Sermons: 06/09/19 through 10/06/19
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
17th Sunday after Pentecost - October 6, 2019 (Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
The disciples in today’s Gospel say to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”
Increase our faith. Or increase my faith – which is what my friend and his youth pastor wanted me to say after they had assessed my own faith. What they wanted me to say at the end of our conversation was: “Increase my faith. I need more faith!”
It was during the summer after my sophomore year of high school that my friend, his youth pastor, and I were sitting in a McDonald’s near my house. We were supposed to be having a Bible study. But instead of reading and discussing the Bible, they were discussing me.
How often did I pray? Was my faith ever “lukewarm”? Did I ever have doubts? “Yes and yes,” I admitted. I thought I could trust them with the honest truth. My faith in God was lukewarm at times; I sometimes had my doubts; and I wanted to pray more, but didn’t. I thought I could trust my friend and his youth pastor with the honest truth about my faith. But it turns out I couldn’t.
What came next was a question that the youth pastor posed to me while my friend looked away. It was as though he knew what was coming and couldn’t bear to watch: “If there was a bus going by that swerved off the road and crashed into this McDonald’s, killing you,” I was asked, “would you have enough faith to get into heaven?” It was a set up, I realized, and I had played right into their hand. Rather than wait to hear more, however, I left and walked home. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any swerving buses along the way.
Looking back, I realize in response to my confession of sin, there had been no word of forgiveness. Only the demand that I have more faith… And the insistence on the part of my friend and his church that they could help me “increase my faith”…
But the thing was they no longer had my faith, my trust. And I didn’t trust the God they were presenting to me anyway.
You see, faith is more of a relationship, a relationship of trust. It is not a thing we can control in order to increase and have more of. Faith just doesn’t work that way…
Honestly I think Jesus’ response in today’s Gospel would have disappointed my friend and his youth pastor. They would have been all in favor of the disciples asking Jesus to increase their faith, but they would not have liked Jesus’ reply about faith the size of a mustard seed, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…”
A mustard seed, or any seed for that matter, is not something that we can control. To plant a seed requires trust. We place our trust in the soil, the rain, the sunlight, and the weather – in everything that God has created – to help the seed grow. We can plant and water and enrich the soil, but we can’t guarantee that the seed will grow into a plant or a tree and bear fruit. We only hope and trust that it will grow.
That’s more of what faith is like: planting a seed and trusting that it will grow – trusting that God will make the seed grow – come what may.
So you see, this relationship of trust in God that we call faith actually says more about God than it does about us: that God will continue to be faithful to us, even when we are not faithful to him – that God will continue to be trustworthy to us, even when we ourselves can’t do anything to make our tiny faith the size of a mustard seed grow.
This relationship with God we call faith can even withstand the intense heat and dryness of the desert. We see this is in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk trusts God enough to complain to God about the violence and injustices of the world that he sees. “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” the prophet laments. He continues complaining to God: “Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous – therefore judgment comes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:1-4 NRSV). Here ends the prophet’s complaint.
Habakkuk, though, is not giving up on God. He isn’t giving up on God because ultimately he trusts that God hasn’t given up on him. Neither is the prophet giving up on God’s purposes for the world. Despite everything going wrong in the world suggesting that God won’t listen or help, the prophet nevertheless declares: “I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what [the LORD] will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint” (Habakkuk 2:1 NRSV).
Habakkuk will watch and wait for God. And the Lord does eventually respond to the prophet. God tells Habakkuk that he will provide a vision, a message, for the people. And God declares to the prophet that the righteous live by their faith – that to live rightly with God is to trust God – even when life is far from perfect.
It is then that the mustard seed morsel of faith grows in us. And by the faith that God grows in us, we say and do things that we once thought were impossible. As Jesus declares, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6 NRSV). Now I would have thought that was impossible. But God does the impossible in us. Our trust in God grows and blooms because God enables it to grow and bloom.
Like what we see with the Apostle Paul in today’s second reading, God enables our trust in him to grow and bloom into an active faith… Even though Paul suffered and was imprisoned for being an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul is not ashamed of Christ or his gospel. In fact, Paul writes to his beloved child Timothy, “Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:8-9 NRSV).
The mustard seed of faith doesn’t die when Paul is imprisoned and suffers for Christ. Rather, the Holy Spirit enables Paul’s trust in God to grow under very difficult circumstances. Like the prophet Habakkuk before him, when Paul suffers and lacks all power and control to increase his own faith, God remains faithful and trustworthy. God grows that mustard seed morsel of faith within Paul. And we see in Paul’s words to Timothy that faith is active in love.
Because of the faith God has grown in Paul, we see Paul’s love for Timothy whom he calls his beloved son. We hear Paul’s invitation to Timothy, born of Paul’s faith in Christ and his love for his brother: “…join with me in suffering for the gospel,” Paul says, “relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
That goes for Timothy and for all of us. As the mustard seed morsel of faith grows in us all, we “rely on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.”
Rather than relying on ourselves to “increase our faith,” we trust God to grow the seed within us.
That’s what I needed to hear rather than the threat of a bus plowing into McDonald’s, and taking me with it.
In the end, at least God is more faithful and trustworthy than we are - Amen.
15th Sunday after Pentecost - September 22, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
Today I am going to offer a modern retelling of the story Jesus tells about the dishonest manager in today’s Gospel…
Imagine that you own a boat. A pontoon, houseboat, speedboat, or fishing boat; you can take your pick; whichever you prefer. The point is you love this boat, whatever boat you happen to be imagining. You have memories watching sunsets, laughing with family and friends, feeling the cool breeze and the spray of the water while cruising across the surface of the lake, going water-skiing, tubing, and jumping off and swimming, all of which involve this boat and the memories of it you hold so dear.
It’s true; you paid a lot of money to buy this particular boat that you love so much. You’ve also paid a lot to maintain the boat’s upkeep: replacing broken parts, doing routine maintenance, washing, waxing, and weatherizing it, all in order to keep it in top condition.
Imagine now that you have a coworker who also happens to be a friend. This person has been on your boat with you. Both of your families were on the boat for a weekend, and you had the best time together. You were happy to let your friend drive while your kids went tubing behind the boat. And you even dared to go water-skiing while your friend did the driving. It couldn’t have gone better.
One day at work your friend approaches you. You talk about how much fun you and your families had boating together and your friend thanks you for sharing the boat and for the wonderful time. He mentions that he has had a dream of taking his son and daughter fishing. They’ve never been before. He wonders if you could all go together. You said you’d like that, and you even offer to share your boat again on the weekend your friend is proposing for the fishing trip. Your friend is excited and so are you.
When you check with your family, however, you realize the weekend of the fishing trip on the boat is out for you. You completely forgot you had planned to go to your children’s swim meet. You’re disappointed; fishing on your boat with friends and family sounds better than sitting at a swim meet. But you can’t back out of going to the swim meet at this point.
You decide to let your friend use the boat anyway. After all, you trust him completely. You know that he’ll take good care of it, and you want him to use the boat for that first fishing trip with his kids. He’s surprised and appreciative of your generous offer, and asks if you’re sure since you can’t be there. With a smile you say you’re sure. You hand him the keys.
The weekend arrives. Your friend and his kids are having a wonderful time on your boat. You try to imagine how much fun they are having while you are baking in the sun at the swim meet. You look forward to hearing about the fishing trip as you also look forward to the swim meet being over. The fish are biting, it turns out, and your friend and his kids are even catching some of them!
After your friend has helped his daughter pull in their tenth bluegill, he suddenly hears something: “Help, help!” someone is shouting. He turns in the direction of the shouting, and sees people in the distance bobbing up and down in the water and waving their arms. “Help, help!” they are shouting. He quickly reels in his fishing line, and steers the boat in the direction of the people calling for help. As your friend gets closer, he sees that there are five of them. They are all struggling to swim and look as if they could drown at any moment. There are no life vests or flotation devices in sight. Your friend can’t even see their boat.
Your friend drives the boat as close as he can get to throw out the lifesaver ring to the people who are nearly drowning. He pulls them in one by one, and hoists each of them aboard the boat. After the five castaways catch their breath and thank him, they explain, “Our boat sunk.”
As your friend is turning the boat around to head back, he asks them: “Where do you think it is?” And he hasn’t finished asking the question when all of a sudden there is a loud crunch followed by a long scraping sound. He’s crashed your boat! “Oh, no! That must be our boat that sunk. We hit it!” the family says.
“Oh, no is right,” your friend, the driver, replies. He feels himself getting short of breath and the blood draining from his head. Rather than panic, your friend prays that your boat will make it back to the dock. It doesn’t appear to be sinking, and your friend breathes a sigh of relief when they reach the shore and dock the boat.
At the end of the weekend you ask your friend how the fishing trip with the boat was. “Great, great, we had a wonderful time,” he says. “It ran okay; you didn’t have any trouble?” “No trouble at all. It was a perfect first fishing trip with the kids. And it was so nice of you to let us use your boat for the trip, by the way.”
Your friend neglects to mention rescuing a nearly-drowning family, and accidentally crashing, hard, into their sinking boat. But you don’t know that he’s leaving those details out.
You do, however, know something is wrong the next time you go to use the boat yourself. For your boat has sunk, right there at the dock! Part of it is sticking up out of the water, but most of it is underwater, sunk. You can’t believe your eyes. Did someone crash into it at the dock? Or is your friend not telling you something?
You can’t see any damage to the boat above water, so you frantically change into your swimsuit, grab your goggles, and prepare to assess the damage underwater. While swimming underwater and scanning the bottom of the boat, you spot the scrape marks on the boat’s underside. And then you spot the small hole. “How could this have happened?” you wonder, still in shock.
You call your friend, and in a state of shock and disbelief, you give your report of the sinking boat. And now it’s your friend’s turn to be in shock and disbelief. He feels himself getting short of breath as the blood drains from his head; he is panicking. He is unable to speak. There is a long silence on the other end of the phone; you wonder if the call has been dropped. But eventually after sitting down and taking a slow, deep breath, your friend does speak.
He tells you everything that happened the day of the fishing trip. He tells you about rescuing the nearly-drowning family and then crashing into their boat that was sinking, but that he couldn’t see to avoid just below the surface of the water. He tells you that the boat ran just fine on the way back and wasn’t sinking, so he didn’t think anything of the crash. He tells you everything. And it is at this point that you have to decide what you are going to do…
Is the friendship over? Does your friend’s dishonesty end the friendship for you? Does your friend accidentally sinking your boat mean the friendship is over?
