Sermon for Narrative Lectionary 3

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

Last week, we heard the strange story of how God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and then at the last minute called out to Abraham not to do it, and then provided a ram for him to sacrifice as a substitute. And Pastor Victoria did a wonderful job talking about that story with you all. Today, again, we jump forward several chapters in the story of Genesis, so I’m going to summarize what has happened in between last week’s story and this week’s. Scholars don’t know how old Isaac was when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. Many pictures that have been drawn of this story depict Isaac as a young boy, but some scholars think he could have been older than that. Well, this is what happens next in the story: Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies; a very old Abraham realizes that it’s time for Isaac to marry and sends his servant back to the country he came from to get Isaac a wife; the servant finds Rebekah in the old country and brings her back; Isaac and Rebekah become husband and wife; Abraham dies; and then, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. Even in the womb, the two boys are fighting and jostling each other; poor Rebekah must have been absolutely miserable, because she says, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” And so she asks the Lord what is going on, and God tells her that the two boys are going to be two nations; one will be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger. When the boys are born, we find out they are fraternal twins, not identical, because Esau, the oldest, is red and hairy, and Jacob, the younger, is smooth-skinned. And as the boys grow up, the family dynamics become messed up. Parents, you know you’re not supposed to have favorites when you have more than one child. Or, at the very least, if you do have a favorite, you’re supposed to keep it a secret and treat each child fairly. Well, Isaac and Rebekah messed up: they each had a clear favorite. Isaac favored Esau, because Esau was a hunter and Isaac loved the taste of the game that Esau brought back. But Rebekah loved Jacob, because Jacob was quiet and stayed among the tents.

Right before today’s story, we read that Esau went hunting, and he must not have had good luck, because he came in from the fields and he was famished. But Jacob was at home cooking a lentil stew. When Esau demanded some stew, Jacob demanded payment. And the payment he demanded was the birthright. As the elder son, Esau by birth was entitled to certain things: the larger share of the property of his father Isaac, for example. Apparently Esau was so focused on his present needs: the fact that he was starving to death; that he couldn’t think about his future needs, which would be the inheritance he would eventually receive from his father. And so he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.

And now we arrive at today’s story. In these days, a blessing from father to eldest son was extremely important. It was different from the birthright; a blessing meant that the father, nearing the end of his life, was conferring his authority as head of the family on to his eldest son in order to rule over the clan and to carry on in his father’s name. Isaac was ready to confer this blessing upon his eldest son, Esau. Rebekah, on the other hand, is determined that the prophecy she heard when she was pregnant with the boys will come true, and that Jacob, her favorite, should receive the blessing and the authority from his father. So, she carries out this elaborate scheme to disguise Jacob, and Isaac is deceived and gives Jacob the blessing instead of Esau. It’s a long story and that’s why we just have sections of it today. What we don’t get is Esau’s reaction when he finds out that Jacob has tricked him: he is furious with Jacob and threatens to kill him. So Rebekah tells Jacob to flee for his life and go back to her family in the old country; to live there until Esau’s anger cools off, and oh, by the way, while you’re there Jacob, find a wife.

So Jacob leaves his family and everything he knows and runs for his life. He stops for the night in an ordinary place that looks like any other place and lies down to sleep. And God comes to Jacob in his dreams and stands beside him and speaks to him all of the promises that God had previously spoken to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and father, Isaac: the promises of land, a multitude of offspring, and that his descendants would be a blessing to all of the families of the earth. God also promises that God will be with Jacob wherever Jacob goes, and God will not leave Jacob until God has done what God has promised. Let’s think about this for a minute: Jacob was not a great guy up to this point in the story. His mother loved him, but that’s about all that could be said of him. Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of what rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that a father gives the eldest son. Jacob is now a fugitive from Esau’s righteous anger. And yet: God appears to Jacob and God gives Jacob the same promises once given to Isaac. This is absolutely incredible!

There are two messages that I see for us in this story. First, God works through anyone for God’s purposes, and that means anyone. We talk about “heroes of the Bible”; well, I’d like us to stop using that term. A hero implies somebody perfect and someone with supernatural powers. The stories in the Bible are stories of flawed and fallible human beings, just like we are. And yet, God works through them to bring a blessing upon the world. I’d like to tell a story of a modern-day person to illustrate this point.

