Sermon for Pentecost 15C

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 & Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

I’m a fan of the TV series “Outlander,” which airs on Starz. Based on the novel of the same name by Diana Gabaldon, this show features a nurse who travels through time from Scotland in 1945 to Scotland in 1743, and chronicles her adventures as she at first tries to get back to her husband in 1945, but then ends up marrying a man in 1743. Yeah, it’s a complicated plot, but well worth the effort. In the episode where she marries the Scottish man in 1743, there is a scene where two clansmen are trying to convince the priest to perform the wedding. One of the men ends up arguing Scripture verses with the priest, and uses one of our verses from Hebrews today to make his point. Let’s take a look.  Note that this particular clip is not available on You Tube; I used my personal DVD copy. It can be found in Season 1, Episode 8 of “Outlander,” titled “The Wedding.” It may be available on Starz.com, or the Starz app.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Now, as we saw in the end of the scene, it wasn’t Scripture that convinced this priest to perform the wedding, or even the idea of extending hospitality rather than obeying the letter of the law, but instead, the promise of windows for his church in order to keep it warm. Sometimes practical considerations win out over the rightness or wrongness of a request. But the reason that I showed this today is because when it comes to showing hospitality, we sometimes get caught up in what we think is right or wrong according to different portions of Scripture or what church tradition tells us. Here is one example: practices surrounding Holy Communion. It used to be common that people did not receive Holy Communion until they were confirmed. That was accepted teaching and church tradition. Then, it was recognized that children who were younger than 7th and 8th graders could understand what Holy Communion was about, and we began to educate 4th and 5th graders about Holy Communion and let them come to the table. Then, we began to think, “Yes, we have our doctrine: that the body and the blood of Christ are in, with, and under the bread and the wine. But do any of us really understand how that works? It is a mystery and since communion is also a sign that Jesus loves us, and even the youngest children can understand that much, let’s welcome everyone, regardless of age, to take part in the meal.” These changes have not come easily for many congregations, and there has been much discussion over the years about hospitality vs. accepted church teaching. And here at Hope, things have changed in just the few years that I have been here, and I think that we have done well in responding to the urging of the Holy Spirit as we have begun to allow all people, regardless of age, to come and take part in this foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But could the Holy Spirit be urging us to do even more to show hospitality to those who are different from us?

Hospitality means more than being friendly. We here at Hope are a pretty friendly group of people, so if we think hospitality is just being friendly and welcoming, then we’re doing great. But hospitality really means making room for the other person, even inconveniencing ourselves so that the other person has space with us. Our verse from Hebrews today talks about “entertaining angels without knowing it”. This is a reference to the story from Genesis where three visitors come to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham did not just invite them in and pull the best food that he had out of the refrigerator. He invited them in and then told Sarah to bake bread. How many of you have baked bread from scratch before? I have; it’s an all-day affair, and that’s with an electric stove, which this couple certainly did not have. Then Abraham goes out to his herd and picks the best calf, butchers it, and cooks it for his guests. I’ve never butchered an animal before—and I don’t really want to—but I’m guessing that it takes hours to do this. And then Abraham sets the food before his visitors and stands by them as a servant. In order to show true hospitality to his visitors, to make room for them, Abraham makes these strangers the master, and he becomes the servant.

Hospitality is not easy. Hospitality is inconvenient. Hospitality means humbling ourselves and not taking the highest place at the table, as Jesus tells us today, but taking the lowest place at the table. Hospitality can even mean admitting that we were wrong about something. One of the memorials that the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted in New Orleans earlier this month was a repudiation of the doctrine of discovery. The doctrine of discovery originated in papal bulls in the 15th century which gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. If the “pagan” inhabitants of those lands (that is, Native Americans) could be converted, they would be allowed to live. If they could not be converted, these papal bulls said, then it was okay to make them slaves or to kill them. This doctrine of discovery was enshrined in American law in a Supreme Court case in 1823, and has been used as recently as 2005 in court decisions. Some people have asked what good it would do for the ELCA to repudiate such a thing. Bishop Guy Erwin of the Southwest California Synod, himself a member of the Osage Nation, made this statement in answer to that question:

“One might well ask why a symbolic action like this is important for our church to take—after all: We can’t undo what has been done to native people in our nation’s long and complex history.

We can’t return what has been taken away from some and given to others.

We can’t, by an action like this, heal or repair the harm still felt by the native population—who suffer disproportionately from poverty and its effects: despair, malnutrition, and suicide.

