gatherings. (Acts 15:1)

So, as we can see, the members of the church of Philippi inherited privileges (that many other Christians in Macedonia lacked) and were proud because these privileges elevated their social status above the others. And it is possible that they were using some of those privileges to exclude others from their community, unless these “others” first gave up their own identities and became like “one of them.”

*****

Now, I can imagine many of us here have encountered modern-day prideful Philippians at least at one point in our lives. I imagine many of us at one time or another have known someone who has been excluded from a group or discriminated against because of their identities or lack of societal status — or some of us have even experienced this ourselves.

And yet, I wonder if any of us here can also see ourselves in the Philippian Christians. I wonder if we – too – have inherited privileges that allow us to enjoy benefits and opportunities that others around us cannot enjoy: Whether we benefit from the privileges of being white, male, Christian, heterosexual, cis-gender, or having socially accepted body weight and abilities – where we have never felt unsafe, been shamed by others, or discriminated against because of our identities or abilities. Or maybe we benefit from the privileges of being educated, employed, economically stable, or a U.S. citizen, where we are granted the rights of these statuses and never have to worry about putting food on our tables, losing our homes, or being deported back to very dangerous situations.

And within the church, some of us may even have the privilege of growing up in a Christian congregation and knowing the Christian lingo, being involved in the Lutheran denomination for as long as we can remember and knowing its rituals, or even worshipping here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for years and knowing its expectations and unwritten rules that newcomers do not know.

We might even sometimes expect that those newcomers must also act, talk, dress, worship, and think like we do in order for them to be fully included into our community or worship gathering.

And there may be some of us here who know what it is like to work really hard throughout our education process and our careers, are involved in our communities, and are pleased at how far we have come. And so it’s no wonder that there might be times when we feel so proud about our resumes and status that we can’t help but boast about our achievements.

It’s easy and very tempting when things go well in our lives to look at ourselves as better than those whose situations are not like our own and to look at those “others” with judgment… They are “lazy” or “not smart enough”; she has “poor leadership;” she isn’t making the “right” choices; he isn’t standing up for just causes in a “respectable” way, the way I would – we might think or say. And so we victim blame. They got themselves into these difficult situations. And as we point fingers at those people while we uplift our own choices, we often do so without recognizing our own inherited privileges – that so many others lack – and yet that have enabled us (maybe even with a lot of hard work) to get to where we are now.

*****

And yet, for Paul, there is no room for finger pointing and boasting. No matter how impressive one’s resume or achievements are, no matter what community or “club” one is a member – or citizen – of, and no matter if one makes all sorts of the “right choices” (based on certain people’s standards) that have gotten that person to a comfortable and elevated place in society– according to Paul, this all counts for nothing.

Of all people, Paul knows this. At the beginning of our passage, Paul states that if anyone has the right to have confidence in the flesh (meaning confidence in one’s circumcision or Jewish identity markers, human achievements, or societal status) – if anyone has the right to be prideful of and boast about such things – it is Paul, himself, who has more. For it is Paul who has quite the extensive resume, as we see in our passage for today.

And yet, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges his privilege that enabled him to reach such a worldly status and says whatever societal and religious “gains” he once had, he now regards as loss because of Christ. These “gains” no longer matter. They are rubbish, or in a more accurate translation and more crude terms: they are dung, horse manure… or whatever other four letter word that comes to your mind.

Contrary to his old understanding, Paul has not gained righteousness by making the “right choices” determined by the law that elevated his worldly status. Righteousness does not come from anything he has done to achieve it. Rather, Paul says: righteousness comes through faith in Christ – or, as some translators suggest: it comes through “the faithfulness of Christ.”

