Category Archives: Lectionary

“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.

*****

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

And so was true in the early church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing and nobody can take that away from us.

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

Not even a horrific hate crime.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

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

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

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

I like to reference it… A LOT.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

Amen.

“Welcome One Such Child. #WelcomeRefugees. A Call to Radical Hospitality” – Sermon on Mark 9:30-37

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They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” – Mark 9:30-37


Her name is Diana. She is four years old. And she has traveled with her mother and father, who are Christians from Damascus, Syria, for 15 days, mostly by foot to get to Germany. Every night, they sleep on the streets – in the cold and sometimes in the pouring rain. They have made it to Hungary, but the Hungarian police want the families to board a bus and be taken to a detention camp, where refugee families are crammed together behind fences and sometimes even inside cages. One Hungarian detention camp has been known for its police officers to throw food to the families in the cage. One reporter described this scene: it is “like feeding animals in a pen.” Some of the families decide they will try to run away so they can avoid the detention camps and continue their journey toward Germany. But Diana’s mother, Rowa, knows they would likely be chased by police officers and in their condition, they wouldn’t make it very far. Since Diana has become ill and has come down with a terrible fever, her parents decide that while they have come so far and are so close to safety and freedom, they have no other choice than to get on the bus with their daughter, and be placed in a camp. And so now four-year-old Diana, who has not been welcomed in her own home country of Syria, who is not welcomed to make Hungary a place to call home, is now not allowed to move on to a country that would welcome her as one of there own.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This is what Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel passage in response to one of their many misunderstandings.

At the beginning of our passage, as the disciples are journeying through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection for the second time. But the disciples still don’t understand. And now, after they enter the house in Capernaum, Jesus reveals that the disciples have completely misunderstood Jesus’ values and what it means to follow him as one of his disciples.

“What were you arguing about along the way?” Jesus asks them. But the disciples remain silent, because they had been arguing about who among them was the “greatest.”

Now, I can’t completely blame these disciples. You see, as is the case today, in First Century Palestine, to be deemed the greatest was based on social status: the most successful, the most wealthy, the most popular, the best educated, the most privileged. To be the greatest meant – and still often means today – to have power over others. In such a system both in First Century Palestine and 21st Century North America, it can be quite difficult for any of us not to constantly seek to be the one first in line. And when those we deem as the “others” or as the “strangers” among us enter our territories (and our homelands) and seem to threaten our comfortable lifestyles and our paths to climb the social latter, we are often tempted to demonize them and to turn them away. To deny that they – too – are made in the image of God. To refuse to recognize the face of God in them.

Yet, Jesus has a different way to greatness in mind.

And so he sits down on the floor of the home, calls the twelve to gather around him, and responds: “Who is the greatest of all? Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

For Jesus, the way to greatness is not to BE first, but 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, and our temptation to get ahead.

For the disciples living in First Century Palestine, this was completely radical. And it is probably pretty radical for many today, as well.

But just as the disciples begin to wrap their minds around this counter-cultural way to greatness Jesus is describing, Jesus does something even more radical.

He picks up a child, places her in the middle of the disciples, embraces her, and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.”

Now to many of us, this may not sound too off-the-wall. We live in a culture that – for the most part -values children. And we know quite well that throughout his ministry, Jesus loved and embraced and surrounded himself with children. However, in First Century Palestine, children were only valued in their future, when they became adults… if they became adults – for many children never survived past their young years. In their childhood, they were considered more of a burden than an asset to the rest of the family. They were another mouth to feed and body to cloth. They were the silent ones, the least of these, those who were the outcasts of society.

So here we see that Jesus’ way to greatness is extremely radical. His path to greatness in this Kingdom of God he often speaks of is nothing like the path to greatness in the oppressive Roman Empire of his day. Jesus’ 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. It is putting our selves last so that others who’ve been last can be brought into the frontline. It is picking up and embracing those whom the world deems as the last and the least, the others, the strangers, those on the margins of society and bringing them to the center with our loving embrace. It is welcoming one such child, and thus in doing so, welcoming Jesus and the one who sent him.

