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.

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.

Sermon: Doing what looks like Jesus (July 1, 2018)

Pentecost 6B
July 1, 2018
Mark 5:21-43

INTRODUCTION

Today’s Gospel story uses a very famous technique Mark loved to employ, affectionately called the “Markan Sandwhich.” In short, he sandwiches two stories together, starting one, moving over to another, and then back to the first. Part of his purpose in doing this is to signal to his readers: these stories are to be read and interpreted together. They are richer and tastier when taken at once, in one bite, as it were.

So, it is useful to notice what these two stories – the healing of the hemorrhaging woman and the healing of Jairus’s daughter – have in common, and how they are different, and consider what those similarities and differences might mean for our interpretation.

I’m going to tell you a few of them up front, as well as give you some context for the scene. Jesus has just returned from sailing across the Sea of Galilee and back. Last week we talked about how often Jesus does ministry on the way, and on the borders and margins, and today continues that pattern. As he is going to heal the daughter of someone very important, he is secretly approached and touched by someone very much on the fridge: a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. (There’s the first difference: someone of means and importance, versus a nameless woman on the fringe of society.) According to Jewish law, while a woman is menstruating, she is unclean, and so is everyone who touches her, so she was to stay secluded. That’s manageable a few days each month, but for this woman, she has had to stay apart from society for 12 full years, as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive: she could not interact with other people, she could not be married or have children, she was a complete social outcast. She and Jairus’s daughter have very different lives.

But although Jairus and his daughter, and the hemorrhaging woman, could not be more different socially, they do share something very important: they are both absolutely desperate for Jesus’ help. Both crave healing. And both come to him in utter faith that he can do something about their troubles.

Our first reading and the Psalm will set up for us what it is like to desperately seek God’s help, and to find hope in the Lord. The Gospel will show us concrete examples of that faith and hope in action. Let’s listen.

[READ]

Jesus has not had a break. From teaching, to stilling a storm on the sea, to casting out a legion of demons over in the land of the Gerasenes, back across the sea, and now he has barely landed before Jairus comes to him in desperate need. His daughter is sick, to the point of death, and Jairus has faith that this miracle worker, Jesus, can do something about it. He is also confident that Jesus will – after all, Jairus is a very important person, a leader in the synagogue, and one of the privileges of holding such a position is that people respond to your needs. And he’s right – Jesus immediately follows him to go heal the girl.

In the crowd, a woman watches. She is hiding – no one must see her, because it is against the law for her to be out, especially in such a large crowd. But she is at a point where she has no other option. For 12 years she has tried, in good faith, to be healed, to find a life worth living. Yet each doctor she has seen has taken her money, but only made things worse. She has no one to support her, she is in financial trouble, with no hope on the horizon. She is weak, for life has been draining for her for too many years. Indeed, she fears for her very life, what life she has, anyway. For her, there is no other option than to risk this act of civil disobedience, and approach the man she hoped could offer her an escape from this life. “If I can but touch the edge of his clothes,” she thought, “I will be made well.”

Jesus is quickly making his way with Jairus and the disciples. She takes a deep breath, and pushes her way through the crowd. She reaches out to touch his garment, and just as soon as she does it is as if she has surfaced from the waters that were drowning her. She feels power enter her like she hasn’t felt in over a decade. She gasps for air, for what seems like the first time in years, and knows that a new life is indeed hers.

But then Jesus turns around. “Who touched me?” he asks. What will she do? She could just slip away, and no one would have to know it was her. There were many people touching him, so he couldn’t know that it was her! Yet something about his sincerity and compassion compels her, in fear and trembling, to approach him, fall to his feet, and tell her whole story – the years of living in fear, the loss of any hope of having children, the doctors who had only hurt her, the family members from whom she had been necessarily separated, and yes, this, her act of civil disobedience in coming out into a crowd to find healing from Jesus. Telling her story is terrifying, but it is also liberating, and that act itself makes her feel not only life, but freedom. Jesus is listening to her with such compassion, she can do nothing but share everything on her heart, all the pain and sorrow and fear, to lay it squarely on him.