A few years ago, a woman named Kelly Gissendaner came to national attention. She was a resident of Georgia and the only woman on death row in Georgia; she had been convicted several years before this of plotting with her lover to kill her husband. While she was in prison, she converted to Christianity and she reformed her life. She showed regret and sorrow for what she had done. She took theology classes in prison and met and befriended esteemed German theologian Juergen Moltmann. She became a de facto chaplain to women who were new to the prison, helping them adjust and speaking with them about the difference that Christ had made in her life. And when the state of Georgia denied her appeals for clemency, people rallied around her and sent petitions to the state Board of Paroles. And although the state denied those appeals and executed her on September 30, 2015, her life and her death witnessed to the power of Christ to love her, a convicted murderer, and testified that God truly can work God’s purposes through anyone God chooses.

God loved Jacob, a fugitive on the run from his angry brother, so much that God promised to bless Jacob and to be with him forever. God loved Kelly Gissendaner, a convicted murderer, and blessed many other people through her witness. And that’s how much God loves each one of us. And God promises something else to us, too. Just like God promised to be with Jacob, God promises to be with each one of us, no matter what happens to us in life. God will never leave us or forsake us. Even when it feels like the world is crumbling around us; even when it feels like everything is against us, that is exactly where God is. If God was with Jacob when he was fleeing from his brother and if God was with Jesus on the day he died on the cross, then certainly God is with us, too, through everything that happens to us in our lives.

And that’s the second message that I think we can take from this story. When Jacob awakens from his dreams, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” We talk about bringing Christ into the world and sharing the good news of Christ with those who have not heard it. And yet, what if Christ is already in the places where we are going? There was nothing extraordinary about the place where Jacob chose to lay his head that night; nothing which would have indicated that this was a holy place. And yet, God was in that place and made it holy. And God has a habit of appearing in unexpected places. Who would have ever thought for example, that God would be present in a newborn baby laid in an animal’s feeding trough, whose parents were a peasant couple known only to their family? And yet, that is where God was.

What are those ordinary places where God has gone ahead of us, is present, and is waiting to encounter us? Do we see God in the face of a friend who calls and says that she’s had a hard week and needs someone to talk to? Do we see God in the faces of the new neighbors who move in to the places next door? Do we see God’s presence in the faces of the people who live in the communities around our church buildings? How can we become more aware of God active and living in our daily lives, so that there is no difference between the holy space of our church buildings and the holy space of the places and the people around us?

These are questions that we should be thinking about and meditating on as we seek to renew our congregations and get out of our buildings and minister to and with the people around us. It is only when we see that God is present all around us, in the ordinary places and events of our lives, that we can be open to God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done to ourselves or to others. God loves us and promises to be with us always, through both good times and bad times, when we’re doing okay and when we feel like we’ve totally screwed up. And there is no place and no time when God is not present with us. I believe that God delights in the times when we say, with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Surely the Lord is in this place, right now and wherever we may be. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit would give us the grace to recognize God in unexpected places and unexpected times. Amen.


Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Today I participated in a pulpit exchange, where I led worship at St. Peter’s Lutheran in Highspire, the pastor at Trinity in Steelton led worship at my two congregations, and the pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran went to Trinity. St. Peter’s Lutheran uses the Revised Common Lectionary, and so I preached on the gospel lesson from the RCL today. Next week I will be back to the Narrative Lectionary.

Pulpit Exchange—St. Peter’s, Highspire

Matthew 18:21-35

One of my favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory. And as I read this week’s Gospel text and commentaries on it, one of Sheldon Cooper’s speeches came to mind. You see, Sheldon does not like giving other people gifts. When asked why he did not get his friend Leonard a birthday gift, Sheldon speaks about how giving a gift always puts you in debt. For example, if he gives Penny a gift on her birthday that’s worth $50, then there is an obligation placed on her to get him a gift on his birthday that’s worth $50, and each year this debt to one another goes on until one person dies and the other person is $50 richer. Only when Sheldon is told that giving Leonard a gift on his birthday is a “non-optional social convention” does he relent and go with Penny to the mall to get Leonard a birthday gift.

While this is a rather pessimistic way of looking at the concept of giving one another gifts, there is a sort of shrewd common sense to it as well. And believe it or not, this is the way that Jesus presents the concept of forgiveness in our parable today: as a debt that is owed to one another. Most of the time when we read this parable, we say, “OK, the king represents God and the slaves represent us, and if we don’t forgive one another, this is the kind of thing that God is going to do to us.” In fact, that’s what Matthew has Jesus saying at the end of the parable. But what if we read this parable simply as it is: as a king and his slaves, without having them represent God and us? What would it do to this story, and what kind of meaning would it still have for us?