You can be mad and hurt and miss your boat, but what about the friendship? You’ll have to decide. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide which part of the story is more important to you – the part where you lose your boat, and your friend’s dishonesty – or the part where your friend used your boat to take his kids fishing, used your boat to rescue a family, and then crashed your boat, accidentally.
In the end, is it our wealth (our money, our possession, our stuff) or is it people who are more important to us? We all have to decide.
In the strange story Jesus tells about the dishonest manager, there are consequences. The manager loses his position as manager because he wastes what belongs to the owner. And yet, this dishonest manager also performs a rescue of sorts. He cancels part of the debt that each of the debtors owes to the rich man; he makes friends with the debtors by forgiving them.
And the owner, the rich man, surprisingly approves of this dishonest manager’s attitude toward his wealth. Debts are forgiven and friends are made rather than simply using people to add to his wealth.
It turns out for Jesus that there are worse things than mismanaging wealth. It’s worse to not forgive people of their debts when you have an opportunity to do so. It’s worse to worship wealth rather than God.
May we, dishonest though we are with what we have, nevertheless use everything God has given us in order to be generous in our relationships with one another – to choose God and other people over boats and wealth that doesn’t last - Amen.
14th Sunday after Pentecost - September 15, 2019 (Scripture: Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1-10 New Revised Standard Version)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…” (Exodus 32:7-8NRSV).
So begins today’s Old Testament Reading from the book of Exodus. Notice here that the LORD is speaking to Moses. The LORD is speaking to Moses about the Hebrew people whom God has just freed from slavery in Egypt. These same people, who had once been slaves in Egypt, are turning away from God who has rescued them. Rather than worshiping God, the people are worshiping the image of a god which they have made with their own hands. Rather than worshiping God, they are worshiping and making sacrifices to this false god made by human hands instead. In effect, they are worshiping themselves.
At that particular moment, the moment at which the people had turned aside from the way that God commanded them; at that moment, God tells his servant Moses with whom he is conversing on the mountaintop: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” (Exodus 32:7NRSV).
“They are your people; they are not my people, but your people,” God tells Moses. At the point of the people’s rebellion and idolatry – their worshiping an image of a god made by their own hands – at that point, God wants to disown them.
“If this is what the people are going to do after I rescued them from slavery in Egypt, you can have them, Moses,” God says: “your people.”
This is like something that can happen within our own families. For instance, if you’re a parent, when was the last time that your son or daughter did something embarrassing (or said something that was “out of line”), and you said, “Well, clearly you are your father’s daughter because you certainly didn’t get that from me!”? Or you might have said, “Clearly you are your mother’s son because I wouldn’t have taught you that!”
Or consider relationships between siblings. If you have a brother or sister do something that you don’t like – and they get away with it – you might tell Mom or Dad, “Guess what that son of yours did today?” Or you might say, “Are you really going to let that daughter of yours talk to me that way?”
We say things like that, don’t we? We say those things not only about our families, if we have sons and daughters, or brothers and sisters. We also say those things about the people that we don’t like. And in our speech we distance ourselves from the people that we don’t like. There are “those people.” And then there are the people like me, “my people”, or at least the people that I like.
If we get angry enough at a sister or a brother, we may even avoid using their name. Instead, we refer to that sister or brother as “your son” or “your daughter” while complaining to Mom or Dad. “Look at what your son did this time!” we say. Or if our own son or daughter disappoints us, suddenly they become our wife’s, our husband’s, son or daughter, not our own. “That’s something only you could do as your mother’s daughter!” we say accusingly. In both cases, we think the brother or sister, or the son or daughter, are the problem; and we try to distance ourselves from them. “They’re not mine,” we tell ourselves.
Back to God and Moses in our Old Testament story from Exodus: Why might have God told Moses, “They’re your people now?” Well, God was angry and rightfully so, since the people were no longer worshiping God. Instead they were worshiping something they had made with their own hands, an image of a calf. The people were no longer worshiping God who had rescued them when they were slaves in Egypt. The people no longer trusted that they belonged to God; they no longer believed that they were his people. So God, in his anger, admitted that he had had it with the people. “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are,” God tells Moses (notice how God calls them “this people,” not “my people”, at this point). “Now let me alone,” God continues, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” (Exodus 32:9-10NRSV).
God here is resolved to wipe out “this people” who, by the way, are not “my people” but “your people” now, Moses. God is determined to start all the way over again, this next time with Moses, in order to form a new nation, a new people for himself. “…of you I will [still] make a great nation,” God promises Moses by way of reassurance.
You see, God’s promise to have a people that he can call his own; that promise will go on, even though “this people” (“your people,” Moses) will be consumed by God’s wrath and won’t be around anymore. They’ve turned away from God to an image of a calf, a god of their own making. And so God says they’re not my people anymore.
Not my people… However, those are the kind of people that Jesus is welcoming and eating with, according to today’s Gospel from Luke. Not my people, rather sinners… “Now all tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus],” today’s Gospel reading begins (Luke 15:1NRSV). “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2NRSV).
Will Jesus call these people his own, the tax collectors and the sinners? Will he call them his people? Yes, it turns out, because like a shepherd seeking the one lost sheep, and like a woman looking for that one lost coin, Jesus seeks and finds that which is lost.
His people, Jesus’ people, are exactly the people we’re convinced are too far gone; the people we believe are out of God’s reach, beyond God’s care and mercy: lost. Those are his people, Jesus’ people. They’re like lost sheep and lost coins that Jesus intends to find, and will find, seeking out what is lost.
All because Jesus himself was lost and forsaken by all people… He was lost and forsaken by God even, as he suffered and died upon the cross, all in order that he might seek us and find us, lost as we are…
Only because God raised his lost and forsaken Son from the dead, are we no longer lost to God, or forsaken by him… Rather, we are found…
We are God’s people, no longer lost, but found. We are the people whom God has found, the people whom God rejoices over, his people, no matter what you have done, who you are, or how far gone and beyond God’s reach you have become. You are never beyond the reach of this promise: that when you lose sight of God in your life and are lost, God’s Son Jesus will find you and bring you back. You are for now and always his, God’s.
You see, Moses, in our Old Testament reading, already knew this about God, many, many years before Jesus came. Moses knew that as bad as things had gotten between God and the people – as lost as they had become worshiping an image of a god that they had made with their own hands – they were still God’s people. They were still God’s people, even when God in his anger wanted to do away with them and didn’t want them to be his people anymore. They were still God’s people. Moses, after all, remembered the promise God had made to be their God, and for them to be his people.
“Turn from your fierce wrath; […] and do not bring disaster on your people,” Moses begs the LORD (Exodus 32:12NRSV). Did you catch that? Moses is insisting to God that the people are not just any people. Nor are they his Moses’, people. Rather, they are God’s people, according to the original promise Moses recalls God having made to his people. Moses then recites back to God the promise he recalls God making: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants,” Moses says to God, “how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever” (Exodus 32:12NRSV).
Through his servant Moses, followed by Jesus, God claims you and me as his people.
God remains faithful to that promise, though we often wander, stray, and get lost, trying to place our trust in the work of our own hands rather than worshiping and placing our trust in the God whose people we are.
We are God’s people according to the promise that is ours through Jesus Christ.
And those people from whom we’d rather distance ourselves, whom Jesus welcomed and ate with; yeah, they’re our people too - Amen.
13th Sunday after Pentecost - September 8, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 14:25-33; Philemon 1-21 New Revised Standard Version)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” Jesus asks the crowds in today’s Gospel. “Otherwise, when [the builder] has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30NRSV).
Jesus’ advice about knowing how much it costs to build something before building it seems obvious enough. But you might be surprised – as I was – to find out just how many unfinished building projects there actually are. If you search online, for example, lists and lists of famous unfinished buildings come up. There are plenty of buildings whose construction will never be completed, or have not been completed to date: for instance, Westminster Cathedral in London and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_building). Those buildings are still undergoing some type of construction, but it’s hard to say when they’ll ever be finished.
Then there are a variety of major building projects throughout history that, in all likelihood, will never be finished: the Chicago Spire skyscraper, which is a relatively recent one you may recall, and the Cincinnati Subway, to name just a couple (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unfinished_building).
I heard about the unfinished Cincinnati Subway when I was growing up in Ohio, near Cincinnati. But I never knew exactly where it was in the city, other than somewhere underground. I’ve since learned, however, that the never-completed Cincinnati Subway has a claim to fame. Consisting of abandoned tunnels and station platforms that stretch to just over 2 miles long, the Cincinnati Subway is the largest unfinished and unused system of subway tunnels in the United States. Not necessarily something to be proud of – but there it is.
According to Wikipedia, “Construction [of the Cincinnati Subway] began in the early 1900s as an upgrade to the Cincinnati streetcar system, but was abandoned due to escalating costs, the collapse of funding amidst political bickering, and the Great Depression during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1928, the construction of the subway system in Cincinnati was indefinitely canceled. There are no plans to revive the project” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cincinnati_Subway).
Even when people figure the cost and account for the expenses of such projects, there is a chance that they’ll run out of money and the construction may never be completed. And that happens far more often than I realized.
When Jesus talks about figuring the cost of something before you build it, he’s saying it in a manner of speaking, as an expression, a figure of speech.
What he’s doing is urging us to count the cost of following him just as seriously as we would if we were building a tower and not wanting to run out of money.
There is a definite cost to being his disciples, his followers, which he is making so uncomfortably clear to us today. For the cost of being his followers, which our Lord lays out for us today, is not easy. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, […] cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26NRSV). These are hard words. Jesus isn’t denying that our families are important. They are important. But family isn’t everything.
Saying, “Yes, to Jesus will cost us. Saying, “Yes,” to Jesus will mean saying, “No,” to the pressures and temptations we face to give our families everything. Indeed we may look foolish and even be hated for saying, “No,” – no to too many extra activities and the busyness and the shopping trips and the expensive purchases and the longer days at the office – all that we want to give our families, in order to keep up and fit in. But being a follower of Jesus – saying, “Yes,” to him – is going to cost us more with our families than we may be willing to give up.