The woman can see the disciples, and especially Jairus, getting antsy to move on – Jesus is taking so much time to listen to her, an outsider, a nobody, when someone important is in need, someone who would never have to break the law in search of help! – but she cannot stop pouring her heart out to Jesus, and Jesus never seems rushed. Finally, as she utters the final words of her story, she looks to him, with tears streaming down her face, and he looks at her kindly. He says to her one word: “Daughter.” She gasps a sob: hearing this word, this word of belonging and restoration to her community – this word heals her ills in a way she could not have predicted. He goes on, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole again. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” And even as he utters the words, she knows that they are true.

As she basks in her newfound wholeness, someone arrives to tell Jairus that it is too late – his daughter is already dead. With a glint in his eye, Jesus responds to the news saying, “Do not fear. Only believe.” Do not fear. Huh! Jairus can scarcely accept this – his daughter is dead! – yet something about how Jesus says it does make him believe. They hurry to his home, where indeed the girl has wasted away to skin and bones, and appears lifeless. Jesus suggests she is only sleeping, and the sound of laughter is like breaking glass in Jairus’s ears. Still, he clings to faith, against all evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is right. Jesus goes right up to the girl, reaches out and takes her hand. It is so tender; he truly cares for this girl, even though she is just a child, and just on the verge of being a woman. Yet he cares for her.

Gently, Jesus says to the girl, “Little girl, get up.” To the amazement of everyone there – even Jairus whose faith has not wavered! – the girl gets right up and starts walking around. Jesus tells them to get her something to eat. She, too, is filled with new hope, new strength, new life.

~         ~         ~

Just before these two healing stories, Jesus told a few parables saying, “The kingdom of God is like this.” He doesn’t say that here, but it does seem to be implied, that here are two stories that show us not only what Jesus is like, but what Jesus’ followers are like when they are truly his followers, doing his work, living in his Spirit. I came across a quote this week by Presiding Bishop or the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, who has been in the news lately for the moving sermon he preached at the royal wedding a few weeks back. He describes very directly how we can know what Jesus would have us do – as we interact with our neighbors, as we prepare to cast a vote, as we watch the news and discern how we might be a part of making this broken world into something that looks a little more like God’s kingdom. He says, “If it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed to be Christian.”

Well, here we have two stories that show us what Jesus of Nazareth looks like, what love looks like:

Christian love looks like hearing the cry and pleas of a desperate father, and responding by doing what is necessary to make sure he does not lose his child.

Christian love looks like visiting a sick child, taking her limp hand in ours, and offering words of life.

Christian love looks like not being in too much of a hurry to stop and truly listen to the whole story of a woman in despair, who has done everything she can think of and spent everything she had in order to find a better life. It looks like not judging her, even for breaking a law in order to find that new life, but rather, offering her compassion.

Christian love looks like risking defilement in order to touch the bloody and broken, knowing that touch is what brings healing.

Christian love looks like insisting on and making space for the whole truth, no matter how falteringly told or how long it takes, and it looks like listening to that truth not with the intention to refute it, but rather, to hear it, with thoughtful compassion.

Christian love looks like bringing life to places where death threatens to win, bringing hope into despair.

Christian love looks like seeing the outsider, the outcast, as a member of your own family, your own clan, and bidding them peace.

As baptized Christians, this is our calling. It is not an easy one. Insults are easier than empathy. Avoiding the news is easier than learning all about what is going on. Talking only to people we agree with is safer than trying to understand other perspectives. Ignoring those in need, or dismissing them, or rationalizing why we shouldn’t help them, in favor of getting to whatever important tasks we have before us is more efficient.

But if it doesn’t look like love, if it doesn’t look like Jesus of Nazareth, it cannot be claimed as Christian. I don’t know about you, but I want to look like a Christian! Right? Let us strive, sisters and brothers, always to take not the easier road, nor even the road that feels better in the moment, but the road that is loving, that is of Christ. Let us seek not self-preservation, but compassion and tenderness, time and a heart to listen, and words of life for those in desperate need. Let us always ask ourselves, “If Jesus weighed in on this situation, what would he suggest we do?” And then, let’s do that.

