Sunday, Sunday – So Good To Be Free

A sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ from God, our Father!

The world weighed heavy on her shoulders. For eighteen years her burdens had claimed her spirit and held her captive – bound by chains of judgment, guilt, shame, regret, and hopelessness. The harshness of the world had not been spared for her. The divisions among neighbors, the violence permeating the streets, the economic and political roller coaster – all seemed to mirror her own experience. At times she felt invisible to her community but to be honest – that felt better than judgment. Fearful at what she might see, she had gotten used to looking down, only glancing at people out of the corner of her eye. It was safer that way- feet don’t look back. Feet don’t judge or dismiss. Still, she made her way to worship every Sunday, in spite of her struggles. And here she was despite the troubles at home, despite the sleepless night before, despite the fact that she had so much to do and so little energy left to do it, despite the storms that defined her very being. She was at a breaking point. She was here simply to escape.

The council president was busy making sure everything was in place for worship and the guest preacher. Order was the priority of the day. The batteries for the microphone were fresh, the sound system was working, and the bread and wine finally made it to the altar. The ushers were busy handing out bulletins and fretting that there wouldn’t be enough large print versions while preschoolers scampered back and forth from their seats to the activity bags in search of any activity but. The sanctuary was abuzz with chatter  – members of every age and stage of life – were all in their assigned seats sharing their latest hiking adventures, golf scores, bodily ailments, grandchildren tales, and business deals. This is good – GOOD – she thought to herself. Our guest will be impressed with our summer attendance. Now, what were those special announcements I was supposed to make? Oh yes, the rummage sale needs more helpers, especially for clean up, and the community dinner is coming up – volunteers needed, and Sunday School – oh goodness – we still need Sunday School Teachers.  Her mind drifted back to that week’s council meeting. There were issues, big ones to be dealt with and right now no one seemed to agree on anything. She longed for a break. But oops, no more time – it’s showtime! The prelude was over. 

Also in attendance were thinkers thinking various thoughts. “Will I ever be able to say no to my boss? This church is so tired. We need more singers in the choir.  I wish my husband would listen to me. The same ten people do everything around here. I wish my wife would hear me. I am afraid of failing tomorrow. Why am I here? I am scared about starting school tomorrow. I can’t pay my bills. I love this place. Does anyone even see me here? People are drifting away.  We feel so welcome here. Visitors must feel so unwelcome. Finally, people who see things as I do. The gatekeepers here just sit in judgment. Why do they always ask me? Why am I never asked? I can’t feel God anymore.”

What brings you to church this morning? Some innate sense of obligation to God? Because the third commandment says you should be here? Is it just part of your weekend routine followed by a trip to Costco? Maybe you were assigned to read or serve communion or more importantly serve the coffee afterward? Did you come to see your friends? Did you come because someone needs you to be here this morning? Or did you come because, like me, you just don’t feel complete if you don’t? I for one would like to thank you for being here this morning – I feel a distinct sense of wholeness when I gather here with all of you – my church family, not to mention I worked long and hard on this sermon!! Obviously, in my role as an LPA – Sunday’s hold special significance for me.

But, do you ever wonder why? Why this weekly ritual of gathering, worshipping, singing, reading, preaching, mingling — why do we do it? What is THIS all about? Has it ever gotten to you – church that is? To the point where you needed to take a break? Has Sunday/Sabbath lost something in the modern-day translation? I’ve heard the church as a whole referred to as a bunch of hypocrites  – not just by outsiders, mind you, but by actively practicing Christians.

In our Gospel lesson, we get to see into a day in the life of a church and a couple of its members in biblical times.  Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath Day. In those days, not unlike today, synagogues would invite guest Teachers – especially those of community interest who might be passing through – to come and teach and that is what Jesus was doing as he continued on his journey to Jerusalem. A woman with a crippling spirit about her is also there to worship. Jesus calls her to him and heals her. She is able, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe free and stand tall and she praises God. At once, the leader of the synagogue objects. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong “standard” of Sabbath behavior, for not following the exact letter of the law. He cajoles the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  And Jesus responds calling those gathered – you got it – Hypocrites! But the synagogue leader is right, you know. In Jewish custom, you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And here is this visitor – a fellow Jew – subverting God’s law in God’s house! The Jewish people took the Sabbath observation much more seriously than the rather happenstance way we sometimes view the various Sabbath “requirements” or restrictions today. There is not much that we do on the other six days of the week that we don’t also do on Sunday.  