So, let’s take a closer look at this story. The first question that we should be asking is this: how did the slave come to owe the king 10,000 talents? One talent was worth 15 years’ wages of a laborer like the slave, so ten thousand talents would have been worth 150,000 years of a laborer’s wages. No one lives for 150,000 years. No one could ever earn that much money, no matter how hard he worked. So how in the world did this poor slave come to owe his master such an astronomical sum? One answer would be that Jesus was exaggerating to illustrate his point, and that is a valid interpretation, but it doesn’t give as much depth to this story as we would like. Another interpretation would go something like this: perhaps the rich king entrusted the slave with that amount of money and told him to invest it. Perhaps the slave did invest the money as the king directed, and the investment was not a good one, and all of that money was lost. It’s kind of like a stock broker who takes his client’s money and invests it in what he thinks is a good deal, and then the market tanks and he loses the money. But instead of being fired, his boss, for whatever reason, bails him out. But the stock broker now knows that he owes the boss that money. And now, the boss—or the king—decides it’s time to collect. And the stockbroker—or the slave—has no way to pay back the debt he owes.

In this story, the king is complicit in the slave’s debt to him. We know that there is no way that the slave could have gotten all of that money on his own, so the king must have had some role in the debt that the slave now owes. The king somehow set the slave up to fail. And that’s why we should think twice before we automatically say that the king in this story represents God. Many of us would have no problem with saying that we owe a debt to God that we can never repay, and that’s why Jesus came—to pay that debt for us. But we would have a problem with saying that God set us up to fail; that God designed things so that we would fail and that we would have this enormous debt hanging over us. God should not be the bad guy in our story.

But, let’s continue on with the story. When the king decides to collect the enormous debt that the slave owes, and the slave begs him for mercy, and the king relents, what does that do? Not only does it free the slave from this crushing debt, the entire community knows that the slave has been freed from this debt. And there is an expectation that this slave’s good fortune should be extended to those who owe the slave money. Therefore, when the slave who did not have to pay the enormous debt back to the king did not forgive the debt of one who owed him money—and the second slave owed him only a hundred denarii, the wages that the worker would have received in a hundred days—this was absolutely appalling to the rest of the community. Without this kind of reciprocation, there would have been all kinds of upheaval in the community of the king and his slaves. And so the king reinstates the punishment of the first slave.

When we think about it, this is a really terrifying parable, and one in which we want to ask Jesus all sorts of questions. Is God really like this? Will he punish us so terribly for failing to forgive someone? What happens when the offense is so terrible that it’s not healthy for us to forgive until we deal with the emotional consequences—such as a person who has been abused forgiving her abuser? Is there a deadline for forgiveness—say, if you don’t forgive someone after 10 years, will you suffer the punishment that the king meted out to his slave? Where is the good news in this Gospel lesson?

I think that the good news comes in the first part of Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, “How many times must I forgive?” when Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In Jewish culture the number seven was considered to be the perfect number, and this way of answering Peter’s question is a way of saying that forgiveness should have no limits. So perhaps this parable is, in a way, saying that forgiveness should not be a transaction and it should not be a quid pro quo, like Sheldon Cooper’s explanation of why he does not like giving gifts. Rather, forgiveness should be like the king when he first forgives the slave the debt of ten thousand talents. Can you imagine the joy of the slave when he first receives mercy? And perhaps the king was joyful, too, as he saw the relief on the face of his slave. I know that if all of my student loan debt was forgiven, I would be jumping up and down for the joy of having that burden lifted from my shoulders.

And I think that Jesus knows that forgiveness is hard. We have stories in our culture of extraordinary examples of forgiveness. A local example from several years ago was how the families of the Amish children who were shot in the school at Nickel Mines forgave the shooter. Another example is the families of the people who forgave Dylann Roof for murdering their loved ones at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Most of us look on in admiration and wonder how they could have done it, especially when the perpetrators don’t seem to want that forgiveness from them. I honestly don’t know the answer to how to forgive in situations like that. I don’t know what I would do in a similar situation. Perhaps it’s a matter of knowing yourself and knowing how much sinfulness Jesus has already forgiven you. Perhaps it’s a matter of being so in love with Jesus that you want to show that love in extravagant ways to everyone you meet, witnessing to them about the power of Jesus’ love in your life. Or perhaps it’s a matter of faith—saying the words, “I forgive you,” and trusting that one day, Jesus will bring about the feeling to go with the words.