Let us pray… Healing God, make us compassionate enough to hear your people’s cries, courageous enough to share our whole story and listen to others’, and faithful enough to believe you can heal our every ill. Help us to move and grow, as individuals, as a congregation, as a country, and as a world, toward seeking always to do what looks like love, what looks like Jesus of Nazareth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Jesus is on the border (June 24, 2018)

Pentecost 5B
June 24, 2018
Mark 4:35-41

INTRODUCTION

In our readings today we’ll find a lot of storm and water imagery, always emphasizing that God is in command even of the storms. If you remember the beginning of Genesis, you may remember that at the very beginning of creation, when the universe was formless and chaotic, God made sense of the chaos. Throughout the Bible, the sea serves as a metaphor for chaos, and so it is remarkable to see God continues to have command of it – first in Job, as God reminds the suffering Job that God has been in charge from the beginning, then in the Psalm, and finally in the story of Jesus stilling the storm.

But there is even more to notice in Mark’s story. Today we see one of Mark’s themes: the fact that Jesus is always crossing boundaries to get to those on the other side, the outsiders, and furthermore, that Jesus’ ministry is often focused not on one side or the other, but on the edges, in that liminal space in-between. In the case of today’s story, that in-between place is the sea they are crossing. But we will keep seeing this: once they get to the other side, they’ll encounter a man possessed by many demons, who has been chained up on the outside of town. On the edge. When he returns to Galilee, in the story we’ll hear next week, Jesus is going to heal a young girl, and on the way there, he heals another woman whose ailment has placed her on the fringe of society. See, ministry on the edge, and on the way.

So as you listen to these readings, remember that the sea is often a metaphor for chaos to be overcome, and as you see Jesus minister in the in-between, consider how God has come to you during those in-between times, and been present for you in whatever chaos you may face in your life.

[READ]

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

Like perhaps many of you, I have been consumed this week by what is going on right now on our southern border. In case you haven’t been glued to the news, here’s what’s happening: a new “zero tolerance” policy is in place that prosecutes all illegal crossings criminally, where previously an illegal crossing, at least the first offense, was only a misdemeanor, equivalent to a traffic ticket, or littering. Some sources have reported that though people have tried to come through legal entry points, many of those ports are closed, causing people to sit outside in the 100+ degree sun for days on end. So many take matters into their own hands and come across on a raft, then turn themselves in as asylum seekers, but then because of the zero tolerance policy they are arrested and prosecuted as criminals. Because adults are being criminally prosecuted, they are going to jail immediately, leaving any children, ranging in age from nursing infants and toddlers, up to teenagers, to be designated as “unaccompanied minors.” These 2500 or so kids who have been taken from their parents, sometimes forcibly, are being held in converted warehouses, contained by fencing. The trauma and possibly irreparable damage this separation from their parents has done to these young children is apparent in the cries, the behavior, and some other particularly devastating consequences we have seen.

The situation led to a national outcry, including from faith leaders from Franklin Graham to the Southern Baptist Convention to the Pope to essentially every mainline Protestant denomination, saying, “Scripture tells us over 100 times that we are to welcome the stranger and care for the weak!” and, “Jesus says we will be judged on how we treat the least of these!” They are right to say so – the biblical mandate is very clear that we are to love and care for the stranger and immigrant. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in, as to the damage this could do to young brains. President Trump responded to the outcry, and signed an executive order this week to stop this practice, but it is not yet clear how families will be reunited, nor is there enough personnel to do the necessary processing to be sure kids aren’t being trafficked, that the adults who claim them are in fact their real parents, whether asylum claims are real or fabricated, etc. They’re having trouble even finding which parents go with each kid. No matter your opinion on immigration policy, the fact is: this is a mess. It is devastating to see and to hear.

