Tag Archives: homelessness

“An Upside Down Kind of Story” – Sermon on Luke 6:17-26

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“He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.'” – Luke 6:17-26

In our society, we have been trained to understand the world in the binary: people must fit into one of only two boxes. Right or Wrong. Good or bad. Democrat or Republican. Conservative or liberal.   Black or white. Male or Female. Gay or Straight.

So it can often be difficult to understand anyone or anything that does not fit into one of two boxes and rather falls somewhere on a spectrum.

I do not like the binary. Because I do not fit into only one of two boxes in most areas of my life, and I know many other folks who do not either. For one: as a bisexual woman, my sexual orientation falls somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. And it can be painful to feel invisible when it is constantly assumed that I fit into only one of two boxes or when my bisexuality is actually placed into a tight box where all of the stereotypes and misconceptions about bisexuality are assumed about me.

I also definitely do not like to be placed in a box when it comes to my world views or my beliefs. This leaves no room for me to be a complex and unique human being who is constantly a work in progress.

And to see people only in the binary is not just problematic and harmful when it comes to sexual orientation, world views, or political or religious beliefs. People do not always fit into one of only two boxes when it comes to race, gender roles, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity, and the list goes on.

Seeing the world only in the binary and thus placing people into boxes is incredibly harmful because it puts parameters on what it means to be in one of these boxes and it limits and erases those who do not fit into these boxes.

Michelle Obama shares how this binary lens can be harmful in her memoir “Becoming”:

“The deeper I got into the experience of being First Lady, the more emboldened I felt to speak honestly and directly about what it meant to be marginalized by race and gender. My intention was to give younger people a context for the hate surfacing in the news and in political discourse and to give them a reason to hope. I tried to communicate the one message about myself and my station in the world that I felt might really mean something. Which was that I knew invisibility.

I’d lived invisibility. I came from a history of invisibility. I liked to mention that I was the great-great-grandaughter of a slave named Jim Robinson, who was probably buried in an unmarked grave somewhere on a South Carolina plantation. And in standing at a lectern in front of students who were thinking about the future, I offered testament to the idea that it was possible, at least in some ways, to overcome invisibility.

Later in the book, she explains: … “Hamilton (the musical) (has) touched me because it reflect(s) the kind of history I’d lived myself. It told a story about America that allowed the diversity in… So many of us go through life with our stories hidden, feeling ashamed or afraid when our whole truth doesn’t live up to some established ideal. We grow up with messages that tell us that there’s only one way to be American – that if our skin is dark or our hips are wide, if we don’t experience love in a particular way, if we speak another language or come from another country, then we don’t belong.

That is, until someone dares to start telling that story differently.”

****

Today we hear Jesus giving Luke’s version of what we often call the Beatitudes. Here – at the beginning of his ministry – while preaching a sermon on a plain – Jesus gives four blessings that compare with four woes.

Blessed are you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who are weeping, and you who are being excluded, reviled, and are experiencing acts of hate.

This sounds pretty good, right? But then Jesus continues: But woe to you who are rich, you who are full, you who are laughing, and you who are popular or who have gained the respect of others and are only spoken well of.

If we look at these Beatitudes through the lens that our society has trained us to have, it sounds a lot like Jesus is speaking only in the binary. And it seems quite harsh. People fit into one of only two boxes: and depending on the box you fit into, you are either good or bad. You either receive a blessing or a curse. You either belong to the kingdom of God or you don’t. And for many of us, this is not exactly good news, as we may actually be woe receivers in at least one of these categories at some point in our lives.

But I don’t think this is what Jesus is trying to say here.

You see, the author of Luke is very clear throughout his Gospel and its sequel – the book of Acts – that Jesus’ message is one of inclusion, not one of exclusion. The good news Jesus proclaims is not only for the Jewish community, but it is also for the Gentiles. It is not just for the religious elite, but it is also for the common laypersons.

