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.

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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.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 11A

Matthew 15:10-28

“It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.”  This is what my preaching professor at Gettysburg said when we encountered this text in her preaching class.  “It’s hard to like Jesus when he’s being snarky.”  This text is uncomfortable for us because it challenges all of our ideas about Jesus always loving everyone and welcoming everyone to be with him.  It’s hard to like Jesus when he calls the Pharisees, who were widely regarded as the good religious folks in Jewish society at this time, blind guides who are leading the blind.  And it’s hard to like Jesus when he throws his hands up in the air and asks Peter if he’s stupid.  It’s hard to like Jesus when he names the sins that come out of our hearts.  And, finally, it’s hard to like Jesus when he calls someone a dog.  Today’s Gospel is part of our Scriptures, and we must deal with it.  But how?  Was Jesus just having a bad day?  Or is there, perhaps, something more going on here?  Because this text is so difficult for us to understand, there are several different ways that interpreters have looked at it.  Each way of interpretation raises questions even as it answers some. But today I am going to speak from my heart as I interpret today’s Gospel in light of what is going on in the world around us, and here is what I think: We confess that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. And today is a day when I think Jesus was letting his human side come completely into view.

Now, let me explain what I mean by that. We give Jesus a pass on a lot of things because we emphasize his full divinity over and against his full humanity. Today, though, I want to talk about Jesus’ full humanity and try not to give him a pass, but to wrestle with him in all of his humanness. And here is what I think is going on: as a human being, Jesus was raised in a first-century Jewish culture. He was raised to believe that, as we hear throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish people were God’s special, chosen people, and those who were not Jewish were outsiders, others, somehow not as special as the Jewish people were. Jesus would have heard the stories of how the Israelites fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, and he would have heard how the Israelites were commanded to kill all of the Canaanites so that they could settle in the land. And then let’s add this to the mix: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is a refugee; a survivor of the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem, some of whom were his cousins, and he was brought up in Egypt and in the town of Nazareth instead of his hometown of Bethlehem. Because of this, his psyche has developed into putting people in categories: those who don’t get what he’s saying and those who do; those who are in and those who are out. When the Pharisees are offended by what Jesus is saying, he quickly calls them “blind guides leading the blind”. That’s part of the particular human being who Jesus was, according to Matthew.

But then it gets worse. Jesus goes off into a retreat and encounters a “Canaanite” woman. Now this is one of the odd things about the Gospel of Matthew. The Canaanites had not existed as a people since Old Testament times. The Gospel of Mark calls this woman a Syro-Phoenician woman, which would have been more accurate to the peoples who lived in that area in the 1st century. But no, Matthew calls this woman who calls out after Jesus a Canaanite. Hold on to that thought for a moment, because it’s important and I’m going to come back to it. Let’s look at what happens: first, Jesus ignores her, then he says, “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus, the Jesus who we say loves everyone, just called this woman a dog. And even though we try to soften it—yes, the Greek word for “dog” here can mean “little dog,” like a lapdog or a puppy—it’s still pretty bad.  Think of this:  even though our culture loves and spoils our dogs today, so that they are members of our family, we still have a very insulting word that we often call people which means a female dog.  I ask your forgiveness and indulgence here, but Jesus has just called this woman a bitch.  There is no getting around this insult, and there is no getting around the fact that it has come out of Jesus’ mouth.

This is Jesus in his humanity, coming out with a racist attitude that should make all of us cringe. And this woman knows that she’s been insulted, too. But she is so desperate for her daughter to be healed, and she is so convinced that Jesus can heal her daughter, that she goes along with the insult and she persists: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” I don’t think we fully appreciate how clever this woman really is. If someone called me a dog, I think I would be angry and resentful and maybe go off and tell my friends what a jerk this guy was being. Some Savior these Jewish people have! But that’s not what this woman does. She demonstrates faith that, even though Jesus has just insulted her to her face, he could change his mind and help her daughter. And so, she persisted, and she followed his insult to its logical conclusion.

And Jesus is suitably impressed with the woman’s faith, and he changes his mind and heals her daughter. Now, remember when I mentioned how weird it is that Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite when the Canaanites had not been in existence as a people for centuries? One interpretation is this: because Jesus, who was Jewish, healed this “Canaanite” woman’s daughter, we can see that he is making a symbolic restitution to the Canaanite people on behalf of the Jewish people for driving them off their land so many centuries ago, when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. And by changing his mind and healing this woman’s daughter, we can see Jesus beginning to reject the racist attitudes towards those who are not Jewish. And by the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we will see a resurrected Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations. And when you see the word “all,” anywhere in the New Testament, then all means all.