It is radical hospitality.

*****

When I first read this text early this week in preparation for this sermon, I immediately thought of our current refugee crisis, which has become the worst refugee crisis since World War II. This recent mass flight (or as some are calling it: this “refugee exodus”) to Europe has especially overwhelmed my thoughts, emotions, and prayers this past month.

It’s been beautiful to see that many around the world are offering radical hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are desperately seeking refuge. I’ve been brought to tears watching thousands of grateful refugees get welcomed by cheering Germans holding signs saying “Welcome to Germany” and while reading posts and stories from people who are urging their home countries to receive and resettle more refugees by making the hashtag #WelcomeRefugees go viral.

And yet, the stories of these families making the dangerous and exhausting trek to and through Europe and the images and videos of children sleeping in the streets, walking for days on end, and crying and pleading with officers who will not let them continue their journey toward safety: these stories and images have touched my core.

And when I saw an image that went viral of the lifeless body of three year old Aylan Kurdi who was swept up on the shores of Turkey during his journey from Syria by boat, I was brought to my knees and wept.

And to know that there are so many more stories of families we don’t hear about and faces of children we don’t see who are displaced and stuck in Syria as well as in other countries around the world – and even at our own border – because of war, violence, and poverty… This overwhelms me with grief.

Because these stories and the faces of these children are the stories and the faces of our children. They are the stories and the faces of our children and youth who are involved in Edgewater-based programs like Refugee One and Centro Romero and who play soccer and music at Edgewater’s International Refugee Day at Foster Beach every June. These are the stories and the faces of the children and youth in our communities: they are our neighbors. They live in our buildings, go to our schools, shop in our grocery stories, eat at our restaurants. And they are the stories and faces of the children and youth who enter our doors here at Immanuel Lutheran Church for worship, VBS, IYO, and ECT youth group.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

As we hear these words of Jesus from Mark, we might also hear his words from Matthew echoing in our ears:

“for 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.”

Jesus, our Comforter, our Lord and Savior, who was once himself a refugee, calls us to this radical hospitality of welcoming and embracing the child, the stranger, the one who’s been outcast.

*****

If you are at all like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed with this huge crisis and wonder how on earth you are to welcome those seeking refuge across the world.

While we may not be able to single-handedly fix what is happening in Europe, in Syria, and across the world, there are many ways we can respond to the international refugee crisis and provide welcome to those in need around us. (And every act is important.) For example, we can donate to organizations like the Lutheran Disaster Response, which directly helps those seeking refuge in Europe and in Syria, and we can voice our support for welcoming more refugees in our city and our country.

We can also extend our welcome here in our own community, a community that is home to so many of our refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters. We – at Immanuel Lutheran Church – already open our doors to children and youth in our community through the multiple programs and ministries we offer, and we are in the process of trying to offer more hospitality to the children, youth, and families in Edgewater – as we currently are working on opening the Immanuel Ministry Center.

And so each one of us has an opportunity to provide radical hospitality to children and youth in Edgewater right here by voicing our support and praying for our ministries and programs, donating our gifts or money to help these ministries, becoming a tutor or a leader at IYO or ECT youth group, or cooking dinner for one of these youth programs.

We can donate to or volunteer with Care for Real, Edgewater’s food and clothing pantry, which serves many new refugees in our community or we can help a new refugee family resettle in our community and help them learn English or write resumes through Refugee One, which is also based in Edgewater. We can take a few minutes to get to know the children and youth who attend Immanuel worship on Sunday mornings or one of our programs throughout the week. And in all things, we can keep the children and youth in our community, in our country, and throughout the world in our prayers and in our hearts.

