Sermon for Creation 3C

Storm Sunday

Luke 8:22-25

Many years ago, when I was living in Taiwan, a typhoon struck the island. Now, a typhoon is simply a different word for a hurricane, so these two words describe the same type of storm. Taiwan is a subtropical island, so having a typhoon come was not a great thing, but not completely unexpected, either. The apartment I was living in was on the fourth floor, so I made sure windows were closed and I sat inside to wait out the storm. But then, I discovered that, even though the windows were closed, the wind was slamming the heavy rain up so hard against the building that the water was pouring in the cracks. This is when I started to be afraid. This time I made sure the windows were locked as well as closed. I ran to the kitchen and got paper towels and stuffed them around the cracks. I moved furniture and my other possessions away from the windows. And, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room that night, where there were no windows. And I prayed that whatever water managed to make it into the apartment would not be enough to flood it, because I honestly wasn’t sure who to call if that happened or where I would go.

The next morning when I woke up, the rain had largely passed over us, although the wind was still blowing. My apartment hadn’t flooded. Bleary-eyed because I had not slept very well, I stumbled to the bathroom, only to be shocked wide awake by an earthquake. Have I mentioned that Taiwan is an island that is formed by tectonic plates rubbing together? And that, since those plates still rub together, earthquakes are a frequent occurrence? Thankfully, it was a short tremor with no damage. But between that and the typhoon, I was looking up to heaven and saying, “OK, God, what do you want from me?”

From ancient times, storms have frightened us. Until recent times and scientific discoveries, we haven’t known why storms happen. Storms are something we have no control over, and at a fundamental level of our being, we don’t like not having control over things. Storms can do great damage: as I mentioned, they can flood our homes and damage our possessions. Great amounts of snow can block entrances to our homes and cause roads to be dangerous, so that we can’t get out and get supplies that we need. Tornados can destroy our homes with little warning. And storms of all kinds can cause us injury and they can cause us to die. It is little wonder, then, that ancient peoples assigned gods who were in control of thunder and lightning: Thor among the Scandinavians, Zeus among the Greeks, and Baal among the Canaanites. If there was someone in control of the thunder and lightning, people reasoned, then those gods could be appeased by sacrifices and prayers. Then people would feel like they did have some small amount of control over the uncontrollable weather.

Our lesson from Job and our Psalm today testify that God, the one whom the Israelites named YHWH, is the one who is Lord over all of the earth, including the weather. And our Gospel today asks us a question: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” The disciples had been following Jesus around for a little while up until this point. They had seen him do all sorts of healing miracles and exorcisms, and they had heard his teaching, but there were many rabbis at that time who did that sort of thing. When the disciples woke Jesus up during the windstorm, they weren’t expecting him to make the storm cease. They were expecting him to help keep the boat afloat, hoping that they’d make it to the shore in one piece. When Jesus instead stood up and commanded the waves and the wind to cease, and they obeyed, that’s when the disciples started getting an inkling that this was no ordinary rabbi. Good Jewish people knew that only YHWH could do what Jesus just did. So, his disciples are left to wrestle with the question of who Jesus is and what his relationship to God is.

We wrestle with the question of who Jesus is, too, even today. The storms on our planet are getting worse. Super typhoons and hurricanes are a more common experience, wreaking ever more damage. Monster rainstorms, such as in West Virginia earlier this year and in Louisiana just several weeks ago, are also causing damage. Last winter, the East Coast had several snowstorms that they had to dig themselves out of and cancel church because of, and even while we here in Wyoming laughed at them, we had an unusually mild winter and a distinct lack of snow. The global climate is changing, and the scientific evidence says that we humans are largely to blame for it. We who believe that Jesus is present with us in these hard times often wonder if, like that day on the Sea of Galilee long ago, Jesus is actually asleep on the boat with us while we are perishing. And we wonder if he really cares if we die.

And so, because we don’t want to admit to our role in changing the climate, we look to find ways to blame God for these storms and other changes. Well, after all, if God is the one who controls the storms, then God must be angry with us when massive storms come our way. And so we have people blaming massive storms on certain moral sins of society—which is all well and good until those storms start affecting the people who are supposedly “sinless”. This happened just recently with the storms in Louisiana. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, stated a year ago that devastating hurricanes were a sign of God’s wrath against same-sex marriage and abortion. Then, this year, it was his home in Louisiana that was flooded by the epic rains that happened in August. In order to explain this, he now says that floods such as these are sent as “an incredible, encouraging spiritual exercise meant to take you to the next level” in your walk with God. So, which is it? Are these storms the wrath of God? Or are they a “spiritual exercise”?

