Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary

Ruth 1

This week, we go back in time once more. Back from the 1st century, when Christianity was first getting its start, from a possible location of Ephesus in Turkey, to a time centuries before that, “in the days when the judges ruled”. The story of Ruth takes place in the countries of Judah and of Moab, which would be present-day Israel and Jordan, in a time before the kings of a united Israel ruled. During this time, the book of Judges, which comes immediately before Ruth, tells us, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” The book of Ruth is meant to stand out from that depressing pronouncement as a story to give us hope; to tell us that not everything is darkness, but that there are some people who are living according to God’s commandments. Through this summer, we have been hearing about those commandments that God gives, and how they can be summed up by these two statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Last week, 1 John told us that God is love and we also ought to love one another. Ruth is a story of what love in action looks like, and it is a story of how divine love can be reflected in human beings.

First, let’s start out with some background information on the countries of Judah and Moab. Judah, of course, was the home of the Israelites who claimed their family ancestor as Judah, one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Moab was the country next door with whom the Israelites had a relationship which today would be labeled, “It’s complicated.” If you go back to the book of Genesis, you will find a story claiming that the people of Moab descended from an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. But, Lot was Abraham’s nephew. And so, since the Israelites also descended from Abraham, they and the Moabites regarded one another as family of sorts. But, like any families, they had quarrels with one another. There was a time when the Moabites would not let the Israelites cross their land as the Israelites were heading into the land that God had promised them, for example. And the Moabites worshiped different gods, rather than the one God that the Israelites worshiped. So, perhaps the relationship between them could be likened to the relationship between family members who don’t like one another very much, but have to acknowledge that they are, indeed, family, when they sit around the Thanksgiving table together.

So, as we enter the story of Ruth, we see a man named Elimelech and his family, who were from Bethlehem, packing up and leaving for Moab because there was a famine. I want you all to notice a theme that the author of Ruth is playing with, here: the theme of being full and being empty. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread” in Hebrew. So, in other words, there was no bread in the house of bread. And Elimelech decides, for the good of his family, that he needs to leave and go to a place where his family may be fed. And that place is Moab, the country full of people who have, at best, a problematic relationship with the people of Judah. But there seems to be no condemnation from the storyteller for this action; just a simple statement of the facts. Except, after an undetermined amount of time in Moab, Elimelech dies. We don’t know what happened; we just have the simple statement that he died. Then Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, take Moabite wives, but after ten years of living in Moab, these two men also die. With no children from these marriages, Naomi is left without her husband and her sons, only her two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi, who left Bethlehem with a full family and who was kept full physically during her time in Moab, has become empty, left with no one except her two “foreign” daughters-in-law.

So Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. This was not a decision to be made lightly: it was about 50 miles between Moab and Bethlehem, and while we can make this journey in under an hour today, back then, with no cars, this was a journey of many days walking. And, as a woman on the road, Naomi would have been in danger from thieves and people who would want to do her harm. So I think that Naomi feels that she has nothing left in life and nothing left to lose, and that she wants to see her home one more time before she dies. And though her daughters-in-law start out with her, Naomi realizes that they are young and have full lives ahead of them, so she urges them to go back. Orpah ultimately decides to go back, but Ruth remains with her. We don’t know why, and though we can speculate on the reasons, I think the storyteller wants us to know this about Ruth: she loves her mother-in-law, and that love will not allow her to let Naomi make the journey home by herself. Ruth will not let Naomi give up on life, and so she goes back with her to Bethlehem: a place she has never seen before, full of people who will look on her strangely because she is a foreigner. Furthermore, Ruth is traveling with a woman who discounts her at every turn because she is so focused on the loss of her husband and her sons. To be traveling with a woman like this and to say nothing against her takes an incredible amount of loving devotion.

