Homily for Bold Women Sunday

On February 21, our local chapter of the Women of the ELCA, or WELCA, observed Bold Women Sunday. When this day comes around, I do not use the regular lectionary readings. Instead, I choose a story of a woman in the Bible for us to hear and to reflect upon. Today we heard the story of Esther. As this is a rather long story, with difficult names for people to pronounce, I edited it down as much as possible and still have the meat of the story. I also shortened my regular sermon to accommodate the length of the reading, as well as due to the fact that we celebrated two baptisms during worship as well.

The story of Esther is a strange, fun, edgy, and very dramatic story. Believe it or not, what we heard today is a selection from the book and not even the whole story. There is almost a fairy-tale like quality to it: can we women even imagine what it would be like to do nothing but lounge around and have beauty treatments for a full year? I don’t know; I think I’d be bored after the first week, if not before. And then to be chosen by the king to be his queen? The story could have ended right there with, “And they lived happily ever after,” and been good.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because this is real life, and real life doesn’t end in happily ever after. And God, even though he is nowhere mentioned by name in this book, has plans and is working behind the scenes. The bad guy, Haman, appears from out of nowhere. Angered by Mordecai’s refusal to bow to him, Haman vows not only to destroy him, but the entire Jewish race throughout the Persian Empire. We don’t know why; but then again, hatred and evil need no real reason to be let loose in the world. Mordecai tells Esther that she must go to the king, and she answers that to go to the king unsummoned would mean her death. And then Mordecai says those famous words, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

“For such a time as this.” God may seem to be absent in the world around us as evil seems to grow more and more powerful. But the lesson that we can take from the book of Esther is that God raises up people for such a time as this. When we are discouraged by what we see happening around us, we can look around and see that God has indeed raised up people to do his work in the world. And perhaps, just perhaps, God has raised you up. Perhaps God has put you in this place and in this time to help to convince a friend who is suicidal not to go through with it. And then perhaps that person may go on to do great things that he or she would not have done had he or she committed suicide. Perhaps God has put you in this place and in this time to be a mentor to a young person who would otherwise have no one. Perhaps God has put you in this place and in this time to advocate for justice for people who have no other voice. Or, perhaps God has put you in this place and in this time for a reason that has not yet become clear, but will one day soon.

In just a few moments, we celebrate two baptisms. Baptism is, among other things, God claiming us as his children. In baptism, we are baptized into the death of Christ so that we might rise and walk in newness of life. God sent Jesus to earth in a particular place and a particular time for just such a time. And so we, too, as God’s children, look for those opportunities every day to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Esther stared death in the face and God made her victorious on behalf of her people. As Christians, we, too, have stared death in the face and know that because of Jesus Christ, death is nothing to fear. So, when difficult situations come our way, we can say with Esther, “If I perish, I perish,” and then do what God has called us to do.

I’d like to leave you today with a dramatic interpretation of the scene in the book of Esther where Queen Esther goes before the king. This scene comes from the movie “One Night with the King,” which, as any movie does, has some historical inaccuracies, but which, I think, gets the gist of Esther’s story right.  (We only watched the first few minutes of this video.)

Let us go from here today confidently staring death in the face as we boldly do God’s work in the world. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 1C

Luke 4:1-13

I wonder if today’s Gospel text is what has given rise to the many movies and stories that our culture has about selling one’s soul to the devil. My favorite version of that story comes in the movie “Bedazzled”: the version done in 2000 as a remake of the 1967 movie of the same title. In this movie, a geeky IT guy, who is hopelessly in love with a beautiful co-worker, is visited by the devil. The devil then gives him seven wishes if the geeky guy will sell her his soul (in this story, the devil is a woman). Hoping that he can use these seven wishes to get the girl of his dreams, the guy agrees. But, predictably, something goes wrong with the wish each time. When he refuses to make his last wish, the devil, pretending to be a police officer, throws him in jail, where he meets “a really good friend.” I’d like to start off with this clip today to help us think about this story of the devil testing Jesus in the wilderness.