The plans and the goals that we each set for our lives are important. But saying, “Yes,” to Jesus will cost us. As followers of Jesus, we’re no longer the ones in charge of everything in our lives.
Our lives – how we spend our time and our money; the choices we make; the people we invest in – it’s all influenced by Jesus now.
So the decisions we make about how we use our time, our talents and abilities, and our relationships with others will have to change as well. It’s the same with the possessions that we own. Saying, “Yes,” to Jesus will cost us. “Giving up all our possessions” will mean taking leave, saying “Goodbye,” to the stuff in our closets and garages, the things that we’ve relied on to be “God” for us instead of Jesus.
Not everything has to go. There are things and people in our lives that God knows we need to live. But saying, “Yes,” to Jesus will cost us. There is so much that we don’t need, so much that possesses us and owns us; many possessions – and people even – that we rely on to be “God” for us instead of Jesus.
In the end, following Jesus according to the terms he sets out for us in today’s Gospel, saying, “Yes,” truly does cost us – even more than we are willing to pay. We’d rather not carry the cross that he would have us carry. For we’re like the builder who says, “Yes,” to building the tower – or the Chicago Spire or Cincinnati Subway – only to realize we can’t afford it.
We’ve already said, “Yes,” to too much in our lives. So we cannot say, “Yes,” to following Jesus too. We cannot accept the cost and sacrifice, the cross, required to be his disciples.
To Jesus, we are more like the builder who has already run out of money, more like the follower who has failed in our commitment to him, than we would like to admit.
If there’s any hope, however, it’s in how Jesus treats people like us who are poor in our commitment to him, and enslaved to our own lives and possessions.
In today’s Second Reading from Philemon, the apostle Paul shows the love of Christ to a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus, we learn, has assisted Paul with his ministry of the gospel while he’s been imprisoned. Paul addresses the letter we heard today to Onesimus’ master, Philemon. Philemon is also the name given to this particular book of the Bible. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we actually heard read in its entirety, Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back home, and here’s the key, to welcome him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” (Philemon 16).
Then Paul, who calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus,” goes on to instruct his dear friend and co-worker, Philemon, with these words:
“So if you consider me [Paul] your partner, welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” (Philemon 17-19).
Rather than remain a slave, Onesimus becomes for Paul like family in Christ. And the love of Christ Jesus urges Paul to tell the slave’s master to welcome Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Paul, having been filled with the love of Christ, even promises this: He will repay Philemon for anything the former slave, Onesimus, had done wrong.
Christ has already done for us what Paul promises to do for the former slave, Onesimus.
Christ has already carried the cross and died upon the cross that had been reserved for us.
The cost of following him, which we were unwilling to pay, he has already paid upon that cross, his cross.
The slaves that we have been while enslaved to our own lives and possessions, we are no longer.
For Jesus calls us brothers and sisters, not slaves.
We’re free now to serve each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We’re free to follow Christ come what may, not because we carry the cross, but because, finally, Christ carries us.
To that promise we say, “Thanks be to God!” and rally around it now and always - Amen.
12th Sunday after Pentecost - September 1, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
While growing up near Cincinnati, I went to a number of Cincinnati Reds baseball games. My family and I liked the Reds well enough. But we were nowhere near super fans. We’d go to one or two games a year, and we didn’t mind sitting in the upper-balcony, nose-bleed seats. Most of the games I went to were at the old Riverfront stadium that hosted both Reds baseball and Bengals football. I must say, the newer Reds’ ballpark – Great American – built fifteen years ago or so, has been a huge improvement.
In any case, most of my memories are from going to baseball games at Riverfront. It didn’t matter so much to my dad how high up our seats were; as long as he had his binoculars and we weren’t sitting behind a slab of concrete, he was content sitting most anywhere. As a kid at Riverfront I liked that there was an aisle behind the top row, an aisle you could walk that went all the way around the top of the stadium. From that vantage point, all the way at the top of the stadium, you had nice views of the Ohio River as the tugboats and barges floated past. On the other side of the stadium you could see the Cincinnati skyline, which was more interesting to me at times than the game itself.
Where we sat in the ballpark, in a way, indicated the kind of fans that we were: moderate but not super fans. Like I said, once or twice a year we’d buy tickets for the cheap seats. We’d bring our binoculars. And we wouldn’t hesitate to leave early to beat the traffic if the Reds were behind (which happened a lot).
There were a few times, however, that I attended Reds games with friends. I went to one game with a friend and his parents who lived across the street from me. It was a Friday night game at the end of the school year. Our seats were up high. We were sitting there enjoying the game until the rain came, however. There were several rain delays throughout that particular game. The tarps were brought out onto the field, and the stadium cleared out.
Of course, my friend and I were disappointed – he more than I. But I have to hand it to him, being the super fan that he was. He may have been momentarily disappointed, but he wasn’t discouraged; just the opposite, in fact. He was encouraged by all the seats that had opened up around the Reds’ dugout. There were at least two open seats all the way down there for us, and many other seats besides.
So we climbed all the way down from our perch up high to the best seats in the house, as far as we were concerned, directly above the Reds’ dugout. Even though the rain hadn’t let up yet, there we were – my friend and I – jumping up and down in the downpour, touching the top of our team’s dugout, greeting the players who poked their heads out, asking if they’d toss us a ball.
With my family, I probably would have left the ballpark at some point during the second rain delay. But not with my friend, the super fan; for him, the crowd clearing out was an opportunity to enjoy the best seats in the house, in spite of the rain. And the nice part was no one asked to see our tickets, or told us we were sitting in their seats.
Where we sit – at the table, in the ballpark, in the lunchroom, the break room or teacher’s lounge, even on the bus – can matter, can’t it? It can especially matter in church. I once heard a maddening story about a couple who visited a church. I don’t know where; it’s just as well I don’t know. What the visiting couple at this church didn’t realize was they were sitting in somebody’s pew. They had taken somebody else’s seat. And as it turned out, this was the wrong person’s seat to be sitting in. The person whose seat it was showed up moments later, and if you can believe it, told the couple that they were sitting in her seat. Well, that was it. The couple, having been humiliated and disgraced, left and was never seen or heard from again.
It should come now as no surprise that this matter of where we sit is a matter that concerns Jesus in today’s Gospel. If where we sit is a matter of our own personal honor or disgrace – and the honor or disgrace of others – we can believe Jesus is going to be concerned about it. He, after all, had his ministry at a time when people’s status – their social standing and place in society – depended on who they had meals with, and on where they sat at the table.
Take Jesus himself, for example. In the minds of the religious leaders, he was a sinner by association. He ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and the most disgraced folks of his day, those whom the religious folk considered the worst of sinners.
Jesus himself was dishonored and disgraced by those who thought of themselves as occupying the greatest places of honor at the table. In fact, the people, who thought themselves most deserving to sit in the places of honor, couldn’t have thought any less of Jesus. They thought the only place he belonged was on a cross.
What they didn’t realize was that God was about to exalt him. As the One who was disgraced and killed by his own people, Jesus would identify the most with the poor couple who were told they had no place in that church I mentioned to you earlier. Jesus, the disgraced and crucified One, the friend of sinners, who was yet exalted by God…
So it turns out, the member of the church who told that couple, “You’re sitting in my seat,” is not the host of the banquet Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. Nor are we the hosts. Rather, Jesus, the One exalted by God, is the host, and we are the guests. That’s how his relationship with us works. We are the guests, and he is our host.
As guests of Jesus, we don’t get to decide who the guests of honor are. And we certainly don’t get to tell anyone, “Hey, you’re sitting in my seat,” so that we can sit at the place of honor we think we deserve. For Jesus warns us that the moment we exalt ourselves over the other guests– and think of ourselves as somehow more deserving than they are – will be the moment we lose our seat to someone else.
If we’re going to assume that Jesus measures our worth and our value the way that we do – by ranking us in comparison to the other guests – then we’ll find that there is always somebody ahead of us. If we look around and compare ourselves to his other guests, we’ll find there is always somebody who has a better seat than we do; somebody who is sitting where we want to be; somebody who has more of what we want (money, popularity, talent, health, or season tickets for the best seats in the ballpark). “Compare and despair,” is the way I’ve heard it put before – so often how we end up living in this world – even as the church.
Yet in those moments of our lives when we are humbled and brought low and sitting farthest from our host, our Lord still has a way of surprising us, honoring us, exalting us even. When we don’t measure up in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others, our Lord nevertheless bestows his honor upon us.
We are no longer ashamed and disgraced when Jesus calls to us – as he promises – “Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
This, finally, is what Jesus, our host, wants for us. Rather than have us exalt ourselves over others, he’d rather be the one to bestow his honor on you, and to exalt you himself. He’d rather be the one to bestow his honor on us, so that we can also honor the people he honors: the people we wouldn’t have invited if we had been the host.
The truth is Jesus has invited you and me into his presence, into a relationship with him, as his guests of honor.
As good as it was to move up and join my friend in sitting just above the Cincinnati Reds’ dugout, those seats finally can’t compare – not to that place of honor to which Jesus has invited you - Amen.
11th Sunday after Pentecost - August 25th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 13:10-17 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
Before I started seminary, I spent two years working as a counselor at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis. Up to that point I had a picture in my mind of what I thought homeless people looked like. They slept under bridges or on park benches, or lay on sleeping bags spread out on sidewalks in front of buildings. They carried brown paper bags that contained booze. They wore old, torn clothes and had long hair and beards. They looked exhausted and in pain and had difficulty walking. They asked for money, or held signs that asked for money. They carried bags or pushed shopping carts.
While working at the homeless shelter, I discovered something, however. I discovered that a lot of the people didn’t fit that description. They didn’t fit the picture in my mind of what homeless people looked like. Instead, the folks who were homeless and stayed at the shelter asked about where to get clothes for job interviews. Some owned cars. Many were committed to staying sober, or to getting help with their mental health. Many who could work ended up working seasonal or temporary jobs. They continued to apply and interview for more permanent work. Those who had jobs began to save their money toward housing.
My job at the shelter was to help the residents set goals and then work toward those goals: employment, savings, sobriety and mental health, disability assistance, and eventually housing. Working toward those goals was never easy.
Out on the streets it was often more tempting for people to revert back to the old bad habits, to associate again with the old crowd, to spend away their income and their savings on alcohol and drugs. They’d then lose their bed at the shelter if they failed to show up, meet with their counselor, work toward their goals, and save their money.
