Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Mark 10:46-52

It was the Fourth of July weekend, and it was the first sermon I ever preached. I was doing a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is the official terminology for learning how to be a chaplain, at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and I was scheduled to preach at the chapel’s interfaith service as part of the requirements for this unit of chaplaincy. I was very nervous on many levels. First, there was the fact that I was still part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and as a woman, I really wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Although I did not have a problem with women preaching and being pastors, I was still rostered as a deaconess in the LCMS, and I didn’t want anyone to find out what I was doing. My parents knew, and I had sworn them to secrecy, but in today’s day and age, there are always ways of finding out. Another reason I was nervous had to do with the fact that this was supposed to be an interfaith service: how was I supposed to remain true to who I was as a Christian, and yet be respectful of people of other faiths who might be there? Was that possible, and if so, was I able to do it? Finally, I was just plain nervous because I had never done this before. Would my words be what the people who came needed to hear? Would I be any good at this whole preaching thing? I just didn’t know. What I remember about the event itself was that there were only 2 or 3 people in attendance, and that the worship service seemed to go well. Again, as part of the requirements of the class, I was being videotaped, and later that week, my classmates and supervisor would look at the tape and give constructive criticism. After we watched the videotape, one of my classmates said, “Tonya has found her voice.” I remember being confused at first: had my voice been missing? I didn’t recall being prevented from speaking, per se. But as I looked back on my time in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I began to realize that, as a woman, my voice had, in fact, not been listened to. And in my journey into the ordained ministry in the ELCA, I was beginning to find out who God had called me to be, and what my voice had to say.

In today’s Scripture, Bartimaeus has found his voice. A blind beggar, he probably sat in Jericho from day to day, begging for people to help him. And, like we do with our homeless people today, the people of Jericho would mostly walk by him, pretending not to see him and pretending not to hear his cries. If Bartimaeus was lucky, maybe one or two people would feel pity on him and toss a coin or a scrap of bread in his direction. But for the most part, he probably felt invisible and unheard, wondering if he was even a person, wondering why he continued to do this day after day, only knowing that he had to survive. So when Bartimaeus heard the crowds go by, and heard someone say that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he knew that he had to try one more time to be heard. So he began to shout out, calling Jesus the Son of David, and pleading for mercy.

Last week, we saw how the disciples, even though Jesus had told them over and over again what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, still didn’t get it. We saw how, when Jesus asked James and John what they wanted him to do for them, they requested what they thought would be places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand. We heard how Jesus told them, again, that being first in the kingdom of God meant being the slave of all. Today we hear how a man who is blind, who has not been part of Jesus’ group of disciples, knows who Jesus is, and knows that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah. How Bartimaeus knew this when the disciples didn’t, even after repeated instruction, is a mystery. We can only attribute this to the working of the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit gave Bartimaeus the faith to speak out, to shout out the truth of who Jesus is, and to plead for nothing more than to regain his physical sight. And Jesus sends Bartimaeus away with no more than the word, “Go, your faith has made you well.” This faith given to Bartimaeus by the Holy Spirit enabled Bartimaeus to recognize who Jesus was, and instead of going away, he follows Jesus, with the rest of the crowd, to Jerusalem.

This text is a good text for today, when we commemorate the beginning of the Reformation of the church 498 years ago in the province of Saxony, a backwater of the Holy Roman Empire. On October 31, 1517, a German monk and professor named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. (I found out at Luther Lectures this week that he didn’t use a hammer and nail, but posted these theses on the door with wax—which doesn’t make for nearly as dramatic a scene in movies as we might like!) Luther didn’t know that what he was doing would cause such waves in the church and in his society. He was simply speaking out against the practice of indulgences, which he felt was preventing people from feeling true sorrow for their sins and thus repenting of them. He was raising his voice to speak the truth in the way that was accepted practice at that time. Over the years, many would sternly order him to be quiet, just as the crowd ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet when he began calling out after Jesus. But Luther, like Bartimaeus, would not remain quiet. Instead, he would raise his voice and speak the truth that faith, given by the Holy Spirit and not as a result of anything that we do, is what makes us well and is what saves us.