The truth is that we simply don’t know why storms are sent in the way that they are. If God sends them as punishment, then what are they punishment for? And what does that say about a God who loves us and forgives us if he would still punish us for things and not tell us why? If, on the other hand, these superstorms are caused by the things that we do here on earth, then does that mean that God is, in fact, not in control of the weather and earth as we believe that he is? What does it mean if God does not, like Jesus did on that long ago day, say to the wind and the raging waves, “Cease! Be still!”? Finally, we have to simply say with the Apostle Paul in our reading from 1 Corinthians today that, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” In other words, the answer to these uncomfortable questions is, “We don’t know.” For if we pretend that we know the answers to these questions, then we claim that we know the mind of God, and we put ourselves into the place of God, and that is never a good thing to do.

What we should do is to latch on to the smaller things that we can recognize about God. And one of those things is that, in the midst of these frightening weather events, God can bring good out of the storm. In your bulletins, there is an insert giving information about many of the benefits that storms bring. Water is the first benefit, and, as the farmers around here especially know, the water needs to be in the right amount: too much, and crops get flooded; too little, and crops wither and die. But what I found fascinating about storms is the benefit that lightning brings: lightning, that scary thing that can kill you if it strikes you and can start massive fires in dry conditions, is needed to separate the nitrogen atoms in the air, so that they can combine with minerals in the soil and form nitrates that fertilize plants. This planet needs those scary storms in order to survive. Even when the storms that bear down on us are frightening, God brings good and needed things out of them.

Another thing that we can latch on to is that, throughout the storms in our lives, both the meteorological ones and the metaphorical ones, Jesus is with us. Yes, there are times when it may seem like he’s asleep in the boat. But we have been given the great privilege of being able to run to him and say, “Jesus! Wake up and help us!”  And, if you notice, even when Jesus is thoroughly annoyed about being woken up and chides the disciples for their lack of faith, he still answers their pleas. But, he does it in an unexpected way, revealing himself to be the Son of God in the process. Just so, Jesus often answers our pleas for help in unexpected ways, and each time asks us to trust in him and to confess that he is, indeed, the Lord of our lives.

The times we live in are very stormy ones, both literally and figuratively. Our climate is changing, and the physical storms that are coming our way are stronger and more frightening. We are overwhelmed because we don’t know what to do to change the systems that are in place so as to stop climate change, and some scientists are starting to say that it may be too late to stop it. We may now have to ask ourselves what the best ways are to help one another through these storms. The metaphorical storms in our lives are just as frightening—from dealing with illness in our loved ones to politics, both local and national, to issues in our society that just seem overwhelming to us. It seems that we cry out on a daily basis, “Master, master, we are perishing!” And yet, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus comes to us in the midst of the storm and brings peace, and brings the wisdom that will help to see us through. And so we can say with the Psalmist, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood. The Lord sits enthroned as king forever.” Amen.

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Sermon for Creation 2C

Animal Sunday

Luke 15:1-7

In preparation for this week’s theme of Animal Sunday and this sermon, I’ve been listening to conversations around me about animals. As I have listened, it seems to me that we place animals into three categories. Those categories are (1) our pets, whom we love and who serve as our companions, (2) farm animals, whom we might love, but whom we also use for food, whether that food comes in the form of eggs, dairy products, or the meat of the animals themselves, and (3) wildlife, whom we may admire from a distance, and whom we also hunt and use for food, but whom we also fear for the harm they may cause us or the competition they present for the same food that we eat. And spread out among those three categories are those animals who disgust some of us, but perhaps not others: snakes, spiders, and mice are examples of these animals, who some of us keep as pets and others of us would prefer never to see. But, whatever categories animals come in, they are all around us, and they fascinate us. We have stories of pets who are no longer with us but whom we remember and still love, as well as the pets we have now who continue to make us laugh. We have stories of encounters with farm animals that make us laugh. And we have stories of close calls with wildlife, or we have hunting stories, or we have pictures of that wildlife when they have posed in just the right way to create awe and wonder in us.