It is not just for the powerful and the privileged, but it is also for those on the margins: the women, the widows, the children; the poor, the sick, the blind; the immigrants, the oppressed.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus is reigning in is offered to ALL people – and it is especially offered to those most vulnerable.

It is 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.

This was a radical concept – especially in a world where it was those who had religious and societal power who were seen as worthy of receiving blessings, and where those who were poor, sick, or had any physical ailments were believed to be sinful and thus cursed for their sins.

It seems to me that what Jesus is doing here is what Michelle Obama says is: daring to start telling the story differently.

You see, here in Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus comes to level the plains. Heck, he actually comes down into a level plain.

After praying in solitude in the mountains, he calls the twelve disciples, whom he also called apostles, comes back down the mountain with them and goes into a level place, where all people – especially those on the margins – can have access to him. There, he joins a multitude of people who had traveled from all over to hear him preach, to be healed of their diseases, and to be cured of unclean spirits. And so Jesus meets the people where they are at, joining them in the midst of their suffering, and stands with them on common ground.

And after healing them, he looks at his disciples and begins proclaiming these radical blessings and woes.

He has come to proclaim a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He has come to bring good news to those who needed it the most.

You see, for Jesus, it is not that the rich, the full, the joyful, and the popular are not also in need of God’s love, and Jesus is not saying that they will not be included into the Kingdom of God. It is just that there are other people who need the extra attention and care right now.

This reminds me of a metaphor that I have shared before when explaining the importance of proclaiming that black lives matter. I think it is a helpful metaphor, so I’m going to share it again:

It’s like if your neighbor’s house is on fire. The firefighters are going to go to that neighbor’s house and try to put that fire out. And – if they are any good at what they do – they will not stop at your house to have a cup of coffee while they are on their way. This does not mean that your life does not matter. It just means that your neighbor (who’s house is currently burning to a crisp) needs a lot of extra attention and care right now.

Similarly, those who are poor and hungry, those who are weeping and grieving, those who are being excluded and experiencing hate are in need of extra care and attention – and maybe some blessings that offer hope – and they need it right now.

Toward the end of her book, Michelle Obama explained:

“Sitting on the inaugural stage in front of the U.S. Capital for the third time, I worked to contain my emotions. The vibrant diversity of the two previous inaugurations was gone, replaced by what felt like a dispiriting uniformity, the kind of overwhelmingly white and male tableaus I’d encountered so many times in my life – especially in the more privileged spaces, the various corridors of power I’d somehow found my way into since leaving my childhood home. What I knew from working in professional environments – from recruiting new lawyers for Sidley and Austin to hiring staff at the White House – is that sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.”

Sameness breeds more sameness, until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.

This – I believe – is what Jesus is doing in Luke this morning.

He is making a thoughtful effort to counteract the sameness that harms and oppresses those who do not fit into the boxes that society uplifts.

And as he looks up at his disciples when he offers his blessings and woes, he is also looking up at us, calling us to follow him in counteracting this harmful sameness, as well.

Through Jesus’ woes, he commissions us through some warnings. And he makes clear that those of us who have more than enough, who are in power, who are privileged, or whose lives are going well at this particular time must not worship our worldly power, wealth, and status. And we must not hold tight to our current situation and our privilege while ignoring those around us who are suffering and vulnerable.

This means that those of us who are on top and have been centered have to come down from the mountain and step backwards, allowing others who have been lowered into the margins to be uplifted and centered. It means that those of us who have excess need to give up some of what we have and share with others who are in need.

It means that those of us who are joyful and doing well right now must not be so consumed with our own lives that we fail to see the needs of others around us.

It means that we don’t just sit around watching the firefighters put out the fire in our neighbor’s house. We actually join them in offering our neighbor the care and attention that they need.

*****

You see, here on this level plain at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus has dared to start telling the story differently.

So may we choose to follow him in this holy work.