How are we raising our voices today and speaking the truth about who Jesus is? How are we raising our voices today and speaking the truth that Martin Luther spoke, that faith alone is what saves us and it is nothing that we do? For all of Luther’s boldness in speaking what he knew to be the truth, we Lutherans tend not to be so good at talking to other people about this. When I went to Luther Lectures in Chico this week, the professor who taught us, Timothy Wengert, said that the only command that Lutherans never break is when Jesus tells whoever he has just healed to not tell anyone about it. Think about this: if Jesus were to heal one of us Lutherans today in the same miraculous fashion that he healed Bartimaeus, and then he were to tell us, “Don’t tell anyone about this,” we, as Lutherans, would say, “OK, Jesus, you got it,” instead of breaking the rule, like so many of those he healed did, and telling everyone. Maybe some of us would tell, but our reputation as Lutherans is not to talk to other people about the great things that Jesus has done for us.

Friends, this should not be so among us. We have a great treasure passed down to us by Luther and the other Reformers. Where the world says, and where even some of our brother and sister Christians say, we have to do something to get right with God, we say that God, through Jesus Christ, has already done everything for us. Where others say that we have to make a decision for Christ, we say that, through our baptism, the Holy Spirit has come down and has saved us, claiming us as members of God’s family and creating saving faith within us—there is nothing that we need do. Where some say that Christianity is about striving to be good people, we as Lutheran Christians say that Christianity is about faith that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are already reconciled with God. That is the good news, and we should be working to find our voice and to shout this out to the world, not to be “quiet Lutherans” and not tell anyone.

The story of Bartimaeus is more than a healing story; it is a call story. Once Bartimaeus regains his physical sight, he follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. We, too, are called to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem: not to the glory that James and John expected, but the lonely road to the cross, where we see with clear eyes who Jesus is and how he redeems us: by giving himself up to death on the cross. I wonder if Bartimaeus was standing in the crowd that day, watching Jesus die, and I wonder if he could still point to Jesus and cry out that this was the Son of David, or if his faith in Jesus was shaken. Martin Luther, I found out this week, considered himself in the same light as those disciples such as Bartimaeus and John the Baptist: pointing to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. This is the legacy that Luther and all of the other Christian saints throughout the centuries have passed down to us: the call to tell others who Jesus is, what he has done for us, and that there is nothing that we need to do to receive this gift of faith. And now that faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit, will move us out into the world to tell all whom we meet the good news of how much Jesus has already done for us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 21B

