Sermon: How the Reign of Christ Looks (A Farewell Sermon) (Nov. 25, 2018)

Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2018
John 18:33-37

INTRODUCTION

On this Sunday of the church year, the week before Advent, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday – remembering with thanksgiving that Christ is the ruler of the universe and of our lives, more powerful than any earthly power. The texts for Christ the King present us with some strange, end-times imagery, looking forward to the time when Christ will return to sit on the throne and visibly rule over heaven and earth, even as they recall that Christ has always done this (as Revelation says, he is the one who is and who was and who is to come). It’s a day of tension, being both ominous, and thrilling. Really, it’s the perfect way to end the church year, and prepare ourselves to start thinking about Advent, and the first coming of God into our midst as a babe in a manger.

I also want to say a quick word about our Gospel reading, because today we jump back from Mark into the Gospel of John. This short reading places us in the midst of Jesus’ passion story, in the middle of his trial before Pilate. Pontius Pilate, you may remember, was an incredibly violent and brutal ruler, known for his extreme punishments, which makes it all the stranger that in this text he seems to be trying to find a way to let Jesus off the hook! But Jesus is resolute, as he is throughout John’s Gospel, that he is exactly where he needs to be, doing what he needs to do. Their argument today is, appropriately, about whether or not Jesus is, in fact, a king, and what that kingship looks like. As many things with Jesus, it is not what the world might have thought or expected! Let’s listen and learn about what it means for Christ to be our King.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

Well, here we are: my last sermon for you all. It is surreal to me that this is it, after seven and a half years of learning and teaching, praying and playing together, pushing each other to think more deeply about what God is doing in the world, and dreaming about what our role in God’s work might be. It has been a time full of blessings, and challenges, and joys, and disappointments, and encouragement, and learning, and most of all, a time of growth and faith – certainly for me, and I hope for you as well.

As it became clear that I would be leaving my position as your pastor, I really wrestled with when would be the right time to leave, especially with Christmas just around the corner. The way that the timing worked out, it became pretty clear that the right time to leave would be today, Christ the King Sunday. I know that leaves many disappointed, to leave right before all the Advent and Christmas events (me too, in some ways – this is my favorite season!). But it seems appropriate, not only practically in that it gives me a chance to grieve and process leaving you all before starting in a new call in the new year, but also liturgically and theologically. Next week is the beginning of Advent, a season characterized by waiting and hope, and a time when we give thanks that God is Emmanuel, God-with-us. It makes for a perfect time for a congregation to begin a period of transition and discernment, a time which will inevitably include a lot of waiting, but also will be undergirded by hope and an assurance of God’s presence.

But it’s also the perfect time to remember, with thanksgiving, that through all the changes of this life – whether a loss, or a move, or a new job, or a new pastor – one absolute constant is that Christ remains our king, our ruler, through all of that.

Christ the King Sunday is a day when we reflect upon what that means, to have Christ as our ruler, and what that reign looks like, especially compared to the reigns and rulers of the world. Jesus tells Pilate in today’s text that, “My kingdom is not from this world,” and that’s pretty good news! I would hope that God’s kingdom is something utterly different than this world, with all its tears, loss, pain, and sadness. But what exactly does that mean, for this kingdom not to be from this world? If not that, then what?

Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I don’t think Jesus is talking about an afterlife, or what we often call “heaven,” and here’s why: because from the very beginning, Jesus was the one who brought God’s light and life into the darkness of this world. Throughout John, Jesus has been the light of the world, dwelling in and overcoming darkness – that’s what we celebrate each year at Christmas. By being that light in the darkness, Jesus brings God’s kingdom to earth, even as God’s kingdom remains something distinct from the ways of this world. And so, I think when he refers to his “kingdom,” he is referring not to some different, far-off location, but to a way of life – right now – that is of God. A way of life that is a light shining in darkness.

But the question still remains: what does that look like? I’m going to venture three suggestions. First, it looks like an abiding relationship with God. Through John’s Gospel, Jesus has made clear that living as a part of God’s kingdom means being in a relationship with God. That means, first of all, trusting that God does abide in us, and second, living by the commandment of God. It means regularly checking in with God through prayer and scripture study and faithful conversation with other Christians. We are so prone, aren’t we, to listen to the ways of the world, and let them be our guide. We want to fit in, or we want to let the world’s ways of fear and scarcity convince us to make choices or take stands that we know, in our hearts, are not what Jesus would have us do. Abiding with God is not always the easiest road, because it means letting go of some control, and sometimes even some good sense, and instead listening to where and how the Spirit might be blowing in our lives. When Christ truly reigns, we let him guide and be present in all that we do, even when it is not something our human, worldly inclinations would have chosen.

Second, living in God’s kingdom means seeking peace. I am so intrigued by Jesus’ comment to Pilate that, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” And yet just moments before this, Peter did exactly that, when Jesus was arrested. He pulled a sword, willing to fight the legion of soldiers who came for Jesus. So what Jesus must be saying here is not that his followers should have been fighting for him, but rather, that a true follower would not resort to such violence, but rather, seek a more peaceful resistance.

Ah, but it can be so much easier and more immediately satisfying just to fight, can’t it?? Especially in our divided society, where judgment of the other abounds. When someone says something awful or misguided, doesn’t it feel so good to come back with something snappy to put them in their place? Isn’t it good to fight for what we believe in, at whatever cost? And yet, Jesus’ kingdom demands a different way: not simply to avoid one another, nor to “agree to disagree,” but rather, to actively seek peace with the other. God’s kingdom requires that we seek to know and understand one another, to have compassion for one another, to be in relationship with one another, to love one another.

And that’s the real kicker for those who are citizens of God’s kingdom: we love one another. Just like Jesus has just told his disciples as he washed their feet: he commanded them to love one another, just as God has loved us. So simple to say; so difficult to live out! Not always – for example, I have found you all to be very easy to love these past seven years, even those of you with whom I know I disagree on some key issues! But it can be awfully hard to love people who have hurt us personally, or people who scare us, or whose mere presence threatens our way of life, or even just people in whom we simply aren’t that invested.

At this time of year, we often hear the catchy slogan, “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I saw a meme on Facebook this week that really nailed it. It said, “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for the ill, love your enemies.” Because those are the things Christ is about! And those are the things that citizens of Christ’s kingdom are called to be about, too. Those are the ways we love one another. Love one another – those you do like and those you don’t, those who are kind to you and those who scare you, those who look and act like you, and those who bring with them a host of unknowns. Love one another.

It sure isn’t easy. And when it isn’t, that is when we can lean on God’s own, perfect love – to both show us the way and to catch us when we fail. For God so loved the dark and sinful world, Jesus tells us, that he sent his only Son, so that we would not perish, so that we would not fall into the abyss that is all that world can promise us, but would instead have the promise of eternal life – eternal life living in the light and life of Christ. Eternal life living in Christ’s kingdom.

You know, there’s one more reason this was the perfect Sunday to leave you, and that is that this is Thanksgiving weekend, the time we set aside to give thanks for all that God has graced us with. The biggest thing to be thankful for, of course, is exactly that love of which we are assured through Christ.