In other words, righteousness comes through the faith in or faithfulness of the One who came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set the oppressed free. It comes through and because of the One who spoke out against all forms of violence and challenged the unjust hierarchical structures – both in Rome and the Temple – that created class systems of privilege, which elevated and cared for only some while marginalizing others. Righteousness comes through and because of the One who boldly and loudly proclaimed justice on behalf of the “least of these,” even though his radical teachings and actions ultimately led him to his arrest and eventual death on the cross. It comes through and because of the One who – through his resurrection – conquers injustice and death and brings forth new life, which is both that which is to come and that which liberates us from all the hate – the isms and phobias – that cause us to experience death here and now.

Righteousness comes through the One who calls all of his followers to choose this resurrection life that proclaims love, peace, and life-giving justice for all of God’s children, especially in a world where evil and suffering seem to overcome us. Because – as we see in Jesus’ resurrection – death does not have the final say. And we – as resurrection people – are called and gifted with the ability to share this good news of hope to a hurting world.

And so counter to what the world says, it no longer matters what our resume looks like, how much education we might or might not have, what our heritage, identity, or worldly status is, how long we have been in or out of the faith community, or whether or not we know the Christian lingo and rituals.

In Christ and because of Christ, we are all invited to the Table.

Now – according to Paul – what does matter is the way we live. And the way we love. That we become like Christ in his death. That we come to know him and be transformed by his compassion and the power of his resurrection – and in doing so – that we might emulate and share that love to all of God’s children, especially to those who are suffering the most.

What does matter is that we continue to learn about and acknowledge our privileges that have helped us get to where we are today and allow that acknowledgement of our privilege shape the way we look at, care for, love and stand in solidarity with others who walk through this world differently than we do. That we begin to listen to those voices around us that are not being heard or represented. That we begin to use our privilege to help right wrongs so that Christ’s liberating resurrection may not just be experienced in the future, but that it will also begin to be experienced by all in the here and now.

This is not an easy task, and we cannot just reach our goal with the snap of our fingers. It’s a process. It’s a life-long race that we cannot run on our own: it’s one we must pursue together.

And as we do, we must remember – as Paul explains – that we may never quite reach the finish line and obtain the prize at the end of the race. But, as we continue to learn how to take our eyes off the worldly values of our past, learn from our mistakes when we stumble or fall off the path, and let go of the guilt that sometimes weighs us down when we begin to acknowledge our privilege, we must press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

And this is true – even and especially in times such as these – when evil and injustice overwhelm us and we feel so overcome by hopelessness and helplessness. And so in times such as these, may we sing and cling to the words of the late rocker Tom Petty: “Well, I won’t back down. You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down. No, I’ll stand my ground. Won’t be turned around. And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down, gonna stand my ground. Hey, there ain’t no easy way out. But I won’t back down. Well I know what’s right. I got just one life, in a world that keeps on pushin me around, but I’ll stand my ground. And I won’t back down.”

Amen.

 

 

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“Word and Deed” – Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

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“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” – Matthew 16:13-20


I don’t know about for you, but this passage is quite familiar to me. And one of the most popular claims I’ve heard about it is that this text is about Peter’s faith and great confession and it has been used as an example of how we might have faith in Jesus and confess who he is.

According to this interpretation, this passage is a turning point for Peter. After all, it was only a few chapters earlier when Jesus told Peter that he had little faith because he lacked trust in Jesus when he feared walking on water. Yet, here, in Matthew 16, Peter finally confesses who Jesus really is. When Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for the disciples and replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

So it seems to make sense that this passage is about Peter’s turning point, faith, and confession.

However, if we look at the passage that immediately follows this one, we might see that there is something more to this passage. Starting in vs. 21, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he MUST journey toward Jerusalem, suffer and die in the hands of the religious leaders, and be raised on the third day.

We would think that a disciple who truly understands who this Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is, would accept what Jesus has to say about his mission – even if this disciple does so with reluctance and sadness. However, to our surprise, Peter responds to this by rebuking Jesus and saying: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen!” And to our even greater surprise, Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan and saying he is a stumbling block for only setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.