So now that we have this foundation and an interpretation of the Gospel story before us, I would like to talk with you about events happening today. Last weekend’s horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been weighing heavily on my mind. My parents used to live about 45 minutes west of Charlottesville. I did my required chaplaincy training at the University of Virginia Medical Center, and I also did temporary work in downtown Charlottesville. I recognized the streets that the news media took pictures of. I walked some of those streets. And to see the city break out in fighting like that was a very personal thing for me. This week, I have been both angry and heartbroken.

Some of you might think that such a thing could not happen here. I’m here to tell you differently. Not far from where I live, I was told that the building that now houses Gaudenzia once housed the KKK, and in recent enough memory that I might hear it referred to as “Klan Hollow”. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, counts 40 active hate groups in Pennsylvania. Forty. But not even as extreme as all that, I have heard people in this area make racist remarks. Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not equating the things I’ve heard with these hate groups. Many of these remarks I think are just attitudes that people have grown up with, like Jesus was probably taught by his human family and friends that those who were not Jewish were “other,” and not to be trusted. But, when confronted with a real human being who was a woman and an “other,” Jesus changed his mind. And that is the good news for us: if Jesus can change his mind, so can we.

Racism is a sin. If we say that God created all people, as the Scriptures teach us, in God’s image, then it is a sin for us to look down on someone who doesn’t look like us and call them “other,” or “not worthy”. And if I say something that I don’t think is racist, and someone else tells me that it’s racist, then I need to have the grace to recognize that I have caused offense, to apologize to that person, ask that person why what I said was racist, and then listen to them. I think that’s part of the controversy that’s going on right now surrounding Confederate memorials. White people say, “Oh, it’s part of American history and there’s nothing wrong with learning from them.” We white people are not listening to the other side of the story: that many of these statues went up in the Jim Crow era, during segregation, and were meant to intimidate African Americans. We don’t listen to their side of the story: that these statues are a visible reminder of their oppression. I heard from my sister-in-law in Florida that there is a park near where she and my brother live named Confederate Park, and some of her neighbors will not go there because the name makes them feel not welcomed.

We all need to get better at listening to one another. We need to not be so fragile and so easily offended when someone tells us we are being racist. And, we all need to look deeper into our minds and hearts and look at the prejudices we hold there, and we need to repent of them. This is work that is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be long and hard and painful. And it’s going to start with relationships. Jesus didn’t change his mind until he was confronted with someone who was “other” from him and was impressed by her faith. We, too, need to forge friendships with people who are different from us and to work on those relationships. And the good news is, if Jesus changed his mind, then so, too, can we. And in the end, that is what today’s Gospel is about: all means all. And there is enough of God’s love and provision, and more than enough, to go around. So we have no reason to be afraid of others. I will continue to hold out hope that in the end, God’s love wins. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost 10A

Matthew 14:22-33

I am not a lover of comic books, but I enjoy a good superhero movie. The one that got me hooked into the Marvel universe was “Thor.” I know what you all are going to say: it’s only the fact that Thor was played by such a good-looking guy that got me hooked. I will admit that the fact that Thor is very handsome is a factor in my enjoyment of that movie. However, what got me even more than the way that Thor looked was the story: weaving Norse mythology into the story of a man who gets banished to earth, learns what it is to be human and to empathize with humans, then sacrifices his life so that his new friends might live, and who then is restored to life has definite echoes of the Christian story in it. The superhero movie that got me hooked this year was Wonder Woman: this time, it was a female superhero who wanted to help human beings live because she loved them that dragged me in to the superhero universe. I came out of that movie wanting to be Wonder Woman in my own life. And perhaps that’s what appeals to me and to many others about superhero movies: we all wish we could have those powers so that we could save the world and help everyone to live together in peace. Which one of us wouldn’t, after all, wish that we could go down to Charlottesville, wave our magic wand, and have everyone live peacefully together again?