But as we bid farewell to each other today, my heart is full of thanksgiving also for each of you, and for all that you have brought to my life. I am thankful for how you welcomed me, and then my family, into your life so warmly. I am thankful for your grace and understanding as I went through two experiences with cancer – for too many meals to count, for telling me, “Go home and take care of yourself!” and for the ways you covered for me. I am thankful for how you surrounded my children with love and faith, always asking about them and gushing over them, and being a beautiful community of Christ as they were each baptized, Grace at Bethlehem and Isaac at St. Martin. I am thankful for your willingness to express when something I said or did was meaningful to you, but also when it wasn’t, when you needed more from me, because by this you taught me what it means to listen and respond and grow more faithfully into this strange and wondrous calling. I am even thankful for the times you made me really mad, because it was during these times that I was pushed toward the sort of self-reflection that helped me to grow the most, as a Christian and as a pastor. It was during these times that I learned what it means to live in Christ’s kingdom of relationship, peace, and enduring love. I am thankful for every prayer offered, every Eucharist shared, every baptism celebrated, every Bible text wrestled with. I am, absolutely, thankful for you.

And I will continue to be thankful to you, for helping to form me into the person and pastor I am today, and for teaching me as much about God’s love as any training I got in seminary. Thank you, people of Bethlehem/St. Martin, and thank God for you. Bless you as you continue growing into living in Christ’s kingdom of hope, peace, and love.

Let us pray… Christ our King, in this ever changing world, you and your love and your reign remain our constant. I ask your presence with this congregation as they embark on a season of waiting, watching, and hoping. I ask that you would assure them of your abiding presence. Keep us all focused on living into your kingdom, trusting that your love will guide and support us all along. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Sermon: Total Apocalypse of the Heart (Nov. 18, 2018)

Pentecost 26B
November 18, 2018
Mark 13:1-8

INTRODUCTION

Always at this, the end of the church year, right before Advent, we get texts that are about the end of the world and the destruction of the Temple – stuff that falls in the category of “apocalyptic literature,” about the end times. And every year I think, “Man, these horrifying texts could be describing what we experience today!” Well for Mark’s audience, they did exactly that. Here’s a little church history lesson for you: In Jesus’s time, the Jerusalem Temple was indeed a glorious accomplishment, huge and glimmering with gold. But this Temple, and Jerusalem with it, were destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – which happens to be when Mark was writing about it. In other words, even as Mark is writing that Jesus foretold the destruction of the Temple, Mark’s audience was watching this happen right before their eyes. So while it seems to us like Mark could be describing our world, he was, literally, describing his first century world.

I find some comfort in this, knowing that people throughout time have been dealing with one crisis or trauma or another, and that through them all, God’s word has stood as a solid beacon of hope. So as you listen to this collection of apocalyptic texts today, know that we can seek solidarity with people of faith throughout time, who have always looked to God in times of trouble. Let’s listen.

[READ]

Model of the Jerusalem Temple

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

In a world where the news is dominated by devastating fires, mass shootings, extreme poverty, and any number of things we need to fear, I have to say that today’s readings do not feel very welcome in my heart! Always these last Sundays before Advent begins, we get a lot of doom and destruction from the Bible’s apocalyptic literature. In fact, chapter 13 in Mark is known as Mark’s “little apocalypse,” describing a horrific scene that must be endured before the final and triumphant end of time.

That word, “apocalypse,” brings up all kinds of terrifying images for us, doesn’t it? Fire, brimstone, wars, famines – all the stuff described in Daniel and Mark. Yet that’s not actually what the word means, exactly. What apocalypse actually means, is an unveiling. It is pulling back the veil to reveal what has been hidden underneath – which often ends up being a lot of really terrifying stuff, stuff that we’d rather not have to deal with. We’d fooled ourselves into thinking things were better than they were, and when we see that dark underbelly, we are shocked and think, “What? I had no idea!”

I hear this sentiment a lot in our world today, especially in our country. After people of faith are shot in their place of worship, after yet another powerful man is brought down by sexual assault allegations, after literal Nazis march down the street chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” after another person of color is shot and killed for no reason at all… I hear this lament: “Is this who we are now?” And the answer is yes, but it’s also who we’ve always been. These sentiments, if not the acts themselves, have long been present in our society, it’s just that now, due to the 24-hour news cycle, or social media, or our leadership, or whatever, it is becoming apparent to us in a way that it hasn’t before. And we are shocked and appalled – by the acts themselves, as much as by the realization that we have been unaware of this reality all this time.

There’s a wonderful word for this: disillusionment. Preacher and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes it this way: “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion – about ourselves, about the world, about God – and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.” Boy, painful is the word for it. I have tried to do some self-reflection on this this week, in particular on the question, “What lies and illusions do I mistake for truth?” and I find myself resistant to even going there! Because if I spend some time doing that, I might discover that something I have held dear, that has kept me safe, that even has helped to define me, might in fact just be some illusion, some lie I have been telling myself. I’d rather just keep up the illusion, frankly, and hold onto those things that have brought me comfort and a sense of safety all these years, even if they are mere illusions, because if disillusionment is anything like what Jesus describes here, even if metaphorically, that sounds like a pain I’d rather avoid, if possible.

Of course it is not really possible to avoid, is it? We all have experiences, some small, some significant, in which we were disillusioned, where we suddenly realize something is not as we thought it was. For me, I think of an awesome internship I applied for, for which I thought I was a shoe-in, and then I was not even offered an interview, though several of my classmates were. I think of a relationship with a guy I thought for sure was The One, only to discover he had a whole other life I didn’t even know about, including other long-term relationships. I think of when I was an invincible 15-year-old one day, and the next, I was a cancer patient, and almost overnight I went from being healthy and untouchable, to sick and fighting for my life. Each of those disillusionments was painful. In each, I felt a sense of destruction – in my heart, and in the way I saw the world around me. Each felt like a little apocalypse in my life.

And really – each was a sort of apocalypse, an unveiling, because each one showed me something I thought was true was not, in fact true. Each one caused me to doubt what I thought I knew about myself, and try to find the real truth. And each set me upon a path I needed to be on. Instead of that internship, I ended up here, where I got to work with all of you, and where I met my husband and started a family. Because of my relationship with that two-faced guy, I learned all kinds of important relationship tools that equipped me to be in the healthy and honest relationship I’m in now, as well as offer more effective counsel to others as a part of my ministry. Having cancer taught me countless valuable lessons about life, and perhaps even more, showed me with such clarity the power of the Body of Christ, and of prayer, and in many ways it set me upon the path to become a pastor. Each apocalypse, though incredibly painful at the time, was an unveiling that led me back toward living the godly life God has in mind for me.

Did you know, we actually experience a little apocalypse every time we gather to worship. It happens right at the beginning… the confession. Here, built into our worship, we have the opportunity to come before God and say, “Hey God, I’ve been hiding my sins, from you and perhaps even from myself, and choosing to live under the illusion that I am without sin. But now, I’d like to unveil my sin, to you. Disillusion me, O God. Pull back the lies I have been telling myself and others, and then help me deal with what is left there, so that I would be set upon your path, heading toward your will, rather than the path my illusions would lead me down. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Holy Name. Amen.”

