Sermon for Pentecost 4A

Matthew 10:40-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for Pentecost 3A

Matthew 10:24-39 & Jeremiah 20:7-13

When I was in the process of hearing God’s call upon my life to become an ordained pastor, there were some frightening points in the journey. One of those points came when I made the decision to leave the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and come to the ELCA. What made this scary is that, while I had made the decision in my mind and in my heart that this is what God was calling me towards, I now had to tell my friends and my family what I was going to do. And what I feared most about this was losing those friends and family who would have a problem with women being pastors. I knew that my immediate family would support me: my parents love me, and I think my brother probably was wondering why I hadn’t done this a long time ago. But the conversation that I was most nervous about was the one with my maternal grandmother, who was the wife of a Missouri Synod pastor, and a rather conservative one at that. In the end, that conversation went much better than I expected it to, and after my maternal grandfather died from Alzheimer’s, my grandmother gifted me with his stoles. And most of my friends in the Missouri Synod have stayed friends with me, even if they don’t completely agree with what I am doing. But there was one friend I had who started being actively unsupportive and derogatory of me on Facebook. And finally, I had to cut the bonds that I had with him because of it. And so I resonate with Jesus’ saying that we have in our Gospel reading today: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

As much as we like to think of Jesus as someone who loves us and cares for us—and he is all of that and more—Jesus is also someone who has some difficult things to say to us. The life of discipleship is not an easy one, and if we think it is—if we are coming to church just so that we will “look good” to people around us—then we do not understand what following Jesus is truly about. Jesus tells us today that following him will demand much from us. Jesus tells us that following him will divide us from both our family members and those we thought were our friends. And Jesus tells us that we, too, must take up our cross in order to follow him.

I would like to speak more today about what taking up our cross and following Jesus means and doesn’t mean. First of all, we have a saying in our culture about something or someone being “our cross to bear”. Usually what that means is that we have a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance and a drain upon our lives, but with whom we cannot cut our bonds, for whatever reason. I really don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Remember that a cross was a Roman instrument of execution. And not only was it an instrument of execution, it was an instrument of torture—people who were put on the cross could hang there for days in utter agony before they finally died of suffocation or exposure. And not only was the cross an instrument of torture and execution, it was also one of humiliation: the person who was hung on the cross had to carry the instrument of his death through the crowds, to the place of execution, and suffer the jeers of the crowds. Having a neighbor or a family member who is a nuisance or a drain on your life is really nothing in comparison to what the cross was really about.

Secondly, taking up your cross and following Jesus does not mean living in an abusive situation. For too long, pastors have counseled female parishioners who are experiencing abuse from their husbands to stay in that relationship, because the husband is supposedly the wife’s “cross to bear”. I’m going to say right now that this is absolute nonsense. Even though Jesus experienced physical abuse when he took up his cross and died for us, that is not the same kind of abuse as what happens in a marital relationship where things have gone wrong. If any of you in the congregation today are in that kind of relationship, I encourage you to do what you can to get out of it. And please know that I am a safe space, and I will do everything within my ability to help you.

So far, I have spoken about what taking up your cross and following Jesus is not about. It is not about dealing with a neighbor or family member who is a nuisance. It is not about staying in an abusive marital relationship. So what, then, is it about? From the context of the other things that Jesus tells us today, part of what taking up your cross and following Jesus is about is this: when we witness to what Jesus has taught us, and when we live out those teachings in our lives, and when we suffer abuse and misunderstanding for that, then we are getting close to what Jesus meant by taking up the cross and following him. So, what does this look like?

I think this is why, paired with today’s reading from Matthew, we get a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived a long time before Jesus did. But, had he heard Jesus’ teaching, I am sure that he would have agreed with it. Jeremiah was a prophet who lived in Jerusalem right before the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 BC. God tasked Jeremiah with telling the king and the people of Jerusalem that the Babylonians would be victorious and the people would be taken into exile. This was, obviously, not a popular message. Jerusalem was where God’s Temple was; it was the place where God, the one God, came down to earth to meet with God’s people. There was no way that God would let the Babylonians conquer God’s city. And there were many false prophets who were soothing the king with words of peace and suggestions to ally themselves with Egypt so that the Babylonians would be defeated. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jeremiah to speak the true word from God that was the exact opposite of what the people wanted to hear and believe? At one point, they threw Jeremiah into a dry well and left him there to die; it was only when a servant in the king’s house pleaded for Jeremiah that he was rescued and pulled up out of the well.