Another one of my favorite shows on television these days is “Outlander”. Based on the best-selling series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, the show chronicles the adventures of Claire, a nurse who travels through time from post-World War II Scotland to the 1700s, and who marries a Scottish Highlander named Jamie Fraser there. In one of the episodes in the first season, after Claire asks forgiveness of Jamie for something she had done and he gives it, we hear him saying, in a voice-over, “She asked forgiveness and I gave it, but the truth is I’d forgiven everything she’d done and everything she could do long before that day. For me, that was no choice, that was falling in love.” What if forgiveness is a matter of falling in love? Not falling in love with a human being, but falling in love with Jesus, our Savior, who fell in love with us and forgave us everything we would ever do by his death on the cross? Perhaps that is the good news in this story: Jesus has forgiven us everything we have ever done and everything we will ever do, and therefore he tells us that this is the kind of attitude we should have towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. Idealistic? Yes, it is. Our sinfulness means that we will not always forgive when we should. But even that, Christ forgives, and the Holy Spirit continues to inspire us with that love for others so that, on some days, we may just get it right. So, as Martin Luther once said, let us sin boldly—but, I would add, let us be even bolder in forgiving those who sin against us. Amen.

Narrative Lectionary, Year 4, 1st Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

The series of readings that we have on Sundays is called the Revised Common Lectionary. This lectionary was put together by scholars and leaders in the church many years ago with a few goals in mind. One goal was to add an Old Testament reading to the lectionary then in use, which at that time only had a reading from one of the letters in the New Testament and one of the Gospels. Another goal was to promote unity among different denominations. It was hoped that not only Lutherans would use this lectionary, but also Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and so on and so forth, so that when you would go out to Sunday lunch with your friends after church, you would all be able to share different perspectives on the same texts, thus bringing people of different traditions closer together. The Revised Common Lectionary also goes in a three-year cycle, so that one year our Gospel readings are from Matthew, the next they are from Mark, and the third they are from Luke, with John sprinkled in at various places. I think the Revised Common Lectionary does work for some of those purposes, but there are some drawbacks to using it as well. One of those drawbacks is that it gives us pieces of Scripture, without much context, so we don’t get the whole story of what’s happening. Related to this, since I as a preacher have several options of texts each week to preach on, I will preach on the one which I deem to be the best one for you all to hear, and more often than not, I will favor the Gospels. That leaves the Old Testament and the Epistle readings out in the cold for you all to try to decipher on your own. That is doing a disservice to our Holy Scriptures. As Lutherans, we believe that all Scriptures point to Christ, and so we should be doing our best to learn about those Scriptures and to deal with some of the texts that we might not want to deal with.

And so, starting today, we are going to switch over to something new called the Narrative Lectionary. The Narrative Lectionary comes out of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and it has the goal of going through the Bible in an orderly fashion each year, so that we get the whole sweep of our story of faith, and we can focus more fully on different stories that might not always get our attention. In the fall, even though we will have short Gospel readings to accompany the Old Testament reading, our focus will be on stories out of the Old Testament, and after Christmas, we will move into a more in-depth focus on Gospel stories.

So, today we begin at the very beginning with the creation story from Genesis chapter 1. In 2015, Pope Francis released the encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which translates from the Latin as “Praise be”, the beginning words of a hymn of praise from Saint Francis of Assisi. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”, Saint Francis writes, and Pope Francis repeats as his introduction to this encyclical letter. This encyclical was highly anticipated before it was released as the letter that was going to be about climate change. Those on one side of the argument were expecting that at last, the church would have something official to say about the environment, while those on the other side of the argument were getting ready to circle the wagons and to fire shots to defend our current way of living. And after the letter was released, yes, there was and there still is much of this back-and-forth argument going on. However, I think that many people who have read the encyclical—and I have gotten through a good portion of it myself, but have not quite finished it—have found that, contrary to our expectations, this letter from Pope Francis is not only about climate change. It is instead a theological treatise on how God has called us to be stewards of the world which he has given us, how we as humans have failed that commission, how our society and our way of life does not promote being good caretakers of the earth, how we are lost in our sin, and, how, in spite of all of this, God still gives us hope for change through his Son, Jesus Christ. This encyclical is not just Roman Catholic theology, it is good Christian theology, and I encourage all of you to take the time and read through this letter. If you go online and do a Google search for it, it should come up for you to download and be able to read.

