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“White Supremacy, Systemic Racism, and Where We Fit within these Systems: It’s Confession Time” – Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

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“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” – Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” we hear Jesus crying out this morning. “How often have I desired to gather your children – all your children – together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But you were not willing!”

You see, as a mother hen longs to gather together all her chicks so that they are equally taken care of, Jesus longs to gather all of God’s children so that we are equally taken care of, as well.

And yet, just as Jesus lived in a world full of inequalities, oppression, and persecution, here we are, in a world where 49 of God’s beloved children are murdered in their place of worship by an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant white nationalist. And here we are, in a country that was built upon genocide and slavery due to white supremacy and where systemic racism continues to bleed throughout our society.

As I hear Jesus crying out in our Gospel this morning, I can’t help but wonder which cities and countries he is lamenting over today.

So let us join him in a time of lament as we take a moment of silence to lift up our Muslim siblings around the world as well as all our siblings who suffer at the hands of white supremacy.

*****

Many of you may be aware that during Lent, we – as a congregation – are taking this time to learn more about systemic racism that continues to prevail throughout our country and our world – and particularly to examine our own place and roles in these racist systems in order for us to work toward dismantling them. During this season of the church calendar, we are reading and discussing the book: “Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race.”

Now, this past Thursday morning at our very first book discussion, our Vicar, Noah, had us reread the Invitation To Lent, which is read every year as we enter the season of Lent during our Ash Wednesday service. And this was a perfect reading to begin our Lenten journey of exploring the sin of systemic racism and how and where we fit into these racialized systems.

You see, the Invitation to Lent reminds us that since our “sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation,” we must “acknowledge our need for repentance and for God’s mercy.” The invitation calls us: “as disciples of Jesus… to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.” And it invites us “therefore, to the discipline of Lent – self examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love” as we “continue our journey through these forty days toward the great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

When we read this invitation during our Thursday morning book discussion, someone pointed out how scary and difficult this all sounds.

And he is not wrong. None of this is easy!

To name and call out systems of injustice that oppress some in order to uplift others is difficult. Because those who stand at the front of the line in these systems rarely like to give up their position in the line and the power that comes with it, even if it means allowing those who have been at the back of the line to move forward. And the same goes for those who stand in the middle of the line, as well.

You see, it is not easy to let go of our positions of power, our comfort, and our sense of safety and security, even if it means that others are being marginalized and harmed because of it. In fact, most of us do not even realize where we stand in the line, how we even got to that place, or how people who stand behind us are suffering because we stand in front of them. Because when you stand in a line, all you have to do is look forward. And the closer you are to the front of the line, the fewer the people you actually see.

And when we do eventually start to look backwards, it is not always easy to acknowledge what we do see when we are closer to the front of the line. It is not easy to come to terms with where we stand, how we benefit from being in that placement, or how that placement perpetuates harm, such as systemic racism and all the inequalities that come with it. And it is not easy to realize how holding onto our position in the line keeps those behind us in their place.

Acknowledging and challenging systemic racism and injustice is far from easy.

And we see this in our Gospel text this morning.

You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus has been proclaiming a Kingdom of God that is quite contrary to the exclusive Roman Empire of his day. This Kingdom of God includes not just those who hold power in society, but it also includes those who lack it the most.

And right before our passage, Jesus says that in this Kingdom of God, people will come from north and south, east and west and will all eat together at the very same table. And he even goes as far as saying that in this kingdom, those who have been last will be first and that those who have been first will be last.

This upside down Kingdom of God is radically different from the way the systems of Jesus’ day worked. And it threatens those who are in power, particularly King Herod. And so at that very hour, some Pharisees come to Jesus and warn him to leave, “for Herod wants to kill you,” they say to him.

No, this holy kingdom work is not easy.

But no matter how dangerous the situation is for him, Jesus is not going to stop proclaiming this Kingdom of God that flips the systems of injustice upside down and that calls those in power to move to the back of the line so that those in the back can move to the front and be fully included.

“Go,” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “And tell that fox, King Herod, that I have some holy kingdom work to do, and I will finish my work on the third day: on God’s time.”

And you see, the hardest thing about this is: we are commanded to follow Jesus in this holy work of dismantling systemic racism, no matter how dangerous or difficult it might be. Because systemic racism is a sin and it is evil. And it holds us back from loving God and loving others.

And as the Invitation to Lent reminds us: “as disciples of Jesus, (we are called) to a discipline that contends against evil and resists whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”

Now how we go about doing this antiracism work is going to depend on where we stand in line.

And while there are systems that keep me from being in the very front of the line – such as my gender, my sexual orientation as someone who is bisexual, my economic class (since I don’t fit into the very top in this country), or anything else that may have held me back: as a person who is white, the color of my skin (as well as other privileges I have), still place me somewhere toward the front of the line.

*****

A few years ago, when I was in the midst of beginning this life-long journey of becoming anti-racist, I read a blog post by the Rev. Denise Anderson, a black pastor in the Presbyterian-USA denomination, who – at the time – was one of the co-moderators of the denomination. This post challenged and encouraged me to take a big difficult step in this antiracism work. Rev. Anderson wrote: “For those of you who ask ‘how many times [police shootings of unarmed black and brown individuals] must happen? I’ll tell you precisely when it will stop.

It will stop when people en masse are aware of the ways in which whiteness and white supremacy have shaped the way people of color are viewed, engaged, and treated in this world (even by other people of color).” To come to this realization, however, white people will then have to be self-aware and convicted of the ways in which they have benefitted from and promulgated the lie of whiteness…” She goes on: “White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism.

Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is… It’s confession time.”

After reading this, I sat down and made a very difficult and yet really important confession that I posted on Revgalblogpals, a blog I sometimes write for. And since antiracism work is a life-long journey, where I need to continuously confess and repent, I am making this difficult confession to you today:

I am racist.

I wish so much that I wasn’t. I try so hard not to be. But I am.

I think this is such a difficult confession to make because we often think people who are racist are “bad” and are intentionally hateful. Yes, there are many people who say and do overtly racist and hateful things. But the truth is, most people who are racist are good and well-meaning people, who don’t want to be racist, try their hardest not to be, and don’t even realize they are.