The reading that we have from Jeremiah today gives us a window into how the prophet was feeling about this calling from God. And he was not happy. He loved his country; he loved his people; he did not want this sad duty to tell the people that God was sending them into exile. And yet, he says that when he decided not to speak anymore in God’s name, “then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Even though Jeremiah lived long before Jesus did, this is an example of what taking up the cross and following Jesus looks like: speaking the truth to a world that is not always ready to face up to what it has done wrong, much less one that is willing to fix the injustices that it has created. Taking up the cross and following Jesus means speaking the truth and realizing that, by so doing, we are putting our allegiance to God before our family, and by speaking God’s words, creating a division between us and our families.

As people who follow Jesus, what is that burning fire that is shut up within our bones? And are we weary with holding it in? How is God speaking through us? And are we willing to be divided from family and friends who don’t agree with us, for the sake of speaking necessary words to the world around us? In short, are we ready to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, so that we might find our lives? These kinds of questions will take much study of the Scriptures and much soul searching, and we may not like the answers that we hear from God. They may even spark some genuine fear as we begin to realize what Jesus is calling us to do.

Yet the good news is this: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” We have nothing to be afraid of, for God knows who we are. And God loves us so much that he gave up his Son, Jesus, to that torturous and humiliating death on the cross for us. We will never live up to Jesus’ standards for taking up the cross and following him, no matter how hard we try. And that’s okay, because we don’t have to: Jesus has already done it for us.

So, we have nothing to fear. Let us speak the truth that Jesus has given us to say to the world. Let us not hold back, but let us speak up for the poor, for the vulnerable, for good stewardship of the creation which God has given us, and for all of those things which God would have us speak about. This world needs to hear the message that God loves us, that God values each one of us—black, white, Hispanic, Native American, etc.–so much that all of the hairs on our head are counted, that God has given us enough so that all people may have good health and a full life, and that God wants all people to live in peace with one another and to help one another. Such a good message to hear, and yet the world will not always respond well to this message. We may suffer humiliation of various kinds as we bring this message to the world. But this is what taking up the cross and following Jesus means. So, let us be bold and speak out. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Pentecost 2A

Matthew 9:35-10:23

Several years ago, I was at an in-between stage in my life’s journey, waiting for God to lead me to the next stop. I was living at home with my parents, and my mother and I were both doing temp work at an office in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was about a 45-minute drive from where my parents lived. One day, as my mother and I were driving home from the office on a warm summer evening, we looked to the side of the road and saw several men dressed in monk’s habits walking along the road. We were a little startled, because, after all, you don’t often see a group of monks walking along a rural road in the mountains of Virginia. But, we continued on our way home and forgot about the incident. Until, a day or two later, we saw an article about the monks in our local paper. It turns out this group of monks was on a pilgrimage—I can’t remember exactly where they were going—and for shelter at night, they would knock on the door of someone’s house and offer to do chores in return for a meal and a place to sleep, even if that place to sleep was in the garage or the barn. And most of the folks whose doors they knocked on did offer them that hospitality. It gave me hope that there are still good, kind people out there in the world. And I admired these monks, who seemed to be taking Jesus’ instructions in today’s Gospel very seriously: taking no additional baggage along with them, but asking for help and for hospitality as they journeyed from one place to another.

When I saw today’s Gospel lesson, I didn’t quite know at first how the Holy Spirit would lead me to preach on this. After all, when I go from one place to another, I take my stuff with me. When I made the journey here from Wyoming, I made plans: while I did give away many things and threw many things out, I still had lots of stuff that I had to move across the country. I booked hotels along the way, and I had to make sure they were hotels that would let me bring my animals. I don’t know what it’s like to simply set out on a journey to proclaim the good news with nothing but myself and trust in other people to shelter me. And in today’s society, doing such a thing would require even more faith in God’s protection, especially as a woman, because it means becoming vulnerable to attacks from strangers who are not willing to provide hospitality. So, what do we do with this text that is the appointed reading for today?