Guest Post at Bold Cafe: “A God Who Shows Up”

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Today I’m writing over at Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA.
“This first Christmas was not a magical holiday homecoming story full of family turkey dinners, carol singing and football games. It did not involve decorating trees, baking cookies and opening wrapped gifts.
Rather, the first Christmas is a refugee story.
And it tells of a young, poor, homeless asylum seeking couple who fearfully flee their country and become residents in a foreign land in order to save their child’s life.
And yet, this story is also a story of hope. It is in the midst of this violent and fearful event when God shows up in the flesh: not as a king who has worldly power, and not as one who is distant and does not understand the plight of the marginalized. Rather, God shows up as one of the marginalized. God shows up in the flesh in a dirty stable, as a vulnerable baby, to a terrified young homeless couple on the margins of society.”
You can read the full article here.

Guest Post at RevGalBlogPals: “The Pastoral Is Political: Be Alert this Advent

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Today I’m writing over at RevGalBlogPals.

“Jesus says: ‘Be alert at all times.’

In other words: wake up and stay woke. And when you see the suffering and injustice of this world, look for the ways God is calling you to proclaim justice and peace and to offer God’s love to those in need. And then rise up and act.

This can be daunting when our news feed constantly updates us on one horrific tragedy after another. The world’s needs just seem too great.

Yet, Jesus does not end here.

‘Hold onto the hope of my return,’ he says, ‘so that your hearts are not weighed down with worries of this life.’ Raise your heads so that you might also see signs of the Kingdom of God that are already present and sprouting up like leaves on a fig tree. Look for signs that God is with us now and that the reign of God is near.

You see, it is necessary for us to find hope as we look for the signs of how God’s Kingdom is already present in this world. No, we must not ignore or downplay the injustice and suffering around us. However, in times such as these, we will not be able to rise up if we only focus our eyes on what is terrible.

So this Advent, may we slow down and choose to be alert. 

You can read the full article here.

“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.

*****

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!

 

 

“And it was good” – Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4, Commemoration of St. Francis of Assisi

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God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

I don’t know about you, but while I may not be completely on board with everything that Pope Francis believes, I have been so intrigued and inspired by his commitment to calling people around the world to care for our environment and by the genuine and abundant grace and love he offers others, particularly those who have been deemed as outcasts by society. And so last week I was unable to keep my eyes off the news that continuously reported about his visit to the United States.

And I’m not just talking about being inspired while watching the Pope giggle as he blesses a baby dressed up in a baby pope costume or while watching him take selfies with a bunch of giddy teenagers… and adults. (Though these encounters were quite fun to watch.)

But I’m talking about being inspired by this man who spoke on behalf of the Church about the importance of caring for ALL God’s creation, by urging the U.S. to do much more to address climate change, to work to end homelessness, and to be a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees. And I loved seeing him put his words into action throughout his visit, not only by riding around in a humble and eco-friendly Fiat, but by blessing, meeting, praying with, and listening to the ones who have been voiceless and marginalized.

It was touching to see what he did while riding in his car on his way from the Philadelphia airport when his eyes caught a glimpse of Michael Keating, a 10 year old boy with cerebral palsy sitting in his wheelchair on the tarmac with his family. Pope Francis’ car suddenly stops, he exits the car, and then walks over to Michael and – looking directly into Michael’s eyes – he gives him a blessing. His family later told the press that they felt incredibly overwhelmed with joy in that moment.

It was also touching to hear how Pope Francis declined his invitation to have lunch with the most powerful U.S. politicians after his address to Congress because he chose instead to have lunch at a Catholic Charities meal with more than 300 individuals who are homeless or living in poverty. And as he prayed with and blessed those in attendance, he said: “In prayer there is no first or second class. There is brotherhood.” Lanita King, a woman who was present at the meal and who was formerly homeless, described the significance of the Pope’s lunch plans: “he is delivering the message that God is here for us. God is here with us.”

And it was especially touching to watch Pope Francis visit 95 prisoners at a correctional facility in Philadelphia. While there, he explained: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of resurrection.”