 

I like this quote, because this “really good friend” reminds us of something that we all know: our soul doesn’t really belong to us, anyway, it belongs to God. And the devil does try to confuse us and mislead us, so that we don’t know who we are and whose we are. That’s what the devil is trying to do in today’s Gospel. He is testing Jesus and trying to get him to buy into a false idea of what being the Son of God, the Messiah, actually means. But, in the end, Jesus passes the test and knows who he is and what his identity as the Son of God entails.

Now, the first thing that we need to notice about this story is one little word that I changed when I told it. In the text that you see before you, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God. . .” Well, that’s not an entirely accurate translation of the Greek. The Greek word that is used here can mean either “if” or “since”. When we say “if” in English, it implies a sense of disbelief on the part of the devil, and that’s not what’s going on here. The devil knows and believes that Jesus is the Son of God. That’s not what he’s testing. What the devil is trying to get Jesus to do is to change what being the Son of God means. “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” In other words, the devil says, “Jesus, you and I both know who you are. I know you have the power to do this. Do it. Use your power to serve yourself and your needs, then, maybe, take care of the needs of these human beings you came here to save.”

The second thing that we need to note about this story is that God and the devil are not equals. Many Christians today, whether we know it or not, act as though this good vs. evil thing is a battle between equals, with God, the God of all things good, fighting against the devil, who is the god of all evil. This is not what the Bible teaches. Throughout the Bible, when the devil, or Satan, appears, he is still underneath of God. In fact, Martin Luther likened him to a dog on a chain that can only move around so far before he is stopped. Now, this idea gives rise to all sorts of uncomfortable questions that we don’t have time to go into today. But, as uncomfortable as this makes us, the devil is testing Jesus in much the same way that the serpent tested Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden back in Genesis 3. So, let’s look at these tests that Jesus undergoes and compare them to the story of the tree of good and evil.

The first test that Jesus undergoes is the test of using his power as the Son of God to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. Food is a basic need that we all have, and all of us have felt, at one time or another, the agony of a growling stomach and then how good it felt to fill our stomach with food. In Genesis 3, we see Eve considering the fruit of the tree, and her first consideration is that “the tree was good for food”. Adam, on the other hand, doesn’t even think about it—he takes what Eve hands him and gobbles it down. In contrast, Jesus withstands this first test, in spite of his ravening hunger after 40 days: he rejects the baser urge to eat and relies on the word of God that “one does not live on bread alone”. In other words, Jesus passes the test that his ancestor, Adam, the first “son of God”, failed: Jesus relies on the word of God to sustain him and not physical food.

The next test that Jesus faces from the devil is that of having all earthly power over all the kingdoms of the world if he will bow down and worship the devil. On the face of it, this doesn’t seem much like the test that Eve faced when the serpent told her she should eat the fruit of the tree. But it is. The serpent told Eve that if she ate of the fruit of the tree, she would be “like God, knowing good and evil”. And that is why, ultimately, she ate of the fruit: she wanted to be God. And this is the test the devil puts before Jesus: be like God, he says, and have complete power and authority, and rule the kingdoms as you will, with earthly power. Think of all of the good you could do by bending people to your will! And such a small price to pay: bow down and worship me, instead of God. But again, Jesus withstands this test: even though Jesus is the Son of God and such glory would rightly be his due, and without having to die a painful death on the cross, the price is simply too high: let God be God, and worship God alone. And in that mystery of his being human and divine, he knows it is not his place as a human to take God’s place. Again, he passes the test that his ancestor Eve did not.

The third test that Jesus faces is an extension of the second test. And this time, the devil is more cunning, because he quotes Scripture to make his point, even as Jesus has been quoting Scripture at him all along. Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, he says. Test God’s promises in God’s Holy Word. And, even if God doesn’t come through, you have the power to save yourself. Use this power you have to show the world who you really are, the devil says. Be the Son of God! Be like God in all of God’s glory! But Jesus again passes the test where his ancestors did not: Don’t test God, he says.