Because, what Jesus said to his twelve disciples in the house in Capernaum 2000 years ago, he says to us as well:

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

May we welcome the children. May we #welcomerefugees. May we welcome the strangers and those who have been outcast. May we choose to be a people of faith who follow Jesus in this call to offering radical hospitality to our brothers, sisters, and children in need of welcome.

“Speak the Truth” – Sermon on Ephesians 4:25-5:2

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One year ago today, unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown was shot at least 6 times and killed by an officer in Ferguson, MO. And throughout the year, we have become more aware that this is not a new or an isolated incident. Thousands of people from around the country (including many seminary professors and pastors from the Chicago area) are gathering in Ferguson this weekend and around the U.S. in prayer meetings, actions, vigils, and conversations about confronting and dismantling systemic racism. So I’d like to take this time right now to join with them in a moment of silence, lifting up Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Ruben Garcia Villalpando, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, the nine who were killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church, and all of our brothers and sisters who are victims of racial violence and injustice.

Let’s take a few moments of silence right now.

(Moment of Silence)

God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.


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“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 4:25-5:2


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Most likely, many of us here have stated or thought this popular phrase a time or two in response to an insult or a put-down. And yet, no matter how confident we may have sounded and no matter how much we may have wished this phrase to be true, we likely walked away overwhelmed with pain from those cutting words.

As many of us have unfortunately had to learn at some time or another – words are powerful and can cut deep, creating wounds that are difficult to heal. Words can stick with a person much longer than a broken bone. They can affect one’s self-esteem. They can cause fear and prejudice and influence and inspire people to participate in actions of dehumanizing and “other”-ing an individual or group.

Words can and do divide us…

This is true in our personal relationships, in our relationships with others in the greater society, and in our relationships with others in the Church.

And as we look at our passage in Ephesians today, we can tell it was the case for the church in Ephesus, as well.

While we don’t know the specific arguments among the Christians in the Ephesian church, we do know that there had been tension throughout the early years of the Church between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians because of their differences. Because of differences between their theological beliefs and faith practices. Their diets and clothing attire. Their native languages, world-views, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Outside of the Church, these differences were what kept Jews and Gentiles from marrying each another, eating together, or even associating with one another in public. And as Jewish and Gentile Christians began to worship together within the Church, it was quite difficult for them to give up their deeply ingrained prejudices against each other and fully embrace one another.

So it’s no wonder that these tensions and quarrels at some point – as we see early in the letter to the Ephesians – had gotten quite hostile. Evil words. Belittling. Dehumanizing. Excluding. Blaming the “other” while denying one’s own wrongs and privileges.

And while it’s easy for us to look at this letter and point our fingers at those first century Gentile and Jewish Christians for not being “imitators of God” – as Paul calls them to be – I think too often we can relate to those early Christians.

Because isn’t it easy for us to fear the differences of our brother’s and sister’s faith practices and beliefs, native languages or countries of origin, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and world-views?

Don’t we often expect our brothers and sisters to conform to our way of doing things and when they don’t, don’t we tend to use our words to blame, to “other,” to exclude?

And when we hear the cries of our brothers and sisters that challenge our way: that our expectations, our heritage, our traditions might actually be exclusive and even oppressive, we too often immediately and angrily shut them down and ignore them. We let the sun go down on our anger and use evil words to justify our way, because placing blame on our brothers and sisters is so much easier than admitting our own wrongs against them. Because belitting and “other”ing our brothers and sisters is much less troubling than admitting our own participation in and benefits from systems, institutions, and traditions that uplift those who look, talk, and think like us, while causing harm on those who don’t.

*****

But the thing is, this is not the way God intended the Church to be. Throughout the first three chapters of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains that though the Gentiles were at one time “far off… they are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and also members of the [same] household of God.”

“For in his flesh,” Paul continues, “Christ has made both [Jews and Gentiles] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus… reconciling both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

It is for this reason that Paul pleads with the Ephesian Christians at the beginning of chapter 4, just before our reading for today: “As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you,” he says, “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of ALL, who is above all and through all and IN all.”