I can empathize with the synagogue leader. Can’t you? Like him we like order.  Most of us have certain rules and standards that govern our lives that we think are particularly important. Think about your steadfast adherence to a morning ritual or more trivial laws such as eating only organic foods, your children’s bedtimes, refusing to schedule anything before noon on a Saturday, or refusing to buy anything not made in the USA. These legal tendencies are alive and well in our religious life too. We have firmly staked positions on who can and cannot receive communion, issues of marriage and divorce, human sexuality and gender; who can and cannot be called and ordained into ministry; and who we can and cannot minister to – as in the case of the recent Sanctuary Denomination declaration at the National Synod Assembly defining outreach to immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum. And then there is the almighty law of “because we have always done it that way.”  We can get so caught up in our positions on issues of and the “doing” of church that we lose sight of what Sunday and church is really all about. 

But we would be lost without them – our laws and traditions – wouldn’t we? The thing is – we need them. God would not have given the Israelites the law in the beginning if it wasn’t necessary for human flourishing. Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the law was used to provide guidance on how to live with one another so that all would get more out of this life and world. The law, in short, promotes civility, cooperation, and health and lends a sense of order to our chaotic world. But let’s be honest – we pick and choose the laws we follow. We follow the laws that keep us comfortable and safe. We like the laws that provide structure and familiarity to our daily lives. We defend the laws that support our ideologies and protect our beliefs and traditions. We get anxious if we see challenges to our way of doing things coming down the line. Our need for order and stability in this broken world makes it difficult for us to imagine “exceptions” to the law – even those that promote greater life and health. The good leader of the synagogue was charged with upholding a semblance of order and seeing to it that the Law was obeyed. The law is the law after all and if you start making exceptions goodness only knows what will happen next.

But as important as law is –  Jesus sees things differently and thank goodness he does! What better way of exemplifying the Sabbath’s origin as a covenant of deliverance than by freeing this woman from her crippling spirit while celebrating the Sabbath? Jesus draws directly from the law gifted in Deuteronomy 5, connecting the rest ordained in the Sabbath to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you…” “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

In Jesus’ view, since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting – not inhibiting – liberation in the present-day. He’s been saying things like this since his synagogue debut in his hometown after his time of testing in the Wilderness.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

I like to think that Jesus was a rebel with a cause – not to break the law but restore to the law the love that inspired it. In freeing the woman from her crippled spirit and challenging the letter of the law, Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath as an opportunity to draw closer to God, to contemplate God’s goodness and love, recall God’s gift of freedom from bondage, and to be schooled in God’s will. 

As David Lose, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn., former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and one of my favorite modern-day theologians explains, while the law matters,  it must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Law helps us live our lives better, but grace creates life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.

We are captive to the law when it blinds us to God’s loving will. There are a myriad of reasons for us to be disconsolate and look to the security and comfort of law: oppression at the hands of corrupt power; guilt from the knowledge of participating in or benefiting from, systems of oppression; fatigue in faith; disintegration of community life; broken hearts and misunderstood identity; suffering caused by chronic physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional pain; and the list goes on. But with his outstretched arm, Jesus broke into the dogmatic world of first-century Judaism and our present-day with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice bearing witness that when it comes to upholding the law or nurturing life, God always comes down on the side of life. The entire law is summed up in a single command and is the one law by which to measure all others –  the absolute law of love. Love God and love your neighbor. And love God by loving your neighbor.

And so, while we gather today in this ritual of worship I want you to know that this is what it is all about: Sunday is about letting go of all those things you carried in with you this morning – the good and the bad – and laying them all before God to take rest in this,  HIS red-carpeted sanctuary – even if only for an hour. Sunday is about remembering how God has freed us so that we might be rebels with a cause to free others. Sunday is about calling to mind the mighty acts of God so that we too dare mighty acts ourselves. Sunday is a day to remember that God has freed us from the bondage of sin and death itself so that we might boldly bring order to this world with love rather than law. 