Now, what does all of this mean for us? At this point, many preachers would tell their congregations that Jesus is a model for us, and we, too, should be strong and follow Jesus’ example in resisting temptations. But, that’s not what this story is about. This is not about us being strong and resisting the temptation to eat chocolate if we’ve given up chocolate for Lent. This is instead about the messages we receive about who we are and whose we are. I’d like to tell a story to illustrate this idea.

About 7 years ago, my parents were living in Virginia and I was living with them. Barack Obama had just been elected president for the first time. My parents knew that I had voted for him and had disagreed with me, but, as per our rule about not speaking about politics in order to keep the peace in the house, we hadn’t really talked about it. I came home late one evening from somewhere to find my mother watching a news program on TV, and the question under discussion was whether it was acceptable for our government to torture prisoners of war during interrogation. The prevailing view on this particular program was that yes, it was okay. I made the mistake of violating our rule about commenting on politics and asked the question, “But at what cost to our soul as a country?” To which my mother attacked me for the way I had voted and said that I had sold my soul because I had voted for a president that was pro-choice. Or something along those lines. This is an example of why we don’t discuss politics in my family.

But, leaving the politics aside, what this exchange called into question was my identity as a Christian. And this, I believe, is a message that we hear a lot. “If you really are a Christian, then you should think this way about this issue.” “Since you are a Christian, you obviously must believe this.” As if the way we think or believe about one certain political or social issue defines who we are as a Christian! These messages that we receive, though, can indeed be harmful to us and cause us to question our Christian identity and whether God can still love us if we don’t believe or think about earthly issues in the way that other people expect us to. These are the kind of tests that the devil throws at us: to get us to question who we are and whose we are, to try to confuse us.

But here’s the good news: as Christians, we are baptized into Christ. That means, as Paul says in Romans, that we have been baptized into Christ’s death so that we might walk in newness of life. Jesus Christ has passed all of these tests of identity for us, and we find our identity in him. That means that even when we sin, even when we think we have totally messed up who we are called to be as Christians, we are covered because we are baptized into Christ’s name. We are loved and we are forgiven. So that means that, for example, Christians of good conscience can take differing views on political and social issues and still be known as Christians. Our Christian identity is not defined by our political and social views, but it is instead defined by Jesus Christ, who has claimed us as his own and who loves us.

The movie clip that I showed at the beginning is right, to a certain extent. Our soul is not our own, but belongs to God. But, it leaves something out: our body is also not our own, but that too belongs to God. Body and soul, we are God’s, and we are claimed as his own in baptism into the death of Christ. So, when we face testing in this world, we can cry out to God for help, and we can be confident that, no matter the outcome of those tests, God is with us both to support us and to forgive us, and, above all, to love us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

John 7:53-8:11

Welcome to the most well-known Bible passage that does not show up anywhere in our Revised Common Lectionary. That’s right, this Gospel lesson is not even the appointed Gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday. Usually on Ash Wednesday we hear the lesson from Matthew where Jesus says to pray in private, to fast in private, and to give privately—on the same night where we have a big smudge of ashes put on our forehead for all of the world to see. So, why did I choose this Gospel lesson to speak about tonight, you’re asking? Well, it started with a classmate of mine from Gettysburg saying in a Facebook group that he was looking at the appointed lessons for Ash Wednesday in the Anglo-Catholic Lectionary—Anglo-Catholics are churches within the Church of England that emphasize the Catholic part of their heritage—and that this passage from John was an option to be read on Ash Wednesday. His reason for posting it was that he wanted to do something different than the usual Matthew text and he was wanting to know what the rest of us thought about this. I was intrigued by the possibilities of the story of the woman caught in adultery, so, in consultation with the worship committee, I decided that we would hear this story tonight and see what the Lord might have to say to us.

