Sermon for 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary

Mark 6:14-29

Note: I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 15, at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, Virginia. Grace Lutheran is my home congregation, and I was invited to preach as part of their celebrations of their 125th anniversary.

It is good for me to be back here at Grace Lutheran in Waynesboro after several years. I bring you greetings from the people of Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA, and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, where I am currently serving. I want to thank you for inviting me to preach as part of your 125th anniversary celebrations. It’s amazing to think about Grace having been part of the Waynesboro community for 125 years, and the impact that you have had both on the community and on individual lives. In my journey from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to ordained ministry in the ELCA, you were here for me at just the right time, offering me love, healing, and encouragement as you helped me to discern the call that God has placed upon my life. And I want to give you a profound thank you for all that you have done for me.

I want to tell you what happened when I found out what the Gospel text appointed for today was. In my congregations, we have been following a different lectionary, that is, a different series of appointed readings, and the last several weeks I have been preaching through the letter of 1 John. When Pastor Paul first let me know what the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary were for this week, I was in the middle of other things, and I glanced at it and said, “Oh, yes, it’s something from the Gospel of Mark,” and went on about my business. When I said, “OK, I need to sit down and really look at what the appointed text is,” and found out that it was the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, my reaction was one of shock and dismay. I’m coming back to Grace as part of the 125th year celebrations, and I get one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels to preach on? Really, God? But, I trust that the Holy Spirit knows what she is doing, so my prayer is that the words that I speak to you today are words that the Spirit believes you, and I, too, need to hear.

So, let me start with this idea: when we hear this story, we remember the gruesome details. The daughter of Herodias, Herod’s stepdaughter, dancing in front of Herod and his guests. Herodias prompting her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head, because he had been saying that it was not lawful for Herod and Herodias to be married. The daughter of Herodias then going back in to the assembled party and asking not only for John’s head, but for the head to be delivered on a platter. Herod, more willing to save face by following through on his promise than to do the right thing, ordering John’s execution and having the head brought to his stepdaughter as she requested. These are the things we remember, because it is a very horrific story. But I think we need to take a step back from this story for a moment and ask what Mark is doing here and why he placed this story in his gospel. And if we look at the first few verses, we discover that this story is a flashback, and it is told in response to what Jesus and his followers are doing. Jesus is going about the villages teaching, and then he gathers the twelve together, gives them authority over the unclean spirits, tells them to take nothing with them, and go out and proclaim the news of the kingdom of God. And apparently word is spreading of what Jesus and his disciples are doing, and people are trying to understand what is going on and interpret it in light of past events. And then we get the flashback to John the Baptist’s death.

And so I think one of the things that Mark is trying to do with this story is to give us a warning: this is the kind of mission field that Jesus is sending us into. For every person who joyfully receives the good news, repents, and enters the kingdom of God, there will be even more people, very often the powerful ones, who, while they see what we’re doing and may wonder about it, will be more concerned with saving face and holding on to their power than they are with doing the right thing. With his story of the beheading of John the Baptist and how that happened, Mark is also foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus when powerful men decide that it would be easier to execute Jesus than it would be to do the right thing. And he is warning us that being a disciple of Jesus is not going to always be happiness, goodness, comfort, and light, but that we will be asked to confront the darkness, speak the truth to the powerful, and be willing to suffer the consequences, even if it means we will die because of them.

This is hard for us to fathom here in the United States, because we don’t expect that we will have to die for our faith in Jesus. But, that doesn’t mean that we can get out of speaking truth to the powerful, and in so doing, we may have to die to ourselves, even if we’re not being asked to literally die. John the Baptist boldly told Herod that it was wrong of him to marry his brother’s wife, and was imprisoned and eventually executed for it. In our Old Testament reading today, we hear Amos speaking the truth to the people of Israel in the king’s courts, and being told to go back home. And even just a quick glance through the stories of the prophets of the Old Testament will show that these men, and in some cases, women, who spoke truth to power did not have an easy time of it: they were heckled, killed, thrown into muddy wells and left to rot, called upon to do all sorts of difficult actions to demonstrate visibly to the people what God was trying to tell them, and so on and so forth. Last week we heard about Jesus himself having a difficult time of it in Nazareth, where his hometown family and friends took offense at him. If Jesus himself was heckled for speaking the truth, how can we who are disciples of Jesus expect anything different?

We live in a country where we expect faith and politics to be separated. In some ways, this is a good thing. It’s good to have a government that, in theory, treats all faiths equally and does not favor one over another. But somehow this has translated into being afraid to speak about things that are going on in the country and the world in our congregations, and even speaking to those things from a faith perspective. When the news about immigrant children being separated from their parents hit its peak in the media, and when the attorney general used Romans 13 to justify it, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to speak to my congregations about it in the sermon that Sunday, and the knot in the pit of my stomach that day was very large. Because, even though we should all agree that, no matter what position we take about immigration, it is morally wrong to separate children from their parents, our society is so polarized that I was afraid someone would yell at me after the worship service that day. By and large, our congregations are not trained to speak to one another civilly about political differences of opinion because most of us believe politics should stay out of church life.

But here’s the thing: there are certain issues that we, as the church, can speak to out of our faith and out of what Jesus has taught us. For example, while we may disagree on what immigration laws should look like, we should agree that it is absolutely reprehensible to separate children from their parents and we should call on our elected officials to fix this problem. Or, on environmental issues, since we are called to be good stewards of the environment, we should be able to speak out against coal companies being allowed to pollute our waterways, or we should be able to speak for everybody having access to clean drinking water. And, since we are called to feed the hungry, we should be able to speak in favor of people having access to good, nutritious food. We are called to not only help the hungry by giving them food in food pantries and such, but we are also called to advocate for changes in the system that we have that results in unequal distribution of food and in food deserts, where people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food because of a lack of grocery stores in their neighborhoods.

Our faith is not solely focused on what will happen to us when we die. Jesus died for us, Jesus loves us, and Jesus has got us safely in his hands. In the meantime, our faith should be compelling us to announce the kingdom of God not only in words, but also in deeds. Jesus has redeemed not only our souls, but also our bodies, and so that means that God loves this physical, created world just as much as the heavenly world. And sometimes, what that means is that we as Christians, compelled by our faith, need to get involved in the politics of this world when our leaders become so drunk with power that they need to be reminded that they are created beings and they should be treating other people as they would want to be treated, rather than saving face and holding on to power. Jesus has given us authority over the spirits of this world, and rather than arguing among ourselves, we need to use that authority to confront the powers of darkness that are loose in this world.

Rather than focusing on our differences of opinion or avoiding those topics completely, let us speak among ourselves this week and practice listening to one another. Where we disagree on issues, let us remain civil as we discuss them and pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us in the right direction. And then let us find those issues that we can agree on, and speak the truth to the corrupt powers around us. Imagine how God’s love and authority would shine through us if we spoke as one on issues that affect the lives of the people around us. Imagine what it would look like if we proclaimed, together, that the kingdom of God has come and urged all to repent and believe in the good news. And imagine what it would look like if we did this with no fear of what the powers that be could do to us, but if we were instead focused on doing what God has called us to do, regardless of what might happen. This is what God, through the prophets, including John the Baptist, is calling us to do. Let us heed that call without hesitation. Amen.

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Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

1 John 4:1-6

 

Today we continue with our sermon series on 1 John. As a review, the first Sunday in this series, we talked about how some in the Christian community to whom 1 John was written were saying that Jesus was more divine than he was human, and how, in response, the author of 1 John talks about how Jesus was not only divine, but was also someone who could be seen, touched, and heard. We talked about how body and spirit are both important, and how, therefore, in Christian communities, we are called to show love for one another in both body and spirit, and serve one another’s bodily and spiritual needs. Last week, we talked about how none of us in this Christian community are perfect, how we all sin, and how in an embodied Christian community, it is important to be humble enough to admit our sins, confess them to one another, and receive forgiveness, both from God and from one another. We also talked about how sometimes, the community as a whole needs to confess its sins against another community. All of this is what it means to be part of a flesh-and-blood Christian community.

