Sermon: Who is Jesus? (Peter’s Story) (Sept. 16, 2018)

Pentecost 17B
September 16, 2018
Mark 8:27-38
James 3:1-12
Isaiah 50:4-9a

INTRODUCTION

Today’s story from Mark is a major turning point, as Jesus first starts to reveal to the disciples who he is and his ultimate mission. But to understand that, we need to go back in time a little bit, to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. The very first line in Mark’s Gospel is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Sounds straightforward to our ears, knowing what we do now. But this statement would have read like a contradiction. That word we associate with Jesus, “Christ,” is a powerful title. Another word meaning the same thing is, “messiah”; both words mean, “Anointed one.” Christ, or Messiah, was a word that referred to a powerful ruler or leader, one who would be a savior, who would overcome and deliver people from their enemies. This is the word Peter will use to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” But Mark tells us Jesus is both “Christ,” Messiah, and the Son of God. And Son of God has a very different connotation. The Son of God is one who suffers, like the so-called “suffering servant” we will hear about in our first reading, from Isaiah, and one even who dies.

Let’s try something. [Have one side say Messiah, the other say Son of God, back and forth.] And so while Peter is more than willing to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Savior, strong, winner… he is less willing, as we will see, to even entertain that Jesus is also Son of God, the one who suffers.

Now, of course, we have a bird’s eye view of this Messiah/Son of God dichotomy, in which Jesus is both the suffering servant who dies for us, and the triumphant Savior who overcomes the enemy. But Peter and his buddies did not have that bird’s eye view. So as you listen to the readings today, and especially the Gospel, keep in mind that they don’t know the end of the story, and think about how you would have answered Jesus question if you were there.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It had been a pretty crazy couple of years for a bunch of fisherman… Really, it had been a pretty could of years for anybody. Just think of Peter – to go so immediately from spending his days fishing on the Sea of Galilee – a pretty mundane job, when you get down to it – to following Jesus around. It was a risky choice, to follow Jesus, but Peter didn’t regret it. Leaving his boat behind led to adventures he could never have imagined. Jesus was a teacher unlike any the disciples had ever seen. He taught with such authority, and had a new spin on every teaching anyone had ever held dear. And the healings! All he had to do was say the word and blind people were seeing, lame people walking, demons were scattering – it was incredible. He kept telling the disciples not to tell anyone what they’d seen – they weren’t sure why. It was like he wanted to keep the whole thing a secret, but anything he did was far from a secret! Everyone knew about him – even when they went to new villages, people were bringing their sick friends and family to Jesus to be healed. The word was out.

Watching all this stuff, Peter really knew Jesus was something pretty special – and so he kept following! He didn’t want to miss a thing! And let me tell you, there was lots to see – they saw Jesus walk on water, and still a storm, they saw him feed 5,000 people, no joke, with only a few loaves of bread and some fish… Each day with Jesus was another marvelous surprise.

Peter found himself wanting to be the best of his disciples, Jesus’ favorite, the one who understood him. Peter watched so carefully everything Jesus did and said. He knew that when it came down to it, Jesus was going to change the world.

Now, Peter grew up Jewish, and so he and his people were always hoping and waiting for God to send a Messiah. Since David’s son Solomon, Israel as a whole hadn’t had another king, someone to defeat the enemy, unite Israel and bring peace on earth. So they believed that God would send a messiah, an anointed one, to rule once again over Israel. And Peter – Peter really wanted to believe that Jesus was that messiah.

One day they were all walking toward Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus suddenly asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” Ah, Peter thought, so he DOES know that people are talking. Even though Jesus was always telling people not to tell about what happened, they all knew how the gossip had spread. The disciples were eager to share what they’d heard: “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist!” the guys said. “Others think you’re Elijah. Oh, and still others think you’re one of the prophets.” I mean, they were all good guesses, as far as Peter could see. But he knew none of them was correct. Then Jesus stopped them all in their tracks. “Who do you say that I am?” Suddenly the disciples weren’t so eager to answer! That always happens – it’s so easy to talk about what everyone else thinks and says, but when you have to divulge your own secret thoughts, suddenly it is risky, and no one is quite so eager. The group fell silent. Peter took a breath. “This is my chance!” he thought. “I can try out my theory, and if I’m right, Jesus will know I’m the most devoted, most faithful disciple!”

“You’re the Messiah,” Peter ventured. The other disciples looked at him, stunned. “Did I really just say that?” Peter thought. “Could I have been so hopeful as to say this man was the messiah?” They all held their breath and looked at Jesus, waiting. To Peter’s surprise and delight, Jesus seemed satisfied with his answer! So it was true! But then Jesus told them not to tell anyone of this fact. He was so stern, so serious. He really meant it this time! They walked the rest of the way in silence, but Peter was filled with hope. Jesus was it, the Anointed one! He was the one who would finally save them from their enemies! He was the Davidic Messiah they had hoped he would be! They were saved!

As always happened, Jesus and the disciples were met by a crowd. Of course, Jesus took this opportunity to start preaching. Usually he would preach using stories (which were often pretty confusing, but he always explained them to the disciples later). This time, though, he was saying some other stuff – weird stuff. He was talking about how the Son of Man would have to undergo great suffering, and how everyone would reject him, and he would die and then rise again in three days… The way he was talking, it was pretty clear he was talking about himself. It made Peter very uncomfortable. To be honest, he was embarrassed for Jesus. This was no way for the all-powerful Messiah to be talking! All the people who had run out to hear him teach were now looking at each other with that look in their eyes that says, “Is this guy for real?” Even some of his own disciples were looking pretty uncomfortable about even being there.

Peter felt just terrible for Jesus. And to be honest, he also felt scared – he had put his confidence in a strong Messiah, a winner – not someone who would ever think of suffering! How could someone who would talk so openly about suffering and dying be their savior? No, no, this would never do.

Perhaps feeling extra sure of himself for having known Jesus was the Messiah, and thinking that now, he and Jesus must have this special bond, Peter pulled him aside. Jesus looked at Peter, surprised. In a hushed voice, Peter explained, “Listen, Jesus, I’m not sure people are ready to hear these things. All this talk about rejection and suffering and dying – that’s no way to convince people you are the Messiah! They’re going to think you’re crazy! Why don’t you just cool it for a while on this suffering and rejection stuff, and focus instead on the healings, maybe another miraculous feeding. That stuff always goes over pretty well with the crowd.”

Peter would never forget what happened next. Jesus shrugged Peter’s hand from his arm, looking at him with fire in his eyes. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. Peter was shocked. What? He was trying to help! Jesus went on, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It took Peter a moment to really hear what Jesus had just said. Human things? Jesus was embarrassing himself, people were starting to laugh at him. Peter had simply stopped it from going on. Peter was the good guy here!

In that moment, something Peter remembered hearing growing up, from the prophet Isaiah, flashed in his mind: “The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Adversaries. That’s what “satan” meant – adversary. One who stands between a person and God. Peter was that one, that one trying to stand between these people listening and Jesus, the one whom he had himself only just identified as the Messiah.

Years later, James (who was one of the other disciples there) would write a letter. Peter couldn’t help but wonder if it was about him in that moment, so eager to say the right things, and yet, so ready to rebuke the very Son of God, the Messiah. James wrote, “No one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” So Peter had blessed his Lord Jesus Christ, eagerly wanting to follow him, to show him his loyalty and faith, to be a good disciple… but when it came to a situation where he was embarrassed for Jesus – and yes, embarrassed for himself for being with him – he was so quick to deny all that he thought he stood for, for the sake of maintaining an acceptable front. He had set his mind not on divine things, but on human things. No one can tame the tongue – with it, Peter blessed the Lord, and then, in the next moment, rebuked him.

As Peter tried to process these things, he could hear Jesus continue to preach. He was talking about denying ourselves and taking up our cross, about losing our life for his sake and the sake of the gospel. One line in particular stuck with Peter: “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed….” Ashamed. Shame. That is what had gotten Peter to this point. He had been ashamed of Jesus, unwilling to stand up for what he knew to be true, as Isaiah so boldly did. He had let his tongue – always speaking before he really thought about what he was saying – get the best of him, and lead him down human paths, rather than toward God.

Peter held all these things in his heart as they continued down the road that Jesus walked. He held them as they watched him undergo the suffering he had predicted. He remembered them even as he heard himself deny Jesus again – three times – for fear of his own life. He held them as they watched Jesus being taken down from the cross. Shame. Jesus, he thought, I did not stand by you.