And this isn’t the only time Peter does not seem to get it. For we all know it is HE who denies Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So maybe our Gospel text this morning is not just about Peter’s confession about who Jesus is. Maybe it’s about something more.

*****

To better understand, we need to consider what these titles given to Jesus in Peter’s “confession” meant to both Peter and Jesus.

According to one source, (the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary) the Messiah was an “anointed agent of God, appointed to a task affecting the lot.” However, the title “Messiah” did not always suggest a divine being. In Ancient Israel/Palestine, this title referred to priests, anointed men who were kings of Israel, prophets, and even to the pagan king, Cyrus. It is not until the Babylonian Exile – where the Israelites were taken from their homeland and longed to return – when the Israelites began to write about a coming Messiah who would be their Savior in the midst of great suffering. And it is not until we read Paul’s letters when we begin to hear that Jesus, the Christ (which is the Greek translation for “Messiah”), is the one who fulfilled the Palestinian Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah.

The title “Son of God” is similar in that it was also used to allude to numerous persons and positions in Ancient Israel, including angels, monarchs when they were enthroned, and people who were considered to be righteous. According to one source, by the first century, this title referred to “a person or a people with a special relationship to God, often with a special role in salvation history.” (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary)

In order to better understand the importance of these titles, we might also consider the location in which Peter made this confession, Caesarea Phillipi. This city was the worldwide center of the Pagan religion that worshipped Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This religion involved lustful acts that followers would perform in order to worship Pan. In addition to this, the city represented the imperial power of the Roman Empire, which created a strong dominating hierarchy that uplifted the wealthy and the elite and oppressed the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. In fact, the city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power… And you can probably guess who it was named after: Caesar…and Phillip, himself.

Two temples stood in Caesarea Phillipi: one to honor and worship Caesar the great leader of the Empire and the other to honor and worship Pan. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there.

So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take his disciples to and ask them to confess who he really is. We might think that the Temple or one of the synagogues would have been a better place.

And yet, I think it is quite intentional that Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi to reveal his identity to them. You see, in the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the empire and it’s leaders. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.”

What’s more is that in Caesarea Phillipi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the Gates of Hades, the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.

 *****

Now in our passage for today, Jesus goes on to tell Simon Peter that his name shall be Peter, which means rock. And it is upon this rock – or Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples – where Jesus will build his Church. And nothing – not even the Gates of Hades – the location where the pagan gods representing imperial, oppressive power and where the gods exit and enter Hades – not even these gates will prevail against this body of Christ.

You see, it seems as though Caesarea Phillipi is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the one who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome or Jupiter or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against him!

And we see throughout Matthew, that it is this Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who begins to bring about a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom so opposite of the oppressive Roman Empire that dominated over those on the margins.

A Kingdom that will even oppose, challenge, and tear down the hierarchical powers and forces of that Empire.

And this new kingdom is one where Jesus, the only truly great ruler and king – rules not with a militaristic, exclusive, and dominating power over others. But rather rules with love and equality and lives with and uplifts the poor and sick, the women and widows, the immigrants and ethnic minorities – those who were considered the last and least in society.

 *****

Now, we have come a long way since the first century. So it may seem very difficult for us to understand or even comprehend the repercussions of such a violent and oppressive Empire. And yet, I don’t think we have to listen too long to the local, national, and international news before we start to realize that the United States is dangerously moving toward a modern day Roman Empire.

Because don’t we live in a country where status and capitalism are often worshiped… And so while it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, only a few individuals have the majority of wealth in this country while so many individuals are left without enough of an income to buy food for their families, provide housing, or afford adequate health care.

Don’t we live in a country with more resources than much of the rest of the world can even comprehend and with a fairly low population density.  And yet, when 1000s of families from across the world seek refuge from war, we refuse to open our borders and when 1000s of unaccompanied children desperately cross the border in order to flee violence, we detain them, threaten to build a wall, and look at rescinding the DACA program, which protects immigrants without documentation who came to the US as children.