Animals are all around us, and we observe them and how they behave so that we might learn something from them. Every culture has folklore that involves animals: Aesop wrote fables involving crows and foxes; Grimm’s fairy tales often feature the “big bad wolf” or forest creatures who are helpful to the hero of the story; many Native American tribes have stories about coyotes and other animals. These stories almost always involve a moral or a lesson for us. And today, we have before us Jesus telling a parable about a shepherd looking for a lost sheep.

Now, any time sheep and shepherds come up in our Holy Scriptures, I struggle with how to preach this. I did not grow up on a farm or a ranch, so I have to rely on other people’s accounts of what sheep are like. Some people say that sheep are stupid, while others say that it’s not that the sheep are stupid, it’s rather that they’re herd animals and will follow the leader, so if the sheep who is the lead sheep is stupid, then the rest of the herd is going to be stupid, too. So, before we get into the parable that Jesus tells us today, I’m going to start with a description of sheep from Professor Richard Swanson of Augustana University.

Swanson talks about his uncle, who raised sheep. He writes that his uncle “knows [the sheep] up close. They are not sweet. It does not matter if they are innocent or not: they are animals. They are rude, insistent, and deeply stupid animals. They would rather try to walk through a fence than go around it. They will destroy their pasture if they are not driven off it, because (unlike cattle) they do not move on when they have eaten all the grass where they are standing. They will devour the grass, down to and including the roots, and make a wasteland of what had been a flourishing pasture. And, my uncle tells me, they would rather bloat themselves on green alfalfa than do anything else in the world, though the bloating will kill them. They just go on devouring it even as they begin to swell up” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p. 195). After hearing that description, it hits hard for me: Jesus is most definitely not paying us a compliment when he calls us sheep. And in many ways, if we are honest with ourselves, we fit Swanson’s uncle’s description of sheep more accurately than we want to admit.

But, I’m sure most of us have heard preachers say that, just like sheep, we are pretty stupid and pretty bad. So, let’s ask this question: what does it say about God if Jesus compares God to a shepherd in today’s parable? When I lived in Alaska, I had a friend whose father raised sheep. She told me a story of how he came in to the house one day, thoroughly frustrated, and said, “The only thing dumber than sheep is the man who raises them.” Is God dumber than sheep are? Most of us who have heard this parable and who have not been around sheep at all think that if the shepherd leaves the 99 on the hillside to fend for themselves and goes in search of the one, when he comes back, he’ll have 100 sheep again. But, those people who have been around sheep will tell you that when the shepherd comes back with one sheep, the total number of sheep that he will have is one sheep. More likely than not, while he was gone, the 99 have gone wandering off on their own, and now he has 99 stupid sheep that he has to go searching for. But, regardless of that, the shepherd is so happy that he found the one that he is rejoicing and calling his neighbors to rejoice with him? It’s a very odd story when we think that God rejoices over the one sheep that was found, when the 99 are still running around out there somewhere.

But then, let’s think about this some more. It’s not that there are 99 sheep who think they are the “good sheep” and don’t go wandering off when the one sheep does. It is, in fact, that each one of the 100 sheep is that wandering sheep. The minute the shepherd turns his eye away, the sheep goes and wanders off. And God, whom Jesus likens to the shepherd, will go and search for each one of us, even when that search is extravagant, and God has to go searching in the deepest, darkest hole for that sheep.

God knows that the rest of the sheep are not going to be waiting for him when he returns. It’s a never-ending search, so that, when God brings one of us back, he has to go off and search for another one. Human wisdom says that this is absolutely ridiculous. But Paul tells us in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world. And that foolishness results in God’s love for us, and God’s love for each part of God’s creation.

I would like to propose that it is not just human beings that God goes searching for, as we usually read in today’s parable, but also that God goes searching for each part of God’s lost creation. It’s kind of like this: several years ago, my family had a purebred Siberian husky. For a short period of time after I graduated from high school and first entered college, my family lived in Kentucky. The houses in the neighborhood generally had about 5 acres or so associated with them. Our Siberian husky was still young, and we were training her to an electric fence. Once, when I was home from college, she jumped the fence and ran off. My parents and brother went looking for her, while I stayed home in case she came back or someone found her and called. Well, someone did find her and called the house. I went out to meet the person, and there was our dog, hot and panting, but safe. My reaction alternated between, “You stupid dog!” and “I’m so glad you’re safe! I love you so much!” God, the great Searcher, not only looks for us sinful human beings, but is also concerned with each part of the Creation. And when God can’t find part of God’s creation because it has gone extinct, I think God mourns that animal just as much as we mourn the loss of a beloved pet.