There is a story in my family that goes like this: When my parents were young and first married, they were looking for a church home. One Sunday, they went to a church where the pastor preached on Ruth and said, “Ruth was a good woman because she knew her place.” My father’s response was to say to my mother that they would not return to that congregation because, “No daughter of mine is going to listen to this crap.” I love that story because it gives me insight into who my father is. But aside from that, whoever that pastor was, he was dead wrong about Ruth. Ruth’s “place,” if she had one, would have been to return to her own parents and to honor them above her mother-in-law, who should have been nothing to her once her husband had died. Instead, she chose to make sure that her mother-in-law was safe on the road back to Bethlehem, sacrificing her own interests and putting those of Naomi’s ahead of her own. This is the kind of love that God shows us. Just as Ruth would not let go of Naomi, so God does not let go of us. Where we go, God goes. Where we lodge, God lodges. And even when we die, God is still with us.

If you have spent any time on this earth at all, then you have experienced some form of loss. In my time as a pastor, I have done many funerals. At the funerals that I have done, I acknowledge the loss and I don’t try to smooth it over. Only after we acknowledge the loss and how much it hurts us can we try to move on with our lives and maybe think about our loved ones in the arms of Jesus. And in our story today, Naomi shows us how to do that. She complains loudly that the Lord has dealt bitterly with her, dealt harshly with her, and brought calamity upon her. She is grieving and she makes no effort to hide the fact.

But what Naomi doesn’t realize yet, as we come to the conclusion of today’s chapter of Ruth, is that Ruth is with her, and that Ruth will help her journey through this grief, and that Ruth will not let her give up hope. Do you have people in your lives who have helped you through your grief and loss and not let you give up hope? I’m reminded of when my maternal grandfather died in 2010 after a lengthy decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, during which my grandmother was his primary caretaker. My grandmother’s congregation had something called Stephen Ministry. Stephen Ministers are laypeople in the congregation who are specially trained to come alongside of a grieving person and walk with them through their time of grief and loss. After the funeral and after all the family and friends had left, a Stephen Minister came to walk with my grandmother through her time of grief and sorrow, listening to her and helping her to see hope on the other side. This is a visible, embodied manifestation of God’s love for us.

God is always with us, and God always loves us. But sometimes, God can become too much of an abstract concept for our little human minds to deal with. And so, God sends people into our lives, people who go above and beyond the call of duty to help us because they love us so much. And through those people’s love for us, we can catch glimpses of how much God truly loves us. God’s love for us becomes something physical, something that we can touch, as we give and receive love for one another. This week, think about those people who have acted in your life the way that Ruth did for Naomi, not letting you go during your time of grief, no matter how ugly that got, and give thanks for them. And also, be alert and ask God how you can act as Ruth did for Naomi for someone who is hurting. In the coming weeks, we will see how the story of Ruth and Naomi plays out, but we’ll leave it here for right now. And thanks be to God for the times that God sends people into our lives to love us, and for the times that God allows us to love others. Amen.




Sermon for 8th Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary

Mark 6:14-29

Note: I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 15, at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Waynesboro, Virginia. Grace Lutheran is my home congregation, and I was invited to preach as part of their celebrations of their 125th anniversary.

It is good for me to be back here at Grace Lutheran in Waynesboro after several years. I bring you greetings from the people of Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA, and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, where I am currently serving. I want to thank you for inviting me to preach as part of your 125th anniversary celebrations. It’s amazing to think about Grace having been part of the Waynesboro community for 125 years, and the impact that you have had both on the community and on individual lives. In my journey from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to ordained ministry in the ELCA, you were here for me at just the right time, offering me love, healing, and encouragement as you helped me to discern the call that God has placed upon my life. And I want to give you a profound thank you for all that you have done for me.