But then… That day, that phenomenal day when the women came running from the empty tomb to tell them Jesus had risen… Peter felt a weight lifted from his heart. He felt deep down that the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not ashamed of him, that he was, in fact, forgiven. Peter remembered how on that night, the night Jesus was betrayed by Judas, he had taken bread and wine, and given it to them to eat. Peter had felt so close to Jesus in that moment. He felt so close to him now, knowing that despite his very human nature, so eager to please but so slow to profess, he was still loved by God. And that love, that continual forgiveness of all his humanness – it gave meaning and purpose to all those years he had followed Jesus. It transformed his shame into hope, and it empowered him to spend the rest of his days openly and courageously professing the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Let us pray… Jesus, Messiah, you are our strong savior, and you are the one who gave everything for us. Make us grateful for you, and confident in you, that we would feel courageous enough to profess who and what you are without embarrassment or shame. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Be opened (Sept. 10, 2018)

Pentecost 16B
September 9, 2018
Mark 7:24-37

INRTODUCTION

Last week, after a few weeks this summer in the Gospel of John, we came back to Mark’s Gospel, in a story in which Jesus talks about what is the key identity marker for Jews. Anyone remember what it was? God’s law. Jesus turned that on its head a bit, saying yes, the law is important, but more important than following the letter of the law about things like hand-washing, was considering how clean your heart is. In other words: are we living the lives of love, grace, justice and mercy that God calls us to live?

Today, in contrast to focusing on the distinction of Jews and Jewish laws, Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. Gentiles are non-Jews, people outside of the Jewish community. In Mark, Jesus is often taking great effort to venture into these non-Jewish areas, these places populated by “outsiders,” people who are even, in some cases, enemies of the Jewish people. So today he takes a journey to Tyre, a place far from his home in Galilee, where he encounters a Syrophoenician woman (so, she is Greek, and descended from people of Syria, and Phoenicia, two historic enemies of Jews). His encounter with this woman changes, or rather, opens up the scope of his ministry, and he continues onto another largely Gentile (non-Jewish) region to continue his ministry with this whole new segment of society. So, today’s story is an important turning point in Jesus’ ministry, from focusing on Jewish people, to opening his mission up to non-Jews.

The other two readings set this story up for us, by reflecting on the ways God, and believers in God, are always reaching out to undesirable or downtrodden populations to bring them the good news of God. These readings are full of life-giving words for those desperately in need of that news… even as they are challenging words for those of us accustomed to feeling comfortable in our faith and our lives. So let’s listen, and see what word God might be speaking this day to our hearts.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Is it just me, or does Jesus seem a little… off, in today’s Gospel reading? I mean, we usually picture him as the very embodiment of compassion, care, and availability, right, but today, he first enters a town and doesn’t want anyone to know it, wants to hide away for a while. And then, when someone comes to him for help, what does he do but insult her! “Can’t help you now,” he says. “Gotta help the children of Israel first. I’m not gonna throw their portion to the dogs!” Did he just… did he just call this woman a dog, and refuse to help her daughter? What?? This is not the Jesus we know and love!

It is one of the more puzzling interactions Jesus has, for sure. Interpreters have spilled much ink trying to figure this one out. Is this just an example of how Mark paints a much more human picture of Jesus? Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus exhibit more emotions, as well as more human frailty, even lack of knowledge at times, than we do in the other Gospels. So maybe Mark is saying that Jesus was tired, and a little bit irritable, snarky, and dismissive? I mean, we get that, right? We’ve all been there! But… does Jesus get snarky and dismissive? It opens a complex theological can of worms.

Or maybe, is Jesus testing the woman’s faith? Yeah, standing as the wise teacher who is seeing how bold she will be in her declaration, always with the intention of giving her what she asks, and letting her win the argument. That seems to fit better with our understanding of Jesus – even though I don’t especially like the idea of a God who tests our faith for sport, while our loved one lies in pain!

As I have grappled with this question, trying to understand where Jesus is coming from on this, I realized that really, it doesn’t matter that much to me. What matters more than why Jesus responded to this woman the way he did, is that the woman, who is an ethnic, religious, social “other” from Jesus, has the opportunity to proclaim, even to us, the truth: that Jesus is there for her, too. That her life, and the life of her daughter, matter, and should matter even to this Jewish teacher, even to this God. That she is worthy of God’s care, compassion, and love. This woman boldly proclaims that truth.

We have a complicated relationship with the truth these days, don’t we? Rudy Giuliani made news recently when he claimed on Meet the Press that, “truth isn’t truth.” He caught a lot of flack for that, as he should have, but I do sort of get where he was coming from. These days, it’s hard to know what really is the truth, and what is only some version of the truth, cherry-picked, or conveniently twisted or edited to support one viewpoint or disprove another. I find myself frequently coming back to Pontius Pilate’s poignant question during Jesus’s trial: “What is truth?”

Yet here, this woman of Syrophoenician origin, boldly proclaims a very important truth, and one that can absolutely be trusted: that she matters, and that her daughter matters, and that they are worthy of God’s attention and care.

But even that indisputable truth is not always an easy message to hear. Jesus seems to receive it readily enough, but for us? We sometimes have a hard time receiving the truth, especially when it rubs up in a bad way against something we believe and hold dear, when it challenges our viewpoint. Once we have decided what is the truth, I think a lot of us tend to close our minds and our hearts to anything that doesn’t fit with what we believe.

Perhaps that is why I am particularly drawn to what Jesus says in his next interaction with a Gentile, the man who is deaf and mute. Jesus doesn’t just lay hands on this man to heal him. He says to him, “Be opened.”

“Be opened.” This is message I know I need to hear, and one I think we could all stand to hear and take to heart. Be opened. Be opened to the movement of the Spirit. Be opened to learning something, even something that at first makes you uncomfortable. Be opened to the gifts of others, even others whom you don’t like. Be opened.

I remember once sitting in the office of my college band director. He was leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed tightly across his chest, when he started to reflect, as he often did. He said, “You know, I’ve been told you should never sit this way, arms crossed, when talking to someone. My teacher used to say, ‘Closed body, closed mind.’ But I don’t know – I think I have an open mind, but I just think it is comfy to sit this way!” Well yeah, it is also comfy to sit in our opinions and never let them be challenged. It is also comfortable to stay right where we feel safe, and know how things work. It is comfortable not to rock the boat, not to speak up when we know something is wrong. But I wouldn’t say any of those things are necessarily open, nor faithful! (That said, I do think my band director had a pretty open mind, despite his crossed arms!)

Be opened. Be opened to the truth, even uncomfortable truth. Be opened to ideas, even ideas you think would never work. Be opened to the possibility that you might be wrong, and someone else is right. Be opened to change, even if you love where and how you are. Be opened.

I think this is a valuable word for us today, on Rally Day, as we begin a new program year. We have some exciting things on the horizon. We’re raising money for a new handicap lift, to make our space accessible to people with mobility issues, and to make that happen, we are about to start a capital campaign, which will depend upon your generosity. We’re trying out a new way of structuring our leadership, a change which may have some growing pains as we work out the kinks. And we are continually thinking about how we can respond to the needs of the community around us.

Some of these things are objectively exciting, and will be easily received. Some might require some risk. Some might require some patience, as we work through the inevitable tough spots. All of them require for us to “be opened” – to listen to one another, to be kind and responsive, to entertain the possibility of sitting in a position that might not be as comfortable at first, but one which will absolutely make us grow stronger in mission and in faith.

All of them, I hope, will equip and empower us to boldly proclaim the truth: That ours is a God who loves, who cares, who heals, who brings life, both to those on the inside, and those who are “other,” who are different from us. That ours is a God who never promised that we would be comfortable, but rather, who always invites us to move, to change, and to grow. I hope we will be empowered to proclaim that ours is a God who listens to our needs, who equips us to boldly share our stories, and who bids that we “be opened” to the possibilities of new life that God places before us.

And so let us “be opened,” my friends. As we enter into this new, exciting year of ministry, let us be opened and responsive to the ways that God will move within, among, and around us.

