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.”