I want to tell you what happened when I found out what the Gospel text appointed for today was. In my congregations, we have been following a different lectionary, that is, a different series of appointed readings, and the last several weeks I have been preaching through the letter of 1 John. When Pastor Paul first let me know what the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary were for this week, I was in the middle of other things, and I glanced at it and said, “Oh, yes, it’s something from the Gospel of Mark,” and went on about my business. When I said, “OK, I need to sit down and really look at what the appointed text is,” and found out that it was the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, my reaction was one of shock and dismay. I’m coming back to Grace as part of the 125th year celebrations, and I get one of the most difficult passages in the Gospels to preach on? Really, God? But, I trust that the Holy Spirit knows what she is doing, so my prayer is that the words that I speak to you today are words that the Spirit believes you, and I, too, need to hear.

So, let me start with this idea: when we hear this story, we remember the gruesome details. The daughter of Herodias, Herod’s stepdaughter, dancing in front of Herod and his guests. Herodias prompting her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head, because he had been saying that it was not lawful for Herod and Herodias to be married. The daughter of Herodias then going back in to the assembled party and asking not only for John’s head, but for the head to be delivered on a platter. Herod, more willing to save face by following through on his promise than to do the right thing, ordering John’s execution and having the head brought to his stepdaughter as she requested. These are the things we remember, because it is a very horrific story. But I think we need to take a step back from this story for a moment and ask what Mark is doing here and why he placed this story in his gospel. And if we look at the first few verses, we discover that this story is a flashback, and it is told in response to what Jesus and his followers are doing. Jesus is going about the villages teaching, and then he gathers the twelve together, gives them authority over the unclean spirits, tells them to take nothing with them, and go out and proclaim the news of the kingdom of God. And apparently word is spreading of what Jesus and his disciples are doing, and people are trying to understand what is going on and interpret it in light of past events. And then we get the flashback to John the Baptist’s death.

And so I think one of the things that Mark is trying to do with this story is to give us a warning: this is the kind of mission field that Jesus is sending us into. For every person who joyfully receives the good news, repents, and enters the kingdom of God, there will be even more people, very often the powerful ones, who, while they see what we’re doing and may wonder about it, will be more concerned with saving face and holding on to their power than they are with doing the right thing. With his story of the beheading of John the Baptist and how that happened, Mark is also foreshadowing what will happen to Jesus when powerful men decide that it would be easier to execute Jesus than it would be to do the right thing. And he is warning us that being a disciple of Jesus is not going to always be happiness, goodness, comfort, and light, but that we will be asked to confront the darkness, speak the truth to the powerful, and be willing to suffer the consequences, even if it means we will die because of them.

This is hard for us to fathom here in the United States, because we don’t expect that we will have to die for our faith in Jesus. But, that doesn’t mean that we can get out of speaking truth to the powerful, and in so doing, we may have to die to ourselves, even if we’re not being asked to literally die. John the Baptist boldly told Herod that it was wrong of him to marry his brother’s wife, and was imprisoned and eventually executed for it. In our Old Testament reading today, we hear Amos speaking the truth to the people of Israel in the king’s courts, and being told to go back home. And even just a quick glance through the stories of the prophets of the Old Testament will show that these men, and in some cases, women, who spoke truth to power did not have an easy time of it: they were heckled, killed, thrown into muddy wells and left to rot, called upon to do all sorts of difficult actions to demonstrate visibly to the people what God was trying to tell them, and so on and so forth. Last week we heard about Jesus himself having a difficult time of it in Nazareth, where his hometown family and friends took offense at him. If Jesus himself was heckled for speaking the truth, how can we who are disciples of Jesus expect anything different?

We live in a country where we expect faith and politics to be separated. In some ways, this is a good thing. It’s good to have a government that, in theory, treats all faiths equally and does not favor one over another. But somehow this has translated into being afraid to speak about things that are going on in the country and the world in our congregations, and even speaking to those things from a faith perspective. When the news about immigrant children being separated from their parents hit its peak in the media, and when the attorney general used Romans 13 to justify it, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to speak to my congregations about it in the sermon that Sunday, and the knot in the pit of my stomach that day was very large. Because, even though we should all agree that, no matter what position we take about immigration, it is morally wrong to separate children from their parents, our society is so polarized that I was afraid someone would yell at me after the worship service that day. By and large, our congregations are not trained to speak to one another civilly about political differences of opinion because most of us believe politics should stay out of church life.