Let us pray. Moving God, you make the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the dead unstopped. With you, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Make it so also with us, dear Lord. Make us bold to listen, be opened, and boldly proclaim your truth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Loved and loving from the inside out (Sept. 2, 2018)

Pentecost 15B
September 2, 2018
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

INTRODUCTION

The theme that tied all of last week’s readings together was maintaining faithfulness even in the midst of the various struggles and temptations we face. Today’s readings show us a little more about what that faithfulness looks like. In Deuteronomy, we see that this is laid out in God’s law, which is wise, just and righteous. James elaborates on that, laying out exactly the sorts of acts of faith one would expect to see from a follower of Christ. And in Mark, Jesus totally upsets the apple cart of what faithfulness looks like as he faces up against the scribes and Pharisees.

Mark is what I’d like to talk a bit more about during this time. Because we’ve just come off a month and a half in the Gospel of John, and these two Gospels could scarcely be more different. In John, Jesus is prone to these long, beautiful discourses, where he makes no secret of the fact that he and God the Father are one. Mark’s presentation of Jesus is down-and-dirty, abrupt, almost rushed, like he can’t get this story out fast enough, and throughout the Gospel Jesus tries to keep his true identity a big secret, to be revealed later.

But here is one thing that the two Gospel accounts share: in both of them, and really in all four Gospels, Jesus is offensive. Last week in John, some people turned away because they are so offended by Jesus’ teaching. Today, in Mark, Jesus seems to be undermining the very laws that the Pharisees and scribes work so hard to teach and uphold! No one wants to be told, “You’re doing this wrong, and so did your elders,” and yet that’s exactly what Jesus does. Yet the way that Jesus offers, as always, is one that sheds our human propensities, and leads us into a way of life. Let’s see what we can learn.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week, in a conversation with someone I hardly know, I let something slip…. I said, “dude.” Yes, I admit it, I spend a little time in my native Northern California, and it is easy enough to slip right back into the vernacular of my hometown. I’ve mostly given up calling things “rad,” but every now and again, “dude” slips back in there. But here’s my real confession: I liked it. I like when I slip back into my NorCal drawl, because it reminds me of who I am. I always come back from California more resolute in my efforts to live a greener lifestyle, I come back with a higher standard for great wine, I’m more interested in going out for a hike, and yes, I am more likely to call people I just met, “dude.” This is who I am, people. Take it or leave it!

The reason I don’t mind slipping back into these things is that, silly as they may seem, these sorts of things are identity markers, things that let people know, “I belong to this group.” We all have them. People from Rochester say “EL-ementary” instead of “ele-MEN-tary,” like the rest of the English-speaking world. We take pride in our winter hardiness, we have a strange yet insistent love for a concoction called a Garbage Plate, and we will never, ever give up on the Buffalo Bills.

Identity markers are an important part of any people or culture, because they not only make you feel like you belong to that group, but they also let everyone else know who you are and to whom you belong. For the Israelites, their most important identity marker was… what, according to our reading from Deuteronomy? God’s law! This, God told them, was what would set them apart from the other nations, what would make everyone look at Israel and say, “This is a wise and discerning nation!” It would provide far more than, say, an affinity for the Buffalo Bills – this law would guide them, show them how God wanted them to live, and bring them into closer relationship with God. This law would be what was a constant for them through years in the wilderness, through centuries of bad kings, and enemy attacks, and exile and diaspora, and rebuilding and Roman occupation and oppression. This law was the very lifeblood of the Jewish people.

That’s why the Pharisees took it so seriously. You know, Pharisees often get a pretty bad wrap, and maybe it is well-deserved, but really, they and many others saw them as the good guys. They were trying to help the Jewish people live holy lives, by keeping God’s law, so that their identity would not be quashed by the oppressive Roman government. This law was their identity, and it must not be compromised. And the Pharisees would make sure of that!

No wonder they felt so threatened by Jesus. Here comes this rabbi, with his twelve… dudes… and they are not keeping the law to which the Pharisees have dedicated their lives to upholding. This dispute about hand-washing isn’t just about hygiene. For the Pharisees, this is a threat to their identity, to their very existence. “Why are you doing that??” they ask, incredulously and with a tone of fear in their voices. “Why are you not taking seriously the law of God that is our life and our essence? Here we are, living as a religious minority under Roman occupation – now more than ever we need to remember who we are, and resist this foreign power! Why are you not living according to the tradition of our elders?” And the subtext: “Who are you, who are we, if not people of God’s law? How can you so easily dismiss that?”

I just want to stop and dwell here for a moment, and feel the Pharisees’ anxiety, because the anxiety they are feeling is not unfamiliar to us. We today know a bit about what it is like to feel our values and so also our identity are being threatened. In a country more divided than ever in my lifetime, at least, I think we are sometimes hyper-aware of who is with us, who is one of us, and who is not. And it is so easy to jump to judging one another, because isn’t the other side (whoever is the other side for you), isn’t it just so short-sighted, and uncaring, and easily duped, and ill-informed? I’m amazed how often I am called these things by someone about whom I was thinking the same thing! It is so easy to fall into that trap of self-righteousness, isn’t it? That same trap the Pharisees so often fall into. And like the Pharisees, all of us have some good in mind. We all think we believe and are doing and fighting for what is best for our people, for those who share our identity. We are all trying to uphold what are our most valued American or Christian ideals, which we feel are being threatened by… you fill in the blank. In that sense, we are all on the same side. We all want to maintain our cherished identity. Just like the Pharisees did.

In both cases, the Pharisees’ and ours, the response to that fear and anxiety, that feeling of something important to us being threatened, comes out as judgment and self-righteousness. And so, we quickly jump to drawing lines in the sand and saying, “You are in, you are one of us, and you are not. You are other. You need either to become like us, or stay away. You must not tarnish our identity.”

Someone once said, if you start drawing lines in the sand between you and others, you can be pretty sure Jesus is on the other side of the line. And for all the Pharisees’ efforts to maintain their identity and live the holy lives they believe God commands, drawing lines in the sand, I think, is exactly what they are allowing their alleged piety to do. The “fence” they so carefully “built around God’s law”[1] is not serving to keep them or the law safe, but rather, to keep others away from God’s grace and mercy. Because that, in the end, is the purpose of God’s law: to guide people toward living lives reflective of God’s love, grace, justice, and mercy. If the law leads to exclusion, rather than love and mercy, then it is not God’s law.

And that is what Jesus comes to say, what he frequently says to the Pharisees in various ways. Basically, he says, “You’ve missed the point of God’s law. The point is to love and care for one another, to devote yourself to God and God’s mission. You think you are honoring God by this, but it is all a farce. Keeping the law just for the sake of keeping the law only serves to keep people out. Instead of being so concerned about who is washing their hands and how, take a look at your own heart, and see if you are driven by legalism, or by love of God and neighbor. If you aren’t driven by love, then you’re missing the point. And if you’re engaging in all manner of sin, even as you preach upholding the law, then I’ll tell you what, your heart and your motives need some work.”

You see in this way, Jesus isn’t dismissing the law, and he is certainly not advocating giving up that essential identity marker of God’s faithful people. God’s law is a very good thing, that does show us how to live holy lives, how to love God and neighbor – all neighbors, not just the ones who also follow God’s law. God’s law shows us how that love should look.

But we also know this: that as important as the law is, as something that shows us what a godly life looks like, it is no longer the key identity marker for Christians. What matters more than our efforts to follow the law, more than our opinions on the hottest political or social issues of our day, more than how you look or what you do for a living or how you sinned this week… what matters more than all of that is this essential identity: that you are a beloved child of God. That you were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. That you are, every day, forgiven for the myriad ways you have already fallen short of fulfilling God’s law, and the numerous ways you will still yet do so. Yes, despite all that, God forgives you, and God still loves you. That, my friends, is your identity.

I’m still gonna say “dude” now and then, and you might even still hear a “rad” slip out. I will never stop preaching the gospel of bringing your own bags to the grocery store, refusing plastic straws, and cutting as many dangerous chemicals from our lives as we can. I will love the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers until the day I die. And, though I will never learn to love a Garbage Plate, I can now shovel snow with the best of them. But the identity marker that matters way more than all of that, is this cross on my forehead, the one my grandfather put there at the baptismal font, 35 years ago. Because I am a beloved child of God. And so are you. And that’s what matters the most.

