Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Luke 19:1-10

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle quotes the Right Reverend Mark Dyer as saying that “the only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first century Christians in North America is first to understand that every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale” (16). A few weeks ago, I went to our bishop’s convocation in Helena where the statistics and demographics guy from the Churchwide offices, Ken Inskeep, spoke to us about what that rummage sale is looking like in the ELCA. For a guy who likes statistics, Dr. Inskeep wasn’t as boring as I thought he would be. Yes, he told us that the ELCA is declining in membership and gave us the figures to prove it, but he also interpreted those figures and spoke about some of the reasons why this was happening. Many of those reasons have to do with changes in society and the church’s role in society. And the bottom line is, if we want to survive and thrive as a church in the 21st century, we can’t pretend that we are still living in the 1950s and the 1960s. The baby boom is over, and it’s not coming back. Young people are not marrying right out of college, and they’re having fewer children and they’re having them later in life. And they’re not asking the same kinds of theological questions that people may have been asking in the 50s, the 60s, and even as far back as the 1500s, when Martin Luther had his crisis of faith and posted the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And one of those questions ties in with our Gospel lesson about Zacchaeus today: the question of salvation.

At the end of our story today, after Zacchaeus announces that he is giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back anyone he has defrauded, Jesus proclaims, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” The question here is, “What is salvation?” Jesus is not saying that Zacchaeus is going to go to heaven when he dies, although that may be the case. Salvation, in this case, means something completely different, because Jesus announces that it has come today, not in some distant future. So, what does Jesus mean by the word salvation, if it is not about going to heaven?

Here it is helpful to go back to the Hebrew word for “save,” which is yesha. The root meaning of this word is to make wide or spacious. The idea of being saved, then, carries with it the idea of making something wide that once was narrow; setting someone or something free from bonds that have been making their world narrower than it should have been. Being saved, then, for a prisoner could mean being physically set free from their prison. Or, if we want to use the word metaphorically, it could mean being set free from a mental prison of guilt and grief. For a poor person, making her world wider might mean giving her food, clothing, or free child care for a month so that she can spend money on other things. And what about for a rich tax collector, like Zacchaeus?

If you remember from last week when I was talking about how tax collectors were regarded in 1st century Jewish society, then you’ll remember that they were hated as traitors to their people and collaborators with the occupying force of Rome. Their payment for collecting Rome’s taxes from the people was whatever more they could force people to pay over and above what they owed for taxes. The fact that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector meant that he was really good at his job, and the fact that he was rich: well, that means that he was good at getting people to give him money over and above their taxes. But, he paid a price for all of this wealth. When Jesus announces that he is going to eat with Zacchaeus, everyone starts to grumble because Jesus is going to eat with “a sinner”. Zacchaeus may have had friends among the rich and powerful, but he was cast out from “good” Jewish society.

So, what does salvation look like for Zacchaeus? Jesus suggests that Zacchaeus, though still a child of Abraham, is lost. We don’t know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus. Perhaps Jesus saw through to Zacchaeus’ pain in life, saw whatever it was that caused him to become a collaborator with Rome, and perhaps named that pain for what it was. Zacchaeus’ salvation, though, came in the form of giving to the poor and making restitution for anything that he had cheated other people of. Was his reconciliation with his people complete at that moment? No, probably not. But by committing to doing this, Zacchaeus had just been freed of whatever it was that was binding him; his horizon had been made wide again, and new possibilities had opened up before him. And it was the fact that Jesus came to be a guest at his house—deeming Zacchaeus worthy of hosting him and giving him back some of his dignity–that enacted that salvation for him. And salvation came to Zacchaeus that day and not in some distant future when he died.

What does salvation look like today? What does it mean for us to be set free, to have our horizons broadened? Well, getting back to the opening question, young people are not asking, “What must I do to be saved?” That is a very individualistic question, and one thing that millennials are not, as a whole, is individualistic. From a young age now, people are taught how to work in groups. In fact, the “group work syndrome” goes all the way to grad school—group work got very, very wearisome when I was in seminary. So, what Dr. Inskeep told us is that young people today are asking, “What must we do to be saved?” They are looking at all of the societal problems that are out there: student loan debt skyrocketing with little hope of getting a good job to be able to pay it off; the bitterness and divisiveness of our politics; the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, as examples, and the question they are asking is, “What must we as a society do to be saved?” They’re not so much interested in the question of heaven, and they’ve had enough of people who say they are Christian telling them they’re not going to heaven if they don’t behave in a certain way. They want to see salvation now, just as Zacchaeus did, and not in some distant future.