Well, let’s start by acknowledging something about ourselves: We don’t like to be vulnerable. To illustrate this point, I’d like to share with you a story about something that happened to me on my internship, about 6 years ago. As many of you know, I was in Lancaster doing my internship at Holy Trinity Lutheran. If you were here at my installation service last week, the pastor who preached that day was my internship supervisor. At the time, my name and my biography was on Trinity’s website, and included in that biography was the information that I had spent time in Taiwan as a volunteer missionary. One day, only a few weeks before I was set to finish my internship and go back to Gettysburg to complete seminary, I received a call from a pastor in Washington State asking for help. It seems that a young lady from China was coming over to the U.S. on a summer work visa, but at the last minute, her summer work had been switched from Washington to Lancaster, PA. Would I be able to help this young woman find housing and make sure she wouldn’t be taken advantage of?

With my supervisor’s approval, I took on this challenge. When we couldn’t find affordable housing right away, I offered her the couch in my one-bedroom apartment that was being filled up with boxes as I was preparing to move back to Gettysburg. It was a great inconvenience to me, but I didn’t see what else I could do at that point if I didn’t want this young lady to be on the street. As it turned out, I ended up learning a lot about her and about some of the injustices in our visa system that year. But then, God turned the tables on me. The very last week of my internship, I somehow managed to come down with a bad case of laryngitis. My unexpected visitor from China decided to return some of the hospitality that I had shown her. She had brought lots of tea with her from China, and she started making hot tea for me, as well as other hot dishes to soothe my throat. And you know what? I didn’t like it that she did this for me. What I discovered is that I can extend hospitality to others, and that I often see this as part of Jesus’ calling on my life, but that I’m really bad at accepting hospitality from others. And perhaps part of that, too, was that she extended hospitality to me much more willingly than I had to her.

I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that we are like that. Because accepting hospitality from others means admitting that we are vulnerable, and that we need help from others, and we don’t like that. Especially in American culture, most of us are raised to be independent and to do for ourselves. Asking for help is considered to be a sign of weakness. And so, we look at Jesus’ instructions to his disciples today and we tell ourselves that this is impractical and it is unsafe and that surely Jesus doesn’t want us to put our lives in danger, does he? But what if we’re wrong? What if Jesus is calling us, his church in North America, to admit that we’re vulnerable and that we need help? What would that even look like?

One way that this might happen is to put ourselves into the place of the people around us who are in a vulnerable situation in life. And that starts with having compassion on them. Part of our text today says that Jesus had “compassion for [the crowds], because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Now, the Greek word that gets translated as “having compassion for,” is one of my favorite words, splachnizomai. In Greek culture, the seat of the emotions was not in the heart, like we have it today, but rather in the bowels, and this word that is translated as “having compassion for” literally means “feeling like your insides are coming out.” Have you ever felt such compassion for someone that you felt like your insides were coming out? Has the grief of another person so overcome you that you start weeping, too? That’s what having compassion on someone truly feels like.

Having compassion on others means that other people are not a political sound bite and they are not something to be afraid of, but rather, that they are ordinary people facing some tough things in life, just like we are. For example, it’s one thing for politicians to say that those who are poor should not be relying so much on government programs, but rather should be going out and finding work. It’s another thing entirely to be confronted in person by the mother whose husband has left her, who has several children, and is working two jobs just to make ends meet, and who would not be able to afford to put food on her table were it not for those government programs. Another example: it’s one thing to say that of course, we welcome immigrants if they come here legally. It’s another thing to look into the desperate face of a person who has no chance of coming here legally because of the cost and the bureaucracy and the very real possibility that she will be rejected, but who is facing such violence in her home country that she is willing to do whatever is necessary to escape and to give her children a chance of having a better life.