You see, I don’t belong to extremist groups like the KKK, call people racist names, or say things that are overtly racist. I even shut down jokes and call out comments that I recognize are racist. And yet, I am still racist.

I grew up in a diverse town and went to diverse schools. I currently live and work in Edgewater, which is an incredibly diverse community, and I have friends, neighbors, mentors and even a family member who are persons of color. And yet, I am still racist.

I follow people of color on facebook and twitter, read books and articles about racism and white privilege, attend anti-racism workshops, and participate in marches and rallies that address systemic racism.

But despite all of this: I am still racist.

Why?

Because my entire life I have been socialized to be. I have been conditioned to see the world through my eyes (the eyes that belong to a white body, which is the kind of body our society has supported, deemed the “norm,” and uplifted as superior for over 400 years.)

My school textbooks have been written from a white perspective. My television shows, movies, and books have been dominated by characters who look like me. The media I follow often perpetuates harmful racialized stereotypes and biases – no matter how progressive it might be.

Despite that my family taught me that all people were created in God’s image and deserve to be treated equally, I am still racist.  When I first see a person of color, I still sometimes fail to see her as an individual and instead see her as a stereotype. When I hear people of color share their stories of being racially profiled or denied upward mobility in their workplaces, I still sometimes question if their experiences are valid.

There are still times I say, think, or do things that I don’t even realize are racist and that perpetuate systemic racism. There are still times when I worry too much about ticking off my white friends or accidentally saying something that is offensive to my friends of color that I don’t speak up when I should. There are still times when I am in the virtual or physical spaces of my siblings of color and I end up wanting to center myself. And when people call me out on any of this, there are still times I feel defensive and focus more on my own discomfort than on the fact that black and brown lives matter more than my feelings.

You see, I am a white person who was raised in a country that was founded on white supremacy (the belief that white people are inherently superior to people who are not) and that throughout its history has continued to reinforce this white supremacy through social and political forces (the mass genocide of indigenous people living on this land, slavery, the Indian Removal Act, Jim Crow, redlining and blockbusting, the Urban Renewal Program, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling, racialized policing – to name just a few)… As white person who has inherited all of this history and thus has been immersed in the culture that comes with it, it is extremely difficult to shed myself fully from my own racist views, biases, thoughts, and ways I believe the world should function… No matter how hard I try.

I am stuck in this 400 year old deeply engrained racialized system that not even the activists of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s could completely free us from.

And I benefit from this system. My whiteness is a privilege in it.

For example, as a white person, people look at me as an individual, not a stereotype. I will never be denied a loan, housing, or job interview because of my skin color. A store clerk will never follow me closely to ensure I don’t steal anything, and I will never be taken advantage of by a car salesperson because of my whiteness.

I have always had access to quality education and upward mobility. My white body is not seen as a threat. People will never look at me and think I could be a terrorist because of the color of my skin. People will not call the cops if they see me taking a walk in their neighborhood past sundown or quickly move to the other side of the road when they see me walking on the sidewalk where they are walking. I will not be pulled over in my car for no reason or on my bike because I look “suspicious.”

And if I do get pulled over, I will never have to worry that if I reach for my ID in my pocket, make a quick move, or even mouth back, I could get shot.

Among many things, racism denies the humanity in God’s beloved children and fails to see that God created all God’s children good, in God’s image, and beautifully and wonderfully just the way they are.

Racism is a painful and deadly sin.

And I am racist.

I live in a racialized society dominated by racist systems that were founded by white supremacy. And I benefit from and contribute to these systems.

*****

Now, this may sound incredibly hopeless. But it is not.

Because as Christians, we believe that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he freed the world from its bondage to sin. Does this mean we are no longer sinners? Of course not. Because we are human.

But this does mean that we no longer have to be bound to sin. When we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another, our sin loses its power over us. Confession leads us toward repentance, where – by the grace of God – our hearts, minds, and thoughts begin to be transformed and we start to turn away from our sins.

 And whenever we turn away from something, we also turn toward something in the opposite direction. In this case, for those of us who are white: when we turn away from our sins of racism and white privilege, we turn toward a life of being anti-racists. But we cannot just turn away from our sin, turn toward a new way of life, and then pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. We must continuously and actively move toward this new way of life.

Since the sins of racism and white privilege are so deeply engrained in us and in the racialized systems we participate in and are conditioned by, we must actively check our privilege and racism, confess it, repent of it, and be moved to take action. We must do this over and over and over again.

While I am still racist, I choose to not let racism and white privilege dominate who I am.

 I choose to be actively anti-racist. I choose to learn about and become more aware of my white privilege and how I can work to dismantle it and the harmful racialized systems of which I am a part. I choose to listen to and learn from the voices and the cries of my siblings of color, to show up, and to grieve and stand with them in their pain and anger. I choose to speak with my white siblings about white privilege and interpersonal and systemic racism. I choose not to allow my discomfort, embarrassment, guilt, defensiveness, or the mistakes I have made (and will make) to take over me and hold me back from doing this important work.

While this new way of life is really difficult, in the Christian tradition, we believe that we do not pursue this way of life alone. We do this with the help of God and with one another.

 So, will you join me in this holy anti-racism work?

I need you. We all need each other. So let us do this holy work together.

And as we begin this journey of Lent and this holy work through confession, repentance, and action, let us hold onto the beautiful gift we have: that God, who is rich in mercy, loves us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive together with Christ.

In Jesus Christ we are indeed forgiven! So now together let us act!

Amen.

“Loving our Enemies, A Golden Rule, and A Messed Up Story of a Giving Tree” – Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

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“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” – Luke 6:27-38

“Love your enemy,” we hear Jesus saying this morning. “And if anyone strikes you on your cheek, offer the other also.”

At the campus ministry I was involved in during college, Shell Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree was used a lot as an example of how the ideal Christian was to emulate Jesus’ selfless love that Jesus calls us to in our Gospel this morning.

It was not until I was studying feminist theology in seminary when I realized how incredibly messed up this was.