Mark 10:32-45

If today’s Gospel text sounds familiar, it should. We just had this several weeks ago in our Season of Creation, when I spoke about what the image of God looks like, how Jesus shows us the image of God, and how we as Christians are called to imitate that image of God as we strive to live in harmony with one another and with the creation. So you’re probably wondering what more there is to say about this text today. Actually, I think there is more to say about this today, and I am indebted to Pastor Larry for this thought. At the Thursday evening Bible study, Pastor Larry told us that Mark’s portrayal of the disciples is pretty rough. When we read through the Gospel of Mark, we find that the disciples simply don’t get what Jesus is teaching them. I remember one professor I had at seminary using the word “dunderheads” in reference to the portrayal of Jesus’ disciples in Mark. And yet, as Pastor Larry told us on Thursday, Mark has a purpose in portraying the disciples in such an unflattering light. If Jesus can call men as stupid as these to be his disciples, and continues to put up with them and continues to call them even when they are floundering around and making really obvious mistakes, then of course Jesus can call us as his disciples, too. We may feel like we are not as stupid as these men were, but there are times in our lives when we flounder around and make really obvious mistakes. And yet, Jesus still loves us and still calls us to continue to follow him.
So, as we dig in to today’s Gospel lesson, let’s start with why I chose to add verses that are not printed in your bulletin. The lectionary, that is, the readings that get appointed from Sunday to Sunday, is good for some things. But many times, it cuts off portions of Scripture that are vitally important to understand the portion that it gives us. Today is one of those days. I think that it is extremely important for us to understand that James and John’s rather arrogant-sounding request of Jesus comes right on the heels of him telling them, and the other disciples, that he is going up to Jerusalem to die. This is actually the third time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus has told them that he is going to be killed. You would think that the disciples would understand this by now. And so, when I read about James and John asking Jesus to sit at his right and his left in his glory, this is what I think Jesus should have said: “What part of mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed, did you NOT understand?” And not only is this the third time Jesus has told them that he is going to die, this is the second time he’s had to teach them that being great in the kingdom of God is not the same as being great in the eyes of the world. Being great in the kingdom of God is about being a servant, or being a slave (the Greek word can be translated either servant or slave) to everyone. Sometimes it takes several times of repeating the same things before it sinks in to our brains.
Today, therefore, we’re going to repeat these things to ourselves again, in the hopes that it will sink in, and so that we can understand better what Jesus is calling us to do when we follow him. Jesus is not calling us to a life of honor and glory as the world understands it. When Jesus died on the cross, it looked as if the world had won. Roman power was all about domination and humiliation and making an example of those who did not knuckle under to their power. Roman power did not understand the idea that someone might willingly submit to death for another person, much less for the whole world. That would have been the ultimate weakness in Rome’s eyes. No, Rome thought that it had won against another rebel, troublemaker, and criminal when its government in Judea nailed Jesus to the cross. Rome thought that it had once again put the fear of death into the people that it was lording it over and being a tyrant over. And yet, in Jesus’ death on the cross, all people on earth, then and now, were made victorious and were made free from sin. Jesus knows this is what his death will be about, and therefore he calls those who follow him to die to themselves and to be slave to all.
Following Jesus is not easy. Following Jesus is not only about dressing up and coming to worship on Sunday. Following Jesus does not mean getting ahead in this world and having status, worldly honor, and riches. Following Jesus means following him in every moment of our daily lives, and it means bearing witness to those around us as to who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Following Jesus means getting down and dirty in the mess of others’ lives and proclaiming, in the midst of what seems to be hopelessness, that Jesus is there, that Jesus loves this person in the midst of her/his mess, and that Jesus sympathizes and weeps with that person. And following Jesus means dying to sinfulness each day and rising to new life in him; that baptism with which we were baptized means that we are no longer curved in on ourselves, but that we live to serve one another.