Don’t we live in a country where racism continues to prevail so much throughout our systems, that a sheriff is pardoned for his Civil Rights abuses – even though he had openly been racially profiling Latinx individuals and had bragged about mistreating Latinx folks while holding them in what he called a “concentration camp.” And don’t we live in a country where even when racism takes shape in such overt forms as what took place in Charlottesville – where the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists held tiki torches and chanted: “Blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other horrific anti-LGBTQIA chants – even then, this white supremacist terrorism is downplayed by many, including by some of our highest political leaders?

Don’t we live in a country that proclaims its moral superiority over other nations and yet it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined?

Today, our worship of the Caesars and Pan gods in the United States – our worship of capitalism, power, wealth, religion, and race – not only push so many people in our own country into the margins of society, but our nationalism – our worship of our country – leads us to view other nations and people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as inferior to us and as less human than we are.

While it is okay and even important for us to recognize and be thankful for the many blessings we do have in our lives, we must always remember that while we may sing “God bless America,” God does not bless American any more than any other nation. And, as followers of Jesus, we can never worship a nation, social status, wealth, capitalism, a particular racial or ethnic group, or any other Caesar or pagan god. Because it is Jesus Christ – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – not Caesar or Pan, not the United States or any other nation, not our material possessions or our successful careers, not our military weapons, borders, politicians, or our powerful police forces. It is Jesus Christ and it is ONLY Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Saviour.

We hear this truth proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, and we particularly hear it preaching out of our text in Matthew today.

 *****

But our message does not end here with this confession of Peter about who Jesus is. As Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem and toward the cross, he tells Peter an important thing: that although Jesus will leave this earth, his ministry of challenging and breaking down the oppressive imperial walls and forces and of spreading his good news of love and justice to ALL people – is not over.

This ministry will continue. It will first continue through Peter and the disciples who will be the rock on which Jesus will begin to build the Church… But it will also continue through all of Jesus’ disciples.

No longer does it matter that Caesar holds the keys to an oppressive kingdom that excludes those on the margins of society, because now it is Peter and ALL of Jesus’ followers who hold the keys and opens the doors to a new Kingdom that is built on love, peace, equality, and justice.

*****

So we can see that our passage in Matthew begins with a confession, but it ends with commission. A commission not just to Peter, not just to the other eleven disciples, but to all of us who truly proclaim that it is Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – and it is ONLY this Jesus – who is our Lord.

We may wonder how on earth we are to respond to this commission. For some of us, it might start with listening to the voices around us who are being shut out and recognizing the Caesars and Pan gods we currently worship, benefit from, and/or defend… and learning to give them up. For others of us, it might be figuring out how to tear down the imperial powers that oppress and push people to the margins in Chicago, in the U.S., and throughout the world by learning about and spreading the word about such injustice, signing petitions, and standing with others at marches that demand justice. For others it might be figuring out how to open the doors of this Kingdom of God to the people in our midst who are being excluded by our present-day imperial systems.

However we may do it, we – as followers of Jesus – are called to not just confess who Jesus Christ is, but we are also called to respond to his great commission. So let us not just leave this place and go back to our busy schedules forgetting what we have heard and confessed this morning. But let us boldly and loudly respond to Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the Son of the Living God, both in word and in deed.

Amen.

 

 

“Jerkiness and a Persistent and Resistant faith” – Sermon on Matthew 15:10-21

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Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” – Matthew 15:10-21

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

*****

Some of you might not like this… But I’m going to be quite frank…

Jesus is being a real jerk right now!

Now, before you immediately get up and storm out of the sanctuary… try to bare with me for a bit.

You see, in our Gospel this morning, there is this woman who approaches Jesus when he enters the district of Tyre and Sidon, the region where this woman is from. She cries out to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.”

But even though she’s distraught, Jesus just ignores her and says nothing.

You have to admit: that’s kind of a jerky thing to do.