But we can say, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, that for us and for our house, we will no longer participate in the great lie that has declared native lives to be of lesser value than those of European settlers.

We can say that we will no longer promote the destructive myth that North America was an essentially empty land, waiting to be filled by God with industrious settlers.

We can say that we value and celebrate the lives and cultures of native people, as we did last night when we let the Houma tribe welcome us to their land, and not we them to our assembly.

And we can acknowledge that our nation–born for liberty and pressing ever toward equality and justice—was founded in tragedy: in dispossession, depopulation, and imported slavery. We cannot advance justice today by forgetting injustice yesterday.

But today, as the ELCA—as the church—we can draw a symbolic line under this tragic legacy, reject this racist notion, and tell the whole world what we have done.

This we can do. Amen.”

In this case, humbling ourselves and admitting we have been wrong in the past makes room for those whom we have wronged to have a more honored place at the table. This is a radical kind of hospitality that makes us uncomfortable. How would it feel for us to sit beside people whom we have personally wronged and from whom we have just asked for forgiveness? Pretty awkward, yes? But that is the kind of radical hospitality that God is asking from us. It’s the kind of hospitality that Jesus shows to us: we have crucified him with our sins, and yet, he forgives us and invites us to come and sit beside him at the table, and he feeds us with his own body and blood.

So, how can we show this kind of radical hospitality to others here in Powell? Well, my first suggestion is to listen. And not just pretend to listen, but to really listen to the other person and try to put ourselves in his or her shoes. Very often, when we’re hearing something we don’t agree with, we are not really listening to the other person. Instead, we are formulating our own argument against what the other person is saying, and are getting ready to come back with a, “Yeah, but. . .” statement. Let’s forget the “Yeah, but’s”. Let’s instead listen to the other person, especially the other person who is different from us, and truly hear what the other person has to say. Let’s even take a few moments to reflect on what that person has said before we respond. We might hear something that is uncomfortable for us to hear, but also something that we need to hear and take to heart; something that can be a catalyst for a needed change. Listening in this way is one way we make room for the other person to come into our lives.

On Friday and Saturday I went to the Wind River Indian Reservation for a board meeting of the Wyoming Association of Churches. We met at the Wind River Indian Baptist Church, which is a small church building on the reservation. In this building, on the first night, I and others with me were the guests as board members from the Wind River Native Advocacy Center cooked a good barbecue dinner for us. I heard reports from each of the members who were there about the work they were doing: working to restore buffalo to the reservation; working to educate the people there about their legal right to vote; working to improve parenting skills; working to implement a vigorous recycling program on the reservation. I heard how they are fighting back against poverty and racism and working to become full, participating citizens of a country where their people have lived for a lot longer than we European-Americans have lived. Before I came to Wyoming, I don’t think I’d ever met a Native American. Now, through my experiences on both the Wind River and Rocky Boy’s reservations, Native Americans have faces to me. They are people who want many of the things I take for granted. I hope that I have now made space for them in my heart, and that, in the future, I can extend hospitality to them.

Jesus tells us that we are to invite those people to our table who are not able to repay us in kind: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Who are those people in our community? Native Americans? Refugees? Homeless? Yes, and probably more categories than I can name. How are we making space for these people in our hearts and at our table? Are we listening to what the talking heads on the news programs are telling us and becoming more polarized every day? Are we ranting about something on Facebook or in the online comments section of a news article anonymously so that we don’t have to engage with the other person? Or are we truly listening to one another’s ideas and making space for the other person in our hearts and at our table, even when we don’t agree with them? These are hard questions that we need to ask ourselves as we seek to find ways to serve in the community of Powell. Let’s continue to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we seek to extend radical and inconvenient hospitality to others. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost 14C