I think we at Hope understand the concept of serving one another pretty well. This congregation functions as an extended family, and I have seen all of you caring for one another at difficult times in one another’s lives. Whether it’s a hug, or a prayer, or delivering a meal to someone, I have seen all of you at some point step up and help out. We also understand the concept of giving of our time and talents to serve others beyond this congregation: we have given money to programs like Backpack Blessings, which helps elementary school students who come from poor families have food over the weekends; we help out frequently with Loaves and Fishes; our quilters continuously make quilts that get delivered to Lutheran World Relief, and from there, to points all around the world, to help give shelter and keep people warm; we have given money and goods to people at Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, and we will be starting another collection for gifts for the elders on the Wind River Indian Reservation. This is all good and very well done.
But I think that we need to take this one step further. In the baptismal vows that parents make on behalf of their children, the pastor asks the parents, among other things, if they will promise to “place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” All the things that I have mentioned that we are already doing, I believe, fall under the promise to “care for others and the world God made”. I believe that God is calling us, as a congregation, to take it up a notch and begin working more intentionally for justice and peace.
Here’s an example: There are many people who live in poverty here in Powell. I have given money to help people with rent, with utilities, and sometimes, groceries. Sometimes people come once, and that one-time help is all they need to get themselves through a tough spot, and they’re able to continue on after that. More often, though, I see the same people coming through after a couple of months, needing help. Yes, I get frustrated that they can’t seem to get themselves back on their feet. But, there are other forces at work, here. Poverty is a cycle that many people can’t seem to break free from. Whether it is substance addiction that is at work, or a series of bad life circumstances, or that they’re not qualified to do something and can’t get the education they need, or even something else, they are simply not able to break themselves out of the cycle of poverty.
So, here is my suggestion for how we as a congregation can begin working more intentionally for justice and peace within the Powell area: In the next year, I want us to be intentional about learning what the causes of poverty are in this town. Periodically, there are programs that come either here or to Cody where we can sit with a teacher and learn about this. Or, better yet, we can bring someone here especially to talk to us. And then, we can pray over and decide what area it is that God is calling us to work in to help break the cycle. Perhaps it would be helping people find educational opportunities in this area, and to help them apply for scholarships, so that they can eventually find good-paying jobs. Perhaps it would be helping people write their resume and help them network for jobs. It could be hosting an after-school program for children. Or it could be writing letters to our government officials and advocating for legislation that would help those in poverty, such as the Medicaid expansion effort that failed again this year. Or it could be something completely different that I haven’t even thought of today. Whatever God might be calling us to do, it would be one step in reducing poverty in this area and helping to break the cycle, giving people a chance to make it in our society, and making one small step toward justice.
No, I don’t expect that this will be an easy task for us. Yes, there will be heartbreak along the way, as God begins to open our eyes to the things that cause poverty in this area. But, remember that when Jesus calls us, he does not promise that it will be easy. He tells James and John that, in following him, they will drink from the cup that he will drink from, and they will be baptized with the baptism that he is baptized with. In the case of James, he would be martyred in one of King Herod’s persecutions—that’s recorded in Acts. Church tradition says that John is the same John who was exiled to Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation—whether or not that’s actually true is up for debate, but whatever did happen to John, son of Zebedee, I can guarantee that his life wasn’t easy. Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of worldly honor, glory, and riches. He calls us to follow him to the cross, to die to ourselves, and to serve one another. Yes, we will need reminders of that, because, like James and John, it takes a while for something like that to sink in to our hearts. But the good news is that Jesus continues to call us, even when we make mistakes and the lesson needs repeating, because he loves us. May we ever know Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and continue to follow him in humility and in service to one another. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 20B

