Tag Archives: Lectionary

“The Way” – Sermon on John 14:1-14

Standard

url

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

I think this is a great reminder for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

Standard

IMG_1057

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

God loves the whole world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Standard

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

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

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

We hear this saying fairly often.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

“Jesus’ Good News To the Invisible: ‘I see you.'” – Sermon on Luke 7:7-17

Standard

jesus-raises-the-widow-of-nains-son-icon

“Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.”

Luke 7:11-17

In early May, I was incredibly moved by the speech given by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as she denounced the North Carolina bathroom law. (If you haven’t already listened to her speech, I highly recommend that you do.)

After announcing that the Dept. of Justice was filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of North Carolina because the bathroom law “create[s] state-sponsored discrimination against transgender individuals,” she stated: “This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms. This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed to protect all of us. And it’s about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably in the direction of fairness, inclusion and equality for all Americans.”

While her statement was particularly powerful, as Loretta continued to boldly claim this was a civil rights issue, what blew so many people away (and brought me to tears) was her closing statement as she spoke directly to the transgender community: “Some of you have lived freely for decades. Others of you are still wondering how you can possibly live the lives you were born to lead. But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Dept. of Justice and the entire Obama Administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

LGBTQI advocate Bob Witeck explained that Loretta’s closing remarks were so important because LGBTQI Americans are “used to living invisibly.” Yet, here Loretta Lynch is going “out of her way to tell them that she (and the Obama Administration) see them. That they are not invisible.” That their lives do – in fact – matter. And that they are going to commit to doing the justice work of fighting for full inclusion and equality.

And Mara Keisling, Executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality said that this was an empowering statement because Loretta Lynch was acknowledging “that we are people…” and to many transgender people, esp. in North Carolina, that acknowledgement is needed. “The relief is just almost overwhelming,” Mara explained. “To just be so dehumanized [by the state of North Carolina] for six weeks now and then to be so humanized by the attorney general – it’s just amazing.”

*****

“We see you, we stand with you, and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

These words are similar to the words we hear Jesus speaking in our Gospel text this morning.

It’s an emotional scene in Luke.

Our attention is first centered on a large, excited crowd surrounding Jesus. To their amazement, Jesus has just healed the centurion’s servant in the town of Capernaum. And so this large crowd – along with Jesus’ disciples – follow Jesus, hoping to see what he will do next.

As Jesus and his entourage get close to a town called Nain and approach the town gate, we see another large crowd passing through the gate. But unlike the first crowd, this crowd from the town is weeping and grieving, as they follow the leaders of the group who are carrying the body of a man who had passed away.

This second crowd is participating in a funeral procession. But this is not just any funeral procession. As the author of Luke quickly points out, this dead man was the son of a woman who was poor, powerless, and on the complete margins of society: he was the son of a widow. And – as Luke emphasizes – the dead man was this widow’s only son. Luke’s earliest readers would have known what the funeral procession meant for this first century widow. Since women in first century Palestine were considered property of men and depended economically and socially on first their father, then their husband, and if widowed – their sons, this widow was not only facing another incredible loss in her life. But the death of her only son left her completely destitute without a home, job, health care, and if she received no charity from the community – she would be left with no way to survive.

She was now completely invisible.

No wonder she was sobbing as she passed Jesus at the entrance gate to Nain.

Now, it would have made sense for Jesus, this first century rabbi and his followers to just keep going on their way… For, they had important places to be and important things to do.  And why would they notice this widow in the middle of a large crowd in the midst of a funeral procession, anyway?  She would not only have been lost in the crowd, but she was also invisible to the world.

However, this widow was not invisible to Jesus. Maybe it was the volume of her weeping and wailing or the desperation in her eyes that caught Jesus’ attention. But whatever it was, as the two large crowds converge, Jesus sees the widow and he stops what he is doing. He has compassion for her: “Do not weep,” he urges her.

Then in front of both large crowds, he does the unimaginable. With no concern for his own reputation, he touches the bier – or the corpse – an act that was forbidden by the law because the corpse was deemed unclean. Then, speaking to the corpse, he says: “Young man, I say to you: Rise!” and then the dead man sits up and starts speaking. And as Jesus gives the man to his mother, the hope of this once destitute and invisible widow for a future and a holistic life has been resurrected.