You see, in Shell Silverstein’s book, there is a boy and there is an apple tree, who – of course is a female. As a young boy, he climbs the tree, eats her apples, and carves Me + Tree with a heart around it on the tree’s trunk. But as the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and only comes back to visit her when he has something to gain from her. He brings his girlfriend to the tree and carves a heart into her trunk with his and his girlfriend’s initials; he takes apples from the tree in order to make money; he takes the tree’s branches in order to build a house; he takes her trunk in order to build a boat.

The tree loves the boy, and at every stage of giving pieces of herself to him in order to make him happy, she is happy. At the end of the book, the boy comes back to her as an old man, and the tree is sad because she has nothing left to give him. But the old man says: “All I need is a quiet place to sit and rest.” And so this tree, who has given up almost every piece of herself, offers all that is left of her – a little stump – as a place for the old man to sit. And as he sits on her, she is happy.

*****

“Don’t be angry when someone wrongs you,” my college campus ministry leader told our women’s Bible study Group. “Instead, love selflessly like the Giving Tree does, forgive, and turn the other cheek, as Jesus commands us. This is what a good Christian woman is called to do.”

One of the reasons I have had a really difficult time with this morning’s Gospel passage is that throughout Christian history, it has been used as a means to tell victims of abuse – whether it is physical, spiritual, emotional, or verbal – to take the abuse and stay with their abusers. It has been used as a means to tell victims of sexism, slavery, racism, and other forms of hate to put up with hateful laws, systems, and treatment and to not resist. It has been used to keep people who are on the margins in their place.  

And the message that is being taught through this interpretation of Jesus’ words in Luke is that in order to offer Jesus’ selfless love, including to our enemies, the oppressed must forgive their oppressor by not feeling or expressing anger and by taking the abuse.

But the thing is, I do not think that refraining from expressing justified anger and from resisting abusive systems and treatment is actually an act of loving the enemy or the oppressor.

And I don’t think Jesus is saying that this is the case in our Gospel this morning, either.

*****

You see, throughout the Gospels, Jesus condemns hate and injustice and proclaims a Kingdom of God that calls for equality for all people and that will flip the systems of injustice upside down. He calls out and challenges abusive individuals and systems that oppress and marginalize and explains that he has come to release those who have been held captive and to let the oppressed go free. And while it may rarely be talked about in college Bible Studies and sermons: Jesus often does all this by expressing his anger about the injustice he sees. The thing is, he does not allow his anger to keep him captive.

I also think we need to look closer at what Jesus was really saying when he tells his disciples to turn the other cheek.

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, he specifies which cheek he is talking about, saying: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

 When I taught our youth group about this passage, I told them to find a partner and to pretend to hit their partner on the right cheek with their fist. Then I asked them how they would naturally hit their partner’s right cheek.

The youth answered that they would have to hit the right cheek with the left fist.

Then I explained to them: that in Jesus’ time, the left hand was used for only unclean tasks… and I mean… really unclean, natural every day human bodily tasks, if you get my drift. And so if you used your left hand for something other than those tasks, you basically would be seen as contaminating whatever or whomever you touched with your unclean hand. Thus, you would be excluded from religious gatherings and would have to do penance.

So, I told our youth that they had to put their left hand behind their back and pretend to hit the person’s right cheek again. When asked how they could do it, they said they had to do it with the back of their right hand.

Now, when a person hit someone else during Jesus’ time with the backhand, they were not doing it to cause injury. Instead, the backhand was a way to insult and humiliate the other person. And a backhand slap was not done to someone who was an equal. Slaves would be backhanded by masters; wives would be backhanded by husbands; children would be backhanded by parents.

The purpose of the backhand was to keep a person who was inferior in their place and to make them submit to their superior.*

So Jesus goes on to say that if someone backhands you, then turn the other cheek.

In doing so, the recipient of the slap makes it impossible for the person in power to use the backhand again. The recipient’s nose is in the way. The only way to hit that person would be with the right fist. But the problem with this is that only equals fought with fists, and the last thing a person in power wanted to do is acknowledge his inferior’s equality.

As theologian Walter Wink explains in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: “This act of defiance makes the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship… By turning the cheek, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

By turning the cheek, the “inferior” would expose the evil acts of the superior and forces the superior to make a choice to either shame himself by continuing this wrongdoing or to stop this wrongdoing altogether.

You see, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus is not saying that we should roll over and allow people to abuse or take advantage of us. He is saying quite the opposite. He is telling us to stand up to the bully. He is calling us to holy resistance.

*****

Another reason I have had difficulty with this morning’s Gospel passage is Jesus’ whole bit on loving our enemies.

Most of us likely feel we have at least some enemies – whether they are people we know personally or people we only hear about in the news. Whether they are enemies because they have caused us – or our loved ones – great harm or because we had some kind of falling out with them. Whether they are our biggest competitor who always seems to get our clients, our harsh boss who constantly takes advantage of us, our roommate or neighbor who gets under our nerves, or that facebook friend who just cannot stop trolling all of our posts.

And it’s easy for us to sit around and loathe and even sometimes hate our enemies. They deserve to be loathed and hated, don’t they?

And yet, Jesus does not only ask us to stop loathing and feeling hatred toward our enemies. He asks a lot more of us!

Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you… Do good, lend – expecting nothing in return… do not judge or condemn, for you do not always know what is going on in another person’s life. Rather, forgive, and give.”

This is all really really difficult, and maybe even feels impossible. Sometimes we just want to sit around and stew in our loathing and our hatred!

But the thing is, how many of us are actually perfect? How many of us can raise our hand when asked if we were never the one who did anything to create an enemy? Even if we have repented and changed since then or even if our wrong was unintentional or even if we wronged someone while going through an incredibly difficult time, many of us have created an enemy at some point in our life.

And yet, we have a God who forgives us again and again after we have wronged God and others. We have a God who offers us new life and chance after chance to be restored into the God-image bearers we were created to be. And most likely, we have received this grace from others we have wronged, as well. So don’t some of our “enemies” deserve just as much as we do the kind of grace and opportunities to change – that we have received?