Mark 10:17-31

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and in the prequel The Hobbit, there is a character named Smeagol, also known as Gollum. In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbit named Frodo Baggins is on a quest to destroy the One Ring that gives the evil Dark Lord, Sauron, all of his power. For many years, this ring was lost and, unbeknownst to the outside world, in the possession of Smeagol. But, over the many years he had it, this ring exerted its evil influence on Smeagol, so that he became obsessed with it. He neglected everything else in life and focused intently on this ring, so that gradually, the person he once was disappeared, the ring took over his life, and he became the creature known as Gollum. And Gollum called the ring, “My precious” and had conversations with it, as it continued to exert its evil influence, inducing Gollum to steal, murder, lie, and cheat. In his obsession with the ring, his precious, Gollum lost any quality of life that he may have once had.
I think that something similar is going on here in the story of the man who has a lot of wealth and who can’t give it up. I think the man has a truly sincere desire to enter the kingdom of God. He has done everything that is expected of him under the law. And before I get to the main point of this sermon, I want to take a moment to speak of the man’s response to Jesus that he has kept all of these commandments since his youth. I have heard sermons on this story in the past where the preacher has scoffed at the man’s arrogance, to think that he has kept every commandment perfectly, when we all know that we can’t do that. Ask our confirmation kids about our discussion about the commandment to “Honor your father and your mother.” The man in the story, though, is not claiming that he has kept the commandments perfectly. Richard Swanson, a professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, writes that what the man is claiming is that he has “fulfilled his responsibilities as a Jewish adult. . . . He has done what he is responsible to do, including making restitution for his failings along the way.” In other words, he has done all of the things that he knows are the right things to do, but he still feels like he’s missing something.
What Jesus says he is missing should shock all of us. How in the world can Jesus tell this man to go and sell all that he owns, and then come and follow him? Jesus can tell him this, because, to this man, his wealth was “his precious,” the one thing in life that he could not do without. In those days, as it sometimes is now, wealth was seen as a blessing from God, and now Jesus is telling this rich man that the very evidence that he was blessed by God is standing in the way of his having a closer relationship with God. Well, no wonder the disciples were perplexed and astounded when they saw this interaction! If even those who are supposed to be enjoying God’s blessings will find it hard to enter the kingdom of God, then indeed, who can be saved?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, what is standing in our way of fully entering the kingdom of God? What is the one precious thing in our lives that Jesus may be asking us to give up in order to enter into a more abundant life here and to enter the kingdom of God? Well, I do think that this is a question that needs to have some deeper reflection in your one-on-one prayer time with God. But here and now, today, let’s think of our life together as a congregation. What may be standing in our way of having that more abundant life and entering the kingdom of God?
Let’s start with the obvious question that gets raised in the text: money. We don’t like to talk about money in our society. We think it’s impolite. But, it’s been said by scholars that Jesus talked more about money in the Gospels, and how we use it, than any other issue. So, I’m going to be brave today and talk a little bit about how we deal with money here at Hope Lutheran. And the first thing I’m going to say is this: Hope Lutheran is a congregation who gives money well. Whether it’s regular offerings or special causes, I have seen no hesitation among any of you to give of your money, whether a small or a large amount. You are to be commended for being, in fact, cheerful givers.
But, as we look at our income and our budgets, could we be giving more to the church? Is money, or the fear of lack of money, standing in the way of us knowing a more abundant life with Christ? Could we as a congregation be doing more in the community to share the love of God in Jesus if we had more money? Are we more willing to give of our money to specific budget line items or specific causes than we are to general operating costs? Again, I think this is something for us as a congregation to reflect upon and to discuss among ourselves, rather than have me make pronouncements on it from the pulpit. But as we are entering the fall season, where stewardship questions become more prominent, this is something for us to be reflecting upon and praying over. What is “our precious”? What is that one thing about how we deal with money as a congregation that Jesus is asking us to give up, so that we may enter the kingdom of God and more truly follow him?