But first, a note on why this story does not show up in the Revised Common Lectionary. If you look at John 7:53-8:11 in your Bible, you will see the following printed as a footnote: “The most ancient authorities lack 7:53-8:11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful.” So, basically, the oldest written copies of John that we have do not have this story of the woman taken in adultery in them. One theory is that this story was indeed authentic and was a well-loved story about Jesus, and so the slip of papyrus that this story was written on was somehow attached to a copy of the Gospel of John. Pastor Larry loves talking about old manuscripts of the Bible and could probably tell you even more about it than I have time for tonight. But because scholars debate where this story came from, it has somehow been deemed “less worthy” of being read as Scripture during worship.

However, I think that this story of Jesus confronting the Pharisees and the scribes is an authentic story of Jesus and has much that it can teach us, regardless of where the story came from or where in Scripture it truly belongs. The story revolves around sin, after all, which is part of what we focus on during Lent: it was our sin that Jesus died for on the cross. And this short little story gives us two ways that we can think about our sin and repent of it during Lent. The first way that we can think about it comes from Jesus’ famous quote: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And the second way is from Jesus’ quote at the end of the story, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” What is very often pointed out when we look more deeply at this story is the strangeness of having caught this woman “in the very act of committing adultery”. How would good religious teachers have caught a woman right in the middle of committing adultery? For that matter, good religious teachers should have known that the Jewish law said that both parties to the act of adultery should be executed. Where was the man with whom the woman was committing adultery? We simply don’t know. But the good religious teachers were trying to trap Jesus yet again, so perhaps they only needed the woman to make their case. Whatever the circumstances, the scribes and the Pharisees needed to prove that they were right, not only in contrast to this sinful woman, but in contrast to whatever Jesus would say.

We human beings like to judge and to condemn other people so that we look like we’re right and they’re wrong. Even more so when we’re in a crowd—if one person in a group says that someone or a group of people should be condemned for something they’ve done, then the rest of the crowd will follow suit. And when a mob of people demand for someone to be punished, the individuals in that crowd can escape responsibility. “I was just going along with the crowd.” “I was just following orders.” Jesus’ response, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” defuses the mob situation and is a much-needed corrective to our judgmental tendencies. This response acknowledges that the woman has sinned, but it also puts the face of a human being on that sin. It reminds us that if God were to judge our sin the way we judged other people’s sin, we would be the ones under threat of being stoned.

And yet, in his love for us, Jesus took our punishment upon himself. This is the picture that we get in this story. Whether the story of the woman taken in adultery was supposed to be part of John, or was originally part of Luke, or part of another gospel now lost to us, we know how Jesus’ story goes after this incident. We know that ultimately Jesus will go to the cross and take that woman’s sin of adultery with him, along with every other sin that every other person has ever committed and will ever commit. And in not condemning the woman taken in adultery, Jesus is letting her go free of punishment, knowing that he will take the punishment for her sin in her place.

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Unfortunately, when this sentence is uttered in today’s society, it is usually not meant as a reflection upon our own sinfulness, but instead is uttered by the sinner in an attempt to escape any form of punishment or consequences. We often forget the rest of the story: when the mob has left, and the woman says to Jesus that no one has remained to stone her, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” We ignore that part: do not sin again. We know that it is impossible for us to achieve. We are sinful human beings. We are going to sin again, no matter how hard we try not to. So, what is Jesus trying to tell this woman, and what is he trying to tell us?

The text doesn’t tell us what happened to the woman after this. Nowhere, by the way, does this text indicate that the woman was Mary Magdalene; that was a mistake made by a pope in the Middle Ages—so much for papal infallibility! Whoever this woman was, though, we would like to think that she followed Jesus’ direction and reformed her life. But we simply can’t say for sure. We, though, have heard Jesus’ good news—we are not condemned for our sins, for Jesus has taken the punishment for our sins upon himself, and has given us an invitation to repent of our sins and reform our lives. And remember, repenting means more than saying, “I’m sorry.” Repenting means a full 180 degree change from where we were before. Lent is an opportunity to reflect on our sins, both individual and communal, to repent of them, and to make amends where possible. This is traditionally done through three spiritual disciplines: praying, fasting, and giving. We should be doing these things all year round, but Lent gives us the opportunity to slow down and to reflect on what more we can do to grow closer to the heart of God, as we remember what Jesus has done for us.

“Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” It’s impossible for us to follow this command perfectly, and God knows that. But, we have one who took on our sin because he loved us so much, and that one is Jesus Christ. This Lent, let us remember what Jesus has done for us and strive to follow after him, keeping ourselves humble and not condemning others for the same sin that inhabits us. Amen.

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Luke 9:28-43a

The transfiguration of Jesus is a strange story, leaving me with more questions than there are answers, and every year when it comes around, I struggle with how to come up with a message that you all can take with you into the coming week. I mean, it’s just weird. First the disciples are weighed down with sleep, but in the next instant they’re awake. And then there’s the appearance of Moses and Elijah. How did the disciples know it was Moses and Elijah? Both of these giants of Israelite history had died hundreds of years before Jesus and his disciples walked the earth. Nobody had pictures of what Moses and Elijah looked like. So, what, did Moses show up holding the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments chiseled on them? And did Elijah show up with the fiery chariot that appeared when he was taken up into heaven? And why did Jesus choose only three of his disciples to see this vision, instead of all twelve, and why those particular three? As I said, it’s a strange story to work with, and I pray that the Holy Spirit would be with us and reveal what God wishes us to take with us into the coming week.

I think the first thing that should be said about the transfiguration is that it is a mystical experience. And that we mainline Protestants are generally uncomfortable with mystical experiences, simply because they defy any easy explanation, and can have all kinds of different meanings. So, leaving aside the question as to how the disciples knew that the two figures with Jesus were Moses and Elijah, we can ask why, out of all of the figures of the Old Testament, it would be Moses and Elijah appearing to discuss Jesus’ upcoming mission in Jerusalem. Most of us here know who Moses was: the man who God called to confront Pharaoh, to demand that Pharaoh free God’s people Israel from slavery, who led them through the parted waters of the Red Sea, and who brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai to the people. Moses hovers over everything that the Jewish people were, and are to this day: aside from God, he is probably the singular most important figure in Jewish history. Moses we know, but we may need a reminder of who Elijah was.

Elijah’s story is found in 1 and 2 Kings. He was the prophet that God summoned to confront Queen Jezebel as she tried to institute worship of Baal in Israel. Elijah is most famous for having a showdown with the priests of Baal and proving that God is the only God in a dramatic demonstration of who can rain down fire on altars. Elijah also is known for hearing God not in the wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. And, finally, Elijah did not die in the way that most people do, but was whisked up to heaven in a whirlwind, while a chariot and horses of fire separated him from his successor, Elisha. Much later in time the prophet Malachi told the people that before the great and terrible day of the Lord, Elijah would come to turn the hearts of the parents and children to each other. And so, it was commonly believed that Elijah would come before the Messiah and prepare the people for the Messiah’s arrival.

Now that we’ve refreshed our memories on who Moses and Elijah were, we can start to understand why these two figures would come to speak with Jesus on the mountain before Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem. These two giants of Jewish history were, first of all, giving Jesus much-needed encouragement before he embarked on the road to his death. But second of all, this vision was for the benefit of the three disciples whom Jesus had brought with him: Jesus was not something completely new and disconnected from the history of Israel. Jesus stood in line with the two greatest figures of Israelite history, Moses and Elijah, and with God’s command to the disciples to listen to Jesus, they were assured that Jesus was God’s Chosen One, the Messiah. And even though they said nothing to anyone in those days, we know that they held the vision with them through the difficult days ahead.

And those difficult days started almost in the moment that they got down from the mountain. There are the crowds again, pushing and shoving, trying to get close to Jesus, and a man with an urgent demand to heal his son. I can understand Jesus’ aggravated response. It’s kind of like what happened here on Thursday morning, when we were delving into God’s Word and having a thought-provoking discussion, only to find out that, while we were in the library, one of the toilets in the women’s room was malfunctioning and flooded water all over the place. To go from the presence of God and a vision of what the kingdom of God will be like back to the needs of the ordinary is aggravating, to say the least, and I think this is what provokes Jesus’ rather annoyed response to the crowds that surround him.