In this letter, the pope begins with the state of the earth: “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The earth is not, in fact, an inanimate, dead heap of rock that we can take and use as we will. No, the earth is alive, and we see that even in our text from Genesis today. God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” God works in partnership with the earth, yes, but it is the earth itself that, at God’s command, brings forth plants. God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures . . .” Even the waters of the earth, in partnership with God, bring forth such things as fish, whales, octopus, and whatever else the phrase “the great sea monsters” includes. The waters of the earth are alive and bring forth more life at God’s command. And the earth even brings forth animals: cattle, pigs, and other livestock, bears, wolves, elk, antelope, deer, rabbits, and all kinds of wild animals. The earth has given birth to us and to all living creatures in partnership with God’s word, and the earth therefore is our sister and our mother whom we should be treating with respect and with honor.

Instead, because of our sinfulness, we see the Earth and her creatures as something separate from ourselves, and something that we deserve to possess, to dominate, and to use however we please. Instead of seeing ourselves as intimately connected with the creation and a part of all life that we should value and treasure, we see ourselves as somehow above it, and we deny that anything we do could seriously damage the world that we find ourselves upon. But if we accept the premise that God has made us from the elements of the earth, then, as those earth-creatures, just like all other living organisms, it would follow that we could in fact affect the environment of the earth by the things that we do.

The truth is that the climate is changing around us. The Northwestern part of our country is suffering severe drought. While they have wildfires every year in that part of the country, this year has been much more severe. The state of Montana is burning up from all of the wildfires, and the smoke from those fires is not only so dense that the air quality across the whole state is unhealthy, it is also drifting as far east as Minnesota. That doesn’t usually happen, folks. In the southern part of our country, Hurricane Harvey turned Houston and the surrounding parts of Texas and Louisiana into rivers by dumping 50 inches of water into the area at once. They’ve had hurricanes there before, but a hurricane causing this much damage is unprecedented—fueled in part by the waters of the ocean that have been warming up over the last several decades. Hurricane Irma, which is coming, is Category 5 and has not lost any strength—and is barreling towards Florida, with Hurricane Jose behind it in the Atlantic Ocean and Hurricane Katia in Mexico. Again, it’s not that we haven’t seen hurricanes before—but with the waters warming up as quickly as they are, it’s causing hurricanes of unprecedented strength to cause even more suffering and damage than usual. Yes, climate change is real.

But why do so many of us resist the notion that humans can be responsible for climate change? It’s basic science, after all: when we burn things like coal and oil, more carbon dioxide goes into the air. At the same time that we’re doing that, we’re also cutting down trees, which would normally absorb the carbon dioxide. So all of this extra carbon dioxide is being trapped by our atmosphere and warming up the planet. And since God made all of the creation to be in relationship with one another, what we have done not only affects the atmosphere, it also melts the polar caps, causing the water to rise; it warms up that water, causing hurricanes to become more vicious and deadly; it causes the peoples in northern climates who depend on ice for their seal hunts to go hungry since they can’t hunt seals; and it causes places like Miami to flood because of rising sea levels. I even saw something about how the war in Syria and the refugees that flooded into Europe can be traced back to climate change: a warmer and drier climate caused a drought; the drought forced people into the cities, causing large amounts of unemployment; the government couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help; protests began; the government cracked down, and war erupted. Each thing that each one of us does has an effect on the creation, and the only reason I can think of for people to deny that basic fact is because of fear: fear that we might have to significantly change our lifestyle, and fear that we might lose the work that keeps us employed.

At the end of our Genesis account today, we hear that “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” God’s creation is very good. That includes you, me, the plants and animals around us, the air we breathe, and everything else—working intimately in relationship with one another. God loves everything in the creation so much that he sent Jesus, his only Son, to take on our human flesh, live as one of us, and ultimately, die on the cross for us. And God gives us the promise of a new creation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus lives again, we have hope that we, too, will live in that new creation, where there will be no more crying, no more pain, no more deadly fires or hurricanes. Because of that hope, we have nothing to be afraid of.