Besides money issues, what else might Jesus be asking us as a congregation to give up? One idea that I would like to put forward for your consideration is this: how we “do” outreach here at Hope. The traditional model of doing outreach was along the lines of the movie, “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner: “Build it and they will come.” It used to be that everyone came to church every Sunday, and all we had to do was build bigger buildings and larger Sunday school and youth programs, and the people would flock to us. Well, now we live in a world where that is no longer the case. I know that most of you are aware of this, as we look around and see many empty spaces in the pews where once upon a time they were filled. And yet, I think as a congregation we are still stuck in the old ways of doing things. When we think about outreach events, we are still thinking: What thing can we do that will “work,” so that more people come to worship and Sunday school?
I’d like to tell you a story about my missionary days in Taiwan. At some point in our education about Taiwanese society, we learned that only about 5 or 6% of the population, tops, counted themselves as Christian. I was a volunteer missionary for 2 ½ years. There were career missionaries there who counted themselves lucky if, in their entire time there, they saw one person come to faith in Jesus Christ and become baptized. We were told that if we got to see something like that in our short time there, we should count ourselves extremely blessed. Furthermore, if we were able to nurture someone in the Christian faith, and they began attending worship services at a different congregation, we were taught not to be upset but to rejoice that they were hearing the good news, even if it wasn’t at our congregation. But, for the most part, we were to view ourselves as planting seeds, and to expect that the harvest, if it would come, would happen many years from our time there, and that someone else would see the result.
Friends, I would like to suggest that today Jesus is asking us to give up our old ways and our old mindset of reaching out to others around us, and to enter the mindset of being in a missionary field where we are planting seeds without expecting to see the harvest, and being exceedingly thankful if we do see that. I know this is a hard thing to do: our goal, our “precious,” when planning events is to see the people that come to the event also want to come to worship right away. And we have done several events since I have been here that have been good witnesses to the love of Jesus Christ to the community, but have not always brought in more people. I know that’s been discouraging to some, and has resulted in us thinking that “Nothing that we do works.” But friends, we don’t know that what we have done hasn’t “worked”. We have planted seeds, and it is up to the Holy Spirit to continue to work within us and within other Christians to help make those seeds grow. And we are called to continue to reach out in various ways to witness to the love of Jesus Christ to the community, regardless of whether or not more people come to worship on Sunday morning. Giving ourselves away, regardless of the outcome, is the way that Jesus is calling us to follow him and to joyfully enter the kingdom of God.
All of this may seem impossible to us. We may want to hang on tightly to our money and to our old ways of doing outreach because they are comfortable to us. What Jesus is asking of us may seem as difficult as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. We may look around and ask, with the disciples, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus responds to us, as well as to the disciples, “With mortals, this is impossible, but not with God; for with God, all things are possible.” When we believe that all things are possible with God’s help, then nothing will be impossible for us. And let us not forget, too, that Mark tells us that Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him. Jesus loves us, too, and sends his Holy Spirit to encourage us when he asks us to give up something that is precious to us. Let us go forward in the power of that Holy Spirit, resting securely in Jesus’ love, and not fearing what Jesus asks us to give up for the sake of God’s kingdom. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 19B