“Be merciful,” Jesus says, “Just as your Father was merciful to you.”

*****

Now, please do not get me wrong. I am not saying that this is easy at all. This is a difficult process. And as I spoke about earlier, I am not saying that all our enemies deserve the same kind of response to the harm they may have caused us or our loved ones or that we even owe them any kind of response at all. Boundaries are important and will definitely differ depending on the kind of harm one has caused.

But what I am saying is that even if our enemy really does deserve our loathing and hatred, isn’t it worse on us when we sit around and stew in it?

I think Desmond Tuto, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first black Archbishop in South Africa, explains this well in his book: The Book of Forgiving that many of us read last year during Lent.

He says: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor. When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves.”

But Tuto also reminds us that “forgiveness is not easy… it is not forgetting… and it is not quick – it can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.”

*****

But no matter how difficult it may be, this – I believe – is what Jesus is calling us to do in our Gospel this morning when he asks us to love our enemies. He is calling us to enter into the difficult journey of loving our enemies by first loving God and ourselves and by finding healing through the journey of holy resistance, boundary-setting, and forgiveness. So may we choose to begin this journey, so that we – too – can be free.

 


 

*My description about the backhand comes from the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by theologian Walter Wink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an upside down Kingdom of God, both in the here and now and that which is to come, where the last would be first and the first will be last, the poor will be blessed, and the slave will be free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward the end of her book, Michelle Obama explained:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

“This Changes Everything” – Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 #elcayg2018

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

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

Many of you might know that last week Pastor Michael and I were in Houston with 13 youth and 2 young adult leaders for the ELCA Youth Gathering, where 30,000 youth from all over the country and even across the world gather once every three years for worship, to hear speakers, to participate in service learning projects with local organizations, to learn about multiple areas of injustice and how our faith calls us to respond, and – of course – to also have a lot of fun.

This year, our youth group also gathered with about 700 other youth and adults for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is a pre-Youth Gathering event that seeks to empower youth of color and multicultural youth groups to grow in their faith, develop as leaders, and build awareness and acceptance of one another’s cultural backgrounds and differences.

During the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is the most diverse gathering of Lutherans in the ELCA, our youth and leaders had so many powerful experiences as we sang and danced to global worship music together, talked with and heard the stories of people from all over the country and some from across the world, shared our own personal and family stories – some which included painful stories about our youth’s experiences with racism, and our group started a community garden for refugee families who are new to the Houston area.

Once the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event ended, the main ELCA Youth Gathering began. The theme for this year’s gathering was: “This Changes Everything,” and throughout the week we heard so many inspirational and challenging stories and messages about how God’s radical love, grace, and hope do – in fact – change everything.

While the worship we experienced and the messages we heard were remarkable, what was most powerful for me was seeing how our youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they created a safe and caring space for one another to be truly themselves, as they befriended and encouraged youth from other church groups, and as they organized and led 300 youth and adults from our Metro-Chicago synod in a rally and march calling for an end to the separation and detainment of families at the border. Several of our youth spoke – both in English and Spanish – led chants and songs, invited youth to call and write letters to their legislators, and two of our youth were even interviewed by Telemundo and the Houston Press. This was not easy for them to do for multiple reasons, esp. in times like these. Yet, despite the opposition they could have faced, these youth believed this was important, and for some of them, this was personal. So they proclaimed this good news. They were so courageous and they did a phenomenal job! I am extremely proud of them! They were an amazing representation of Edgewater!

After hearing and experiencing God’s love, grace, and hope last week in a variety ways (many of which were through our own Edgewater youth), we were then challenged to continue to share this good news when we returned to our home communities.

On our last night of the Youth Gathering, we heard from 11 year old transgender activist Rebekah Bruesehoff, who said: “I have a lot of support, but so many transgender kids don’t. Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported… Hearts and minds can change. And I can change the world. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us. I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated. We can make it happen… And you – each and every one of you – made in God’s image, are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”

And we heard from poet Joe Davis, who said:

“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope. You are here for a reason: Not just for the future, but for the here and now. Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you… You are a generation that’s teaching us that enough is enough. Radical hope is when we celebrate not just what we see now, but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and we must practice this hope every day. This hope changes me. This hope changes you. This hope Changes Everything.”

Now, while many of the 30,000 youth and adults were inspired and transformed by the good news we heard and experienced last week, the call to share this good news when we return to our home communities is not always going to be easy. For we know it is not always going to be welcomed and accepted, even by those we are closest to.

And this was the case for Jesus’s homecoming in our Gospel text this morning, as well.

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

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

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

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

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

He’s cast out demons and stilled a storm. He’s performed miracles… on the Sabbath day. He’s touched and healed those who were deemed “untouchable”: the sick, a leper, a woman… who had been haemorraging… for years. He’s called twelve disciples to follow him – most of whom are just common fishermen and one who is a tax collector. He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near and tells those who follow him not to keep anything hidden, but to bring all their secrets into the light.

He eats with the sinners and the tax collectors and then tells the religious – the righteous ones – to confess and repent of their sins.

Jesus was changing everything!

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

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

And here in our text for today, after all the backlash he’s already received, Jesus has the nerve to come back to his hometown and to his home synagogue. And here – in the midst of the ones who’ve watched him grow up, he comes preaching this same kind of message. This same message that treats the outcasts and those who were “untouchable” as if they are equals and calls the religious and righteous to bring their secrets to light and confess and repent of their sins.

Who does this ordinary carpenter with a shameful family past think he is?

But the insults don’t stop Jesus. He lays his hands on a few more of those “untouchable” and cures them. And then – as he and his disciples leave Nazareth and go out into the villages, he gives his disciples authority and commissions them to go out into the world vulnerably – two by two – with nothing but a staff, the clothes on their backs, and the sandals on their feet.

They must rely on the people they meet to feed them and to provide them with a place to sleep. And yet Jesus tells them they must go out boldly, proclaiming that all should repent, and they must confront evil, cast out demons, anoint those “untouchable” with oil, and heal the sick.