Finally, beloved children of God, God sees YOU and claims you this morning and all those with the weight of the world on their shoulders, those who lead, those who follow, those who are angry, those who despair, those who are weary, those who worry, those who are lost, those in the shadows, those who hurt, those who believe and those who have yet to believe;  and with an outstretched arm, God calls each and every one of us to receive His gift of Sabbath, to give us rest, free us from the burdens of this world, and to help us breathe again. He sees you and knows your deepest hurts. There is no sorrow or bondage on earth from which Jesus cannot set us free.

We will never be able to confine God’s grace and love with our laws, so why even try? Instead, let’s consider ways our insistence on law and order in our lives blocks us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need and limits God from entering fully into our lives. 

When we let God break into our lives and break the laws of our lives with his grace and love – some amazing things can happen. So stand up straight and breathe – you are free – not just on Sunday, but every day. 

This is such Good News! Amen!

1. The Law of Love; David Lose

 

“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Everybody’s Story

A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.

Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path?  Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.

And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…

The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”

Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right –  He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.

Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.

“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”

The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?

Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.

“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind.  You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”

“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.

“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”

“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”

“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.

“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”

“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.

“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”

“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”

“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them!  It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”

“I am happy…”

“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”

Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that!  God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”

Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.

“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”

Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.

“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.

“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.

“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”

Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”

“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours.  Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”

Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.

And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.

As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Amen.

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Leaving Jesus

A sermon based on John 6:56-71 

Well, here we are at the end of the loaf. Over the last four weeks we have had a crash course on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the true source of life to the hungry masses; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven to truly nourish us; and last week Jesus professed that He will give us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to be one with us in relationship to sustain us on our journey into eternity. Pretty heady stuff if you ask me.

In today’s Gospel reading, we come to the end of heady bread. Jesus is met with disenchantment. Even his closest followers are having a hard time comprehending what Jesus is telling them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Sensing that he was losing some if not many in his audience, rather than changing his message to an easier one to grasp, he asks them if they will understand when they see him, the Son of Man, ascend to the heavens. He further explains that it is the Spirit, His spirit, that gives abundant life; the flesh and will of man is useless in this regard.

Ironically, Jesus finds himself speaking to an emptying room, as He was preaching in the Synagogue, the place where his followers expected to at least draw near to the presence of God. And yet, when God offers them more than just nearness but oneness with him, it is more than his listeners can handle.

You would think that by their initial reaction that Jesus had just stated his position on the upcoming election rather than offering an invitation to an abundant life in relationship with him. Yet many leave him – many who had followed him steadfastly, who had witnessed and believed in the miracles he had performed. What he was proposing was just too much. No longer was he simply feeding and healing and meeting their needs for survival; Jesus was asking them to reject this life and come to Him, to think beyond the literal, to imagine life in abundance, life beyond measure. Life beyond their control. They don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted them the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in them, it is already theirs if they will only believe.

A life beyond our control. We don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted us the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in us – it is already ours if we will only believe.

From our enlightened perspective on this happening of some 2000 years ago, you would think we would “get it.” But, we live in a reality of belief and unbelief And, with our enlightened perspective comes lives that are complex, perhaps even intellectualized. We live in chaotic times governed by money, power, status, profession, principles, policy, and possessions; times focused on individualism, validation, and justification.  times demand logic and reason. We deal with this chaos and busyness and brokenness on a daily basis – living it, fleeing from it, sometimes thriving on it.

Deal with life long enough and sooner or later you realize that one aspect of life is complicated, even scary at times – that of relationship. It is at once something so inherent and vital to human life and yet something that can cause so much pain. Relationship opens us up to vulnerability, the unknown. Which is why it is so much easier to place our trust in that which we know, that which we can control – the self. Reason tells us so. But God is asking us to reject this kind of thinking and come to him. To cast the burdens of this world onto Him and live in abundance with him. And we so want to, don’t we? We try. But sometimes this world gets the better of us.

There are times when this relationship that God offers us may not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away – during the dark of the night, perhaps, when our failings and insecurities replay in our mind, or by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, wondering why?  Or maybe in the early morning,  when you wake up alone and wonder why your spouse has left you or why no one wants to be with you? Or in the waning light of day as home beckons and you think about your family – the “family that won’t speak to one another” – or the friend who let you down again – and you wonder why things have not turned out the way you hoped. You wonder if they ever will.

Because sometimes our lives with God seem no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the freedom to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves. Whether it is our family life, our jobs, our money, the things we do for fun, our sports, our health, our relationships, our time, our goals, our goals for our kids – we don’t just trust these things to anyone and when we don’t trust these things to anyone, someone, God – these things become our god.