Pope Francis explained to these men and women in the correctional facility how Jesus humbly and compassionately washed his disciples feet during the Last Supper. He then went on to say: “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from… And I am first among them.” And at the end of his message before he went on to shake the hands of each of the men and women in the room, he told them that Jesus “comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.”

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

This past week, Pope Francis reminded our country – one of the wealthiest nations in the world – that ALL God’s creation is good. Including the earth and all the creatures that live off of it. Including the child with special needs. Including the immigrant and the refugee. Including the homeless and the poor. Including the prisoner who finds hope in God’s promise that ALL can change and be forgiven and cleansed from their past sins, no matter how horrible those past sins may have been.

*****

Today, just a week after Pope Francis’ trip to the U.S., we commemorate the late St. Francis of Assisi, the man whose name the Pope chose to take as his papal name.  The 13th Century friar who sought to follow Jesus’ teachings and believed with his whole heart that there is no last and least in the Kingdom of God. And who dedicated his life to loving and caring for nature, animals and birds, and those on the margins of society, particularly the poor.

And as we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi today, and recall his care and love for creation, I find it quite appropriate for us to listen again to the very well known creation story in Genesis 1.

In the beginning… God created the heavens and the earth and the land and the seas. And God saw that it was good.

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

God created the stars, the sun, and the moon. And God saw that it was good.

God created the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. And God saw that it was good.

God created the wild animals of the earth and everything that creeps upon the ground. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
So God created humankind
 in the image of God.

And God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

*****

Not only does this creation story remind us that ALL God’s creation was created good and that ALL humankind was created in God’s image and thus we have the ability to change and be cleansed from our past: no matter our faults, mistakes or past sins… But it also reminds us that God has given us – as members of humankind – the great responsibility of being stewards and guardians of God’s creation. Of caring not just for some of God’s creation, but doing everything we can to care for ALL of God’s creation… Of seeing the image of God in ALL people, no matter how much we may struggle to do so, and treating them with the love and care God calls us to. Of taking care of the plants and the trees and the water and the animals and the birds around us. Of being co-workers with God in caring for the earth and all its creatures and in doing the work of making this world – which is full of so much pain and hardship – a better place.

God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.

*****

Today, on this day when we commemorate St. Francis of Assisi, we will participate in a blessing of our pets. This blessing is not only a reminder that our pets are good and loved and blessed by God, but this blessing is also a reminder that this is true for ALL God’s creation and that as humans created by God, we have been given the important responsibility of being stewards and guardians of it. So as we take part in the blessing of our pets, may we also take this time to make commitments to God and one another that we will take on this important responsibility of being God’s co-workers in stewardship and guardianship.

I would like to close this morning with the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, so please join with me in prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Amen.

“A God Who Shows Up” – (At Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Photo taken in downtown Bethlehem on Jan. 6: Celebrating the Orthodox Christmas (Emily Heitzman

I’m blogging “A God Who Shows Up” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA today). Here is part of what I wrote:

Since I moved away after high school, I always look forward to going back to my parent’s home for the holidays. And since Christmas songs, movies, and holiday TV specials often include themes of magical family “homecomings,” I am guessing I’m not the only one whose focus in December is on getting ready to go home. After all, doesn’t Perry Como say: “If you want to be happy in a million ways, for the holidays, you can’t beat home sweet home?”

And yet, what about those individuals whose family relationships are broken or abusive, those who feel unsafe in their homes, or those who do not have homes to go to? Can they find places during the holidays that “beat home sweet home?”

It seems as though the theme lately in the news has been one of violence, instability, and displacement. The economy continues to leave many people jobless or underemployed, families are losing their homes to foreclosure, and more and more people are moving to transitional housing or becoming homeless. Additionally, the past several months, we have heard about the terrified children at the border who are fleeing violence. We have seen horrific images of the attack on Gaza that killed thousands of civilians and damaged thousands of homes, and we are aware of domestic violence that occurs in households.

So how can our cultural emphasis on “holiday homecoming” be good news when this “homecoming” is not a reality for so many? 

Read the rest at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).