But if you start to think that is not so bad… Jesus is probably just busy and overwhelmed from all the difficult ministry he’s been doing, just wait for what happens next.

After this woman continues to persist and the disciples approach Jesus and urge him to send her away, Jesus finally responds, saying: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, he’s saying: my good news and mercy is only for some, only for those who are a part of my flock. Since you are an outsider, it is not for you.

Seriously, Jesus!?

But if you think that is still not too terrible… Jesus must have had so much to do that he had to make some priorities in his ministry, just wait for what comes next.

Because when the woman hears this, she drops to her knees before Jesus’ feet and desperately pleads with Jesus: “Lord, help me.” And you know how Jesus replies to her? He says: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Yep, you heard that right. Jesus just called this woman a dog… which might as well have been that five-letter word your parents caught you saying as a middle schooler before they washed your mouth out with soap…

Now, our first reaction is probably to defend Jesus. Because… well, he’s Jesus, for heaven sakes! Jesus is our savior, our refuge, the one who came to protect us.

So how on earth could Jesus treat this woman in such a manner?!

And so when we can’t come up with any decent reasons for why Jesus would do such a thing, it seems that the only natural thing to do is to start blaming this woman. She must have deserved this treatment.

And so if we look at our text, we see that she was shouting… And this is actually the reason the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. Because: “She keeps shouting at us,” they tell Jesus.

Well, this seems to make a little more sense… This woman must be to blame. She was being too aggressive. She should have kept her tone down. She should have spoken nicer. She shouldn’t have been so angry.

And as a Canaanite – who is considered unclean by the Israelites – she shouldn’t even be around the Israelites. And as a woman, it was absolutely uncalled for for her to have approached a man, let alone a rabbi!

I think that finding reasons to blame this woman for Jesus’ words and actions seems to be our natural response… because this kind of victim blaming happens so often today.

“They wouldn’t be jobless and homeless if they were not so lazy.”

“They wouldn’t have been shot by the police if they just didn’t run the other direction.”

“They shouldn’t have protested so loudly. They shouldn’t be so angry. They should be more kind, more gentle, more calm…”

They should do things the way we would have done them.

But the thing is, if we are honest with ourselves, would we do things differently if we really were in the other person’s shoes? Would we obey all the laws, even if the laws were oppressive to us and to our families? Would we be less angry and would we respond more calmly if we were actually up against systems that dehumanize and harm us and that ignore and blame us when we call out this injustice?

If we are honest with ourselves, wouldn’t we – like the Canaanite woman – start shouting if our daughter was possessed by a demon? Wouldn’t we do everything in our power to find a way to heal her – even if that meant doing some things that broke the socially accepted “norms?” And when the world around us ignores or blames us – because – we are “doubly marginalized” as the Canaanite woman – wouldn’t we raise our voices in order to make sure SOMEONE actually begins to listen to us? Wouldn’t we do whatever we could to protect our child, whose life is being threatened by violence, evil, and injustice?

Wouldn’t we persist and resist?

As jerky as Jesus might have been in this situation, I think Jesus must have understood where the Canaanite woman was coming from. Because despite all the reasons why it was culturally inappropriate for her to be doing what she was doing and despite that she was distracting Jesus and the disciples while they were trying to do their ministry, Jesus doesn’t start victim blaming and shaming her. And he doesn’t even send her away when the disciples urge him to do so.

… So … maybe Jesus is not being a complete jerk.

But that still doesn’t take away from him ignoring her and then calling her a dog. So there must be another reason the woman deserved this treatment.

She was – after all – a Canaanite woman. And Canaanites were not only considered unclean to Jews, but they were also considered enemies.

In fact, it was actually quite common for Jews to call Canaanites dogs.

And so, while this was a misogynistic and racial slur, it would not have been a shock for the disciples or even for the Canaanite woman to hear Jesus say it.