Each animal in God’s creation has an important, vital role to play. Even the mosquito, and believe me, I really, really want to talk to God about, “Why mosquitoes?” Even the wolf, which I know is one of those animals that many people in these parts hate. Even the grizzly bear, as we watch while our wildlife experts relocate problem bears and it feels like we’re switching bears back and forth across Wyoming. And also those animals whose recovery we have recently celebrated, like the black-footed ferret and the sage grouse. Each of us is dependent on the other, humans on animals and animals on humans, and when we remove one from the web of life, the rest of the web suffers. And God mourns when we, like sheep, destroy a pasture and turn it into a wasteland.

God has called us to be caretakers and stewards of the animals around us. Yes, we are to manage them, as we till a garden, but we are not to destroy them because we think the animals are a nuisance and we would rather not have them around. We are not to put ourselves in the place of God, declaring one animal without value and another very valuable. We are called to learn from the animals around us, and we are called to reflect on how we are like them and how we are unlike them, and how best we can fulfill God’s calling to care for the animals. Sometimes, caring for the animals means leaving them alone: for example, not putting a baby bison in your SUV because you think it looks like it’s cold. Sometimes, caring for the animals means bringing them back from the brink of extinction, like the black-footed ferret. Sometimes, caring for the animals means adopting pets into your home and treating them as companions. And sometimes, we don’t know what is best for the animals. In those cases, it’s important to listen to the voices of respected scientists who study animal behavior, and go with their recommendations.

Being caretakers and stewards of anything is not easy, and especially so with animals. Sometimes there will be successes and sometimes there will be failures. When we cheer those successes and when we mourn those failures, we can be sure that God is cheering and mourning along with us. But more than that: God, who seeks out each one of us as a shepherd looks for his lost sheep, loves us and loves the entire creation, even down to the last mosquito and snake. God leads us as a shepherd leads his sheep, moving us on when we have stayed overlong in one pasture, helping us to find new pastures. And we can thank and praise God for that leading and for that nudging, so that we can better fulfill those caretaking duties which he has given us to do. Amen.

 

Sermon for Creation 1C

Note: Starting today, September 11, and going through October 2, we at Hope Lutheran Church are observing a liturgical Season of Creation. More information about this season and additional resources can be found at http://www.seasonofcreation.com and http://www.letallcreationpraise.org.

Luke 5:1-11

In the spring I went to see the movie, Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes. This was a movie depicting a Roman centurion, played by Fiennes, who was commanded by Pontius Pilate to find the body of Jesus and end the rumors that were circulating that he had risen from the dead. Now, normally I don’t care for so-called “Christian” movies; I think the production values are generally poor, and that they subscribe to an oversimplified view of both faith and life, but I was willing to give this one a try since I like Joseph Fiennes and think that he is a good actor. And I was pleasantly surprised by it—other than a few glaring historical errors, I thought the storyline was good and Fiennes did a decent job. If anyone would like to purchase a copy of this for the church library, I would not object. One of the glaring errors in the movie that relates to our theme today of “Ocean Sunday,” is that for some reason, when the disciples went fishing on the Sea of Galilee, the movie makers turned this lake—and in reality, the Sea of Galilee is a lake, in spite of it being called a sea—into a huge ocean. I had to wonder if any of the movie makers had ever visited this part of Israel, and whether they just assumed that because it’s called a sea in the Bible that meant it was an ocean. I don’t know the answer to that. But our Gospel lesson for today, Ocean Sunday, also takes places on this Sea of Galilee—which, again, is a lake, and it showcases Jesus teaching on this lake and the disciples fishing on this lake. And so I wondered why those who created the lectionary for the Season of Creation chose this particular Gospel lesson, which takes place on a lake, for Ocean Sunday. What I have discovered in my research is that, in antiquity, both salt seas and freshwater lakes were viewed as part of the same great subterranean reservoir that feeds the earth with water. So, perhaps it is okay that the lectionary creators chose this Gospel for Ocean Sunday, and perhaps it is okay that the makers of Risen depicted the Sea of Galilee as an ocean, although the historian in me, who wants accuracy, still cringes a bit at these choices.