Let us pray… Loving God, you have given us your law to show us a holy way to live. Thank you for loving us, so that we might strive to live according to yoru law, not in order to make you love us, but because you already do. Help us erase lines in the sand, and guide us into a way of love, grace, mercy and justice for all your children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] “Build a fence around the law” is a famous rabbinical maxim, and refers to the oral laws and rabbinical practices passed down to keep God’s law entirely safe from being broken. https://www.bible-history.com/Scribes/THE_SCRIBESA_Fence_Around_the_Law.htm

Sermon: Prone to wander (Aug. 26, 2018)

Pentecost 14B
August 26, 2018
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

INTRODUCTION

Today’s texts all share a very prominent theme: that of faithfulness to the one true God, even in the midst of struggles and temptations. They are texts as convicting as they are encouraging. They fill me with hope in the power of faith, and with hopelessness at my inevitable failure always to keep that faith. In other words: they do exactly what the gospel, the living Word of God, sets out to do: comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

In the reading from Joshua, Joshua asks the Israelites which god they will serve: Yahwah, or the various false idols they have in their possession. The people give an unequivocal “yes!” to Yahwah. In Ephesians, Paul talks about the devil and the forces of evil that are among us, working their woe, and how we must prepare to defend against them by putting on the armor of God, wrapping truth around our waist like a belt, and being prepared always to rely upon the gospel and to pray. And in John, you remember we have just come to the end of Jesus’ long Bread of Life discourse. Anyone remember the difficult teaching Jesus offered them last week? The one about how they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to abide in him and have eternal life. It’s a difficult teaching, one which, as we’ll see, causes many to turn their backs on this compelling teacher. Yet when faced with the decision as to whether to leave Jesus’ side, Peter utters the words now memorialized in our Gospel acclamation: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Faithfulness and commitment. It is a gift and a challenge as old as time. Let us feast upon these stories of faith, as we reflect also on our own journeys that have taken us to the edge of doubt, and back again. Let’s listen.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This coming week, Tuesday, will be my ordination anniversary, an event which happens to correspond with my baptismal anniversary. Two-for-one deal on the Spirit descending on me that day! I loved the symmetry of that at the time, and I still do, because I always considered my real call to ministry, and to a life of faith, to have come first of all in the waters of baptism. My dad preached at my ordination, and played upon that fact, that my baptism and my ordination are intertwined. The epistle for the day came from Romans, in which Paul bids us not to lose heart. Here is what my dad said: “’We do not lose heart.’” What’s that? Losing heart? Yes, I’m here to tell you that’s part of the challenge. Paul goes on to recite some of the realities of ministry—and really, the realities of the Christian life: affliction, perplexity, persecution. That’s what Johanna has signed up for, you know. She has signed up for a life that sometimes makes one lose heart.” (As he said this, I could feel a pit forming in my stomach, wondering what I was getting myself into! But then he went on.) “Yes, that’s what she signed up for—28 years ago when she was baptized! Those are the challenges that Paul outlines, those are the challenges of all who seek to be faithful.”

I haven’t forgotten that – when the life of faith or the life of ministry gets difficult, it has offered me some consolation to remember that a life of faith has not ever been easy, since the very beginning of faithfulness! Take Joshua, for example. Joshua asks the Israelites if they will give up their false gods, and everyone sounds like they are all in and everything will be fine, they even make a covenant that day that states their commitment to YHWH… but of course we know how that turned out. The rest of the Old Testament recounts a string of corrupt leaders, idolatry, disregard for God’s covenant, trampling on the poor and needy, bloodshed… with only a few bright spots along the way. Thing is, as enthusiastic as their initial promise, the Israelites, like we, were human beings, in bondage to sin and unable to free themselves. Just like us, when something easier came along, they went for it. When pride and greed got the better of them, they embraced it. When following God’s commandments required of them to sacrifice something important to them – safety, comfort, reputation, power – they set aside that promise that they’d made, and sought instead the false idols that so many of us continue to seek.

Oh yes, the temptation to compromise our faith in and dedication to the Holy One of God is alive and well – as much now as it was then. We still are too willing to put aside our dedication to the life-giving command of God, to care for the least among us, to put our trust only in God, to love our enemies, to welcome the stranger – we put that aside in favor of the false idols of greed, pride, comfort, power, and safety. When the going gets tough, it is all too easy to lose heart, and seek the easy way out.

Why do we do it?

Well, in our reading from Ephesians, Paul puts the blame squarely on the forces of evil that are rampant in this world, the wiles of the devil himself trying to “work us woe.” And oh, are those forces powerful! And equally so, they are cunning. They sneak about, masquerading as good things – like logic and reason, and keeping our loved ones safe, and trying not to rock the boat, but rather, keep everyone happy. Sometimes the powers of evil are very clearly evil – rampant abuse comes to mind, or unjust war, or corrupt and oppressive systems of government, or murder of innocents. Sometimes evil comes in various shades of gray, where there is a possible bright side to the darkness. Or sometimes, evil looks like a downright good, when it fact, it is wielding all kinds of hidden harm. The devil, my friends, is sneaky.

Jesus points out the same thing, in the verses that directly follow what we just heard. The reading we heard ends on a nice note, with Peter declaring Jesus the Holy One of God. But listen to Jesus’ response: ‘“Did I not choose you, the twelve?” Jesus says. “Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas… for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.’ Youch, what a reality check. Right there among them, one of the 12 chosen disciples – a devil! And if it can happen to Judas, can’t it happen to us? Aren’t we all capable of falling into sin, of betraying our faith in Christ? Aren’t we all capable of breaking God’s covenant with us? Haven’t we all put aside what we know the Word of God calls us to, in favor of convenience, or money, or reputation, or self-serving, or fear? Haven’t we all trusted ourselves, and our own wisdom or that of the world, more than we trust our God? Surely we all have stories in which we have done exactly this. I know I do.

So what are we to do about it? How do we protect ourselves against the wiles of the devil, against so many temptations that draw us from God?

Paul suggests this powerful metaphor: that we put on the armor of God. That we surround ourselves with God’s living word, with prayer and supplication, with a community of faithful people, so that all these things might guide us into the way of peace, the way of God.

Absolutely – I’m all for it! Yet… sometimes that is easier said than done, isn’t it? As we’ve seen, there are devils right among us – sometimes you are even the devil! Sometimes I am! We are all prone to fall into sin. Reading the Bible is great, but it can be hard to understand. We pray, hard, and sometimes it seems we are left waiting and waiting for an answer, and anyway, how do we discern which voice is God’s and which is the devil’s?

The armor of God gets heavier and more awkward to wear, as we keep searching to understand and live into Jesus’ tough teachings. And like those people listening to Jesus, we might be inclined simply to drop the armor, drop the whole thing, and turn away. Sometimes, leaving just seems like the easier and more reasonable option. I totally get those folks who turned away, who heard Jesus’ teaching and said, “This is too much. I can’t get on board with that.” I have been there. I have had moments where it seemed easier to give up and turn away, rather than keep trying to live into those baptismal promises I signed up for 35 years ago on Tuesday. Jesus’ teaching is difficult, and Lord knows there are devils among us, cunningly trying to convince us that it is not worth it to live into God’s covenant with us.

In those moments, I like to turn to the wisdom of so many faithful people before me, who have experienced the very same thing. One of my favorite hymns is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The last verse especially, speaks to me and gives me hope in those moments where I might be inclined to turn away: “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be. Let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above.”

Yes, we are prone to wander… yet in the in the end, you see, Peter’s words are true: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Our hearts may be prone to wander, we may turn away. Yet we can be sure, like Peter, that there is nowhere else to go that will give us the same life, hope, love, grace and peace that is given by our God. And so we pray that God would bind our hearts, like a chain, to the promises not of the world, but to the promises of grace. And God does.

The teaching is difficult. Sin and devils crouch at our doorstep, ready to pounce. It can be hard to accept the demands of a life of faith, and harder still to live it: to care more about the poor, the immigrant, the lost and dejected, the broken, the weak, the morbidly obese and the sickly skinny, the drug-addicted, the imprisoned – to care more about all of them than we do about ourselves. To live a life that shares the love of Christ with everyone we meet, even people we don’t like, or who disagree with us, or who voted for the wrong person, or who did something to hurt us, or who are just really annoying. Living that life of faith is not easy.

But here’s the good news: this teaching is difficult, and the devil lurks and cheers for us to fail… but we’re not in this alone. Jesus promises us that, too. And we receive that promise every time we wake up in the morning, every time we splash water on our faces and remember we are baptized, we are loved, we are forgiven. We receive it every time we hear the words of eternal life. We receive God’s promise every time we come to this table and feast on the body and blood of Christ, where we receive the strength and nourishment we need to faithfully live this life Christ calls us to. This life of faith is so much fuller of grace and life and love than it could ever be full of devils. So let us indeed put on that armor of God, complete with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness and the shoes that make us ready to proclaim God’s love and peace whenever the need arises. This teaching is difficult, yes, but friends, there is nowhere else to go. So let’s do this thing.