I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. My earliest memories are often from times in church. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma used to delight in telling the story of seeing the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News and singing Holy, Holy, Holy at the top of my lungs. I had a zest for life and a love for the Lord right up into high school. But then things began to change. In my senior year life started getting complicated. The friends I had run with had graduated, getting straight A’s didn’t seem to cut it anymore, there was disorder in my family and disorder in the church, we were moving once again, my life seemed to be out of control – and Jesus seemed very far away.

I loved to exercise though, and I was good at it – from lifting weights to running and everything in between. I found some solace from the chaos that I was fleeing in those activities. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed a sense of control. At that point of my life, food and exercise seemed to be the only things I could control, and I succeeded.  I was good at something again! I became so focused on that feeling of success and control that I didn’t need my family, my friends, or the church that was once my life, or God.

This is how betrayal works, at least according to John. As John scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real. Betrayal is that which causes you to believe that this life is for everyone else but you. Betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.”[1]

Yeah, I knew God loved the world, but me? No not anymore, no, I was a special case, not worthy of the kind of indiscriminate love that came without demands or stipulations. I believed that rejection and marginalization was simply my lot in life; that real relationship lived only in my hopeful imagination. Real relationship? That meant belonging, intimacy, want, desire, mutuality, reciprocity, nurture, safety. That kind of relationship exists only in books and movies. The same books and movies that tells us that God manipulates instead of promises. That’s the kind of God the disciples were expecting and in which the world still wants us to believe.

When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours. And so, like Judas did, I walked away. I went away to a place that only I could control. I couldn’t deal with the perfection I thought a relationship with God required nor could I handle the unknowns of life that requires us to trust in God!

We all have the proclivity in us to walk away from this relationship, to leave Jesus.  As Lewis writes, “Judas’s betrayal (in John) is fundamentally a rejection of relationship, but it is also an unwillingness to receive life beyond measure, an inability to accept that abundant life could be true, a reluctance to envision, to dream, to picture that when God said God loves the world that it actually meant him – and means you.”

By age 23, I had become the master of my sorry destiny. Until I died twice, once in my bedroom when my heart stopped beating and again in an ambulance. I found myself at rock bottom, in ICU with tubes sticking out of every cavity of my body and wires taped to my chest.  I remember hearing the doctor tell my parents that my 54-pound body was dying and if things didn’t turn around drastically I would be lucky to make it another 4 weeks. In that moment I realized that all the control I thought I had gained through mastering my body had, in reality, brought me to the gates of hell.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost until it is gone – and I had lost everything.

Oh Lord, to whom can I go??

But you know – the foundation of my life had never left me, God was always there – I just had to believe again – to let him in.

There was no altar call, no rapturous music, no radiant light – just the beeping of monitors and the hushed hospital hustle outside my curtained off room and the promise of a better life, a more abundant life – waiting for me. When I gave my life back to Jesus – including the food and the control – he fed me with the Bread of Life – and there was peace in my heart again and a renewed will to live. I entered a residential treatment program in the desert of Arizona that was grounded in Christ. Through equine therapy I learned how to trust again and grow in relationship with someone other than myself. Most importantly, l discovered what a relationship with God was all about. It wasn’t one of manipulation or control. It was a relationship of grace and love. To this day there isn’t a moment that I do not thank Him for the breaths I take and the abundant life I have in him.

This is what the closing of John 6 talks about. Peter knows the truth. When asked if he too will walk away he answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter has experienced Jesus, sat around the fire and eaten with Jesus, and he believes that Jesus is who He says He is. God in the flesh. God committed to relationship and wanting to be in relationship.

And yes, we do know that Peter experiences his own crisis of belief later in the story – just as I still do from time to time, but in John, Peter does not deny who Jesus is, Peter denies who Jesus wants him to be.

We forget just how vulnerable we are when in relationship. Relationships mean being known and knowing. Not wanting to be known for what we really are we acquiesce to fear and walk away especially from our relationship with God. We walk away before he gets too close. We trust only certain aspects of our lives to him, sometimes just our dying. We temper God’s desire for relationship with us in our living, never mind that He came to us in flesh and blood to be one with us, to know our joys and our pain, and to die for us so that we may have him in us for all time. We put the truth of His incarnation in a box as if it was only a temporary moment in God’s time and not meant for our time.