However, for the folks who continued on at the shelter, and stayed focused on their goals, there remained a glimmer of hope. One of the things that surprised me the most – and was the most hopeful for both residents and shelter staff alike – was the community that began to form, at a homeless shelter of all places.
Residents who had shared their stories and set goals with me greeted me by name. They said, “Hello,” to me when they arrived at the shelter in the evening, after pounding the pavement all day submitting job applications, interviewing, or applying for housing. I said, “Hello,” back and addressed them by name. And then they’d say, “I need to meet with you later.”
When I went downstairs to join the shelter residents for dinner, there was conversation around the tables. Afterwards, there was laughter around the television or over a board game. I remember many particularly intense games of chess. These signs of hope and community at a homeless shelter, of all places, were honestly much more common among the residents than the occasional fight or argument they got into.
Rarely did the staff have to ask someone to leave. More often, folks just wanted someone to talk to, someone who would listen, someone who would see them for who they are – hopes, struggles, and all.
It’s significant in today’s Gospel that we know next to nothing about the woman who approaches Jesus at the synagogue. We don’t know her story. We don’t know anything about her family. We don’t even know her name. All we know, according to the Gospel, is that she’s “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight” (Luke 13:1 NRSV). She is identified by her ailment, being bent over. That’s all we know.
To other people, that’s all she is: bent over. To them, that’s all she is and all she will ever be: bent over. For this unnamed woman, the last day of the week known as the Sabbath – a day set apart by God for rest and for worship – is just a day like any other. It doesn’t matter that she’s in the synagogue and that it happens to be the Sabbath. For she remains bent over and crippled, like the day before, and the day before that: for eighteen long years, as far back as she can remember. The way I used to picture homeless people, before I met any of them; that’s the way people pictured this woman: as crippled and bent over, nothing else.
When you and I are here on a Sunday morning, perhaps we’re not all that different from this unnamed woman, however. Of course, her ailment may be more visible, more “out in the open,” than many of our ailments happen to be. We may even be convinced that this woman had it much worse off than we do. She might have been in a lot more pain.
Still, here’s the thing: like her, we can be just as alone and invisible in our own struggles – whatever those struggles happen to be. We can be just as alone and invisible as this unnamed woman was. Like I said before, she was alone and invisible. We don’t know her story. We don’t know anything about her family. We don’t even know her name. All we know is her ailment; she’s suffering alone and is invisible to everyone around her.
If you’re suffering alone and are invisible to everyone around you, it may not matter what day of the week it is: whether it’s Sunday or a Tuesday, whether you’re at church or somewhere else. For if you’re alone with your struggles – and no one can see that you’re suffering but you – every day can be a struggle. The pain and grief that accompanies the loss of a loved one; a faltering marriage; the betrayal of a friend; the loss of a job and financial stress; the breaking up of a family; the hurt caused by a bully, a boss, or coworker; the struggle of an addiction; or perhaps, a physical or mental illness.
You may be “bent over” and weighed down and shouldering any number of those kinds of struggles. And being “bent over” and weighed down and having to shoulder whatever it is, alone, has made you even more invisible – invisible to everyone around you – even in church on a Sunday morning.
You and I are not unlike this bent-over woman, recalled in today’s Gospel reading, who happens to be at the synagogue; this woman for whom the only thing that matters, in the end, is that Jesus is there too.
You see, for this woman, the only thing that matters is this: Jesus is there at the synagogue too. And Jesus does something for this woman that no one else did: he saw her. He didn’t just see her ailment; he saw her! And seeing her, he was compelled to call her over and say, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he laid his hands on her. Jesus saw, spoke, and reached out and touched her, in a way no one else could or would.
Again, when he saw her, he didn’t just see her ailment; he saw her. He saw a woman needing to be healed and set free; a woman who in standing up straight, after eighteen long years, could finally participate in Sabbath and join the congregation in giving thanks and praise to God.
For Jesus, the Sabbath wasn’t about patting yourself on the back for not working, and scolding those who did work. Rather, for Jesus, the Sabbath was about healing folks who needed God to see them, to speak to them, to reach out and touch their lives.
This is what God does for us in the person of Jesus. In Jesus Christ, God sees the struggles that weigh us down, that make us bent over. He sees the sources of our silent, hidden suffering that render us invisible to everyone around us. He sees what others can’t see.
Yet God also sees us as more than our ailments, as more than the struggles that weigh us down and make us bent over. In God’s sight, you are not defined by your ailments. Rather, he calls each and every one of you to himself. God declares that you are free.
And in his presence here this morning, there is healing; not necessarily the cure we’ve been waiting for, or anything like “happily ever after.” But in the presence of Jesus this morning, there is healing nevertheless.
You are not alone. And whatever suffering or struggles you are having are no longer invisible. For Jesus sees you, speaks to you, and touches your life – by the words of healing and forgiveness that he declares to you – and by the bread and the wine in which he is here for you today.
During my short time working at the shelter, I never saw the homeless the same way again. In their willingness to share with me their hopes as well as their struggles – their names as well as the stories of their lives – I got to know them and saw them just a little bit better.
And I believed healing was possible, for all of us.
It was a lot like Jesus saw the “bent-over” woman; a lot like Jesus sees us too - Amen.
10th Sunday after Pentecost - August 18th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
Apparently Jesus thinks we’re better at forecasting the weather than reading the signs of the times. For he says in today’s Gospel: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56NRSV)
If only a week-long weather forecast in the Midwest were as simple and accurate as that. But it isn’t. Weather forecasters are right how much of the time?
That Jesus thinks we’re still better at forecasting the weather than reading the signs of the times is saying something, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop us from interpreting our present moment in history. There are all the sound bites, the posts on social media, and the news broadcasts – all of which are interpreting the signs of the times, as we speak. What are the most pressing problems in our world today? “We know!” they say. The problem is the people who don’t see things the way we do; who don’t agree with us.
It’s the Democrats, who are the problem, some say; others, however, claim it’s the Republicans. It’s the liberals who are the problem, some insist; no, not the liberals; rather, the conservatives are the ones to blame, others contend.
And that’s just the beginning. According to those trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the present times, some say the problem is the religious folk. Others say it’s the non-religious folk, the “nones,” who are the problem.
This or that race of human beings is the problem, some will say. Others fight over whether the city folk or the rural folk are the problem; while still others can’t agree on whether it is the rich or the poor folk who are to blame for the situation that we are in.
And I’ve just scratched the surface, the tip of the iceberg, of all that we hear and see – and might even say ourselves – as we try to figure out what in the world is going on.
As part of my ministry training I spent some time in hospital chaplaincy. Before I visited hospital patients on my own, I shadowed different hospital chaplains to learn what they did. As I observed each chaplain’s visit, I noticed how the patients responded in different ways to what was going on in their lives at that present moment. Their sickness and suffering brought more questions than answers. It didn’t all make sense. That they were suffering, that the diagnosis for some was terminal and they would never recover but would one day die, didn’t make sense. The lack of apparent meaning and purpose in their lives left them feeling angry, scared, confused, and hopeless – often a combination of all those feelings.
At those moments the chaplain’s job wasn’t to try and tidy things up for the patient. The chaplains weren’t there to have all the answers, or to pretend to. We were there to acknowledge, along with the patient, that we didn’t have the words to interpret all of life’s mysteries, including the problem of evil and suffering. We were there to actively listen to the patient, and to invite God’s presence into their moment of illness and suffering and death – mysteries that are so much bigger than we are – which we could never entirely wrap our minds around. At moments like those, we could believe Jesus when he said we didn’t know how to interpret the present time.
When we all still insist on interpreting the world today – on reading the signs of the times – we all tend to do the same thing, however. We all tend to point fingers and assign blame. People who claim to follow Jesus are no exception. In fact, so called followers of Christ can at times feel even more entitled to point fingers and assign blame. If only we could convince others that we’re right, then there would be peace. And our problems would go away – or so we think.
Rather than peace in our lives and in our world, we get divisions, however. Jesus himself said there would be – divisions within families and households even. Not everyone would agree with everything that Jesus was about.
Not even his own followers would agree, or for that matter, understand everything that Jesus was about. As a result, there were divisions among his own followers, and still are, within his Church today.
Nevertheless, there remains this mystery within our faith that still has the power to change how we see everything around us:
Jesus who was misunderstood and rejected, and who endured the suffering and shame of death on a cross, was raised from the dead. That’s the mystery that only God could perform.
That is, in the words of Hebrews, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, […] for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2NRSV).
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension to God his Father, the future – your future – is no longer bound to your past.
Your future is no longer bound by death and the divisions of our world.
Your future no longer depends on you or me reading the signs of the times, and having to be right about it – by pointing fingers and assigning blame.
Your future no longer depends on you having to rationalize and understand those painful mysteries such as sickness and death, which we and our loved ones suffer.
For Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to God his Father has opened to you a future, one in which God will never leave you or forsake you.
Because Jesus was raised from the dead and lives now and forever, no sin and no evil – not even death itself – can ever separate you from God’s love for you in Jesus Christ.
It’s the baptism promise all over again, really. The one promise that can never be taken away from you because the One who gives the promise has already conquered death and holds your future.
One of my chaplain friends, a Roman Catholic priest, said it well when he prayed with his hospital patients: “Lord, we don’t know what the future holds. But we know you hold the future.”
I love that prayer because in it is the promise of our baptism. The promise that Jesus gives to Theodora today in her baptism, the promise I had the honor of speaking when I said:
“Theodora child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
None of us knows exactly what the future holds. Nor do we know exactly how to interpret the present time in our world today.
Yet into these uncertain times, while seated at the right hand of the throne of God, the risen Christ gives Theodora and us his promise, which is ours in baptism:
“Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
And we could add to our baptism promise that while we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds it - Amen.
9th Sunday after Pentecost - August 11th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
“Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.”
In his autobiography called the Confessions, St. Augustine writes movingly about his own restless heart. Throughout the book, the great fourth-century North African bishop and theologian reflects on his own past. His heart, Augustine recalls, was restless in its desire for secular education and knowledge, not Scripture. His heart was restless in its desire for sex, and unable to be consoled after the death of a friend; his heart was restless in its sorrows and pleasures. The problem, Augustine realizes, is that in all of the pursuits of his restless heart, his heart only became more and more restless – not less so. St. Augustine discovered that simply chasing his heart’s desire, apart from God, didn’t bring him peace – only restlessness. Augustine therefore concluded: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.”