But first, as Paul wisely advises, let us pray…Eternal God, you are the one and only thing that gives us life. Bind our wandering hearts to you, so that when we inevitably are tempted by the devils among us to stray toward false gods and false promises, we will be able to find our way back to your gracious and loving embrace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Annual Picnic and Joint Worship

Our annual picnic and joint worship service with Bethlehem is coming up – August 26th, this coming Sunday!

Join us at 11am at our outdoor pavilion (1767 Plank Rd, Webster) for a service of Holy Communion at 11am, followed by a potluck lunch. Bring a dish to pass, and your own reusable place settings to minimize our footprint on God’s beautiful creation. (We’ll have some disposables available in case you forget.) Also bring some fun outdoor things to do – let’s make this fun!

We’ll provide the meat, you provide sides and desserts. We look forward to enjoying this fun joint event to celebrate our covenant with St. Martin.

August 26, 2018
11am, lunch to follow
Bethlehem Pavilion

Sermon: Moving beyond the food that perishes (Aug. 5, 2018)

Pentecost 11B
August 5, 2018
John 6:24-35

INTRODUCTION

Last week we began what is known as the Bread of Life discourse. Each of Jesus’ discourses in John’s Gospel are explanations of some sign, or miracle, he’s performed, so it’s important for our understanding that we recall what that sign was. Anyone remember what we heard last week? [Jesus feeding the 5000.] I’m sure you remember this story – Jesus and the disciples are all out, far away from town, and everyone gets hungry. One boy shares his lunch (five small loaves and two small fish), and miraculously everyone ends up with plenty to eat, with 12 baskets left over. It is one of Jesus’ seven signs that we see in John’s Gospel.

The next part of the story happens the next day. Folks have gone to pretty great lengths to track down Jesus, and they find him, and today we will be hearing the conversation that ensues. As always in John, conversation with Jesus is characterized by a lack of understanding, because Jesus is always talking from up here, in the heavenly realm, and people respond from down here, in the earthly realm. They totally miss what Jesus is really saying, because they are so stuck down in the world of the flesh. Not that we can really blame them. This is tough stuff Jesus is saying. Jesus is totally blowing their minds here.

One more quick comment about our first reading: for Jesus’ disciples, it is this story of being fed in the wilderness has been the defining story about how God provides. It is so foundational, that it is what the crowd refers to in trying to understand who Jesus is. So listen carefully, and then hold onto that story as you listen to what Jesus says about being the bread of life.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are some chores I really hate, and some I don’t mind doing. Some aren’t so bad because at the end of them, there is a sense of satisfaction, and accomplishment. Like folding laundry. I sort as I go, so by the end, I have all these nice little stacks all organized, which then go neatly into a basket, to be carried upstairs and put away. Satisfying!

What I do mind, however, is when the clothes I’m folding belong to my kids, who get very excited to see their clothes all clean, and come barreling into what I’m doing, grabbing their favorite items out of what is inevitably the center of the pile, and totally undoing 15 minutes of effort. All that time, wasted.

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” I’m not sure Jesus had in mind folding laundry with toddlers around when he said this, but sometimes life can feel a bit like that! Isn’t it so frustrating when you work diligently for something, only to find that it means nothing moments later? Or maybe weeks or even years later? I think about all the people in the Rochester area, many of you members of this congregation, who worked for Kodak, developing film technology… a technology now made mostly obsolete by digital photography. It can feel a bit, can’t it, like all those years were work for food that perishes, that does not endure. It is incredibly frustrating and disheartening to pour so much time and energy into something that does not, in the end, endure.

And yet, this is exactly what we do, isn’t it, not just in our careers, or daily chores, but also in seeking joy and depth and fulfillment in life. With so many demands on our time, not to mention, of course, the pressure to build up savings and retirement accounts, and making sure everything in life is in order… who has time to meaningfully seek joy and fulfillment? And so what we do instead is try to find that life elsewhere, somewhere quick and easy: shopping, or working more or harder, or a bag of chips, or binge watching a TV show, or scrolling through Facebook or Twitter to look at silly cat memes, or to comment on the latest outrageous news story, or to superficially connect with people who may or may not hold meaningful places in our lives. All these things give us a quick buzz, a brief moment of satisfaction, but ultimately, it doesn’t last. It doesn’t bring enduring life or joy. We work for the food that perishes, not the food that endures for eternal life. And then we wonder how it can be that we are working so hard, and keeping so busy, and yet not feeling full of life.

So where do we find this food, this nourishment and sustenance that does fill us up, that does endure for eternal life? Well, Jesus tells us: the Son of Man will give it to you. The crowd is as eager about this as we are: “What does that mean? What do we have to do to get it?” Simple, Jesus says. Just believe.

Simple, but not easy – for them or for us! I have often thought, “If I could just have been there, and met Jesus, and seen the signs he performed and the ways he touched and taught people, faith would be so much easier!” But here the crowd proves that theory wrong. They have just witnessed the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus walking on water, and yet still, they ask for a sign. They even bring up God’s past faithfulness, just like I do: “Well if only I could see the sort of thing God used to do, like for the Israelites, like when they were in the wilderness and Moses gave them bread from heaven. Show me something like that, and I’ll believe!”

Can’t we always find some excuse for our lack of faith, some way that faith would be easier “if only”? “If I could just see a sign… if I only had more time to devote to prayer, or if results and gratification from prayer came faster… if I knew more about the Bible… if God would just prove to me that all this effort will be worth it in the end… then I would have more faith!” But all that sounds hard, even impossible, and so instead, we continue to work for the food that perishes, throwing ourselves into activities and mindsets and ways of life that give us a quick fix, but do not offer us the sustaining goodness that we will only find in Christ Jesus.

During one Lent, I tried as a discipline doing what’s called the examen. At the end of each day, I answered in writing two questions: when did I feel full of life today, and when did I feel life draining out of me? Then at the end of the week, I looked at what I had written, and looked for patterns. Did I consistently feel life draining out of me during an activity that I, nevertheless, continue to devote time to? Did I feel full of life doing something that I don’t make enough time for? I admit to you, that it was a very revealing exercise – a bit too revealing. I didn’t like what I saw. I quickly recognized some patterns that I knew should change, but I also knew it would be so hard to change them. It would be easier to ignore this revelation, and keep doing what may not be as life-giving as something else, but was much easier and was, in the end, not great, but fine. I continued to work for the food that perishes, rather than the food that endures for eternal life.

Yes, friends, I regularly fail at this. I’m guessing you do, too. We are a people who consistently work for the food that perishes. I wonder if a part of the reason for that is that we fancy ourselves to be self-sufficient. We think, if we work hard enough, keep busy enough, learn enough, then we will succeed. We will live! We will have full, satisfying lives. We are quite accustomed to relying on ourselves, and we are quicker to trust ourselves than anyone or anything else.

And yet, remember what Jesus says. “Do not work for the food that perishes,” he says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life… which the Son of Man will give you.” This food, this thing that fills us up and sustains us and does not disappoint us – it will be given to us, by Christ himself. It will be given to us when we read the Word, when we do as one old prayer says, “hear the words of scripture, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” It will be given to us when we notice God’s movement in our daily lives, giving credit to our Maker for all that we have and not to ourselves. It will be given to us when we talk to God regularly, living into that abiding relationship God so wants with us. It will be given to us when we come forward to this table, stretch out our beggar’s hands, and don’t take, but rather are given grace itself, the bread of life, and told, “This is my body, given for you… even though you regularly fail. It’s given for you anyway, my beloved child. Take and eat it. This is my body, given even for you.”

Such a gift of grace is hard to accept, for a bunch of folks accustomed to working hard (even, working for food that perishes). We don’t have to earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t have to check all the boxes and do all the things that we or society tells us we need to do in order to be valued members of society. This grace is merely given, to us bunch of failures, to us bunch of beloved children of God. This grace is given to us, so that we might have an abiding relationship with our loving God, not because of who we are or what we accomplish, but because of who God is and what God has accomplished.