It is as if Jesus is saying to her: “I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”

Now, I think it is important to note that this kind of compassion Jesus has is not just a light-hearted sympathy for this woman. The Greek word for compassion used here comes from a Greek noun that means the kidneys, the bowels, the heart, the lungs, the liver: the internal organs. In other words, when Jesus sees this widow in her grief and desperation, his entire insides – his guts – churn. They overflow with concern, compassion, and love… for her.

And this is not the only time Jesus stops what he is doing and performs a miracle for people who are invisible – people who are on the margins – because he has a deep, internal compassion for them. When he sees the sick, he is moved with compassion and heals them. When he sees the hungry, he is moved with compassion and feeds them. When blind beggars cry out to him for help, he sees them, is moved with compassion for them, and gives them sight.

“I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”

And thus is with the grieving, destitute widow in our text in Luke.

Here, at the entrance gate to Nain, Jesus sees this invisible woman for who she truly is. Jesus denounces the labels and images that society has placed upon her and instead he sees and affirms the imago dei – the image of God that she was created in before she even left her mother’s womb. Jesus sees and acknowledges her beloved-ness and her humanity – which society has failed to see in her. And seeing this widow in all her pain and in her deep desperation, Jesus is moved with compassion from his most inward being, and he does what he can in that moment to liberate her from the bondage that society has placed upon her.

“I see you, I stand with you, and I will do everything I can to protect you going forward.”

*****

This is the good news that we have in Jesus Christ.

This is the good news that Jesus proclaimed to the first century widow grieving the death of her son outside of Nain and this is the good news Jesus proclaims to us today. He is our loving God in the flesh who sees the unseen. Who affirms our humanity and beloved-ness when the world denies it. Who – when he sees us in all our pain and desperation – his very insides churn and he is moved with deep compassion and love for us. He is our Savior who places his concern for our well-being far above the laws of the religious. He is our advocate who would risk his own reputation in order to ensure that our basic needs are met so that all God’s children can live holistically, as God created us to live.

And because as followers of Jesus we are the eyes, the ears, the hands, and the feet of Christ in the world, Jesus calls us to open our eyes to see and to open our hearts and our guts to be moved with deep compassion, as well.

So I’d like to leave us all with a challenge from St. Louis pastor and Black Lives Matter activist Rev. Traci Blackmon, who said in her sermon at the Justice Conference that “we have a moral obligation to see…[to] notice who is invisible.” That we must ask ourselves: “who are those that are missing, who are those that we do not see? … The challenge for us is to see what we’ve been conditioned not to see… Wherever the marginalized are not seen, heard or cared for, our covenant is broken… [Therefore], look into the eyes of another of God’s creation… past their skin, past their gender, past their sexuality. Look until you see Jesus.”

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Why Bad Things Happen To Good People” – Sermon on Mark 9:1-13

Standard

 

Miracleofthefig

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9

At the end of my senior year of college, the compassionate and kind-hearted 15 year old sister of my college boyfriend was killed in a car accident. I will never forget some of the things people said to us after she passed away.

“God just wanted another angel.” “God’s timing is just not our timing.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Just remember, even though you can’t understand it now, this is all part of God’s plan.” “God only tests us to make us stronger.” “God is in control.” “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

While these family friends meant well, some of the things they said not only made us feel additional pain and anger, inadequacy for not being able to “handle” this tragedy the way we were expected to, and misunderstood and alone during one of the most difficult times of our lives, but they also reinforced some incredibly dangerous ideas about God’s character and God’s relationship with humankind.

I didn’t want to have anything to do with the God these friends spoke of. To be quite honest, I had to work very hard to refrain from screaming back at them: “That’s bull… you know what!” Really? – I kept thinking. This was in God’s plan? God gave this tragedy to us… to test us!? And God wanted another angel, huh? I wanted to ask. Well then, why didn’t God take someone who had lived a long and wonderful life, not a girl who only got to live 15 short years?

And if everything happens for a reason: what about the horrific violent acts that occur across our country and our world? Are those part of God’s plan, too? – I wanted to ask them.