*****

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

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

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

I think I wonder this about the disciples because sometimes I wonder this about myself. To be quite honest, there have been many times when I just want to pick up all of my belongings and hold tight to my own privilege and just pretend that the systemic injustice that continues to prevail throughout our country and world and the suffering it causes so many people do not exist.

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

Because as a white, cis-gender, educated, middleclass, woman who is married to a man and who is a U.S. citizen with documentation, I have the privilege of being able to just shut everything around me out and to live my life without fear.

I can just go to my safe home – without ever being pulled over in my car or stopped and frisked on my bike ride home because of the color of my skin. I can walk home without fear that I could get jumped or called a derogatory name because of my religious affiliation, gender identity, or because of the gender identity of my spouse.

I can go to sleep every night knowing that my sister’s children will never be forcibly taken from her or that my parents will never get deported. I have the privilege of just getting to turn off the news and going about living my own comfortable life without having to think about those around this country who have to live in fear every single day.

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

Because just as Jesus called out to the twelve disciples and commissioned them to acknowledge and let go of their grip on their privilege and to go out into the world boldly, he commissions ALL of his disciples to do so, as well. He commissions each one of us to share God’s radical love and to BE the hope that will – indeed – change everything.

Because when one member of our human family suffers, we ALL suffer.

*****

During our last worship service at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, we heard Chicago Pastor Yehiel Curry explain that it is when we immerse ourselves with others who may look, speak, talk, believe, worship, and act differently than we do and get to know them, that we will begin to realize that we are more alike than we are different. And THIS IS WHAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!

He saw this taking place a lot at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event this week. (And so did I. And wow: was it ever a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God!)

Pastor Yehiel went on to explain that we are one in Christ, because it is Jesus who brings down the walls of hostility that divide us. However, we – as the body of Christ – are called to bring down these dividing walls in our world, as well. And yet, in order to make change, we need to start within ourselves.

“When you change your heart, you can change your mind,” he said. “When you change your mind, you can change your community. When you change your community, you can change your city. When you change your city, you can change your state.

When you can change your state, you can change your nation. When you can change your nation, you can change your world. When you can say this is my brother, this is my sister, [this is my sibling], this is my family: THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!”

And then we are truly ONE in Christ.

Amen.

“Stranger Things” – Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

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“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”

– Mark 9:2-10

Strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

I have learned this from experience. Several years ago, when Jonathan and I were in Ireland, we decided we would walk St. Brandon’s Pilgrim Path, an 11 mile ancient Christian pilgrimage that is believed to have first been walked in the late 500s. This path begins along the seaside and then takes you through fields with beautiful scenic views and ancient heritage sites along the route.

When Jonathan and I asked the one taxi driver in the small town we were staying in if she could pick us up at the end of the path, she laughed… and then told us: “Just call me when you get tired…” And when we looked a bit confused, she added: “It’s not as easy as you might think.”

And boy was she right! The trail was hilly and windy, often taking us through long patches of tall grass and weeds that were up to our knees, private fields, thick mud, and rugged terrain.

Once we passed Kilmalkedar Church, an early Christian and later Medieval site, the next several miles of the path were even more difficult and off the grid. As we hiked up a very long, steep hill with only a few small hand painted trail markers to show us the way, the incline got steeper, the winds stronger, the sky darker, and the fog thicker.

When a trail marker directed us to walk through a closed gate, we found ourselves walking uphill through a private sheep farm. This final part of the journey was fun… at first. But after a while, the fog got so thick we could barely see anything around us, not to mention: where we were going. At one point I screamed, as two sheep seemed to appear out of nowhere – frantically running through the fog just two feet in front of us.

And when we tried to backtrack our steps so we could find a place to call and meet our taxi driver, as I took a step on what seemed to be the ground, I ended up falling through one of the many thorn bushes that we soon realized we were surrounded by and that were quite deep and wide. By this point, we had not seen a trail marker for about an hour, we had no phone service, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it back to our cabin.

Our only hope was to keep going up to the top of the hill, which we still could not see. So we just kept cautiously walking.

But once we eventually got to the top, something else strange happened. The fog thinned out, we could see things a lot more clearly, and the exhausting and – yes – quite terrifying – journey we took to get to where we were all of us sudden seemed worth it. As we looked out over the other side of the hill, we could see some of the most incredible views of Mt. Brandon and miles upon miles of the beautiful Irish countryside. And as we looked down the side of the hill that we had just climbed, we could see the tiny steeple of Kilmalkedar Church off in the distance down below, and the path we took from there seemed to be a little more apparent than before. (Although, I am not going to lie, our journey back down to Kilmalkedar Church was still a bit terrifying.)

Yes, strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.

And this is the case for the disciples in our Gospel text this morning. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them on what is most likely a long, arduous journey through windy, hilly, and rugged trails and unmarked fields up a high mountain. And when they finally get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and he begins to glow. His clothes become dazzling white, so much so that no one on earth could bleach them, our text says. And then – when you think things could not get anymore weird, they do. Because suddenly out of nowhere, the long departed Moses and Elijah appear before the disciples and begin talking to Jesus.

Such strange things are happening on top of this mountain, that you might expect David Harpour – star of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – to suddenly appear saying: “It must be a tide ad!” (If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you know what I am talking about.)

But this is not a tide commercial. It’s the transfiguration. And it is a very strange scene.

So strange that Peter stumbles over his words because he doesn’t know what to say, for he and the other disciples are terrified.

And it’s no wonder they are. They had just seen this strange thing happen on the mountaintop. Here, for the first time, they see Jesus in a completely new light. (Both figuratively and literally).

And many of us know that once we see Jesus in a completely new light, there is no turning back. Everything changes. Sure, eventually we have to go back down the mountain to our every day life, but we do so with a new perspective and with a heart that is open to being transformed.

This is true with any kind of “mountain top” experience where we encounter Jesus in a new light. We begin to see things more clearly. These mountain top experiences may take place during a powerful worship service, at a large Christian gathering (like a conference, prayer retreat, or an ELCA Youth Gathering), or on a mission or service-learning trip.