So, then, let’s take a trip, in our imaginations, to the Sea of Galilee in the first century. Again, this is a lake, and Luke calls it the lake of Gennesaret, which was an alternate name for this body of water. When you live on a large lake, fish is going to be a staple of your diet, and one of the occupations for a majority of men in this time is going to be fishing. And so, it makes sense that Jesus, when he calls his first disciples in this area of Galilee, is going to be calling fishermen, and he is going to use a fishing metaphor to describe what these fishermen are going to be doing: “From now on,” he says, “you will be catching people”. This text usually comes up in our readings during the Season after Epiphany, and the traditional interpretation is that this miraculous catch of fish is one way that Jesus reveals who he is, as well as being a sign of the coming of the kingdom of God. And this is a good interpretation. But, what does it mean to have this text in front of us during the Season of Creation?

I’m going to give you fair warning: what I’m going to say next may forever ruin this story for you. But I think it’s relevant as we wrestle with this text in light of our focus on the creation in these next few weeks. First of all: what would this miraculous catch of fish have done to the economy of the settlements on the shore of the Sea of Galilee? In those days, there was no preserving the fish: refrigeration had not been invented yet, after all. I do not know if they had the means to dry and smoke the fish and preserve it that way. But even if they did, most of that fish from the miraculous catch would have had to have been eaten very quickly. One commentator writes that Simon Peter, James, John, and the other disciples probably had no qualms about following Jesus because their fishing livelihood had just been ruined: they couldn’t sell fish for a while because now there was a glut on the market. Perhaps that’s why Jesus told them not to be afraid, and perhaps that’s why they were so willing to drop everything and follow him. And then, let’s reflect on how that miraculous catch of fish might have upset the ecosystem of the Sea of Galilee: without all of those fish in the waters, what other species might have died off? Or, what species might have multiplied?

Well, perhaps we can give Jesus a pass on all of this. He is the Son of God, after all, and perhaps God was able to restore the ecosystem of the lake. And perhaps, after a little while, the fishing industry was able to recover. But, while the park rangers dealing with the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake would love it if Jesus would provide a miraculous catch of lake trout to all of the people fishing so that the cutthroat trout could recover, most of the time overfishing is not a good thing. And we have overfished our lakes and rivers, our oceans and seas. And where we have not overfished, we have thrown our garbage into them. All you have to do is Google “trash in the ocean,” and you will be horrified at the amounts of garbage that we human beings have thrown into the water. If Simon Peter were to let down his nets into the water today, along with a few small fish that may very well be tainted by mercury, he would most likely pull in a bunch of plastic bottles and other trash.

Many people much smarter than I am have discussed the specific reasons why we humans have mismanaged our oceans and other waterways, but all of it comes down to one basic human problem: sin. We sin when we think that our actions don’t have any effect on anyone or anything else. We sin when we think that we can take as many fish and other creatures out of the ocean for our food and our use, and don’t remember that God has created this earth with a delicate balance of relationships. We sin when we think, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and throw things away willy-nilly, not remembering that our trash has to go somewhere. Our sins of greed and carelessness are ever before us, even when we don’t like to think about them.

And so, like Simon Peter when we are confronted by our sinfulness in the face of the holiness of Jesus, our first response will be, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful person.” We don’t like to be confronted with our sinfulness. We want to be able to go on with our daily lives under the illusion that we are good people and that we do the best we can, so surely God will accept us even when we are unwitting accomplices to the destruction of God’s creation. But, when Jesus confronts us with our sinfulness, and when we confess, just as Jesus told Simon Peter, so he tells us, “Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people.” Jesus forgives us and he loves us, but he also gives us an assignment. We are first of all to catch people with the good news of Jesus’ love for us and his forgiveness. But, we are not to remain idle just because Jesus has loved us and has forgiven us. Now that we have seen a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like, we are infused with a desire to participate in the coming of that kingdom. And that participation in the coming kingdom requires that we “catch people” and help others to understand how we are wrongfully using the creation around us, and that we are to work to repair the damage that we have done.