And then the rest of our worship is about the fruit of that disillusionment: it’s about stepping into the new life that is possible because of the apocalypse we have experienced. It’s about hearing the Word, the promises of God in scripture. It’s about holding in prayer and in love all those around the world in need. It’s about seeking peace and reconciliation between one another – between nations and between individuals. It’s about sharing a meal together, in which we remember and celebrate the incredible, self-sacrificing love of our God, as we come forward with hands extended, asking for a taste of God’s immense grace for us. It’s about being sent out into the world to share what we know about this love, this grace, this peace… this God. And it’s about praising and thanking God all along the way.

In the middle of Jesus’ words in Mark’s “little apocalypse” are buried these words that end today’s reading: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It may at first sound sort of ominous – just the beginning? How long must we endure this pain, O Lord? Having experienced the beginning of birth pangs a couple times now, I can resonate with that sentiment! There is physical pain, and there is fear and anxiety and uncertainty… but there is also excitement, and hope, and the palpable sense of possibility. The best thing someone told me about labor pains is that they are pain with a purpose. And so, as labor continues, there are inevitably moments when the one giving birth thinks, or even says or shouts, “I can’t do this!” Yeah, disillusionment, apocalypse, can be like that, too. But through it all there is a purpose. At the end of all that pain… life. Newness. Everything changed forever. A brand new path to walk, one that leads us toward God’s intention.

And most importantly, God is with us all along: in the initial awareness, in the unveiling, in the realization of a new normal, and all the life that comes from that. Disillusionment is no easy process. But as we approach the Advent season, when we celebrate a God who promises to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, we can trust that we will never be abandoned. As the Psalmist writes, “God will show us the path of life; in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and in God’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Let us pray… God of grace, we would so like to feel safe, even if it means living under the veil of lies we tell ourselves. Disillusion us, O God. Help us pull back the veil so that through all the muck, we can see your purpose for us, and then lead us lovingly toward fulfilling that purpose. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: A Christian nation? (Nov. 11, 2018)

Pentecost 25B
November 11, 2018
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Mark 12:38-44

INTRODUCTION

Two of our readings today feature widows, and one features the Temple, so before you hear those, I wanted to tell you a bit about those things. First, widows: throughout the Bible, God commands His people to care for widows, because they are some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Widows in the ancient world were not like widows now – they did not have life insurance, or their husband’s pensions to draw from, nor were they allowed to get a job to support themselves. Once a woman was widowed, especially if she had no other family to care for her, she relied completely on the generosity of others for her survival. She could very well be quite young, and may have small children to care for, as the widow in our first reading today does. Widows were in a very vulnerable position.

I wanted also to say something about the Temple. Going to Temple is not like going to church today. Yes, worship happened there, but it was also the center of Israel’s economic life. And as so often happens, even today, when money is involved, the economic system was not always justly executed. In the chapter just before this, Jesus “cleanses” the Temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers and calling the Temple “a den of robbers.” Directly following our Gospel reading today, Jesus will foretell the destruction of the Temple (we’ll hear that story next week). And in today’s reading, he also criticizes the scribes, who were sort of like Jewish lawyers or judges, for their behavior in the Temple. All of this colors how we read this story of the Widow’s Mite that is wedged in the midst of all this criticism of the corruption going on in the Temple, so keep it in mind. Okay, let’s listen.

[READ]

The Widow’s Mite – Luke 21:1-4

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

Ah, the Widow’s Mite. Today’s beloved story has been embraced for many-a stewardship campaign, because hers is a story of inspirational giving. It is a story about how the size of the gift doesn’t matter so much as the proportion – many in the Temple gave much larger sums than hers, but those large sums made little to no impact in how the givers lived their lives. They are no sacrifice. But the widow – she knows a thing or two about self-sacrificial giving! She is a model for us, an inspiration. Would that we could all be so generous as she!

Of course that sounds faithful enough to say. Truth is, I don’t really want to be as generous as she, and I don’t know many who do. How many people do you know who would throw their entire paycheck and everything in their bank account into the offering plate? That was the situation for a widow. She would have had no income, no pension or life insurance, but rather, relied completely on the generosity of either her surviving family members, or if she had none, the generosity of strangers. So for her to throw in everything she had to live on, really her whole life – that was… well some might say faithful, or trusting, others might say stupid, risky, or reckless! And we, we want to be faithful, but do we really want to be quite so risky as all that? Not usually. That’s why most of us keep our giving to a minimum – whatever we can faithfully give that will still allow us to pay all the bills and live a comfortable life. So maybe this widow is a model of generosity, faith and trust… but it is not a model I’m prepared to follow!

On the other hand, maybe her role is not to teach us about financial stewardship. Maybe instead, her role is to teach us about a different aspect of faith. Maybe Jesus is pointing her out to show us who we should be paying attention to, and how we should be responding. Looking at the text, Jesus doesn’t explicitly commend her. All he does is point her out. “Look, you see that widow?” he says. “Did you notice that she put in everything she has? She has nothing left now to live on.” And I have to wonder if the underlying question was, “So what are you gonna do about it?” Because look at what happens right before this, in the first part of today’s reading: Jesus has just condemned the scribes, the teachers and practitioners of Jewish law, saying that they, “devour widow’s houses.” And then he points out a widow, who has placed everything she has in the treasury, as if to say, “See what I mean? Devoured.” And then right after this, Jesus foretells the destruction of this whole Temple, and with it, the systems that would allow for a widow to be put in this situation. Huh, suddenly our dear, faithful, generous widow is looking less like a hero in this story, and more like a victim of a corrupt system, one which proclaims to take care of the likes of her, but which has instead left her with nothing!

I have a friend who commented this week on Election Day that her grandmother taught her always to vote for the candidate who would take the best care of the widows and the orphans. What wonderful advice! The Bible is full of the command to do exactly that. In fact, the Bible mentions widows specifically at least 80 times, from the books of Moses at the beginning, all the way through to Revelation. Why would God be so insistent that we are to care widows? Well, because in the ancient world, they were among the most vulnerable. The poorest of the poor. The least advantaged. Widows today are in a different situation. The grief is still real, of course, but financially they are not usually left with nothing. Women are able to get jobs now and support themselves, and own property. The systems we have in place do not, as a rule, render widows completely dependent like in the first century.

So all this makes me wonder: if the Bible were written today, who would God command us to take care of? Who are the proverbial widows, the poorest and most vulnerable among us? Who depends upon others’ mercy and generosity for their survival?

Could be a lot of people. The homeless, those living with disabilities, especially severe ones, perhaps veterans, or battered women. It is also useful to see who else God mentioned, often alongside widows, as those who people of faith are called to care for. Check out our Psalm today, for example: it mentions the oppressed, the hungry, the captives, the blind. “The Lord sustains the orphan and widow,” it says, and “cares for the stranger.” Hm, the stranger. Do you know who that refers to? This is another frequent reference throughout the Bible, appearing some 100 times. Often God implores us to care for the stranger, adding, “for you were strangers in a strange land.” It refers to people who are traveling from one country to another, either to escape persecution, or to seek new opportunities – just like the Israelites did when they left Egypt, and like Abraham did, and like Mary and Joseph did when Herod went about killing all the boy babies after Jesus was born. In other words: “strangers” refers to refugees and immigrants.