Or maybe this mountain top experience takes place when we hold our child or our grandchild for the first time, when we hear someone else’s story, when someone sits with us in our pain, when we spend time taking in the nature around us, or when we develop relationships with our neighbors of other faiths and realize that God is so much bigger than we had imagined.

Maybe this mountain top experience is when we are volunteering at the local food pantry and realize for the first time that Jesus is not just working through us and our acts of service to our neighbors experiencing homelessness or hunger. Rather, through our neighbor, Jesus is actually speaking to us.

Or maybe our mountain top experience is when we first attend an anti-racism training or read a book on economic injustice and we begin to recognize our own privilege and prejudices and how they contribute to systemic inequalities.

Here on the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before the disciples, and now the disciples are being transformed.

The journey the disciples had taken thus far in following Jesus is now seen with news eyes. And the same goes for the journey they would soon take in following Jesus back down the mountain, into the valley, and soon thereafter onto Jerusalem and toward the cross.

But this is – indeed – terrifying. Having this mountain top experience meant that their lives were going to change going forward. For the disciples, this means that soon Jesus will no longer be with them on this earth. How could they continue this ministry on their own? Were they even qualified to do this work? Were they good enough? Were they adequate enough?

It’s no wonder Peter suggests they build three dwellings – or tabernacles – at the top of the mountain (a common ancient practice to mark places where God’s people had a holy encounter.) For these disciples, this was surely a holy place. Plus, if they built the tabernacles, the disciples could stay in this holy space for a while, which could buy them some time before they had to come back down from the mountain top and face the hardships that come in the valley below, knowing who Jesus is and what and who Jesus stands for.

But just as Peter suggests this, a cloud overshadows the disciples, and a voice comes from the cloud saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

I love this response to Peter and the other disciples as they are overcome with fear. Because it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I love this because whenever we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are also reminded of our own. Just as Jesus was named God’s beloved child in his baptism, so too are we – in ours.

No matter how terrified Peter may have been about what was to come and about how Jesus was calling him to live, and no matter how inadequate or unqualified to do this work he might have felt, Peter is God’s beloved child. No matter how terrified, inadequate, or unqualified we might feel about coming down from the mountaintop and living out our call in the valley alongside those most vulnerable and marginalized, we are God’s beloved children, as well.

But the voice in the cloud does not end there.

“This is my Beloved Son,” the voice calls out. “Listen to him.”

When Peter saw Jesus in a new light, he was quick to speak. To give his two cents. To find a quick fix for the situation and for his fears.

And to be quite honest, aren’t we all quick to speak and slow to listen?

But the voice from the cloud calls on Peter to listen first.

You see, when we see Jesus in a new light, we are not just immediately transformed. This is a process and it requires a lot of listening and a lot of self-reflecting. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen. We must listen to God. Listen to our neighbors.  Listen to ourselves.

I love what Mother Teresa told CBS anchor Dan Rather when he asked her what she said during her prayers. She answered: “I listen.” And when Dan asked her: “Well then, what does God say?” she smiled and answered: “He listens.”

It might seem strange that this morning we are on the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration – which takes place toward the end of his public ministry – and then next week we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – before Jesus’ ministry even begins. And yet, I think it makes sense that we are on the mountaintop this morning before we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness this Wednesday.

Because I think this is similar to real life. Isn’t life often like a roller-coaster ride, bringing us from the mountaintop right down to the valley and into the wilderness and then on toward the cross before we can experience the resurrection… just before the roller-coaster ride begins again.

The disciples needed the mountaintop in order to see things more clearly before they followed Jesus toward the cross and onto what came next. They needed this as a holy place to begin their journey of transformation.

And so do we.

As Thomas Jay Oord wrote in his commentary on this text in the Christian Century magazine this week: “Mountains can bring us to attention. Sometimes we need to be atop a mountain to remember our reason for the journey. Mountains can give us the novel perspective we need to make sense of things; they can renew us. And sometimes only atop a mountain – after a grueling hike, with an aching body, oxygen-starved lungs, and sweat-drenced skin- can we truly hear the voice of wisdom: ‘this is my beloved son. Listen to him.’”

So this Lent, as we take this journey down from the mountaintop and into the wilderness, may we open our hearts to being transformed. May we choose to do this holy work of listening.

Amen.

“A Messy and Fishy Kind of Sermon” – Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20

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I love how our Hebrew and Gospel stories are paired together this morning. Because I think these two stories share several similar themes.

First, we have two fish stories. We have Jonah, who many of us probably remember has something to do with a giant fish. And then we have four of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who happen to be fishermen. And when Jesus sees them fishing, he says to them: “I will make you fish for people.”

Secondly, these are two call stories. God has called the prophet Jonah to go into the city of Ninevah and cry out against the Ninevite’s wickedness. And in our Gospel, while Jesus is proclaiming the good news of God, he sees four fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and he – a rabbi – calls out to them: “follow me,” asking them to become his disciples, or his students.

The third theme these stories seem to share is that when we look at the stories as given to us through our assigned lectionary readings this morning – without any additional context about the people involved – they both seem to be picture-perfect call stories.

When Jonah hears God calling him, he listens, immediately gets up, goes to Ninevah, and cries out to the Ninevites, proclaiming their impending destruction for the wickedness of their ways. And they repent.

And in our Gospel, when Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John hear Jesus calling them, they immediately get up, drop their fishing nets, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering. And they leave everything they have and know behind them without any knowledge of where they are going or what will come next.

You see, it looks as though this morning we have two neat and tidy call stories, with what appear to be confident, obedient, and qualified people of God who respond to God’s call to go and proclaim the good news of God’s love and to do God’s work in the world.

But if we look beyond the lectionary readings this morning, we will see that these calls stories are far from neat and tidy, and the people being called are far from perfect.

You see, when Jonah was first called by God to go and speak to Ninevah, instead of going, he jumps on the first ship he can find that will take him to Tarshish, a city that is in the complete opposite direction of Ninevah. And he goes down into the hold of the ship to hide out, hoping to escape God’s presence. But God sends a great storm upon the sea, and – as the winds strengthen and the sailors can’t seem to get the ship back to land – Jonah is eventually thrown overboard. So God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah. And while Jonah is sitting in the belly of the fish, he gives thanks to God for hearing his cries. And so God hears his prayers again, speaks to the fish, and the fish ends up vomiting him up onto dry land.