An Advent Call Story (at Bold Cafe: Women of the ELCA)

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Today I’m blogging “An Advent Call Story” over at Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA).  Here is a part of what I wrote:

As I was getting ready for Advent this year, I realized that our Christmas songs, TV shows, and movies emphasize the importance of going home for the holidays. As I realized this, I thought about the people who cannot relate to this “holiday homecoming.” I could not help but think about those who lack a safe place they can call home.

I know this is not one of our Advent texts, but as we approached Advent, I was reminded of Moses’ call story in Exodus 3:1-12.

For many years, there had been a famine in the land of Canaan, and as a result, the Israelites left their homes in great numbers and traveled to Egypt to make a better life. However, Pharaoh disliked the growing numbers of Israelites who were taking refuge in his land. He did not want them to make Egypt their new home. So Pharaoh took advantage of the situation and turned these refugees into slaves. For centuries, the Hebrew refugees were forced into terrible working conditions and became victims of racism and violence. In their enslavement, they longed for release from their captivity and suffering and cried out to God.

And this is where Exodus 3 comes in.

– Read the rest at: Bold Cafe (Women of the ELCA)

“The Rich Man and the Man With a Name” – Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

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In the midst of what is being called “Chiberia” – where the weather in Chicago has been colder than the South Pole this week – I cannot help but think about the thousands of Chicagoans who remain homeless and struggle to seek shelter from this bitter cold.  (According to the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of 2012-2013.)

As many of us are able to seek refuge in our warm apartments, homes, coffee shops, and libraries from this Chiberia without giving much thought to those who are not so privileged, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday, Sept. 29 (the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels)… “The Rich Man and the Man With A Name.”

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Luke 16:19-31

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

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(photo courtesy of bohocommunity.org)

A few years ago while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church about a mile from here, I attended a pastor’s conference in Denver.  The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, which is quite the hotel: with a gorgeous lobby, beautiful rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, great food served by the hotel staff… you name it. And it is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall, the main business district of Denver.  If you’ve ever stayed in a really nice hotel like this, you might know what it felt like for me – as a second year seminarian and a pastoral intern, having the opportunity to get away from my studies and messy apartment and stay in this luxurious hotel – I sort of felt like I was royalty for the week.

Our first full day at the conference included several workshops and classes beginning in the early morning and lasting until dinner-time.  So you can imagine how ready we all were to rush out of the convention center to enjoy our hour and a half break on the town. When our last workshop ended, we all quickly met up with our groups of friends and ran outside – everyone hurrying in order to beat the crowd of the 500 other pastors.  We all wanted to ensure that we got a table at our top-choice restaurant, since we knew that the bill was on the house, thanks to our home congregations.

As my new pastor and seminarian friends and I rushed down 16th Street to get to our desired restaurant, a man came up to us holding out his bare hands that were bright red from the cold and asked in a small shaky voice if we could buy him a little something to eat. I only noticed him because he had actually walked up onto the sidewalk next to one of my new friends who was walking directly in front of me. But just as he finished speaking, my friend quickly said: “Sorry, sir.  We are in a hurry.” And she and her friends next to her picked up their pace and scurried on by.  So this man, who was as skinny as a stick – so skinny that his eyes sunk into his skull – with only a stocking cap and an over-sized hoody sweatshirt to shield him from the January cold, was left standing on the sidewalk with his bright red fingers stretched out to me and with a look of complete hunger and desperation in his eyes.

I stopped, looked at him, and considered my options as the rest of my new friends continued to make their way quickly down 16th street without me.  I could stop and get him some food somewhere or I could brush him off, and rush on by to catch up to the rest of my group.   If I stopped, this would interrupt my overly comfortable and luxurious week and it would keep me from experiencing my very short social time that I really was looking forward to.

The easiest thing would be to just brush him off, ignore him, and quickly walk away.  I had a small time frame and a lot on my plate, after all. (Pun intended.)

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I think that this is a somewhat similar situation for the characters in Jesus’ parable in our text for today in Luke.