Luke 13:10-17

I have never understood the idea of Christmas in July. Christmas is a stressful time of year for me, and I really don’t look forward to it. As a pastor, I struggle a lot with Christmas as I try to keep the liturgical season of Advent something of its own, to try to build up that sense of anticipation so that, when Christmas finally comes, it is as joyful as it can be. I get so tired of the secular commercialization of Christmas and I find no magic in those secular traditions. And as a single person, putting up the Christmas tree each year is an absolute chore that takes me two full afternoons. I hoped that, after I brought home my first cat, he would climb up the tree and knock the ornaments off, so that I would have an excuse not to put the tree up again. But, as an older cat, he took no interest in the tree. I’m hoping my second cat will now provide me the excuse I need not to put the tree up this year. Any time someone puts up a countdown to Christmas on their Facebook page, I write, “STOP IT!” in all capital letters. I shake my head and groan at the Hallmark channel airing Christmas movies in July. So, when I hear about Christmas in July, I wonder why anyone would want to do that more than once a year. I just don’t understand the whole concept.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, I will admit that the real reason I don’t like Christmas in July is the same reason that the leader of the synagogue was upset that Jesus healed on the Sabbath: there is only one right day to celebrate Christmas (well, actually, 12, if I’m being liturgically correct) and July isn’t it. And so, after many years of hearing this story of Jesus healing the bent over woman on the Sabbath, I can finally begin to understand and empathize with the synagogue leader’s point of view. There are six days available to do work, and the Sabbath day is not one of those days. And healing is work. If you don’t believe me, ask any one of our members who are doctors or nurses. If you’re not Jesus, healing people who are sick involves things like writing prescriptions and then making sure your patients are taking those prescriptions correctly; making sure your patients are following the diets that you laid out for them; performing surgery on them when necessary, and a whole host of other things. Then, when your patients come in and they’re not healed because they haven’t been doing what you’ve told them, you can add frustration to the emotional toll that healing takes on you. And, even for Jesus, healing might be work. We don’t know how his human and divine natures worked together to heal a person, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. Jesus might have been absolutely exhausted after healing the sick. So, as I said, I can empathize with the synagogue leader. The Sabbath day was—and still is, for observant Jewish people—a holy and sacred day, on which no work should be done. And here is this Jesus, who not only is an observant Jewish person but who is also teaching in the synagogue, blatantly violating the Sabbath by doing work on it! And, after all, this woman had been bent over already for eighteen years—surely she could have waited one more day to be healed. It’s just not right.

And, when we look at this story this way, we find that it’s really not about the healing miracle at all. It is also not a story about how grace wins out over the law. What this is really about is a dispute between two Jewish people about what is appropriate behavior on the Sabbath day. When I was training to be a deaconess at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I was assigned to a specific congregation for what was called fieldwork; that is, a congregation in which to learn some of the more practical aspects of what I was being called and trained to do. This congregation was a Messianic Jewish congregation: those who identify as Messianic Jews describe themselves as Jews who keep all of their Jewish practices and yet believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The pastor of this congregation was a convert to Lutheran Christianity from Orthodox Judaism, and he told us often that, “Wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” In other words, within Judaism it is okay to dispute over the interpretation of the Law, and, more than being just okay, it is in fact a sign of faithfulness, a sign that you are engaging with the Law that God has given, seeking to more fully understand it and to find joy in following it. This is what is happening in this synagogue scene today: the leader is offering one interpretation of what is proper to do on the Sabbath, and Jesus is responding with another interpretation. And to more fully understand Jesus’ interpretation, we need to first understand some more of what the Sabbath day means.

We in 21st century North America don’t really make distinctions between days of the week anymore. Some of us might remember blue laws, those laws which forbade businesses to be open on Sundays. Many of us remember how kids’ sports teams did not have games on Sundays, out of respect for families who felt it important to attend worship services. Those days are long gone. While many businesses in Powell still close down on Sundays, there are still restaurants that are open if anyone wants to go out to eat, and many of us shop at Blair’s and Shopko right after our service here. Sports teams think nothing these days of having games on Sundays, much to churches’ chagrin. Slowly but surely, our society has said that one day is much like another.

This was not so in Jesus’ day. When describing the meaning of the Sabbath, Richard Swanson, professor at Augustana University, writes, “Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God’s dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all creation” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p.181). Perhaps the prohibition of doing work on the Sabbath is so that we can look around and pay attention, so that God might reveal to us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

And that’s where Jesus’ interpretation of what is permissible on the Sabbath comes in. If the Sabbath is meant for us to cease our work so that we might catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God, then it is absolutely the right time to free a woman whom Satan bound for eighteen long years. Freeing the woman from her bondage is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like when it comes in its fullness. After this story of Jesus healing the bent-over woman, Jesus tells the crowds that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed and like yeast: it is sown in secret, and we don’t notice it until the plant takes over the yard and the yeast causes the bread to rise, unless we have eyes to see it. Here, in this healing story, Jesus is asking us if we can see the kingdom of God coming in the release of the woman from her bondage, on the day of the week when we are supposed to be taking notice of the signs of the kingdom.