But in today’s reading, 1 John takes us into some strange territory, and we need to take a step back from it for a moment and review some background information before we try to interpret what it means for us today. First, I want us to remember that 1 John was what we would call today an “internal document”. That is, it is meant for the community of Christians to whom it was written, and it dealt with matters that were going on inside the community. So when 1 John tells us that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God,” it does not necessarily mean those faiths outside of Christianity. Rather, this is addressed to those people inside of the Christian community who were denying that Jesus had come in the flesh, but was instead some kind of spiritual principle. The second thing that we need to tackle here is the word “antichrist”. Now I know all of us have heard the word “antichrist” used before. Raise your hand if you think the antichrist is some kind of beast that comes to destroy the earth in a doomsday scenario out of the book of Revelation. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but all those of you who raised your hands are wrong. The word “antichrist” is never used in the book of Revelation. The word is only used here in 1 John and once in 2 John, and nowhere else does this word appear in all of our Holy Scriptures. And this is what it means, in the context of 1 and 2 John: any spirit (or person) who does not confess that Jesus came in the flesh. In other words, many things and people who you may have referred to as the antichrist may not actually be so, while there are other people and things that may be an antichrist that we would not have guessed to be so. And that’s the other part of the definition of this word: there is not just one big bad Antichrist; rather, there are many, smaller antichrists running around in the world.

I have racked my brain, and I cannot think of anyone who calls themselves a Christian today who would flat out deny that the Son of God came to earth in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So, we’re going to have to stretch a little bit, and remind ourselves of what 1 John says it means to be a flesh-and-blood community of Christians. And then we can, as 1 John tells us, “test the spirits”. Remember that 1 John puts emphasis on the fact that Jesus was someone that we can see and hear and touch; someone that we can recognize with our bodily senses as well as our spirituality. And also remember that Jesus has saved both body and spirit, so that, when we die, we are not going to be floating on clouds playing harps, but rather, we will be resurrected, both body and spirit, to live in a new creation. That means that God thinks that both the physical world and the spiritual world are important.

Therefore, I am going to be bold and make this claim: anyone who claims to be Christian, and yet is solely focused on salvation as a means to go to heaven after we die, thus neglecting the physical care of both God’s creation and God’s creatures, including human beings, is an antichrist. Now, let me unpack that statement. There are streams of Christianity that believe that the sole reason Jesus came to earth is so that, when we die, if we believe in him, we can go to heaven. And when you believe that is the only reason for having faith in Jesus—so that you can go to heaven when you die—that has consequences for how you treat the creation around you, including your brother and sister human beings. For example, you may enjoy the beauty of this earth, but have no issues with anything you do which might destroy the environment, because, “Heaven is my home, so what does it matter how I treat the earth?” If the only reason to have faith in Jesus is because you’re going to go to heaven, then it doesn’t matter how you treat your body and the bodies of those around you, because, as I heard someone say not too long ago: “We’re all going to die one day. Eat what you want.” And if the only reason that you have faith in Jesus is so that you can go to heaven when you die, the lives of the people around you are not going to make much difference. You may decide to help a neighbor out of some sense of duty or responsibility, but it’s not going to come from your faith at all. And as for groups of people who are suffering? It’s easier to discount them as long as you know that you’re going to heaven, because you have faith in Jesus. All of this is the spirit of an antichrist.

1 John is written, in part, to counteract this extremely individualistic view of the Christian faith. Having faith in Jesus means not only being safe with him when you die. Having faith in Jesus means putting your trust in someone who is both fully divine and fully human in some mysterious way that we cannot comprehend. Yes, Jesus is divine: he performed miracles, he healed people, he taught us the way of God. But Jesus is also fully human: he got hungry and thirsty; he ate and drank; he got tired and slept; he got angry and turned over tables; he was sad and he wept. And, although Scripture doesn’t tell us this, guess what? Jesus went to the bathroom, too. That’s what it is to be human. And because Jesus was human as well as divine, faith in Jesus means not only what happens when we die, it is also a here-and-now, this-world faith. And we are called to be in community with one another, and to care for one another’s earthly needs just as much as our spiritual needs.

So, what are some ways that we can live out this calling to care for one another in both body as well as soul? For that, I’m going to borrow Jesus’ words from Matthew 25, where he talks about those people who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison. Jesus says in this part of the Gospel that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to him. And he also says that for those who neglect doing these things, it is as if you are neglecting Jesus. Our letter of 1 John says something similar further on in chapter 4, which hopefully Pastor Jorgensen will touch on when he’s with you next week: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Love in the Scriptures is an action word—not a warm, fuzzy feeling. You show your love for one another not only by words, but also by your deeds.

And if indeed God loves the creation which God made, and has redeemed that creation as well, then it follows that we are also called to be good stewards of the creation that God has given us. This means that we do our best to care for the earth, as the earth and everything in it is also part of our greater community. Some of these things we may already be doing: reducing the amount of things that we use, reusing the things that we can, and recycling as much of the waste that we generate as we can. Other things may take more effort on our part. We can advocate for renewable energy, and we can advocate for the people who have jobs in non-renewable energy to be retrained for the new work. We can learn about those animal and plant species that are endangered, and do what we can to make sure they don’t become extinct. We can even do something as simple as spaying and neutering our pets, if we don’t want to intentionally breed them. There are so many other things that we can do to care for this world that God has given us, and that God loves so much, that I don’t have time to name here. But caring for the world that God loves should spring from our faith in Jesus, who loved this world enough to die for it and everything in it.

So, this week, let’s not be those so-called Christians who think that faith in Jesus is only about going to heaven when we die. Let us live out our faith both in the material world and in the spiritual world, caring for one another and for the creation that God has given to us. That’s how those around us will know we are truly Christians: when we live out our faith not in words only, but in deeds as well: deeds that show we love the material world around us as much as we love the spiritual world. Then, as the old song goes, they will know that we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Sermon for 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

1 John 1:5-2:2

 

Last week we heard the opening lines of 1 John, and how there were some people in this Christian community who were taking the idea of Jesus being divine a bit too far, to the point where they felt that flesh-and-blood community was no longer so important. In response, the author of this letter, whom we will call John, writes that Jesus was also human: someone we could see with our eyes and touch with our hands, and that therefore, flesh-and-blood community was still a very important part of following Jesus. And today, we come to a very important part of having flesh-and-blood community with one another: admitting that we sin, confessing those sins, and receiving God’s forgiveness. If you have spent a long amount of time in the Lutheran church, then 1 John 1:8-9 should sound very familiar to you. In the hymnal that we used before this red hymnal, which had a green cover, those verses were part of the rite of confession and forgiveness, something that we said every Sunday morning. I tried to find out why they were removed from the red hymnal that we have now, and didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. And so I decided, since I’m preaching on this passage, to add those verses back in to our confession and forgiveness today. So let’s take a look at this idea of admitting that we sin, confessing those sins, and receiving forgiveness.

And to start this off, I’d like to tell you a story about how I experienced personal confession and forgiveness. Now, I know that we say confession and forgiveness as a congregation every week, and if that’s all that the Holy Spirit is leading you towards, that’s okay. But I want to tell you this story to demonstrate how, sometimes, personal confession and forgiveness can be a good thing, too, and not just a “Roman Catholic” thing. Several years ago, I was living in southeast Texas, working as a deaconess in a parish there. I had been there about a year and a half when the stewardship committee informed the pastor and me that the pledges that the pastor had thought he had to financially support a deaconess in the congregation had not come through, and that they would have to let me go. Of course, I was feeling many things surrounding these events, but one emotion that would not let go its hold of me was anger: anger at the chair of the stewardship committee as well as others for what I perceived was their falling down on the job and not telling people that the congregation was in dire financial straits until it was too late to keep me on. I found that this anger was so much holding me in its grip that I could not move forward in my life and my ministry. So I contacted a pastor with whom I’d become friends and asked if I could come to him for confession and forgiveness.

When I met with him, he took me through the rite of confession in the hymnal, and as I said those ancient words, the tears began pouring down my face. Then came the part where I told him that I was angry with the people on the stewardship committee, and how that anger was holding me in its grip and preventing me from moving forward. We talked about this for a little while, and then he said the words pronouncing God’s forgiveness over me, and I think I cried again. And it was as if a cloud had been lifted from me. Even though I still had my own work to do in forgiving the people of that congregation, hearing God’s forgiveness of me at a one-on-one level took away some of that anger and enabled me to hear God’s voice more clearly as God led me forward on my journey.