That’s a message I know I need to hear, to be reminded of again and again. I need to be told, “Johanna, you’re gonna drop the ball sometimes. You’re gonna totally blow it other times. You’re gonna work your behind off and feel like after all that, you got absolutely nowhere… and in the midst of all that, God loves you so much, that God actually still wants to be in a serious and committed relationship with you, and will go great lengths to do so.” That is life. That is enduring. That is a promise to sink your teeth into. And so we shall.

Let us pray… Bread of life, we work so hard in hopes of being valued by ourselves and others. But this is food that perishes. Remind us every day that we are already valued because we are loved by a life-giving God. Fill us up with your life and your love. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Will there be enough? (July 29,2018)

Pentecost 10B
July 29, 2018
John 6:1-21

INTRODUCTION

The past six weeks we have been hearing from Mark’s Gospel; before that we were in John’s Gospel. Today we return to John for a few weeks, as we feast upon the “bread of life” discourse. So before we get into that, let me remind you of a few things in John’s Gospel. John is characterized by seven significant “signs” (or miracles) of Jesus. Jesus performs the sign, then there’s some conversation about it, and then he spends a good amount of time explaining why it matters.

Today we will hear about two of those signs, one right after the other (so the usual pattern is a little different from usual), and in the next few weeks we’ll get into the part about why they matter. For now, keep in mind a few of the themes we see in John: that Jesus is God dwelling among us, and so also the one who makes it possible for us to have an abiding relationship with God; and that God is the abundant provider of all things needed for life.

One other thing to listen for that might not be obvious through the translation: another feature of John’s Gospel is that Jesus identifies himself throughout as I AM. It hearkens back to Moses at the burning bush, when God tells Moses that God’s name is, “I AM.” In coming weeks, Jesus will identify himself as, “I am the bread of life.” But he also identifies himself as I AM today, when he approaches the disciples on the boat. The rendering in English is, “It is I,” but the word is the same: he is identifying himself as God.

John does a good job of telling us people’s emotions. As you listen today, notice the emotions, and also consider what might be causing those particular feelings and reactions to what is going on.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It has been a gradual process this summer getting Isaac interested in going in the water. Grace loves the water, and can’t get enough of it. Isaac wasn’t so sure. The first couple times we went swimming, Grace would jump in, ready to swim, Isaac would hang back and observe, with a slightly concerned, dubious look on his face. “Isaac, you wanna come in the water?” we’d ask. He’d respond an adamant, “No.” Now he’s a bigger fan of the water, but generally, at least when he first encounters something unknown, he will always err on the side of caution.

I admit I’m glad for this trait in him. As much as I admire Grace’s adventurous spirit, knowing that Isaac has that little bit of fear in him eases my own fear a bit. I’m fine with him being cautious! A little bit of healthy fear is good for keeping us safe, no?

Of course, too much fear isn’t a good thing either. Fear can be crippling. It can hold us back and keep us from living into who God calls us to be. It can destroy relationships. It can cause us to act cruelly or hatefully toward one another in an effort to keep ourselves safe, emotionally or intellectually. While a little fear can be a good thing, great fear can also be a very bad thing.

I’ve been thinking about fear, because I see it in both of these signs Jesus performs today. Well, not in the signs themselves, but in people’s reactions to them. In the walking-on-water story, it is obvious. Not that I blame the disciples for being afraid – not only was it stormy, but I’d also be pretty terrified to see my friend walking toward me on top of the water! Their fear is so great that Jesus has to remind them of who he is (I AM – God with you), and then tell them, “Don’t be afraid!”

But I think there is also some fear in the feeding story that precedes the storm. The disciples are afraid they won’t have enough food to feed all those people. They are afraid of their scarcity. Philip immediately looks at their budget and sees this will not work – “Six months wages wouldn’t be enough!” Numbers don’t lie; there is not enough. Andrew tries to think out of the box a little bit, looking at what other resources and assets they have beyond money – maybe someone here has something to share? And, turns out, someone does: a young boy, willing to share his lunch with Jesus and the crowd. But still, it is clearly not enough.

Whenever we get in that mindset of “not enough,” there is, underlying it, that pesky emotion: fear.

Fear of not enough – it is such an ordinary fear, really. It is not usually debilitating, but it is a fear we regularly face, sometimes on a daily basis. For middle class folks, it’s not usually about lack of food like in the story, but it often rears its head in financial matters: Will I have enough money to retire when I want to? Will I have enough to send my kids to college? Do I have enough to risk being generous with my financial giving? We look at the numbers, like Philip, and make what we discern to be savvy decisions, in hopes that we will, in fact, have enough.

Of course the question of enough also comes to us in other forms, often in the form of self-esteem. When I applied to seminary, several people told me to apply to Yale, and my first thought of course was, “I’m not smart or accomplished enough to go to Yale.” Women, especially, though also men, are often plagued by the worry that their bodies are not enough: not skinny enough or curvy enough or strong enough. Some of us are shy to meet new people because we’re afraid we won’t be interesting enough, or clever enough, or good-looking enough to make a good impression. You see, everywhere we look we see the fear of “not enough” – just like the disciples. How often this perception of life deters us from gratitude for what we do have!

And, how often our preoccupation with “enough” deters us from the opportunity to serve others. I read a story from a woman who served as a pastor in Nairobi, Kenya. One day, three young men came into her office. They were ragged and dirty, but had smiles on their faces. They asked if they could sing for her. She said of course, and they sang the most beautiful a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace, in their native language. She said it was like angel music, the kind that gives you goose bumps.

Then they shared with her their story. They were refugees from Rwanda. They had been university students, but when war broke out, they left the country with only the clothes on their backs and the song in their hearts. They didn’t know where their families were. They had often barely had enough to eat. They had learned to be grateful for their lives each day, and though they could never find the words for the prayer they wanted to offer to God, they could always sing Amazing Grace, and they knew God would understand their prayer. They had come that day seeking assistance – they had found a room for $8/month. They had no furniture, but would gladly sleep on the floor. Could the church help by paying the $8, plus a little extra for food – $12 a month?

The pastor brought the opportunity to the church leaders. They were interested in the idea, until someone, looking at the numbers, said, “$12 doesn’t seem like a lot, until you multiply it by 12 months. $150 is a lot!” Someone else wondered if this would set a precedent – what if word got out that they were willing to pay people’s rent, and all the homeless refugees came to them?

Soon, this opportunity to serve in a wonderful way turned into a litany of “not enoughs.” The pastor writes, “As I listened to my church leaders, I learned so much about the myth of limited resources. We often think there’s just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We’re worried we’ll run out, but guess what? God’s world has enough for all of us. Someone has put it well, saying, ‘There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed.’”[1]

Individuals, churches, even countries can suffer from a fear of not-enough. I see it in our current immigration debate. One of the most frequent arguments I hear for limiting immigration, or taking in fewer refugees, is that there are not enough jobs to go around. We have too many hungry people here already. There are not enough resources as it is. We need to take care of our own, take care of American citizens who are already living here legally, before we accept anyone else into our care. We have only five loaves and two fish, and there is no way we will be able to feed so many people with so little. Sure, Jesus told us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, but surely he didn’t mean like this. There is not enough.

It seems what we have here – in all three examples – is a lack of trust. Philip and his buddies, the Kenyan church, and modern America – all three examples exhibit a lack of trust that God will provide just exactly what is needed. Each is rooted strongly in logic and good sense, which are also valuable. But none are rooted in trust of God. That, you see, is the danger of fear – it leads us to a lack of trust, or perhaps, it leads us to trust in ourselves, or to trust in scarcity instead of trust in the promise of abundance. It causes us to miss the fact that God, the Great I AM, will always walk out into the storm, and say, “Don’t be afraid. I am here.”

That is why we prayerfully put our trust in God, the God who not only assures us of his presence in the midst of the storm, but also promises us abundance. Remember what Luther writes in the Small Catechism? “God provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day.” God provides all those things! We can worry and fear all we want, but in the end, God provides all we need from day to day, from the air that fills our lungs, to our food, to our beating hearts, to the capacity to love and serve one another.

The past few weeks we have been using as our benediction this line from Ephesians: “[God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” That’s very nice, but I like the way the King James Version puts it: “God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond everything.” God’s abundance is so abundant, that it’s hard to capture it in words! It is exceeding abundantly beyond everything! God gives us far more than we could ever imagine.

And with that recognition comes freedom – freedom from worrying about whether there will be enough. Freedom from fretting about running out. Freedom to be more generous with our time, our money, our resources, our hospitality, and our love and care for others. Freedom to trust the one who gives us “food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all we need from day to day.”