But here’s the thing: there are certain issues that we, as the church, can speak to out of our faith and out of what Jesus has taught us. For example, while we may disagree on what immigration laws should look like, we should agree that it is absolutely reprehensible to separate children from their parents and we should call on our elected officials to fix this problem. Or, on environmental issues, since we are called to be good stewards of the environment, we should be able to speak out against coal companies being allowed to pollute our waterways, or we should be able to speak for everybody having access to clean drinking water. And, since we are called to feed the hungry, we should be able to speak in favor of people having access to good, nutritious food. We are called to not only help the hungry by giving them food in food pantries and such, but we are also called to advocate for changes in the system that we have that results in unequal distribution of food and in food deserts, where people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food because of a lack of grocery stores in their neighborhoods.

Our faith is not solely focused on what will happen to us when we die. Jesus died for us, Jesus loves us, and Jesus has got us safely in his hands. In the meantime, our faith should be compelling us to announce the kingdom of God not only in words, but also in deeds. Jesus has redeemed not only our souls, but also our bodies, and so that means that God loves this physical, created world just as much as the heavenly world. And sometimes, what that means is that we as Christians, compelled by our faith, need to get involved in the politics of this world when our leaders become so drunk with power that they need to be reminded that they are created beings and they should be treating other people as they would want to be treated, rather than saving face and holding on to power. Jesus has given us authority over the spirits of this world, and rather than arguing among ourselves, we need to use that authority to confront the powers of darkness that are loose in this world.

Rather than focusing on our differences of opinion or avoiding those topics completely, let us speak among ourselves this week and practice listening to one another. Where we disagree on issues, let us remain civil as we discuss them and pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us in the right direction. And then let us find those issues that we can agree on, and speak the truth to the corrupt powers around us. Imagine how God’s love and authority would shine through us if we spoke as one on issues that affect the lives of the people around us. Imagine what it would look like if we proclaimed, together, that the kingdom of God has come and urged all to repent and believe in the good news. And imagine what it would look like if we did this with no fear of what the powers that be could do to us, but if we were instead focused on doing what God has called us to do, regardless of what might happen. This is what God, through the prophets, including John the Baptist, is calling us to do. Let us heed that call without hesitation. Amen.

Sermon for 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

1 John 4:1-6


Today we continue with our sermon series on 1 John. As a review, the first Sunday in this series, we talked about how some in the Christian community to whom 1 John was written were saying that Jesus was more divine than he was human, and how, in response, the author of 1 John talks about how Jesus was not only divine, but was also someone who could be seen, touched, and heard. We talked about how body and spirit are both important, and how, therefore, in Christian communities, we are called to show love for one another in both body and spirit, and serve one another’s bodily and spiritual needs. Last week, we talked about how none of us in this Christian community are perfect, how we all sin, and how in an embodied Christian community, it is important to be humble enough to admit our sins, confess them to one another, and receive forgiveness, both from God and from one another. We also talked about how sometimes, the community as a whole needs to confess its sins against another community. All of this is what it means to be part of a flesh-and-blood Christian community.

But in today’s reading, 1 John takes us into some strange territory, and we need to take a step back from it for a moment and review some background information before we try to interpret what it means for us today. First, I want us to remember that 1 John was what we would call today an “internal document”. That is, it is meant for the community of Christians to whom it was written, and it dealt with matters that were going on inside the community. So when 1 John tells us that “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God,” it does not necessarily mean those faiths outside of Christianity. Rather, this is addressed to those people inside of the Christian community who were denying that Jesus had come in the flesh, but was instead some kind of spiritual principle. The second thing that we need to tackle here is the word “antichrist”. Now I know all of us have heard the word “antichrist” used before. Raise your hand if you think the antichrist is some kind of beast that comes to destroy the earth in a doomsday scenario out of the book of Revelation. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but all those of you who raised your hands are wrong. The word “antichrist” is never used in the book of Revelation. The word is only used here in 1 John and once in 2 John, and nowhere else does this word appear in all of our Holy Scriptures. And this is what it means, in the context of 1 and 2 John: any spirit (or person) who does not confess that Jesus came in the flesh. In other words, many things and people who you may have referred to as the antichrist may not actually be so, while there are other people and things that may be an antichrist that we would not have guessed to be so. And that’s the other part of the definition of this word: there is not just one big bad Antichrist; rather, there are many, smaller antichrists running around in the world.