… As Proverbs 25:20 says: “Like vinegar on a wound 
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.”

A few years after I graduated from college, I found out my college boyfriend and I were not the only ones whose friends sang songs to heavy hearts. When my colleague’s mom was battling cancer, one of his mom’s friends told her she was not praying hard enough… That if she prayed more often and had more faith that God would heal her, she would be healed of her cancer. She prayed frequently but she never healed and she eventually passed away. My colleague told me that even though his mom was one of the most faithful people he knew, sometimes she felt like her cancer was a result of her just not being faithful enough.

While incredibly hurtful and unhealthy, the way this friend responded to her cancer and the way friends responded when my college boyfriend’s sister passed away are very common human responses to tragedy. We want to seek answers to why there is suffering in our world. To make sense of the things that just don’t make sense. Because there has to be a reason for the senselessness in this world, doesn’t there? There has to be a cause for the effect. There has to be someone or something we can blame for human suffering… when our friend’s younger sister dies in a car accident or our friend is diagnosed with cancer. When our brother goes through a painful divorce or we see homelessness and unemployment rates begin to skyrocket. When an earthquake kills thousands or a terrorist attack shakes up our sense of security.

Because if we find a reason – if we find a cause for the tragedy – we think we will then be able to quickly fix the pain of those who are hurting.  And we think that we – ourselves – will be able to avoid the tragedies that we see others face and that we fear might one day hit us. We think that we will be able to avoid these tragedies if we just find their root cause.  If we just refrain from committing those sins, if we just pray more than that person prayed, if we just work harder than those people do, or if we just avoid those people and those places altogether.

*****

This is similar to what the Galileans who spoke with Jesus in our passage in Luke were struggling with. They – too – were seeking answers to why certain tragedies had recently occurred. They wanted to know why the Roman governor Pilate had slaughtered a group of fellow Galilean Jews while they were making sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem and then mixed the dead’s blood with the sacrificial blood. These Galileans who were talking with Jesus wanted to know why a tower near the pool of Siloam unexpectedly collapsed and killed the 18 people who were at the tower. These tragedies must have happened for a reason… because everything happens for a reason. And that reason must have been that those slaughtered in the Temple and those 18 killed by the collapsing tower sinned something terrible… They must have really ticked off God – because – as most first century religious folks believed – tragedy was a punishment from God and suffering was a form of God’s testing.

But as the Galileans begin speculating, Jesus asks them: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you!”

No, these tragedies have nothing to do with the character or actions of the victims. No, God does not punish or test people for their sins with state sanctioned violence or natural disasters. No, God does not punish or test people with illness, the sudden death of a loved one, the loss of a job, homelessness, war, or any other tragedy that leaves us wondering, “why God?” God isn’t the wrathful, short-tempered vengeful God many confuse God to be. And you – Jesus seems to be saying to the Galileans around him – are not standing here now avoiding tragedy because you are any better or more faithful than these victims are.

No, I tell you!

The way the world works isn’t that bad things just happen to bad people and good things just happen to good people… as much as we may wish this to be so. Because many times good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Tragedy just hits, and it can hit any of us. And it isn’t God doing this to our neighbors or to us. It just happens. It’s part of being human in this good and yet fallen world where we are both sinner and saint. Where we are both created good and in God’s image and yet we all fall short of the glory of God. It is the unexplainable mystery of being predestined and having free will: where – as humans, we are both chosen and called by God and yet we also get to choose what paths in life we are to take and we get to choose how we are to live. And it’s the crappy part of free will because with free will – with human choice – comes the bad, the evil, the suffering, the tragedies. However, we must also remember that with free will – with choice – comes the very very good, as well. We cannot have creativity, kindness, acts of compassion, hope, joy, peace, love, or even faith without it.

*****

Jesus then tells the Galileans a parable.

“A man has a fig tree in a garden,” Jesus says. “But when the man sees the fig tree, he realizes it is not producing any fruit. He finds his gardener and says: ‘Look at this fig tree! It is not doing what it is supposed to be doing. For three years it’s been sitting here, and it is still not producing any fruit. It’s just sitting in my garden wasting soil, wasting space, doing nothing. There is no point to it being here, so cut it down!’ But the gardener says: ‘Don’t give up on it just yet. Give the fig tree another year. I will take care of it and tend to it regularly. I will dig around it and place manure on it, so it will bear fruit. In a year, check it out, and if it still doesn’t bear fruit by then, you may cut it down.’”

