Sermon for Pentecost 8A

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

I’m going to file the following story under “perfect sermon illustrations that happen just in time for writing this Sunday’s sermon.” According to The Washington Post, a truck driver in Tacoma, WA, was pulled over because of an ooey-gooey substance that was overflowing his truck and spilling over onto Interstate 5. It turns out that he had picked up bags of yeasty dough that were leftover waste from a bakery, like he always did, and was delivering them to a processing plant where the dough would be repurposed for livestock feed. Unfortunately, his truck wasn’t refrigerated and it was a hot day for the Pacific Northwest—with temperatures in the mid-80s. And the dough, since it had yeast in it, started rising and seeping out of the cracks in the truck and spilling over onto the highway. People driving by didn’t know what it was and called it in to the police, who, when they came out and found out what it was, said the truck driver was more embarrassed than anything else. Thankfully the dough didn’t cause any crashes or injuries on the road. Seriously, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was driving a truck full of yeasty dough down the highway, and it was a warm day, and the dough started spilling over onto the highway and causing people to slow down and call the police. Well, maybe that’s what Jesus would have said if there were big bakeries in 1st century Palestine and trucks that delivered the waste to be repurposed. But instead he said this, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” This parable is part of a series of parables that we get from Jesus in our Gospel lesson today. With the parables that we’ve had the last two weeks, Jesus gave us an explanation, so we had a starting point with which to grasp them. But with this series of parables, we have no explanation, so we’re left to turn them this way and that, trying to figure out what Jesus meant, and what, exactly, the kingdom of heaven is really all about.

So, let’s look at the woman mixing—or, more accurately to the Greek, hiding—yeast into flour and see if we can figure out what Jesus might be talking about. I’ve made bread from scratch before. It’s a long and laborious process, which is why I don’t do it unless I really, truly have nothing else going on for most of the day. I remember getting out those little packets of yeast and mixing it into the dough, then kneading and punching the dough, and then letting it rise for a while before doing it again. Those of us who have baked bread before can identify with this. But actually, surprise, surprise, they didn’t have those little packets of yeast in 1st century Palestine. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University, says that the Greek term that is translated yeast actually refers to what is known as sourdough starter. She says that “water mixes with the naturally occurring yeast spores that end up in flour when it is ground, and then the yeast’s enzymes break down the starch in the flour and convert it into glucose. . . . The starter is ready when what the recipe books call a ‘pleasant sour smell’ develops and the mixture has bubbles” (p. 111). So, is Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to something that develops as a result of a decomposition process? That’s odd, and a little gross.

So then, what about the woman? Maybe the kingdom of heaven is supposed to be like what the woman is doing, as she is hiding the sourdough starter in the dough that she is kneading. Something very important is hidden in the dough, and with it, the dough will be transformed into something new: bread. Bread that will feed a lot of people. Does anyone know how much, in today’s measurements, three measures of flour is? Any guesses? Well, if you said somewhere between forty and sixty pounds, you would be right. Let’s think about that for a minute. This woman, by herself, is hiding enough sourdough starter in forty to sixty pounds of dough, so that it will transform into that amount of bread, able to feed lots of people. So perhaps the kingdom of heaven is like this woman, who continually works at the dough, working the yeast all through it, so that when it rises and is baked, it can feed many, many people. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is hidden to our eyes, like this yeast, until one day it is revealed and there is an abundance of food for everyone.

Let’s now put this parable of the kingdom of heaven alongside one of the other ones that Jesus gives us today, that of the merchant finding the pearl that he sells everything for. This is a parable that has had many interpretations over the centuries, and somewhere along the way, we have lost the context that Jesus spoke this parable into. The first thing that we should note is that merchants were not well regarded in 1st century Jewish culture. That may be hard for us to hear in American society, built as it is on capitalism, on buying and selling of goods and services, so let me say it again: merchants were not well thought of in 1st century Jewish culture. We have evidence for this in various places in the New Testament, but one that is most obvious is 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” And just two weeks ago, in the parable of the sower, we had the image of the seed that fell among thorns: it grew up, but the cares of this world and the lure of wealth choked it, so that the seed, or the word, died.