I have racked my brain, and I cannot think of anyone who calls themselves a Christian today who would flat out deny that the Son of God came to earth in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So, we’re going to have to stretch a little bit, and remind ourselves of what 1 John says it means to be a flesh-and-blood community of Christians. And then we can, as 1 John tells us, “test the spirits”. Remember that 1 John puts emphasis on the fact that Jesus was someone that we can see and hear and touch; someone that we can recognize with our bodily senses as well as our spirituality. And also remember that Jesus has saved both body and spirit, so that, when we die, we are not going to be floating on clouds playing harps, but rather, we will be resurrected, both body and spirit, to live in a new creation. That means that God thinks that both the physical world and the spiritual world are important.

Therefore, I am going to be bold and make this claim: anyone who claims to be Christian, and yet is solely focused on salvation as a means to go to heaven after we die, thus neglecting the physical care of both God’s creation and God’s creatures, including human beings, is an antichrist. Now, let me unpack that statement. There are streams of Christianity that believe that the sole reason Jesus came to earth is so that, when we die, if we believe in him, we can go to heaven. And when you believe that is the only reason for having faith in Jesus—so that you can go to heaven when you die—that has consequences for how you treat the creation around you, including your brother and sister human beings. For example, you may enjoy the beauty of this earth, but have no issues with anything you do which might destroy the environment, because, “Heaven is my home, so what does it matter how I treat the earth?” If the only reason to have faith in Jesus is because you’re going to go to heaven, then it doesn’t matter how you treat your body and the bodies of those around you, because, as I heard someone say not too long ago: “We’re all going to die one day. Eat what you want.” And if the only reason that you have faith in Jesus is so that you can go to heaven when you die, the lives of the people around you are not going to make much difference. You may decide to help a neighbor out of some sense of duty or responsibility, but it’s not going to come from your faith at all. And as for groups of people who are suffering? It’s easier to discount them as long as you know that you’re going to heaven, because you have faith in Jesus. All of this is the spirit of an antichrist.

1 John is written, in part, to counteract this extremely individualistic view of the Christian faith. Having faith in Jesus means not only being safe with him when you die. Having faith in Jesus means putting your trust in someone who is both fully divine and fully human in some mysterious way that we cannot comprehend. Yes, Jesus is divine: he performed miracles, he healed people, he taught us the way of God. But Jesus is also fully human: he got hungry and thirsty; he ate and drank; he got tired and slept; he got angry and turned over tables; he was sad and he wept. And, although Scripture doesn’t tell us this, guess what? Jesus went to the bathroom, too. That’s what it is to be human. And because Jesus was human as well as divine, faith in Jesus means not only what happens when we die, it is also a here-and-now, this-world faith. And we are called to be in community with one another, and to care for one another’s earthly needs just as much as our spiritual needs.

So, what are some ways that we can live out this calling to care for one another in both body as well as soul? For that, I’m going to borrow Jesus’ words from Matthew 25, where he talks about those people who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited those in prison. Jesus says in this part of the Gospel that whatever you do to the least of these, you do to him. And he also says that for those who neglect doing these things, it is as if you are neglecting Jesus. Our letter of 1 John says something similar further on in chapter 4, which hopefully Pastor Jorgensen will touch on when he’s with you next week: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Love in the Scriptures is an action word—not a warm, fuzzy feeling. You show your love for one another not only by words, but also by your deeds.