And to some extent, that superhero language translates into American Christianity. How many of you here today have taken part in a Bible study, or at least heard of a Bible study, about heroes of the Bible? I know that I have. Figures like Abraham, Moses, David, Deborah, Mary, Abigail, and so on and so forth are lifted up to us as the perfect model of human being for us to imitate in the Christian faith. And in our story today, Peter is also often lifted up as a hero. Be like Peter, people say. If you want the ministry of the church to take off, sometimes you have to step out of the boat and walk on the water. Be like Peter—take a risk and try something, and if you fail, that’s okay, because Jesus will be there to catch you. But, unfortunately, we Americans have gotten it wrong. Being a hero and taking a risk is not what this story is about. Rather, it is a story about what happens when you try to take on the role of God instead of staying in the boat like you are supposed to.

So, let’s try to look at this story from the perspective of a 1st-century Middle Eastern congregation instead of a 21st-century American one. In 1st-century Palestine, the sea was a symbol of chaos, danger, and fear. Let’s think back to the first chapter of Genesis for a moment. This creation story starts out with, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Waters, formlessness, void of everything. Then God begins creating with, “Let there be light,” and the rest of the story is about God making order out of the chaos and the formlessness. And that includes separating the waters from the waters. The waters of the Sea of Galilee were part of this unknown chaos, and to sail on the water was to sail on chaos. People died in storms at sea. To sail on the waters was most likely considered an act of bravery, and sometimes, foolishness.

For Jesus to walk on the water, then, was a declaration that he was the master of the chaos. If the disciples hadn’t gotten the message with the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, once they heard Jesus tell them that it was he and not to be afraid, they would have gotten the message then: Jesus was, as they declare at the end of the story, the Son of God. So, what’s going on with Peter, then? Why does he want to walk on the water? If he truly needed proof that it was Jesus, there were a thousand other things he could have asked of Jesus. Why does Peter want to get out of the boat?

Well, here’s another piece of symbolism for us to reflect on. A boat riding the waves has often been used as a symbol of the church. The implication of that symbolism is that it is best to stay in the boat with the rest of the church and ride out the storms that batter the church together. For Peter to want to get out of the boat and walk on the water, then, suggests a couple of possibilities: First, Peter wanting to get out of the boat may suggest that he thinks he would be fine on his own, with Jesus, and that he doesn’t need the church. But secondly, and I think probably more likely than the first possibility, is that Peter wants to be lord over the chaos, too. To refer back to Genesis again: Peter wanting to walk on the water is the same kind of thing as Eve seeing the fruit in the garden and eating it because she wants to be like God. Peter wants to be like God, and be ruler over the chaos of the wind-swept waves.

This interpretation makes more sense to me than the traditional interpretations of Peter being the risk taker. After all, we human beings want to be lords over the chaos. We want to control our fates. We want to be the center of the universe. We want the world to operate according to the rules we set for it. In short, we want to be like God: not only having knowledge of good and evil, as Eve and Adam desired, but also wanting to be that superhero: we want to save the world and control the chaos. Each one of us would love it if we could do it all on our own and have the world worship us and follow us. But what happens when we try to do that is that we realize that we can’t do it on our own, and that on our own we are nothing, and, like Peter, we sink and we cry out to Jesus to save us.

And that, indeed, is the good news. We are not alone in this world. Jesus has reached out his hand and saved us by dying on the cross for our sins. And Jesus continues to come to us through the storms, when we have tried to be like God and when we have tried to make it on our own, and he reaches out his hand and says, “O you of little faith, I am right here beside you. Do not doubt that I am with you through everything that happens in your life, and I will walk with you through the storm.” But you know, that’s not everything that Jesus does. I think he also asks us why we got out of the boat in the first place.

Because the end of the story is this: Jesus, holding Peter’s hand, leads him back to the boat where the other disciples have been rowing all along. And when Jesus gets in the boat, the wind dies down and the storm is over. Remember what I said earlier: the image of the boat symbolizes the church. The storm hits the church, and while one person is trying to be a hero by walking on the water, the rest have remained in the boat, together, and are riding out the storm together. The church doesn’t need superheroes who get out of the boat and try to do everything on their own in order to save the church. There is only one Savior, after all, and that is Jesus Christ. It is he, and he alone, who has done everything for us. What the church needs is people who will stay in the boat and work together with one another to ride out the storms, trusting that Jesus is right there beside them.