So here we have this merchant in search of fine pearls. The merchant finds a pearl of great value and sells all that he has so that he might possess it. Something that never struck me before is this: once the merchant sells all he has and possesses the pearl, he is no longer a merchant. He is just a guy that owns a pretty pearl. The pearl is so important to him that he loses everything he has and all status that he may have had as a merchant—with the ill regard of the community because he was a merchant—and he becomes someone new. When we think of the kingdom of heaven, therefore, perhaps Jesus is saying that it is necessary for us to lose our former identity and our former possessions and become someone new.

What ties the parable of the woman hiding yeast and the merchant finding a pearl of great value together, I think, along with the other parables that Jesus speaks today, is the idea of transformation. The mustard seed starts as a small seed and grows into a mighty plant. The yeast transforms the dough into bread that can feed multitudes. The man who finds treasure in the field sells all he has in order to possess the field, losing his identity and gaining a new one. The merchant who finds the pearl sells all he has and is no longer a merchant, but just some guy who owns a pretty pearl—free now to become someone new. The kingdom of heaven is something that is hidden but will be revealed. And the kingdom of heaven is something that will cause people to transform themselves, losing their former identity and gaining a new one.

So, what does this look like? Well, one thing that I think the kingdom of heaven looks like is people fulfilling their God-given vocations in complete freedom. So maybe we need to ask ourselves what our pearl of great value is. What is that one thing that we would transform ourselves for? What is that one thing that would cause us to give up any status we have and to redefine ourselves? Several years ago, I wrote down my story of personal transformation, describing how I went from a deaconess in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to a pastor in the ELCA, for a group who was advocating for the ordination of women in the LCMS. This week I discovered that people are still finding that story and being touched by it. As I reflect on this in light of the story of the merchant finding the beautiful pearl, I see that I did indeed give up my former status and identity, and under God’s call and God’s guidance, I transformed who I was in order to possess that pearl of great value, which is God’s call upon my life to be an ordained pastor. Like the woman hiding yeast in flour and working it into the bread, this transformation did not happen all at once. Instead, it has taken years to come to fruition, and I believe that the work that God is doing in me–just as the work God is doing in all of us–has not yet come to its completion. And it probably won’t be completed in our lifetimes here on Earth, but it will be in the life yet to come.

What is that pearl of great value in your life? How is God working to bring the kingdom of heaven to fulfillment through you as an individual, and through us as a congregation? Where do you see God at work in your life? What is God’s call upon us as a congregation? How is God working through us to bring the kingdom of heaven to fulfillment? These are all questions that I want us to be thinking about in the coming weeks, because I believe that God is calling us as the church to transform ourselves, so people may catch glimpses of the kingdom of heaven around us. The old models of church that have been handed down to us no longer work. People are looking for something different; they are looking for glimpses of the kingdom of heaven at work in and around us. Are we willing to transform ourselves so that we can see the kingdom of heaven at work and allow others around us to see it? Let’s keep our eyes open and our ears listening so we might discern what God is calling us to be. Amen.


Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

When I was a young adult, my family lived in New Hampshire. I don’t know how many of you have spent any time in New England, but the seasons of the year are a little bit different there than they are here. There is summer, which is beautiful with all the green trees and warm, but usually not terribly hot, weather. Then there is autumn, which we greeted with joy as the temperatures cooled off and the leaves of the trees turned brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. Then there is winter, where the temperatures got even colder and, if we were lucky, we would have lots of snow to play around in. But we didn’t have spring: we had mud season. The temperatures would still be chilly, not warm enough for bright flowering azaleas and trees. But the ground would start thawing out and the snow would start melting, and everything was kind of just blah: gray and muddy. The mud was everywhere. Towards the end of mud season, though, the weather would start warming up and the grass would become green. And then, one day we would wake up and look outside into our front yard, and there would be a field of bright yellow flowers to greet us. Those beautiful bright yellow flowers were dandelions. My father would grumble about them because they were weeds. Our next-door neighbor, who had a perfectly manicured front lawn, would grumble about how the wind would blow the dandelion spores into his front yard, and then he would have to go out there with weed killer to get rid of the dandelions. But for my mother and me, that sea of yellow flowers was so beautiful after the many weeks of mud and bare trees, that we would not let my father do anything to kill them off. Society may consider dandelions to be weeds, but for my mother and me, they were life: resurrection after death.