You see, Jesus is reiterating to the Galileans through this parable that God isn’t an unloving tyrant. Even if God’s people are not bearing fruit, God doesn’t just immediately cut us down and throw us away like the owner of the garden wanted to do with his fig tree. Instead, like the gardener, God is our loving advocate. God cares for us and tends to us. God sees our potential, holds onto hope that we will be fruit bearers, and doesn’t give up on us.

Therefore – Jesus seems to be urging the Galileans – since God is not the punishing and testing God they assumed God to be, rather than focusing on finding reasons for why bad things happen, the Galileans should instead focus on their own lives: on being bearers of fruit for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Repent, he urges. Turn around. Turn from your old ways and turn toward God. Choose God’s way.

But there is urgency in this parable, as well. “Let’s see what happens in a year,” the gardener says. “Let’s see if the fig tree bears fruit a year from now.”

Jesus knows that life is precious. Heck, the recent tragedies that took place in the Temple and at the tower – and not to mention, Jesus’ impending journey toward the cross – remind him of this fact. And the same goes for us. When we hear of the tragedies and suffering around us, we are often reminded of our own mortality.

From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

Tragedies often remind us just how fragile and precious life can be. Yes, bad things happen – to good people even – and can happen to anyone of us – at any time.

This realization can be extremely scary.

And yet, we can allow our fears to overcome us or we can instead embrace this reality and place our focus on being bearers of fruit. We can continue our old ways, or we can turn from them and turn toward God. We have been chosen and we have a choice. And we can choose to allow our fear of our mortality and life’s fragility to keep us from actually living and loving, or we can choose to embrace our mortality and the fact that life is fragile and we can let this realization inspire us to live and to love fully.

To be present in the moment. To take advantage of the precious time we do have with our loved ones. To sit with, cry alongside, and listen to those who are suffering and – rather than sing songs to their heavy hearts – we can acknowledge that their suffering just flat out sucks. To not just take up space in the world, but rather to use our gifts to make a difference in the lives of those around us. To make our precious time here count.

Why do bad things happen to good people? – we ask. It’s the great unexplainable mystery. We don’t know why. They just happen. But what we do know is that we have a compassionate God who knows our pain more than anyone else does. Who weeps over tragedy, suffering, and injustice in this world and never leaves us to grieve or to suffer alone. And who loves us so much that God does not give up on us, but instead continues to tend to us, to care for us, and to believe in us.

So may we choose to turn toward this loving God. May we choose to be bearers of fruit: and to live and to love.

Amen.

 

“The Courage To Embrace Radical Love” – Advent Reflection on Luke 3:7-18 and Workers Movements and Unions (at Interfaith Worker Justice)

Standard

535926_842387912499346_4326035182281164955_n

I’m reflecting on Luke 3:7-18 and blogging about workers movements and union members over at Interfaith Worker Justice today. Here is part of what I wrote:

I often think about how brave John was.  How did he – this man who lived off locusts and wild honey, who dressed in camel’s hair, who had no power in the Roman Empire – have the courage to stand up and boldly proclaim this truth when it was sure to get negative backlash by those in power?  Then I think about how much his prophetic voice proclaiming this harsh good news in the wilderness was needed.  Without it, so many of those on the margins would have been left hopeless.  And yet, with it, a way was paved for our loving Savior Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and many who followed him in his movement of radical love that proclaims peace and justice for all.

This reminds me of the brave union members and worker movements who are some of the bold prophetic voices of our day.

Read the rest here.

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

Standard

140824-michael-brown-4p_e151133bf82ab2e33cf09a4fe0ebb405

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.


large

“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?

“Let Go and Let God: A Call to Discipleship for all of us ‘Mess-ups'” – Lent 2 Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

Standard

971709_493848784019929_458191442_n

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38

Peter is a complete mess-up.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see his fear gets the best of him when Jesus asks him to walk on the water. In John, we see that Peter is the one who cuts off the ear of the chief priest’s servant at Jesus’ arrest. And in all four Gospels, we see that it is Peter who denies Jesus. Not just one time, but three times.