Much as I want to be Wonder Woman and save the church and the world, it is not up to me to do that. Much as I want to go to Charlottesville, wave my magic wand, and have everyone live peacefully together again, I can’t do that. What I can do, and what I try to do, is to serve you as your pastor and point to Jesus, who has already saved us. We all need to come together to see where Jesus is leading us in the days ahead. It’s going to require intensive listening for God’s will and hard work as we learn to change the ways that we do things. It’s going to require listening to the voices of our neighbors, many of whom don’t look like us, and hearing the pain that they are going through. It’s going to require recognizing that the church as a whole has not always spoken out against the evil of racism, and while we say we love everyone, we don’t always act that way. It’s also going to require deepening our roots in Christ, re-familiarizing ourselves with our Scriptures and with our Lutheran heritage. We have to remember who we are and whose we are so that we are able to tell others about why God’s love is so important to their lives. It’s not going to be easy, but we have the reassurance that Jesus will be by our side through anything that comes our way.

The bishop of the Montana Synod, which is the Synod I came here from, said this in reference to a specific issue that happened in the area when I was serving there: We pastors are not to be Lone Rangers. The Lone Ranger is another type of hero that many of us are familiar with. And the word “lone” is even in his title. Peter tried to be a Lone Ranger and walk out on the water by himself, and it didn’t work too well. None of us are called to be a Lone Ranger, a Thor, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America, or any other superhero that you can think of. We are called to stay in the boat, to weather the storms that we encounter together, and to remember that Jesus Christ walks on the waters beside us and is the master of the storms and the chaos. Jesus is our Savior, and Jesus alone. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 9A

Matthew 14:13-21

One of the more interesting stops on my life journey happened when I went to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in order to become a deaconess. As part of the deaconess training, each woman was assigned a congregation to become a part of and to learn from at the same time that she did her classwork. And the name of the congregation that I was assigned to was Congregation Chai v Shalom. Chai in Hebrew means life, and shalom in Hebrew means peace. This congregation was a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. But, they were also a Messianic Jewish congregation; many of the members came from a Jewish background, but they also believed in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. Unlike many of their Jewish brothers and sisters, they did not see this as a contradiction. Rather, they pointed out that the first Christians were Jewish, and that they did not give up their Jewishness in order to believe in Jesus. During the time that I was with this congregation—and there were other non-Jewish people in the group besides me—I learned about many Jewish festivals. And one of my favorites was the festival of Purim, which celebrates the rescue of the Jewish people from the Persian king’s henchman by Queen Esther. Jewish people today celebrate this by reading the story of Esther and having people act out the story as it’s being read, and then they have a feast, where everyone brings a dish to share.

Now, fast forward to the next interesting stop on my life’s journey, which was the year that I spent on internship in Alaska. I decided that I wanted to introduce the festival of Purim to the congregation that I was working with there. I taught the high school Sunday school class the story of Esther, and soon had them acting it out. As the date for the festival drew near, I invited not only the congregation I was working with, but sent out invitations to some of the other congregations in the area. I asked everyone to bring a dish to share. There was some concern expressed about, “What if everyone brings a dessert and there are no main dishes?” But by the time I was made aware of that, it was too late to do anything about it, and we had to trust that there would be enough food of the right kind for everyone. And it turns out that there was: without signup sheets, each person brought the right kind of food for the feast. And we all ate, and were filled, and we had lots leftover.

Maybe this isn’t exactly the same as what Jesus did with the five loaves and two fishes in feeding the 5000-plus crowd that had gathered around him that day. But this story of mine points to something that the disciples worried about that long-ago day, and it points to something that we still worry about so many years later: We worry that Jesus has given us an impossible task to do, and we worry that the resources that he has given us will not be enough to get the job done. And yet, as we see in today’s story, Jesus gives the resources of five loaves of bread and two fish to the disciples, and the disciples hand them out to the people sitting there, and not only is what they have enough, it is more than enough, with much left over.

So, first of all, how is God calling us to feed the communities of Oberlin and Steelton? And what resources has God given us? Well, let’s start with the basics. Dave Daubert, who I’ve mentioned in sermons before—he’s the pastor who consults with congregations as they are working on renewal—talks about God having a dream for the world. Now many of us have probably heard that the point of being a Christian is believing in Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die. Well, that’s part of it, but when we dig deeper into the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament prophets, we will find that’s not all of it. God’s dream, as Daubert phrases it, is for God’s kingdom to come to fulfillment here on earth. Remember that line in the Lord’s Prayer that we say every week? “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s what that means: God’s dream, and God’s mission, is to see God’s kingdom come to fulfillment on this earth that God created, just as God’s kingdom is already fulfilled in heaven. And what that kingdom looks like is this: a place of righteousness, peace, justice, and love (27). Daubert likes to say that God is already working to bring that kingdom about here on earth. Our choice is whether or not we will participate in it.