But now, knowing the truth – knowing what it is to be in relationship with God and to live with Him in me – it is with joy and humbleness that I am reminded every Sunday in The Bread and Wine of the Spirit that lives in me, leads me, and sustains me.  And it is an abundant life with Jesus, the intimacy of the relationship with God – that I want you to know. You too are fed with the Living Bread of Jesus – His choice has been made, all you need to do is say yes Lord, count me in, I believe.

 

Amen.

[1] Not Just Bread Anymore, Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3676

 

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen

Of Walls and Wilderness

A sermon based on Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 23, Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sister in Christ, from God our Father.

I had a slightly different sermon prepared for you today. For those of you who read my midweek prologue you probably came to church expecting to hear politics from the pulpit or at least the inference of such. Alas, I woke up yesterday morning knowing that the divisions of which I was going to speak wasn’t what I needed to hear right now. Trusting in Pastor Mark Gravrock’s wisdom from 2 weeks ago – I am going to guess that what I need to hear today may just be what you need to hear too.

And so there I lay at 6:30 a.m. Saturday after a night of writing the sermon on walls I had planned for you, restless and a tad weary, I was in need of good news. Frankly the level of angst and division that is polarizing our nation and world has been taking a toll on me. Maybe it is because my job in a financial advisor’s office exposes me to our client’s rollercoasters of emotion as the political and economic frenzy of empire impacts the very thing we manage – their money – on a daily basis. Let’s just say the last couple of weeks of have been especially trying.

Needless to say, the last thing I wanted to hear about at 10:15am on a beautiful Sunday morning is more about the things that divide us -the dividing walls of hostility between “us” and “them,” whether based on ethnicity, religious, political, or economic views, class, citizenship status, gender, culture, job position, or whatever else of this world that we choose to hang our identities on or take offense at. No, this what I really want to hear is someone saying ‘Erika, on October 1st, your sabbatical starts!” But I digress…

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Jesus tells his disciples upon their return from their first missions without Him -they had preached, they had cast out demons, they had anointed with oil those who were sick, they had called people to wake up to God’s call and purpose for their lives. In other words, they had been really busy doing some pretty heavy stuff.

Other translations of the bible use the word “wilderness” – come away to the wilderness and rest awhile. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? We are lucky to live in a playground of wilderness. Lately, our slice of wilderness is looking very much like the one Jesus and his disciples experienced in today’s Gospel – “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd;” Sound familiar? What wilderness?  No matter where they went the masses found them. Bringing with them the immensity of human need and despair.

Mark refers to a wilderness often throughout his Gospel. In fact, he opens his Gospel with John the Baptist appearing as a voice in the wilderness telling of the one who is to come. Jesus spends 40 days in a wilderness. While the wilderness can be a place of rest and solace and recreation like that to which Jesus invited his disciples today, it can also be a very hostile place – a place to escape from.

When I woke up yesterday morning, it dawned on me that the sermon I was going to preach sounded an awful lot like that kind of wilderness – the hostile one. The wilderness that is played out on the opinion pages of our newspapers and broadcast across the airwaves and social media. The wilderness of empire where politics and power separate us from humanity and hope. The wilderness of “Us vs. Them” and Right vs. Left power plays. The wilderness of broken relationships and broken trust. The wilderness of lives and families torn apart by addiction and violence, of communities divided by hate. The wilderness of loneliness. The wilderness where we are consumed with working, collecting, amassing, and generally “getting ahead” to the detriment of our spirits, our relationships, and rest.

Oh, my goodness, are we ever living in a wilderness of walls and human despair!  We are just like the masses of lost sheep rushing to Jesus in need of a Shepherd. Living behind walls that separate us from God and one another, longing for the healing of our hurts, wanting to belong, searching for peace.

The scriptures I had read over and over again in preparation for today took on a whole new meaning for me. So perfect for our time and our place in this wilderness – they are full of Good News!  In Jeremiah, we hear of a promised shepherd for the world (the Shepherd in those days -as we learned from pastor Mark last week – was symbolic of a King.) While corrupt leadership had “scattered” the sheep, lead them astray and dashed their hopes, God gathered the remnants of his flock back to him and promised the coming of a righteous shepherd. When we place our hopes and trust in leaders of this world we will no doubt be lead astray and have our hopes disappointed at some point. But God is the good shepherd, and when we place our hope and trust in Him we will always know justice and good care.