Twelve hundred years later, an Augustinian friar and professor of theology, Martin Luther, reflected on the restlessness of the human heart in his Large Catechism. Luther was deeply influenced by Augustine before him as well as the whole Augustinian tradition. Luther was part of an Augustinian monastic order, after all. So Luther, like Augustine before him, viewed the restlessness of the human heart as fundamentally a human problem with God. Only, Luther interpreted the problem as disobedience to the first of the Ten Commandments.
The first commandment, of course, states: “You are to have no other gods.” However the problem of the human heart’s restlessness, Luther believed, is in what the human heart considers its god. “A ‘god,’” Luther writes, “is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. […] Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God. The intention of this commandment, therefore, is to require true faith and confidence of the heart, which fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone. […] …do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else” (Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, “The Ten Commandments,” pp. 386-387).
Luther put his finger on the same trouble of the human heart that Augustine had. The first commandment makes clear: “You are to have no other gods.” Our hearts were made for God, to cling to and rest in the one true God. Nevertheless, as Luther and Augustine have pointed out, we tend to trust and believe with our whole heart in that which is not God. Our hearts look to someone or something other than God, and cling to that someone or something else instead.
That was Jesus’ original point. Augustine and Luther, well after Jesus, are reiterating and reflecting on what Jesus originally taught; that the human heart goes after whatever its treasure is. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel.
Although the world in which Jesus and his first followers lived was vastly different from our own, the world then and the world now both consist of people with hearts that cling to treasures. Our Lord is speaking to us today as much as he was speaking to folks then. The hearts of his followers today and back then cling to whatever their treasure is, and whatever our treasure happens to be becomes our god.
In our Old Testament reading, Abram, later to become Abraham, has a fearful, restless heart. Abram’s heart is after something, a treasure, which he fears will never be his. “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” God has promised Abram a reward that shall be very great. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield…” God promises him. But all that Abram can see is that he will have no children of his own, only a slave born in his house named Eliezer. Abram’s fearful, restless heart can’t see how his descendants could ever grow into a nation. He had no descendants at that point, after all! Abram fears that he will never attain the desire of his heart and become the father of many people. When he dies, he fears God’s promise will die.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
What is the treasure that your heart is seeking to possess? Does your treasure have something to do with the security and future of your own family, as it did for Abram? Do you have a dream about your family’s future that you would like fulfilled?
Or is your treasure being accepted to a particular college; earning a certain degree, making the right grades, being offered that dream job one day? Especially as the school year starts again this week, what is the treasure that your heart desires? Friends you can count on, teachers that you like, classes you can do well in, groups of people that accept you and make you feel that you fit in.
We discover, like St. Augustine and Luther and Abram way before them, how our hearts can grow restless and anxious over everything we desire and all that we make our treasure. After all, our hearts can desire so many things – fitting in, a good job, good grades, a bright future – that we become anxious, restless, and worried. We become overwhelmed by all the good things, the treasures, we’re convinced we need. Through it all, we become too tired and distracted to be alert and to pay attention to God.
Yet it is God who still comes to us, even when our own plans aren’t working out, and when our own treasures don’t last. As Jesus speaks, and we hear his words today, God comes to us in his promises; God who in fact never tires of coming to us in his promises, over and over again.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus promises. You see, the treasure for which our heart desires is actually in this promise. We don’t take hold of the Father’s kingdom ourselves. Instead, Jesus gives us this treasure when he speaks God’s promise to us. As important as all of the things are that weigh on our anxious, restless hearts, it’s the promise that our future belongs to the risen and living Christ, that is our greatest treasure.
When we trust in the promise of our Lord – that he chooses to give us his kingdom so that our future belongs to him no matter what – we begin to have faith like our ancestor, Abram. Abram, who believed the LORD, when God once again gave him the promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. We have faith in the Lord, the giver of promises, as our reading from Hebrews describes. And our restless, fearful hearts no longer cling to our own treasures and our own gods, which only make our hearts more and more restless.
Rather in the promises of God who has secured our future through the death and resurrection of his Son, we find our treasure.
Where our restless hearts can rest in the promises of Jesus, we find God - Amen.
8th Sunday after Pentecost - August 4th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 12:13-21 and Colossians 3:1-11 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
One of the things I remember about recess during elementary school was the bee traps. Bee traps made of two-liter bottles were hanging on the outside corners of the school buildings. On windy days the traps would swing around, suspended on strings that looped over hooks. The traps were made by cutting the top off a 2-liter pop bottle, turning the top upside-down, and then fastening it back onto the bottle so that the top was inverted. Before attaching the inverted top back onto the bottle, however, you’d fill the bottom of the bottle with water mixed with either sugar or honey.
The bottle tops turned upside-down on the traps made it a lot easier for the bees to fly into the bottle, but nearly impossible to fly back out. In fact, the bees or wasps or hornets couldn’t fly when the sugar or honey water had coated their wings and their bodies. They were trapped. And they were at the mercy of whoever might set them free, far away from where they could potentially sting a highly-allergic student at the school. Whether the traps are designed to kill or not, of course, depends on what’s put in them, and how often they are emptied.
In any case, honey or sugar water gave the bees a chance of survival. Honey, sugar, and water are not toxic, obviously. But for the bees the honey or sugar-water solution still proved too much of a good thing. In their desire for the stuff, they’d get stuck in the wet, sweet, sticky substance at the bottom of the bottle trap; and on their own they couldn’t get out.
These homemade bee traps remind me of another kind of trap that I learned about this past spring. It was while teaching Confirmation class that I learned about the monkey trap. You may be wondering at this point why in the world we are teaching students about monkey traps in Confirmation class. There’s a point to the monkey trap.
In fact, I happen to have one with me: “In the jungles of South America, hunters use an interesting method for trapping monkeys. They place a piece of fruit (like an orange) in a box with a hole just big enough to fit a monkey’s hand. When a monkey reaches in and grabs the piece of fruit, it isn’t able to get its hand back out of the hole again. It could just release the fruit and be free, but the monkey wants fruit so badly it won’t let go. The animal is effectively trapped by its own desire!” (Steven E. King, Sola Confirmation Series, “The Ten Commandments: Session 9,” p. 38)
As humans, we see what the bees and the monkeys can’t see. We realize there’s a trap. The fruit in the box and the honey in the bottle are not free for the taking; the fruit and the sugar are there to trap the creatures that can’t resist them. We came up with the trap, for goodness sake! We know it’s a trap.
What we don’t realize, however, is that we can be trapped in much the same way. You and I can be trapped by our own desire as well. At first, it may seem harmless enough. We feel cheated out of something we believe rightly belongs to us.
In today’s Gospel according to Luke, “Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” That seems like a fair request; surely Jesus can come to the defense of this man, so that he can inherit what rightfully belongs to him. Likely to the man’s disappointment, however, Jesus has bigger fish to fry: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Jesus replies. “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
This is a tough pill to swallow. You see, Jesus makes clear that his job isn’t simply to rule in favor of giving us more of what we want; more of the inheritance and the possessions that we think belong to us, even if we believe it’s fair. Rather, Jesus’ utmost concern here is to point out the trap – the trap he believes this man in the crowd is walking into, without even realizing it.
Like a bee flying toward the honey at the bottom of a 2-liter bottle; or like a monkey reaching through a hole in a box to grasp an orange, the man can also be easily trapped. He can also be easily trapped by his own greed, his desire for the family inheritance.
To make his point, Jesus tells the crowd a story about a rich man whose land produces an abundant harvest of crops. Rather than confer with God, the rich man confers with himself to decide what to do. “‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
The rich man here has fallen into a trap, like the bee and the monkey, without even knowing it. What is the trap?
The bigger barns, in themselves, are not the trap. If your harvest increases, it makes sense to create more space to store it all. Bigger barns and more space: that in itself is not the issue. Rather, the trap is the rich man’s desire to keep all that he has for himself – to have ample goods laid up for himself for many years.
The rich man’s only desire for his life is to “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” after all. He’s trapped by that desire. And he’s convinced that the purpose of the bigger barns is to fulfill that desire, his desire to live off the fat of the land, nothing else.
Here’s the shocking thing, however: What seems like such a brilliant plan to the rich man, in the end, is foolish to God. What seems wise to us is actually foolish to God.
For not once does the man contemplate that he will one day die. Not once does he realize that in his decisions involving his possessions, he is accountable to God in the end. Not once does he think about who is possessions will belong to after he’s gone. The man doesn’t account for the part of the story, the time in his life, when Jesus says “your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
God likewise sees the trap when we’re tempted to do what the rich man did. God sees the trap when our possessions take possession of us. And like a bee flying toward the honey in the bottle, with no way out, we become trapped by our greed for too much of a good thing. God sees the trap. Or like a monkey grasping a piece of fruit, unwilling to let go, we become trapped by our desire for bigger barns – not for God or for others – but for ourselves. God sees the trap.
When we’re holding on tightly to what we have, or desperately grasping for those bigger barns, we’re actually on the path to losing it all – including God. We’re poor toward God and rich toward ourselves, and on the path to losing it all, including God.
But God has a power and wisdom that you and the rich man and I don’t have. For through the gracious Holy Spirit of Him and His Son Jesus Christ, God sees us trapped in our poverty, trapped in our grasping and striving for more.
God in Christ then gives you a promise that truly changes everything:
“…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” we hear in Colossians. With the rich man in today’s story, we have died according to our poverty and foolishness toward God. And yet, hear the promise: though you have died, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
You see, our “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” but rather in the promise that our life is hidden with Christ in God. We are His precious treasure, His prized possession.
We’re no longer like the bee or the monkey trapped by our own desires.
Rather we’re set free by God in Christ through their Holy Spirit.
We’re free to give thanks that God is rich to us in Christ, in order to transform our desire for “bigger barns” into acts of generosity for our neighbors - Amen.
6th Sunday after Pentecost - July 21st, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 10:38-42 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ - Amen
During the summers I was in college, I waited tables at two different restaurants. Working with the public, you find out that there are all sorts of customers: gracious and respectful, and demanding and impossible to please. Then there are customers who are somewhere in the middle. The ones I tend to remember are either of the gracious and respectful variety, or of the demanding and impossible to please sort.