And that is the question for us today: Where do we see signs of the kingdom of God? And when do we see them? Are we so worried about what is right and proper to do and not to do that we miss the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Or, are we so busy with our schedules that we don’t take time to breathe, to rest, and to look for God’s wonders and signs in our midst? On Friday, I met a friend in Red Lodge, and as we walked around, we wandered into the Base Camp photography store. As we looked at the beautiful pictures that the man had taken of animals and nature in the area, we began asking him questions of how he had gotten such wonderful shots. And his stories reflected his own wonder, awe, and patience with nature. He sits still for hours waiting for the perfect shot, and the bears and the wolves grow accustomed to him, know that he’s not going to harm them, and then, it seems, almost pose so that he can get the perfect photograph. For me, this is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God in its fullness will one day look like: humans and animals at peace with one another, neither one harming the other, but both in awe at what God has created.

And this brings me back to Christmas in July. I still don’t quite understand it, and in my mind, it is not right and proper to celebrate the birth of Jesus in July. But, this might be how others see the kingdom of God in their midst: by remembering Jesus’ birth and celebrating his incarnation, his becoming human, one of us, in order to bring us salvation. And perhaps by doing this in July, it reduces the amount of commercialization and allows people to focus on what the true meaning of Christmas really is. Perhaps by mocking this practice and groaning about it, I have missed the Holy Spirit working around me. So, if what you need to glimpse the kingdom of God is to have a second celebration of Christmas in the summer, go for it. I think, though, that above all, we should be keeping our eyes open in all that we do and remembering to take the time to look around and see what God might be up to when we least expect it. We never know what God might show us. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 13C

Luke 12:49-56

Divisions. If we are being honest with ourselves, we human beings will admit that we actually like divisions. Divisions make us feel superior to others who are not part of our “in-group”. We say, “We’re not like those bleeding-heart liberals who want to help everyone and make everyone lazy and dependent on government handouts. We expect everyone to take responsibility for themselves and work hard to make this society better.” Or, we say, “We’re not like those closed-minded conservatives. We think people should live and let live. Why should we be the moral police?” Now, these statements are stereotypes, and I’m not going to go into what the problems with those stereotypes are right now. The point is that our sinful selves like those stereotypical statements. We want to be special, unique, and better than that other person over there. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last several years with you preaching that divisions are bad, and that Christ has come to reconcile those divisions, that there is no longer Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. And then, today, Jesus does a number on all of us and tells us that he came to create division and to bring fire to the earth. So, which one is it, Jesus? Are we supposed to be one, or are we supposed to be divided?

Well, the Lutheran answer to any either/or question is “yes”. Yes, we are commanded to work for reconciliation. But, in that work for reconciliation and for peace, the paradox is this: the work that we do for reconciliation will, unfortunately, bring more division. And, what is more, Jesus tells us, that division in our families and in our society is a sign that we are, in fact, following him. So, let’s look at this idea more closely, because I think the major question that we need to ask is this: How do we know when we’re doing the work that Jesus has commanded us to do, and how do we know when we’re being deliberately divisive? And the key to answering this question is what Jesus tells us as part of his teaching today: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

This section of the gospel that we have before us today comes in the middle of what is called Luke’s travel narrative. Jesus has set his face to go towards Jerusalem. He knows what is coming, and I think what he says today is partially his own reflection on what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem: dying on the cross for all of humanity. He knows this has been coming since the moment he was baptized by John in the Jordan and he heard God declare him to be the beloved Son. He knows that this baptism marked him out for suffering on the cross, and he is, in fact, in great distress until his mission is completed. That dying on the cross is something he simultaneously is driven towards and fears at the same time. And I think Jesus knows that his life, his mission, and his death and resurrection are going to be interpreted differently both among his followers and among those who do not follow him, and that he genuinely grieves those coming divisions that will take place because of him.

We who follow Jesus are baptized into his name. And yet, when we think of baptism, we don’t think of fire. We think instead of sweet babies in white gowns who may cry a little bit when the water is poured on their heads, and we think that this child, too, is loved and saved by God. We don’t think of the other side of baptism. We don’t like to think that life will be hard for us even when we are baptized. We don’t like to think that God might, just might, potentially call us into dangerous work on God’s behalf. Let’s be honest with ourselves: would we prefer that we, our children and our grandchildren would be called to a quiet life, or would we prefer that God calls us to be a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Gandhi, or a Mother Theresa? As much as we think we might be honored to be one of those people whom history respects for what they did, we also know that theirs were lives of hardship, and lives which caused those divisions between family members that Jesus speaks of today.