In Jesus’ parable…

There was a rich man…

And this rich man wore some of the finest, top-of the line clothes of his day – fine linens and articles of clothing that were purple – a color that was favored by the royalty and that only the extremely wealthy could afford.

And this man feasted sumptuously… He consumed large amounts of the finest foods and delicacies that would have been prepared and served to him by his servants – not just on special occasions, as feasts were saved for – but he feasted every single day.

And he lived in a home: probably with the finest dining hall and most comfortable and warm beds.

And this home was protected by a gate: something that only the most elite urban resident would have owned and that would have kept out the most miserable weather conditions… and not to mention the least “desirable” city folk.

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And then there is another man…

In extreme contrast to the rich man, this man is very ill and extremely poor.

Instead of being clothed with fine linens and purple garments, he is clothed in large sores that covered his body… that were so bad that the hungry wild city dogs would lick them as they impatiently waited for the scraps of the rich man’s food to be thrown outside of the gate.

This man is helpless, lying on the ground at the front of the rich man’s gate – for who knows how many days and nights.

How he got there, we don’t know.  Maybe a compassionate person in town dropped him off at the gate in hopes that the rich man’s scraps would save him from his ultimate destiny of a miserable death caused by hunger.  Or maybe this poor man went to this rich man’s quarters in hopes for just a bit of food to tide him over, and in the long, miserable wait, his body couldn’t take the malnourishment anymore and collapsed.

And we don’t know how or what caused him to be in such a dire situation in the first place: whether it was unemployment, lack of health care, or being taken advantage of by greedy business owners… Depression, lack of good education, family abuse in his early years that left him on the streets to fend for himself since he was a child, or a system that did not help him get back up when he was pushed down.

We just don’t know.

What we do know is that he was so hungry and desperate to satisfy his hunger, that he put himself in such a humiliating situation: lying so helplessly at the foot of the gate of one of the most elite’s living quarters, waiting for the scraps of food from the rich man’s luxurious and abundant daily feasts.  Scraps that would not have been even left-overs from the rich man’s plate, but rather pieces of pita bread that the rich man and any others dining with him would have dipped into a bowl of water, wiped their dirty hands with as a cleaning devise, and would have thrown under the table.  Scraps that after the feast was over, the rich man’s servants would have cleaned up from the dirty floor and thrown out to the trash… to the unclean wild city dogs.

This poor man was desperate, and he was seeking out his last possible chance to survive through the night.

And while we may not know how this man got to this dire and humiliating situation, the audience of Jesus who was listening to the story would have taken a guess.  The scriptures had been misinterpreted for years: the common belief was that such poverty was a consequence of sin and poor choices and that wealth was a consequence of piety and was a sign of God’s blessing.

So to Jesus’ audience, it would have made sense that the rich man would have stepped over the poor man in his condition in order to enter his gate and his home – possibly day in and day out – giving this poor man little notice.

The poor man was not deserving of anything else.  Plus, the rich man had a lot of important things to think about: a household to take care of, feasts and parties to tend to…  Stopping to help or acknowledge this man would interrupt his important agenda.  It’s likely that this rich man didn’t even see this poor man.  He was not his concern and was just one of the many unlucky and undeserving poor folks he walked by every day in the city.  Why would he see or notice THIS one?

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But isn’t this a familiar and common narrative in our capitalistic society today?

Don’t we often praise those who have worked hard for their extravagant paychecks that allow for mass and luxurious consumption and demonize those who can barely make enough to get by?

Don’t we often hear this type of demonization of the poor and homeless – and in many cases even think it ourselves?

It’s their fault that they got themselves into this situation.  We shouldn’t punish the hard-working wealthy class by increasing their taxes.  Why should we stop what we are doing to acknowledge and give to someone who is begging for some change, food, or time, when we have more important things to do and they are obviously lazy?