One of the restaurants I worked at was locally owned. It had a bakery that attracted more customers than the restaurant did. As a server in the restaurant, I remember a particular customer, a gentleman, who wanted to tell you all about his world travels. He’d sit there a while, trying to hold your attention with another story about traveling in first-class; then he’d end up leaving a couple of coins on the table as your tip, every time.
There were the two ladies who worked together and came in for lunch every day. They were friendly enough. But if you couldn’t get around to telling them right away what the soups were for that day, one of the women would walk into the kitchen herself. All the while greeting everyone in the kitchen as if they were family, she’d lift the soup lids herself to see what was being served. “No way, split pea,” she’d say sticking out her tongue and making a disgusted face as she walked back to her seat. This woman, unfortunately, had more than made herself at home.
At the other restaurant where I worked – a Frisch’s Big Boy – I had a customer order liver and onions. The cooks hated making it, so I got an earful when I put in the order, as if I could control what a customer wanted to order. When I delivered the food and then checked back to see how everything was I got another earful of complaints: “This is the worst liver and onions I have ever tasted,” I was told. Well what do you expect? It’s liver and onions, I thought to myself.
Finally, there were the large groups that descended on the restaurant just before close. They came from the nearby amusement park where you could tell they had been all day. Tired, sunburned, dehydrated, hungry, and smelling of sweat and chlorine, everybody in the group would order, eat their meals, and stay until well after close. The tip that they left – if they remembered – suggested they had already spent more than enough that day at the amusement park.
Funny how, more than anything else, it’s been easier for me to recall the negative experiences of serving in a restaurant – trying to impress, to please, to earn tips I felt I really deserved – only to be frustrated and disappointed by the outcome of it all.
I think that’s kind of how Martha in today’s Gospel felt about welcoming Jesus into her home. It was up to her, she felt, to be a good host. And when her guest showed up, she was stressed by how much she still had to get done!
Martha wasn’t working for tips, as at a restaurant, but she nevertheless wanted Jesus’ approval and validation that she was a good enough host. And what way could Jesus better show His respect for all the hard work she did for Him than by telling Mary to stand up and lend her sister a hand?
As the church, gathered here this morning, are we likewise looking for some kind of validation – some measure of approval – that we’re doing well enough in our lives? Are we looking for God’s approval? Do we desire God to tell us we’re doing a good enough job – that we’re working hard enough – that we’re on the right path, doing the right thing?
Is that what you’re looking for on a Sunday morning, some indication that God accepts you and approves of you based on all the hard work that you are doing: in school, at home, in your job, at church, and in the community?
I don’t know about you, but in Martha’s position, I’d want Jesus to back me up and tell Mary that rather than sitting down, she should be up on her feet scurrying about, helping me instead. As though waiting on a demanding customer at a restaurant, I’d want to look busy for Jesus in hopes that He would reward me for all of my hard work. That’s what I’d want. Like one bumper sticker I’ve seen that says: “Jesus is coming – look busy.”
Jesus, however, does not reward Martha and us for our hard work, our stress, and our busyness. Rather, we are judged. We are judged by Jesus; though Jesus’ judgment is for Martha and our own good.
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things; […] Mary has chosen the better part…”
Jesus could just as well be saying your name and my name in addition to Martha’s. And He is. He doesn’t want you and me trying so desperately to impress Him anymore; He doesn’t want us striving so hard for him to reward us; He doesn’t want to add any more to all of the worries and distractions that we already have. In fact, He no longer wants to judge us for all of those worries and distractions that lead us away from Him.
Instead Jesus is here this morning as He’s promised through His Word and Holy Spirit. And when Jesus shows up, He comes as our Host. He comes not as a guest – or as a restaurant customer – demanding more of us than we could ever do. Jesus comes as our Host instead. As Lord of our lives and Lord of His church, Jesus is our Host who welcomes us. He’s our Host this morning, which is who He was for Martha’s sister, Mary, as she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.”
Jesus is the Host who welcomes you here today. He is the Host who gives you the promise that you are always welcome in His presence here – that all of your worries and distractions can’t keep you away from Him. In fact, He’s already suffered and died on the cross, under the weight of all of those worries and distractions, so that you and I can finally see Him as He really is: not as a guest or restaurant customer we could never impress, but as our Host who welcomes us into His presence, and shares His own life with us.
As Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying,” Jesus promised, she “chose the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
That is why you’re here this morning: to dwell in the presence of the One you could never impress – whose acceptance and approval you could never win – but who nevertheless welcomes you into His presence.
To sit at the feet of your Lord, and to listen to Him speak peace into your worries and distractions; courage into your stress and your fear; hope and healing into your pain and your struggles.
Jesus therefore assures you that He, the Host who welcomes you always, is also “the better part, which will not be taken away from [you]” - Amen.
5th Sunday after Pentecost - July 14th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 10:25-37 New Revised Standard Version)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen
“And who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asked Jesus.
When asked who your neighbor is, who comes to mind for you?
I admit I thought of one of television’s most popular neighbors in the now-classic television show, Home Improvement. In the show, Wilson is the neighbor who lives next door to Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor and his family. A fence separates Tim’s backyard from Wilson’s backyard. And the two neighbors are often seen talking to each other over the fence. After Tim has had a blowup within his own family – or yet another failed construction project – Wilson shows up on the other side of the fence. He’s ready to listen in the backyard, neighbor to neighbor, as Tim confides in him. Wilson offers Tim some sage advice, and the two part ways, Tim relieved and resolved once again to help make things right.
If you’ve ever seen the show, you know that you never see all of Wilson’s face – until the last episode, I think it is. Until then, part of his face is hidden behind the fence, or covered by the shed, or some low-hanging tree branches. They get creative as to how they hide Wilson’s face.
I’ve wondered why Wilson’s face remained hidden throughout the show. I found out it had to do with an experience the actor Tim Allen had growing up as a boy, when he was too short to see his own neighbors over the fence. Evidently, not seeing the neighbor’s face over the fence became a running joke throughout the entire show.
When I ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I must admit that Wilson on the other side of the fence comes to mind. Two people who live next door to each other having a conversation over the fence: that’s what I picture a neighbor is. What’s that saying? “Good fences make good neighbors?”
When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” it’s not an entirely innocent question, however. As we look at today’s Gospel according to Luke, we find out two things about this lawyer who’s questioning Jesus. Number one, he’s testing Jesus. And number two, he wants to justify himself. The lawyer wants Jesus to see that he is already loving God, and loving his neighbor, enough to inherit eternal life. He’s testing if Jesus can see that. Furthermore, the lawyer wants to be right about who his neighbor is. The lawyer wants Jesus to agree with him – to assure him that he already loves his neighbor, whoever he is!
We don’t know anything else about this particular lawyer in today’s Gospel. But let’s just say if he were having neighborly conversations in his backyard over the fence, we can bet that he’d want Jesus to tell him something like: “You got it. You already love your neighbor. That’s what I’m talking about!”
As followers of Christ, isn’t that what we want Jesus to tell us? To focus on what we’re doing right, the things that we’re doing well, and to tell us: “You got it. You already love your neighbor. That’s what I’m talking about!”
Don’t we long for Jesus to tell us that – to agree with who we think our neighbor is – to assure us that we already love God enough?
Like the lawyer, we want to justify ourselves – to have our Lord tell us we’re already good enough – good enough parents, good enough bosses and employees, good enough teachers and students, good enough neighbors and friends, good enough Christians even. We want Jesus to back us up here and to say that we’re doing a good enough job; that talking to our next-door neighbor over the fence every so often is how we successfully love our neighbor, pure and simple.
The thing is we have it in us to test God. We have it in us to want to justify ourselves before God – to have God admit that we are already good enough – to hear God say that we are already right about who our neighbor is. We have it in us.
However, we should know by now that putting the question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” is no way to get the answer we are looking for.
Rather than an answer, what do we get from Jesus instead?
We get a question from him, posed to each of us – a question that we have no choice but to respond to ourselves: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
Rather than who is my neighbor, we’re asked who “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Who was a neighbor to that man? The man we don’t know anything about, other than he “was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
“Who was a neighbor to that man?” Jesus asks us. The beat-up, half-dead man who was passed by on the other side, first by a priest; then passed by a second time on the other side by a Levite; both of whom felt justified in passing him by. These religious leaders already knew who their neighbors were, and this man alongside the road was not one of their neighbors. The thought never even occurred to them the way they passed him by on the other side.
Neighbors, we’re convinced, are the folks we talk to over the fence in our backyards; they’re not the strangers in our path needing help. There was no fence between that man and the priest and the Levite who passed him by, after all: no fence, no neighbor.
Still, “who was a neighbor to that man?” Jesus asks us. He won’t let the lawyer, and he won’t let us escape that question, his question: Who “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The Samaritan, who came along, would have been entirely justified in passing the man by. Samaritans from Samaria and Jews from Jerusalem had a history of fighting each other; they were still sworn enemies in Jesus’ day; and Jerusalem was where the man who’d been beaten up was coming from.
Not only was that man not the Samaritan’s neighbor, he was a likely enemy.
He was a likely enemy whom the Samaritan nevertheless approached and came near, not passing by on the other side; “and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” And then he acted accordingly, caring for the man, and finding him a place he could recuperate.
What’s going on here? This is no neighborly chat in the backyard, two neighbors talking to each other over the fence, until they each go back to their respective homes. There is no fence here, no “good fences make good neighbors.” Rather, we have Jesus telling us who our neighbor is, and Jesus showing us what a neighbor does.
The simple fact that others need our help, and we need their help, makes us neighbors. And the tragic fact that we turn away from God didn’t stop Jesus from doing what that Samaritan did: drawing near to us on the cross and, moved with pity, forgiving us and remaining with us, in life and in death.
The kind of neighbor that Jesus is, and want us to be, doesn’t settle for fences. Rather than using fences to justify who our neighbor is, we’re to be the kind of neighbor that the Samaritan was, and the kind of neighbor Jesus is to us: the neighbor who shows mercy.
Who “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asks us. The lawyer answers for us: “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus’ question is forever with us: Who “was a neighbor to that man who fell into the hands of the robbers?
Who is a neighbor to that kid being bullied, or to those who are lonely and have no friends?
Who is a neighbor to the sick and the imprisoned, to the stranger and the unborn, to children separated from their families, through no fault of their own?
Those who show mercy…
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus replies - Amen.