Therefore, we have no need to be afraid of the changes that we will have to make, because we know that Jesus is with us. In his encyclical, Pope Francis speaks of Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who has long been an advocate for environmental issues. The Pope quotes the Patriarch as saying that we need to look for solutions to our misuse of creation “not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would only be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing. . . .It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed, and compulsion.” And isn’t this, after all, what Jesus calls us to do? To deny ourselves, take up the cross, and to follow him? In denying ourselves and in losing our lives, Jesus tells us, we will in some mysterious way gain it. With Jesus beside us, we have nothing to fear and abundant life to live.

This is the wonder and the joy of the Gospel: that no matter how badly we have messed up the creation, there is still hope. God still loves all of his creation: plants, animals, rocks, water, sun, moon, stars, you and me. There is still hope because of that great love of God for all of us. There is no reason to fear, and there is every reason to move forward with measures to enable us to live in harmony with the creation once more. Pope Francis writes, “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” As we go from here today, let us indeed contemplate the joyful mystery of the world around us, and give praise to God, our Creator. Amen.



Sermon for Pentecost 13A

Matthew 16:21-28

This week, I read an article published by The Washington Post entitled, “Here’s Why People Hate Joel Osteen”. In case you hadn’t heard, this multi-millionaire pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, which is a huge building complex, initially refused to open up his church as an evacuation center for victims of Hurricane Harvey. After he caught a lot of flak for that decision on Twitter and other social media platforms, he reversed course and opened up the church. But, the damage had already been done. Twitter had named him the ultimate Christian hypocrite for not living out the teachings of Jesus Christ and helping those who were hurting.

However, this article that I read went beyond this one decision that Osteen made and dug deeper into why people hate him, or at least dislike him intensely. First, the obvious reason: he is the wealthy 1% of pastors, and when people hear that his church places great emphasis on tithing, and then see that all that donated money does not, in fact, go to help people in need, they call him and his church “not really Christians,” or “giving the Christian church a bad name,” or even “hypocrites”. Next, there is the gap: Osteen claims that God has blessed him financially, and if you all just follow his steps, you can be financially blessed as well. But what happens when that claim doesn’t work, and you find yourself in the same financial situation as you were before, or perhaps a little bit poorer for donating some of your money to his church? Do you still keep believing and donating, hoping against hope that God will financially bless you? Or do you give up and leave? Finally, and here is probably the root of the whole problem of what Osteen preaches: How do he, his congregation, and all those who preach something similar, explain something like the natural disaster that is Hurricane Harvey? Does God not want to bless all of those who have lost their homes, their valuable possessions, and their jobs in the flood waters? And if not, then why not? Osteen and those like him are disturbingly silent on that question.

We have a similar problem going on in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter, who just last week confessed Jesus to be the Messiah and was praised by Jesus because of that confession, this week turns around and sticks his foot in his mouth—big time. You see, Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, and he had dreams about what the Messiah would do. In Jewish theological thinking, this world that we live in is upside down. It is a world where the good do not always get rewarded and the evil do not always get punished. In fact, this world that we live in is a world where the innocent get flooded out of their homes in a hurricane that makes landfall three times and dumps 50 inches of water on them, whereas those who are not so innocent sit in rich homes and don’t lift a finger to help those who are suffering. And in Jewish thinking, when the Messiah arrives, he is supposed to turn our upside down world right-side up again. Therefore, when Peter rebukes Jesus and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” it is because he cannot see how in the world Jesus getting himself crucified is going to turn the world right-side up again. In all of Peter’s wildest dreams about what Jesus is going to do as the Messiah, the idea of dying on a cross doesn’t even register. And it probably would have been the same for the rest of the disciples as well; it’s just that Peter is the one who opens his big mouth. Peter is saying what the rest of the disciples are thinking.

In response to this well-meaning rebuke, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” and then proceeds to say that not only is he going to die on a cross, the rest of his followers need to also die on a cross. Since we don’t exactly have crosses to die on anymore, we have made this into a metaphor; and yet no one knows exactly what the metaphor means. I have preached previously that denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following Jesus does NOT mean staying in an abusive relationship. If you find that you are in an abusive relationship, get out of it. Taking up one’s cross also does not mean putting up with an inconvenient or annoying relative or friend. But what, exactly, does it mean?