So how do we as a church need to reform in order to meet people where they are right now? How can we help people see their salvation now, as Zacchaeus saw his salvation when he met Jesus? How can we help people in our community see Jesus active among us?

The first thing I would like to suggest is that we listen, and really listen, to our young people. There’s been a meme going around on Facebook lately that says that the problem with our communication today is that we don’t listen to hear the other person’s point of view and try to understand it, but that we listen in order to reply. As much as I generally don’t like Facebook memes, there is some truth to this one. Have we just been saying amongst ourselves, “Oh, kids these days!” and throwing up our hands in despair? Or have we truly been listening and trying to understand their point of view? Let’s ask them what they think about Christians and about church, and then listen to understand, not listen to reply. We may have some repenting to do. One thing that I heard on the Presiding Bishop’s webcast this week from a millennial panelist is that young people question everything; they don’t do something simply because that’s the way it’s always been done, or that’s the way their parents did it. Maybe it’s time that we practice speaking about why we come to worship on Sundays and what we think worship is all about.

Besides listening to young people and what they think, we as a congregation need to be out and visible in the community. The theory used to be the saying made famous from the old baseball movie, “Field of Dreams”: build it and they will come. Now congregations all over the country who bought into that theory have large buildings that they can’t figure out how to pay for, because people didn’t come. No, we as a congregation need to go to where people are at. We have several people here who were members of the Kiwanis chapter in Powell that just closed. The loss of that chapter is going to leave a gap in Powell; most of us know that Kiwanis did lots of good things for the children in this town. We here at Hope can find ways to step into the gap. For example, we could organize a day of service at the Boys and Girls Club, helping them with whatever needs their property has. This is one way that we could help people here in Powell see Jesus among them, and I’m sure there are many more ways that we can come up with.

Reformation is not a one-time historical event, although it is good to commemorate the Reformation Martin Luther started and learn more about it. Reformation is always going on in the church. Is it always comfortable? No, most of the time it is not, because it involves change, and none of us like change very much. But, we are in the midst of another great “rummage sale,” and we cannot continue to do things the way we have always done them. The Holy Spirit is working great changes in our midst, and challenging us to find new ways to see Jesus at work among us. Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus was so life-changing that he responded to that free grace by giving away half of his possessions and promising to restore four times what he had cheated people out of. That’s a major lifestyle change, folks. And the church needs to have that major lifestyle change as well, both our local congregation of Hope and the church at large. How will we respond to the call of the Holy Spirit to show the people around us that today, salvation has come? How will our reformation be so visible that people will sit up and take notice and say, “God is at work among the people of Hope Lutheran!”? Will people be able to see Jesus through us? The answer is up to us. Let’s take a moment now to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Lord God, you have called us to be a reforming church. We pray now for the courage to acknowledge the sins of our past and to repent of them. We pray that you would send your Holy Spirit upon us now to guide us, and to show us the way forward, so that the people of Powell would see Jesus through our witness both in word and deed. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

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Sermon for Pentecost 23C

Luke 18:9-14

“There but for the grace of God go I.” How many times in our lives have we thought or said these words when looking at someone else’s mistakes or failures in life? The intention behind this statement is good, I think. It’s meant to put a check on us, to help us remember that, while we might have made good decisions in life and things are going well for us at the moment, we could potentially, at any moment, end up with the same bad decision making and/or misfortune that would land us in a similar situation to the person to whom we are comparing ourselves. But there’s still something wrong with this sentence, I think. If we are honest with ourselves, when we say this, we are still counting ourselves as better than the other person. And a further question that we need to ask ourselves about this statement is: doesn’t God’s grace still follow the person who has made mistakes and failures in life? Doesn’t God still love that person just as much as he loves the person who has seemingly never made a mistake in her entire life? And, when we think about God’s grace and God’s love for the “good” person as well as the person who is a “failure,” how do we feel about it? Do we rejoice that God is generous to all? Or do we continue to puff ourselves up and trust in our own goodness and think that God loves us better (even if we would never say it out loud!)?

This is what we are presented with in Jesus’ parable today. We have a Pharisee and a tax collector who have gone up to the temple to pray, and the Pharisee lists his accomplishments and the Pharisee gives thanks that he is not like that tax collector over there who is so bad and so sinful. We think we know what this means, having heard this story over and over in worship services and Sunday school. But, you know, Jesus’ parables were not meant to have easy answers and to be easily explained with a “moral to the story”. His parables were meant for us to think about, to chew over, and to continue to wrestle with the picture of God they presented over and against the picture of God we already have in our own minds. They’re meant to challenge and to provoke us. And so, today I’d like to try and bring some of the mystery back to this parable that we think we know so well. For much of what I am going to say about this parable today, I am indebted to Amy-Jill Levine’s research in her book, Short Stories by Jesus.

Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, and she is Jewish. One of her goals as she teaches New Testament is to dig down through centuries of Christian interpretation, through the layers we have put on Jesus over all of those years, and to remind us that Jesus was, in fact, a Jewish teacher in the first century, and was a product of that Jewish culture. And that is the first thing we should start out with today. I know that most of us know this, but it doesn’t hurt for all of us to be reminded from time to time: Jesus was not Lutheran. He was, in fact, Jewish, and was raised in a Jewish culture. So, we Lutherans who are so concerned with the idea of works righteousness—people thinking they can get right with God and go to heaven because of the good things that we do—have added that layer of interpretation to this parable. The first thing that traditionally Lutherans have seen is that the Pharisee thought he was not sinful and trusted in all of the good things that he had done to get right with God, whereas the tax collector acknowledged his sins and repented of them. So, tax collector good and Pharisee bad, and we have our good Lutheran moral to the story, right? Well, again, Jesus was not a Lutheran, so this is not what this parable is about. Let’s see if we can dig more deeply into this story and try to get at what Jesus was actually trying to tell us.

So, the first thing that we need to do is to examine what we think when we hear the word, “Pharisee.” Because of how the Gospels portray this group of people within Judaism, we have a negative impression of them. After all, they’re always arguing with Jesus, who is the hero of our story. But one thing that we need to remember is that within Judaism, debating God’s word and God’s teachings is acceptable, even to the present day. It shows that the people who are debating are engaging with the word of God in an effort to truly understand it rightly and follow it as God’s covenant people. The next thing that we need to take into consideration is that ancient sources outside of the Bible showed Pharisees in a positive light. On the whole, they were trying to make the word of God more accessible to the common people in the villages, so that the people of God everywhere could be holy in God’s sight. The good things that a Pharisee would do would be his way of living out the covenant that God made with him and the rest of the Jewish people.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the tax collector. I can’t recall ever meeting someone from the IRS, but every time I write out my quarterly check to the government, I wonder how those people employed by the IRS can go out in society. However much we might hate those people who work for the IRS now, I want you to double that, and you might get close to how much tax collectors in 1st century Palestine were hated. Tax collectors were Jewish people who were employed by the government of Rome. They had a prescribed amount of tax that they were supposed to collect, and their payment was whatever more they could scam out of the people above and beyond the tax they were supposed to collect. They were traitors to their people and collaborators with the occupying force. Those who were extremely good at their jobs were very wealthy. The notion of a “good” tax collector was an oxymoron, and the picture of one in the temple begging God to have mercy on him was simply unthinkable.

So, one of the things that Jesus is doing here to surprise people is to turn the tables. He is making a caricature of both the Pharisee and the tax collector: distorting the Pharisee, who most people admire and think is a good person, into someone who is so good that he thinks he’s better than just about everyone else. He’s doing the same thing with the tax collector: distorting the picture of a man who is so bad—and who knows it—that all he can do in the Temple is to beg God for mercy. Now, here is the final kicker: that last line of the parable that says that the tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee? That Greek word is actually para, and those prepositions are rather tricky to translate from Greek into English. A better translation of para is actually “alongside of”—as in one of our words for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, one who walks alongside of us. So what would it mean if Jesus actually said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified alongside of the other”? What would it mean if both the Pharisee and the tax collector were made right with God: the Pharisee by keeping the covenant and the tax collector by begging God to have mercy on him?

Every father has their favorite sayings, ones that they’ve repeated over and over, that their children will remember for the rest of their lives. The one that I will always remember my father saying is his response to my brother and me complaining that something wasn’t fair. Dad always responded with, “Life isn’t fair.” Well, my brother and I would walk away from whatever the argument was very frustrated, but Dad was telling us something true and teaching us an important lesson: Life isn’t fair. Today I’m going to modify that somewhat: God isn’t fair. God doesn’t fit our definition of fairness. God loves the tax collector who begs for mercy just as much as the Pharisee who does his utmost to walk in the covenant and get everything right. God loves the student who struggles and barely makes it through school just as much as the straight-A student who stays up each night studying and working hard so that she can get into the best college and get the best job. God loves those who seem to have it easy and slide through life without doing much to get there just as much as God loves those who work hard, do everything right, and never seem to get ahead in life. And when we say, “But God, it’s not fair. I do what I’m supposed to do and I should get more of your love and blessing than that person over there,” God thunders back with, “Guess what? I’m not fair, and you don’t know how lucky you are that I’m not.”