Refugees and immigrants get a lot of play in the news lately. Everyone is well aware of a large caravan making its way from Honduras, a country with high levels of poverty, violence and unrest, toward our borders, seeking safety and opportunity. A lot of fear has been stirred up about it, from worries about them carrying disease, to gang members and terrorists being among them, to the very practical concern that we don’t have a place for them here, because we have a hard enough time taking care of our own poor and homeless population, and these needy folks will just take more of the resources we need for our own citizens. Many, including many people of faith, have been resolute in their insistence that refugees and immigrants are not welcome here.

And yet… that is not what God asks of us. That response may be practical (I won’t get into that debate here), but it is not what our faith asks of us. The other faithful widow we encounter this morning, the widow of Zaraphath, shows us what a faithful response to a stranger looks like. Living in the midst of a drought and raising her young son, she also has nearly nothing. In fact, she has only enough to make one more meal for her and her son. She plans to make that meal for them, and then just sit there waiting to die. (Can you imagine? How hopeless she must feel!) And along comes the prophet Elijah. She doesn’t know him. He is a foreigner, traveling to her country. He asks her for water, which she gives. But then he ups the ante. “Give me a morsel of bread,” he says. She points out that she has nothing baked, and what she does have is only enough for one meal for her and her son. She would be completely in her right to refuse Elijah! She doesn’t even have enough resources for herself and her family, let alone this strange foreigner in need! Yet Elijah asks her again, “Feed me first, then yourself.”

And incredibly, she does. Even with as little as she has, this poor widow feeds the stranger first. And more amazing still, God blesses her for it, providing abundance where before there was only scarcity. Her resources did not run out. She had enough to serve this foreigner in need. When she follows God’s command, to care for the stranger, God provides everything she needs.

I don’t know what is the best way forward with immigration in this country, nor with this caravan of refugees currently heading toward our border. But what I do know is this: God is quite clear throughout the Bible that we are to care for the weakest among us, in particular the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant and refugee. The Bible does not ever say, “Take care of your own first,” nor, “Feed my sheep, as long as it is safe, and poses no threat.” In fact, God demonstrates that true love looks exactly opposite that! God showed us what love looks like through Jesus, who, like the two widows we encounter today, gave absolutely everything for the sake of the other: for the oppressed, the captive, the blind, the widow, the orphan, and yes, also the stranger. Our God is not about seeking self-preservation over love of neighbor. Love of neighbor is expressed in self-sacrificial giving. Love is expressed by a man hanging on a cross, having given his life for all – for all of us sinners. Love is expressed through giving to those in need, no questions asked.

That is what it looks like to be a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not making a political statement here, nor a policy suggestion. I’m not saying welcoming everyone who comes knocking into our country is what is best for our country. I’m saying that having mercy and generosity and grace and care for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant and the refugee is what it would look like for us to be a Christian nation. That is what it would look like to be Christian people living in America. It’s a bit scary and uncomfortable and risky (I bet it was for our two widows today, too), but yup, faith is all those things sometimes. That’s where the trust, and a whole lot of prayer, come in. That’s what our widows today can teach us: how to trust that God will provide.

The more I read the story of the Widows’ Mite, the more I think Jesus is using her story to point us toward those in need, those we might not have noticed, or would have dismissed, but who can, nonetheless, show us the face of Christ, the face of the one who gave everything… for us. When we respond to those in need with fear, we are prone to fall into scarcity mode, fearing that there will not be enough. Yet God shows us again and again that what happened with the widow of Zaraphath is true: when we follow God’s command, when we respond with love and not fear, when we care for the other without pretense, God will provide an abundance. Let us all live in the hope of this promise, because we know that God’s promises are true!

Let us pray… God of mercy, grace and abundance, having faith is sometimes risky business. Help us to trust that when we live according to your word and command, you will always provide what we need to do so. Show us the people in this world who are in special need of your love, and give us the strength to show it. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Image attribution: JESUS MAFA. The Widow’s Mite, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48392 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Sermon: Our Empathetic God (Nov 4, 2018)

All Saints Day
November 4, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

INTRODUCTION

I love All Saints’ Day. I love the hymns, I love the texts, I love the memories. Every pastor I know, present company included, says they’d rather preach a funeral than a wedding, because we get to preach the hope of resurrection – and All Saints Day is sort of a big, annual funeral, because it is all about the life and comfort we find in the resurrection promise, especially in the midst of the various losses we experience.

Just look at these texts. Each is written to and for a community experiencing a difficult time, and each of them holds in tension the extremes of human emotion: the deep sadness, grief, and fear we feel when we’ve lost, or are losing, someone or something important to us, and the hope we find in a God who keeps promises. As you listen to each one, listen for those emotions. As these texts mention death, think not only about the ultimate sort of death, but also about the mundane deaths we experience every day – people moving away, job change or loss, losing your faculties and abilities, realizing you can’t be as active anymore as you once were, any sort of meaningful change to what you have come to understand as “normal,” whether the change is good or bad. Recall the feelings you have in those experiences of death and change, and listen in these texts to God’s words of hope and new life for you. Let’s listen.

[READ]

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

As I read through the texts for today, I noticed a common image across all three: tears. Both Isaiah and Revelation talk about God wiping away tears from the eyes of people who are surrounded by death, grief and fear. And the Gospel text, this famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, is full of mourning and sadness, even expressed by Jesus himself. This is of course the story in which what is famously the shortest verse in the Bible appears: Jesus began to weep. So much pain. So much grief. So many tears.

Yet these texts are also full of hope! They all contain good news! So why would I notice not the hope, but the tears? Perhaps because these past couple of weeks in our country have echoed some of the same pain, grief and sadness. First there were the fourteen homemade pipe bombs sent to, among other political leaders, two former presidents. Then, eleven worshipers shot dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh on the Sabbath, during a baby’s naming ceremony. Another attempt at a mass shooting in a predominantly black church, but when the shooter couldn’t get in, he killed two African Americans at a Kroger’s grocery store instead, while he told a white man nearby that he was safe because, “Whites don’t shoot whites.” Each report more chilling, maddening, and heart-breaking than the last. So much pain. So much grief. So many tears.

What a time to be celebrating All Saints Day, this day in the church year that is a sort of memorial service for all who have died, for those saints who have gone before us. It is a day we celebrate the eternal feast, the promise of resurrection, the ways that God turned death into life for so many of our loved ones before us and still does and will for us. It should be a joyous day! And yet… in weeks like the ones we have just been through, I don’t always want to jump straight to the hope and joy of the resurrection. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I want to get there eventually, but sometimes, I just need a little more time to lament.

Lament. It is a central but all-too-often overlooked piece of the biblical narrative, but one that I have been returning to more and more lately. Lament is the expression of deep sorrow or grief about something or someone, like the loss of a person. It is the Psalmist’s cry in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is the Israelites who sat down and wept by the waters of Babylon, because they could not find it in themselves to sing their song of faith while they were forced to live in a strange land. Lament is the “sighs too deep for words,” that Paul refers to in Romans. It is the deep sadness of Mary weeping inside the empty the tomb, believing as she did that they had taken away her lord’s body. Lament.