We see in today’s Gospel, the stark contrast of Jesus to that of the corrupt King Herod we witnessed last week, as Jesus takes on the role of the good shepherd. Despite having been rejected in his hometown, despite having received news that his comrade John the Baptist has been killed, despite crossing over the sea and the barriers it represents many, many times, despite being tired and hungry and in need of rest, Jesus sees the crowds of people who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and has compassion for them and he begins to teach them. They are brought out of their wilderness and healed.

We are reminded by the 23rd Psalm that our Lord will give us all that we need. That in Him we will find a place to rest and restore our broken hearts and burdened minds. We are assured that He will lead us in the right ways – not for fulfillment of our worldly desires but for those of a higher calling. He will comfort us when fear and evil try to separate us from Him. He will stand with us in the face of our enemies and feed us together at His table – no need for a wall here. We are promised goodness and mercy in all our days.  This Lord who is our shepherd is with us always. He goes from being a God above us to one with us, accompanying us in our place of wilderness

And then, we hear of God’s ultimate promise to us from Paul in his letter to the divided people of Ephesus – Christ is our peace. In the ultimate act of shepherding, Jesus went out into the hostile wilderness and gave his life for us – declaring peace and freedom from the shackles of sin on new terms, a peace and freedom forged not by the powers of Empire in its various forms, but in the blood of the Shepherd on the cross. Through the cross, the wall dividing Jew and Gentile, citizen and stranger, those who are us and those who are them, was broken. And that is only the beginning. God in Christ made one humanity of the two.  Not making us uniform but rather uniting us with all our complexities in Christ as Jew and Gentile; citizen and stranger, us and them. This unity is not of our doing. It is out of the grace of God. This is the church and Christ is the cornerstone.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul tells the people of Ephesus – and the words should ring just as true to us today – remember who you were, see who you are now.  Remember when you were dead through your trespasses, God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us – made us alive together with Christ—by grace we have been saved! Through his great love for us, Christ calls us, his lost sheep, out the wilderness – the wilderness of exclusion and hostility and divisiveness. He alone tears down the walls that we build up around ourselves, walls that separate us from Him and “them.”  Christ calls us to a place where we are united together in Him. This togetherness in Christ – our good and compassionate Shepherd – empowers us to welcome the stranger, to teach and share the Good News, to have compassion and suffer with those who are wandering in a wilderness of their own – not just on Sunday but every day as well as on the opinion pages and our social media posts. Doesn’t that sound like a nice respite from this wilderness of walls we have been wandering in?

We will never know perfect peace or unity in this world. Our defenses and offenses will always be aroused by the sins inherent to humanity. But through Christ we have a place to go where walls are invisible. This place is a daring place where a different kind of power – the self-outpoured, boundary-crossing power of Christ’s cross – is at work.  We can trust this power to undermine every wall that divides us, to heal our hurts, to unmask our defenses, and bring us peace until we are as Paul wrote, “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is hope. Saturday morning, I heard a voice in the wilderness- it was good news – as I relished the extra minutes of pillow-time with the cool breeze wafting in through my window contemplating where in the world my sermon on walls was going to take me. Ye, I heard good news on the news! The Mayor of Branson, MO was being interviewed in the aftermath of the duck boat sinking tragedy where 17 sightseers lost their lives and many more were injured. Her comments are just what I needed to hear this morning and echoed what I hope you will take away from my sermon today: “We are all about taking care of our citizens,” she said, “but what makes us unique is we are all about taking care of strangers too. When you come here we love on you no matter whether you are here as a citizen or as someone we have never met before.”

Yeah, I think she was at a bible study this week. I think she got the message.

There are no walls of division or exclusion with Christ. We will never be alone in the wilderness. We can come to Him and rest awhile. And Erika needs a sabbatical.

Amen.

Do Not Fear, Only Believe (Jesus Changes Everything)

A sermon inspired by Lamentations 3:1-33; Mark 5: 21-43

The call had come. The call I had prepared myself for but was not anticipating – I thought things had stabilized for my Dad, but my brother’s voice on the other end of the line some 475 miles away –  said everything without needing words. My Dad, who had had a couple of bumpy days after falling and hitting his head had just moved into his new residence at St. John’s Nursing Home – into the skilled nursing wing – a transition in life we didn’t plan for but knew was for the best. He lasted there 4 hours when the chaplain that stopped in to visit alerted the staff that something didn’t seem right. When my brother called, Dad had already been transported to ICU. Fred didn’t know what was going on with him, but I had better come. Don’t try to drive tonight – he said – just get here.

