Sermon for Pentecost 17 Narrative

Note: I have two small churches in two slightly different contexts. This week’s sermon had the same beginning and ending for both, with the middle section differing. I’m placing them both here so that you, gentle reader, may see how the same Biblical text could address each context.

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Genesis 12:1-9

Today we move from the story of Noah to the call of Abram. And, there isn’t a whole lot to fill you in on with the chapters that we’ve skipped over. After God makes a covenant with Noah and all the creatures of the earth not to destroy the world again with a flood, we have a strange little story of Noah getting drunk and how his sons treated him when he was drunk. I don’t know quite what to do with that story, other than to say if I had been through what Noah had, I would probably want to get drunk myself. So, we’re just going to leave that there for another time. Then we have one of those genealogies that we don’t know quite what to do with, other than to say Noah’s sons had sons, and the world was populated once more. Then we have a story of how all the human beings used to speak one language, and how one day they all got together and decided to build a tower reaching to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God decides to drop by, sees what they’re doing, and confuses their speech, so that work on the tower is stopped and everyone now speaks different languages. We then get another genealogy, this one narrowing in on the descendants of one of Noah’s sons, Shem, and ending with Abram, who is one of the main characters in our story today. And I want us to take particular note of Genesis 11:30, which is not in today’s reading: “Now Sarai (that’s Abram’s wife) was barren; she had no child.” And after that, we get introduced to the man named Abram.

There is no particular reason that God chose Abram. Out of the blue, we see God speaking and commanding Abram to leave his father’s house and go to the land that God will show him. And God makes three promises to Abram: First, that Abram will become a great nation. Second, that God will bless Abram so that he will be a blessing. And third, that Abram’s offspring will inherit the land. Now, I find a few things about these promises very interesting. First, we just heard in chapter 11 that Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren, and Abram himself was 75 years old at this time. So how on earth is God going to give Abram offspring and make of Abram a great nation? Second, God never promises that Abram himself will own the land that God is sending him to, and indeed, at the end of Abram’s story, we find that he only owns the land in which his wife is buried. And finally, and most importantly, that, in spite of his age and in spite of the fact that he has no children and doesn’t seem likely to, Abram believes these promises of God, packs up his family and his belongings, and travels to Canaan. That is a tremendous amount of faith being displayed there.

And so, Abram journeys to the land of Canaan, trusting only in the word of God that he will one day have children, in spite of the odds being stacked against him. This journey that he starts out on in today’s reading, and that continues on in many stories after this, will be a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, and it will take many unexpected turns. The blessings that God has promised to Abram will not look like what Abram thinks they will look like. Abram will give up hope of having children with his wife, Sarai, and when God comes to remind Abram and Sarai of that promise, they laugh in God’s face. Abram will have sorrow and pain in his life when he bargains with God over the lives of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and then looks and sees the destruction of the cities and does not know if his nephew Lot and Lot’s family have survived. He will have further pain when, because of Sarai’s jealousy, he is forced to banish Hagar his concubine and Ishmael his son. Abram and Sarai will eventually die without seeing the fulfillment of the promise God made to them to make of Abram a great nation. But, they will also know God’s blessing in the birth of Isaac to them in their old age, and they journey through their life together sometimes believing, sometimes not, but somehow trusting and hoping beyond hope that God will fulfill these promises that God has made to them, and that their descendants after them will be blessed so that they may be a blessing to all of the families of the earth.

As spiritual descendants of Abraham, we too are on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness. And like Abraham, our journey will take many twists and turns, and the blessings will be found in unexpected places. Our congregations of Salem and St. John’s are small, and in many ways, they may seem barren, especially as we see our membership and our attendance on Sunday mornings get smaller. The blessings, when they come, don’t look like what we think they will look like. But God is faithful to God’s promises, and God has promised us, as those spiritual descendants of Abraham, that we will be a blessing to all of the people around us.

 

Salem

For those of you who haven’t heard from the members of the council who gathered here on Monday night, I have asked our leaders to consider either closing this congregation, or possibly merging with another congregation in the area. I want you to know that I have not come to ask this of you lightly, and that it has nothing to do with our finances, which are still stable. This has come over the last year and a half that I have been with you, watching the congregation slowly fade and lose energy for its mission. I have seen you all exert tremendous amounts of energy for the fundraisers that you traditionally do, and I have heard you worry about not being able to get as many people to help out as you have in the past. I have struggled to find new ways of doing mission in this community and have even brought in folks from the Synod to try and help figure things out, and we are all at a loss. My heart aches for all of you, because I know that you have gifts to share for ministry, and I would love to see you use them in places and in ways that would yield more fruit.

I did not ask on Monday night, and I am not asking you today, for any kind of decision or vote. I am simply asking all of you to be in prayer and discernment about the future of Salem over the next few months. I am here to listen to you and answer any questions that I can answer, but please know that maybe right after worship is not the best time, as I have to get down to St. John’s. My phone number is in the bulletin; please call me and set up a time to meet with me. I believe that, just as Abraham was on a journey from barrenness to fruitfulness, so too, are we on that same journey. God has fruitfulness in store for all of us here at Salem. But also, just as the blessings for Abraham did not appear as he thought they would, those blessings and that promised fruitfulness may not look like what we think it will look like. God may be calling us on a journey to a new and strange country, and a journey that we ourselves will not see the end of.

 

St. John’s

And I see this blessing that God has given St. John’s played out in so many ways. If I may be so bold as to say this, I think that we have taken the promise made to Abraham seriously, and we know that we have been blessed so that we can be a blessing to others. Richard Jorgensen, the Synod’s Director for Evangelical Mission, likes to ask congregations this question: If we had to close tomorrow, who in the community would miss us? Well, here are a few groups that I thought of:

First, Safani, the daycare that our building hosts. Without us, they would have to look for another space. Next, everyone who comes to our monthly community breakfast. Some months we don’t serve as many people as others. But for everyone who comes, we have given them at least one free meal for that day, which may ease some budget woes for that person. And, I’m beginning to see a core group of “regulars” who come each month—even though they don’t make the transition over here to worship on a Sunday morning, they are forming a community that is beginning to know one another. With the monthly community dinners starting this month, perhaps that community can become even stronger. Another group who would miss us is the people who come looking for financial assistance to help with a utility bill, or groceries, or some other need. As the pastor who gets to help the people with the donations that you all place in the jar at the back, words just don’t do justice to the sense of gratitude and relief that I see on people’s faces when they know that they have money to pay whatever bill is hanging over their heads or to get food to feed their family. Yet another group who would miss us is Family Promise. Without the use of our building and without our support, Family Promise would lose a key spoke in their wheel that might not be easily replaced. These are just a few examples, but I want us all to take note of them when we start to get discouraged about our small numbers. Just as God did great things with Abram and Sarai, who by all worldly accounts were barren and dried up, God has done and will continue to do great things through us, even though the world may count us as dried up and barren.