I have lamented. I have lamented in the past two weeks for sure, and also at many other times over the course of my life. I resonate with those in the Bible who have also lamented. And so that is why I am so drawn to the tears in our passages today, and in particular, to Jesus’ tears. It might seem strange that Jesus is crying at this particular moment. When he first found out that his friend Lazarus was sick, Jesus intentionally delayed departure, seemingly waiting until it would be too late to save him. So this situation is, kind of, his own doing! At least he could have prevented it. And then once he gets there, he knows resurrection is just around the corner – both the raising of Lazarus, and not too long after, Jesus’ own resurrection. So why, then, is Jesus crying? What’s he got to cry about?

As I have let myself feel an assortment of feelings this week, and recalled other times when I have, in my life, lamented, or sat with people who are, I have begun to see that what Jesus does on that day in Bethany when he cries, is make time and space for empathy. In his willingness to cry for the death of Lazarus, Jesus in essence says to Lazarus’ grieving sisters, “Your brother is worth grieving for. You are worth grieving for.” He doesn’t jump to paint a silver lining around it, or say, “Who are you talking to here? I can fix this for you!” Though he does eventually say, “Didn’t I say you would see the glory of God?” he doesn’t go there first. The first thing he does, is lament with them. He weeps. He lets himself feel their pain, and he cries with them.

That can be incredibly healing in times of lament! I can think of times in my life when I have been having a really rough time, and I keep trying to tell myself, “It’s not so bad, Johanna. Get over it. Things could be so much worse.” And then when I complain to someone else, and they say, “Boy, that’s really rough,” I feel relieved! “Yes! Yes, it is rough! Thank you for saying that, and making it okay for me to feel cruddy about it!” In times when this has happened, that mere acknowledgement of my pain always feels like a step toward healing.

I have found this in my interactions with other people, too. In my family growing up, I was often the peacemaker. I was always trying to paint silver linings and make people feel better. As I grew up, I found this was my inclination in my adult interactions, too… often to poor results. When someone expressed a concern to me, I first wanted to say, “Let me break this down with you and show you why this is not something to be concerned about. I think if you just understand, you’ll feel better.” Turns out, that approach seldom works to diffuse conflict or heal hearts. Maybe eventually, yes, but not at first. Because what people want most of all when they’re in pain is to be heard, to know that their feelings are valid, to feel like they are not alone. Once we have taken the time to lament together, to empathize, to sit together in the pain for a little while – only then can healing begin. Only then are we in a place where we see and hear the good news of the resurrection.

When Jesus cries, the bystanders say, “See how he loved him!” I think it would be more accurate to say, “See how he loves us!” Because empathy is an act of love. Lamenting together is an act of love. It puts aside pretense and judgment and policy and even our own fears and baggage, and dwells for a moment in the heart and needs and longings of another. To do that, is to love.

Back at the beginning of John’s Gospel, which we always read at Christmastime, we hear that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” What a beautiful promise – that God would dwell with us, sit with us in our joy and more importantly, in our pain. I know this is good news. I was amazed this past week when our confirmation students gave their presentations of their capstone projects, which end up being a sort of statement of what is important to them about their faith and their relationship with Jesus. I think every last one of them said that what is important to them about their faith is that they know God will be with them through good times and bad, especially bad. These wise teenagers know and have internalized this essential message. They know the importance of someone being present with you in your hour of need, and of acknowledging your pain.

My prayer for them and for all of us, is that we would know not only this abiding, empathetic presence that is willing to sit and cry with us, lament with us… but that we would also know that this ability to lament is the first step toward hope and healing, and ultimately, transformation. That it is right after this that the people Jesus knew, got their first glimpse of resurrection and new life. And that it is right after this, the last of Jesus’ miracles, that he walks his own agonizing path to the cross, and then, into resurrected glory.

The story of our faith is one that moves through the cycles of emotions: from pain and sorrow and lament, to hope and healing and transformation. Over and over again we see this cycle – lament to hope to new life, lament to hope to new life – and every time, we can see that the God who came to dwell among us, also dwells with us, cries with us, laments with us in our pain. And then God wipes our tears and his own, takes our hand, and assures us of what comes next: we see the glory of God. We see new life come about. Maybe, just like the people standing there to whom Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go,” calling them into the work of bringing about new life, we even find a way that we, too, are called to participate in bringing about that new life. We don’t forget about the pain we felt, and neither does God, but we are assured that with Christ that pain and death is never the last thing. Because God is always the last thing, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God always wins.

Let us pray… Abiding God, when we are lost, rejected, suffering and afflicted, we thank you for being with us, crying empathetic tears. Make us aware of your presence, and bring us into the everlasting hope made possible by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Clearing the cluttered path to God (Oct 14, 2018)

Pentecost 21B
October 14, 2018
Mark 10:17-31

INTRODUCTION

Today we hear more difficult words, both from Jesus and from Amos, about what is expected of someone who loves and trusts God and who follows Jesus. In our first reading, Amos takes aim at the economic system of the day, in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the rich trample upon the poor. Amos implores the wealthy ruling class to stop taking advantage of the poor, and instead seek economic justice. He calls for a redistribution of wealth. If they can turn around their ways, he says, maybe God will be merciful to them.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus suggests to a faithful and devoted rich man that he should give away everything he has before following Jesus. Like Amos so many centuries before, Jesus also calls for a redistribution of wealth. But their purposes seem to be different. In Amos, the wealthy were using their power to oppress the poor. He spoke out against unjust behavior. In Mark, Jesus isn’t so much calling out the rich for bad behavior (indeed, the man before him is one who has followed the commandments all his life!). Rather, he is saying, “Your wealth is keeping you from trusting in God, and unless you trust fully in God, you can’t follow me.” So Amos rails against the system, and Jesus talks about more how wealth affects the individual’s life of faith.

Both messages are tough, and both are so contemporary. So, prepare to squirm a little bit! As you listen, consider what in your life keeps you from being able to fully trust in God.

[READ]

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

Have you ever known in your heart that something was true that you really, really, really didn’t want to be true? Like, a decision you have to make that you don’t want to, or a realization that challenges you deeply? Some thing about which you’ve been saying, “No, no, I don’t want to believe that. It can’t be true. Please, tell me it’s not true, so that I can go about my day without my conscience battling me anymore.” Some thing where you are desperate to find something, anything, to tell you the opposite of the inevitable is true?

As I dug into this week’s Gospel, I began to wonder if this is how the rich man felt. He comes running up to Jesus and falls at his feet. He is in a hurry. This question is heavy on his heart, and he’s desperate to get it resolved. He doesn’t do like I might do, and hang out with Jesus for a while, hemming and hawing, until finally saying, “Hey, can I ask you something?” like I’m all casual about it, when really my heart is bursting to know the answer. No, he runs. And he falls. And he blurts out, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Did he already know the answer? After all, he has already been keeping all the commandments since his youth – which is more than I can say for myself, or anyone I’ve ever met! So, he must know there is something else. It must be nagging at him. And given his urgency, I wonder if he knew that something else was something that he would not particularly like to hear, and so he’d put it off too long, but now, he just needed to know the truth.

I’ve been in that kind of anguish – knowing what the right decision is, but not feeling brave enough to follow through with it, and so looking desperately for something, someone, to tell me I don’t have to do what I know I have to do. I can certainly resonate with the rich man in this story.