“So then,” Paul continues in our passage for today. “Let us put away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of ONE ANOTHER.”

Let us speak the truth to our neighbors…

*****

A few weeks ago, a PEW research study revealed that out of 29 religious groups, the ELCA is one of the two least diverse religious groups in the U.S. People in the ELCA are starting to talk and ask: Why is this the case? What does this mean and say about us as an institution and as a faith community?

Last Thursday night, presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton and ELCA member William B. Horne II hosted a webcast discussion called “confronting racism” – both as a way to start addressing these questions about our denomination, as well as a way to connect these findings with the racialized structures in our country and the multiple tragedies caused by racism that have been filling our news feeds this past year. If you haven’t had an opportunity to watch this webcast, I recommend that you check it out. You can access it on the ELCA website. While this webcast is not the answer to these hard questions, it is the beginning of a crucial ongoing discussion we – as members of the body of Christ – need to be having.

During the discussion, Bishop Eaton reminded us that the white shooter at Mother Emanuel AME Church who so hatefully took the lives of nine of our black brothers and sisters was a member of the ELCA. Two of the victims were graduates of one of our ELCA seminaries. She explains: “Here we have one of our own alleged to have shot these people, two of whom had adopted us as their own. So one of the visions I would have for our church is to no longer put racism, or the racial tensions, or the racial disparities somewhere out there. Because, [racism] is in us. We have to come to grips with this.”

*****

Let us all speak the truth to our neighbors, Paul urges us.

Yes, we must speak the truth to our neighbors… But we must also speak the truth to ourselves. We must admit, confess, denounce, and repent of the racism that does – in fact – prevail throughout our systems, our traditions, our institutions and congregations, and even within ourselves. And we need to do it over and over again.

This is difficult. This is difficult to come to grips with – let alone to confront and challenge. Our tendency as humans is to deny that some of us have – indeed – been born into and granted privilege over others. Our temptation when we hear this is to respond with anger and defensiveness. We tend to make room for the devil, let sin guide and direct our anger, and allow evil to come out of our mouths in order to place blame on the “other.”

And yet, as Bishop Eaton said on Thursday night: “the fact is: there is not equity in America and we have to be willing to take a hard look at that and come to the painful and disappointing realization that when we say at liberty and justice for all: that is not necessarily the truth for everyone. And [we] can’t get paralyzed by defensiveness or guilt. [Rather, we must] say that that is what we have inherited. That is who we are. So [the question becomes] how do we move beyond that?”

*****

Let us put away falsehood, Paul says. And let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors… For we are ALL members of the same household, the same body of Christ. We are ALL members of one another. And when even one of our own is treated unjustly, our baptismal calling is to join and work together to call out, to dismantle, and to break down the walls of injustice – the walls of racism – that divide us and dehumanize, hurt, and kill members of our body.

“Be angry,” Paul urges us.

Yes, there are times when we need to be angry… But when our brothers and sisters cry out and speak truth to us, let us not allow sin to take over and misdirect that anger toward them because we feel defensive and overcome with guilt. Rather, let us be angry at the privilege we have been born into and have inherited. Let us be angry at the unjust systems and institutions that we often – even unknowingly – participate in and benefit from – that uplift only some while deeming others as less than.

Let us be angry at the racialized systems that have brought fear upon our brothers and sisters of color when they wear a hoodie, ride their bikes at night, drive their car, or go to church.

We must let our anger lead us to move beyond. We must allow our anger to help us acknowledge our own privilege and the narrow lens through which we see the world, give us courage to speak this truth to our neighbors, and help us to stop holding onto our privilege over others… Instead, working diligently with our own hands so as to share what we do have with those who don’t.