Jesus sends us out. He sends us out of our church buildings and into our communities. He sends us out to “proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” He sends us out to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers,” and to “cast out demons.” He sends us out and tells us to give without expectation of payment, but to accept whatever hospitality is given us. Our violent world needs this good news of compassion more than ever. Because it is only when we have compassion for others; it is only when we feel our insides coming out, that we can do the things which Jesus has commanded us to do. And when that happens, when we truly listen to the stories of others, and when we truly have compassion on them, it is then that we can bring the peace of Jesus into their lives.

I saw this little story on social media yesterday, as I was finishing up this sermon, and I wanted to share it with you, because I think it fits:

A rabbi asked,” How can you recognize the time when night ends and day begins?”
“Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a dog from a sheep?” one student asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Is it when, from a great distance, you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” another asked. “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” they asked. “It is when you look into the face of any human creature and see your brother or your sister there. Until then, night is still with us.”

So, let’s practice being vulnerable with one another. Let’s admit to one another that we don’t always have it together and that we need help. Let’s have compassion on one another. Let’s feel our insides coming out for the other person. Let’s stop reducing people to nameless masses and political sound bites, but instead learn about their stories and how they’ve come to the place in life that they have. We will still not always agree with one another, but to have compassion means that we can admit that we are vulnerable, too, and that we don’t know what we would do in those particular circumstances. And then let’s go out with the good news that the kingdom of heaven is near, and bring healing and peace to the world. Amen.

 

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Come with me back in time, if you will, but not all the way back to the creation of the world. Our journey will stop in the year 586 BC, and we will look in on the Middle East, in the area known as the kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered and scattered long before this, in the year 722 BC, while the southern kingdom of Judah remained for a couple hundred years longer than that, with its capital being Jerusalem. But even though this kingdom was tiny and seemingly inconsequential on the world stage, it had the great misfortune of lying directly in the path of the two world powers of that time: to the southwest, Egypt, and to the northeast, Babylon, the area that we know of today as Iraq. As Babylon and Egypt vied for power, Judah was caught in the middle, and, to make a very long story short, Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 BC. When that happened, most of the population in Jerusalem and the surrounding area was dragged off into exile in Babylon.

So, I’d like for you to imagine this, if you can: you are an Israelite living in Jerusalem at this time. You believe that God, the one God, has made the Temple in Jerusalem God’s dwelling place. This is where God comes down to meet humanity. You have heard the rumbles of the coming Babylonian army, but with God on your side, you never think that the Babylonians will actually be victorious. And then, the unthinkable has happened, and you, with your family and your friends, are shackled in chains and marched off to Babylon, a strange culture where strange gods are worshiped. When you get there, you are confronted with this strange culture, and, wherever you have been placed, you discover that you must find a way to fit in or you risk punishment and even death. What do you do? Do you find ways to maintain your national and religious identity, even while seeming to fit in on the surface? Or do you give up everything you are and become someone new?

You’re probably wanting to ask me what this has to do with our readings today. Well, scholars think that the creation story that we just heard was written down by the Jewish community living in exile in Babylon after 586 BC. That’s not to say that the story wasn’t told orally before then; in most of human history, oral culture exists long before anyone thinks to write things down. But the Babylonians had a very different creation story than the Jewish people did. Instead of a god who made everything good, the Babylonians’ story of creation involved gods who fought and killed one another. The world was created by one of their gods from the bloodied corpse of a dead god. And human beings were created from the blood of yet another dead god to serve the whims of all the gods above.

This is what the Israelites were coming into when they entered Babylon as exiles. Besides being a pretty gruesome creation story, it justified King Nebuchadnezzar’s (and all other Babylonian kings) rule over the people and the atrocities he committed. If Nebuchadnezzar was seen as the representative, or image of his god, and his god could kill and use other gods’ bodies as he wished, then Nebuchadnezzar could also use people as he wished. He could enslave and kill and exile people with no thought of any consequences. And so, as an act of rebellion against this narrative of the dominant culture, the Israelites who chose to remember who they were as people of their God wrote down their own creation story.