Does our baptism consume us as it consumed Jesus? Does it drive us forward to do what God is calling us to do? And, to return to my opening question, how do we tell the difference between following Jesus’ call and having one of the effects of following that call being to cause divisions, and being deliberately divisive, that is, picking fights for no good reason? Well, let me give one example. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation in town has recently finished their new building and is having their opening worship and open house this afternoon. Some of us have been joking around that we should go as a group, perhaps with me wearing my clerical collar, and then if they have communion, turn around and walk out. Now, I know that’s a joke, and most of us—I hope!—would not actually do this. But it points to a division among Lutherans that has been hurtful for a lot of us, especially when some of us have been openly and blatantly refused from communing in an LCMS church. So, if any of us do go to this event, let us please be respectful and not be deliberately divisive—if I go, that means I will not wear my clerical collar. My following God’s call upon my life as a woman in the ordained ministry does not mean that I have to deliberately pick fights and cause divisions with those Christians who interpret God’s Word to say that women should not be doing this.

So, to balance this out, here’s a story about how following God’s call can cause division. Representatives from all corners of the ELCA have been meeting at the Churchwide Assembly this week to conduct the business of the church. One of the actions that they have taken is to adopt a statement called, “Declaration on the Way,” which describes 32 points of theological agreement that Lutherans and Roman Catholics have as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year. This is significant: Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been discussing theology for about 50 years now in an effort to reconcile our differences. While this document does acknowledge that the discussions are not complete and that there are still some major differences between us, the fact that we can find so many areas of agreement is a great step on the road to reconciliation—and it only took us 500 years! And yet, this statement, which works on closing one major division between Christians, may yet cause more division between those people who agree with it and those who think the differences between us are still too great to even think about reconciliation. And this is the case with many divisions within the Christian church here in the U.S. and around the world—one way of following Jesus does not meet with the approval of some people, and so a division is formed.  Where one division is closed, another one opens. But, should we not do the work of reconciliation simply because one of the side effects might be division? I think the answer to that is no; when in doubt, I think we should always err on the side of reconciliation.

These two stories are two examples, and they may seem to be pretty clear-cut. But, there may be other examples that may not be so clear-cut. So how do we tell when we are following God’s call upon our lives and thereby inadvertently causing division, and when we are being deliberately divisive? How do we tell when we are being driven by what God has called us to do when we were baptized, and when we cross the line into fanaticism? There are no easy answers, but it may be helpful to remember some of the vows that were made for us when we were baptized and which we reaffirmed when we were confirmed. We can ask ourselves: Are we proclaiming Christ through our words and our deeds? Are we truly caring for others and the world God has made? Are we working for justice and peace? And, when there is a question about what we are doing, are we erring on the side of grace, love, and forgiveness, or are we coming down too hard on the law? If we find that we are more on the side of the law than on the side of grace, we may need to rethink what we are doing.

The Christian life is not easy, and following Jesus’ call to us may bring about divisions between us and our friends. Some of those divisions may be able to be reconciled in our lifetimes, and some may not. But, Christ calls us to continue to follow him, even when that call might involve division in our families and danger to ourselves. I’d like to end the sermon today with a poem written by Brian McLaren about baptism. It doesn’t have a title to it, but if you like it, I will pass on the website where you can find it. (http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/a-poem-that-struck-a-nerve.html). Here is the poem:

“Please de-baptize me,” she said.
The priest’s face crumpled.
“My parents tell me you did it,” she said.
“But I was not consulted. So
Now, undo it.”
The priest’s eyes asked why.
“If it were just about belonging to
This religion and being forgiven,
Then I would stay. If it were just
About believing
This list of doctrines and upholding
This list of rituals,
I’d be OK. But
Your sermon Sunday made
It clear it’s
About more. More
Than I bargained for. So, please,
De-baptize me.”
The priest looked down, said
Nothing. She continued:
“You said baptism sends
Me into the
World to
Love enemies. I don’t. Nor
Do I plan to. You said it means
Being willing to stand
Against the flow. I like the flow.
You described it like rethinking
Everything, like joining a
Movement. But
I’m not rethinking or moving anywhere.
So un-baptize me. Please.”
The priest began to weep. Soon
Great sobs rose from his deepest heart.
He took off his glasses, blew his nose, took
Three tissues to dry his eyes.
“These are tears of joy,” he said.
“I think you
Are the first person who ever
Truly listened or understood.”
“So,” she said,
“Will you? Please?”

 

The question is for us, too. Will we choose to live out our baptism, no matter the cost? Or will we ask to be un-baptized, since it is more than we bargained for? Let it be the former. Amen.