We must let no evil talk come out of our mouths or out of the mouths of those around us. When racist comments, jokes, and stereotypes are spoken, we must immediately shut them down. When we hear someone make generalizations about others, we must tell them to stop. When we – ourselves – begin to complain that we are sick and tired of hearing about racism in our country, we must remind ourselves that it is a privilege to be able to pick and choose when we get to talk about racism and when we do not. Because our brothers and sisters of color don’t get this same choice.

May we use our speech to build one another up so that our words may give grace to those who hear them.

May we be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another – as Christ has forgiven us – when we do fall short – because there will be times when we do.

May we be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

*****

As you know, three weeks ago, I took 10 of our Edgewater Congregations Together youth to the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. There is something so powerful about gathering with 30,000 Lutheran teenagers from all across the world, from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, walks of life, and with different world views and some with different native languages, who embraced one another’s differences as they rose up together to worship God, to proclaim God’s story in their lives and learn how God is in the stories of others, to confess and denounce all forms of racial and economic injustice, and to commit to proclaiming justice and peace to the world throughout their lives.

And I will tell you, those 30,000 inspiring youth gave me a glimpse of what it could look like for us – as the Church – to be imitators of God, living in love, embracing that we are members of one another, and speaking the truth. I saw a glimpse of this as we communed together around Jesus’ table and as we raised our voices in the dark, singing with our hands waving the flashlights on our cell phones in the air: “Love can build a bridge.  Between your heart and mine.  Love can build a bridge.  Don’t you think it’s time?  Don’t you think it’s time?” 

Being imitators of God and living love, as Christ loved us, is not easy.

And yet, in those times when we feel defensive, discouraged, and ready to give up on this work, may we remember the witness of our ELCA youth who have shown us it is – indeed – possible… and powerful. May we – too – strive to lead lives worthy of our baptismal calling to build up and proclaim justice for ALL our brothers and sisters – for ALL members of the body of Christ.

And may we choose to be imitators of God, as beloved children, living in love, as Christ loved us.

Because love can build a bridge.

So don’t you think it’s time?

“Racism, Repentance, and a Commission that Leads to Opposition” – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13

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He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. – Mark 6:1-13

I’ve always loved homecomings. When I was in high school, I looked forward to homecoming games – where I would reunite with my classmates who had already graduated and had moved away. When I – myself – moved away for college, homecomings were exciting times when I got to return to my hometown and would be welcomed by my family, former teachers, and friends as if nothing had ever changed. I especially loved homecomings while I was in seminary, when I would go back to my home church to preach and would receive so much encouragement and love from my church family.

Homecomings have always been positive and loving experiences for me.

This is not – however – the case for Jesus in our Gospel text for today.

Here in Mark, Jesus has returned to his hometown – along with his disciples – and has begun teaching in his home synagogue. And yet, while this synagogue is filled with people who knew Jesus’ family, had played games with Jesus when he was a boy, or had watched him grow up, they did not exactly respond to his homecoming with welcoming arms.

When the Nazarenes hear him teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, many soon become astounded… And if there was any good sense of this word, it doesn’t last very long… as the Nazarenes soon take offense at him. “Where did this man get all of this?” They soon cry out.

“Isn’t this the poor carpenter we’ve known all these years? Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t these his sisters sitting right here? Isn’t he the son of Mary?” they sneer as they remind each other of Jesus’ shameful origin: that he had been conceived by an unwed teenager. “How could this guy – this poor, carpenter with ordinary siblings and a mother with a disgraceful past teach us with authority? How could his teachings and his actions have any sort of power at all?”

Now our text does not say what it was about Jesus and his teachings that offended this crowd in his hometown synagogue so much that they discredited and insulted him. However, if we look back at the preceding chapters in Mark, we could probably take a wild guess.

In the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, we see that even from the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry is not what would have been seen as ordinary.