And what a creation story it is! In contrast to the Babylonian gods, we see a God who is even more powerful than they are. The Babylonian gods need the bloodied corpses of other gods in order to create the world. Not so for the one God worshiped by the Jewish exiles: their God can create out of nothing, simply by saying, “Let there be. . .” And when God makes something, God calls it good. If you notice, the creation story never says why God creates the world and all that is in it. It just says that God commands, “Let there be. . .” and whatever it is comes into being. It’s almost as if God is dancing around and testing what “Let there be. . .” actually brings into being, and then God finds absolute delight in the things that have been created. God loves the creation, simply because God made it. And it’s absolutely wonderfully good.

And then God decides that part of the creation must bear God’s image. And so God makes human beings. And God makes them both male and female: both men and women bear God’s image. Neither one is disposable. And when God has done that, God is absolutely, completely satisfied with the creation. The creation is just as God intended it to be, and God not only calls it good, God calls it very good. This is not a God who kills in order to bring to life, like the Babylonian gods. This is a God who respects and who loves life in all of its infinite variety, and who can create life, beautiful life, out of absolutely nothing.

We Christians have inherited this beautiful creation story from the Jewish people, and yet, I don’t know that we are fully able to appreciate the beauty and the wonder of it. We use it as a weapon in creation vs. evolution debates in the school. We argue over whether the seven days of creation were literal 24-hour days or were metaphorical days intended to represent longer periods of time. We think that God’s directive to human beings to have dominion over the creation means that we can do whatever we want to the environment with no consequences. In short, this story often has very little meaning for us anymore. Even I, as a pastor, would rather talk about the more intimate account of God molding Adam from the earth that we see in chapter 2 of Genesis.

And yet, here we have this story, and it is part of our Holy Scriptures. And besides an appreciation for the God who creates everything out of nothing, and a wonder for all of the things God has created, I want to talk about one very important thing: what it means to be made in the image of God. Now, much ink has been spilled over this by many theologians over many centuries, so I don’t want you to think that I am giving you the definitive answer over what the image of God means. But here are some of my ideas:

First, let’s go back to the Babylonian creation story. If the Babylonian king is the image of his god, who killed other gods in order to create the world and human beings, and who made human beings to be slaves to him, then it follows that the Babylonian king, as the image of his god, could kill and enslave other people with no consequences. In contrast, if our God made human beings in God’s image, and called them very good, and blessed them, then it follows that, as God’s image, we are called to participate in the act of creation with God, and to call that creation good. Now, because we are sinful, not all of what we create is going to be good, but that’s a discussion for another chapter of Genesis. But any time we create new life, or help others to live, then we reflect the image of God.

And this brings me to my second point. Each one of us has something of the image of God in her or in him. That means that, when we look upon one another, we should be remembering that something that looks like God is looking back at us. We are to see God in one another, and we are to love and respect one another as if we are loving and respecting God. The Hindi language has a word for this that you may have heard before: Namaste. It means something like this: “I bow to the divine in you.” On the one hand, that might make us as Christians a bit uncomfortable. But on the other hand, if we had a greeting like this for one another in Christianity, it might make us more able to respect one another and forgive one another, even when we are in the midst of conflict.

And this brings me to my third and final point: we hear this creation story on the day when we honor the Trinity: God as Three-in-One and One-in-Three. I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you; no one can, and every time someone has tried, someone else condemns the first person as a heretic. This is one of those things that you have to take on faith. But many theologians have suggested that what the Trinity, what God is about, is relationship. Somehow, in some mysterious way, God is in relationship with Godself. And God wants to be in relationship with us, too; that part of God’s creation that is running around bearing God’s image. And God wants us to be in relationship with one another, and to love one another as God loves us. That’s a tough thing for us to do, and often, when we are frustrated with one another, it will be hard to see God’s image in the other person. But that is who God has made us to be, and on our worst days, we still, somehow, have a bit of God’s image in us.