And if indeed God loves the creation which God made, and has redeemed that creation as well, then it follows that we are also called to be good stewards of the creation that God has given us. This means that we do our best to care for the earth, as the earth and everything in it is also part of our greater community. Some of these things we may already be doing: reducing the amount of things that we use, reusing the things that we can, and recycling as much of the waste that we generate as we can. Other things may take more effort on our part. We can advocate for renewable energy, and we can advocate for the people who have jobs in non-renewable energy to be retrained for the new work. We can learn about those animal and plant species that are endangered, and do what we can to make sure they don’t become extinct. We can even do something as simple as spaying and neutering our pets, if we don’t want to intentionally breed them. There are so many other things that we can do to care for this world that God has given us, and that God loves so much, that I don’t have time to name here. But caring for the world that God loves should spring from our faith in Jesus, who loved this world enough to die for it and everything in it.

So, this week, let’s not be those so-called Christians who think that faith in Jesus is only about going to heaven when we die. Let us live out our faith both in the material world and in the spiritual world, caring for one another and for the creation that God has given to us. That’s how those around us will know we are truly Christians: when we live out our faith not in words only, but in deeds as well: deeds that show we love the material world around us as much as we love the spiritual world. Then, as the old song goes, they will know that we are Christians by our love. Amen.

Sermon for 6th Sunday after Pentecost

Narrative Lectionary Year 4

1 John 1:5-2:2


Last week we heard the opening lines of 1 John, and how there were some people in this Christian community who were taking the idea of Jesus being divine a bit too far, to the point where they felt that flesh-and-blood community was no longer so important. In response, the author of this letter, whom we will call John, writes that Jesus was also human: someone we could see with our eyes and touch with our hands, and that therefore, flesh-and-blood community was still a very important part of following Jesus. And today, we come to a very important part of having flesh-and-blood community with one another: admitting that we sin, confessing those sins, and receiving God’s forgiveness. If you have spent a long amount of time in the Lutheran church, then 1 John 1:8-9 should sound very familiar to you. In the hymnal that we used before this red hymnal, which had a green cover, those verses were part of the rite of confession and forgiveness, something that we said every Sunday morning. I tried to find out why they were removed from the red hymnal that we have now, and didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. And so I decided, since I’m preaching on this passage, to add those verses back in to our confession and forgiveness today. So let’s take a look at this idea of admitting that we sin, confessing those sins, and receiving forgiveness.

And to start this off, I’d like to tell you a story about how I experienced personal confession and forgiveness. Now, I know that we say confession and forgiveness as a congregation every week, and if that’s all that the Holy Spirit is leading you towards, that’s okay. But I want to tell you this story to demonstrate how, sometimes, personal confession and forgiveness can be a good thing, too, and not just a “Roman Catholic” thing. Several years ago, I was living in southeast Texas, working as a deaconess in a parish there. I had been there about a year and a half when the stewardship committee informed the pastor and me that the pledges that the pastor had thought he had to financially support a deaconess in the congregation had not come through, and that they would have to let me go. Of course, I was feeling many things surrounding these events, but one emotion that would not let go its hold of me was anger: anger at the chair of the stewardship committee as well as others for what I perceived was their falling down on the job and not telling people that the congregation was in dire financial straits until it was too late to keep me on. I found that this anger was so much holding me in its grip that I could not move forward in my life and my ministry. So I contacted a pastor with whom I’d become friends and asked if I could come to him for confession and forgiveness.

When I met with him, he took me through the rite of confession in the hymnal, and as I said those ancient words, the tears began pouring down my face. Then came the part where I told him that I was angry with the people on the stewardship committee, and how that anger was holding me in its grip and preventing me from moving forward. We talked about this for a little while, and then he said the words pronouncing God’s forgiveness over me, and I think I cried again. And it was as if a cloud had been lifted from me. Even though I still had my own work to do in forgiving the people of that congregation, hearing God’s forgiveness of me at a one-on-one level took away some of that anger and enabled me to hear God’s voice more clearly as God led me forward on my journey.