So, the question I find myself asking is, How do we carry that vision of the Divine with us through the difficult times and even the ordinary times when nothing much seems to be happening? As Christians, we have a vision of what the kingdom of God will be: God always being present, no one in need, no more hunger, no more crying, everyone healthy and whole and in community with one another. How do we keep this in front of us when there are always people in need and what little help we can give seems like just a drop in the bucket? How do we keep this glowing vision of the divine in front of us when our loved ones become ill to the point of death? How do we keep the divine vision of peace in front of us in an election year, when the political rhetoric becomes even more sharply worded than usual and the divisions between us seem not able to be bridged?

First of all, I think we need to learn to be comfortable with mystical experiences. I’m willing to bet that we’ve all had visions and dreams at one time or another, and that we’ve probably been told not to talk about them, because people will think we’re crazy. And yet, the transfiguration is not the only place where the Bible records people having visions of the divine; these accounts are scattered throughout both the Old and the New Testaments. We may not be treated to anything as grand as the Transfiguration, but I believe that God will still give us visions to comfort and sustain us.

I’d like to tell a story of one vision that I’ve had. I find that when I tell this story, I still become emotional, so please bear with me if I tear up. My maternal grandfather died in 2010, while I was still in seminary, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He had been a pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and he was very conservative. I had made the move from the Missouri Synod to the ELCA to become a pastor after he had been struggling with dementia for several years and he no longer knew who I was. I knew that, had he known what I was doing, he would not have approved. The night that my grandfather died, I was lying in bed awake and thinking about him. Suddenly I had a vision where I saw Jesus standing there with my grandfather. My grandfather was a young man again, whole in body and mind, and he was smiling at me. I think I started to ask him to forgive me, but he stopped me, said it was okay, and he gave me his blessing. Then he walked away with Jesus and the vision was gone. The next morning, I received the call that my grandfather had died. I then decided that the vision was real, and was a sign of hope that my grandfather loved me, that he was indeed with Jesus, and that yes, I would see him again one day. This is a vision that sustains me on those days when I look at the problems of this world and wonder if Jesus is ever going to come again. I know others of you have had those types of visions and signs surrounding your loved ones who have gone to be with Jesus. Speak of them to others and let those visions sustain you and give you strength when you find the days to be hard.

Besides becoming more comfortable with mystical experiences, another thing we can do to keep the divine vision in front of us during difficult days is to find ways to be the light in the dark places. In our Old Testament lesson today, we see how Moses’ face shone after he finished speaking with God. Do our faces shine to others after we have worshiped God or spent time in prayer with God? Do we reflect God’s presence to the world around us? By ourselves, the light of the divine that we reflect to others does not seem like very much. But when we come together, those drops of light will form a vast, shining ocean. When we witness to that light that shines from Jesus through us, the world will know that it cannot extinguish that mighty light which Jesus gives, that unquenchable hope that says there is more beyond this world, and that more is the kingdom of God in all of its fullness. And the evil that is within the world will not have the last word, but God will have the last word.

Sometimes visions are as clear as having a loved one come to you and say goodbye. Other times visions are difficult to interpret. They may contain strange images and symbols that we won’t know how to figure out. If you have a vision or dream that you don’t understand and feel compelled to speak of, pray over it and then talk to other members of the Christian community to help you interpret it. But God often grants these visions and dreams to bring peace, and to sustain us through difficult times. As we enter into Lent and begin to focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross to die for our sins, the atmosphere in worship will seem subdued. We won’t sing as much, and the word “Alleluia” will not pass our lips in worship for 40 days. But I believe this is why we get the story of the Transfiguration immediately before we enter into Lent. We have that glorious vision of the divine Jesus to sustain us through the time when the veil is drawn over our eyes. May the Holy Spirit keep that vision in front of us through the coming days. Amen.