Today’s story of Jesus multiplying the five loaves of bread so that 5,000 plus people ate their fill and were satisfied is the only miracle story of Jesus that appears in all four Gospels, so we know it’s pretty important. I think it appears in all four of the Gospels because it is the best example of what God’s kingdom come on earth looks like: everyone full, not only with bread, but full with Jesus’ teachings and full with the health that Jesus brings when he heals people. But even though this story appears in all four Gospels, there are still minor differences from Gospel to Gospel. And one of the minor differences in Matthew is that the disciples are the ones who provide the bread and give it to Jesus, and after Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread, the disciples are the ones who give the bread to the crowds. This detail shows us that while Jesus works the miracle, the disciples get to participate in showing the people a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven on earth. God, through Jesus, does not like to work alone—he likes to bring his children into his work to bring the kingdom of heaven into being on earth.

And yet we, like the first disciples, worry that the five loaves and the two fish that we have are not enough. We find it difficult to trust that God will make the limited resources we have to be enough, and more than enough, to participate in bringing God’s kingdom to being here on earth. And today I want to talk about a concrete example in the lives of our two congregations: that example is Family Promise.

Family Promise is a group that exists in cities across the country to help families who are homeless by giving them shelter and food and by helping them get back on their feet. Most shelters for homeless people are segregated by gender, with men in one shelter and women and children in another. This arrangement can lead to the separation of families who are homeless, and puts a further unnecessary burden and strain upon the family. Family Promise works with local churches and volunteers to help keep those families together. What the churches do is to take turns during the year at providing overnight housing, an evening meal, and a breakfast to go for the families. During the day, the children in the families go to school, while the parents, if they have a job, will go to their place of work. They will also go to the day center in LeMoyne, to look for housing and for work if they don’t have a job. At this central location during the day, the staff workers render assistance in helping the families find housing, work, and they help them to develop a budget, among other things.

Shortly after I arrived here in Pennsylvania, I was approached by a board member of Family Promise to see if St. John and Salem would be interested in becoming host churches for Family Promise. We started with a presentation to the council at St. John, and a group from St. John went over to Our Saviour’s to see Family Promise in action. This group felt it was a worthwhile endeavor, but was concerned that St. John alone did not have the resources to make it happen. So, the group brought Salem in on it. Salem’s council also thought this was a good and worthy thing to do, but again the concern was that we did not have the resources to see it through. So, tomorrow night, at our 4 churches cooperative meeting, we will bring Family Promise once again to the floor to expand the potential pool of resources and hopefully make this come to fruition.

Folks, it feels like God is calling us in the direction of working with Family Promise. The concern we have about resources is a legitimate one, but in the end, if this is indeed the direction that God is calling us to go, then God will give us, and in fact has already given us, all that we need to make this work. All we need to do is to look around with open eyes and to see that, what seems like small and limited resources and what seems like it is not enough to do the work is, in fact, enough, and more than enough, to participate in this glimpse of the coming kingdom of heaven. For in fact, something like Family Promise—a group that helps to make sure families have shelter, food, and assistance in getting back on their feet—is God working through God’s children to make God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

So I invite you all to come to the 4 churches cooperative meeting tomorrow night. We start at 6:00 p.m. with refreshments, and the meeting itself starts at 6:30 p.m. Family Promise is only one of the items on our agenda, but it is an important one. Between now and then, I would like to ask you all to be in prayer for the leading of the Holy Spirit. If you feel led to be a coordinator of this effort, or to help in any other way, please speak up and volunteer. As your pastor, I believe that the resources that we need to answer this calling from God are right here, among us, and I am praying that those resources would become apparent, so that we can participate in the coming of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. For although God has the ability to work alone if need be, God’s love for us means that God wants to include us in the coming kingdom. I believe that’s why Jesus had his disciples help in distributing food to the crowd that numbered 5000-plus on that long-ago day. And I believe that’s why God calls us to be God’s hands and to participate in the coming of the kingdom today. Amen.

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.