4th Sunday after Pentecost - July 7th, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
In the “Fourth of July” episode of the television show Portlandia, two of the characters, Fred and Carrie, have a plan. They plan to attend all of the Fourth of July barbecues that they’ve been invited to. There are at least ten barbecues that they plan to make an appearance at, all in the same day. Fred and Carrie are two friends living in Portland, Oregon. The show Portlandia is actually a satirical look at a cast of eccentric characters who call Portland, Oregon, their home.
In the “Fourth of July” episode, considering all the invitations they get, Fred and Carrie seem to have a lot of friends. Or they have a lot of people who think they are their friends. In any case, not to disappoint, they plan to go to over ten “Fourth of July” barbecues. They set out to briefly say, “Hi,” to people at each one, but not stay too long at any of them. That’s the plan anyway. They map out their schedule; it’s entirely driven by the clock and the number of parties they think they have to attend.
When it comes to executing the plan, however, Fred and Carrie’s friendship is tested. They had planned to go to each of the barbecues together – to arrive and to leave together. But as their heavily-scheduled Fourth of July holiday unfolds, the two friends have different priorities. Fred insists on first saying “Goodbye” to everyone at each of the barbecues, while Carrie insists on quickly and quietly making their exit. Carrie is driven by the clock and the schedule and getting to the next party, while Fred doesn’t want to come off as rude and unappreciative to the host and other guests, wherever he is.
As far as Carrie is concerned, Fred wants to stay too long at each one. And as far as Fred is concerned, Carrie wants to leave too soon. The two friends have an argument on a stroll from one barbecue to the next. Fred accuses Carrie of being rude to the host and other guests, leaving too soon and not saying, “Goodbye.” But Carrie contends that Fred is being rude to her, not going along with their plan, when there were still so many barbecues to go.
After their argument, the two friends part ways. Carrie races ahead to more barbecues – eyes on the prize – while Fred lingers behind, ruminating over his exit strategy and then saying his goodbyes. Hopefully the friendship itself can survive such melodrama. Though in a show as ridiculous and bizarre as Portlandia, there’s really no telling.
Carrie does break her silence with Fred moments later, however, when she sends him a bragging text that says, “I’m five barbecues ahead of you.” It appears they’re still on speaking terms, or at the very least, texting. In the end, Fred does redeem himself. He catches up with Carrie at the final barbecue of the day, and rescues her from falling off a rooftop patio. During the rescue he assures her that their friendship is more important than a bunch of casual acquaintances at any barbecue. Together they quietly exit, without saying, “Goodbye.”
Going to ten barbecues in one day may seem wildly excessive to us. But then again, maybe not so much, say, during the season of graduation parties. If you do it right, you can plan on having your lunch and your dinner at different parties.
When Jesus sends us out to be guests of others’ hospitality, I don’t think that is what he had in mind, if we go by today’s Gospel according to Luke. Jesus’ instructions to the seventy whom he appointed and sent on ahead of him are as follows: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ […] Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.”
The thing that strikes me most about what Jesus is saying here is this: Jesus’ followers, including you and me, are not in control of everything. In certain important ways, we are in control of some things, but not everything. For instance, when we approach people in a peaceful way, but they are not peaceful in return, we don’t have to hang around them. We can leave, wiping the dust off our feet. Jesus doesn’t want us to be doormats. He doesn’t want us to allow other people to walk all over us and wipe their dust on our faces. That’s important for us to know.
Nevertheless, Jesus instructed his followers (including us), when the people we encounter are peaceful in return, we are to remain with them. Again, Jesus’ words: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide… […] Do not move about from house to house.”
You see, for Jesus, there are different priorities – not our priorities but God’s priorities. Not our plans, our goals, and our agendas – but God’s instead. Don’t be afraid to rely on the hospitality of other people; that’s one of Jesus’ top priorities for us according to today’s Gospel.
As we welcome hospitality, not trying to be in control ourselves, but accepting hospitality from others instead, we build trust. The willingness to accept hospitality shows that we don’t always have to be in control. Rather, we can let go of some of our agendas, our plans, our goals, and make room for other people instead. We can show a willingness to meet others, with whom we share a sense of God-given peace, meet them more on their terms, their turf. Again, this practice of accepting hospitality, of remaining with people, builds trust – rather than our focusing exclusively on where we have to be and what we have to do next. Through our acceptance of hospitality, our willingness to be guests of other people, relationships begin to form through which we and other people experience the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God: that is Jesus’ agenda. The kingdom of God is Jesus’ agenda to bring healing into our lives, our world, and our relationships. Though ultimately, what the kingdom means for us is to be reconciled to God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, we don’t have ultimate control over God’s kingdom, since it is God’s and not ours. But by the grace of God, as we see in today’s Gospel, Jesus appoints us to be part of his kingdom anyway. As Martin Luther put it so well in his explanation of the second petition of “The Lord’s Prayer” in the Small Catechism, “The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, p. 18). And I would add, we pray that God’s kingdom might come even to those people and places whose dust we wipe off our feet.
Even if we have ten barbecues we could go to in one day – and that might have been an option for you this past Fourth of July – remember there are our plans, our goals, our agendas.
And then there is God and his kingdom.
A kingdom that can be heard, seen, and experienced where people make room for each other and take time for one another – long enough to listen, long enough to care, long enough to hear and welcome the voice of Christ in our midst - Amen.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost - June 30th, 2019 (Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25 and Luke 9:51-62 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
A pastor friend of mine lives in rural western North Dakota. It’s very much rural, small-town living where people gossip about each other but also look after each other. Winters, of course, are long and severe. Blizzards are common. When strangers attempting to pass through town have car trouble, or end up in the ditch during a blizzard, they will knock on the nearest neighbor’s door. The townsfolk know it can be life or death getting caught in a blizzard. And they’ll let strangers stay with them until the blizzard passes.
There’s definitely a survival mentality and strong commitment to hospitality during a blizzard, no questions asked. It doesn’t matter what you did in your past, what your political views are, or where you’re heading – the blizzard doesn’t care. But neither do the people who call the town of Butte, North Dakota, their home. When the snow is falling and blowing – and the temperatures are dangerously cold – you’re all in this together. You need to find a warm place out of the cold in order to survive. They figure their home is just the place you happen to go. And my friend and his neighbors trust that you would do the same for them, if they were the ones stranded in the blizzard.
Where Jesus lived in the ancient Near East, there weren’t any blizzards. But generally speaking, there was a similar commitment to hospitality. People in towns opened their homes to travelers passing through. It was too dark and unsafe to travel at night.
Everyone traveled by foot and relied upon each other, even strangers, for a place to stay. Traveling tended to be exhausting and dangerous – especially along certain roads. People were vulnerable to the threat of attack and harm along crime-ridden paths. But they were also more open to receiving the grace of hospitality in a stranger’s home.
It was shameful, after all, to refuse a traveler a place to stay – that is, unless you knew something about that traveler’s reputation – something, by taking them in, that would make you look bad, and give you a bad name. For instance, if you were a person of Samaria – a Samaritan – you absolutely, positively did not want anything to do with a person going to Jerusalem. You see, the Samaritans and the Judeans of Jerusalem were bitter enemies. They couldn’t even agree on where God was to be worshiped – certainly not in the Jerusalem temple if you were a Samaritan. As a Samaritan, you had your own mountain upon which to worship God.
So then, according to today’s Gospel, how open were the Samaritans to Jesus and his followers who were passing through a Samaritan village? Well, let’s just say the Samaritans’ doors slammed shut when they heard that Jesus and his disciples were going to the capital city of their enemies: Jerusalem. As a Bears fan, what would you do if a Packers fan were on their way to Lambeau Field, and wanted to stay with you?
Only, believe it or not, in Jesus’ day the association of a Samaritan with a person going to Jerusalem was much, much more egregious than that.
The Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus – their refusal to show him hospitality – explains the rage of James and John, two of Jesus’ followers, when they say, concerning those inhospitable Samaritans: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
“How about a firestorm?” the disciples petition to Jesus. That’ll teach those Samaritans who they’re messing with. Remember when God rained fire upon the false prophets of Baal? Or when God brought the plagues against the Egyptians? Don’t you have it in for these jerks who won’t even give you a room for the night; who aren’t even proper Jews worshiping at the temple in our holy city?
We like to know who our enemies are. We like to know because having the right enemies, we believe, can put us all the more in favor with God. We want God’s enemies and our enemies to be the same. We want God to be on our side, against those we believe are our enemies.
In today’s Gospel, we have an instance where the disciples want Jesus to take sides, their side. They want the Samaritans to be his enemies too.
And now, the disciples believe they have proof that they are right: the Samaritans won’t even welcome Jesus! The Samaritans have rejected him instead!
“But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them.”
Not the Samaritans, you see, but his own disciples! Jesus sternly told his own followers they were wrong. Wanting God to make your enemy his own doesn’t bring you any closer to God; a common enemy doesn’t put you in greater favor with God either; not when it turns out that God has been rejected by all people, including us; rejected on the cross upon which his Son Jesus suffered and died; rejected even by his own followers, upon that cross outside Jerusalem.
Not only would Jesus have no place to stay in that Samaritan village; he would have no home, nowhere to lay his head, as he ended up on a cross instead. His suffering and death took him away from his own family in a way that one well-intentioned follower just couldn’t understand and accept. “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” he tells Jesus. Jesus’ reply: Following me must come first. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
“Idolatry [having false gods], enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy…”
Not even Jesus’ followers – not even you and I – are immune to these works of the flesh. Or to the warning: “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
And yet on that cross in Jerusalem – where he was headed – Jesus takes upon himself everything we’ve done to make him our enemy.
And in place of our sin, of our dying apart from him, he gives us the Spirit instead. On the cross with him are crucified all of our works of the flesh, and in their place Jesus and his Father give us the Spirit instead.
By giving us the Spirit, the promise is fulfilled that we are no longer enemies of our Lord; we belong to Christ instead.
It is Jesus’ and his Father’s Spirit at work in us and through us that produces fruit.
The fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit produces fruit in our lives.
Indeed we may be surprised that the people Christ died to save are no longer our enemies, though we still have our disagreements.
But now there’s a willingness to welcome and show them hospitality, even when there’s no blizzard - Amen.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost - June 23rd, 2019 (Scripture: Luke 8:26-39 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
On a scale from zero to ten, how would you rate your pain right now?