 

Both

We are the spiritual descendants of Abram and Sarai. We, too, are called to have great faith in God and to believe in those promises, even when it seems like all hope is lost. And, we are called to that journey which may surprise us when blessings pop up in unexpected ways, which may cause us sorrow and pain when life doesn’t go as expected, which will almost certainly bring great moments of unexpected joy and wonderment, and which we may not see the end of. But, like Abram and Sarai, we know that God’s promises are true, and that we are blessed to be a blessing. And we also know that, when our faith falters, we are not alone—God is with us, and the community of believers around us will carry us along. So, let us have no fear. Let us continue on this journey in faith, remembering the example of Abram and Sarai, and trusting that God is with us and loves us—no matter what. Amen.

Advertisements

Sermon for Pentecost 16 Narrative

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Pentecost 16

Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

Today we begin a new cycle of readings in the narrative lectionary. Again, the idea is that our readings will take us roughly in the order that the Bible goes, just as we did last year, from Old Testament through New Testament, with the summer being short sermon series on different books of the Bible or topics that have relevance to our life in the church. And this year, our cycle of readings begins with the story of Noah. So, briefly, I would like to summarize what has happened before this in the book of Genesis. In chapter 1 through the beginning of chapter 2, we hear how God created the earth in six days, and how on the seventh day, God rested, thus making holy the seventh day. In chapter 2, we get a different story of how God created the earth; this one starting with God creating man, then planting a garden in Eden, and then, seeing that the man was lonely, bringing each living creature to Adam to name. And when none was found to be a fit companion for Adam, God put him to sleep and created a woman from Adam’s rib. In chapter 3, we hear the story of how the serpent tempts the woman to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and how she gives the fruit to Adam, who eats, and how God pronounces a curse upon them and drives them out of the garden. But, in the midst of that, God still cares for them and provides them with clothing. In chapter 4, Eve gives birth to Cain and Abel, and Cain murders his brother Abel. Chapter 5 traces the family line from Adam to Noah.

And so, we arrive at today’s story of Noah. What Genesis has done for us so far is to show us that God created the earth and everything in it, but the creation went astray from God’s plans for it. And so we get this ominous opening line, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

With such an opening as that, and with the story following, I often wonder why we have made this story one that we always teach the children in Sunday school; why we decorate children’s Sunday school rooms with the animals heading up into the ark two by two; why we focus on all the cute animals and write poems about how the unicorns didn’t believe the news, didn’t get on the ark, and were drowned in the flood. (You can read that poem in Shel Silverstein’s collection of poems entitled, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”.) We focus on Noah and his family floating along with all of these animals, and we don’t think about the death and destruction that God caused with the flood. I read a story this week about how, in a children’s sermon, the pastor asked the kids to imagine what it must have been like to be on the ark during the flood, and one of the kids said, “I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.” That certainly doesn’t fit the cheerful, cute picture we have in our minds of the Noah’s ark story.

So, I think we need to talk about this death and destruction for a moment, because, just as we can’t have the resurrection of Jesus without first going with him to the cross, we can’t get to the rainbow in the sky without first going through the flood waters. In 6:11-13, the Hebrew word that gets translated as “corrupt” appears several times—first in connection with how humans have corrupted the earth, and second in connection with the destruction that the flood waters are going to bring to the earth. The use of this word throughout these sentences implies that, even though God is the one who brings on the flood waters, the flood is also a direct consequence of the corrupt behavior of humans. I want for us to keep this idea in mind as we move forward through this story.

So, that’s the bad news. What’s the good news? God is not ready to give up completely on the creation. He sees that Noah and his family are righteous, and so he chooses them and commands them to build an ark. And in this ark, God preserves Noah’s life; seeing them safely through the flood waters. This image of preservation in the face of destruction is so profound that we use it in our liturgy for the sacrament of baptism: Just as God preserved Noah’s life when the waters around his ark raged, we give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit who preserves the life of the person being baptized and welcomes that person into the life of the community of God’s church. And the further good news is this: after the flood waters have subsided, God makes a covenant with Noah and with all of God’s creation that never again will God destroy the earth in a flood. God loves the creation, and God finds a way to preserve it, even in the face of the wickedness of humankind.

So, what are we to do with this story today? The first thing to remember is that our actions have consequences. God has made the creation so interconnected that everything we do has consequences for another part of the creation. Climate change is upon us, and the consequences of what we have done to the earth are starting to be felt. Because we have warmed the atmosphere with our fossil fuels, the ice caps are melting and ocean levels are rising. Miami, Florida, now floods even on sunny days, and it is having consequences for people who live in those areas as they are trying to move to higher ground. Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, is in danger of being completely wiped off the map because of the sea level rise. Venice, Italy, also deals with flooding in their city. And polar bears are in danger of becoming extinct because of the ice melting, causing them to become cut off from the areas they need to be in order to get food. God may have promised never to flood the earth again, but God never said anything about human beings never causing floods to happen. We are suffering the consequences of our lack of good stewardship of this earth.

The second thing to remember is something from our stewardship series: nothing that we see around us really belongs to us; we are merely the caretakers, or the stewards, of God’s creation. And as good stewards, there are things we can do to reduce our impact on the creation around us. The mantra that you may have heard before is this: reduce, reuse, recycle. First, reducing: as one example, it is hard to avoid plastic. I know, because I have tried. But here is one thing you can perhaps start with: stop using straws. I know there’s been a lot of media attention lately on California banning the use of plastic straws. There’s a reason for that decision. Straws are not able to be recycled, and they end up in our oceans where marine life swallow them and choke on them. When you go out to eat at a restaurant, don’t use the straws that the waiter brings you. Or, if you really need to use a straw, and this brings us into the reuse part of the mantra, they are making reusable metal ones. You can get them for $10 on Amazon and then get in the habit of bringing them with you to restaurants. This is one small thing we can do to help be better stewards of the environment. And, finally, wherever possible, recycle as much as possible.

But the third and most important thing to remember is that God loves the creation. In the Noah story, God makes the covenant not to flood the earth again not just with Noah and his family, but also with every living creature that was with Noah, “the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” God loves the creation and everything in it, from the praying mantis that I found on my door the other day, to the polar bear looking for food in the Arctic, to the wolf howling in the West, to the wild turkeys that show up in my neighborhood from time to time, and even to those insects like roaches that we find detestable. God loves every bit of it, including you and me. And even in the face of changes in the environment that we are seeing now, I believe that God will find a way to preserve the creation and that God will be with us through it all. So, let us have no fear, but rather, boldly make those changes in our lifestyles that we need to make in order to be better stewards of the creation that God has loaned to us. Trusting in God’s love for us and for all creation, we know that God is with us always. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15 Narrative

Note: There are times in the life of the church where words that apply to one congregation do not fit so easily for others. The bulk of this sermon was the same for both Salem and St. John’s, but there were some particular issues that I needed to speak to Salem about on Sunday that related to hoarding. Thus, I decided to only include the St. John’s version on my blog. 