So I guess that Jesus must not have been trying to be a jerk. Jesus was just a product of his culture, using language that was common and normal for his time.

But… that still just does not sit too well with me. To me, it feels like Jesus is still being… kind of a jerk.  (Just unintentionally.)

However – this – I believe – is where the good news comes in.

Because honestly, I can be kind of a jerk sometimes, too… And – not always – but most of the time my jerkiness is unintentional.

Because – like Jesus – I am a product of my culture.

I still unintentionally think, say, and do things that are racist or homophobic or transphobic or ablest. Or anti-Semitic or Islamophobic or classist or ethnocentric… and the list goes on. Not because I’m a terrible person. Not because I wish to be these things. It’s actually quite the opposite. I don’t want to be this way. But I do these things because I live in a country where these isms and phobias have been deeply engrained in our culture and in our systems for hundreds of years. And while we have made a lot of progress over those several hundred years, we still have a very long way to go. Because those isms and phobias don’t just go away at the drop of a hat.

And as a white, straight, cis-gendered, able bodied, middle class, Christian, who is a citizen of this country, I have so much privilege that enables me to benefit from our country’s systems… systems that actually marginalize, harm, and oppress people without these privileges. And my privilege often blinds me from seeing this reality and often keeps me from fully understanding and even at times believing the experiences of those who don’t have these privileges. Because it’s hard to be aware of and understand experiences of others that are very different from our own. To do so takes a lot of intentionality and a lot of hard work. And it is a life-long process that we must work at every day. Because even when I do this hard anti-racism and anti-hate work, I still live with privilege and still look at the world through a privileged lens.

But this is where Jesus being kind of a jerk in our Gospel today is good news. It is through Jesus’ jerkiness where we see a part of Jesus’ humanity. Because yes, we proclaim that Jesus was fully divine. But we also proclaim that he was fully human. And aren’t humans products of our culture? And isn’t it human to say and do things that are racist, misogynist and ethnocentric without meaning to be? Especially when our culture and systems shape us this way?

This does not – by any means – mean it’s okay and excusable to think, say and do these things.

But it does mean that if Jesus – our Lord and Savior – the Son of the Living God – was a product of his culture and unintentionally said and did things that are kind of jerky: racist, misogynistic and ethnocentric, then it means that maybe I can recognize, admit, and confess that as a human – particularly one with a lot of privilege – I still do these things, too, even when I try so hard not to.

And this is good news because recognizing and confessing this about ourselves is our first step in being able to free ourselves from the bondage that privilege and all the isms and phobias have on us. And it is also the first step we need to take in order to dismantle hate. We have to first look at ourselves and recognize and confess how we are participating in and contributing to oppressive systems or how we are enabling any form of hate.

Because dismantling racism and homophobia and transphobia and ableism and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and nationalism does not only involve calling out extremist groups that march in the streets with tiki torches chanting hateful chants.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We absolutely do need to call out that kind of hate for what it is and denounce it. What happened in Charlottesville last weekend (which quite honestly happens much more often than we’d like to admit in our country) is – in fact – evil. There absolutely were two sides in Charlottesville last weekend. There was the side of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists who were chanting “blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other horrific anti-LGBTQIA chants that I won’t repeat. And then there was the side of those who were resisting that hate. It’s very clear which side is demonic, hateful, and wrong.

But our work of dismantling hate cannot just end after we call out these extremists and denounce their actions. Because another danger that comes with this territory is when we just point our fingers at “those racists” and “those anti-Semites” and those “homophobics” and say that those extremist “fringe” groups are wrong… and then at the same time say “but I’m not like them so I’m not racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or fill-in-the-blank.”

Because we will never be able to dismantle hate if we deny our own part in it.