For if we admit it to ourselves, we will find that there is no reason that God should favor us over anyone else. If we look hard enough, we will see the flaws within ourselves and admit that we have made mistakes just as much as the person we are comparing ourselves to has. And we, too, should beat our breasts and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And then we can rejoice that God is merciful to us, and we can rejoice that God is merciful to this person, and to that person, and to every person on earth that God has created. And, finally, I think that’s another point that Jesus was making with this parable: we shouldn’t be trusting in ourselves, but we should be trusting in God, who delights to show love and mercy to each one of us. Trust in God, for he will indeed show mercy both to those who humble themselves and to those who exalt themselves.

“There but for the grace of God go I.” Let’s stop saying that, for God’s love and mercy and grace abound, and there is more than enough for everyone, no matter where we find ourselves in life. It doesn’t matter whether we are working hard and doing everything right, or whether we are beating our breasts in sorrow and begging God for mercy, because God’s grace is there no matter what. And let’s give thanks that God isn’t fair, for I wouldn’t want to see where I would be if God were fair. God has been completely unfair, and God has shown me great love and mercy, and continues to show me great love and mercy every day, even when I don’t see it.  And God continues to show each one of us who are sitting here today how unfair he really is, and continues to shower that abundant grace, love, and mercy on each one of us. When we go from here today, let’s remember that, and rather than comparing ourselves to others, let us also remember that God continues to be unfair and bestows his grace, love, and mercy on each person that we meet. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 22C

Luke 18:1-8

When I say the word, “widow,” what do you think of? I know we have several of you here who are widows or widowers, so perhaps you think of yourselves. Perhaps you remember the pain of losing your spouse and living without him or her. Or, perhaps you think of how your life is different now that you’re on your own. Most of you who fit into this category, I think, are fairly self-sufficient. But when I say, “widows in Bible stories,” what images pop into your minds? Perhaps you think of all of the commands in the Old Testament to care for widows and orphans, and so you might think that all widows were poor and exploited and in need of protection from a society that didn’t care for them. That picture then might influence how we approach this parable of Jesus’ today: the image of a poor widow going after an unjust judge who refuses to listen to her day after day until he finally gives in because he’s tired of her coming after him. Actually, though, if we look at this parable more closely, Jesus never says that the widow is poor. In fact, one commentator points out that if she had the leisure time to go after this judge in a subsistence economy, she was more likely to be well-off than to be poor. So, instead of a poor widow who has been unjustly wronged and is seeking justice from this judge, I want us to think of Scarlett O’Hara from the movie, “Gone with the Wind”. When Rhett Butler offers a large amount of money to dance with Scarlett at the ball, and is told that Scarlett is in mourning for her dead husband and is not allowed to dance, Scarlett herself interjects with, “Oh, yes I will dance!” and shocks all of Atlanta society by breaking this social rule. I’d like for us to picture the widow in Jesus’ parable as Scarlett O’Hara, someone who’s not afraid to break rules and do what she has to do in order to get what she wants.

The other thing that we should note about this parable is that the translation that we use has softened the original Greek. Whereas our translation has the widow saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent,” the original Greek is closer to, “Grant me vengeance against my opponent.” So, what does it do to Jesus’ parable if we picture the widow wanting revenge instead of justice? Is the widow then in the right or in the wrong in this parable? Further, what the judge says is also softened from the original Greek, which would say, “though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will avenge her, so that she will not give me a black eye.” Was the judge perhaps in the right to refuse the widow her request instead of in the wrong? Two things we can be sure of: this is a strong widow who is not afraid to use violence in her pursuit of vengeance, and the judge does not hold the line against her, but rather gives in to the widow’s schemes out of fear of her. And, we don’t know if the widow’s cause was just, or if perhaps she was as unjust as the judge is pictured to be in this parable.

So, what is Jesus really telling us about prayer with this parable? Are we to be so persistent with prayer that we are ready to give God a black eye if he does not give us what we want? And if God is all-powerful, why would he give in to our requests, whether they are just or unjust, in order to get us off of his back? This parable is a rather disturbing and confusing parable, and it ends with a disturbing question that seems to have nothing to do with the parable: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” What in the world does that mean? Well, let’s dig in some more to this parable and see what kind of meaning we can wrestle out of it.