That’s not a question we’re asked as the church gathered in worship on a Sunday morning, is it? Rate your pain on a scale from zero to ten. Rather, that’s a question asked in the hospital numerous times. In each of the rooms, you’ll find a pain chart. Zero indicates no pain, and ten excruciating pain. There’s a smiley face next to the number zero, and a frowning, tear-filled face with an agonized expression next to the number ten. Some of the smiley and frowning faces are more detailed and elaborate than others, depending on how artistic the design.
As the patient, your job is to rate your pain when asked. And your pain level is then circled on the chart. Depending on what’s going on, of course, your pain level can change from day to day. It can even change by the hour, or from one moment to the next, that is, until the care-providers are able to administer the proper medication that provides the necessary relief and helps to manage the pain.
Each person has a different pain tolerance – to take an extreme example, compare a stoic Norwegian to a valley girl in southern California. If each, for instance, had the same level of pain, you’d think the shrieking valley girl was near death, while the reserved Norwegian might just shrug it off and admit it could be worse.
In any case, this is where the pain scale comes in. Rather than go by shrieks of “I’m dying!” or a shrug it off, “It could be worse,” you’re asked to assign a number to your pain. To be sure, one person’s seven will not be exactly the same as another person’s seven. But even so, it’s easier to distinguish mild and moderate from severe pain using a range of numbers than it is to gauge the pain by strictly interpreting people’s words and facial expressions.
On a scale from zero to ten, what is your level of pain?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t even have to ask that question. The man comes right out and tells Jesus. But before he does, what do we know about the man Jesus encounters in the country of the Gerasenes? According to the Gospel, “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” He is introduced to us as “a man of the city who had demons…”
Furthermore, “For many times [the unclean spirit] had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.” When “Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man,” the man begs Jesus not to torment him. This poor soul is accustomed to being tormented, and sees Jesus as just another potential tormentor.
Jesus doesn’t ask him, “On a scale from zero to ten, how would you rate your pain?” He asks the man his name. And it is in the man’s reply that we get a number indicating the level of pain and torment he is experiencing. “Legion”; [the man replies] “for many demons had entered him.”
Rather than telling Jesus his name, the man gives Jesus a number – a number representing how many demons have been afflicting him. According to Paul Jaster in his helpful analysis of this Gospel text, “‘Legion’ is not a name, it is a statistic. It stands for the 5,000 soldiers (plus auxiliaries) that made up the largest Roman military unit. In other words, the 5,000 demons mark the full severity of this man’s inner torment and affliction” (Luke 8:26-39, “Second Sunday after Pentecost,” Analysis by Paul Jaster).
The demon-possessed man was off the charts according to the pain scale. He wasn’t somewhere between a zero and a ten; he was at least a 5,000. This is an intensity of pain, torment, and affliction that we can hardly fathom and scarcely imagine. The man doesn’t even know his own name anymore. He doesn’t know who he is. His life has been overrun by forces that have overpowered him. He no longer has any control. His life is no longer his own. Rather, he’s enslaved by a legion – over 5,000 unclean spirits – bent on destroying him. He is already defeated; he is already dead; he’s passing his days in a graveyard among the tombs, after all.
When the struggles in our own lives get to be overwhelming, a pain scale from zero to ten just may not go high enough. The power and principalities and forces that oppose God also intensify our pain and our struggles, beyond what we can handle on our own. A serious illness, or the death of a loved one, may push us into a pit of hopelessness and despair. Different political views within our families can produce anger and hatred, and family members may stop speaking to each other. Fear and anxiety about the future, regrets about the past, doubts about how well we are performing in the present, all may convince us that we are never good enough. We remain trapped in our own guilt and shame.
The list of unclean spirits could go on and on. And the more we realize what’s wrong – with ourselves, in our lives, and in our world – the more defeated we become, like the demon-possessed man Jesus encounters among the tombs, who doesn’t even know his own name.
But here’s what makes all the difference: If Jesus isn’t afraid to show up for a man whose level of pain is way, way off the zero-to-ten chart – whose torment and affliction surpasses 5,000 – then he’s not afraid to show up for you as well. He’s not afraid of whatever it is that’s enslaving you and adding to your own pain and struggles. In fact, he refuses to let you be alone with it all, to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, all by yourself.
And he does more for you than drive out your demons into a herd of swine. Jesus himself, rather than the swine, ends up dying for you, after all. He takes your place in a tomb – all of our demons and unclean spirits have driven him there. But he insists the tomb is no place for us, or for that poor soul who was tortured as he lived among the tombs. The tomb, rather, is where Jesus ends up going, for him and for us. He goes to the tomb in our place.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes to that man’s tomb – amidst all of the man’s demons. Jesus goes to that man and his tomb, so that the man can leave and be free. He goes to that man and his tomb, so that the man can be free to go back to the city, back to his home, and “declare how much God has done for him.”
Likewise, Jesus goes to tomb for us. Jesus goes to the tomb rightfully reserved for us, where all of our own demons have been driving us.
When he gets to that tomb, Jesus is dead. But in dying, and then rising, Jesus does something that none of us could ever do. By his death and resurrection, he defeats death and all of its powers.
Our pain and our struggles, though we continue to rate them on a scale from zero to ten, no longer have power over us.
Death and the tomb is no longer the end of our story.
We are like the man who, in turning toward the city – away from the chains and the shackles of our tomb – can now “declare how much God has done for us” - Amen.
Pentecost Sermon – June 9th, 2019 (Scripture: Acts 2:1-21 New Revised Standard Version)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ - Amen
Even though we can be speaking the same language, we may not all be saying the same thing.
How many times do we find that out – that we’re not all saying the same thing even as we speak the same language? We encounter “communication breakdown” and ideas “lost in translation” as we attempt to just talk to each other and practice the often deceptively tricky art of communication.
I remember a humorous example of such difficulties in communication on one of my favorite TV shows, “Family Matters.” At the beginning of one of the episodes, the parents, Carl and Harriet Winslow are listening to a tape recording. The voice on the recording is repeating different expressions that teenagers use, and then translating them so that parents can understand the meaning. First, the recording would say what the kids say. Keep in mind, this show was from the 1990’s…
“Daddy mac,” the recording would say. Translation: “a good-looking guy”; followed by another expression on the recording: “fly honey.” Translation: “a good-looking girl.” The final expression on the recording was, “Yo, let’s go kick it in the crib”; followed by the translation: “Hey, let’s relax with our friends.”
After the recording was over, Carl and Harriet Winslow look at each other and breathe a sigh of relief. “We just might be able to understand our kids again,” they say.
As I did some volunteering with high school kids in Young Life, I found out I needed a translator. The kids and I were speaking the same language, but often we were saying very different things. In conversation with kids, words took on new meanings. When something was considered “sick,” it didn’t actually mean in bad health – and it wasn’t something negative. Rather, something that was “sick” was considered really cool.
To take another example, the word “dope” was not used to refer to drugs; rather, “dope” also meant “cool” – as did saying if something was “lit.” You really, really liked a particular show or concert, Instagram post or vlog, if you said it was “lit.” I had never heard those words used that way before.
And the thing was if I didn’t understand how the words were being used differently by the kids, it would have all sounded like “babble” to me.
In our first reading from Genesis, we have a problem when all the people speak a common language. The people resolve, as the story goes, to make a name for themselves. They want power for themselves, and they attempt to secure that power by attempting to build a city with a tower that reaches the heavens. The people in Genesis use their common language to speak about themselves and their own power and aspirations, rather than to proclaim the power and goodness of God.
And what happens as a result of people’s attempt to make a name for themselves using their common language, rather than speak to each other about the power and goodness of God?
Well, in protest God makes it so that the people can no longer understand each other. Their language becomes confused, mere babble, so that they no longer understand each other’s speech. The people are furthermore scattered, and their project of making a name for themselves is not fulfilled.
Communication has broken down. They no longer understand each other properly.
This very same communication breakdown happens to us as well, doesn’t it? When the focus is on us, on our own powers and aspirations, and we’d just as soon take God’s place in the heavens if we could, we struggle to communicate with each other. We struggle to understand the people that we love.
We seem to be speaking two or more different languages, as we try to talk with and understand our teenage son or daughter – or as we attempt to complete that group project with others at work or at school – or as we try to heal that wounded relationship with a friend or loved one. But alas, the communication just isn’t there – neither is the love or the understanding. In our attempt to control and “to be God” over ourselves and others, God has instead scattered us.
God has confused our attempts to communicate with each other; God has even frustrated our efforts to understand one another and God. After all, we claim to be communicating in plain English, but so often what we end up really hearing is “Babel.”
On this Pentecost Sunday, however, we find out that something remarkable happens amidst all of this miscommunication and misunderstanding, this human babble. In the midst of our own human babble, God’s promised Holy Spirit shows up. The Spirit enables communication and understanding about God. And the Spirit provides this communication and understanding in the native languages of each of the Jews living in Jerusalem, just after Jesus has ascended into heaven.
The Holy Spirit’s message was not just in the language of the Galileans, you see, but also in the language of “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” Indeed, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, each person – in his or her own language – heard Jesus’ followers “speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
God as the Holy Spirit breaks through their confused and frustrated miscommunication, misunderstanding, and babble. And by the power of the Spirit, the people are no longer scattered and divided but rather built up and united. That’s what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit of God takes a scattered and divided people and unites them and builds them up around the message of the Gospel, which is not about us making a name for ourselves, but about the name God has already made for himself in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And by the Holy Spirit, imperfect human beings speak and understand the Gospel promise that is for them and for you – that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Despite so much that can scatter us and divide us these days, the Holy Spirit – at Pentecost and today – unites us and builds us up in both our understanding and faith in God who is for us in Jesus Christ.
I think it’s especially appropriate that this Sunday of Pentecost is the day before our Vacation Bible School begins. During this upcoming week of VBS, the Spirit will be at work. Volunteers and teachers are united by the work of the Holy Spirit, to communicate God’s power and the goodness he shows us in Jesus. And the Spirit will be at work helping kids understand that, and to trust God’s power and goodness in Jesus.
We may not always understand each other, as I’ve learned from the ways kids and adults can speak the same language but say very different things. But one thing’s for sure: the Spirit will continue to open our mouths to speak and our ears to hear of the power and goodness of our God - Amen.