One person’s weeds are another person’s wheat. That would be an apt introduction to today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat. This parable is a difficult one for us to hear, because it talks about divisions among people. Once we hear it, then it is tempting for us to say that we, however you define we, are the wheat and everyone who doesn’t think like we do are the weeds. But here’s the thing: those people that we are tempted to name as weeds, whoever “those people” are, are probably sitting over there saying that they are the wheat and we are the weeds. It is so easy for us, as sinful human beings, and as Americans who live in a very polarized society, to say the group that we are part of is the right one and the other one is the wrong one. In some ways, we are like the slaves of the householder who were anxious to pull up the weeds: we want only those people who seem to be good to live full lives, and we want to consign those who seem to be bad to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. But, here’s the thing: if you look at pictures of the weeds that Jesus is describing in this parable, which are called tares, they look absolutely identical to the wheat. The slaves of the householder may have been able to tell the difference when looking closely, but more likely than not, they truly would have pulled up the wheat along with the weeds if they had gone out when they first spotted the weeds.

So, who are the people in your life who you think are weeds that should be uprooted? We all fall into this trap. Just the other night I was visiting with a friend and we were discussing political things, and we were casting judgment on certain politicians and wishing that God would hurry up and consign them to the outer darkness. But as frustrated as I am when things don’t go the way I think they should in politics, it is wrong of me to wish harm on any human being. Much as it pains me to admit it sometimes, even people that I disagree with are human beings, created in the image of God, and they are God’s children, too. And it is not up to me to determine whether or not a person is a weed or is wheat: that is God’s responsibility, and God’s responsibility alone.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s series of books that start with The Hobbit and that continue on with a trilogy collectively called The Lord of the Rings, there is a character named Gollum. Gollum started out as a hobbit-like creature, but when he found a magic ring, the powers of that ring corrupted him and led him to murder. His desire for the ring consumed him so much that he changed from a hobbit into a very ugly and disturbing creature. In the movie version of this story, Gandalf the wizard and Frodo the hobbit discover that Gollum is following them in order to get the ring back from them. And Frodo says that it’s a pity that Bilbo, Frodo’s uncle, hadn’t killed Gollum when he had the chance to. And in reply, Gandalf says, “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” And in the end, Gollum, as awful a creature as he is, does play a role in the ultimate destruction of this evil ring.

As I said last week when we were discussing the parable of the sower, parables can have many interpretations and many ways of being lived out. But I think that the main point of the story of the weeds among the wheat is this: as a church, we will see many people that we don’t understand. We will not understand why they do the things they do: both people inside the church and outside of the church. We will want to condemn them. We will want to judge them. We will want to be the ones to cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But that is not our job. God is the one who, in the end, will do the sorting. And it is God, and God alone, who will determine our fate. And because we do not know whether we will be the wheat or the weeds, we should be humble, and we should be very cautious in how we speak about others. Our purpose as Christ’s church is to keep on participating in God’s mission, and telling the world about God’s love for us through Jesus Christ. And we let God be God, and we let God figure out who belongs where.

That is not to say that we passively let evil be evil and run roughshod over everything. As Christians, we can call out sinful behavior for what it is and still pray for the people who commit it—and that includes ourselves. As Christians, we believe that each one of us is sinful—that’s why we have confession every week. It is to acknowledge the fact that, even though we like to think we are good people, we still do bad things and we still forget to do good things. Confession keeps us humble and helps to remind us that, if God were not merciful, God could come in and uproot us like weeds. But the good news is that God is merciful, that God loves us, sins and all, and that God wants to reconcile all of humankind to Godself through Jesus.

So, what do we do? How do we fulfill our purpose and take part in God’s mission for the world? Matthew Skinner, professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, suggests that we start by hanging out with and getting to know the same people that Jesus did. These are the people who are on the margins of our society: those who are poor, those who are sick, those who are homeless, those who are immigrants, and so on, and find out what they need. And then, when we find out what the needs in our community are, we use the talents and the blessings that God has given us to help those people groups. When legislation comes up that affects the poor and those on the margins, we write to our government representatives in favor of legislation that will help them. We give of our possessions so that those who don’t have much can have enough to eat and to wear. Remembering that God has shown us great mercy, we act with mercy toward others, recognizing that we are all human beings and that we have no idea who are really the weeds and who are really the wheat. And we trust that God will sort it all out as necessary.