How are we to do this? While we have waterways here in Wyoming, we are very distant from the oceans. In your bulletins, there is an insert describing ways that we can help to clean up our oceans, to restore them, and to be better stewards of them. And it starts with thinking twice about the chemicals that we use. Because, even when we’re far from the ocean, the chemicals we use on lawns and that we pour down our drains will eventually go into rivers, which will eventually pour into the ocean. Use of plastics: try to reduce them as much as possible. When our local recycling center stopped taking plastics that were not marked with a 1 or a 2, I personally tried to not use any of those non-recyclable plastics, but it is difficult. Reduce the plastics you use—drink water out of reusable bottles rather than plastic ones, for example. Reuse whatever plastic you can. And recycle as much as possible. Perhaps there is a way that we can figure out how to get our recycling center to take those other plastics again—there are other communities in the U.S. who do still recycle those plastics. When we buy fish and other seafood, we can do our best to buy it from those places that use sustainable fishing practices. Cans of tuna fish, for example, are marked with a seal that shows the netting they use is the kind that does not catch dolphins in them as well. And finally, learn what is going on with our oceans and marine life, and give to those organizations who are working to restore and to take better care of our oceans and waterways.

Finally, in honor of our own local waterways and fish, I would like to encourage us, as a congregation, to participate in the annual rescue of the fish from the canals in October. This is something unique to this area; I have not seen anything like it in all of my travels and in all of the places where I’ve lived. Part of my reason for encouraging us to do this is a bit selfish: I think it would be great if we could have a picture taken of all of us helping the fish, all of us wearing the same T-shirt, and have our picture published in the Living Lutheran magazine. And, of course, it would be great publicity for our congregation in the community of Powell. But, on a deeper level, we would be good stewards by contributing to the health of our waterways that do, eventually, empty out into the ocean. And, it would be a great way to remember the miraculous catch of fish on that long-ago day on the Sea of Galilee; a remembrance of Jesus’ revelation of the kingdom of God and a participation, 2000+ years later, in bringing a glimpse of the kingdom of God to Powell, Wyoming.

Jesus brought a glimpse of the kingdom of God to the people crowded around him by the Sea of Galilee long ago. And, forgiven of our sinfulness, we as the people of God are enabled by the Holy Spirit to continue bringing sightings of the kingdom of God to people wherever we are. We are called to be catchers of people, so let’s go and catch not only in our words, but also in our witness by how we steward God’s creation. I wish you all good fishing. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 16C

Luke 14:25-33

Not far from here, in Wapiti, is a place called the Smith Mansion.

Smith Mansion

The first time I saw it as I drove by on my way to Yellowstone, I thought it was some kind of random Japanese-style pagoda in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness. In fact, as I’m sure many of you here know, it was built by a man named Francis Lee Smith, who was a builder and engineer, and it started out as a pretty ordinary house. But, after he finished the basic home, for some reason he couldn’t stop building. He added on extra floors and balconies, all fitting together at weird angles, from logs that he would pick up at various places in his truck. The information I found online about this house says that Smith’s devotion to this project led to a divorce from his wife, and, eventually, to his death. He fell one day while he was working on one of the balconies because he was not tethered. This is the image that came to my mind this week when I read Jesus’ words, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’” Perhaps Jesus would have pointed to Smith’s house when he said this, because it seems as though Smith did not count on the cost to continue with his building project; he was ridiculed by his neighbors, and he never quite finished it before he died.

            In today’s Gospel text, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and there are large crowds following him. These crowds have either seen or heard of his healing miracles and his new teaching. They are enthusiastic; they are wondering if Jesus might be the Messiah, the one who will overthrow the Roman occupiers and give them back their country. Picture those enthusiastic crowds shouting out, “I will follow you, Jesus! Let me be one of your disciples! Let’s go onward to victory and to glory!” And Jesus, knowing what’s coming, simply shakes his head and decides that he needs to put a check on their enthusiasm. You don’t know what you’re getting yourselves in to, he says. You need to understand what I’m really all about, and then you need to figure out if you are truly being called to follow me in what I’m doing. So, then, let’s try to unpack what Jesus is telling us about counting the cost of following him.

I’d like to start with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This simple and profound statement seems prophetic when we think about what happened to Bonhoeffer, but he wrote this long before he was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis. Just so, Jesus talks to the crowds about carrying the cross some time before he is actually hung on one. And so, this is a good entry point for us: most of us, I am thinking, will not be executed or assassinated for our faith. Therefore, what does it mean for us to carry a cross? What does it mean for us to come and die, when most of us, God willing, will live long lives?

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” First of all, I want to say that the word “hate,” is an unfortunate translation choice. The original Greek word does not carry the emotion that we associate with the word “hate”. Jesus is not calling us to have bad feelings for our family and our life. The original Greek word has the sense more of “separate” than of “hate”. We are still called to show love to our family members—in fact, there are other parts of Scripture where that is explicitly commanded. What Jesus is saying is that, in order to follow him, we will need to separate ourselves from our family, and sometimes separating ourselves from our family may mean following Jesus on a different path than what our family might wish for us.