This is where we come to our lectionary passage this morning. God calls out to Jonah a second time to go to Ninevah. And so this once very disobedient Jonah, who is now covered in sea water and fish puke, happily goes to Ninevah to tell them about their wicked ways and their impending destruction.

No, this is not a neat and tidy call story at all. This story is rather quite messy… and probably pretty smelly.

Now, when the people hear Jonah’s cries, the Ninevites – ALL of them – even the animals – begin to fast, cover themselves in sackcloths, and cry out to God, repenting of their evil ways. And when God sees they have turned from their old ways, God forgives them and decides to no longer bring about calamity upon them.

Now, you would have thought that Jonah would have been ecstatic about this news. And you would have thought that he would have learned his lesson by now and turned from his old ways.

But you would have thought wrong. And the messiness continues.

Jonah is extremely displeased with this news. How can God give those undeserving Ninevites a second chance?! And so out of anger he shouts at God: “Please take my life away from me. For it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he stomps off and finds a shaded place to sit just outside of the city where he can pout and wait and watch what will happen to the city, hoping he gets his way after all.

But (Spoiler alert): he doesn’t actually get his way.

So Jonah’s call story is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess. But God still sees the potential in Jonah, and God continues to show up for him and to call him to participate in God’s work.

And while our Gospel call story this morning isn’t quite as messy as Jonah’s, it still isn’t the picture-perfect scene with picture-perfect people it seems to be at first glance.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  There were several levels of religious education, beginning at age 4 or 5. Only the top students coming out of each level of education would continue onto the next level, and only the top of the top of the top would eventually be eligible to follow a rabbi (and even then, the rabbi would not necessarily choose to take him as a student). Since Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all in the fishing trade, they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen had not made a typical rabbi’s cut.  They were not the top students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or religious lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not qualified to become a rabbi’s disciple.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise. For some reason, Jesus sees a great potential in these average, ordinary men fishing in the Sea of Galilee. And so when he sees them fishing, he stops and he calls out to them: follow me.

And immediately, these average fishermen do just that. They drop their nets and – even though they most likely were covered in smelly fish guts – they follow him.

But even though these ordinary fishermen seem to be obedient at first, if we read on, we will see that they – too – continue to be far from perfect. The disciples often misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, question his authority, doubt his promises, hide out when they get scared, and some even betray and deny him.

And so, in some ways, like Jonah’s call story – this one, too, is fishy, stinky, and a real big mess.

But Jesus still sees the potential in and the gifts of these disciples, and he doesn’t give up on them. He continues to love them, to show up for them, and to walk alongside them in all of the beauty and the messiness of this difficult call.

I just love these two fishy and messy call stories.

Because they seem more like real life.

And just as God saw the potential in Jonah and continued to show up for him – even through all of his grumpiness, failures and mistakes – and just as Jesus saw the potential in those four ordinary fishermen and believed in them, so does God see and believe in each one of us – no matter how little qualified we may feel, no matter how grumpy we might get, and no matter how imperfect we may be.

In just a little while, we will celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace. And I think it’s quite appropriate to do so as we look at these two biblical call stories.

Because a baptism is a call story. And – as we have seen with Jonah and the early disciples, a baptismal call story is a life-long journey that is nothing close to neat and tidy.

 But in our baptism, we are claimed by our compassionate and merciful God – who loves us in and through all of our messiness and fishiness. Who loves us through all of our grumpiness, 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.

When we celebrate the baptism of one of our own at 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 see and affirm the image of God in one another and recognize the potential and the gifts of one another. We are called to share in each other’s joys, help carry one another’s burdens, and walk alongside one another in all of the messiness that takes place as we live out our call to proclaim the good news of God’s love to the world.

And so as we come together this morning to celebrate the baptism of Savannah Grace, let us also remember our own baptisms. Let us remember that we are all beloved children of God, and that by grace, God calls each one of us.

And even when we are covered in stinky fish puke and guts, Jesus will still see that we are – indeed worthy of this call – and he will continue to say to us, “follow me.”

Amen.

“Wide Awake” – Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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“Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  

– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11


 

In the movie “Wide Awake,” there is a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through tears that he is scared, and when Joshua fearfully asks his grandfather if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”

Yet, after his grandfather passes away, Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.

Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, fear consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.

*****

Fear.

I think this is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a Messiah who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.

These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.

Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.

Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus returned before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What would happen to those deceased friends and family now? Would they be left behind when Jesus comes again?

Fear.

I think this is an unwanted feeling that many of us know too well today… Especially in times like these.

And fear is a natural human feeling.

One that even Paul, Silas, and many of the early Christians most likely felt numerous times. One that even Jesus felt and so honestly expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breath.

We are not alone when we experience feelings of fear.

And fear is a normal human feeling that can guide us in making important choices and taking safety measures when needed.

And yet while this is true, I think we also need to be careful about how much power we allow our fears to have. Because in times like these, it can be incredibly easy to allow our fears to consume us and to take over our lives. Our fears can drag us down into the dark – where we become blind to the needs of those around us. These fears can transform us into being people of the night – as Paul explains in Thessalonians – rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time asleep with our eyes shut to the joys and the beauty in our world.

And this is where I think Gandhi is right in saying that “the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”

I think fear can become our enemy when – in times like these – we allow our fears to have power over us. When our fears of failure, change, or the unknown future hold us back from taking chances. Or when our fears of loneliness and rejection hold us back from opening ourselves up to new relationships or publicly standing up against injustices. When we allow our fears about our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals. When our fear that we might not have enough keeps us – as individuals or as a church – from giving to those in need around us. Or when our fears of the “other” blind us so that we don’t see and experience the image of God in our siblings who may appear to be different from us.

I think that while fear is incredibly human, it becomes our enemy when we allow our fears to keep us from actually living.

And so Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear.

And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. Just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”   When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.