I received the monthly newsletter from Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster recently, and I want to tell you this story that the senior pastor used in his column. “Folklore tells of a bishop that was asked to attend a meeting at a deeply troubled and conflicted congregation. The brothers and sisters in Christ of the congregation could hardly bear being in the room with one another. The pastor looked like he had been with the revolutionary soldiers at Valley Forge all winter. As soon as the bishop opened her mouth to begin to speak, the vitriolic and violent yelling began from every corner of the room. Those speaking did not center on issues. Instead, they went right after the character of the bishop herself—even though she was not part of the conflict. It did not appear as if the anger would ever stop rolling off the tongues of the Christians in the room. Yet, after about 10 minutes of rage, there was an ever so slight pause in the warfare. In that moment of silence, the bishop is reported to have said, ‘You know, I have a mother too.’ Silence followed. During the silence, first, the people tried to figure out what she meant. Then, it dawned on them what she said. The bishop was claiming to be a human being just as were they, and insisting, as a fellow human being, that she be honored as such.” This story sums up a primary meaning of the parable of the wheat and the weeds very nicely. We are all human beings. Even when we violently disagree with one another, we dare not dehumanize the other person. Because, in the end, we really don’t know who the wheat is and who the weeds are. Only God does. So let’s be okay with being dandelions—beautiful flowers to some, and weeds to others. And let God figure out who is who. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 6A

Note: I had just come back from a continuing education week where the presenter talked about, among other things, interactive sermons. The questions in the middle of this sermon were questions I posed to the congregation and they discussed.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Today’s text is one of those Gospel readings that we think we know so well,  there’s nothing more to say about it, especially since Jesus himself provided an explanation of his own parable.  It’s all about the people who hear God’s Word, we think, and why some believe and become disciples and others don’t.  We even internalize it and say that there are times in our lives when we are good soil and other times when we are rocky soil and when we are choked by thorns, etc.  There is even a hymn in our hymnal called, “Lord, let my heart be good soil,” and it asks God that we might be “open to the seed” of God’s word.  This is indeed a good sentiment.  Our constant prayer should be that we would be open to hearing God’s word and putting it into practice.  But in all of this, we have made the parable about us.  Often now when we hear this parable, we beat ourselves up for not being good-enough Christians.  We vow that we’re going to be good soil, and we’re going to start coming to worship on Sundays more often. And that lasts for a little while, until our sinful natures take over again and we go back to our old habits.  But what if there’s something more to this parable?  What if it really isn’t all about us?

The town where I ministered in Wyoming was surrounded by farms. The main crops were barley, beans, alfalfa, and sugar beets. One year, one of the kids in my confirmation class happened to be the granddaughter of a farmer. When I taught this story to that confirmation class, I got a great reaction to it from one of them.  First, there was the little matter of clearing up what a sower is.  After all, the kids’ experience with farming told them that farming is all done by machine.  So I had to explain to the kids that, when the stories in the Bible took place, these efficient machines did not exist, and people planted the seed by scattering it into the ground.  This is called “sowing seed” and the person who does it is called a “sower”.  Once they understood this concept, they looked at the parable again.  And the granddaughter of the farmer said, “How wasteful!  My grandfather would never farm like that, because he would be taking too much of a risk in not getting a good harvest!”  And I got really excited and said, “Yes, that is the point!  The sower is God, and God spreads the seed in an extravagant way, knowing that some seed will take root and other seed won’t.  But he keeps spreading the seed in this manner nonetheless!”

This is what happens when we turn the parable around and put the focus on God and not on ourselves.  Yes, the different kinds of soil are about us.  Last week we heard about how John the Baptist was doubting that Jesus was really the Messiah and how people were not believing that God was at work in both John the Baptist and in Jesus.  This week, Jesus is telling us in parables why some people believe and others don’t.  But where we get into trouble is when we try to define what kind of soil we are and what kind of soil others are.  What if, for example, we think we are good soil, open to God’s word, and God is saying, “Well, not so much.  I keep trying to talk to you about this one issue in your life, and you’re not listening.”  Or, on the other end, what if we, in despair, think we are being choked by thorns and come crying out to God to help us.  Wouldn’t that then be good soil?  After all, God desires us to repent and hear his word of forgiveness to us.  In the end, only God knows the answer to what kind of soil we might be.  So instead, we need to focus on God’s role in the story:  the God of abundance, who continually throws out seed in what seems to us a reckless, haphazard manner, but who knows, as the prophet Isaiah says today, that God’s word will not return to God empty, but will accomplish that which he purposes for it.