First of all, I think that God wants us to wrestle with him, which is the imagery that we get in today’s Old Testament lesson as well as the gospel. We make the claim that God is a God of love, and love requires relationship. And we all know from experience that relationships are not easy to maintain, whether they are friendships or romantic relationships. Just this week I received an email from a former pastor of mine in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, with whom I had lost contact. He had an old email address of mine that was no longer valid, and through some Internet searching, he had finally tracked me down. And when I responded to him, I said something that later I thought was quite profound as I think about the relationships in my life. I told him that, out of cowardice, I had not wanted to stir things up by telling him that I had come into the ELCA and been ordained a pastor, and I said that I preferred the memory of a good friendship over having a relationship that might be broken. How often do we, out of fear, let relationships go because we don’t want to do the hard work of maintaining them? How often do we break off our relationship with God because we think he’s not listening to us and/or not giving us what we want or need? I think that’s one of the points this difficult parable might be making: don’t let fear or disappointment win the day, but keep coming after God until he gives you an answer, even if the answer is not what you think it will be. God values that relationship with us and wants us to keep talking to him.

And, in the end, the pastor that I regained contact with was very nice about my being ordained a pastor in the ELCA. He said that he wasn’t “going to be weird” about it, and it pleased him to know that he had inadvertently had some influence in training and raising up another pastor. My fear over having a broken relationship with him was all for nothing. And that’s the next thing that we need to remember about God: no matter what we do, God will not break up with us. God will always want that relationship with us, even when we come at him in anger and threaten violence against him unless he grants our requests. Even if we try to “freeze God out” by not talking to him, God will remain faithful to us and will wait us out. That’s how much God loves us and wants a relationship with us.

But then, what about God’s answer when we pray to him? Well, going back to these two people in Jesus’ parable, I think we need to realize that neither the widow nor the judge are people to emulate. They are flawed human beings, like we are. The widow keeps going after the judge to avenge her. We know that a request for vengeance against one’s enemy is not the right thing to ask for—how much easier this parable would be if we could sink back into the idea that the widow is seeking justice instead! And the judge, instead of doing what is right and continuing to deny the widow’s request for vengeance, fears for his safety and gives in. When God answers our prayers, he does so knowing that we are flawed and that we don’t know properly what to ask for. And God answers those prayers knowing what is best for us, and God answers them with his wisdom, not ours; and in his time, not ours.

This leads us in to the final question that Jesus asks: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” This has been an absolutely brutal election season here in America. I remember that when Bill Clinton was president and the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, I was living in Taiwan as a volunteer missionary. The people that I met would ask me about that whole thing, and I was so embarrassed that I wanted to claim that I was Canadian instead of an American. I didn’t think anything could get worse than that. Boy, was I wrong. This election season has topped that little scandal for being the most embarrassing thing in politics yet, and I’m so glad I’m not living overseas right now and having to try and explain Americans while living in a foreign country. When I was in Helena last week, I struck up a conversation with someone who asked me with despair how as a Christian we should even begin to decipher who best to vote for, and I said, “I think all we can do is pray and listen for God’s voice guiding us.” But I tell you, it’s enough to make me lose faith that prayer is going to do any good. And I wonder if that’s the kind of question that Jesus is asking at the end of this parable. Can things get so bad that we lose faith in prayer, in talking to God? Can things get so bad that we are afraid that God does not hear us any longer? Can things get so bad that we think God will never come and bring justice to earth?

Thankfully, we know that faith is not up to us. Martin Luther writes in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith. . .” So, perhaps when we feel that we are losing faith, our prayer should be, “Come, Holy Spirit, and strengthen our faith! Give us the faith, Holy Spirit, to continue crying out to God and to wait for his answer! And when the answer comes, and it is not what we expect, continue to strengthen us, we pray.” So, let’s keep praying, folks. Let us pray for our country and its leaders. Let us pray for our loved ones who are ill. Let us pray for God’s justice to be done. Let us pray for God’s kingdom to come. And let us pray for the faith to keep on praying, knowing that we can be persistent and relentless, and God doesn’t mind. For God will hear our prayers. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 21C