Sermon for Pentecost 19B
Mark 10:2-16

For many reasons, I trembled this week as I studied today’s Gospel text. As I read Jesus’ harsh words on divorce, I thought of many of you in the congregation who have experienced divorce, and what kind of effect these words may have on you. Have you heard them before, shouted at you in fierce condemnation even as you were going through one of the most difficult times of your life? Have you heard them anew today and wondered if Jesus would perhaps think differently if he would have come to Earth in modern times? Do you want to have a conversation with Jesus and say, “Yes, Jesus, but. . .?” Then someone has pointed out to me that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and I think of those women for whom divorce has been or would be, literally, a life saver. And I want to say to Jesus, “Yes, okay, but what about these women whose very lives are endangered by their husbands, Lord?” I think of all of those people for whom remarriage has been a wonderful gift, and I cringe when Jesus says that they are committing adultery. And I think of those people who remain in a marriage that may no longer be filled with love, but who believe that the commitment to one another is more important than their happiness or well-being, and who may be living quiet lives of desperation rather than taking the risk of divorce. And I think of those people who are in good marriages, and I pray that they do not look smugly down on those people who have been divorced. Finally, I realize that I am now 41 years old, and although I have been in relationships in the past, I have never been married, and I feel very inadequate to even address this topic today. It might be easier for me to focus on how Jesus welcomes the little children to come to him. Then we would have a nice happy sermon and could move right on to communion, right? But, I think more damage is done when the pastor does not address the difficult topics that are presented in the Scriptures, and so today I will offer what I believe the Lord has given me to say to you. I would like to invite any of you who want to continue the conversation to come and speak with me: I would like to hear more from you on how you take Jesus’ words to us today.
First, let’s get some historical and cultural context for Jesus’ words today, so we have a better idea of why he is taking such a harsh stance on divorce. Mark says that some Pharisees came to test Jesus. We always think that the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus in the words that he is saying, but notice that Mark does not specifically say that here. In this case, I think that the Pharisees were merely trying to find out where Jesus stood on the issue of divorce. And the reason for that was that there were two main schools of thought on divorce, and the debate centered around this verse in Deuteronomy: “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house. . .” Divorce itself was not the issue in question. Divorce did happen. The issue that was really in question was this: What were the reasons that a man could divorce his wife? What does “something objectionable” actually mean? And notice that it was only a man who could divorce his wife; in Jewish society, women could not divorce their husbands.
The two main schools of thought in Jewish teaching were these: first, the more “liberal” view said that a man could divorce his wife simply for burning his supper. The more “conservative” view said that a man could divorce his wife only if there was immorality involved, such as the wife having an affair with another man. So, one way to look at Jesus’ pronouncement against divorce is that he was concerned with the safety and the well-being of women. In a society where, if you followed the liberal school of thought, you could divorce your wife for burning your supper, that would leave the woman without a whole lot of material support. She would be disgraced and her family would not necessarily take her back. So, for Jesus to pronounce that divorce was unacceptable could, in fact, be seen as taking an interest in the woman as the more vulnerable member of society.
But then we see Jesus’ words about a man divorcing his wife and a wife divorcing her husband, and how if they remarry, they will be committing adultery. While Jewish society only allowed a man to divorce his wife, the wider Greco-Roman society with which they were surrounded did allow divorce to be initiated by either party. So, in my mind, this throws a monkey wrench into the idea that Jesus was concerned with the welfare of the woman. Instead, what I think Jesus was saying here is that God’s original intention at creation was for people, either man or woman, to not be alone. Just as God is in relationship with us, God wants us to be in relationship with one another. And when we choose one person with whom to share that intimate bond of marriage, God takes special joy in that. And let’s be honest: most people, when they get married, do not intend to one day be divorced. What we have done, Jesus says, because of sin, is that we have hardened our hearts. And so, because of our hardness of heart, and because sometimes relationships are broken and are not able to be repaired, a law was written to allow divorce. But that was not the intention of God the Creator in the beginning.
So, what does this mean for us today? Jesus gives us no wiggle room here in this Gospel reading: Divorce is a sin. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. No room for us to say, “Yes, Jesus, but what about this situation or that situation?” Divorce is a breaking of an intimate relationship, and I believe that God weeps when that happens, just as there are many tears going on in the families involved when divorce happens. But, what Jesus does not say in this passage is that divorce is an unforgivable sin. Divorce, like every other sin, was covered when Jesus died for us on the cross. So, here is how I see divorce in our Christian community today:
For those of you here today who have gone through a divorce: God knows how painful that was for you. Whether you knew it or not, God was with you during that painful breaking of the relationship, and God wept with you. For those of you here who may have gone through a divorce because your spouse was verbally and/or physically abusive: God knows that the divorce was truly what we call a necessary evil. In other parts of the Gospels, where Jesus talks about picking up your cross and following him, he never meant for you to stay in an abusive marriage as a way of bearing your cross. We don’t have time today to get into what, exactly, that means, but again, bearing your cross does not mean staying in an abusive relationship where your life is in danger. If there is anyone here today who might be in such a relationship, find a way to get out: there are resources available in the community to help you. In situations where divorce was necessary, either due to a broken relationship unable to be repaired or due to some form of abuse, the death of Jesus on the cross has covered that sin and restored your right relationship with God.
For those of you here today who have remarried after a divorce, or who are in a good marriage where you have not considered divorce: It is my understanding that marriage is not how they depict it in the fairy tales, with the prince and the princess finally coming together after a series of adventures and everyone living happily ever after. It is my understanding that marriage takes work, and a daily, conscious choice that you will love one another and stay together even through daily irritations with one another as well as major problems that you may encounter. My plea is for you to find ways to make that relationship work, and again, there are many resources available within the wider community to help you with that. Forgive one another any sins which you may commit against one another, just as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven you your sins.
To close this meditation today, I would like to quote this letter from Martin Luther to Philip Melanchthon, because I think he sums up how we should be looking at these words from Jesus. Luther says, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign. It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.” That, I think, is what we must remember when relationships founder and new ones are forged: no matter what happens, no matter what sin we commit, Jesus has paid the price for those sins with his death on the cross. And nothing can now separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sermon for Creation 4B