But Jesus doesn’t give him a pass. He tells him the hard truth, exactly what the man didn’t want to hear: “You’ve gotta get rid of everything,” Jesus says. “You are following commandments, that’s good, but your pathway to God is too cluttered with these things that are falsely promising you satisfaction, convincing you that your things can bring you into joy and life and autonomy and everything you desire. These things can’t, no matter how faithfully you follow the 10 commandments, bring you to that life. You’ve gotta get rid of them.” Jesus goes on, “You have all these things, but you lack one thing. You lack trust – trust in God. You trust in yourself. You trust in your things. You trust in your money. Your things and your money can do a lot – but they cannot bring you to God. They cannot bring you to eternal life.”

The man hears exactly what he feared was true. Mark tells us he is shocked – but is he? Did he really believe Jesus’ answer would be anything other than this? No. His shock comes from the sudden realization that he must accept that which he did not want to believe. And because of that acceptance of a challenging reality, he finds himself also grieving.

Grieving… what? Grieving the possibility of losing his things in which he had put so much of his trust? Or grieving that he doesn’t believe he can do what Jesus asks, and so he shall never inherit the eternal life he craves? Maybe, a bit of both.

I really feel for the rich man. I also feel shocked and grieved by such well-known but still difficult words as, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” and, “It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God!” Over the years, I have tried to soften them for myself, maybe convincing myself that I am last in some things, so I’ll get my reward. Or, I’m not as rich as some other people. Or, Jesus meant this metaphorically, not literally. Or, I can help more people if I have means and am comfortable. Or, I’m doing the very important job of helping my family, my kids, to succeed. Surely Jesus wants me to be able to do that, to provide everything and more for them!

But if I really did take to heart Jesus’ words to the rich man, about giving away all my possessions in order to inherit eternal life, about how it didn’t matter how well I follow the commandments, I will still never get down the path to God as long as all my stuff is cluttering my path… If I really took that to heart, then yeah, I would be grieving, too. Because it is scary to think of giving up the security I find in my money and my things.

Some years ago, I sat next to a beautiful woman about my age on an airplane. She truly seemed to glow, she was so radiant. I noticed she was reading some theology book, so I finally got up the courage to ask her about herself. Turns out, she was on her way to an abbey in Ann Arbor to become a nun! We eagerly engaged in conversation about faith and life and ministry and the particularities of our respective calls. I asked about the process to become a nun. She was genuinely excited about the part where she gets to give away all her possessions and money. She oozed delight at the prospect. She could not wait to be rid of those shackles, to put her trust entirely in God. I will tell you – she is one of the most beautiful and joyful people I have ever met.

Could I be so joyful about that? I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I’m not really prepared to give away all my money and possessions. My guess is most of you aren’t either. So where does that leave us, those of us who, like the rich man, are grieved by the possibility of giving up everything that has provided us security over the years?

Well, maybe we can’t, for whatever reason, give up all of our money and things… but we do have the opportunity, as members of the church and followers of Christ, to give some small portion away each week. Although we don’t typically sign over our whole paycheck to God, the practice of giving to the Church is one way we can do as Jesus tells the rich man, getting rid of some of that stuff that blocks our path to God, and replacing it with utter trust in the one who gives us each day our daily bread. Every gift, every tithe, is an opportunity to say to God, “I trust in you, not myself or my own means. You, O God, are my provider. You give me daily bread. You. I put my trust in you.”

That is what this comes down to, after all. The reason Jesus asks of us such a shocking, astounding, and perplexing practice as giving up everything to follow him, is to show us that as long as these things are in our lives, we will be tempted to put our trust in them, rather than in God. It is a way to remember that in the end, what Martin Luther said on his deathbed was true: “We are beggars, this is true.” We are, each of us, poor. We do not have the resources to save ourselves, fix our own problems, or change the world. Only God does. Giving away our money chips away at our temptation to believe in our own abilities, more than we believe in God’s providence, to believe that we can, by our own efforts, achieve a spiritual life, a godly life, eternal life. News flash: we can’t. We are beggars, this is true, and only God, the provider of all things, our daily bread, can do this for us. When we give a buck here or there, but not so much as to affect our bottom line or even notice it is gone – that is no reminder that our trust and security rest in God. Self-sacrificial giving is what delivers this message to us.

It’s a challenging message. An offensive one, if we’re being honest. One that I know I have a difficult time hearing! So where does it leave us? I find hope and grace in two key phrases in this text. First, that Jesus loved the rich man. Before he asked anything more of the man, Mark tells us that Jesus “loved him.” Not, “judged him,” not, “condemned him,” not, “shook his head in disappointment.” He loved him. And even in our unwillingness to be generous and self-giving, Jesus loves us, too.

Second, Jesus assures us that he knows it is impossible for us. Not everyone is my nun friend on the airplane, joyful about giving away her stuff. Most of us struggle with this. We do find security in our stuff, and our money, and our riches, and it is terrifying to give that up. Yet still: even though it is impossible for us to inherit eternal life by giving up everything, it is not impossible for God. For God, Jesus tells us, all things are possible. Even loving a bunch of sinners like us. Even preparing a place for us in heaven, despite our quickness to trust things and money before God. Even making it possible for us to inherit eternal life – even that is possible for God. And for that, we can give thanks and praise – with our voices, our hearts, our wallets, our resources, with everything we have!

Let us pray… Generous God, you give us all that we could ever need, and we so often respond by trusting those things, rather than the one who gave them to us. Give us glad and generous hearts, willing to relinquish anything that would turn our trust away from you, our giver of daily bread. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: What to do with our daily bread? (Oct 7, 2018)

Pentecost 20B
October 7, 2018
Luke 11:1-4

INTRODUCTION

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled jaunt through Mark’s Gospel to hear a few readings that serve to introduce our stewardship campaign, the theme of which is Daily Bread.

The first is from Genesis, the part of the creation story in which God tells the man and woman he has just created that they will be in charge of taking care of all the plants and trees and animals that God made. Though the text doesn’t use the exact word, what God is telling the man and the woman is not, “Use (and abuse) this stuff however you see fit,” but rather, “You are to be stewards of this creation. Care for it. Till it. Help it to grow and thrive.” All, of course, with the understanding that ultimately, it belongs to God!

For our Gospel reading, it seemed appropriate that today we would hear one of the two texts, one in Luke and one in Matthew, that introduce us to the Lord’s Prayer, that prayer in which we regularly ask God to “give us this day our daily bread.” The Matthew version is a bit closer to what we are familiar with praying, but I chose Luke for reasons I’ll get into in the sermon. As you listen to these familiar texts, and especially to the words of the Lord’s Prayer, think about them in terms of how God is calling us to notice what we have already been given, and giving thanks for how God always provides for us.

[READ]

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

How many of you would say that prayer is a fundamental part of your life of faith? How many would say it is the most fundamental part of your life of faith? Okay, now be honest: how many of you have ever struggled in any way with your prayer life, either not knowing what to pray for, or what words to use, or you couldn’t get into a good pattern, or because you were mad at God and couldn’t bring yourself to talk to him, or any other reason?