2 Kings 5:1-15c & Luke 17:11-19

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down!” These words come from the poem, “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. If you haven’t read this poem all the way through, I encourage you to do so. In it, Frost speaks of walking the stone wall with his neighbor on the other side and inspecting the damage done to it by the frozen ground swelling underneath of it and knocking the stones off, as well as hunters going through the area and knocking more stones off in their hurry to catch their prey. Perhaps if Frost had lived out here in Wyoming instead of in Vermont, he might have said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a fence/That wants it down!” and he would speak of all of those horses and cows that are constantly getting loose that the sheriff has to go and round up. But here he speaks of a stone wall between orchards, and he asks his neighbor why they need a wall between them. “He is all pine and I am apple-orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. / He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” And so, Frost laments the constant work that they have to do to repair the wall when there is really no reason for it, only the platitude that his neighbor offers and that we have all heard, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

In our Old Testament reading and in our Gospel reading today, there are walls all over the place. And what is the something that doesn’t love a wall? It’s not frozen ground or hunters tearing through them. Rather, it’s God who is breaking down those walls and working in the place that we least expect to see him. God is the something, or rather, the someone, who doesn’t love a wall and who smashes any walls that we humans put up between us to pieces.

In our Old Testament story today, there is a wall between Naaman the Syrian commander and Elisha the Israelite prophet. That is the wall between two different peoples: the one a powerful race bent on conquering land and people in its path, and the other a less powerful race who is trying to survive. One group of people worships many different gods, and the other group of people worships the one God, the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, the more powerful person in this story is the one who is afflicted with a skin disease—which may or may not have been actual leprosy, as the word used in Hebrew could have been used to describe many different kinds of skin diseases—and this person’s doctors and gods were not able to cure it. This powerful person from the conquering race was desperate enough for a cure for his disease that he was willing to listen to a servant girl from the less powerful race, who knew of a prophet who would be able to help him. Already we see God starting to chip away at a wall.

But then, when Naaman goes to Elisha and Elisha doesn’t come out to see him, but instead tells him to go and wash in the Jordan, the wall goes up again. I’m an important person, Naaman says. For me, this Israelite prophet should have come out and waved his hand over the spot. What did I come all this way for? Aren’t the rivers of Syria better than this Jordan River is? But when his servants convince him to just give it a try, what could it hurt, after all, and Naaman does as Elisha tells him and washes and is healed, that wall comes crashing down. Naaman sees that he is healed and he believes in the Lord. And God has shown that he is, in fact, the God of all peoples and not just the Israelites, and that God can work wherever and however he wants—no wall is going to stop God from doing God’s work.

When we turn to our Gospel lesson today, we see the same theme at work. There was a wall between the ten lepers and the rest of the community of Israel: the wall of uncleanness. Because of their skin disease, the lepers were forbidden by law to be a part of the community, and were required to announce their uncleanness as they went from place to place, so that others did not become infected by their presence. But something there is that does not love a wall, and in this case, that something is God, embodied in Jesus. Responding to their cry to have mercy on them, Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests—which was a requirement when one was healed of leprosy, so that the priests could certify them as clean and they could return to their community. And as they go, the wall is torn down—and they are free from their disease. But only one returns to give thanks and praise to Jesus, and this one is a Samaritan, someone whom the Jewish people did not like. God is showing once again that he is the God of everyone, breaking down walls, saying that sometimes the people whom we don’t expect are the ones whom he works through to show his glory.

“Something there is that does not love a wall / That wants it down!” What are the walls that exist between us today? And how is God working to tear them down? We tend to put up walls around a place that we deem to be sacred, and yet we find that God does not only wish to be found in those walls, but that God goes outside of those walls to reveal his presence. We come here on Sundays to be refreshed and renewed, to hear of God’s love for us. But do we go into our daily lives knowing that God goes with us? Or do we think that the holy and the sacred only exists here, and in other places like this? Where are those holy and sacred spaces outside of these walls? Who are those unlikely people around us through whom God might be working to reveal his glory? Who are those people whom we point at and whom we call “unclean,” but who, in fact, might just be the ones who recognize God at work when we do not?

And when those walls do come down, do we return and thank God as the Samaritan did, praising God for revealing his glory when and where we least expected it? Or do we become afraid and try to hastily rebuild the wall to protect ourselves? I’m reminded of a real-life wall that came down in 1989: the Berlin Wall. As the Cold War began to thaw and the Communist Party governments of Eastern Europe began to weaken, the East German government announced that citizens of that country were free to cross the borders. I remember the pictures of the people, long separated by the wall, jumping on top of it and joining hands with the people on the other side. Nothing was certain in those heady days: whether this was really the end of the wall, and whether Germany would be reunified. I’m sure there was fear, and yet the people rejoiced that the wall had started to come down, and they faced the future boldly.