I knew this highway well – the one fraught with panic, emotion, tears, and farm machinery that pulls out in front of you and robs you of any polite composure behind the wheel. That I was making this dreaded drive across Montana again so soon after my mother’s death left me desperate for answers that were not forthcoming from God. WHY? Why was he doing this to my Dad, a man that had given so much of himself and deserved so much better. WHY was he doing this to our family?

From Lamentations – “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

I was angry. I was desperate. I felt guilty for living so far away and attending to the ends of my parent’s lives from afar – detached from the wasting away of life that comes before death. I was afraid. Afraid of what saying goodbye would be like – I hadn’t had that chance with my mother – I was afraid of what death would feel like as it overtook him. I was afraid of living without him. I was afraid of life without my dad. My heart was pounding, and my ears were rushing and the pit that grew within my stomach began to overwhelm me as I drove on. And then Jesus heard me.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope…”

It was up to God now – like it always had been. Even though my faith was my foundation, it had been very hard for me to wholly trust and not try to control God – to make my ways His way. This ending, this sending – this story of the greatest man I had ever known was not supposed to end like this.

You see, the amazing thing about Jesus is when I finally gave Him my will and fully trusted my Dad to Him, a certain peace came over me. My heart quit pounding, my ears quit rushing, and while my tears didn’t stop flowing, my eyes could see clearly again. His grace is amazing.  Jesus changes everything.

The Lord’s mercies are new every morning, but sometimes we have to experience the darkness of night to appreciate them – and sometimes those nights can be pretty dark if not downright scary.

We are in good company when we find ourselves searching for God, feeling abandoned by his presence, feeling forsaken and heart broke. The Bible is full of stories of suffering and sorrow, ire and isolation, fear and frustration; full of human struggle and seeking – Adam, Eve,  Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Naomi, Job, David, Jeremiah, Jonah – all the great ones with great but in no way always happy stories.

The words of hope we heard this morning in the reading from Lamentations came from an author who wrote, in the 2 preceding chapters, verses of incredible mourning for the once great and promised city of Jerusalem now in ruins, her people slaughtered, and the Lord’s temple destroyed. Words of hope preceded by words of mourning not only for what had  become of Jerusalem but, like many of us who have had our lives turned upside down and our greatest hopes dashed – for the special beauty of that life. He grieved not only for the past that was lost but for the future he had expected and hoped for. And, he like we, searched for a God who, in the midst of such immense, even violent suffering, seemed to be a stranger.

Those people knew God to be steadfast in his mercy and in his wrath. Their circumstances of suffering were a direct result of their sin. They navigated in a wilderness of their own making. And they lived in fear of God, rather than in relationship with him.

There are times when we too, find ourselves in a wilderness. Alone. Afraid. Angry. Questioning the goodness and presence of God amidst the messiness of life. Who hasn’t wondered if there even is a god?

Afraid that if we get angry with God –  if we let Him have it –  voicing the injustices in our lives and the world –  he will utterly reject us; or perhaps it is more a sense of fear of losing control of the situation –  afraid of relinquishing to God the outcome we desire.  In so doing, when we hold back on God with our anger – AND OUR TRUST, we construct our own barriers to an authentic relationship with him as well as saying that God’s power and mercy is finite.

Walter Brueggeman, a renowned and quite popular on YouTube, Protestant, Old Testament scholar and theologian, says that you can’t have an authentic relationship with God If all you can do is praise Him.

Luckily for us, our God whose wrath is measured, is also a God whose mercy is unmeasurable. And so, to know the weight of the sin that is of this world and to better know us, he sent his Son to bear with us and to ultimately bear our sin.

And Jesus changed everything.

Let’s take a look at what an authentic relationship with God, our Lord and Savior Jesus looks like – one in which we put voice to our lament,  where we let God in on the matters at hand, and trust that  every morning is new and full of mercy:

There was a woman, suffering for 12 long years with an affliction that made her unclean – that cast her out of her community – that she could do nothing to resolve or control. She longed to be well and had tried everything physically possible to be well. Seeing doctor after doctor, spending all she had but nothing worked.