All of this has been very much on my heart and mind as I have studied this well-loved story about Jesus stilling the storm. I find myself praying that Jesus would shout out his peace and calm on the whole situation, and that this would lead to a solution. Another prayer my heart has cried out is, “Lord, don’t you care that they are perishing?” I imagine how empty the words, “Why are you afraid?” would fall on the ears of those children, who have probably never felt more afraid, alone and helpless. I feel guilty that, like the disciples, I feel like my faith is faltering, like I am losing an ability to trust God in the midst of this debate that has gone on for decades and seems to have no end in sight. I resonate with Jesus who is trying to get some rest in the stern of the boat, but can’t because a storm arises and people need help, because I, too, am tired from all the pain and need in the world. There is much in this story to resonate with – in light of this dark storm in our land, certainly, as well as in light of whatever storms we might be facing in our personal lives.

But as I grappled and prayed over this text this week in light of all this, I noticed something important: this impressive miracle, stilling the storm, doesn’t happen while Jesus and his disciples are here or there, home or the other side. It happens in-between. It happens in that liminal place, in the transition. And like I said before, this is a theme in Mark, that Jesus repeatedly does his ministry in the liminal places, the in-between, the times of life that are on the edges. Jesus ministers in the times and with the people who are physically, socially, or politically on the margins of life or society. On the border is always where we will find Jesus.

Waiting in a detention center is a liminal place if ever there was one. Memories of the past, and especially if one doesn’t speak English, uncertainty about the future abounds – will I be deported? Where are my children and when will I get them back? Are they safe? Is anyone even looking at my case? Will I be able to find my family who is already here? It is a liminal, in-between time in every possible way.

And, while that situation is heavy on the hearts of the nation right now, we all deal also with our own liminal, in-between times. Think for a moment about a time when you were between things, in the midst of a transition (could even be right now!). Maybe you lost a job and were looking for a new one, or you sat for days by a loved one’s bed as you waited for death to take them, or you were at the end of a pregnancy and waiting for labor to come, or you were in labor, or you had been diagnosed with a serious illness but didn’t know yet what treatment would look like. Remember how that felt. What are some of the feelings you remember from that liminal space? [wait]

When Jesus went out on the boat with his disciples that evening, he was exhausted. He had been teaching all day, and he was I’m sure looking forward to catching some shut-eye on the trip over. And yet, as often happened on the Sea of Galilee, especially at night, a storm kicked up. And how, do you think, did the disciples feel? Anxious… fearful… doubtful… untrusting… All things I have felt when I find myself in a liminal place. As soon as we are in-between, because of all those feelings that state brings up, it suddenly becomes all the more important – yet all the more difficult – to trust.

That is precisely why Jesus shows us, again and again, that ours is a God who shows up in those places. “Don’t you care that we are perishing??” the disciples call out to him. It’s a shout my own heart has uttered many times before. It usually comes out in the form of those elusive “why” questions: “Why are you letting this happen? Why did you take my loved one away? Why did you saddle me with this ailment? Why did you lead me here? Don’t you care that I am perishing?”

And Jesus comes out, stills the storm, and turns to me and says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Anyone else ever feel like Jesus is always saying this to them? And I really do imagine him saying it that way: “Johanna, really? Come on, why are you afraid? Where’s your faith? Haven’t I always been there with you before? Hasn’t it always become clear? Don’t fret. Trust.” And because God’s word is always accomplished, a peace comes upon my heart. Maybe not right away – you notice even the disciples remained stunned and confused, even after he stilled the storm – but eventually that peace does come.

I don’t know what Jesus is going to do for the thousands of people in the liminal place of our southern border. But I do believe Jesus is there – I see him in the work of those working as advocates, providing care, seeking compassion and neighbor-love, and asking those in power for something to be done to fix this. I believe Jesus is there, because Jesus is always there, on the borders and margins, in the transitions, in those times when we are in the dark, stormy, and unknown places that so often fall between the knowns. Jesus cares deeply for those who are on the margins of life – that is why he is always making a point of going there.

And in case there was any doubt, Jesus finally goes to that place in the most profound way – hanging on a cross just outside of Jerusalem, on the city’s margin, lingering between life and death before finally giving in to death… only to overcome that liminal place by rising once again into life. Ours is a God who can always overcome the liminal, who enters into the stormy transitions of life to say, “Peace, be still,” and remind us that he is trustworthy. When God enters our liminal places, we can be sure that, once we get to the other side, we will find life.