Luke 12:13-34

Last week, when we talked about Jesus telling the rich man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, I told you about all the books I had, how each one was important to me, and how I would have a hard time giving them all up. Today, as we hear the parable of the man who decided to build bigger barns to keep all of his grain in, I have another confession to make: I hoard books. Along with all of the books that I have read, I have a large pile of books that I have not yet read. And, courtesy of my brother, I have an Amazon Kindle. And on that Kindle are even more books that I have not yet read. The Japanese have a name for this condition that I have: tsundoku. It means letting books pile up in your home without actually reading them. Believe me, I do have every intention of reading these books that I have acquired. It’s just that I get busy and don’t get around to it. And what’s even worse is this: even though I have this pile of books that I haven’t read yet, I still go into bookstores and buy more books to add to that pile, and I still download books on my Amazon Kindle to read. And my dream is to have a room big enough to house all these books and to have loads of bookshelves to put them on, where I can go in and not have a cell phone, not have a TV, not have a computer, just the books and the Kindle, and read for days on end. You know, I don’t need a big fancy Japanese word to describe this. Let’s just call it what it is: I hoard books. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all hoard something. Here in America, hoarding is such a problem that in some cases it has become a legitimate mental disorder, with people not being able to throw anything out. There have even been reality TV shows done on hoarding. So, what is at the root of this hoarding behavior? Why do we hoard? The answer is fear: fear of not having enough.

Our Gospel story today shines a light on this behavior. And it starts out with a problem that some families today still have: that of dividing an inheritance. There’s something both comforting and frightening to know that fights about property left to you by your parents when they die have been going on since at least the 1st century! I imagine Jesus’ response as being very irritable when he asks the person who made him judge and arbitrator. But he uses this as a teaching opportunity, and tells a story about a man who had an abundant harvest. I’d like to look at this story a little bit more closely so that we can try to understand what Jesus might be saying to us.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly, Jesus tells us. And the rich man realizes that he does not have enough room for all of his crops in the barns that he currently has, so he decides to tear his barns down and build bigger ones, and then he can rest and take it easy. There are a couple of warning signs about this man in just these opening lines. First, there is no climate control in these barns and no way of keeping critters out. And so we wonder if the man is really going to be able to eat his way through all these stores by himself before the critters and the mold get to them. This leads us into the second question: the man seems to be by himself, without even family to share his abundant harvest with. He may be rich in stuff, but he seems to have gotten all that stuff at the expense of relationships with other people. This man puts me in mind of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: rich in material wealth and poor in relationships with other people. The third thing that we should note that is wrong with this man is this: he may have an abundant harvest this year, but that doesn’t mean he will have abundant harvests in future years. What would happen if he had poor harvests in the future and then had too much space to store it in? In just these few lines, we can see that the man seems to be thinking only of the present moment, not the future, and he’s thinking only of his self-interest.

And then, Jesus tells us, after this rich man decided to build bigger barns for his grain and store it all up, using it all for himself, God tells him that on that very night, his number is up: his life is demanded from him and he can’t take all of his stuff with him. And all of that stuff that he hoarded up for himself? Whose will it be now? Again, a scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol comes to mind, where Scrooge is shown the future, when he is dead, when the only emotion that anyone feels is relief and hope now that he is gone, and when the servants—those poor people that he so despised—come in and divide up his belongings among themselves. Jesus ends his parable about the foolish rich man with, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

What does it mean to be rich towards God? When we discussed this in our stewardship classes at the Synod office, the image that came to my mind in contrast to Jesus’ rich man in his parable was the image of Boaz. If you remember from the sermon series that we had on the book of Ruth, Boaz was the rich man in Ruth’s story, who, even though he was rich, instructed his reapers to leave plenty of barley for Ruth to glean and who went out of his way to be kind towards Ruth. Boaz was not afraid of not having enough for himself; instead, he shared generously of what he had with those who did not have enough, trusting that God would provide for him. He knew that God was bigger than any fear he might have felt. And fear is what lies behind hoarding. If we go back to my hoarding of books, I think that perhaps I am afraid that I won’t find that particular book at that particular price again and that I will miss out on a good story, and that fear is what leads me to pile up books and hoard them against a day when I might read them. But when we truly trust in God, we have no fear, and we can relinquish our tight grasp on the stuff that we hoard and share with others who don’t have enough.

 

 

 

I want to say that we as a congregation have made a good start on cleaning out our church building; being bold and saying that you know what, we really don’t need those 8-track tapes that have been sitting up in the church attic for years and years anymore. And I’m proud of how we cleaned out the library to make room for a TV lounge for our guests from Family Promise. I think that we can continue to take stock of the things that we have and assess whether or not we really need them for the ministry that we do in this building.

And so, I want to focus on another aspect in our life together where we might be hoarding. We’ve been talking about money for the last couple of weeks, and so I want to put this in front of us today for us to consider. Yes, it is prudent to save money. It is prudent to save for retirement, so that you have something to live on when you are no longer working, and it is prudent to put some money away for large, emergency expenses, such as car repairs. But what we need to wrestle with is that line between saving and hoarding. I’ll be honest: I don’t know where that line is. That might be something that we each, individually, have to answer for ourselves, and as a congregation, we may need to wrestle with that line as well. I think the answer to that question comes as we pray and ask God to help us figure out when it is best to save money and how best we can give to help others. It is always good to remember that we won’t always get it right, and that with God, there is mercy and forgiveness.

As we close out this short stewardship series today, I want to end with a reminder of what stewardship is. Stewardship is realizing that everything around us, everything that we say we own, actually does not belong to us. Our possessions, our money, even our skills and talents, all really belong to God. God asks that we be good stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation and all of the material stuff within it. Material things are not bad in and of themselves. It is when these things become more important to us than our relationship with God that we have problems. So, today, I’d like for us to remember Jesus’ words at the end of the Gospel text: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” As a people who trust in God to provide for us, we should not give in to our fears of not having enough. God desires us to share what we have with one another, so everyone has enough. Now, I am the first one to admit that this is easier said than done. But God will be with us, and the Holy Spirit will remind us of Jesus’ words not to be afraid. So, let us have no fear, for God is with us. Amen.

Sermon for 14 Pentecost Narrative Lectionary

Mark 10:17-31

 

This week, as I was reflecting on today’s Gospel text in preparation for this sermon, I saw an episode of a TV show and a movie where a character in each story had to sacrifice the thing that they loved most in order for their evil plots to move forward. In the first season of the show “Once Upon a Time” that aired on ABC until recently, the Evil Queen had to kill the thing that she loved most in order for her curse upon all of the fairy tale characters to work. She thought at first that it was her favorite horse, but when killing the horse didn’t get the curse to work, she discovered that what she loved most in the world was her father. And yes, she killed her father so the curse would work. Vengeance was more important to her than love. A similar thing happens in the movie “Avengers: Infinity War”. As the bad guy, Thanos, is collecting infinity stones in order to carry out his evil plot, he discovers that he cannot get one of the stones he needs, the Soul Stone, without sacrificing the thing that he loves most. Gomorah, his adopted daughter who is trying to stop him, is gleeful because she thinks that Thanos doesn’t love anything. But what she discovers is that Thanos does, in fact, love her, and he kills her so that he can possess the Soul Stone.