Imagine her frustration with a body that wouldn’t function as it was supposed to – that caused her pain –  that had betrayed her and bankrupted her.

Imagine her loneliness – isolated; cast out by societal rules for something she could not control.

Imagine her loss of hope as doctor after doctor failed her.

From Lamentations – “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.”

She cried out to Jesus – she made her plight known and Jesus changed everything.

She had hoped for healing. She got so much more.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

For so long fear and illness had defined her – they still had their grip on her. But Jesus’ gives her more than she could ever have imagined. She is no longer just “a woman,” but a “daughter.” Jesus claimed her as his own and restored her to community as one whose “faith” has “made her well”.  Promise and peace have been added to the new reality in her life. The healing of her disease comes as almost an afterthought.

There was a father, a religious leader in the community, who was bereft and urgently seeking help for his dying daughter – who finds help but is put aside by other pressing matters and then that help comes too late. His hopes are dashed. His faith shaken.  Gone is a life that had yet to begin, that held so much promise and had brought so much joy. He was a leader in the community and yet he still was met with suffering.  Pain knows no boundaries, but it appears that sometimes faith does.

Imagine his despair as he ponders the unfairness of this broken world – that his little girl should die while he is left behind to mourn.

Imagine his anger that he of all people could not protect his daughter from the ravages of her illness.

Imagine his broken heart –  that he would never hear her jubilant laughter or watch her dance again.

From Lamentations – “He has made my flesh and my skin waste away and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.”

Jesus sees beyond the doubt. Jesus changes everything.

“Do not fear, only believe.”

 Jesus says and with those words, resurrects a life out of fear and doubt into one lived in trust and faith.

There was a man who walked among us, who brought the dead to life and helped the blind to see. Who for a time was celebrated and followed for the things he did and the words he spoke. But like so many of us – just when we are at the top of our game – he got knocked down, he found himself alone – he felt utterly rejected by his friends and his Father – as he bore within his body and spirit the physical manifestation of the sins of the world.

Imagine his terror as he contemplated his fate.

Imagine his sense of abandonment as he waited through the darkest hours of his life alone among sleeping “friends.”

Imagine his sheer sadness and heaviness of heart over the sins of this world.

Imagine the agony He endured on the cross – the mocking and scorning, the pain and the death just so that he could be one with us, to know our struggles and deepest hurts, and so that we of all people, could have everlasting life – freed from the sin that keeps us in darkness, and a life filled with the light of new mercies every morning.

From Lamentations – “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases his mercies never come to an end.

Jesus changed everything. He came to be with us to bear with us in our darkest hours and give us all that we need. His mercies are there for us each morning – if we seek him and trust that he will see us through. Saved by grace, we are given Jesus’ strength, wisdom, guidance, power and discernment to get through every moment of every day.

Jesus changed everything for me. I made it home in time to hear my Dad say my name one last time. He passed from my arms into the arms of Jesus the next morning. Death was not as I had pictured it would be – at once rather matter of fact – at once incredibly holy.  The fear I expected was instead a quiet peace. The cries of my heart were not out of anger or abandonment but out of relief and acceptance of an end and a beginning. Jesus changes everything.

Since that day that he brought peace to a heart filled with anguish, I have known times of darkness again. But I have not faced it alone. His mercies are there every morning –  giving me just what I need – not always what I want or expected – but always what I need.

From Lamentations – “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Look to Jesus. Do not be afraid. Believe and go on living as He leads you – with faith.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness, oh God.

He is there for you too.

Amen.

Who is Your Master?

Matthew 25:14-30, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

0505171400bObituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in today’s Gospel. Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, John Doe, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord, had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Saul to Paul and relinquished his life to him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took the compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But John Doe, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole

in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, John Doe thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced so Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was John Doe’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his pea crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello J.D.,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room accept for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“J.D., please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

John Doe stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until John Doe cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

John Doe’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “JD, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

John Doe continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to John Doe’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, John Doe gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him. Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

John Doe walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail catch and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at John Doe. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on John Doe’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  John Doe closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

John Doe and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that that he came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

John Doe felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, John Doe, might live fully –  and by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the body of Christ-  who would continue to hold him and each other in love, encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Amen.

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.