And so it’s probably no surprise to us that it is – indeed – this very same Peter who is the mess-up in our text for today in Mark. And as we watch this scene unfold, many of us may even roll our eyes at him, wondering whether or not Peter will ever learn.

But the thing is, I think that Peter tends to get a bad rap. Because – to be quite honest – I get Peter. I understand where he’s coming from.

You see, Peter is the first disciple to be called to follow Jesus. He is in the ultimate inner-circle. And he puts his complete trust in this rabbi, leaving behind everything he had and knew to become Jesus’ student and to follow him day in and day out.

And my guess is that it probably didn’t take Peter very long to realize that he put his trust in the right teacher, because in Mark’s Gospel, after he calls a few other fishermen to follow him, Jesus immediately begins to impress the crowds. He teaches on the streets and in the synagogues on the Sabbath day with great authority. He rebukes and commands unclean spirits, and they obey him. He performs many miracles, healing people with a wide variety of illnesses and ailments, casting out demons and forbidding them to speak, and even restoring a little girl on her death-bed back to life. While on a boat, he rebukes the winds and quiets a storm. He walks on water. He turns a few fish and loaves of bread into enough food to feed thousands. He gains quite the following of those without power and pushes the buttons of those in power.

This rabbi is not just like any other rabbi. This rabbi teaches, preaches, and acts with great authority and influence.

This must be the One the Jews had so long been waiting for. The One who would liberate God’s people from oppression and suffering. The One who would come to take on the worldly crown, claim victory over the powers that be, and turn the Roman Empire upside down, releasing God’s people from its captivity.

And it is this long expected Savior who chose Peter first! Peter can pat himself on the back a little bit, because that’s got to count for something!

And so, when Jesus stops the disciples on their way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and asks who they say he is: it is Peter – this first-chosen disciple, eye-witness to Jesus’ great acts, and Jesus’ close friend and student in the inner-most circle – who confidently and boldly blurts out the correct answer: “While some say you are John the Baptist or Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets, I say you are the long-expected Messiah!”

DING! DING! DING! And the prize deservedly goes to Peter, the first-chosen, most studious disciple who knows Jesus the best!

But then Jesus does something completely unexpected. He explains that soon he is going to have to endure great suffering. He will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. And he will be killed. And after three days, he will rise again.

*****

I can totally picture Peter in this scene. I can see his confidence in who he believed Jesus to be immediately get squashed, and I imagine his doubts starting to kick in about whether or not he was right about this guy. I can feel the fear creep in as he starts to think about his teacher undergoing such rejection, humiliation, and suffering, and I can feel the pain shoot through his body as he starts to think about losing his dear friend to death.

In this moment, as Jesus reveals the impending tragedy to his dear friends, I can imagine this first-chosen Peter, as he grabs Jesus’ arm and angrily pulls him aside from the other disciples before Jesus gets the chance to say anything more. I can hear his rebukes to Jesus, as if they were my own: “What are you doing, Jesus!? You have been teaching and preaching with authority! You’ve performed miraculous acts before our very own eyes! You are the MESSIAH! The One with divine power that can dominate over all worldly powers! Why on earth would you allow these things to happen? There must be another way! We put our complete faith in you and gave everything up to follow you! Why are you choosing to forsake us now?”

I can relate to Peter so well in this text because I have been there before.

Like him, I have found myself thinking at times that since I have dutifully sacrificed a lot in my life to follow Jesus, it is only fair that Jesus calls me to do only the things that I want to do. And when Jesus suddenly tells me I need to let go of my traditions or my insecurities or what feels comfortable and I need to make a few more sacrifices or do some things that are out of my comfort zone, I feel Jesus has abandoned me.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times thinking that I am a first-chosen disciple, one in the inner-most circle, who knows Jesus and Jesus’ mind more than anyone else. And therefore, when someone disagrees with me, it is I who has the authority. I am the one who has all the answers about faith, theology, politics, what changes should occur or traditions should remain in the church, how one should choose a particular lifestyle to live. I am the one who is right.