Here is one possibility, and this is where we as Lutherans have good theology to share with the world. Many people, when pain and suffering arrive at their door, ask why God allowed this to happen, and they ask where God is. Martin Luther had an answer for that: God is present in the cross. Luther could get a little complex in his theological thinking sometimes, and what he called his theology of the cross is even more so. So, I’m going to try to get his thinking down to our level today, using the example of Hurricane Harvey. When a disaster of such astronomical proportions happens, we start asking why. If God is good, why did he let this happen? Why are so many good people suffering?

What Luther called a theology of glory would say something like this: “Oh, God is punishing the people of Houston for a particular sin.” We saw some televangelists saying this after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and someone out there has already said that Hurricane Harvey is karma for Texas helping to put our current president in power. Here are some of the problems with these statements: First, if God is good, why would God punish the good people along with the bad people? And second: Such a statement makes the claim that the person saying it knows the mind of God. How does that person know what God is really thinking? How can that person claim to know that God is sending punishment on people for a certain kind of behavior? These kinds of responses claiming to know the mind of God are what Martin Luther would call a theology of glory.

In contrast to this, Luther’s theology would say, in response to the “why” question, “We don’t know why. But we can ask this: where is God in all of this?” And the answer would be this: God is present, and God suffers with us. Just as Jesus went to the cross and died a horribly agonizing death on that cross, and somehow, God was there with Jesus in that suffering and death, so, too, is God present in the midst of the suffering that all of the people in southeast Texas are experiencing right now. Where do we see God? We see God in the faces of all of the people who are helping. We see God in the faces of the senior citizens in the nursing home that was flooded, and we see God in the faces of the people who rescued those senior citizens. We see God in the faces of the “Cajun navy”: all of those people who use their own boats to go out and get people out of the water to safety. And we see God in the faces of those who opened up their places of worship as evacuation centers, including those Muslims in the Houston area who opened up their mosques.

And in the end, that’s why people are so angry with Joel Osteen and those like him. After Osteen finally opened up his church, he claimed that he didn’t do so earlier because no one asked him. But, as one person said, “Yes, you were asked to do that. Jesus asked you to open up your church to those in need over 2000 years ago.” This is what taking up your cross and following Jesus looks like. Taking up your cross and following Jesus looks like sacrificing your own interests for the sake of helping others. If there were ever a similar disaster in this area, it would mean opening up our building for shelter before anyone ever asked us to. Taking up your cross and following Jesus means that, when we have material goods that other people don’t have, we give sacrificially of what we have so that those around us have enough.

But here’s something else that taking up our cross and following Jesus means. In all of the commentary around Hurricane Harvey that I’ve seen, and all of the praise for the people who have come out to help in this time of need, I saw this comment as well: Americans are good at coming together in times of crisis and helping one another out. But when the time of crisis passes, we go back to our normal lives until the next crisis happens. Americans are good at playing hero. We want to be heroes. But we are really bad at working to prevent future crises. When we talk about making laws to help people in the in-between times and to help prevent crises from happening in the future, then our individualism rears its ugly head and it is every person for themselves. We are not willing to give sacrificially when there is not an immediate crisis.

As I thought about this, I think there is a lot of truth in that statement. And I think that taking our cross and following Jesus applies just as much in those in-between times as it does in times of crisis. We Americans need to be better about this. We need to be better about working for the common good instead of thinking only of ourselves and our individual rights. That is part of what denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus looks like. Not only does it mean helping out in a crisis, but it also means working diligently for the common good so that either a crisis does not happen, or, when it does happen, it is not as devastating as it could be. And when the crisis happens, it means that we don’t ask why God allowed it to happen, but it does mean looking for God in the faces around us and responding appropriately.

One of the favorite movies for people in my generation is, “The Princess Bride”. And in this movie, one of the characters says this to another character: “Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” As Christians, Jesus does not say that we will not have pain just because we believe in him. In fact, he says the opposite: as followers of Jesus, we will experience pain in our lives. And as followers of Jesus, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Anyone who claims to be Christian and says that God wants us to always be happy and wealthy is a false teacher and is not a true Christian. But in the midst of the pain that we experience in life, we experience this paradox: when we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, we will find them. So let’s look for Jesus in the faces of those around us, as we help others and receive help from others in our turn. When we do, we will find that truth that Jesus is always present with us through everything we experience in life. Amen.