Living in a flesh-and-blood community of Christians means that there needs to be a lot of forgiveness going on, because none of us is without sin. Let me repeat that in case you didn’t hear it the first time: none of us is without sin. We all mess up—we all miss the mark, which is what the Greek word that is translated as “sin,” literally means. There is a standard, and we continually and constantly miss it, no matter how hard we try. I think we all get that on some level. The problem is that we don’t like to admit that we have messed up. It’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve made a mistake. It makes us feel very vulnerable when we say to the other person, “Hey, I was wrong. Can you forgive me?” because we are taking the risk that the other person could decide to humiliate us, to rub our noses in our mistake, before speaking words of forgiveness, if they do. But, on the other hand, if we don’t have the humility to admit that we have made a mistake and to ask the other person for forgiveness, we risk fracturing the community that has come together with Jesus as our head. Each person will hold a grudge against the other for some mistake that has been made; each person will get defensive when someone calls him or her out on that mistake, and then someone gets hurt and leaves the community, thus making it smaller and even more vulnerable than it was before.

So, this morning, I’d like you to take a look around. It’s no secret that our community here at Salem/St. John’s is smaller than it used to be. Some of this is because people have moved away. Some of this is because people have died. And some of this is because some of our elderly have become homebound. But, can you think of anyone who you know who is staying away because they had an argument with someone? Or because they were offended at something that someone said and are holding a grudge? If so, I’d like for you, this week, to specifically pray for that person. And, if you think that it may be because of something that you did or said, ask God to give you the grace to make yourself vulnerable, confess your sin to the other person, and ask for that person’s forgiveness. If you know of a dispute that does not involve you directly, pray and ask God’s guidance as to how you might be a peacemaker between the people who are upset with one another. And then look for opportunities to help the two people reconcile. And perhaps, here and now, some of you are holding a grudge against another person. I invite you to pray that God give you the grace to admit your sin and the grace to forgive the other person, and then go to the other person and be reconciled to him or her. By making ourselves vulnerable with one another and admitting our mistakes, and forgiving one another as God has forgiven us, we help to make our community stronger and better able to minister to the community around us.

Now, I’d like to take a step back from individual confession and forgiveness, and talk about confession and forgiveness between groups of people. As you know, before I came here, I was living and working in northern Wyoming, but my congregation, along with four others, were part of the Montana Synod. In the Montana Synod there are several Indian reservations. In 2010, the Montana Synod wrote a statement apologizing to the tribes who live in that area “expressing profound sorrow and repentance for the grief and pain suffered in the past and in the present”. Now I know that several of you are going to say that we are not the ones who drove Native Americans off of their land; it was our ancestors and therefore not our fault. The problem with that statement is this: we benefit from the sin of our ancestors, and Native Americans still, today, suffer from that sin. If we as white people want to do ministry with our Native American brothers and sisters, we collectively need to acknowledge the sin of our ancestors that we benefit from, and repent of it, even though it was not directly our fault. The bishop went personally to the tribes in the Montana Synod who were willing to hear our apology, confessed our sin using the words of the statement, and received the forgiveness of those tribes. Now, we are better able to work together with our Native American sisters and brothers, learn from one another, and speak out together as we work to make the conditions on the reservations better. In order to hold Christian communities together, sometimes we need to confess sins that we have made as a community, and not just as individuals within that community.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here is the good news: as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it is to admit that we have sinned, God is gracious and forgives us when we confess our sins. And when we extend forgiveness to one another as God extends forgiveness to us, we walk in the light and we have true fellowship with one another. True joy is experienced in such a community of Christians, because that community is not shattered by sin that has not been confessed. So let’s be willing to be more vulnerable with one another. Let us be more willing to admit when we have sinned, and let us be more willing to ask for forgiveness. And let us forgive one another as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. Amen.

Sermon for 5th Sunday after Pentecost Narrative

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

1 John 1:1-4

Today we move from the desert mountain of Sinai forward in time, from centuries before Jesus walked the earth to the early days of Christianity. Welcome to our next summer sermon series, where we move from the book of Exodus to the New Testament document known as 1 John. We don’t know very much for certain about this letter, but we can make educated guesses based on what is written there. The first thing to notice is that this letter has a lot of similarities in writing and themes to the Gospel of John. In fact, the verses that we have before us today sound very similar to the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, which is why these two readings have been paired together. However, there are some differences in these two documents as well. So scholars theorize that, while the Gospel of John and 1 John may not have been written by the same person—and we note that neither of these two documents has a name attached to them; it is tradition that assigns them both to someone named John—it is very probable that they were written in the same community of Christians. Tradition associates the ministry of the apostle John with the city of Ephesus, so it is possible that 1 John originated with the community of Christians in Ephesus, but we don’t know for certain.

What we can also deduce from this letter, and from 2 and 3 John as well, is that the community was experiencing schism or division between different factions who believed different things about Jesus. Whereas the Gospel of John was written to show that the human being known as Jesus of Nazareth was also the Son of God, it appears from 1 John that some groups of Christians were going too far in the other direction, and claiming that Jesus was more divine than he was human. So, what does that look like and why is it a bad thing? Well, if Jesus is more divine than he is human, we run the risk of having our faith become too much of a private thing, a “me and you, Jesus,” kind of thing. These are the people that would say they don’t have the need to come and worship Jesus with other members of the Christian community, because they are spiritual, but not religious—they worship Jesus on their own terms. One of the things that 1 John is written for is to counteract that attitude, and to remind people of how important it was that Jesus was human as well as divine, and how that translates into a need for a flesh-and-blood Christian community.

You might be saying to yourselves, “Well, of course, Jesus was both divine and human. We get that. And I understand the need for flesh-and-blood community and worship; otherwise I wouldn’t be here today.” But, let’s go a little bit deeper and examine these assumptions, and I’m going to start with two Gospel stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus appears to the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, their first reaction is that Jesus is a ghost. Well, of course they would think that—because they had seen Jesus die in the most gruesome way possible, and no one ever comes back from the dead! But Jesus invites them to touch him, “for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And just to emphasize the point, he eats a piece of broiled fish in front of them. Ghosts don’t do that—Jesus was resurrected in the body, not as some kind of spirit floating around! And in the Gospel of John, we have the story of Thomas, who wouldn’t believe Jesus was raised until he put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side. And when Jesus appeared to Thomas, he invited Thomas to do just that. We’ve heard these stories so often that we don’t think about it anymore: Jesus was raised in the body—and because of that, we have the same promise, that we will one day be raised in the body—not as spirits floating around on clouds playing harps, but in flesh and blood walking around on a renewed earth.

That’s one of the points that 1 John is trying to make in our reading today: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” Jesus isn’t just some spiritual being floating around in the clouds with God. Jesus was a real-live flesh-and-blood human being, someone who could be seen and touched, and somehow, at the same time, the Son of God, divine. In some miraculous, mysterious way, the Divine Son of God came to earth and became one of us, flesh-and-blood, a real human being. That is the mystery that 1 John is proclaiming to us. And because Jesus thought it was important enough to take on human flesh and blood, then that means not only our spirits but our bodies are important to God as well.

So again I ask, what does this look like in today’s society? Well, I think our culture struggles with this as well. On the one hand, we have doctors urging us to take care of our bodies so that we can live healthier and longer lives. Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of that speech more times than I can count! As I mentioned last week when I was talking about the commandment against coveting, we also have the advertising industry bombarding us with messages to join fitness clubs, to go on diets, to use the right soap, lotion, perfume, and so on, so that we can be beautiful and somehow more worthy of love and other good things in life. But on the other hand, there is a growing pushback in our society that it is our spirit that is more important than our body. I recently read a review of a movie called Every Day. This is the only place I’ve read about it, but apparently it came out a few months ago. The premise is this: a being without gender inhabits a different body each day and meets a shy teenager named Rhiannon—each day in a different body. In other words, the spirit remains the same, but it is only the body that changes; the body is unimportant. The idea behind this is that the outside appearance of a person doesn’t matter so much; rather, it is the spirit of the person that you love.