Likewise, we too should rejoice and thank God when the walls come down so that we are no longer separated from our brother and sister human beings. The Samaritan in our story today knew that. I imagine him going down the road with the other nine, and, with them, looking down and realizing that his leprosy was gone. Perhaps he tried to convince the others to come back with him and thank Jesus. But I imagine the others being afraid that if they did not do what Jesus told them to do—to go directly to the priests—that their cure would not be permanent. And so they gave in to their fear. But this Samaritan, this foreigner, as Jesus calls him, did not give in to fear, and went back to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking him. And not only is this man cured of his leprosy, he is made whole in both body and soul.

We often speak about an “attitude of gratitude”. Sometimes it’s hard to have that attitude when things are not going well. But when we have that attitude of thankfulness for all of the things that God has given us, perhaps we won’t be so afraid when walls come crashing down around us. In Martin Luther’s explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, he lists many things that God has given us out of God’s goodness to us: body and soul; shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. And Luther concludes with the statement: For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true. When we go about our daily lives remembering how much God has given us and how much we have to be thankful for, then we won’t begrudge giving of what we have so that someone who doesn’t have as much can have a better life. When we remember how much God has given us, and when we trust in God to provide us with what we need, then we have no reason to be afraid when God asks us to go outside these walls and be God’s presence in the community. When we remember all the good things God provides us with, then we will not be afraid when walls come down and a new community forms around us.

“Something there is that does not love a wall / That wants it down!” That something is God. God has been breaking down the walls that we put up between us for a long time now. And we have a choice as to how we can respond. We can respond to the destruction of walls by being afraid and trying to rebuild the wall. Or, we can respond to God’s destruction of walls by rejoicing and praising God that he has made us a new community through Jesus Christ, and by facing a new and different future with courage. I hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage to rejoice, praise, and thank God for bringing us closer together to our brother and sister human beings, no matter who they are or where they are from. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Creation 4C

Cosmos Sunday

Proverbs 8, Psalm 148, Colossians 1, John 6

“Our whole universe was in a hot dense state, Then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started. Wait. . .” If you recognize these words, then, like me, you are a fan of TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.” And, just like the science that is talked about on this TV sitcom is pretty accurate, the opening line of its theme song is an accurate one line statement of what the scientific theory of the big bang is all about. The idea is that, at the very beginning of the universe, there were no planets or stars as we know them. Instead, everything that we now know was condensed into a ball of energy. Then, suddenly, there was an explosion of some sort—hence, the name “big bang”–and the universe started expanding and forming into atoms, stars, galaxies, and planets. Now, this is still called a theory because there’s no way that anyone can go back in time to witness what actually happened and testify to the rest of us that this is how it happened. However, according to what I have read and tried to understand about this theory, it does explain much of how the universe is ordered as well as many of the phenomena that astronomers, physicists, and other scientists have observed and measured. So, the big bang theory is probably the closest that science can come to the truth of how the cosmos was created.

We use the word “cosmos” now rather than universe, because scientists are currently talking about the possibility of more than one universe, or, in other words, a multiverse. “Cosmos,” which is a Greek word that English took over, has the primary meaning of “order”. And when scientists look at the cosmos, that is what they find: by and large, there is a grand order to this creation around us, both here on Earth and throughout the space that surrounds us. In the atom, for instance, if the strong nuclear force between the proton and the neutron were slightly stronger or weaker than it is, then the processes of our sun would be completely different, and life on Earth would not have developed. That is an amazing amount of fine-tuning, and absolutely no room for error.

If we are not scientists—and I suspect most of us here today are not—all of this is mind-boggling. I can barely conceive of one universe, let alone a multiverse. It is so big that I simply cannot wrap my mind around it, and I admire those scientists who can. God has given them the talents and the curiosity to poke at the cosmos around us and, as Sheldon Cooper once said on the TV sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, “tear the mask off nature and stare at the face of God.” But what do we as people of faith do when we hear of all of these scientific findings that we can just barely comprehend, if at all?

I think that as people of faith, we look at this amazing order that scientists have discovered in the creation around us, and we give praise for God’s wisdom in making it this way. We see that praise in our lesson from Proverbs today. The poet is imagining the wisdom of God as the firstborn of God’s creation, and that wisdom guiding God as God created and set the heavens and the earth in perfect order. If a scientist were writing this poem about Wisdom today, she might say that when God determined what the exact force between a proton and a neutron would be so that life could develop, then Wisdom was there and clapped her hands with joy. And we human beings, so tiny in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and so unable to comprehend both the grand immensity of it as well as the subatomic particles that hold us together, are yet still a part of it. Ultimately, as the physicist Edward Zganjar (pronounced Skyner) has said, “We are all stardust.” It’s amazing and it’s humbling, and we praise God the Creator for the Wisdom with which God made the cosmos and all things that are living.