While I hate to make a connection between stories where characters kill the person they love the most in order for something bad to happen and the story that we hear today, when Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions, I think that there is a connection to be made. In the case of the TV episode and the movie, love of someone stands in the way of the bad guys getting the thing that they want the most. In the case of the rich man who runs up to Jesus, love of stuff is standing in the way of his inheriting eternal life. And as we hear this story, we should be squirming in our seats in discomfort, because which one of us does not love the stuff that we have? For example, I have a lot of books. Those of you who have been in my office or my apartment will know this: I have books everywhere. Believe it or not, each of those books has some sentimental attachment to me. The books that I have in my study contain knowledge that I may need for the work that I do as your pastor. And each of the books that I have in my home contains a story that has some sentimental meaning for me; that spoke to me at some point in my life, and that I remember fondly. If Jesus asked me to give up all of my possessions, there would be some things I could get rid of quite easily, but I think my books is what I would have the hardest time with. And when I hear this story, I wonder if all of those books are standing in the way of my relationship with Jesus.

That, I think, is what Jesus was trying to say to this man and to his disciples: not that we all need to give up all of our possessions, but rather, what are those things standing in the way of your relationship with God? If you look at other stories in Scripture, Jesus does not demand that each person that he meets give up all of his or her possessions. In the Gospel of Luke, for example, when Zacchaeus, he of the short stature, says that he will give away half of his possessions, Jesus does not tell him he should give all of them away. Instead, Jesus tells Zacchaeus that on that day, salvation has come to his house. So the question becomes, what’s going on with this rich man in Mark’s Gospel? Why is he different from Zacchaeus, who was also rich? And this is what it comes down to: the nameless rich man is an observant Jewish man who has done all that he can to keep the commandments. And yet, he still feels like something is missing, which is why he asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus looks at the man and sees that all of his possessions are keeping him from living a fuller and closer life to God. And that’s why Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and to follow him. And the man goes away, grieving, because he has many possessions. We don’t know whether he eventually decided to do what Jesus said or not. We are left to wrestle with that question, and to wrestle with what we would do in that situation, and to wrestle with how God is calling us to use our possessions.

And so, again, I don’t think that Jesus is necessarily telling us to give away all of our possessions, too, although there have been many examples throughout history of both men and women choosing to do that. St. Francis of Assisi is one; Mother Theresa another. But I do think that Jesus is asking us to examine our lives and to see if there is something that we love that is standing in the way of a fuller relationship with him. Mark Allan Powell opens his book, Giving to God, with a story that he acknowledges is probably the equivalent of an urban legend, but one that illustrates this point well. There was an ancient people group who lived in what is today known as France called the Gauls, and they were a very warlike people. Christian missionaries came into the area and converted many of these Gauls to the faith. However, when they were baptized, the converted warriors would hold one arm out of the water as the rest of their body was dunked into the water. That way, when the next war broke out, the warrior could say, “This arm is not baptized!” and go off to fight the battle.

What is that arm that is “not baptized” for you? What is that part of yourself that you are keeping close to you so that you don’t have to surrender that part of your life to God? For many of us, that answer could very well be money. What are some of the justifications we use for not giving more money to the church? One of those might be, “We’ve had a large sum of money left to us by someone in their will so the church doesn’t really need more of my money.” Or, “What Jesus really wants is my heart, so it doesn’t matter how much money I give as long as I give a little something.” Or, “I don’t like what the preacher keeps preaching in sermons so I’m not going to give to the church until she’s gone.” All these things are as if we are waving our wallets in the air and saying, “My wallet isn’t baptized, so I can do with it what I will.” And it is in this way that money becomes more important to us than doing God’s will, and it stands in the way of a closer relationship with Jesus.

Jesus said to his disciples, and he says to us, his 21st century disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, you may be thinking to yourselves that you’re not rich. By American standards, no, most of us in this room are not rich. We watch our budgets very carefully. When we have unexpected large expenses, we either add to our credit card debt or we beg the company to whom we owe the debt for some kind of extended payment plan. Some of us live paycheck to paycheck. But here’s the thing: when we compare ourselves to people around the world, those of us who classify ourselves as the 99% in America would be classified as the 1% by people in other countries. And so, it is good for all of us to examine the relationship we have with our money, and to ask ourselves how God would have us use that money to help others around us who are in need.

Now, here’s the good news. The disciples, upon hearing Jesus’ camel through the eye of a needle remark, look around and ask, “Then who can be saved?” Perhaps they recognize themselves in that statement, although Peter claims a little bit later that they have left everything to follow Jesus. But Jesus tells the disciples that, even though by human standards it is next to impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, it is different with God. For God, all things are possible. This is part of what that means: we’re going to mess this up. We can examine our relationship with money and decide that we can give some more, but I guarantee you that there will be some opportunity that we will miss, or an instance where we decide that we can’t give when we really could have. But that doesn’t mean that we will miss entering the kingdom of God, because with God all things are possible. Our entry to the kingdom of God is not dependent on what we do or don’t do, thanks be to God! It is dependent only on God’s love for us and God’s forgiveness of us for the times that we miss the mark, and that love and forgiveness never fails.

Martin Luther wrote, “If you are rich and see that your neighbor is poor, serve him with your possessions; if you do not do this you are not now a Christian. This is what we are to do with all our possessions, both spiritual and material.” All that we claim that we own in fact is not ours; it all belongs to God. We are merely stewards, or caretakers, of God’s creation. And that means that we are to share what we have with others, so that all may be fed and clothed and live the abundant life that Jesus came to earth to give us. So, what is it that is standing in our way of a closer relationship with God? Let’s examine ourselves, ask forgiveness for the times that we have failed, and seek, with God’s help, to use our possessions to benefit others and in so doing, catch glimpses of the kingdom of God here on earth. Amen.

Sermon for 13 Pentecost Narrative Lectionary

Matthew 6:19-34

Today we are starting a 3-week sermon series on the topic of stewardship. Now, for many of you, if I say that word, you’re automatically going to think that the church is going to ask for money. Stewardship does include finances, and we are going to be talking about our money and how we use it during this sermon series, but we’re also going to be expanding our definition of stewardship and looking at how we are called to be stewards of all the gifts that God has given us. Those gifts do include money, but they also include the time that we have been given, as well as the skills that we have been given, the place that we have been given to live, and many other things as well.

And so, I want to start with a definition of what stewardship is. Being a steward started out with royalty: a steward was that household servant who was responsible for bringing food and drink to the master in the dining hall. Remember that the old word for “airline attendant” was steward or stewardess? That’s where that came from. Eventually the definition of the word “steward” expanded so that the person who was the steward of a household was responsible for managing all of the details regarding the upkeep of the castle or manor house. A steward in this situation was responsible for collecting rents from the tenants, for example, or managing the finances of the household, hiring and firing employees, and so on and so forth. What was key, though, in this position, was that the steward knew that even though he had great power over the household, none of the things that he managed belonged to him: they all belonged to his master. And that’s where we as Christians need to begin as we think about stewardship. Even though we say that things belong to us in our common language, the truth is that we are simply stewards of everything we see. All of this: our houses, our property, our animals, our money, even our time and our talents, all of that really belongs to God. They are given to us only for the time that we live here on earth to use and to manage wisely, all for the glory of God.