Living in a flesh-and-blood community of Christians means that there needs to be a lot of forgiveness going on, because none of us is without sin. Let me repeat that in case you didn’t hear it the first time: none of us is without sin. We all mess up—we all miss the mark, which is what the Greek word that is translated as “sin,” literally means. There is a standard, and we continually and constantly miss it, no matter how hard we try. I think we all get that on some level. The problem is that we don’t like to admit that we have messed up. It’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve made a mistake. It makes us feel very vulnerable when we say to the other person, “Hey, I was wrong. Can you forgive me?” because we are taking the risk that the other person could decide to humiliate us, to rub our noses in our mistake, before speaking words of forgiveness, if they do. But, on the other hand, if we don’t have the humility to admit that we have made a mistake and to ask the other person for forgiveness, we risk fracturing the community that has come together with Jesus as our head. Each person will hold a grudge against the other for some mistake that has been made; each person will get defensive when someone calls him or her out on that mistake, and then someone gets hurt and leaves the community, thus making it smaller and even more vulnerable than it was before.

So, this morning, I’d like you to take a look around. It’s no secret that our community here at Salem/St. John’s is smaller than it used to be. Some of this is because people have moved away. Some of this is because people have died. And some of this is because some of our elderly have become homebound. But, can you think of anyone who you know who is staying away because they had an argument with someone? Or because they were offended at something that someone said and are holding a grudge? If so, I’d like for you, this week, to specifically pray for that person. And, if you think that it may be because of something that you did or said, ask God to give you the grace to make yourself vulnerable, confess your sin to the other person, and ask for that person’s forgiveness. If you know of a dispute that does not involve you directly, pray and ask God’s guidance as to how you might be a peacemaker between the people who are upset with one another. And then look for opportunities to help the two people reconcile. And perhaps, here and now, some of you are holding a grudge against another person. I invite you to pray that God give you the grace to admit your sin and the grace to forgive the other person, and then go to the other person and be reconciled to him or her. By making ourselves vulnerable with one another and admitting our mistakes, and forgiving one another as God has forgiven us, we help to make our community stronger and better able to minister to the community around us.

Now, I’d like to take a step back from individual confession and forgiveness, and talk about confession and forgiveness between groups of people. As you know, before I came here, I was living and working in northern Wyoming, but my congregation, along with four others, were part of the Montana Synod. In the Montana Synod there are several Indian reservations. In 2010, the Montana Synod wrote a statement apologizing to the tribes who live in that area “expressing profound sorrow and repentance for the grief and pain suffered in the past and in the present”. Now I know that several of you are going to say that we are not the ones who drove Native Americans off of their land; it was our ancestors and therefore not our fault. The problem with that statement is this: we benefit from the sin of our ancestors, and Native Americans still, today, suffer from that sin. If we as white people want to do ministry with our Native American brothers and sisters, we collectively need to acknowledge the sin of our ancestors that we benefit from, and repent of it, even though it was not directly our fault. The bishop went personally to the tribes in the Montana Synod who were willing to hear our apology, confessed our sin using the words of the statement, and received the forgiveness of those tribes. Now, we are better able to work together with our Native American sisters and brothers, learn from one another, and speak out together as we work to make the conditions on the reservations better. In order to hold Christian communities together, sometimes we need to confess sins that we have made as a community, and not just as individuals within that community.

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here is the good news: as uncomfortable and embarrassing as it is to admit that we have sinned, God is gracious and forgives us when we confess our sins. And when we extend forgiveness to one another as God extends forgiveness to us, we walk in the light and we have true fellowship with one another. True joy is experienced in such a community of Christians, because that community is not shattered by sin that has not been confessed. So let’s be willing to be more vulnerable with one another. Let us be more willing to admit when we have sinned, and let us be more willing to ask for forgiveness. And let us forgive one another as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven us. Amen.