And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Therefore, Paul urges us: “Encourage one another with these words.”

Paul then provides further encouragement in our passage for today.

“Now regarding the times and the seasons,” Paul says, “we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.”

However, we must not live without hope and consumed in fear. For – we are not asleep, we are not dead – Paul reminds us. We are not children of the dark, children of the night, where our eyes remain closed to our neighbors needs, the world’s injustices, or to the joys and beauty that surround us. Rather, we are children of the light, children of the day.

“Therefore, let us not fall asleep, as others do,” Paul urges us. “Keep awake.”

*****

Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship, whose name – of course – is none other than Hope.

And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his own insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because Joshua had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.

At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”

*****

I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – in the here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.

It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love.  To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.

So let us choose to live. To remain wide awake to what’s happening in the world around us.

Let us choose hope over fear.

And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the Barmen Declaration states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

“A Lament For Times Such As These” – Sermon on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

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Scripture readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

 

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Many of us may have spoken these words from this morning’s passage in Habakkuk a lot lately.

Unrest, tension, and the ever-increasing division that’s taking place throughout our country as we get closer and closer to the end of this election season.

How long, O Lord, how Long!?

Devastating state budget cuts to programs and services that many in our community – including many of us – rely on.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Indigenous communities fighting desperately to protect their water and sacred burial sites. More police shootings of unarmed persons of color. The continuous bombings of innocent families in Aleppo, Syria.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Financial strain. The death of a loved one. A debilitating illness…The loss of a job. Broken relationships. Depression and anxiety.

Too often in times such as these, it can be easy to just check out. We often feel so overwhelmed with grief, anger, and pain. The needs around us seem too great, and we feel lost and defeated by a sense of helplessness. We fear the kind of backlash we might receive if we do speak out against injustice. We wonder where God is in the midst of all of this suffering, and we worry that if we express our real emotions and if we are honest about our doubts, others – and maybe even we – ourselves – will start to think we have lost our faith.

And so it becomes much easier to just shut our eyes and to ignore the cries around us – and within us. To just allow ourselves to become numb to the world’s afflictions.

And yet, we hear the author of 2 Timothy this morning urging us not to give up hope, even and especially in times such as these… For we have been saved – the author reminds us – and therefore we have been called to a holy calling, that does not allow us to shut our eyes to the pain around us.

“I recall your many tears,” the author writes from behind prison doors to Timothy, likely referring to the tears Timothy had shed over the suffering of many under the Roman Empire and over the persecution that the early Christians were facing. “I understand your sense of helplessness and why you seem to be at a loss of faith. And yet,” he continues, “I remember your sincere faith, one that has been passed on through your ancestors. One that I am sure still remains deep within you. Therefore, I urge you to remember that faith. Remember why you have that faith and who walked alongside you, helping to shape and inform your faith.  Rekindle that gift of God that is – indeed – with you, no matter how much you might feel it has been lost. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” he urges, “but rather God gave us a spirit of love and self-discipline.”

Yes, it is in times such as these, when we must hold onto our faith the most – even when we feel we may have lost it. It is in times such as these when we must open our eyes to the suffering in our midst and cry out to God in our anguish. Because we don’t just encounter God in the times that are easy, comfortable, and joyous, and we don’t just encounter God when we feel most confident in our faith. We also encounter God in our anger, in our suffering, and in our strongest of doubts. We encounter God when we step out of our comfort zones and when we face our biggest fears. Because God actually meets us right there in all of the messiness – even when we don’t see God and even when we refuse to let God in.

God is right there with us.

I love what one author shared in her lectionary devotion this week: “When I am in the midst of a tough time, I don’t always see God at work,” she explains. “Looking back on those tough times though, I can often see God in hindsight. When I was a senior in high school, my family was having a lot of trouble. God gave me good friends to support me and an outlet in music with my choir teacher and my class to express my emotions. I remember praying and begging God for resolution while I waited. What I couldn’t see until looking back, though, was how God was present in the midst of that tough time. Now I see that God provided the right people at the right time. I also see that one can’t go around pain, or over it, but we have to go through it.”

How long, O Lord, how long?!

Yes, it is in times such as these when we must go through the pain. It is in times such as these, when we need to join our voices with the voices of our siblings around our city, our country, and throughout the world in lamenting the suffering, violence, and injustice that surrounds us. 

And yet, when we just can’t find the words to say, we can look to the words of those who have paved the way for us.

“How long, o Lord!?” – We cry out with Habakkuk this morning.

“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

How long, o Lord, how long!?

Now sometimes, we might need to stop right here with these words because we might not be quite ready to move beyond this place of lament. And that is okay. For a bit. Because there are times when we need to sit for a while in this place. There are times when we need to do our grief work. For we cannot go through the pain without first actually taking time to express it and process it.

And yet, after some time we will eventually need to move forward. Because our lament cannot just end here. It must move us to act.

And so we can look to the rest of our passage in Habakkuk this morning for guidance as we begin to move through. When we are ready, we – like Habakkuk, must take a stand at our watch-posts, and station ourselves, keeping watch: waiting with our eyes open to see God in our midst and with our ears open to hear how God is calling us to let our laments move us to action.

And when our inadequacies and sense of helplessness in times such as these get the best of us and when we feel like our faith is just not big or strong enough for us to make a difference, we can look to our Gospel text in Luke today. For, Jesus’ message to the disciples when they asked him to increase their faith in the face of such great suffering – is the same message that is intended for us. “If you have faith even the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you can say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

In other words: “Your faith is enough to make an incredible impact in the world.”

There’s a story I often think about when I feel overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness in the midst of so much suffering throughout the world.

One day a wise man was walking on the beach when he noticed a younger man, who was throwing things into the ocean. As he got closer to the young man, he asked him: “what are do doing?” The young man answered him: “well, I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.” “Why, might I ask, are you doing this,” the wise man asked him. “Well, the sun is up and the tide is going out.” The young man said. “If I don’t throw them in, they’ll all die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man said, “Don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” Just then, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he looked at the wise man and said: “Well, it made a difference for that one.”

Amen.