He’s cast out demons and stilled a storm. He’s performed miracles… on the Sabbath day. He’s touched and healed the “untouchables”: the sick, a leper, a haemorraging woman. He’s called twelve disciples to follow him – most of whom are just common fishermen and one who is a tax collector. He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near and tells those who follow him not to keep anything hidden, but to bring all their dark secrets into the light. He eats with the sinners and the tax collectors and then tells the religious – the righteous ones – to confess and repent of their sins.

He was already seen as such an offensive radical rule-breaker that by the time we get to Mark chapter 3, many of his followers say he is “out of his mind,” some of the religious leaders accuse him of being in line with Satan, himself, and even his very own family questions his abilities and rush to where he is teaching and try to restrain him.

And now here we are a few chapters and several radical teachings, actions, and miracles later. Jesus has definitely shaken things up a bit, and it’s only the sixth chapter in Mark.

And here in our text for today, after all the backlash he’s already gotten, Jesus has the nerve to come back to his hometown and to his home synagogue. And here – in the midst of the ones who’ve watched him grow up, he comes preaching this same kind of message. This same message that treats the outcasts and the untouchables as if they are equals and calls the religious and righteous to bring their dark secrets to light and confess and repent of their sins. This same message that Jesus proclaims at the beginning of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke: “I have come to bring good news to the poor, to bring release to the captives, to give sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.”

And then he says he is a prophet!? One who speaks for God… And some say he even claims he is the Son of God? Who does this ordinary carpenter with a shameful family past think he is?

But the insults don’t stop Jesus. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, among their kin, and in their own house,” he boldly proclaims. Then he lays his hands on a few more of the untouchables and cures them.

And then – as he and his disciples leave Nazareth and go out into the villages, he gives his disciples authority and commissions them to go out into the world vulnerably – two by two – with nothing but a staff, the clothes on their backs, and the sandals on their feet. They must rely on the people they meet to feed them and to provide them with a place to sleep. And yet Jesus tells them they must go out boldly, proclaiming that all should repent, and they must cast out demons, anoint the untouchables with oil, and heal the sick.

*****

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the disciples – who had just watched Jesus get opposed, insulted, and publicly shamed in his hometown synagogue, I would have probably thought quite hard about picking up all of my belongings and running in the opposite direction.

Because I’m sure it would have been very difficult for these disciples to give up their food and clothing and social status – the things they were privileged to have and could rely on for their safety, comfort, and well being. And it would have been very difficult for them to go out vulnerability and proclaim Jesus’ radical good news, with no confirmation that they could find people who would accept them and provide for them.

And I’m sure these disciples knew this event in Jesus’ hometown was not the only time this ministry of proclaiming the good news Jesus proclaimed would lead to rejection and opposition.

Because the good news Jesus brings – that God’s love, healing, and justice is for ALL, especially the most vulnerable and the outcasts – is not always good news to everyone.

******

Sometimes I wonder how these disciples had the courage to follow Jesus and to go out risking so much, when it would have been much easier for them to just turn away when Jesus calls out to them, ignore the cries of those around them, and just go on living their normal every day lives, without having to face the suffering and injustice around them.

I think I wonder this about the disciples because sometimes I wonder this about myself. To be quite honest, there have been many times – particularly as I have recently become more aware of how much systemic racism still prevails throughout our country today – when I just want to pick up all of my belongings and hold tight to my own privilege. There have been many times lately when I have wanted to turn away when I hear Jesus calling me to boldly proclaim his good news and the repentance of the evil sins of racism and just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Because this is the easier way. Because this way allows me to live in my comfortable bubble that I have the privilege of living in, it allows me to avoid any kind of shaming and opposition that those who speak out often face, it allows me to deny my own participation in and benefits from the racialized systems in our country that still privilege those who look like me while deeming those who don’t as “less than.”

Because as a white, educated, middleclass woman, I have the privilege of being able to just shut everything around me out and to live my life without fear… I can just go to my safe home – without ever being pulled over in my car and without ever being stopped and frisked on my walk home because of the color of my skin. I can come to church without fear because there isn’t a 400 year old history of people terrorizing others with my color of skin in places of worship. I have the privilege of just getting to turn off the news and going about living my own comfortable life without having to think about those around this country who have to live in fear every day.