And so, with that framework of what it means to be a steward in mind, let’s take a look at our Gospel text for today. This is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is laying out what a Christian community looks like and how it behaves. And the majority of the section that we have in front of us today is concerned with anxiety, and so that’s how I’d like to frame today’s conversation about stewardship. We live in very anxious times. Some of us take medicine for anxiety, and that’s okay—there are legitimate medical disorders where that’s necessary to control the body’s fight or flight responses, and that medication helps the person to be mentally healthy. I want to be clear that this is not the kind of anxiety I’m talking about today, and I’m fairly certain this is not the kind of anxiety that Jesus had in mind. The kind of anxiety that Jesus is talking about is the kind that would be normal for any person to have, especially a Mediterranean peasant in the 1st century: where is my next meal going to come from; how am I going to feed my family; how am I going to clothe myself and my family. And Jesus doesn’t dismiss those everyday worries out of hand. Instead, he reframes them: if God takes care of the birds and the grass of the field, then God will certainly take care of God’s children who are made in God’s image. It’s a matter of trusting that God will take care of everything that we need, so that we can strive for more important things in life.

Jesus telling us not to worry about things like food, drink, and clothing connects with his previous statement: “No one can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and wealth.” If we think of wealth, or rather, money, as something that belongs to us, then we are going to use that money for ourselves. We will spend it on everything our heart desires, rather than ask ourselves how God would have us spend that money. Or, we will hoard it, because we worry that we won’t be able to feed ourselves properly or pay our bills unless we have every little penny that we can get our hands on. Or, we use that money to get more money and to have more power by having that money. That’s what having money as our master looks like.

But if God is truly our God, rather than money, then we will see money as something that God gives us in order not only to provide for our needs, but also to share with others to help provide for their needs. Let’s look at another part of today’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Mark Allan Powell, author of Giving to God, talks about how he was listening to a Bonnie Raitt song one day where she sang about how you can’t make your heart feel something that it won’t. And he says that when Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he is challenging that way of thinking. As an example from my own life: Before the recent news about immigration hit the media, I knew about Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, but I had never given to them before. That simply wasn’t a cause that was near and dear to my heart. Once the news about separation of families at our southern border hit the media, I looked for a way I could help, and I decided to give to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to help them in the work that they do. And now, my heart is engaged where I sent my monetary treasure. I read more about the work that this agency does and the theological foundation for it, and I want to give money to them again because I believe they’re doing good work. Sometimes we have to decide to give because we know it’s the right thing to do, and then once we have invested our treasure in that place, let our hearts catch up to where we’ve sent our treasure.

So, here’s the ask: are you giving to the church because it’s the right thing to do and are you waiting for your heart to catch up? Or, is your heart already caught up to your treasure? Are you not giving at all? If so, can you give something? If you are giving something, can you trust God to provide for your needs and give a little bit more? If your mind and your heart needs some reasons to give, here are some of the things that we as a congregation have been doing in the last year or so:

Salem

  • In conjunction with SOHL, we have hosted and participated in Vacation Bible School, participated in a Blessing of the Animals, and we hope to add a Live Nativity to that list this year.
  • We have given to local food banks, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Disaster Response, and contributed food and volunteers to Family Promise when St. John’s has hosted it.
  • We have hosted a joint weekly adult Bible study with St. John’s on Thursday mornings.

 

St. John’s:

  • We have hosted homeless families in our building for a week at a time through Family Promise.
  • We have hosted free community breakfasts once a month and had a clothes bank where those in need can get free clothes.
  • We have had free ice cream socials for the community during the summer months.
  • We have given to Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response.
  • In September, and hopefully again after that, we will be hosting a community dinner in conjunction with St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church.
  • In October, we will be hosting Menchey Music as they present a community music recital.
  • We have had a Fall Festival and a Winter Festival for the children in our community.
  • Our youth have participated in the Harrisburg Area Youth Initiative, and have collected items to be given to Caitlin’s Smiles, a local charity that helps sick children get through their hospitalization by giving them arts and crafts to do.
  • Our confirmation-age youth have participated in a cooperative confirmation program with other area congregations.
  • In conjunction with SOHL, we have participated in a joint Vacation Bible School, a Blessing of the Animals, and we hope to add a Live Nativity this December.
  • We have a joint weekly adult Bible study with Salem on Thursday mornings.

 

In these things and more, we are fulfilling our mission statement: to spread God’s Word and to show God’s love in our community. And because of your generosity, we have been able to accomplish these things even with the small numbers of people that we have. And so, we are asking that your hearts will continue to follow the treasure that you are already giving, and we pray for those of you who are giving, that you would be able to increase what you are giving, and for those of you who are not, that the Lord would move your hearts to give what you are able to give, with a glad and generous heart.

Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat or drink or wear. Jesus gives us lots of hard commands to follow, but this one is especially hard because he is telling us to put aside our most basic instincts and to trust in God for provision. As your pastor, I want you to know that I don’t have this down perfectly. I struggle with my instincts to cling to what I get so that I can survive. I don’t always trust in God’s provision. And so if you tell me that you struggle with that too, I want you to know that I get it. And God understands as well, and there is always forgiveness when we come to God and confess that we have not trusted that God will provide. But I urge you this week to pray over these words of Jesus, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Whatever part of striving for God’s kingdom and righteousness God is calling you to, trust in God and follow that calling with all of your heart. And if your heart’s not in it right away, try putting your treasure there first and then wait for your heart to catch up. God will be there waiting for you—always. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 12 Narrative Lectionary

Ruth 4

Today we hear the conclusion to the story of Ruth. Again, I would just like to review the story up to this point: Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons journey to Moab from Bethlehem because there is a famine. While they are in Moab, Elimelech dies, the two sons get married, and then the two sons die, leaving Naomi alone with her two foreign daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, and one of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, goes with her. They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest, and Ruth goes to glean in the fields so that she and Naomi will have some food. As it happens, Ruth is gleaning in the fields belonging to Boaz, who is related to Naomi’s dead husband, Elimelech. Boaz shows kindness to Ruth and makes sure she has enough grain to bring home for her and Naomi. As it turns out, Boaz is not only a relative, but he is also what in Hebrew is known as a go’el, a man responsible for redeeming property that the family has lost due to poverty or war, and also for making sure that family members are protected. In Chapter 3, Naomi tells Ruth to go to the threshing floor to speak to Boaz, and Ruth proposes marriage to him. Boaz tells her that he will do so, but that there is another go’el who is more closely related to Naomi than he is, but that he will settle the matter in the morning. And today we have the account of how Boaz does settle this matter.