But as I said before, both the immensity of the cosmos and the fine details of it are equally difficult for us to comprehend. And so, God brings it down to our level. We move next to our lesson from Colossians, which is also a hymn of praise to God. This time, the author who is praising God talks about Jesus. Here the author speaks of Jesus not only as the image of the invisible God, a face of God that we can see, but he also speaks of Jesus being the firstborn of all creation, through whom and for whom all things were created. And this image of God was pleased to dwell with us here on earth, and through Jesus, God has reconciled all of creation to himself.

Well, that’s very nice, but that’s still pretty much “Jesus out there,” and not too much of “Jesus with us”. So, Jesus makes the wisdom of God even more real to us through his teaching in our Gospel lesson from John. First, he uses imagery that his fellow Jews would be familiar with: he speaks of the manna, or special bread, that God rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites as they left Egypt and wandered in the desert. Then, Jesus says that he is, in fact, the very bread of life, and whoever “eats” of him will live forever. Now, this is a very strange figure of speech that Jesus is using, and because it is such an uncomfortable image for us, we Christians tend to make it safer by saying that Jesus is here speaking of Holy Communion. But the Gospel of John does not have a scene where Jesus explicitly tells the disciples that the bread is his body and the wine is his blood, and that they should eat and drink in remembrance of him. So, I think that, when we confront this passage of Scripture, we need to look elsewhere for what Jesus is telling us.

Let’s go back for a moment to the scientific discovery that, if the nuclear forces holding protons and neutrons together were off by just a hair, life could not exist at all in the cosmos. But because those forces, and other forces, are fine-tuned exactly so that life can exist, we can say that God has created the cosmos with a tendency towards order and life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the divine Word of God that has become flesh; he is God’s Word that spoke life into being. If Jesus is now saying that he is the bread of life, and that, in order to have eternal life, we must eat of his flesh, then what if Jesus is using this metaphor to invite us to participate, with God, in the creation and the sustaining of the life of the whole cosmos? This Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, is not just “out there” and distant from us. He is also here, with us, so close that we can “eat” of him and join in speaking God’s Word of life to the entire creation that surrounds us.

Although this may still sound very mystical and far “out there,” it really is not. The eternal life that Jesus brings to us is not simply what we experience after we die, but it starts right here and right now, in this good creation that God has given us. And everything we do that promotes life is a participation with Jesus in speaking God’s Word of life into the creation. When we speak words of forgiveness and love to one another, we are helping to sustain life. When we work to help those who are struggling to get by with the little they have, then we are helping to create and sustain life. When we use the talents that God has given us to speak or write beautiful words of poetry and literature, then we are participating in creating life. When we speak out on behalf of any part of creation that is being oppressed, whether it is people who are being denied chances to live or nature that is being threatened by pollution, then we are participating in the sustaining and stewarding of life. Even when we do something as mundane as recycling instead of throwing plastic in the garbage, we are participating in the sustaining of the life of the cosmos.

We are all stardust. Yet, we are stardust that has been made to come to life by a great God. And that great God has sent God’s Son, Jesus, to earth, that we may “eat” of him and that we may become part of him. Jesus also says, “I am the light of the world.” That light of Jesus shines out from each one of us. Some days we may shine more brightly than others. But each and every day we are given opportunities to let that light shine forth and, with God, to speak the word of life into the world. The wisdom of God has made God’s creations to participate with God in the ongoing process of creation. Human wisdom would say that is foolish. But God’s wisdom dances like a little child and delights in each thing that God does.

With such a great God, our response should first be one of wonder and praise, joining in with the rest of creation, as our Psalm today tells us. We should be joining in with sea monsters, wild animals, cattle, fire and hail, and so on, all of which do, in fact, praise God by being exactly what God has created them to be. But more than that: we as the church, who have been gifted with God’s wisdom in the flesh, are called to tell others about this wisdom. Further on in the book of Proverbs, wisdom calls out to those in the streets to come and eat and drink with her. We, too, are to be going out to the streets and telling a weary and disillusioned people about the hope and the life they can find in Jesus, God’s wisdom and God’s word made flesh. So, let us be bold in participating in God’s creation, speaking God’s word of life to all we meet, and praising the Lord in everything we do. Amen.