In some ways, this is a good message. It teaches us to look beyond the appearance of a person and to love the good qualities of that person: kindness, loyalty, friendliness, responsibility, and whatever other personality traits we find attractive in a friend or a mate. But that is not to say that we should completely discount the body in which we find the spirit that we love. The reviewer of this movie, Cara Strickland, writes, “I think it matters that you are exactly your height, with exactly your vision of the world. At just over 5 feet, 2 inches tall, I see things differently than my 6-foot brother does. It matters whether our hair is curly or straight and if we bite our nails. It matters how we walk, laugh and what we do with our hands when we’re nervous. All of these things and more shape the way we see the world and the way the world sees us. All of these things make us who we are.” In other words, love for another person means embracing the complete person, both body and spirit, and committing to be with that person completely, both body and spirit.

And this is what Jesus did, and this is what 1 John, and we, too, proclaim: Jesus loved us so completely, both body and spirit, that he, who, yes, was divine, took on human flesh and lived among us. God became human in the person of Jesus, and in Jesus, God now understands what it is like to physically be a human being. In the person of Jesus, God laughed and God wept; was hungry and thirsty and was tired. And yes, on that Good Friday so long ago, God in Jesus died a physical death on the cross. For us. Because God loved us so much. This is the mystery that we proclaim. It’s a mystery that even I and all those of us who spent years at seminary cannot understand with our minds, but can only cling to with faith. Somehow Jesus was both divine and human at the same time, and our struggle in faith is to not go too far either to the divine, which would mean thinking of the material world as completely bad, or too far to the human side, which would mean that Jesus was nothing more than another teacher and there would be nothing about his death which would save us.

So, what does all of this mean for us in practical terms? We come together on Sundays to hear the good news: that God loved us so much that God came to be one of us in Jesus Christ, and died on the cross for us. We understand that God loves the material world that God created. From this, we can understand that we are to love one another, both body and spirit, and care for one another’s needs that are both in the body—such as hunger, thirst, shelter, and so on—and one another’s spiritual needs—caring for people who are grieving, who are lonely, who are depressed, and who wonder where God is in their lives. Not only this, but we are to see the material world that God created as good and to care for it as God does—by recycling, by taking good care of the animals that God has given us, by working to reduce pollution, by not using chemicals that could harm life, and by so many other ways. The material world is not disposable and the spiritual world is also not disposable. We are creatures of both spirit and body, and both of these things matter.

Let us then proclaim this word of life that we have seen and heard and touched with our hands to all of those around us. And let us have fellowship with one another and with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ—caring for one another, both body and spirit, and coming together to worship God each week so we may go out into the world once more refreshed. And when we do this, we pray that our joy, too, may be complete. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 4 Narrative Lectionary

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:17

Today we have arrived at the last of the Ten Commandments. In the first sermon, we talked about the background for which God gives these commandments: how God established a relationship with the Israelites by freeing them from slavery in Egypt. God doesn’t give these commandments so that the Israelites can make God love them by following them; God gives these commandments because God loves the Israelites, and the Israelites are to follow them so that their relationships with God and with one another will run more smoothly. We then talked about the first three commandments, which deal primarily with our relationship with God: putting God above everything else, not misusing God’s name, and remembering the Sabbath day. Last week, we covered commandments four through eight: honor your father and mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness against another person. Even though these five commandments have to do primarily with our relationships with other people, they all flow out of the first commandment. If you look at Luther’s explanations to these commandments, they all start with, “We should fear and love God, so that. . .” We cannot have a right relationship with God unless we are willing to work on our relationships with one another. And so, this brings us to the last two commandments, or, in some traditions, it’s one commandment: the commandment against coveting other people’s things.

Covet is one of those old-fashioned words that we generally don’t use in everyday conversation. It simply means to desire or to wish for, and it generally has a negative connotation. When we use this word, we are using it to signify that we want something that someone else has. So, for example, at the Blessing of the Animals last year, a family from St. Peter’s in Highspire brought their prize, show dog malamute to be blessed. And when I saw this big, beautiful, fluffy, cuddly, friendly dog, in that instant I wanted that dog. It didn’t matter that I already have a handsome, friendly, sweet-tempered, big black dog who I love to pieces. It didn’t matter that even if I could have taken that dog, I wouldn’t have had room for it in my apartment and I would have had to pay more in rent. None of that mattered. In the face of this beautiful dog, my desire to have this dog—who wasn’t mine—flared up in me. And I think I even confessed my sin to the couple and told them that I was coveting their dog.

In this case, we laugh it off as a joke. We trust one another enough to know who we are—children of God—and we trust that the laws against stealing, as well as other laws, will prevent us, most of the time, from following through on our desires. But the reason that we have commandments against coveting is this: from our desire to have something that belongs to someone else springs violations of all of the other commandments. In fact, I’m rather surprised that the commandments against coveting don’t come before the commandments against murdering and stealing. For example, if you remember the story of David and Bathsheba in 1 Samuel, this is a prime example of how coveting can lead to other sins. King David looked down from a rooftop and saw Bathsheba bathing. He noted that she was very beautiful, and he coveted her, so he sent someone to find out who she was. When the messenger told King David who the woman was, and that she was married, that didn’t matter to him at all. His desire for her overrode everything else, and he sent for her and slept with her, violating the commandments against stealing and adultery. When David then finds out that Bathsheba is pregnant, he brings her husband home and first tries to deceive him, so that they can pass the baby off as his. When that doesn’t work, David sends Bathsheba’s husband back to the front lines and has him killed, violating the commandment against murder. And then he takes Bathsheba as his own wife. David violated all of these other commandments because he had violated this commandment first: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.

In many ways, we live in a society that is based on coveting. This is how our advertising industry exists, for example. Commercials continually tell us that we are not complete unless we have the next big car, the newest model of iPhone, or the most perfect house in the neighborhood. They tell us that we are not beautiful unless we lose weight, eat right, wear the right clothes and the right makeup. In short, they create in us desires that lead us to covet what the other person has. Studies even are starting to indicate that too much time on Facebook and other social media platforms can lead to depression, because we covet the seemingly perfect lives our friends have. We don’t always realize that our friends have problems, too, because who posts stuff online that doesn’t make them look good?

Remember that these commandments that God gives us are based on the fact that God has freed God’s people from slavery in Egypt. If we covet things that do not belong to us, we become a slave to our desires, and God does not want to see us return to slavery when God has freed us from sin. Again, this commandment, this law, acts as a mirror and shows us our sin, and shows us our need for Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to free us from that sin, just as God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And here is the good news: We have already been given enough. God has given us enough so that we should have no need to covet what we don’t have.

And so I think the remedy for coveting, besides confessing the sin, is to remember what God has already given us and to be thankful for it. In my earlier story, coveting the other person’s big, fluffy malamute dog led me to forget what a beautiful dog I have already been given in Otis, who is a wonderful dog that I can actually bring to church with me during the week because he’s so calm, and who loves me very much. And I thank God for every day that I get to spend with him (and my cat, too!). When confronted with advertising gimmicks that incite us to get the latest iPhone, car, house, or whatever it is, we can look around and be thankful for the things that we already have, and realize that God has given us enough to live. And all those commercials for clothes, beauty products, and weight loss programs? This is perhaps the best news of all: no matter what you look like or what you wear, God has created you and you are beautiful in God’s sight. You are children of God, and it doesn’t matter how you look or what you wear: God loves you, all of you, for who you are.

And when I say that God loves you and that you are children of God, I don’t just mean us here in this congregation, I mean everyone in the whole world. This includes those immigrant families who are coming through our southern border and whose children are being taken away from them. This week, our attorney general cited Romans 13 as justification for this: a line where Paul talks about government being put in place by God and how we are to submit to governmental authorities. The Holy Spirit has put it upon my heart to say something about this, because, with all due respect, the line has been taken out of context. If you read the chapter immediately preceding this line, and if you read further afterwards, you will see how Paul talks about the fulfillment of the law being love. And he specifically names the commandments that we have been studying the past several weeks as being summed up by the statement that Jesus also gives us in the Gospel that we’ve been hearing for the past several weeks: Love your neighbor as yourself. And folks, what is happening at the border cannot be justified by anything. I understand that we have immigration laws. I understand that the government has to enforce those laws. But what the government does not have to do is to abandon all human decency and forcibly take a baby away who was nursing at its mother’s breast. God loves these people just as much as God loves you and me. Jesus died for that mother and baby, just as Jesus died for you and me. Jesus is weeping over what is happening at our border.