The first thing Boaz does is to sit down and talk with the go’el who is first in line to redeem the parcel of land that Naomi is selling, that we just find out about now in the story. And he does this in the presence of witnesses, so that everyone will know that he is doing the right thing and not just taking the land and Ruth as his wife without consulting the man who is first in line to do so. And we see that Boaz is a shrewd negotiator. Whoever the man was who was first in line, he is more interested in the land that belonged to Elimelech than he is in Ruth. And this first go’el is not named, which is also appropriate, since he ends up refusing to maintain the name of Elimelech and his sons in the town of Bethlehem. What we see in this negotiation scene is that Boaz, in contrast to the unnamed first go’el, is more interested in Ruth than he is in the piece of land, and we see him skillfully trapping the other man to give up his right of redemption, so that Boaz can marry Ruth. And what is more interesting to me is this: when Boaz publicly proclaims both that he has acquired the land and that he will be marrying Ruth, the people of Bethlehem witness this and bless Boaz. They pray that Ruth may bear children for Boaz, which is the highest form of praise they could give for a woman who was about to be married. And it doesn’t matter to them that Ruth is a Moabite. Bethlehem was a small town, and they have seen how Ruth has shown love to Naomi in caring for her. Ruth has become one of them.

And so Ruth bears a son who is named Obed. Naomi now has a grandson, and the women of the town proclaim that Ruth has acted better towards Naomi than seven sons—high praise indeed. Naomi has gone from emptiness in the beginning of the story to fullness; Bethlehem, the “house of bread,” has become full for her once more. And, as we see from the genealogy at the end of the story, Ruth, a Moabite, a foreigner, has become the great-grandmother of David, who will become the king of a united Israel. And, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Ruth the Moabite is not only an ancestor of David, but also of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

This summer, the texts we have journeyed through together thus far have been about love. We started out with the Ten Commandments, which give us detailed instructions on how we are to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We then went on to 1 John, which talked about how Jesus has come in the flesh, and how anyone who denies the fleshly, bodily, aspect of our faith is an antichrist, and finally talks about how we cannot love God and yet hate our brothers and sisters. We are commanded, 1 John tells us, to love our brothers and sisters whom we can see before we can love God, whom we cannot see. Ruth, then, gives us the story of what that love in action looks like. Ruth showed love to Naomi by giving up her own family and her own country to come back to Bethlehem with Naomi. She also showed love to Naomi by going out to glean in the fields at the harvest time and bringing grain back for Naomi to eat. Boaz showed love to Ruth by making sure the harvesters left enough grain for her to glean. Ruth showed love to Boaz by proposing marriage to him, rather than going after the younger men. And Boaz showed love to Ruth by following through on his promises, marrying her, and giving her and Naomi his protection. This story gives us an example of what love in action in the ordinary, everyday lives of ordinary, everyday people in ancient Israel looked like.

But this story also gives us an example of love that goes beyond the letter of the law. The law said that, once her husband died, and since she had no children, Ruth owed nothing to her mother-in-law, Naomi. And yet, Ruth could not leave Naomi to travel the dangerous road to Bethlehem alone. And once they arrived in Bethlehem, Ruth could not let Naomi starve, and so she went to glean in the fields for grain. The law said that all Boaz had to do was to leave the corners of his field unharvested, so that the poor could come and pick up the grain and be fed. And yet Boaz goes beyond the letter of the law, showing love by sharing a meal with Ruth, by protecting her from those who might harm her, and by instructing the reapers to pull handfuls of grain out of the bundles for her. On that fateful night on the threshing floor, all Ruth had to do was wait for Boaz to tell her what came next, but instead, she proposed marriage to him, surprising him by her love and faithfulness towards him. And when the law said that there was another go’el that should have redeemed the property and taken care of the women, Boaz skillfully manipulated circumstances so that it was he who took Ruth as his wife, following through on his promise to Ruth and taking her and Naomi under his protection. The Hebrew language has a name for this kind of love, and that is hesed, which is translated in various places in the Bible as “loving-kindness; covenant love; loyalty; devotion”. It’s one of those words that doesn’t have a good English equivalent.

And hesed is the kind of love that God shows us. God loves us so much that we simply cannot understand the depths of that love. Like Ruth did for Naomi, God does not leave us when we are grieving, but God walks with us in our grief, provides for us, and sees us through until we have hope once more. When our lives are empty, God fills them with God’s love for us through Jesus. Like the people in the story of Ruth, God goes beyond the letter of the law in order to show us that hesed, that love that will not let us go, no matter what.

When God has showed such lovingkindness for us, how can we help but show that lovingkindness for one another, and for each person we encounter in our daily lives? It really doesn’t take much, and I’ve seen it already in things that have happened in these congregations. I’ve seen it when one person checks up on another member of the congregation who is living alone, even when there is no blood relation between the two. I’ve seen God’s lovingkindness acted out for me when I have injured myself—two summers in a row!—and people have brought meals over for me, run to the grocery store for me, and walked the dog for me. I’ve seen God’s lovingkindness in the generosity of people to strangers who come to the church door in need, and the welcome given to those people in this space. We are good at caring for one another, and we are good at welcoming people to come and experience God’s love for them in these places.

The challenge for us, I think, and I’m including myself in this as well, is to love those who are different from us, and, as Jesus commanded us, to love our enemies. Ruth’s story illustrates how Ruth loves Naomi in spite of the fact that one is Moabite and the other Israelite, as well as how Boaz loves Ruth despite the same difference in nationality. If you remember from the beginning of the story, these are not people groups who got along with one another really well. And yet, through personal relationships, they got to know one another better and they overcame any animosity they had as they loved one another. I think that this is the key for us today. We look at the news and we see how huge the problems are. We see the hatred and the fear as we try to keep others at a distance. But if we each took the step of meeting one person from a group that is usually thought of as an enemy and got to know that person, and to form a friendship with that person, we could change the world in small ways. And each one of us taking that step would add up to a lot of us. Perhaps that is one way God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven: when ordinary people showing God’s love to one another in small, ordinary ways, adds up to a large thing, and then we look around and suddenly see how large that kingdom is.

I saw something on Facebook last week that said this: “When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present really thinks they can radically change the future by doing something small.” Through Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, God changed the future through their small, but radical acts of lovingkindness towards one another. Naomi’s future changed from one of emptiness to fullness simply by the birth of Ruth and Boaz’s son. And the future of the Jewish people changed, for Ruth’s great-grandson, David, would become king of Israel. And the future of the world would change, for much further down the family tree, Jesus would be born and would become the Savior of the world. All because of acts of lovingkindness shown to one another. So let’s look for ways to show God’s lovingkindness to one another, even if those ways seem small. Not only because we have faith in God, but because we have faith that through us, God can change the future, and bring God’s kingdom to earth. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 11 Narrative

Ruth 3

Before I talk about today’s reading from Ruth, I want to do a brief review of the story thus far. In the first chapter of Ruth, we see a family from Bethlehem in Judah, Naomi, Elimelech, and their two sons, leaving Bethlehem to go to Moab because of a famine. In Moab, Elimelech and the two sons die, leaving Naomi with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to return to their homes. One of those daughters-in-law, Orpah, decides to go back to her family in Moab, while the other one, Ruth, refuses to leave Naomi’s side and goes back with her to Bethlehem. Last week, we heard how Ruth came to glean in the fields of a man named Boaz, who was related to Naomi’s husband Elimelech, and we heard of the kindness that Boaz showed Ruth. Even though Ruth was a foreigner, Boaz invited her to share a meal with him and instructed his reapers to make sure she had enough grain to pick up and bring back to her mother-in-law. And when Naomi sees how much Ruth has gathered and hears about the kindness Boaz has shown to Ruth, she praises God. Hope has come back into her life once more.