Like Peter, I have patted myself on the back a few times, thinking that this call to following Jesus was all about me. What accomplishments I’ve made. How many people I’ve gotten to come through the church doors. How many twitter and facebook followers have liked my blog posts. How many times I’ve volunteered at the food pantry, attended church worship or events, or participated in protests and marches for justice. And so when Jesus all of a sudden reminds me that following him is actually just that: about following him, I just want to grab his arm, pull him aside, and let him know he’s got another thing coming.

Like Peter, there have been times when I have stood confidently before God and before others, boldly proclaiming who I thought I knew Jesus to be, only to be completely thrown off-guard when Jesus shows me I have gotten him so wrong.

Like Peter, I have found myself at times to put trust and faith in God’s existence only if God proves to be all-powerful. To believe that God is with me when things are going well in my life, but when things take a down-hill turn, to believe God has suddenly failed me and disappeared.

It’s easy to believe that the Gospel is all about us. That it is about our willpower and our accomplishments… How we can hold it together on our own. That it is about how many followers we gain. (And by golly, look at how much more faithful we are compared to those folks who haven’t accomplished as much as we have. Who don’t do as much leading, volunteering, worshiping, or justice-making as we do.)

And it is easy to believe that the Gospel is just about an all-powerful, quick fix God. One who will immediately come to our rescue when things go wrong and make everything okay. One who only came in the flesh to authoritatively and magically calm storms, heal people’s ailments, drive out demons, and turn a few loaves of bread into thousands.

I want this to be the Gospel. I want the Gospel story to end right then and there.

But it doesn’t.

*****

As we see in our text in Mark: Jesus tells the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi that the Gospel continues into Jerusalem and toward the cross.

I think we all have this tendency to want to avoid that dreadful journey and that horrific cross. To skip right over it and go from waving the Palm branches to singing the Halleluiah chorus.

But the thing is: we can’t have the resurrection without first going through the cross.

And Jesus knows this. So Jesus responds to Peter: “Get behind me, Accuser! Don’t try to get in the way of my journey toward the cross. For you are thinking, as humans do, on worldly things. You are not thinking on divine things, as God does.”

Then Jesus calls out to the crowds, gathering them in as he explains what it means to be his disciple: “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

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

Jesus is actually saying quite the opposite.

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

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

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

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

To follow Jesus, we need to take up our own cross.

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

The old has gone, the new has come.

To follow Jesus, we must take up our own cross by following Jesus’ way of the cross.

As we saw while Jesus was wandering for those 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Jesus, himself, had the ability to claim victory over worldly power and glory for his own benefit. But, despite Satan – the Accuser’s – strong persuasive skills, Jesus denied this temptation to have dominion over all. And we see later that as he continues toward the cross, he completely empties himself of all this glory and power, dedicating his life (and death) to one that was not for his own self-gain – but rather to one that was for others.

*****

Our text in Mark for today often reminds me of someone who was really special to me. A few days before I graduated from college, the 15-year-old younger sister of someone I was close to was killed in a car accident. This was an incredible tragedy and loss in my life. For the two preceding years, I had gotten to know this young girl and how completely genuine, kind-hearted, and caring she was. It was common to hear stories about how she sat with kids on the bus or in the lunchroom who sat by themselves or how she stuck up for the kids who were being bullied. And during and after the funeral, we learned about many more of her kind and caring acts, as several of her classmates or parents told stories of how she had reached out to them or cared for them in a really difficult time in their lives.

The week after she passed away, as her family looked through her room, they found a note written in her handwriting on a page in the middle of her Bible. It said: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

I think these words summed up the kind of life she lived and will always be remembered by.

And I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We must live our lives putting: “God first. Others second. Me last.”

We must follow Jesus toward the cross by walking with others who are suffering and helping them carry their cross when it is too hard to bear. We must – as Barbara Brown Taylor says in the book we are reading as a congregation this Lent – learn to “walk in the dark” and begin to see God’s presence in those times when we – too – feel lost in our own suffering, doubt, fear, and failure.