So, what does this mean for us who follow Jesus?  It means that we trust that Jesus is the sower, not us.  It means that we have confidence in that God of abundance and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in all that we do, even when it feels like failure.  In her book, Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about how she had planned a traditional Rally Day activity to try and bring her unconventional congregation all together for one day in the late summer, since attendance at Sunday morning worship had not been great.  She pulled out all the stops, including a cotton candy machine, burgers, chips and other food.  And she ended up getting fewer people than normal in attendance that day.  So, after the Rally Day event, they took all of their leftover food and handed it out to hungry people in the park.  She recounts how she grumbled inside of herself about all of the effort she had gone to, and her congregation couldn’t bother to show up.  It was only later that night, woken up from a sound sleep, that she realized the Holy Spirit had used what had seemed like a failure on her part to reach out to others who needed to hear and see the Word of God.  All of those hungry people in the park experienced God as they received food from her congregation.  This is the God of abundance at work:  spreading the Word indiscriminately, not caring where it lands, and knowing that what is planted will spring up in places where we humans will least expect it to grow.

So now I’m going to share with you something that I learned when I was in Gettysburg this week. I’m going to ask us to get in groups of two or three and talk about some of these ideas. And the first question I want to ask you to discuss is this: Where have you seen God sowing seed abundantly in your lives?

The next question is this: How can you imitate God and sow seed abundantly this week as you go forth from here?

And the final question is this: How can you continue to sow the seed of God’s word even when it seems like nothing you do is bearing fruit?

A final insight for today that we can take from this parable is this: There is only so much we can do to ensure the growth of the seed. We can sow the seed as much as we want. We can make sure it receives water and fertilizer and sunlight. But in the end, the growth is up to God. That really takes a load off of us, doesn’t it? Scattering the seed of God’s word in both likely ad unlikely places is God’s mission. Our purpose as a church is to participate in God’s mission as we are able. But it is God who is living and active among the world, and who causes the seed to grow. If we keep our eyes open, we might just be able to catch glimpses of God at work in the world. So, let’s pray that God would open our eyes so that we may see God’s marvelous deeds, still active in the world today. Amen.




Sermon for Pentecost 5A

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

What does the word “rest” mean to you?  My pets are very good at resting.  My dog and my cat are comfortable enough in my home and with one another that they can close their eyes in one another’s presence and completely relax, safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to them.  My dog will sometimes even lie on his back with his legs in the air—that is how safe and secure he feels. Until, that is, the noise of people shooting off firecrackers in the neighborhood scares the dog, and he goes and hides in the kitchen, which is narrow and enclosed on three sides.  When the dog gets scared, I stroke him and tell him everything will be okay, and eventually he settles down again and rests, at peace once more.

This is a little bit like what Jesus is teaching us today about coming to him, learning from him, and finding rest for our souls.  Today the lectionary chops up the eleventh chapter of Matthew, so it’s hard to understand what’s going on unless we look at the whole chapter.  So, briefly:  At the beginning of Matthew 11, which we hear in the Advent season, we find John the Baptist in prison, hearing about the things that Jesus was doing, and doubting whether Jesus was really the one he was expecting and that he had preached about.  Jesus sends John’s messengers back to John with the answer, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Jesus then asks the crowds what they were expecting to see when they had gone out to see John the Baptist, and tells them that John was a prophet, God’s messenger prophesied by Malachi, and Elijah returned.  Then Jesus goes into the first part of today’s reading, when he compares this generation to children complaining to one another.  The next part of Jesus’ teaching, the lectionary skips, because it is Jesus pronouncing various woes on cities that had heard and seen him, but did not believe.  Finally, we get to the last part of today’s reading, where Jesus thanks God the Father and invites all to come to him and rest.