Sermon for Creation 4B
Isaiah 65:17-25

“Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.” So writes Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’. It is fitting, I think, that the last Sunday in our Season of Creation should coincide so closely with Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this week. And it is interesting to see that he is not shying away from difficult political issues, but that he is speaking his faith into those controversial issues. And it is also interesting to note that he is neither completely left nor completely right on the political spectrum: while praising what the administration is doing to address climate change, he is also expressing concern that people may still be able to freely express their religious beliefs. In short, while he is vindicating people on all sides of the political spectrum, he is also making all of us squirm on certain things. I would like to suggest that Pope Francis is modeling for us, both in his writing and in his behavior, what we as Christians also ought to be doing: speaking our faith into these controversial political issues, always having in our vision what the coming kingdom of God will look like.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah today speaks in detail of what that coming kingdom of God will look like. And I’d like us to notice today that it speaks in very concrete detail about a kingdom here on Earth. This is not some ethereal vision of heaven where we all wear white robes and float from cloud to cloud, singing and playing harps. Hear what Isaiah says: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” The people of Israel had long known a history of other countries and peoples invading them, so for them, the idea of working to build, to create, and to farm, and then to live long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor was paradise indeed. But isn’t it just the same for us? The women’s Bible study this week talked about the idea of rest. In our society today, we rush, rush, rush, and we do, do, do, and if we stop for a moment of rest to enjoy the fruits of our labors, we feel guilty because we are not being “productive”. One of the women described her ideal of a time of rest as “lying in a hammock—because a hammock is not easy to get out of—and watching the clouds go by.” And I think this is the vision that Isaiah presents us with. In the new heavens and the new earth, we will still work, but that work will not be a drudgery. Instead, it will be a full participation with God in the work of creation, and it will be perfectly balanced with the rest that we need. And, we won’t feel guilty when we take that rest.
But, there is more involved in this kingdom than a perfect balance and a perfect rest. Isaiah also says, “No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.” God’s vision for humanity, all of humanity, is that we should live out long and full lives, as God intended when he created us. We know for certain that people do not live out their full lives now: illness and accidents happen, and many times even if a person does live a long life, his or her quality of life is not what it should be. And life expectancy differs among different groups of people. For instance, the average life expectancy on the Wind River Indian Reservation here in Wyoming is only 49 years old, which is 30 years younger than the general population. Long life—and a good quality of life—has long been a dream for all of humanity.
And, a third piece of this vision of the kingdom of God is of all creation, animals and humans alike, being at peace with one another. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Aside from the serpent, whose role in the downfall of Adam and Eve seems not to have been forgotten—a wrenching note in this otherwise harmonious view of the new creation—all animals shall become vegetarians, and live at peace with one another on God’s holy mountain. And here we see the mountain theme for this, our final Sunday in the Season of Creation.
In many cultures mountains, like the sky we talked about last week, have been seen as the place where God resides. And we see it in many places in the Bible as well. We see it in the story of Exodus, where God appears to Moses on Mount Sinai, and later gives him the Law on that same mountain. We see it earlier in the book of Isaiah, where, in another vision, God shows the prophet a vision of the heavenly banquet on a mountain where death has been destroyed and weeping is gone. It extends even into several stories of Jesus in the Gospels: Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus appearing with Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration, and Jesus giving the disciples the Great Commission on the mountain. Even today, when we generally don’t believe that God physically resides on a mountain, many of us find mountains beautiful and sacred spaces. We even speak of a “mountaintop experience” as a description of something that happens in our lives that is especially wonderful, and from which we never want to return.
Last week I spoke of how, in Christ, we are a new creation, and how each day, as we work on drowning the old Adam and rising a new person through Christ, we have the opportunity to live as if that new creation were already here. Now, what I want to make clear is that we are not responsible for bringing in the kingdom. That is God’s responsibility, and nothing we can do can make it happen before the time that he has appointed. But, until that happens, God can use us to help make glimpses of that kingdom come through before it comes to fulfillment. One glimpse has already come this week when Pope Francis declined to have dinner with the rich and powerful Washington politicians, and instead ate with the homeless. That, friends, is definitely something Jesus would have done.
In order to help people see the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, we sometimes need to get involved in the political process, as we have seen Pope Francis do this week here in America: visiting with the President and addressing Congress and the United Nations. It is good for us to donate money to ELCA World Hunger and to volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, but we also need to be involved in processes that prevent hunger from happening in the first place: for example, advocating for the food stamp program when Congress starts to make noise about reducing its funding. It’s good when we donate our clothes to places that help to clothe the needy, and to volunteer at homeless shelters. But we also need to find out what causes people to fall into poverty and to become homeless in the first place—it’s not always because of something that they’ve done or haven’t done—and we need to find ways to change the system that has caused them to fall into poverty. And when we hear that the average life expectancy on the Wind River Indian Reservation is only 49 years—49, in a day and age where people are living well into their 80s and 90s—then we need to find out what’s going on and get ourselves involved, speaking God’s word into the situation. Because God’s word does not just address personal morals, it also addresses the evil that happens in government and in society at large. In fact, that’s what the Old Testament prophets, including Isaiah, were addressing. And if we continue to take those prophets as God’s Word for us today, then we need to look at what kind of evil is going on in our systems, and begin to change them: living as if the new creation and the kingdom of God were already here.
This is what Pope Francis is doing, and why he is an important figure, not only for Roman Catholics, but for all Christians. He is modeling for all of us what we should be doing as we look for the kingdom of God. Now, I want to be clear on something: I do believe that heaven exists. I have heard too many stories and read about too many near-death experiences to not believe in heaven. But I also want to be true to what I read in Holy Scriptures of promises of the kingdom of God here on earth. And so I think that heaven is an intermediary place, a place where we are in the arms of God and we are reunited with those who have gone before us. Beyond that, I don’t know anything of what heaven is like. But what I do know from Scriptures is that the ultimate promise of God is a new heavens and a new earth, where, as Isaiah tells us today, all of us will have long life, where there will be work and rest in perfect balance, where there will be no more crying and weeping, and where we will be in perfect communion with one another. And that includes not only human beings, but also the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, the mountains and the sky, and all of creation. This, friends, is the vision that we need to keep in front of us. I believe that this is the vision that Pope Francis has. So, as we end our Season of Creation for another year, let us go forth from here, bringing our faith with us into all of our situations in life, and proclaiming the good news to the whole creation as Jesus commanded the disciples to do. For it is through Jesus that this vision of the peaceable kingdom will come about, and the world needs to see glimpses of what Jesus will do. Amen.