Another danger that comes with this territory is when we point our fingers at these extremists and then just ignore our uncle’s racist jokes or our friend’s transphobic facebook posts because our uncle and our friend are “not like those extremists” and their jokes and posts seem to be “harmless.” Because the truth is: no racist or transphobic post or stereotype is harmless – no matter one’s intensions. It is those unchecked jokes and stereotypes and unintentionally harmful things we say, think, and do that lead to the kind of “othering” that hurts our siblings and that enables and normalizes extremist acts and other forms of systemic injustice.

So let us choose to not be silent. Let us choose to call out all forms of isms and phobias – including those within ourselves. Let us choose to not allow our own isms and phobias to hold us captive and dominate who we are.

*****

And so this is where I would like us to look back at Jesus in our Gospel text for today. For I think if we continue to look at what happens in our story and throughout the rest of Matthew, we will see Jesus modeling for us how we might go about doing this anti-hate work.

You see, even though Jesus starts off this morning being a bit of a jerk, we can learn a lot from what happens next. When Jesus tells the Canaanite woman: “it’s not fair to take food from the children’s table and feed it to the dogs,” she responds strongly:

“Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In other words, this Canaanite woman is saying to Jesus that there is room at the table for her, too.

In other words, nevertheless, she persisted and is reclaiming her time.

And in doing so, as she demands that Jesus’ good news and mercy is not just for some, but is for all, guess how Jesus responds…

He doesn’t victim blame her or shun her for breaking the cultural and religious rules and norms. He doesn’t just send her away as the disciples urged him to do or continue to ignore her as he had once done. He doesn’t get defensive and try to explain how he wasn’t being exclusive or racist or misogynist.

Instead, he listens to her. He learns from her. And he changes because of her.

He allows her to open his eyes to his own privilege in that space and to his own participation in oppressive and exclusive systems. He praises her great faith for her holy persistence and resistance. And then he joins her in it: first by healing this Canaanite woman’s daughter and then – as we see throughout the rest of Matthew – by proclaiming a more inclusive Kingdom. One that is not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but that is also for the Canaanites, the Gentiles, the women, the outsiders, the marginalized… A Kingdom that is full of good news and mercy for not just some, but for ALL.

Yes, Jesus was being a bit of a jerk this morning. But he also shows us what it is like to be human. And that – as humans – we don’t have to be bound by our own jerkiness and allow it to keep us from dismantling hate.

We have so much to learn from this event in Matthew. So may we learn from Jesus, his jerkiness, and his conversion. May we learn from the Canaanite woman and her bold persistence and resistance. And may we learn from all those who are persisting and resisting around us as we join them in this holy work.

*****

There is a voice I think we can learn from that I’d like to leave you this morning with the words spoken this week by the mother of Heather Heyer, the woman who was murdered in Charlottesville last weekend for resisting hate.

“Here’s what I want to happen,” she says during her speech at Heather’s funeral. “You ask me what can I do? So many caring people, pages of pages of pages of stuff I’m going through… how [Heather’s] touching the world. I want this to spread. I don’t want this to die. This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy. This is not the end of Heather’s legacy. You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place? What injustice do I see? I don’t want you to turn away [and say]: “I don’t really want to get involved in that. I don’t really want to speak up, they’ll be annoyed with me. My boss might think less of me….” I don’t care. You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world…

Let’s have the uncomfortable dialog. It ain’t easy sitting down and saying “why are you upset?” It ain’t easy sitting down and going: yeah, well I think this way and I don’t agree with you but I’m going to respectfully listen to what you have to say. We’re not all going to sit around shaking hands and singing kumbaya. I’m sorry, it’s not all about forgiveness, I know that is not a popular trend. But the truth is we are going to have our differences, we are going to be angry with each other. But let’s channel that anger not into hate. Not into violence, not into fear.

But let’s channel that anger into righteous action…. Remember in your heart (as Heather liked to say): if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And I want you to pay attention, find what’s wrong. Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. You make a point to look at it and say to yourself: what can I do to make a difference? And that is how you’re going to make my child’s death worthwhile.”

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

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“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

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“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

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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.

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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“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

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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.