But the thing is, when we travel this journey with our crosses on our backs, like Peter, we will continue to be mess-ups… No matter how much we give up to follow Jesus; no matter how far on the inner-circle we may think we are; no matter how often we go to worship on Sundays, pray throughout the week, read Scripture, volunteer, stand up for justice: like Peter – we will mess up over and over and over again.

But this is exactly why we cannot skip over the cross. Because we need the cross. Because we cannot save ourselves. Because we need our Messiah, our Savior, our Deliverer to rescue us.

So, no matter how much we may relate to Peter as we hear this difficult call to discipleship… No matter how much we may want this whole Gospel to be about us… How much we may want God to be in our own image… Or how much we may want to save ourselves and avoid the cross…

Let us deny our old selves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on this way.

Let us learn to let go. And to let God.

“Babies, Baptisms, and Beginnings” – Sermon on the Baptism of Our Lord

Standard

BaptismOfOurLord

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11


I always love hearing the story about my baptism. I was about two months old. My parents dressed me in the same beautiful hand-made white baptismal gown and bonnet that my older sister wore at her baptism five years before. My parents and my sister dressed up in their nicest church clothes – my father sporting his white pant-suit.  (Yes, it was the early 80’s.)  And many of my extended family came into town that weekend to attend the service.

It was a beautiful ceremony – with the liturgy taking place over the baptismal font in front of the congregation at the Presbyterian Church in my hometown. Everything was calm and beautiful. Just perfect for a baptism…

Until I decided to have a huge blowout through my diaper and my gown as my dad was holding me during the baptismal vows in front of the congregation…

And it got all over my dad’s white suite…

*****

Though there was a bit of a surprise and commotion at my baptism after my accident, this was quite tame compared to the baptism of Jesus.

John – the radical Baptizer – the one who hung out in the middle of the wilderness, was clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt tied around his waist, and whose diet consisted of locusts and wild honey – was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People were traveling from all over the Judean countryside and Jerusalem to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. As lines of people awaited their baptisms and were confessing their sins, John loudly cried out: “The one who is greater than I will come after me. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And – in the midst of this chaos – just as we hear about this One who is greater than John the Baptizer, guess who shows up to be baptized by John: Jesus, the Son of God, himself.

Yes, this baptismal event would have been a definite surprise and quite the site to see.

I love so many things about Jesus’ baptism. I love how John – this radical Baptizer seems to remind us of Elijah, the prophet who had been long expected to descend from the heavens and prepare the way for the Messiah to come. And I love that while – in his own insecurity – this popular Baptizer proclaims that he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.  And yet, it is this very same John to whom Jesus shows up and is baptized by.

I love how it is in this baptism that we find out that the One who is to come, this Messiah John is preparing the way for, is not the worldly king that the people had expected.  Rather, this Messiah is Jesus, the son of a poor carpenter from Nazareth, the One who had started his life as a homeless refugee on the margins of society.

I love that in the midst of this chaotic baptismal event in the Jordan River, as Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens tear open and the Spirit swoops down on him like a dove – reminding us of the Spirit-wind swooping over the waters of chaos in the beginning of creation in Genesis 1.  And it is in this moment during Jesus’ baptism when the heavenly and earthly realms collide and all that has separated God from God’s people is torn apart.

I love how it is in this moment when Jesus hears God’s voice crying out to him from the heavens, claiming him and marking him as God’s beloved Son, saying: “With you I am well pleased.”

But what I love most about this baptismal event is that it comes at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel… before any of Jesus’ miraculous acts or prophetic sermons about the Kingdom of God he was reigning in. Before Jesus’ brave and bold journey toward the cross and his hope-filled resurrection from the dead. Before anything that Jesus does in his ministry.

*****

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend who recently got engaged.  As with many engaged individuals, my friend has found the wedding planning process to be quite a stressful one… Searching for the perfect attire, reserving the ceremony and reception venues, narrowing down the guest list, selecting the best food, cake, photographer, you name it…

Just the other day, this friend said to me: “I am so ready for the wedding to finally occur so that all of this tension will be past us and we can finally be done with this kind of stress in our lives… After the wedding, things will be so much easier and better. I’m so ready for this all to end.’”