Let us pray… God of the margins, it is difficult not to doubt and be afraid when we encounter the liminal transition times of life. Thank you that you are there. Open our eyes to see you, and prepare our hearts to trust you, that we would see the life to which you lead us. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Living in God’s loving and welcoming kingdom (June 17, 2018)

Pentecost 4B
June 17, 2018
Mark 4:26-34

INTRODUCTION

Last week we talked about how Mark’s Gospel is apocalyptic – it shows us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers, but rather, that the power of God will ultimately dominate over everything. We talked about how that word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to pull back the current reality to reveal to us a different way that is of God, a way that Jesus will today call “the kingdom of God.” For Mark, this applies especially to his readers’ reality that Roman domination seems to be winning, but Jesus is saying, “No, they are not the winners. God’s kingdom will ultimately win.”

In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus describes what that kingdom will look like, and he uses parables to do it. Anyone know what a parable is? It’s more than a story with a lesson, more than an analogy or allegory. It’s a story that places side-by-side two unrelated things to challenge our expectations and make us think more deeply about things we thought we knew. As one preacher writes, “Because [parables] call into question accepted ‘truths,’ they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.” So our first reading today presents an image of God’s kingdom that makes sense to us – majestic cedar trees – but the parables Jesus tells liken the kingdom of God to an ordinary seed with an ordinary crop, which we would not expect.

I also want to say a little something about that phrase, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom sounds like a place, right? In fact, what place do you usually think of? [Heaven.] But the Greek word there is more dynamic. It refers to something active, more like a reign or rule, not a static place. So, the kingdom of God is not a location, but a reality, in which God is the ruler, rather than earthly powers. And so, when we act as God would have us do, and treat people with the love of God, we are living in God’s reign or rule. Lutherans like to talk about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” – it hasn’t fully come to be (we know this because of how much pain still exists in the world), but already we can see glimpses of it, when we see people living according to God’s rule. As we will see in our parables, this reign is not something we can bring about nor prevent, but we can participate in it, live in that “already,” and in that participation, we just might make God’s reign more visible. Let’s see what we can learn.

[READ]

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

Well, I’ll go ahead and say it: the parable of the growing seed is pretty boring. I mean look at it: “A sower plants a seed, does nothing, and it grows. Then he harvests it.” What could possibly be more ordinary? What could something so mundane possibly have to reveal to us about the mysterious and longed for kingdom of God?

And then he follows it with this mustard seed parable, which is again, kind of boring. Mustard bushes are not the majestic cedars of Lebanon. They are ordinary, and they are invasive, by no means unique. They are useful, yes, with many medicinal qualities, but they are not very interesting. Another mundane parable.

Of course, this is the beauty of Jesus’ parables. He takes entirely ordinary things, things we can understand because we have experience with them, and uses them to point us toward the incredible work of God, showing us the power that even mundane things have to reveal God to us.

So what are these ordinary things showing us about living as citizens in the kingdom of God? How is the living Word of God speaking to this time and place through this parable? And, an important question for Mark, how might the earthly kingdom in which we live (the one Mark is trying to apocalyptically pull away) look different from the reign of God (the new kind of reality that we find)?

Let’s start with that last question, by considering Mark’s context. The earthly kingdom in which they were living was one of oppression and persecution, in which fear and despair was their daily diet, in which Rome was the dominant power, and they abused that power. And so into that context, Jesus says to them, “I know you long for something different, for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom to tear down all that causes your anguish. But the kingdom of God isn’t like a military power, come to overthrow. No, the kingdom of God is like this: like a seed that is planted and grows quietly, even without you realizing. It is growing in just the way God intended for it to grow, and nothing you do can make it grow any faster, nor any slower. But it is growing, trust me! And one day it will sprout – you’ll see just the tips of green come up from the dirt. You’ll see life there that wasn’t there the day before. It will keep growing, bigger and stronger. And this seed, that little seed that you didn’t even see growing all that time, suddenly it will bear fruit! And then you will know that it is time for the harvest, the time when all of God’s plans will become clear to you.”