The general theme of this chapter, then, is Jesus addressing the question of who he is and why people won’t believe in him, even though they have heard and seen the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is to come, the Son of God.  But if you notice, Jesus doesn’t answer the why question, he simply names the characteristics of those who believe in him and those who don’t.  He thanks God the Father that he has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent” and has “revealed them to infants”.  In other words, those who think themselves wise and intelligent are the ones who, like the children in the marketplace, find something to criticize about each of God’s messengers—like John the Baptist and Jesus—and believe that neither one has anything to do with God because these two don’t meet their expectations of what God would do in the world.  Those who believe in Jesus are the ones who, like infants, do not think that they know better than God and trust that God is at work in Jesus based on what they hear Jesus saying and what they see him doing.

This is definitely a warning to me.  I love learning new things.  I think that’s one reason why I’ve embraced the Internet—if I don’t know the answer to a question, I Google it.  Sometimes I wonder what in the world I ever did before the Internet became what it now is.  My mother is convinced that I am going to be a perpetual student, and I think that she will not be surprised if, one day, I announce that I am going back to school for another degree.  While I have no current plans, I have learned never to say “never”. But to be told by Jesus in today’s lesson that the Father has chosen to hide these things from the “wise and the intelligent” makes me nervous.  Is all that education that I have received been for nothing?  Does God not want me to think for myself?  For me, this is simply not possible.

Thankfully, I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying.  I think that Jesus is saying that it’s okay to have that education, but when all of that accumulated wisdom and intelligence makes you think you’ve got God figured out, this is when we have a problem.  Today’s teaching tells me that God comes to all people—and all means all–and it teaches me to listen to each person’s experience of God without critiquing that experience.  It reminds me that God may very well choose to reveal himself to me through another person’s interpretation or experience of God, in the process shaming all of the wisdom that I think I have.  It reminds me that sometimes I can take a break from all of the striving after wisdom and knowledge that I do, and simply be a child of God.  And that in itself is a wisdom sent from God: the wisdom to know when to rest from all of our striving and to simply be in God’s presence.

And this is how Jesus ends his teaching today—by inviting all to come to him for rest.  It doesn’t matter who you are, how intelligent you think you are, where you are from, rich or poor, male or female, or whatever other label you or someone else has put upon you.  Jesus invites all who are weary of carrying heavy burdens to come to him and rest.  And these heavy burdens are not just striving after wisdom.  Heavy burdens in our lives can be anything that is weighing down our spirit as we journey through life.

In the book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” A. J. Jacobs talks about his experiences trying to live out the Bible’s teachings as literally as possible. It is, at the same time, both a very funny book as he tries to follow some of the more obscure laws in the book of Leviticus, and a profound one, as he comes to terms with a faith he hadn’t practiced much before this experience. In one chapter, he writes about how he unintentionally experienced his first real Sabbath by being accidentally locked into the bathroom.  He and his wife lived in an older house, and sometime during the night, the doorknob had fallen off the inside of the bathroom door.  He hadn’t noticed and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.  And no one was at home at the time to let him out.  He writes that for the first ten minutes he tried to escape, with no success.  He then goes through worst case scenarios in his head, wondering what would happen if he slipped, hit his head, and died.  But there’s something even worse for him than the prospect of death.  He writes, “Even more stressful to me is that the outside world is speeding along without me.  Emails are being answered.  Venti lattes are being sipped.”  But after some more time, Jacobs writes that even though the world is going on without him, “. . . I’m OK with it.  It doesn’t cause my shoulders to tighten.  Nothing I can do about it.  I’ve reached an unexpected level of acceptance.  For once, I’m savoring the present.  I’m admiring what I have, even if it’s thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet.  I start to pray.  And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence—without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic.  This is what the Sabbath should feel like.  A pause.  Not just a minor pause, but a major pause.  Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting.  As the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.”

A sanctuary in time.  True pause.  A peace that comes from knowing that the world can get along without you just fine.  Laying down the burdens you are carrying and giving them over to Jesus.  What would it take for us to take one day a week as a true Sabbath, a major pause, so that we could truly rest, knowing that Jesus will help us to carry our burdens?  A few years ago, there was a commercial that Chevrolet aired for their Silverado truck that I found very interesting. You see young adults driving along in the truck, and periodically stopping and raising their cell phone. They say, “No,” and they keep driving. When they stop for the last time and say, “Yes!” the camera comes in for a close up, and you see that they are out of range of any cell phone reception. I thought that was a very telling commercial: it showed a desire for people to be out of connection with the world for a time; to take a break from the swirl of information and communication around them.