These words may sound familiar to many of us who are or have been married, as we, too, may have felt the same way during the planning process of our own weddings. And yet, now that we are on the other side, we have likely come to realize that our weddings were not the endings to struggle and tension and that our marriages are not the “happily ever after’s” our fairy tales have told us they would be.

We have likely come to realize that rather than an ending, our wedding was a beginning. That as we joined with our partners in marriage on that special wedding day, we began the long, wonderful and also quite difficult journey that we have to continue to work at daily.

And this is also true for the gift of baptism.

As Mark states in the very first verse in chapter one, the baptism of Jesus is only: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It is in Jesus’ baptism when he is commissioned for the wonderful and yet difficult work of ministry that is to follow. It is in his baptism when his journey of spreading the good news of God’s love to the world begins.

*****

And this is true for us, as well. As we come here today to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we also are called to remember our own baptism. Because our baptism is not a means to an end. It is a means of grace and a means to a beginning.

In the ELCA, we talk a lot about being called to live out our baptisms. We do this by following the way of life and love Jesus has set as an example for us. We do this by proclaiming the good news of God who came into the flesh, died on the cross, and rose from the dead for each one of us. We proclaim this good news by learning about the story of God’s presence and work in and through us and by hearing about the story of God at work in the lives of others. In recalling our baptism, we are reminded that we are in God’s story and others are in God’s story, as well.

And in our baptisms, we are called to live out that story daily in word and in deed. We live out that story when we worship together here at Ebenezer Lutheran on Sunday mornings, when we care for our children, when we visit someone who is ill. We live out that story when we sit with a grieving friend, when we bring a meal to our homeless neighbors, when we stand with others in our communities to call out injustice.

Through us, God is at work in the world: As our ELCA motto says: “God’s work, our hands.”

Now, there may be times when we – like John the Baptist –wander in the wilderness and get lost in the chaos of our lives, wondering how we might ever be worthy of following Jesus and living this baptismal life we are called to.

And yet, just as Jesus showed up to John the Baptist in the midst of his own insecurities, when we get lost wandering in the chaotic wilderness and our lives seem to be falling apart, Jesus shows up to us, as well.

In these times when we feel overcome with self-doubt and fear, I think we can learn something from Martin Luther.  As he was held up for almost a year hiding away in Wartburg Castle and translating the New Testament from Greek to German, he found himself questioning his adequacy, wondering how he might ever be worthy of doing the ministry Jesus called him to. And it was during these moments of insecurity, when he would often be heard throughout the castle halls shouting: “I am baptized!”

In our own times of feeling inadequate to do the work Jesus has called us to, we should be heard shouting this, as well. For in our baptism, the same voice of God who cried out from the heavens to Jesus while he was being baptized in the Jordan River cried out to each one of us, as well, before we ever even began our faith journey:

“You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. With you, I am well pleased.”

In our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our failures, our struggles, our doubts. In our baptism, we are called and welcomed into the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims – a Kingdom that is full of grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love. We are welcomed into this Kingdom of God, and nothing and no one can keep us from it. For, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans: “not even death nor life, not even angels nor demons, not even the present nor the future, nor anything we have done or will do – can separate us from this love of God.”

When we celebrate the baptism of one of the members of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, we do this here in community. Because we are not expected to pursue this baptismal life alone. Rather, in Christ, we are called to live this baptismal life together. In Christ, we are called to join together as one family to help carry the burdens and share in the joys with one another that come as we continue to follow this wonderful and yet difficult journey of sharing this good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that each one of us here has been welcomed into the Kingdom of God – this loving family – and that each one of us is and will always be claimed by God as God’s beloved and cherished child. Because no matter what we do or say or think, in the midst of all of our fears, failures, and doubts, Jesus will keep on showing up to us, offering us God’s love and forgiveness whenever we are ready to accept it. And no matter how chaotic our lives may feel or how lost we may be in the wilderness, God’s voice will continue to be calling out to us:

“With you, I am well pleased.”

Amen.

Why You Should Join The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Standard

ELCA-Logo-Vertical

I’m blogging over at Ed Cyzewski’s page today in his Denominational Derby series about the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America).  If you are looking for a new church home or are interested in hearing more about the ELCA, come check it out.