The fulfillment of these commandments is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And our neighbor is not just the person sitting next to you today. Our neighbors are every single person on this earth. So go and love your neighbor this week. Call our senators and our representative and tell them to stop separating children from their parents. Write letters and emails. And donate money to groups who are working to help these families and advocate for them, like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. These are just a few ways that you can love your neighbor as yourself.

St. Paul writes in Romans 13, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” All of the commandments that God has given us have to do with love: love for God and love for the neighbor. As we conclude this sermon series on the commandments, I am hopeful that we have a better understanding of what it means to love God and to love neighbor. But I also know that the Law will continue to reflect our sin back on us as a mirror shows us our appearance. What I hope we see in that mirror, distorted as it is by sin, is still a glimmer of the reflection of God’s child. For we are all God’s children, wholly loved by God as a complete person. Nothing that we do or fail to do can cause God to stop loving us, and we are freed by that knowledge. So, let us use that freedom wisely. We are God’s children. It’s time that we act like it. Amen.

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:12-16

Last week, we talked about the first three commandments, which had to do with loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind: You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. We talked about some of the ways that we specifically mess up these commandments, and we talked about how God loves us even when we break these commandments and sin against God. Again, as we move through these Ten Commandments, I want to emphasize that these are not rules that we follow in order to get God to love us, because God already loves us. St. Paul writes in Romans that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. These are commandments that help our relationships run smoothly; both our relationships with God and our relationships with one another. And today, as we move into the commandments that deal more directly with our relationships with one another, I want to add this to the mix. Again, borrowing from St. Paul, this time in his letter to the Galatians, when we are freed from the yoke of the Law, we don’t use that freedom as a license to do whatever we want. Rather, we use that freedom to submit to our neighbor in love. This is how we should look at the commandments that we have before us today.

And we begin with the commandment that every person, at some point in his or her life, has difficulty with: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. I know all of you parents out there are looking at your children smugly, or if your children are not here, thinking of them, and saying to yourselves, “See—God says it! You have to do it!” But I want you to think back to when you were a child, most especially your teenage years, and try to remember how you felt when your parents embarrassed you, or asked you to do something that you didn’t want to do, or seemed to favor your brother or sister over and above you. And that’s not even to talk about parents who are abusive or otherwise don’t know how to parent their children properly—that could take a whole sermon by itself! And then what happens when you get older, and your mother or father clearly can’t live alone any longer because they’re getting older, but they don’t want to go to assisted living or a nursing home? How best do you honor your mother and father then?

In his explanation of the fourth commandment in his Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “It must therefore be impressed on young people that they revere their parents as God’s representatives, and to remember that, however lowly, poor, feeble, and eccentric they may be, they are still their mother and father, given by God. They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their ways or failings.” It seems as though this struggle to honor father and mother that we have is not a new one, since Luther was writing about it. When tough questions arise regarding how we are to relate to our parents, there is no one right answer. The guiding principle in this should be how best we are to love and honor our parents. And each of us will have to decide how we are to do that in our individual situations. There are times when we will get it right, and there are times when we will get it wrong. God knows our hearts, and God still loves us even when we get it wrong.

From honoring our parents, we move to the next commandment: You shall not murder. On the surface, this seems like an easy one. Most of us have not murdered anybody else, although the dark desire to may creep in when we are especially angry at someone. But both Jesus and Martin Luther do not let us off the hook with this one. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that we are guilty of violating this commandment whenever we are angry with someone, whenever we insult someone, or whenever we call someone a fool. Martin Luther explains it this way: We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs. Anytime that we are angry with someone; any time that we insult someone; any time we call someone an idiot or a fool; any time that we fail to help and support someone in their need, then we are guilty of violating the commandment against murder. We may not have physically harmed the other person, but we have damaged their spirit.

From honoring your parents, to honoring the other person by not murdering them spiritually or physically, we move to the commandment against adultery. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus again tightens this up: you may not have been physically unfaithful to your spouse, but if you even look at another person with lust, then you have committed adultery with that person in your heart. Martin Luther is a little gentler in his explanation: We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse. Again, this commandment comes down to truly loving and respecting the other person: first your own spouse, and then the spouse of the other person. Truly loving one another means being faithful to the vows that you have made, even when things are tough in your relationship.

Next, we move to the commandment against stealing. Luther writes, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.” If this explanation isn’t still relevant today, I don’t know what is. We may not have actually physically stolen something from someone. But cheating someone out of something they need to live by a shady deal is the same as stealing. So is refusing to take responsibility for something that is your responsibility. Here in Harrisburg we have the place where the hill crumbled by the apartment complex and destroyed a tire shop down below. The owners of the apartment complex refused to admit that the landslide was their responsibility for many years, forcing the tire shop to close and the man who owned it to struggle for money to survive. Not too long ago, the owners of the apartments above did finally admit responsibility. But the mess still isn’t cleaned up, and the owner of the tire shop is still dealing with financial problems due to the fact that his livelihood was stolen from him. We are to help our neighbors improve and protect their property and income, and in this case, it clearly has not happened. If we think hard enough in our own lives, we will probably come across something that we did or that we failed to do to help out our neighbors with their property, and the law shows us that we stand condemned of stealing.

So, we have gone from honoring father and mother, not murdering, not committing adultery, and not stealing, to the last commandment that we will talk about today: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. And Luther’s explanation here is so helpful as we seek to understand what this commandment is about: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. Gossip has happened since biblical times, but in this age of social media, it seems like this has intensified. And it’s not only gossip, but it is also bullying. And it’s not only bullying, but it’s also the 24/7 news media and politicians who rabidly go after the opposing side, refusing to see anything good about the other person, painting everyone who thinks the way the other person does with the same sweeping generalization, and not even trying to listen to the other point of view. All of this falls under the eighth commandment.

As Christians, though, we are called to a different way. We are called to come to our neighbor’s defense, even and especially if that neighbor is Muslim. We are called to speak well of them, even if I am a Democrat and my neighbor is a Republican. We are called to interpret everything our neighbor does in the best possible light, even when our neighbor does something that, on the surface, appears to be the dumbest possible thing we have ever seen in our lives. None of these commandments that God has given us is easy to follow, but I think this one is probably the hardest one of the bunch. It’s so easy to think that we are right, and our neighbor is wrong, and that our neighbor is just the dumbest, most deplorable person that we have seen. But you know what? Our neighbor probably thinks the same thing about us. So, as Christians, we are called to be humble, to realize we are not always right, and to speak well of our neighbors, not to slander them.

On Facebook, I follow the Bangor, Maine police department page. I have been to Maine before but never to Bangor. I follow the page because someone else clued me in to it; the police officer who administers it is a fantastic writer and gives snapshots of life in small town Maine. At the end of each post, he writes, “Keep your hands to yourself, leave other people’s things alone, and be kind to one another.” I think that’s a great summary of the commandments that we have before us today. It’s all part of Jesus’ command in the gospel of Matthew to “love your neighbor as yourself”. For when we do that, not only do you feel safe and free to live out the calling that God has given you, but I also feel safe and free to live out the calling that God has given me. Furthermore, we cannot have a right relationship with the Divine if we are not willing to work on our relationship with our neighbors. As I’ve said before, we’re not going to get this completely perfect. We will fail, and that failure will drive us to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who loves us and forgives us our failings, and then sends us back out to love our neighbor again. But because of Jesus, we are free to love one another. So let’s get out there and do it. Amen.

 

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

Exodus 20:3-11

Welcome to the second Sunday of the first of our summer sermon series, where we are speaking about the Ten Commandments. Last week, we set the scene for God giving these commandments to the Israelite people through Moses: the Israelites are gathered at Mount Sinai after God has brought them through the Red Sea, given them food and water, and protected them from people who wanted to kill them. Last week, we heard how God established God’s relationship with the people of Israel. These laws that God gives are not arbitrary laws that God made up to take all the fun out of life. And these laws are not something that the people have to do in order for God to love them. If God didn’t love them, God wouldn’t have saved them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments are to be understood in this way: because God has done this, therefore the people do that. Striving to follow the laws that God gives are a way to make the people’s relationships with God and with one another work more smoothly. With this understanding in mind, we turn today to the first three commandments that God lays out before us.