Jesus’ call on my life, as an example, has taken me on quite a different path than what my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. may have envisioned for me. My adult life has been lived many times at a great physical distance from all of them: Taiwan, Alaska, and here in Wyoming are some of the more exotic locations where Jesus has sent me. And while there have been times where I may have liked to have been closer to my family, in those times God has strengthened me and has surrounded me with friends who have acted as my family in these places. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love my family of origin; on the contrary. It just means that, in order to follow where Jesus is leading me, I have had to separate myself from my family and have had to put Jesus above them. Now, I want to be clear that I am not holding myself up as a model when I tell this story. My discipleship of Jesus is far from perfect, and Jesus’ call to each one of us to follow him comes in very different ways. What I am saying is that, at some point in each of our lives, Jesus calls us to put following him above what our families expect of us. And because the pull of families on our lives is strong, Jesus asks us to count the cost of following him, just as a builder counts the cost before he builds or a king counts the cost before he goes to war against another king. Can we truly put Jesus above our families? Or will we fall away when the going gets tough and our families tell us to stop being crazy and come home?

The next thing that Jesus tells us today is, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” What does the cross mean to you? Our automatic response as Christians is to say words like, “forgiveness, eternal life, salvation”. But let’s think a little more deeply about the cross today. We’ve all seen movies about Jesus where he drags his cross through the streets of Jerusalem up to Calvary to be executed. Whether it was just the cross-beam that he carried or the whole cross, that thing was very heavy. And then think about what made that cross even heavier: the weight of the whole world’s sins and burdens. This is the kind of thing that Jesus is asking us to carry. As Christians, we are called, as Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, to “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2).

One way that we carry one another’s burdens is in prayer. Each week in worship we lift up prayers for people of our community who are struggling. Some of those prayers are said aloud and some of them are said in the silence of our hearts. God hears all of those prayers, and by expressing our burdens to God in prayer, God lays the foundation for us to have concern for one another and for people and places throughout the world. Prayer should underlie everything that we do for one another and every way that we carry one another’s burdens.

But often we make the mistake of thinking that prayer is a one-way conversation, where we talk to God but God doesn’t talk to us. On the contrary: God often answers our prayers by calling us to take more concrete action in bearing one another’s burdens. For example, if we are praying for our homebound members, God’s answer might be in the form of the Spirit urging us to take food over to these people and to visit with them for a while. If we are praying for the children in our community, we may hear the Holy Spirit urging us to volunteer to teach Sunday school, or to give money to Backpack Blessings to help feed the poor children in Powell, or to help out with the Boys & Girls Club. If we are praying for people in our state who have been laid off due to the bust cycle in our economy, we may hear the Holy Spirit urging us to find out more about what poverty looks like, to donate to Loaves & Fishes, to find out what homelessness in our community looks like and to work to alleviate that, and a whole host of other possibilities. Because God works through our hands, and calls us who follow Jesus to carry the cross as he did.

This might seem like an impossible task. And, if we look only to our own strength to carry the cross, it will be an impossible task. But, thankfully, we are not alone, and it is not by our own strength that we carry the cross. Martin Luther wrote, in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are enabled to carry the cross and to bear one another’s burdens, especially when doing so means separating ourselves from our families and their desires for us. Any good thing that we do comes not from us, but from the Holy Spirit working through us. And when we stumble and fall, Jesus is there beside us, offering forgiveness for our sins.

The things that Jesus calls us to do are not easy. But where did we ever get the idea that being a Christian was easy? Perhaps this is why we get this Gospel text every so often in our lectionary. When life is going well, we tend to think that this Christianity thing is a piece of cake. We know that God loves us because things seem easy. But then, when life gets hard, we start wondering where God is. So, perhaps we should be remembering Jesus’ words about carrying the cross even when times are easy for us, because we don’t have to look very far to find someone who is going through a rough time. We are called to carry one another’s burdens and in so doing, we follow Jesus by carrying the cross. We are reminded to stop periodically and to count the cost of following Jesus through both the good times and the bad. And, finally, we are reminded that we are not alone in doing this, but that Jesus is with us in both good times and bad, taking all of the burdens of the world on his shoulders. Amen.