What a word of hope that is! In Mark’s time, people were anxious for such a word of hope, that God’s kingdom could persist even through the abusive power and oppression they were witnessing. They needed to hear that God’s kingdom could not be stifled by human nature or error, nor could it be hastened, but rather, that it would come in the way and time that God chooses. They needed to hear that trusting God would not be in vain.

But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. He goes on then to describe what that kingdom, that different kind of rule is like: “Do you want to know more about the nature of the kingdom of God?” he asks. “Here’s how I would describe it. It’s like a mustard seed. Yeah, that tiny little seed that seems like nothing compared to all the trials and tribulations of this world. Yet, it grows and grows and becomes a great big shrub. I know, I know, the mustard bush may not be the most impressive bush to look at, but look at what it has to offer: healing! And beyond that, shelter and safety for the animals. Yes, even the birds, who I know can be pests – they will be welcomed into the big branches of the kingdom of God. They will be safe there from the dangers of the world. They will raise their families there, and make a home in that kingdom. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, you see – it is a place that offers love, care, and welcome even for those creatures you may not think you want around. Perhaps most importantly – it cannot be stopped. My friends, the kingdom of God, this place of love and welcome, cannot be tamed. It can and will spread, and take over everything, welcoming the birds into its branches, and living under a rule of neighbor love. Rome cannot and will not do that for you. But, that tenacity and care is what you can expect from the kingdom of God.”

What an important and life-giving understanding of this parable, for their time and for ours. It offers us hope, and a lifeline out of despair, when we find ourselves living in a world in which governments disregard God’s rule of love, turn away from people in need, cause trauma rather than seek healing, and do all of this by falsely using God’s word to support it. The seed growing in secret promises that our faults and mistakes and ignorance cannot stop the kingdom of God from coming about – it will come regardless, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is. The mustard seed tells us that God cannot be beat, that God’s kingdom will always win over any human efforts to overpower it.

And while this doesn’t give us a particular job to do – planting seeds or whatever – it does inspire us to become a part of it. That is where faith comes in. We aspire to be a part of this growing kingdom, not because we must in order to be saved, but rather, because we already are, because we are so filled with faith and trust in God that we can’t NOT become a part of it. Participating in God’s kingdom springs out of our faith; it is a reflection of our true faith. Our faith in God’s promises compels us to be God’s actors and workers in this world, sharing the good news of God’s love by reaching out to the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, listening to the voices of those on the margins and borders, seeking healing for all the various forms of brokenness in this world, or even standing up against those worldly kingdoms that would try to stifle God’s work, and rule by anything other than love of neighbor.

When we do those things, we are already living in God’s kingdom, even as we still long for it to come to completion.

These kingdom parables show us that the death we experience in this world does not win. God always wins. Love and grace and justice always win. Trust in God… and then, compelled by faith, let’s make like a mustard bush, and get out there to spread this kingdom.

Let us pray… Resilient, invasive, and loving God, thank you that your kingdom comes no matter what we do or don’t do. Inspire us by your promises, that we would be compelled to actively participate in your kingdom, on earth as in heaven, by loving and caring for our neighbor as we would do for Christ himself. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: Detectives in the apocalypse (June 10, 2018)

Pentecost 3B
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35

INTRODUCTION

Last week when we began working through Mark, I talked about how Mark’s Gospel is a little rough around the edges because Mark is in such a great hurry to get this story out. This week I want to expand a bit on that. Part of his rush was that the world was in turmoil. Mark was writing right as the Great Revolt was coming to a close – the Jewish people had revolted against the oppressive Roman Empire. This Revolt culminated with the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple, which is right when Mark is writing. Because of his particular context, Mark has a very apocalyptic feel to it.

Now, usually when we say “apocalypse,” we think, “end of the world,” or “final judgment.” But the original meaning of that word, apocalypse, was, a big hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers: the message is, when empires fall and tyrants fade, God is still around. The word actually means a sort of pulling away of the known, to reveal what’s underneath.