I know that’s something that’s become increasingly difficult for me to do: step away from the cell phone. Give up communication with the outside world. I mean, now when I’m standing in long lines waiting to check out of the store or waiting to get in to an event, I’m not bored anymore: I have something to read right at my fingertips. I can always check my email, even though most of the messages I get are advertisements. I can check Facebook, even though most of the time it’s the same old same old. Or I can read a book on my Amazon Kindle app. I get twitchy when I’m away from my phone. But, perhaps I am actually enslaved to it. Perhaps I need to remember that the world can get along fine without me for one day. And perhaps I need to remember that God is my true master, and that God, through Jesus, is the one who offers me true rest from this impersonal form of communication. Perhaps I need to remember periodically what it’s like to not only have communion with God, but also face-to-face communication with the people of the Christian community that God has given me.

Maybe your burden isn’t the cell phone, like mine is. Maybe your burden is something completely different. Whatever it is, hear now the good news from Jesus’ lips: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus offers all of us the opportunity to come to him, to rest, and to lay down our burdens for a while. We can rest in Jesus’ presence always, secure in the knowledge that he holds us safely in his arms. Amen.


Sermon for Pentecost 4A

Matthew 10:40-42

About three years ago, I went on a servant event to Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in northern Montana. I joined a group that came out from my internship site, Holy Trinity in Lancaster, and we experienced what it was like on an Indian reservation together, as well as participating in some beautification projects around the church, Our Saviour’s Lutheran. I began this trip with some trepidation. I was very aware of what white people, some of whom were probably my ancestors, had done to the Native American population in the past, and I was starting to become aware that the situation of many people in the tribes is still not very good today. How would they welcome me, a white person, coming on to their reservation? Would there still be resentment? How would I be treated? And what would I have, if anything, to offer?

What I found surprised me. I found a people who were willing to share with me their history and their love for the land on which they lived. What I found was a gracious sense of welcome and a common desire to make this small slice of the world a better place. What I found was a willingness to acknowledge the pain of the past and yet a desire for forgiveness and healing. And two events that stuck out for me in this wondrous week were these: first, a naming ceremony. I and the others with me who humbly requested this were given names in the Chippewa-Cree language. And, second, as a conclusion to the naming ceremony, we were brought down to the local creek and invited to fill our water bottles from the creek. And that water was the coldest, purest, best-tasting water I have ever had in my life. In short, the Native Americans I met on this reservation embodied Jesus’ saying in today’s Gospel lesson: “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Welcoming one another and being hospitable to one another in today’s society is a challenging concept. In a nomadic culture, such as what the Israelites had in our Old Testament stories, being hospitable was a necessity. In the hot desert climate, where food and water were scarce, travelers were automatically welcomed into one another’s tents for food and drink. It didn’t matter if the person was a complete stranger to the host or even if the person was an enemy. And not only was the person welcomed into the tent, it was expected that the person would be given safe passage through the host’s territory. This was a matter of mutual survival, because, after all, you might have to pass through enemy territory one day and then you would need that same protection, food, and water that you would offer to a guest. This is why, in a story from the book of Genesis, we see that, when three strangers appear at Abraham’s tent, he immediately welcomes them in, tells Sarah to bake bread, kills the fatted calf for them, and then acts as their servant as they eat. What we think of as going overboard was simply a natural thing for them to do. And, this is most likely the story that the letter of Hebrews references when it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

This background ties in to Jesus’ words about welcome. As an observant Jewish man, Jesus would have known this story about Abraham, as well as other stories about offering hospitality to strangers. But Jesus takes it one step further: by welcoming one who is a disciple of Jesus, the person doing the welcoming not only welcomes the disciple, she also welcomes Jesus himself. Let’s think about that for a moment and let that sink in: when you welcome a disciple of Jesus, you are welcoming Jesus himself. When we welcome one another, and Christians who are not part of this congregation as well, we are welcoming Jesus himself. And let’s now tie that in with the instruction from Hebrews that says we may be entertaining angels when we show hospitality to strangers. Even if we don’t know for certain that the person is a disciple of Jesus, we are to assume that that person is a disciple, or maybe even an angel sent from God. More than that, we are to see Jesus in that other person. And we are to treat that person as if we are welcoming Jesus himself.