And yet, this is not a privilege I get to have when I follow Jesus. Because this is not Jesus’ way.

Because just as Jesus called out to the twelve disciples and commissioned them to denounce their privilege and go out into the world boldly, he commissions ALL of his disciples to do so, as well. He commissions each one of us to proclaim repentance of the evil sins of systemic racism and to confess and repent of our own participation in and benefits from it. He commissions each one of us to cast out the demons of these unjust systems that privilege some while marginalizing others and to provide care for and offer healing to those who are victims of these racist systems by standing with them in solidarity.

Because those nine people who lost their lives in the middle of a prayer service at Mother Emanuel AME church on June 17th are not just any nine people who live on the other side of the country. They are nine beloved children of God, and they are nine of OUR brothers and sisters. And those members of at least 4 historic black churches that were burnt down and have been deemed victims of arson since the shooting two weeks ago, are not just those “other” church members who live across the country. They are part of the same body of Christ we are a part of. They are members of OUR church family, and we are members of THEIRS. And those black and brown children and youth in Baltimore, Cleveland, McKinney, Texas, right here in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago who get stopped and frisked and incarcerated at higher rates, who get shot and killed in a park while playing with a toy gun or violently pushed to the ground and sat on by a police officer during a pool party are not just those “other” kids and teens. They are beloved children of God and they are OUR children and youth.

******

Many of you have probably already read or heard the statement from the ELCA’s presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in response to the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church. However, no matter how many times we may have read or heard it, I think all of us need to hear this message over and over again. And so – while it is a long letter, I want to read it in it’s entirety. Bishop Easton says:

“It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this … the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism. The church was desecrated. The people of that congregation were desecrated. The aspiration voiced in the Pledge of Allegiance that we are “one nation under God” was desecrated.

Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel. The suspected shooter is a member of an ELCA congregation. All of a sudden and for all of us, this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.

We might say that this was an isolated act by a deeply disturbed man. But we know that is not the whole truth. It is not an isolated event. And even if the shooter was unstable, the framework upon which he built his vision of race is not. Racism is a fact in American culture.

Denial and avoidance of this fact are deadly. The Rev. Mr. Pinckney leaves a wife and children. The other eight victims leave grieving families. The family of the suspected killer and two congregations are broken. When will this end?

The nine dead in Charleston are not the first innocent victims killed by violence. Our only hope rests in the innocent One, who was violently executed on Good Friday. Emmanuel, God with us, carried our grief and sorrow – the grief and sorrow of Mother Emanuel AME church – and he was wounded for our transgressions – the deadly sin of racism.

I urge all of us to spend a day in repentance and mourning. And then we need to get to work. Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. Kyrie Eleison.”

As followers of Jesus, we are all commissioned to go out spreading Jesus’ good news boldly, denouncing the evil around us and within us, and proclaiming the repentance of systemic sins until our country does in fact provide liberty and justice for ALL of our brothers, sisters, and children: Whether rich or poor. Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist. Whether white, black, or brown.

And we are all commissioned to do this even though in doing so, we will face opposition.

While following Jesus in this liberative and prophetic work is not easy, the good news is that even when we face opposition, Jesus will not leave us alone.

This season of Pentecost reminds us that we have been gifted with the Holy Spirit, who is with us always, comforting us and guiding us along the way. And that no matter what, when others – even those who are closest to us – take offense at Jesus’ good news and shame and hurl even the harshest of insults at us, we are not left without a family. We have a family right here in the body of Christ. One who will hold us, who will listen to us, who will encourage us, and who will walk alongside us as we discern how Jesus is calling us to go out boldly into the world.

So, may we have the courage to be the body of Christ. May we follow Jesus together, proclaiming his good news for ALL of our brothers, sisters, children and youth.

Amen.