And so when I say Mark is apocalyptic, I mean that Mark shows us how Jesus is pulling back the reality of the empires and oppressive systems in which we find ourselves, and showing us what is underneath, showing us that there is another way. For the first century Christians, this was good news, to hear that the bad guys wouldn’t win, that the terrifying situation in which they found themselves was not the final word. But for the powers that be, it was not such good news – and that is why they push against Jesus’ message, dismissing it and undermining it however they can.

In our first story today, we will hear about how from the beginning of time, people have been quick to point fingers and cast blame elsewhere, and about how this behavior damages even our most important relationships. In our Gospel reading, we will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare pull back what we have know to reveal something different. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by this that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. Let’s see how these stories can guide our lives of faith.

[READ]

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

From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided.

It’s no wonder division has been a mark of human society from society’s very inception.

I have always loved this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I just see so much of my own experience in this story. Because don’t we all want to be safe? Physically safe, sure, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t want to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. And so we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.

The behavior is very obvious in the Adam and Eve story. But it’s pretty clear in our story from Mark, too. Jesus has been pretty busy, healing a lot of people, casting out demons, and most recently, appointing his twelve disciples. Now they are back to business, having headed to Jesus’ hometown. And people are watching. And they are getting nervous, because what Jesus is saying and doing these days is an affront to the powers that be, and does not jibe with their understanding of God. As I said in the introduction, Jesus’ message is an apocalyptic one, pulling back the cover and revealing the truth about how Roman rule is not ultimate rule, and that in fact God’s power is not revealed in domination, but rather in reaching out to and serving those on the fringes of society. They had expected the Messiah to be a military power, to overthrow the government by force, but here is this carpenter, reaching out to the fringes!

In response to this counter-cultural message, what do the religious authorities do? Do they thank him very much for directing their attention back to the God they love? No… Do they say, “Tell us more about that. It’s intriguing, and we realize we might be missing something in our understanding of the world.” No…. They do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever you need to do in order to protect your understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged.

Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.

And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We choose what does not bring life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, and clinging to false truths. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.

I keep going back to Mark as apocalyptic, about how Jesus’ ways and words pull back what we thought was true, and, if we are humble enough to see it, reveal to us a different way that is of God. What is that different way?

Our keynote speaker last week at Synod Assembly was Ruben Duran, who works out of the Churchwide office with new congregations throughout the ELCA. In his address, he talked about being “detectives of divinity” – willing to really look for God not only in our congregation, but out in the public arena. Sometimes this is pretty easy – whenever we see good happening, we assume God must be there! Where being detectives of divinity gets a lot harder is in those Adam and Eve moments, those Mark moments, when we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that everything we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right, and we are immediately inclined to blame, point fingers, name-call, discredit, dismiss, and continue to hold onto whatever view it is that makes us feel safe.

These are very human defense mechanisms. They are “safe.” But they are not life. And that, in the end, is what our faith is based on: it is a story that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which the government put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would silence this opposing and resistant power, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death. We can’t stop it!

So yes, recognizing we are wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something we held dear. It is a death I have experienced many times in my life! But what if instead of leaning into the death by jumping to the human tendencies to blame, discredit, and dismiss, what if we looked rather to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God pulling back to reveal to me in this? What belief of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to emerge here?”

If we did this, I wonder what would happen to our relationships with those from whom we feel divided? Because Jesus is right – a house divided cannot stand. Neither can a church divided, or a country divided, or a family divided. The breach must be healed. So let us seek to be “detectives of divinity,” brothers and sisters, finding God in one another. Let us, when we feel challenged, seek to find how God is working there, not to shame us, but to bring about new life. If we did that, we might find we are able to overcome division. We might even find ourselves to be a new sort of family, united by our shared desire to do the will of God

I think I’m willing to take the risk – even if someone thinks I’m out of my mind for it! Are you willing to take that risk with me?

Let us pray… Uniting God, we are prone to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to be detectives of divinity, always searching for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.