I have dealt with all of that! I have multiple times come to my spiritual director and said, “My prayer life isn’t working right now. Can you help me get it to where I want it?” And that is why I’m so grateful for this passage in Luke, in which the disciples witness Jesus off praying by himself, and they bravely and vulnerably come to him asking, “Lord, teach us to pray.” These are my favorite words with which to start a prayer journal, because these words are a constant prayer for me. Teach me to pray, Lord. Help me do this better. I know how important this is, God, so please, teach me to pray!

Jesus’ response is so powerful, that the words he suggests have been used by Christians for the past 2000 years. The Lord’s Prayer is memorized by toddlers, written on our hearts, runs through our veins and resides in our very bones. I remember once when I was struggling to know how to pray, and when I told my husband this, his wise response was, “Pray the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a really good prayer.” What a wonderful sermon! That’ll preach!

But even with such a “really good prayer” as this, the danger of a prayer that we all have had memorized since childhood is that it might start at times to lose its power, as we recite it by rote, and let our minds wander, and don’t really pay attention to the words. So I always welcome ways to engage with the Lord’s Prayer in a different way, to help me think about these words differently, to let them water my weary soul in new ways. And this week, we have just such an opportunity, as we consider this well-worn prayer in the context of stewardship.

When a member of our stewardship committee at St. Martin suggested Daily Bread as a stewardship theme, we were in the midst of the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel – six weeks in a row of Jesus talking about himself as the Bread of Life. While it’s not my favorite preaching series, it is an image of Jesus I can, shall we say, sink my teeth into. Jesus is indeed that which gives us life, which sustains us, which fills up our bellies and our hearts. The question becomes: what do we do about that? Do we accept that reality, say, “Thanks a bunch, Jesus!” and go about our merry way? Well, sometimes. But during the next few weeks, I want us all to take the time to really think about what comes next, after we receive our daily bread. And today, I’d like to use the Lord’s Prayer to do that.

Let’s start by looking at Luther’s explanation of what daily bread is. If you remember studying catechism as a kid, or you read your emailed devotions this week, help me out here: what does Luther say is included in “daily bread”? [wait for answers] He says, “Daily bread includes everything needed for this life, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, fields, cattle, money, goods, God-fearing spouse and children, faithful servants and rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, order, honor, true friends, good neighbors, and the like.” In other words: Everything! Everything we need to sustain and nourish us in this life, both physically and spiritually.

When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” it does two things. It first acknowledges that God can and does provide everything we need to live, to thrive, to be nourished and sustained – including not only the food we eat and our other physical needs, but also the relationships we have that feed our souls, really all those things we hear about in our reading today from Genesis.

Second, praying this prayer helps us to recognize that daily bread when God does provide it, and then to respond in kind. There are several ways we might respond. The first and most important is gratitude. This week, in one of the devotions that was sent out, I suggested keeping a gratitude journal. Did anyone do that, or have you in the past? I did this while I was living in Slovakia as a missionary, and during a really tough and lonely year, it was my lifeline. Every day, I forced myself to recognize God’s providence in my life, to see all the ways that I was being fed and nourished, and on days when I couldn’t do it, I went back and read how God had provided in the past. It kept my eyes up and open that year, kept me looking around for daily bread. Intentional gratitude is an immensely powerful tool, not only for giving life, but for helping us to recognize life when it is right in front of us!

From that gratitude comes another way we respond to God’s gift of daily bread: giving. Someone told me about something Rotary Club does called Happy Dollars. When something good happens in your life – your kid gets a job, you do well on a project, your best friend gets married – you respond by making a financial gift to a worthy cause, or to God through your church. “It’s a feel-good practice,” this person told me. And it is! It’s a natural response, really – just like when we are grateful, we may spontaneously smile, sharing our joy with the world, a financial gift, however much, is a way of sharing with the world our joy and gratitude, that God provides for us our daily bread.

Of course, it also works the other way around. Sometimes we give when we are happy and grateful. Sometimes giving can be something we do to remind ourselves to be grateful, and to help us recognize that daily bread in our lives. This is a reason for regular giving, because when you sit down on a regular basis and write a check (or whatever you do), it is a regular reminder to stop and take note of the ways God has already blessed you with daily bread. This is all the more important to do when we are feeling ungrateful or grumpy! Like writing in a gratitude journal, this is a practice that forces us to recognize our bounty, and to be trusting enough to release it back to the giver. For me, each check I write as an offering is an opportunity to be concretely grateful for the gifts I have been given, even if I am feeling grumpy at the time!

Another response to God’s gift of daily bread that I want to mention pertains especially to the daily bread that feeds our emotional and spiritual hunger, that is, our relationships. I think it is very telling that the very next petition in Jesus’ famous prayer is, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” Forgiveness is hard work, both on the giving and receiving end, but not forgiving or not accepting forgiveness is a surefire way of keeping us from fully receiving the daily bread that God offers us. It is so damaging, even toxic to relationships. It holds us back from the joy God wants for us. In that way, not to forgive is to be a poor steward of God’s gift of relationship with one another. I know, I know, it is so much easier for me to stand here and say that than it is to do the hard work of forgiveness. Yet once we are able to get to that point – to forgive someone, or to accept forgiveness from another person, from ourselves, or from God – it is as if our hearts are cracked open, and ready to receive more robustly the life, love, and grace of God, and then, in turn, to share those things with the world. To give them back. To live them day to day. In other words, to share our daily bread!

Of course, perhaps the best daily bread of all that we receive from God is the bread of God’s grace, which we have the chance to receive physically as actual bread when we come forward for communion. Today, the first Sunday in October, is the day designated as World Communion Sunday, a day when we recognize our relationships with Christians around the world. As we come forward to receive the bread that is Jesus’ body, we will remember that Christians the world over do the same thing. We can also recognize that Christians around the world pray this same Lord’s Prayer, have the same needs we do, and come to God as broken individuals in need of the same grace. How remarkable to recognize that God’s daily bread is certainly given for us, but also given for all the children of God around the world. That, indeed, is something to be grateful for! As we come forward in a moment for communion, I hope you will join me in praying for ourselves, and for Christians the world over, that we would all recognize God’s gift of daily bread, daily grace, daily life, today and every day.

Let us pray… Give us each day our daily bread, O Lord. Thank you for this gift. Thank you for your grace. Help us to recognize that you provide all we need from day to day, and strengthen us to respond in kind. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Clearing out stumbling blocks (Sept. 30, 2018)

Pentecost 19B
September 30, 2018
Mark 9:38-50

INTRODUCTION

In two of our texts this week, Numbers and Mark, we get stories about one group of people judging another because they don’t act or believe the right way. That’s nothing we know anything about, right? Haha, right!

In the first reading, from Numbers, we will hear about the Israelites in the wilderness. They’ve been wandering around for some time by now, and Moses has been the main leader. Finally, he can no longer take their bickering, and cries out to God in desperation, saying, “I can’t take this anymore! Why did you put me in charge of this bunch? What did I do to deserve this?” God suggests a change in leadership structure, to allow leadership to be shared. Promptly, Joshua notices that some guys, who weren’t assigned leadership roles, are trying to lead! Tattle tail, tattle tail, he goes running to Moses, who responds, “Um, why would stop someone who is trying to help? Let them help!”