The first commandment that God gives us is this: you shall have no other gods before me. Different faith traditions number the commandments slightly differently; in Lutheranism, we lump the command, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” in with “you shall have no other gods before me.” In some ways, this is unfortunate, because we tend to think, “Well, of course I don’t bow down before statues of other gods.” When I was in Turkey, when we visited the ruins of the city of Ephesus, I bought a replica of a statue of the goddess Artemis of the Ephesians, which is a reminder to me of a story in the book of Acts where Paul encounters the worship of Artemis. But I certainly do not bow down to Artemis when no one is looking; it is just a statue; a souvenir. So, we think we’re good with this commandment because we don’t bow down to idols and maybe because we come to worship on a regular basis and bow down to the one true God. But our good teacher, Martin Luther, is not going to let us get away with that. Martin Luther wrote, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

OK, so that makes us think. We are not free of guilt just because we don’t bow down to a physical idol, like this little statue of Artemis. What is it that our heart relies and depends on, then? Is it truly God? Or, is it something else? Probably the most common culprit is money. We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who worshiped money even above being decent to his fellow human beings. It took three visits from three different ghosts to show him that there were more important things in life, like relationships with his family and giving generously to those in need, before he gave up depending on money as his god. But we don’t have to be as tight-fisted with money as Scrooge was to trust in money above God. If we love money more than God, then we are constantly worried about making ends meet, rather than trusting in God to provide generously what we need. And money has then become our god, and we now love, worship, and trust in money before we love, worship, and trust in God. And we are officially in violation of the first commandment.

The second commandment, according to the Lutheran tradition is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” My mother taught me, growing up, that I was in violation of this commandment any time I said, “Oh, my God.” Perhaps many of you learned this was the way to interpret this commandment as well. Or, for those of you who went through confirmation class, you may have learned Luther’s explanation of it: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.” Now, that explanation does cover the, “Oh, my God,” part of it, or, as I saw painted once on the back of a semi-truck, “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word.” And I think most of us would say that we don’t use God’s name in order to practice magic. But what about this: saying that God would approve of things that are clearly not God-like? For example, if you are saying that God hates LGBT people, or if you are saying that God hates Muslim people, or that God hates some other group of people, are you not misusing God’s name? Don’t we believe and teach that God loves everyone? Because if God does not love everyone, then maybe God does not love you, either. Be careful what you say God hates, because you may be misusing God’s name.

But all of this is looking at the negative side of things. Do we understand what an incredible gift God has given us in enabling us to use God’s name? We can come to our God in prayer any time we want to. We can talk to God as we would talk to our father, mother, or best friend. We can use God’s name when we want to praise and give thanks to God for the many blessings that God has given us. And yet, we so often fail to do this. We fail to recognize the gift that God has given us, and we get too busy to pray. Or we only come to God when we are in need, and we forget to speak to God when things are going well. So, we are officially in violation of this second commandment as well.

And what about the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” And when God says “you” here, God means “y’all”—no one is to do any work at all. Many of us will remember “blue laws”: those laws that forbade businesses from being open on Sundays. Those laws have been eroded over the years. This economy that we have created values money over people. Everyone must work and work and work in order to have enough money to survive. But, as someone once said, God created us to be human beings, not human doings. If we just keep doing and doing and doing with no rest in sight, we will kill ourselves. What would it look like if we started to reinstitute those blue laws? Yes, it was annoying when you ran out of something on a Sunday and couldn’t go to the store to pick it up. But what would happen if we trusted in God to get us through one day—just one day!—without whatever it is we think we need? Not only would we be able to rest, but the people who work in the store would be able to rest, and perhaps then we might be able to appreciate other people for who they are rather than put the ultimate value on the things that they can produce for us.

Of course, there’s another part to observing the Sabbath besides resting, and that is this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it,” as Luther says in his explanation. If you’re here, then you’ve already got part of this down, and so I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. But, on the other hand, not all of you are in worship every Sunday, so maybe you have some work to do on that. And besides that, every one of you should be in a Bible study. I know that many of you have scheduling conflicts and can’t make it on a Thursday morning. I’ve been wanting to get an evening Bible study started for that very reason. Those of you who would be better able to come to an evening study, please come and talk to me, and let’s get something going. Because if we truly love God, then we should want to make time to hear and learn God’s Word.

The law is a mirror that, when we hold it up to ourselves, shows us our sin and our need for Jesus. The first section of the commandments tells us how we are to love God, and as we have seen, we fail miserably at this. We love and trust other things in life, such as money, before God. We misuse God’s name: using it to curse, speaking wrong things in God’s name, and not calling upon God’s name when we should be. We do not observe the Sabbath rightly: we do not take time to rest and to let other people rest, and we are not in worship and in Bible study as we should be. Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, but even though we strive to do this, we fail miserably.

But here is the good news: through Jesus Christ, God has set us free from our slavery to sin. God has given us grace and mercy, and through Jesus, God has forgiven us and has set us free. God loves us. You are each loved by God, and nothing you can do will change that. In his sermon on Friday night at Synod Assembly, Bishop Dunlop said that sociologists note that children will grow in the image that friends and family have of them. If your close family and friends say that you’re smart, for example, you will work harder at studying and you will become smart. So if God says that you are loved—and you are—how will you work to show that you are loved? God gives us these commandments, knowing that we are not going to be perfect at fulfilling them, but loving us anyway and urging us to keep on trying at loving God. So, love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind. Trust God more than anything else in life. Pray, praise, and give thanks to God in every circumstance. Rest in God’s love on the Sabbath. Trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness when you mess up. And show the world that this is what it means for you to be loved by God. Amen.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

Narrative Lectionary, Year 4

Summer Sermon Series: Ten Commandments

Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-2

This Sunday, we leave behind the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD. We leave behind the pagan streets of Greece, where Christianity was just beginning to gain a foothold, and we leave behind the dusty streets of Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit fell upon all of Jesus’ disciples. We are now going centuries back in time, where a group of Hebrew people have just been led out of slavery in Egypt by God, through his servants, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and have arrived at a mountain in the wilderness named Sinai. Here Moses will receive what would come to be known as the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone: those laws that would become foundational for not only the Jewish people, but for Christians—whose faith sprang out of the Jewish faith—and the foundation of laws for much of Western civilization. We wrestle with different aspects of these commandments all of the time; the most public dispute is whether or not they should be on display at government facilities like courthouses. As we begin this first of our summer series on the Ten Commandments, we’re going to go back to the basics and try to understand the context in which these commandments arose. And today, we begin with the storyteller of Exodus setting the scene in which Moses begins to speak with God and will receive the Ten Commandments. This setting of the scene begins with the reason why God is giving this covenant to the people, and that can be summarized with one word: relationship.

The Israelites have just come out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God has protected them the entire way. God has split the waters of the Red Sea, and the Israelites have passed through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians try to pursue them, the waters come back and drown them. Now these people, who do not know life outside of Egypt, begin to flounder in the wilderness. They encounter water that is not drinkable because it is bitter, and through Moses, God makes the water sweet. When they realize that they have nothing to eat, God rains down bread from heaven, which the Israelites call “manna,” meaning literally, “What is it?” Again, they have no water to drink, and through Moses, God provides water from a rock. The Amalekites come to battle against the Israelites, and God protects them and enables them to win against their enemies. God has done all of this and more for God’s people, the Israelites. Based on this relationship, God tells the Israelites that it is time to make a covenant, and that, if they obey the covenant, they will be God’s treasured people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

But one thing that the text is clear about, and the one thing that I want to make certain that we understand is this: these commandments that God gives the Israelites are not some arbitrary set of rules that God made up to take all of the fun out of life. Rather, I want to have us try and approach these commandments as things that make our life with God and our life with one another run more smoothly. I once heard Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt University, say that the Jewish people look at the Law as a married couple would look at household rules. A married couple would have rules to make living together easier, such as this: When one spouse comes home from work, she needs time to herself to decompress and read a portion of a book for fun before she is able to talk about her day with her husband. When that rule isn’t followed, there could be the potential for more friction between the couple, and so the husband, out of love for his wife, finds it joyful and not burdensome to follow that rule and to make life for his wife a little easier. Just so, as we look at the Ten Commandments, we should see these laws not as a burden for us to carry, but as a joy for us to follow, so that our relationship with God and our relationships with one another can be easier and more joyful.