And now we come to the climactic moment in the story of Ruth, and I think that this scene sounds strange to our ears today, so we need to have some background information on what is going on here. The first question that we need to ask is why Naomi tells Ruth to go down to the threshing floor to meet with Boaz. And part of the answer is simply that the harvest has ended and Ruth will no longer be able to depend on gleaning barley and wheat to feed herself and Naomi, meaning that these two women remain poor and insecure, without an income and without food. But why Boaz? Here’s the interesting part: in Hebrew, Boaz is known as a go’el, which means that his role in the family clan was to recover property which any part of the family has lost, especially through poverty, war, or death. This may also include the custom of levirate marriage, where, when one man of the family dies and leaves a widow with no children, the brother of that man “marries” the widow, and the first child that they have together is counted as the descendant of the man who died. In this way, the go’el makes sure that the family property stays in the family and the family lineage continues, as well as offering some protection for the widow. So Naomi suggests that Ruth go to Boaz because he is the go’el, and although Boaz has showed kindness to Ruth, he has not offered to act as go’el, So Naomi is going to have Ruth force the matter upon him, because the two women need to find some permanent protection.

Now, here’s the other part to this story. The threshing floor is a risky place for a woman to go. It is the domain of men, and men who are celebrating as they are threshing the grain. This is probably a very good harvest after years of famine, and so they have every reason to celebrate. And when men get drunk, they often do things they will regret in the morning. Any woman who shows her face publicly at the threshing floor while the men are there is most likely a prostitute. This is why Naomi tells Ruth to wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking and has gone to sleep before going to lie beside him. Also, Naomi tells Ruth to uncover Boaz’s “feet”. The word for “feet” in Hebrew can be a euphemism for male genitals, and so we are not exactly sure, in this story, which “feet” Ruth uncovers. With this background information, we can see that this chapter of the story of Ruth is loaded with sexual innuendo, but we’re not actually sure if anything happened between Boaz and Ruth that night. I would say probably not, because we hear Boaz tell Ruth that there is another go’el in the family who is more closely related to Naomi than he is, and it sounds like Boaz doesn’t want to take what doesn’t belong to him. But, as with other things in this story, there is no way to know for sure what really did happen on the threshing floor that night.

So, even though this background information hopefully brings greater understanding of this scene for us, we don’t want to miss the important message that Ruth and Boaz bring to us. Notice that Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz, and from Boaz’s answer to her, we can see that it was probably the last thing he was expecting from her. He blesses Ruth and says that she has not gone after the younger men, whether poor or rich. We can infer from this that Boaz was an older man, and yet, Ruth saw value in him despite his age. Yes, she was following Naomi’s instructions in going to the threshing floor, but if you notice, Naomi never told Ruth to propose to Boaz; she simply told her to wait for him to tell her what to do. The fact that Ruth does not object to Naomi’s instructions, and then takes the initiative in proposing marriage, tells us that she saw Boaz as a kind man who would be a good husband and not simply as a go’el that could save her and Naomi from poverty. On Boaz’s side, he is impressed with Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law and her mother-in-law’s family. He knows that she is a worthy woman, and he is concerned for her reputation, sending her back home before anyone else on the threshing floor knows that she is there. He sees her as a human being and treats her with respect, even though she is a foreigner, and next week we will find out how Boaz settles the matter between himself and Ruth—which he will do quickly.

“Who are you?” Boaz asks Ruth when he discovers her next to him in the middle of the night. It’s a question that we can ask of ourselves as well. Do we see ourselves as human beings, created by God, of infinite worth to God simply because we are who God created us to be? When we look upon one another, do we see only a person who may or may not be useful to us? Or do we see another child of God, somehow bearing a part of God’s image, and worthy of love simply because God made them? And do we treat one another as worthy of respect, honor, and love regardless of whether the person is Christian or Muslim, straight or gay, black or white or Hispanic?

This, I think, also goes back to the sermon that Deacon David Hope-Tringali preached last week, where he talked about how Ruth was a foreign immigrant, and how Boaz helped her, made sure she had enough grain to bring back to Naomi, and protected her from being bothered by the younger men. Boaz did this even though he was an Israelite and Ruth was a Moabite. He looked beyond the labels and saw a child of God in need of help that he was able to give, and he assisted her. David spoke to us very powerfully last week about how we may call ourselves Christians, but when it comes to the immigrants coming into our country through the southern border, we are not acting like Christians. Rather than seeing immigrants as people, children of God, created in God’s image, who are fleeing unimaginable violence in their home countries, there are some in our government who are calling these people “animals”; something less than human. This is not how Christians behave.

Ruth and Boaz show us how, through relationships, we can come to see one another as human beings, no matter how different we are. Some English versions of the story of Ruth translate the Hebrew word go’el as “kinsman-redeemer”. In other words, Boaz swears to “redeem” both Ruth and Naomi from a life of poverty, receiving them back into Elimelech’s family, even though Ruth is a foreigner and Elimelech is dead. But the interesting thing is, Ruth also redeems Boaz. Boaz thought he was being kind to Ruth. He names her “daughter” several times, and he implies that he is older. He would never have thought of the possibility that he might marry at his age, and that he might marry her. By proposing marriage to him, Ruth redeems him from his own image of who he is and gives him new hope for his own life. It is through their relationship that Ruth and Boaz truly discover who each one is, and redeem one another.

And it is through our relationship with Jesus Christ that each one of us knows who we are. Jesus wants to know us, each one of us, intimately. And because Jesus wanted to know each one of us so well, he became one of us. He became human. He formed relationships with his disciples. He taught them who he was, he taught them who God was, and he taught them who they were: God’s beloved children. And then Jesus taught them, and us, what true love is. He redeemed us—or saved us—by dying on the cross for us. And then he showed us that hope is not lost when death happens by rising from the dead on the third day, giving us the promise of life together with him eternally. Jesus having this relationship with us redeems us from the things that the world tells us about ourselves and helps us to see ourselves as who we are: beloved, forgiven, children of God.