Our reading from James has some things to add about how we can live peaceably together, and then in Mark, we get a similar story to Numbers: someone is doing the work of Jesus, but not formally following him, and the disciples come tattling and finger-pointing. (Keep in mind, this is directly following the disciples bickering about who was the greatest, which we heard last week! Jesus literally still has that little child on his lap, the one who he told them to welcome.) Just like Moses had done, Jesus puts them in their place, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” then he gives some guidance on how we might refrain from all this nit-picking of one another, and instead focus on our common mission.

Oh friends, it all feels so contemporary! As you listen today, think about the ways you have, even with good intentions, tried to bring others down a notch, or tried to get them to see things your way (that is, of course, the right way), or accused them of something before recognizing the behavior also in yourself. We have all done these things. Let’s listen to how humans have done them all along, and what God has to say about it.

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This has been a pretty hot week for our country, politically speaking, particularly around the confirmation process for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I know some who have been glued to the news, and others who have intentionally avoided it, because it has brought up painful experiences in their own life. The coverage and the resulting conversations have been full of mud-slinging, “what-abouts,” and attacks on individuals and on whole groups of people. Our country was not a beautiful, unified front to begin with, and hasn’t been for a while, but this week it seemed like our divisions were especially deepened and charged.

Now, I am a firm believer that Scripture cannot be honestly read in a vacuum. Because it is the living Word of God, it speaks to us differently based on what is going on in the world around us. Even as it remains steadfast and unchanging, this living Word of God reveals to us different truths, depending on what we are going through. It hits on different parts of our hearts. And so, in light of what is happening in the world around us, the line that hit me especially hard this week was the last one of Jesus’ sermon: Be at peace with one another.

Do you remember what that was like? Or, did that time ever exist in this country? Was there ever a time when people in our country were at peace with one another? Or maybe that line hits you today because of something going on closer to home: for so many families, being at peace with one another is a dream unrecognized, or even one that seems unattainable. And yet, I believe it is something we all want, right? I mean sure, there are some who really thrive on drama, but in the end, to be at peace with one another sounds to me like a pretty good thing.

Turns out, it was an unrecognized ideal for Mark’s community, too. Scholars generally agree that the community for which Mark was writing was dealing with some level of division. We don’t know what about exactly – perhaps it was gnostic versus orthodox views of Jesus, or people who had stayed steadfast in the midst of persecution versus those who had left when the going got tough and now wanted back in. Whatever it was, there were significant divisions. And so Mark includes this little incident from Jesus’ life and teaching as a way of inviting them to use Jesus’ story to reframe how they think about their lives, their commitments, their identity and their understanding of what makes up an authentic Christian community.

Two thousand years later, this story serves the same purpose for us. We, too, live with painful divisions, in our homes, in our country, in our world. We too, need some guidance from our Lord.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t offer the disciples or us any kind, sweet words. That would have been nice, wouldn’t it, because when we are in pain, we just like to be comforted, sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and move on. But in today’s text, Jesus takes a different route: he uses a shock tactic. The disciples come tattling on someone who is not doing things they way they think they should be done, and the harsh language Jesus uses in his rebuke is a really good reason not to read everything in the Bible literally – because if we did, we’d all be trying to stay afloat with millstones around our necks, with eye patches and wrapped stumps instead of hands and feet. These are not the sort of loving words we like to hear from Jesus! Could he possibly have really meant we should resort to self-mutilation when we realize we have sinned?

It is no secret that our president tends to exaggerate. He is so prone to exaggeration, in fact, that shortly after he began his presidency, people started explaining and defending his huge, blustery claims by saying, “Take him seriously, not literally.” The same principle can be applied to Jesus’ words here. Take them seriously, not literally. He uses this extreme language to get our attention, to show us how very seriously we are to take sin, especially sin that would keep ourselves or another from reaching God. Take very seriously the danger of stumbling blocks along this path – so seriously, in fact, that you would go to great lengths to be sure that these stumbling blocks are removed.

In Jesus’ hyperbolic language, removal is straightforward: simply cut it off and throw it into the fire. Drown it in the sea. Discard it. In real life, removing stumbling blocks is not so simple, because the stumbling blocks themselves cannot always be clearly seen. When I had breast cancer, the first step was to determine where exactly the cancer was, so we’d know what, exactly, needed to be removed. So it is with sin and stumbling blocks: the first step for removal, is to determine what is blocking your path to a life-giving relationship with God and with God’s people.

So, what sorts of things could be stumbling blocks for us? Think for a minute… Could it be your pride? Your insistence that you are right on an issue and anyone who doesn’t believe that must be ignorant or blind? … Could it be your temper, how quick you are to jump to judge and attack, rather than reflect and respond thoughtfully? … Could it be your envy, jealousy, or insecurity, and a desire to tear down another so you don’t feel so bad about yourself? … Could it be that thing that you just can’t bring yourself to forgive, because holding onto it gives you a sense of power and control over the offender? … Could it be an addiction, a place you go when you feel lonely or self-loathing so you can self-medicate, rather than finding your strength in God? … You see there are so many stumbling blocks in our lives. I can check several of those boxes myself, and many more that I didn’t mention. There are so many things, you see, that get in the way of the path I want to be walking, the path that leads to Christ, the path that leads to life.

Once we can recognize what those stumbling blocks are, we can hear Jesus’ harsh words more like redemptive ones: cut it off. Get rid of the stumbling block by whatever means necessary. Stop nursing the grudge. Cut off that relationship that is draining the life out of you. Reconsider that point of view that has kept you safe all these years, but is tearing down other beloved children of God. Change that unhealthy lifestyle. Kick the addiction.

Of course, life-giving as those choices may ultimately be, none of them is easy. In fact, they might even feel like what Jesus describes: like losing a limb, or like drowning, or even like death. In a way, it is – anytime you say goodbye to something that, unhealthy though it may be, has held a prominent place in your life, it requires a sometimes painful adjustment. As one commentator writes, “Jesus knows what he is talking about; it hurts to change! It hurts to cut off the precious, familiar things we cling to for dear life—even as those things slowly kill us. The bottle. The affair. The obsession with money. The decades-old shame. The resentment, the victimhood, the self-hatred, the rigidity.”

But, once we do cut those things off… there is where new life begins. There is where the pathway to God gets a little less rocky. There is where we can live into that final line of Jesus’ sermon: live peaceably with one another, experiencing the hope and love and grace of God not in some heaven some time and distance away, but right here, right now. Because that, my friends, is how God works: death must happen in order for us to get to new and abundant life in Christ. It may well hurt along the way. Jesus knows that! But the reward – whether a cup of cold water, or peace on earth, or life everlasting – is worth it.

I wonder what would happen in our country if we could follow Jesus’ advice: if citizens and elected and appointed leaders cut off the greed, and power, and pride, and the need to be right, and paid more attention to that little child that Jesus picked up last week, that he is still holding on his lap? That is, what if we put aside our stumbling blocks, and instead paid more attention to the least, the vulnerable, the abused, the victims of injustice, the weak, the wounded… and lifted them up, and heard their stories, and sought to be the light of Christ to them? We might just find that living peaceably with one another wasn’t some far-off dream after all. We might find that we would all be just a bit closer to the new life that is promised through Christ our Lord.

Let us pray… God of peace, you show us the way to life, but the way is rough and difficult. In your grace and mercy, help us to remove the stumbling blocks along the way, so that we might, with all your children, live peaceably with one another. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.