Therefore, the first thing that God does before God even utters the actual laws is to establish that God does have a relationship with the Israelites. God states that God brought the Israelites out of the house of slavery in Egypt, and because God has freed them from slavery, therefore this is how the Israelites should behave. I want you to notice how God frames this: because I have done this, therefore you do this. It is the language, first of all, of ancient covenant treaties. But second, and more importantly, these laws are not to be obeyed so that God will love the Israelites. God already loves the people; if God didn’t love them, then God wouldn’t have freed them from slavery. The Israelite people, and today the Jewish people, rest securely in God’s love. But because they are God’s people, and because they want this relationship with God to work well, and because they love God, therefore they strive to honor God by following the commandments that God gives them. It’s all about relationship.

And this means that the Law is actually good news for us. God loves you so much that God tells me not to murder you, because God loves you. And God loves me so much that God tells you not to steal something from me, because that would hurt me and God does not want to see me hurting. Once again, these commandments are not to be burdensome obligations for us, but they are, rather, to be a testament to how much God loves us, a testament to how much God wants to be in a good relationship with us, and how much God wants us to be in a good relationship with one another and with everything that God has created.

Now that you’ve heard the ideal, though, here is the reality. We are sinful human beings. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s what sin is. The sin that keeps us turned in on ourselves rears its ugly head and breaks relationships: both with God and with one another. We may not actually be worshiping other gods, but, for example, if every decision we make in life thinks about money and about our survival before anything else, then we are putting money above God. We may find it difficult to honor our father and our mother if they suffer from dementia and don’t recognize us anymore. I may not actually murder someone, but if I call that person an idiot, then I am destroying a piece of their soul. The law shows us our sins, as a mirror shows us what we truly look like, and it shows us our need for Jesus.

And just as God showed his love for the Israelites in freeing them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (to quote St. Paul in Romans 5). Just as God established his relationship with the Israelites before giving them the Law on Mount Sinai, reminding them that God had freed them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us by sending God’s Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins. All of those times that we miss the mark, that we sin—Jesus has died for those sins, and he sets us free from our slavery to those sins. So now, just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, we are freed from slavery to sin, and we are now set free to love God and to love our neighbor, as Jesus summarizes the law for us.

But here’s the problem: the word “love” in English too often means “to have warm, fuzzy feelings for someone”. But in the Greek, love means more than that. Love is an action word. In English we have the phrase, “to put your money where your mouth is”. To love as Jesus commands us to do is not simply to have that warm, fuzzy feeling for someone. It means putting our money where our mouth is. It means that, when there is yet another school shooting, we do more than simply say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” True love for these children would mean working for sensible gun control laws and working to improve both the ways we talk about mental health, as well as improving access to mental health care. True love for our neighbors would mean standing up to our government and saying, “We know that these immigrants came here illegally, but it is not acceptable to separate mothers from their children, no matter who they are.” True love for our neighbor means doing things that put our neighbor’s interests above our own, advocating for them even when whatever the issue is does not seem to affect us. Because if our neighbor is hurting, then it means that we are hurting, too.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the mystery of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one God. Many people have tried to explain the Trinity over thousands of years and have fallen short. And I think that’s natural: God is much bigger than the human mind can comprehend, and no one explanation of God is going to get everything right. But one explanation that helps me, and makes sense to me at this point in my spiritual journey, is that God is a God of relationships. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, as the Athanasian Creed says, “equal in glory, coequal in majesty”. That’s hard for us humans to understand, because in every society, even a democracy, there are still hierarchies. But whatever else this Three-in-One God is, it is a God who is in relationship with God-self, and it is a loving relationship. And God gives us the Ten Commandments to help us to understand how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another. So, come, let us joyfully live into all of these relationships that God invites us into. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Besides being a fan of superhero movies, I am also a fan of other sci-fi movies, including Star Wars. When I went to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, after Christmas with my parents, this is the conversation that we had after the movie was over. My mother said that, despite the fact that Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents were nobody special, she still believes that Kylo Ren and Rey are related somehow. I responded that this was Star Wars and not a soap opera. My parents’ response was that Star Wars was in fact very much like a soap opera, and the Skywalker family was like the royal family, specially gifted by the Force, so that everyone who can use the Force must be related to the Skywalkers somehow. For a while after this conversation, I was a bit disillusioned. But then I started thinking about this, and realized that this is not entirely true. Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, after all, were not related to the Skywalker family and could use the Force. Before the Empire took over, if you watched the Star Wars prequels, there were other people, unrelated to the Skywalker family, who could use the Force, and finally, in The Last Jedi, the very last scene of the movie shows a small boy sweeping a floor and using the Force to grab his broom. It would seem the Force is more democratic than we have made it out to be.

So, why am I telling you this? As we hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the disciples today, I think it’s important that we remember that this is not the first time in Luke’s story that the Holy Spirit has appeared. Remember that Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and in the first book, Luke tells us of a number of times that the Holy Spirit has come upon people. When Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she will conceive a child, since she is a virgin, the angel answers that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks of how the child in her womb leapt when she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting. When John the Baptist is born, the Holy Spirit fills his father Zechariah, who prophesies about his son’s ministry. When Jesus is born, and Mary and Joseph take him to the temple, the Holy Spirit fills Simeon, who prophesies about what Jesus will do. And when Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him. So we see that the Holy Spirit has come upon a select few people before the day of Pentecost, according to the story that Luke tells. But what makes the day of Pentecost different is this: the Holy Spirit falls not just on a few people, but rather, on all of Jesus’ disciples who are gathered together and praying. The Holy Spirit is not just for the “royalty,” the Biblical heroes, but rather, it is for everyone: all of Jesus’ disciples.

And that means that the Holy Spirit is for us, too. The Holy Spirit has come upon each one of us and is with us from the moment we are baptized. We may not be empowered to speak in different languages like the first disciples were—as fun as that might be!—but we are empowered to speak about Jesus in words that people around us will understand. When we are divided from other people by barriers of race, class, citizenship vs. immigrant status, sexuality, religion, and so on and so forth: the Holy Spirit is with each one of us and has empowered and will empower each one of us to break down whatever the barrier is in order to speak in words that the other person will understand, so that the good news of Jesus can continue to be proclaimed.

But even more than that: Peter connects this pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all people so that they can tell the good news of Jesus in many different languages to an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Joel. He says that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Because we have been given the Holy Spirit, we are now given the ability to prophesy: in other words, to proclaim to the world the love that God has for us; we are given the ability to see the visions and the dreams that God has for this world that God has created. Each one of you has that ability, because each one of you has the Holy Spirit within you. But before you go off and start telling people that, “the Lord has come to me in a vision and this is what he says,” we need to take a step back for a moment. Because the truth is that we are still sinful people, and sometimes our ability to hear and see what God wants is marred by our sin, and sometimes what we think God wants turns out to be really what we want.

And so, I think the best way to test any visions or dreams that we have is this: First, test it against Scripture. There are two Scripture verses that are easy for us to remember when we are thinking about what God wants from us, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New. The one from the Old Testament is Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the one from the New Testament comes from Matthew 22:34-40. When the Pharisees tested Jesus and asked him which commandment was the greatest, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second was this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the vision or dream that you have does not fall in line with these two parts of Scripture, then it’s probably your own agenda, and not God’s.

But let’s say that your vision or dream does fall in line with these two sections of Scripture. The second thing you should do, then, is to test it within the community of Christians of which you are a part. For example, and I hope that he doesn’t mind me using him as an example, Jeff will often come into choir practice on Wednesday night and announce, “Hey, guys, I had a dream.” The choir will groan, but once Jeff tells us what his dream is, we usually try it out, and I think the stats will say that 9 times out of 10, we go along with whatever his musical dream or vision was. And it turns out fine. The same thing applies when you think that God has given you a dream or a vision of what God wants from you: talk to the Christian community around you and see what they have to say about it. If you have a dream, for example, that God wants you to go and proclaim the good news by going to Guatemala and living among the people there and serving them, then talk to your sisters and brothers in Christ and see if they think that God is calling you to do this. God often makes God’s voice heard in the voices of the community around you.