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I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in college.  I had been talking to Larry, a man I became acquaintances with whose home was a tent on a campsite – when he was lucky and his tent was not stolen – and who hung out at the university union building during the day, hoping to get a meal or a few bucks for a hot coffee and possibly a bit of human socialization.

After I said goodbye to Larry one day, a friend of mine from the Christian campus ministry I was involved in came up to me quickly and said, “Emily, you should not be talking to that homeless man or giving him money or food.  He is just lazy and choosing not to get a job.  You are enabling him to mooch off other people.”

Yet, after getting to know him over the course of my four years in college, I had realized that this guy was not just a homeless man.

He had a name… Larry.

And the stories that Larry shared with me as we would eat a sandwich or drink coffee together – about his past, his losses, and his sufferings that led him to this place in life told me otherwise.  They opened up my eyes to see Larry as a beloved child of God…

As someone who was just like me…

Who was once a kid who wore a backpack and went to school; who had parents and siblings; and who had experienced many joys and celebrations as well as many losses and sufferings in life.

And yet, somehow I was the lucky one – not because I worked harder than he did – but because I had the resources and the opportunities to make it through high school and to go to college…  And to not have to ever live in a tent or worry about putting food – good food, might I add – on my table.

Yet, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to get to that point where I could truly look at Larry as an acquaintance and as an equal to myself: as someone who I just happened to share my stories with and listened to his while we sat outside the union over a coffee or a sandwich, rather than just seeing him as someone I was doing charity work for.

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This reminds me of a video that has been shared all over facebook this past year.  It is an interview with a man named Ronald Davis who talks about what it is like to be homeless in Chicago.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it.

One of the most touching parts of the video is hearing about how he is treated and looked at while on the streets trying to get a few dollars in order to stay in a safe bed at night or to get some food to eat.

He explains:

“It’s really humiliating to be shaking a cup 24 hours a day, and people just look at you like you’re some kind of little bum.” He goes on to tell the interviewer about how passers-by have hollered at him to “get a job, bum.”

“I’m not a bum,” Ronald says, as he breaks down in tears. “I’m a human being.”

Yet, too often, we don’t look at people who are living differently than we are, who have not had the same kind of upbringing, or opportunities or resources, or second or third chances like we have – as human beings, with stories, and with a name.

And this is the problem that Jesus is identifying in his parable as Jesus continues the story in our text for today.  The rich man was so focused on his wealth, his possessions, his home… his feasts and parties, his status, his to-do lists, that he was unable to see the poor man who was desperately lying at his front gate.

The rich man’s blindness, his love of his abundant wealth, and his fear of having to give any of it up kept him from seeing and responding to the poor man for who he was: a human being and a beloved child of God… a man with a story and a man with a name.

To Jesus, this is such an offense against God and God’s children that it had major consequences.

In Jesus’ story, after both of the men die, it is the rich man – the one who was considered to have received divine blessings and a high societal status – who remains nameless and who is being tormented with a burning tongue in Hades (the place – according to Jewish thought – where people would go after they died and were buried.)

And it was this poor, desperate, dying man – the one who had been seen as no more worthy than a dirty, city wild dog to the rich man – who was given a name…

Lazarus.

A name that means: “one who is helped by God.”

And it is this Lazarus – not the rich man – who is carried up in the after-life by the angels to sit at a place of honor next to Abraham.

Jesus’ warning from just a few chapters earlier in Luke was likely now ringing in the ears of Jesus’ audience…

The last shall be first and the first shall be last…

And it is not until the rich man is experiencing a bit of the poor man’s earthly plight in Hades, that he somewhat sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side.

And yet, even in this after-life scenario, the rich man’s eyes are still not fully opened to who Lazarus truly is in God’s eyes.  And instead of taking responsibility for his own selfish actions on earth, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus – the one he, himself, refused to see and to help on earth – to now come to him and to cool his burning tongue – giving him relief from his own anguish.  So even as the roles are reversed, in his torment the rich man still does not see and affirm the poor man’s humanity.  And he is given no relief from his agony.