What a truly awesome and mind-boggling thought! But the challenge for us is this: how do we take this idea of Middle Eastern hospitality, of seeing Jesus in the faces of others, and translate it into 21st century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania? How are we to follow Jesus’ mandate to welcome one another, especially when that person might be our enemy? Here are some of my thoughts about what hospitality in our congregations can look like.

First, our unity is found in Christ, not in politics. What does that mean? It means that Christians of good conscience can—and often do—come to different conclusions and opinions on the political issues of the day and yet, they can still be called Christians. I’d like to share a story to show why this is an important idea. Several years ago, when my parents were still living in Virginia and I was staying with them, I came home to find my mother watching a news program, which she usually does. I watched with her for a couple of minutes, and then I expressed an opinion which was counter to what the talking head on TV was saying. My mother then went into a tirade in which she accused me of selling my soul because of the way I had voted in the recent presidential election, and implied that my Christian faith was in question because of that. Maybe some of you in the congregation today have had similar conversations with friends and family. Very often, conversations like these are why many young people today feel hurt by the institutional church, and no longer want anything to do with the church: they have been “shut down” by members of the church telling them their opinions and beliefs about certain issues are, at the least, wrong, and at the worst, not “Christian”.

Brothers and sisters, this Bible that describes our faith is a collection of books that has come down to us through the centuries, and well-meaning Christians in every century have often come to opposite interpretations of the exact same passage. And those interpretations have informed our beliefs, and our beliefs have informed the way we approach the world, including our views on the political issues of the day. But the one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is Jesus and his love for us—his love for each one of us that sent him to die on the cross for us. You know, in a way, that is God showing us the ultimate hospitality. We are each different, our personalities and our physical characteristics a unique combination of the genetics with which God has endowed us and the environment in which we were raised. We have different ideas and different talents, and I think God designed us that way because God loves variety. And yet, over all of this, is Jesus and his love for us. And so, it is Jesus who unifies us—not politics or anything else of this earth. And what this means is that our churches should be open spaces in which we can each express our beliefs and opinions without fear of being shut down because we don’t “believe the right way”. It is only in open and civil conversation, where we truly listen to one another, that we can learn to love one another as God loves us, and where we can together listen for God’s voice directing us in the mission to the community around us.

Making our churches a safe place to express opinions and disagreements is one way that we can show welcome and hospitality to one another and to everyone who comes through our doors. But how do we express welcome and hospitality to those in our neighborhood and to those who may never come through our doors? The first thing that we need to do is to find out who our neighbors are. Dave Daubert, who was the speaker at the Synod Assembly and who works on congregational renewal, talks about churches who don’t know who their neighbors around them are or what they need.

Here at St. John, we are already starting to get to know our neighbors. As Jack mentioned last week, our community breakfast has fed many people coming through the doors. Others have come in for clothes in our clothes bank. We are starting to become known for this in the community. This week, Pastor Victoria of Trinity Lutheran and I met with Doug Brown, the borough manager of Steelton. He was excited when I mentioned the community breakfast and has offered to help us publicize it. He also shared with us more upcoming opportunities for our congregation to get to know the community of Steelton and to find new ways of ministering in this area. And on July 9, we will be having an ice cream social where we will be giving away free ice cream cones to anyone who walks by our building. God is giving us many opportunities to get to know our neighbors and to offer them welcome, and I pray that we will recognize them and continue to take them.

The point in getting to know our neighbors and providing welcome and hospitality to them is not to have more people in our pews on Sunday mornings. It is rather to go out and spread the good news of how God has provided hospitality to us in Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit moves people to come and worship with us through the work that we are doing in the community, then praise God! But that is the Holy Spirit’s work to do, not ours. Our work is to be participants in God’s mission to show love to the world, and to be faithful in our welcome and hospitality to others.

That cup of cold water that Jesus talks about offering to little ones sounds very refreshing, especially on a hot day and especially as I remember that drink of cold water on the Indian reservation in Montana. Welcome and hospitality is about refreshment and about feeling that we are in a safe space to be who God created us to be. It is also about offering that refreshment and safe space to those around us, so that they may be who God created them to be. That growing and flourishing is what God’s love is all about. So let us go and share that with one another and with our communities. Amen.