So, this is what I think God’s dream is for the communities that surround our churches. God wants to see God’s people leading the way in these communities in doing justice. That means that we need to roll up our sleeves and find out what’s going on out there—what are the concerns that the community has. One issue that I see is that both Oberlin and Steelton lie in what is called “food deserts”. That means that the only places within walking distance for people to get food are Turkey Hill, Rite Aid, and other convenience stores. This means this food is more expensive and not as healthy. I know that the city has plans to bring in a grocery store, but that could still take a while. In the meantime, we churches could increase the number of community meals that we offer, or we could participate in caring for the community gardens that are being planned in Steelton, or we could organize transportation for people who need to get to grocery stores outside of the area. In these small ways, we would be working to do justice in our neighborhoods: by helping to fill the gap created by a lack of healthy food.

Besides doing justice in our communities, God’s dream is for us to love kindness. Loving kindness can take many different forms. It can mean listening to people in our communities and hearing their stories. It can mean that when someone makes a racist remark or an off-color joke, kindly explaining to that person why such speech is not okay and is not God-pleasing. It can mean helping a stranger haul their groceries or other load into their home. Most of all, it means just being gentle with one another, knowing that we all have problems in our lives, and it means helping one another to carry our burdens.

Finally, after doing justice and loving kindness, God’s dream is for us to walk humbly with our God. For me, this means realizing that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will, because we are not God. Do you know that one of the top 10 reasons that people outside the church don’t come to church is that they believe that religious people are too judgmental? When did we Christians forget Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged?” As we strive to walk humbly with our God, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent of being judgmental. I believe that God dreams of a time when Christians are truly known for their love, rather than for sitting in judgment of other people and the decisions that they make.

The Holy Spirit is for all of us, and is in all of us. The Holy Spirit calls each of us to different tasks, but unifies us as Christians and points to Jesus as the leader in everything we do. The Holy Spirit helps to break down barriers between different groups of people. The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God, we show our love for both God and for our neighbors. Don’t be afraid of visions and dreams—these are often how the Holy Spirit nudges us to love God and neighbor. Test the visions and dreams, and when you are satisfied that God is the one calling you, don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith that God is calling you towards. God will be there beside you the whole way, and the community of faith in Jesus will be with you to support you. So don’t be afraid to let the Holy Spirit have its say, and don’t be afraid to have your world turned upside down. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative Lectionary

Philippians 2:1-13

In the first Avengers movie, there is a scene where our heroes have captured the villain, Loki, who is from Asgard, and are flying him on a plane to a secure location. All of a sudden, there is a thunderstorm, and Thor, the god of thunder, lands on the airplane, grabs Loki, and jumps out. As our heroes Iron Man and Captain America follow them out of the plane, Black Widow says to Captain America that he might want to sit this fight out, because Loki and Thor both come out of legend and are basically gods. And Captain America’s response is this: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” This movie conversation came to mind as I was thinking about today’s text from Philippians. In this text, Paul writes to the Philippians that they should have the same mind in them as that mind found in Christ Jesus. And his description of Christ Jesus, whom they—and we—worship as the Lord, is completely different from any gods that this group might have worshiped before hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As Captain America might have said, Jesus certainly doesn’t look like any other god that they might see around them.

As I was saying to the Thursday morning Bible study group this week, when we compare 1st century Greco-Roman society to 21st century North American society, we may find some general similarities, but there are still a lot of differences. From our vantage point of a society where Christianity is generally regarded as an acceptable faith to have, we can’t understand how radical and how dangerous a faith it was to have in the Roman Empire. And as we look at Paul’s description of who Jesus Christ was in this chapter, we have to try to hear it first with the ears of the 1st century Greco-Roman Empire before we try to understand what it means to us in this American Empire that we live in.

So, first, let’s look at what theologians call the idea of the incarnation in this hymn. Incarnation is a big, fancy word that means Jesus, as God, became human and lived among us. Now in the Greco-Roman world, this was not anything new. There were stories about gods, especially Zeus, the king of the gods, putting on human form and coming down to live among humans for a time. But the difference between the Greek gods and what Paul is describing here in Philippians is this: the reason that the divine became human. For example, when Zeus became human, according to the legends, it was mostly to play tricks on humanity, including sleeping with human women and getting them pregnant. Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, empties himself. He takes the form of a slave. He serves humanity by showing us how to love and to serve one another. And he becomes obedient to the point of death. He chooses to die on a cross, which was the most humiliating and lowly way that anyone in the Roman Empire could be executed. Zeus and the other Greek gods would never, ever have done that. So this idea of the divine loving humankind so much that he would come to earth to serve us and die for us instead of playing tricks on us was so new, radical, and different, that it would have caught the attention of people who were very concerned about their status in society.

So, now we come to the next part of the description of Jesus. Because Jesus did this, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. You all are probably going to get tired of hearing me say this, but this is the learning that heavily impressed itself in my brain when I was traveling in Greece and Turkey to all of these sites where Paul had been. Every person in the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge that the Emperor was a god. That means going to one of the many temples dedicated to the Emperor, burning some incense, and saying, “Caesar is Lord”. For most people in the Empire, this was not a big deal: they just added the emperor to the list of the many gods that they already had. For the Jewish people, who worshiped only one God, the Empire said that as long as prayers were said for the emperor in the temple, they did not have to acknowledge the emperor as divine. But consider now how it would sound for Christians to be going around denying that Caesar is Lord, but saying instead that Jesus is Lord: someone whom the Romans had shamefully crucified is higher than the Emperor. That’s treason, and the punishment for treason is death.

Jesus is Lord. Such a simple statement for us to make today. No one thinks twice about it, because all those of us who believe this statement have no problem saying it, and those who don’t: well, they may want to discuss it with us, but they’re not able to throw us in prison for treason because of it. Jesus is Lord. What was treason once upon a time is something that is easy for us to say in the American Empire in which we live. But do we understand what it means for us to say that Jesus is Lord?

Scholars think that these verses describing who Jesus is and what he did are not original to Paul, but rather that Paul quoted a hymn that the Philippian church would have been familiar with. Why does he do that? Well, like any church, there were disagreements among the people about how ministry should happen. Later on in this letter, Paul calls out two of the women who were arguing, Euodia and Syntyche, to stop their disagreement and be of one mind in the Lord. Being of one mind in the Lord does not mean that we in the church will always agree with one another. It does mean, however, that disagreements with one another should not divide the congregation. When we have disagreements, we should come together and discuss them, remembering that even though we have different opinions about something, the statement that Jesus Christ is Lord is what unifies us above all other things.

And because Jesus Christ is Lord, and we know that at his name every knee should bend, it means that the things we disagree about are not of ultimate importance in the long run. Therefore, when we look to resolve our disagreements about which direction the church should go in its ministry, we need to do so with the humility that Jesus modeled for us. We should consciously be seeking the welfare of others, and not ourselves. And that consciously seeking the welfare of others means not just those of us inside these church walls, but also those outside of our church walls as well. Just as God emptied God-self into human form in the person of Jesus in order to serve humankind and to become obedient to death in the most humiliating way possible—for us, and not for his own glory—we too are called to empty ourselves and to love and serve one another, sometimes in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

What does this emptying of ourselves to love and serve one another look like? Well, here are some examples. It looks like a woman caring for her husband who has dementia and does not remember who she is any longer. It looks like the man in Australia, who, when doctors discovered that he had antibodies in his blood that could save the lives of many children, donated blood every week until he was too old to do so any longer, so that those children could live. It looks like offering comfort to a complete stranger in the vet’s office because she’s just had to have her dog put down and she has no one there with her to hug her and give her a shoulder to cry on. And it looks like not separating immigrant mothers from their children at the border even when they have violated the law in crossing our borders illegally. And when that does happen, self-emptying looks like church communities, clothed in compassion, who go to these families who are being detained to offer comfort, material support, and advocacy so that parents may be reunited with their children.

“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” Our God does not look flashy and handsome like Thor, and he doesn’t play tricks on us like Zeus. Our God is Jesus, the one who had nothing in his appearance to attract anyone to him. Our God emptied himself and became human for us. He served us and he loved us and he showed us what it means to love and serve one another, to empty ourselves and put the interests of others before ourselves. And ultimately, Jesus, our God, died the most humiliating death possible—for us. Therefore, how can we not follow the model of our God as we interact with one another? We’re human, and we’re not going to get it right all of the time—far from it. And God gives us forgiveness and grace when we stumble and fall. But let us strive to model Jesus in our dealings with one another, being of one mind in Christ Jesus, and confessing with our tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.