“Therefore,” the catechism goes on, “we surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

Let us pray… Generous God, your providence exceeds abundantly beyond everything. Make us grateful for what you give, not fearful for what we don’t have, so that we would feel freedom to love and serve without fear. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://day1.org/671-a_picnic_on_the_mountainside

Sermon: Having a shepherd in a deserted place (July 22, 2018)

Pentecost 9B
July 22, 2018
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

INTRODUCTION

Always on the 4th Sunday of the Easter season, we have what is called, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We read the 23rd Psalm, and other texts about how Jesus is a good shepherd. Well today is sometimes jokingly called “Bad Shepherd Sunday.” In Jeremiah, we hear about the string of bad kings (aka bad shepherds) who have scattered the flock of Israel, and caused them to go into exile. He prophesizes about a future king, who will not scatter the flock, but will bring them in. In Psalm 23, we remember that God is and always has been our own true shepherd. And then in Mark’s story, Jesus looks at the people in need and sees in them a people who are suffering, who are like sheep without a shepherd, who need someone to care for them. And, of course, he steps in to be that shepherd, not only for the scores of people who follow him around begging for healing, but also for the disciples, who have already begun to take some of the ministry mantel.

As we listen to these shepherd texts, it would do us well to think about what makes a good shepherd, as compared to a bad one. Jeremiah lays it out well for us, in the chapter immediately preceding the one we are about to hear from: a good shepherd (or king) rules with justice and righteousness, which seen and expressed in the treatment of the alien, the orphan and the widow. A bad shepherd is one who seeks his own fortune, and who expands his wealth on the backs of the poor, and such rulers will be held accountable. In the previous chapter, Jeremiah calls out the rulers of the day for breaking of God’s covenant, and assures them that God will lift up a true shepherd. Psalm 23 begins to tell us what that true shepherd will look like, and of course the passage from Mark shows us how Jesus fills that role for us.

As you listen, notice what makes a good shepherd, and recall when God has been that shepherd for you in those times of life when you needed what the good shepherd has to offer.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Seven years ago, almost exactly, I sat before the joint council of these congregations as a part of the call process. This was the council’s opportunity to ask me questions to discern if I would be a good fit here. I don’t remember every question that was asked, but there are a few I do remember. One of them was, “Describe your prayer life.” What a wonderful question to ask your potential pastor! I loved that I was asked this… and I also hated it, because my prayer life is something I have always struggled with. I don’t mean that I don’t pray – I most certainly do pray! What I mean is that, especially as an extrovert, I find it terribly difficult to sit down, be quiet, and just be with God. My mind wanders, I keep thinking about my to-do list, I get distracted… and that’s just what happens when I actually find the time to sit down and be still! Sometimes the hardest part of all is committing to take that time in the first place, to set aside all distractions, and to not only talk to God, but also to listen to what God has to say to us. All the best intentions quickly get brushed aside by needy children, or wanting to actually spend time with my husband, or getting chores done, or getting a few more blessed minutes of sleep.

And then along comes Jesus. Along comes Jesus, saying, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while.” There are times in my life when I hear this as good news, as a gift, as an assurance that it is okay, Johanna, to take a break! I think we all need to receive that gift sometimes, right? We are so prone to work ourselves to the bone, to over-commit, to keep busy every second of the day, either by necessity, or because we enjoy everything we are doing and don’t want to miss out. And when I can hear this as a gift, it is, truly, a gift.

But there are other times when the possibility of being in a deserted place all by myself to rest a while is anything but gift. In fact, for this extrovert, it can be torturous. Because normally, I am a willing participant in the rat race of life, running around doing this and that, making sure my kids are signed up for any number of enriching activities, wanting to serve in this or that volunteer capacity, not to mention being a full time pastor, full time wife, and full time parent of two full time toddlers! Those are all good things, that bring me much life and fulfillment!

But here’s the flip side: as long as I’m keeping very busy, I don’t ever have a moment alone with my thoughts… and those moments alone can be challenging. You know the moments – the ones when all of the contrary voices start to creep in, telling you all your worst fears, dragging you down. Or, the ones that make you realize, finally, that something you have gotten used to doing is not, in fact, what is in your best interest, but you are too afraid to change it. When we’re in a deserted place all by ourselves, talking to God, that’s when we start to recognize the work we have to do on our own hearts – that we know we have to do, but we also know is going to be so hard and maybe even painful, and it is easier to just keep moving and ignore it, than it is to finally face it.

Oh, friends, those deserted places… they can be tough spots. They were for Jesus, too. Do you remember another time in Mark that he talks about a deserted place? Back at the beginning, after Jesus was baptized, he was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness, into a deserted place, and there he was tempted by the devil himself. Deserted places are not always a respite. As necessary as they are, sometimes they are precisely the place from which we want to escape.

So this week, I actually find more comfort in this other thing Jesus does: “[Jesus] had compassion on them,” Mark says, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he taught them many things.”

I love that word, compassion. Oh man, what the world needs now is more compassion, right? Everywhere we look we see self-absorbed, self-serving behavior that disregards or actively harms the other. The world is full of bad shepherds! Yet our God is a compassionate God… who calls us to be the same.

So then, what is compassion, and how is it enacted? Look at what that word actually means. Com-passion means, “to suffer with.” It’s beyond caring for someone; it is a willingness to suffer with another, to hear and to know their plight – sort of how our compassionate God became one of us to know our pains and sorrows. And so if Jesus sees one in need – and I’m going to count myself as one in need, as well as all of you, because Lord knows we all have a need! – if Jesus sees us in need and has compassion, he must also see whatever it is we are suffering from. He sees the suffering, and walks alongside us in it. He suffers-with us. That is the work of a very good shepherd. And so, we also know, that we can look for him there: in our suffering, walking alongside us. That is where we can find Jesus.

Here I am brought back once again to that deserted place. Maybe there’s a reason Jesus mentions that part first: because it is those deserted places, away from the rush of the world, that force us, finally, to face some hard truths and acknowledge where we are broken, where we need healing, where we are, indeed, suffering. This is so important because, I don’t know about you, but I’m sometimes not exactly sure what I’m suffering from. I mean, I know I’m suffering, but I misidentify it. I think it is one thing, but really, it is really something else entirely. Or, I think it is a person causing my suffering, when really their actions are just bringing something up in me, which is really what is driving me crazy. And part of me doesn’t even want to know what the real suffering is, because if I name it, that means I also have to face it and claim it… and sometimes, I really don’t want to.

And yet it is here, in these very dark valleys, these places where we are suffering, that Jesus walks with us, suffers-with us, has compassion for us. When we can face our suffering, our brokenness, the places where we most need healing, we can also turn to see the very face of Christ right there along with us, being the good shepherd.

I love that after Mark identifies the broken people as “like sheep without a shepherd,” he says that Jesus had compassion on them… and then taught them many things. They had much to learn! I, too, have a lot to learn, friends. I have a lot to learn about prayer, about myself and the struggles of my heart, and about the needs of my neighbor. I have a lot to learn about how to make space in my life to learn those things – by going to a deserted place with Jesus, or for an extrovert like me, perhaps by talking to a trusted and faithful friend. I have a lot to learn about trusting that God will always, every time, take all that is broken in me, in us, and turn it into new life – maybe in a way I didn’t expect, maybe in exactly in the way I had hoped, but whatever way, exactly the right way.

I have a lot to learn, and I know you do, too. Let us then follow our good shepherd to a deserted place, to breathe in the Spirit, and rest in the knowledge of God-with-us, and the promise of new life.

Let us pray… Good Shepherd, we are like sheep without a shepherd, and we crave your presence, your guidance, and your wisdom. Lead us along right paths for your name’s sake, help us to find a quiet, deserted place, and assure us that you are there with us in our suffering, guiding us toward new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Jesus tackles rejection (July 8, 2018)

Pentecost 7B
July 8, 2018
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

INTRODUCTION

The first five chapters of Mark have been a sort of, Discipleship: 101 course. We’ve learned what the kingdom of God looks like, we’ve seen the importance of having faith, not fear, we’ve watched Jesus heal people, and cross boundaries to get to them. It’s been a tough course, but a fulfilling one. Today’s part of the story delivers two more lessons: first, a lesson in rejection, as Jesus is rejected by those in his hometown. Second, the disciples are sent out, two-by-two, for a hands-on learning opportunity, an internship of sorts, and to risk rejection themselves.