Having relationships with other people helps us also to see their humanity, that they are also beloved, forgiven children of God. This week, as you are going about your daily routine, form relationships with people who are different from you. Strike up a conversation with someone in the grocery store. Find out a little bit of who they are, especially if they are obviously different from you. See them. Know that God loves them just as much as God loves you. If you have an opportunity for a deeper conversation with someone, take that opportunity, no matter what it is that you speak of. Step away from the technology, the news reports, the media that tells you what to think, and find out who you are and who the other person is. Let God redeem that relationship with love, and be open to God changing the way you think about that person and about other people in that same group. It is often through building those relationships that we see God at work, and we can see the promise of the coming kingdom of God. Amen.

Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary

Ruth 1

This week, we go back in time once more. Back from the 1st century, when Christianity was first getting its start, from a possible location of Ephesus in Turkey, to a time centuries before that, “in the days when the judges ruled”. The story of Ruth takes place in the countries of Judah and of Moab, which would be present-day Israel and Jordan, in a time before the kings of a united Israel ruled. During this time, the book of Judges, which comes immediately before Ruth, tells us, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The book of Ruth is meant to stand out from that depressing pronouncement as a story to give us hope; to tell us that not everything is darkness, but that there are some people who are living according to God’s commandments. Through this summer, we have been hearing about those commandments that God gives, and how they can be summed up by these two statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Last week, 1 John told us that God is love and we also ought to love one another. Ruth is a story of what love in action looks like, and it is a story of how divine love can be reflected in human beings.

First, let’s start out with some background information on the countries of Judah and Moab. Judah, of course, was the home of the Israelites who claimed their family ancestor as Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Moab was the country next door with whom the Israelites had a relationship which today would be labeled, “It’s complicated.” If you go back to the book of Genesis, you will find a story claiming that the people of Moab descended from an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. But, Lot was Abraham’s nephew. And so, since the Israelites also descended from Abraham, they and the Moabites regarded one another as family of sorts. But, like any families, they had quarrels with one another. There was a time when the Moabites would not let the Israelites cross their land as the Israelites were heading into the land that God had promised them, for example. And the Moabites worshiped different gods, rather than the one God that the Israelites worshiped. So, perhaps the relationship between them could be likened to the relationship between family members who don’t like one another very much, but have to acknowledge that they are, indeed, family, when they sit around the Thanksgiving table together.

So, as we enter the story of Ruth, we see a man named Elimelech and his family, who were from Bethlehem, packing up and leaving for Moab because there was a famine. I want you all to notice a theme that the author of Ruth is playing with, here: the theme of being full and being empty. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. So, in other words, there was no bread in the house of bread. And Elimelech decides, for the good of his family, that he needs to leave and go to a place where his family may be fed. And that place is Moab, the country full of people who have, at best, a problematic relationship with the people of Judah. But there seems to be no condemnation from the storyteller for this action; just a simple statement of the facts. Except, after an undetermined amount of time in Moab, Elimelech dies. We don’t know what happened; we just have the simple statement that he died. Then Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, take Moabite wives, but after ten years of living in Moab, these two men also die. With no children from these marriages, Naomi is left without her husband and her sons, only her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi, who left Bethlehem with a full family and who was kept full physically during her time in Moab, has become empty, left with no one except her two “foreign” daughters-in-law.

So Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. This was not a decision to be made lightly: it was about 50 miles between Moab and Bethlehem, and while we can make this journey in under an hour today, back then, with no cars, this was a journey of many days walking. And, as a woman on the road, Naomi would have been in danger from thieves and people who would want to do her harm. So I think that Naomi feels that she has nothing left in life and nothing left to lose, and that she wants to see her home one more time before she dies. And though her daughters-in-law start out with her, Naomi realizes that they are young and have full lives ahead of them, so she urges them to go back. Orpah ultimately decides to go back, but Ruth remains with her. We don’t know why, and though we can speculate on the reasons, I think the storyteller wants us to know this about Ruth: she loves her mother-in-law, and that love will not allow her to let Naomi make the journey home by herself. Ruth will not let Naomi give up on life, and so she goes back with her to Bethlehem: a place she has never seen before, full of people who will look on her strangely because she is a foreigner. Furthermore, Ruth is traveling with a woman who discounts her at every turn because she is so focused on the loss of her husband and her sons. To be traveling with a woman like this and to say nothing against her takes an incredible amount of loving devotion.

There is a story in my family that goes like this: When my parents were young and first married, they were looking for a church home. One Sunday, they went to a church where the pastor preached on Ruth and said, “Ruth was a good woman because she knew her place.” My father’s response was to say to my mother that they would not return to that congregation because, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to this crap.” I love that story because it gives me insight into who my father is. But aside from that, whoever that pastor was, he was dead wrong about Ruth. Ruth’s “place,” if she had one, would have been to return to her own parents and to honor them above her mother-in-law, who should have been nothing to her once her husband had died. Instead, she chose to make sure that her mother-in-law was safe on the road back to Bethlehem, sacrificing her own interests and putting those of Naomi’s ahead of her own. This is the kind of love that God shows us. Just as Ruth would not let go of Naomi, so God does not let go of us. Where we go, God goes. Where we lodge, God lodges. And even when we die, God is still with us.

If you have spent any time on this earth at all, then you have experienced some form of loss. In my time as a pastor, I have done many funerals. At the funerals that I have done, I acknowledge the loss and I don’t try to smooth it over. Only after we acknowledge the loss and how much it hurts us can we try to move on with our lives and maybe think about our loved ones in the arms of Jesus. And in our story today, Naomi shows us how to do that. She complains loudly that the Lord has dealt bitterly with her, dealt harshly with her, and brought calamity upon her. She is grieving and she makes no effort to hide the fact.

But what Naomi doesn’t realize yet, as we come to the conclusion of today’s chapter of Ruth, is that Ruth is with her, and that Ruth will help her journey through this grief, and that Ruth will not let her give up hope. Do you have people in your lives who have helped you through your grief and loss and not let you give up hope? I’m reminded of when my maternal grandfather died in 2010 after a lengthy decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, during which my grandmother was his primary caretaker. My grandmother’s congregation had something called Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministers are laypeople in the congregation who are specially trained to come alongside of a grieving person and walk with them through their time of grief and loss. After the funeral and after all the family and friends had left, a Stephen Minister came to walk with my grandmother through her time of grief and sorrow, listening to her and helping her to see hope on the other side. This is a visible, embodied manifestation of God’s love for us.

God is always with us, and God always loves us. But sometimes, God can become too much of an abstract concept for our little human minds to deal with. And so, God sends people into our lives, people who go above and beyond the call of duty to help us because they love us so much. And through those people’s love for us, we can catch glimpses of how much God truly loves us. God’s love for us becomes something physical, something that we can touch, as we give and receive love for one another. This week, think about those people who have acted in your life the way that Ruth did for Naomi, not letting you go during your time of grief, no matter how ugly that got, and give thanks for them. And also, be alert and ask God how you can act as Ruth did for Naomi for someone who is hurting. In the coming weeks, we will see how the story of Ruth and Naomi plays out, but we’ll leave it here for right now. And thanks be to God for the times that God sends people into our lives to love us, and for the times that God allows us to love others. Amen.

 

 

 

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.

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.