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Now, most of us here are probably not even close to as wealthy as the rich man in our story.  But many of us here do live lives that are full of abundance and comfort: the ability to go out to eat in Andersonville – maybe even once a week or more; to get the new update on our iphone; to sleep in a warm and comfortable bed on a cold January evening; to grab a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks on our way to work because we didn’t have time to make coffee at home; to travel to another city like Denver and go to a conference in an amazing hotel…

Or just to be able to fill our schedules with so many activities, meetings, and social events, that we are too busy to stop and even just acknowledge the existence of a man sitting at our gate – shaking his cup and asking for food.

We may not be as “rich” as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but we do live rich and abundant lives in so many ways compared to the majority of people around the world.  Hey, we don’t have to go too far from Ebenezer Lutheran Church to pass by many of the individuals and families who could only dream of having a taste of our abundance.

Now it’s not this abundance that we have that Jesus is condemning… Abraham, himself, was a man of earthly wealth – and yet is sitting in a place of honor in the after-life of Jesus’ parable.  But it is the love of this worldly wealth, status, and abundance that Jesus is warning us about.

Such love of abundance keeps us from truly seeing the humanity of others and sharing some of that abundance with others in need.

As St. John Chrysostom put it: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them.”  And as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explained: “The opposite of love is not hate.  It’s indifference.”

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Now some of you might be wondering what happened with the man I encountered in Denver.  While I was so tempted to go with my friends, something tugged on my heart that night to stay with this man and take him out to a sit-down dinner.

And even though it was obvious that other customers in the restaurant we went to didn’t think he belonged there – as we could feel the constant glares and looks and even heard the whispers of a few of the people around us – Richard still told me at the end of the night that for the first time in years he felt like he was a normal human being who was equal to the others who were dining in the restaurant – rather than a piece of dirt.

And he told me that he truly felt that I had been an angel sent to him by God that night.

But what was so amazing to me was that while I had gone into this dinner thinking I was making such a sacrifice and was doing my good deed for the night, in hearing the stories about Richard’s life and his continued faith through so many tragedies and crises: I began to realize that I was the one who finally was experiencing the beauty and joy of true humanity again in that moment.

And I began to realize that it was Richard who was an angel sent to me that night.

The stories of Richard’s life and his love for others touched me and inspired me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined and that I will never forget.

In my time with Richard, God opened my eyes to see the beauty and faith in him that I was so tempted to ignore.

And in allowing myself to see Richard for who he truly is, God also released me from some of my own torment – like the rich man in Hades – that comes with too much focus on the abundance, comfort, and busyness of life.

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So how might we hear what Jesus is speaking to each of us through his parable in our passage in Luke?

Maybe some of us need to first recognize the abundance that we do have and explore how God wants us to share that abundance with others: whether it be our money, possessions, food, time, gifts, resources, or stories.

Or maybe it is figuring out how we might better see, get to know, and respond to the needs of others around us – esp. those who we might otherwise ignore and disregard as fellow human beings and children of God.

And if we don’t know where to start on this process, maybe we need to begin with a daily morning prayer, asking God to help open our eyes each day to the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s children around us.  In doing this, we might actually be pleasantly surprised at what God might help us see, how God might teach and touch us through our new relationships, and how God might release us from our own torment that comes with focusing on and worshiping our worldly abundance and riches.

I’d like to leave you with a benediction that was posted this week on d365.org, a daily online devotional:

“May God fill your soul with waters of generosity; Taking you to the gate of thirsty neighbors; That you might come to know them and, knowing them; Share from the richness of God’s love.”

Linking with: Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday

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Related Websites and Articles:

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“What If the Homeless Man on the Bench Was Jesus?” (on eape.org)

“Life of a Homeless Man; Steve Gallagher’s Story” (on lakevoicenews.org)

“20 Things the Poor Really Do Every Day” (on benirwin.wordpress.com)

“Magdalene” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“It’s So Little” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“Spirit of the Poor” Link-up (on newellhendricks.wordpress.com)