The past weeks I have been pairing the Gospel reading with an Old Testament reading, but this week, I chose the epistle instead: this wonderful text from 2 Corinthians about God’s power being made perfect in weakness. It seemed like the appropriate choice to get us ready to hear the Gospel story in which Jesus is rejected by his own people, and then is unable to perform any miracles, and then Jesus uses that experience to give a pep talk to his disciples before sending them out into a den of wolves, telling them specifically what to do if they should fail in their mission. I’m sure they feel weak and powerless – so hearing the God’s power is made perfect in weakness is good news!

Today’s texts are about vulnerability, about failing and falling, about rejection – and they speak to our constant efforts to avoid having to endure any of these things! As you listen, remember some times when you have fallen, when things haven’t gone as you hoped and worked for, when you have been rejected, criticized, or wounded. Listen for what God’s Word has to say to us in these inevitable moments.

[READ]

ELCA National Youth Gathering (2018)

As you may have heard, last week was the ELCA’s National Youth Gathering, an event that happens every three years, and draws 30,000 youth and adult leaders from Lutheran churches across the country into one city for a week of worship, service, dynamic speakers, fellowship, and inspiration. Many youth cite this as an event that changes their lives, helps them to understand what it means to be a Christian, and makes them feel closer to Jesus. We didn’t send anyone this year, unfortunately, but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the Facebook posts from my colleagues who were there, and various articles and interviews about the event all week. One in particular that really struck me was about how the youth were moved by the speakers they had at mass gatherings. The article said, “It was the first time many of our youth heard people of faith speak openly about taboo topics such as substance abuse, eating disorders, racism, gender identity, rape, and cutting. The honesty and inspiration in these well-crafted monologues moved many in our group to tears of recognition, seeing their own struggles reflected in other teens and adults brave enough to share their stories.”

What a concept – and what a gift! – for faith-talk and God-talk to be relevant to our daily struggles! We are sometimes tempted, I think, to keep our church life separate from our “real” life, and the various challenges we face. We don’t want to talk in church about uncomfortable topics, like politics, or money, or sex, or immigration, or racism, or anything controversial because we come to church to feel better, and those things are too fraught with negative feelings and disagreement. We want to “all get along,” leave feeling better than we came, and not stir any pots. And we really would rather not have to examine our hearts too deeply in the presence of others, and thus risk revealing to anyone the real pain and fear and doubt that we feel about issues that we would rather not talk or even hear about anywhere, and certainly not in public.

And yet, it is into these painful realities that we need the good news of the gospel to be spoken most of all! This is the brokenness Jesus came to heal, to which God can offer us grace and guidance. And so, we absolutely should be talking about these things in the context of our faith, yes, even at church!

And that is precisely why Jesus doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. 2000 years later, we may miss a lot of what made this story of a miracle-working carpenter so radical, radical enough to get the man killed. It was a different time and culture, we miss the nuance of the original language, and there is a certain amount of familiarity causing us to miss how remarkable this story is. That is part of my job – to help you see just what a political, controversial, and sometimes downright uncomfortable figure Jesus was!

Take today, for example, where Jesus tackles a big trigger for pain and vulnerability: the fear of rejection. In the first half of our Gospel reading, we see Jesus experience rejection, and in his hometown no less! “We know this guy,” they say, “and we know he’s no better than any of us. Who does he think he is, anyway?” I think we’ve all been there, on one side of that conversation or the other. The crowd’s reaction speaks to the ways humans make judgments about people when we think we know how they ought to be. That person must be uneducated, we think, or poor, or a ne’er-do-well, or a terrorist, or a racist, or elitist, or… you get the idea. We dismiss one another based on what we think we know about them. It’s very human: people did it to Jesus, and they do it today. And in seeing this interaction with Jesus, I hope we can recognize: “Maybe I do that to others… but also, it really stinks when someone does that to me.”

How many of you here have ever felt judged or rejected based on who you voted for, what you do for a living, where you live, or how you look? How many of you have felt like what you have to offer, your particular gifts, have been rejected or unappreciated – by a work place, by your peers, by your family? It doesn’t feel very good, does it? It’s not very good for the self-esteem, is it? I have felt that way, like I am seen only for my very worst qualities and none of my best, and it has taken me months or even years to overcome the damage to my self-esteem. Can anyone relate?

Does it help to know that Jesus also endured that feeling?

Jesus, after he was rejected by his hometown, goes on to use his experience to prepare the disciples for the same thing. You see, after several months of observing Jesus in his ministry, Jesus is now sending out the disciples to do their own ministry. He gives them many instructions, about packing light and relying on the hospitality of strangers, but what I notice especially this week is this bit about shaking the dust off of their feet. I used to see this as an insulting gesture, but it’s not – it’s a Jewish ritual symbolizing separation from anything that would defile you, make you unclean.

Today we don’t really think about defilement in the same way. I don’t think menstruation, for example, or touching or eating a pig, or what have you can defile me. But you know what can? Fear. Fear of rejection, yes, but also fear of outsiders, fear of difference, fear of change. Fear of failure. Fear that what people are saying about me when they reject me or my gifts might actually be true. Fear that I am worthless, or insufficient, or worse yet, that my insufficiency is not only harmful to me, but is actually hurting someone else I love – like you, or my children, or my marriage. All of these fears – they defile me: they make me unclean and unable to serve God as I’m called to do. They cause me not to act my best. They make me believe that God made a mistake with me, that I am not lovable, not worthwhile, not the beautiful child of God created in God’s image that I know, deep down, that I am.

I’m not proud of these fears. And I also know I am not alone in them. I know other people feel them, I know we as a church community feel or at least have felt them, and I know that our country feels them. I can see those fears play out in the way we treat one another, the ways we insist that our way is the only way, and that other people are deplorables, or snowflakes, or bleeding hearts, or racist, or just plain ignorant. I can see our country’s fear of loss and insecurity play out in our unwillingness to welcome the stranger (can you imagine today, in this climate, if travelers were told to rely upon the hospitality of strangers?). These sorts of treatments of each other do not come out of love, nor out of trust in a loving God. They come out of fear. They are defiling.

It is not a comfortable situation, to live in such fear, nor to be confronted with it. We all have been there. Oh, we may try to shake the dust off of our feet and move on, but sometimes it clings to us and gets tracked all over the floor of the house, staining the carpet. Or, we may find some satisfaction in leaving the dust there, thinking that layer of dirt will protect us from the things that we fear. It can be so hard to shake off the dust of our rejections and failures, our mistakes and regrets. And that dust can indeed become like a thorn in our flesh, getting into our wounds, and aching and irritating us every step of our lives of faith.

And yet, look at this good news buried at the end of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: Paul has asked three times for God to take away that discouraging irritant that he so wants to shake, but rather than take it away, God says to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say he will boast in his weakness, in all those things that he might have perceived as things to avoid talking about, things to hide from the world – because it is in these things, these real human experiences that we all share, that God’s power is made truly known.

I am rarely impressed by someone who has it all together. What truly inspires me is someone who is riddled with flaws and weaknesses, and yet still manages to shine God’s love and grace into the world – not despite their flaws, and their mistakes, but because of them. Like those speakers at the ELCA Youth Gathering who shared candidly with 30,000 people about the ways they had faced the real issues that teenagers face in their daily lives, allowing the youth and adults alike to recognize that God is there with us, even in our failures and rejections. Like Jesus, using his own experience of rejection in his hometown to inform the disciples how to face similar challenges. Like so many faithful saints that I have met in this congregation and beyond it, who have shared the ways that God’s grace shined brightly through the darkest times of life.

“I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness,” Paul writes, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Spoken as someone who has seen and believed how the weakest position of all, what should have been seen as an utter failure – death on a cross as a common, political prisoner – came to be used as the means to offer all of us eternal life. Do we dare believe that God can do that with our failures, mistakes and rejections? Do we dare hope that God could use these deaths, these struggles, these embarrassing times of our lives that we don’t want anyone else to know about – do we dare hope that God could use them to shine God’s grace into the world? Do we dare trust that God is using every struggle we face to better equip us as beckons of the hope of Christ?

The real question is… how can we dare not believe, and hope and trust in that?

Let us pray… God of power, we fear that we may be crushed under weakness, failures and rejections, yet you have shown us how you use weakness to reveal your power. Help us to trust in that promise, to shake the dust off of our feet, and lift our eyes to you to see how you would have us reflect your grace into this broken world. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.