Relationships are difficult for us human beings. We mess up a lot when we speak to one another, either intentionally or unintentionally causing hurt. Sometimes we have good relationships that last for a long time, and other times we hurt others so much that we irreparably destroy relationships. But one thing that we cannot do is to not have any relationships at all. When a God who is in relationship with Godself as a mysterious Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity creates something in God’s own image, then part of that image must mean that we are born to be in relationship with one another. As we go from here this week, in all of our interactions with each person that we meet, let’s look for that reflection of God shining out from the other person. Even in the midst of conflict, let us remember that we are looking at God’s image, and treat that person with respect and with love even when we disagree with him or her. And let us never forget to marvel at the created world around us that God has gifted us with, and let us continually think about the relationship we have with all things that are living. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost

John 20:19-23

Breath. Breathing. It’s something that we take for granted until we need it and we can’t get it. When you’re at a higher altitude, as I was for the last several years, you don’t realize that there’s not as much oxygen in the air and it’s more difficult to breathe until you come back down to a lower elevation. You notice how you breathe when you’re huffing and puffing up and down staircases moving heavy boxes of books. When I become anxious or nervous, I notice that I start to get short of breath, and my cat will often notice, come up to me, and start purring—which is also a form of breathing—and that calms me down, and I start breathing normally again. Finally, we notice our breathing when we have to use medical devices to help us breathe. For example, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea a few years back and now I use a CPAP at night to help me breathe—and what a difference this machine has made in helping me to feel healthy again. Much of our health, both physical and mental, comes down to how we breathe, and the quality of the breaths we take.

Today is Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples who were waiting in prayer for this gift. The story in Acts is full of wind and fire and speaking in foreign languages and people hearing the good news of Jesus and becoming believers and getting baptized. It’s a fun story to preach on; everyone likes to talk about the flash and the bang that the Holy Spirit used on that day, and laugh at how the people outside the group of disciples thought that they were drunk at nine in the morning! But sometimes it might lead to us thinking that this is the only way the Spirit works, and why doesn’t the Holy Spirit work like that today, so that 3000 people can be baptized in one day and our churches could be full again. Our lessons from 1 Corinthians and from John speak about other ways that the Holy Spirit is given and manifests itself. So today I want to focus on how the Holy Spirit is manifesting itself in our Gospel lesson from John. And it all has to do with breath and with breathing.

If today’s Gospel sounds familiar, then I know that you were in worship the Sunday after Easter. This is part of the Easter story, and it’s the one that includes the story of Thomas, he who would not believe that Jesus had risen until he put his hands into Jesus’ wounds from his crucifixion. But today we don’t get to hear about Thomas; we only get the first part of that story. So, just to refresh our memories—because it has now been 50 days since we heard the story of Jesus’ resurrection—I’m going to give you a summary of what has happened in this Gospel. Early on the first day of the week—the third day since Jesus had been crucified, died, and was buried—Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found it empty. She ran to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty. Peter and the other disciple came and found it just as Mary said, and they went back home. But when Mary stayed at the tomb weeping, Jesus came to her and showed that he was alive. Then he told her to go and tell the disciples what she had seen and that Jesus would be returning to his father. So Mary did just that. And now we come to today’s scene.

Jesus comes in through the locked doors, into a room that’s full of fear, and says, “Peace be with you.” Picture that for a moment. I mentioned before that when I get anxious, my breathing becomes shallower. Now, picture a room full of Jesus’ disciples, already full of fear, they are not breathing very deeply. And then, Jesus comes in—through a locked door! Well, no wonder he says, “Peace be with you!” And no wonder he says it twice. The hearts of these disciples, already fearful, leapt with even more fear as they saw their teacher, who had just died a gruesome death. People don’t come back from the dead, after all. If it were me, I think my heart would go a mile a minute upon seeing Jesus appear in front of me. And my breath would get shallower than it already had been.

Then, Jesus does something very strange. Our translation says that he breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Well, the translators are softening the original Greek and taking away the powerful imagery of what’s really going on. Jesus actually did not breathe on the disciples. He puffed air into the disciples. What is translated “Holy Spirit,” more accurately means “holy breath”; the primary meaning of the Greek word pneuma is not “spirit,” but, rather, “breath.” I’d like you all to think for a moment where you may have heard about God puffing breath into someone before.  If you said Genesis 2, you’re absolutely right: “then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” John wants to give us the same idea: Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is puffing his holy breath, the breath of the one who rose from the dead, into the nostrils of the disciples. He is not only giving them back the breath they were short of because of their fear, he is also making them into a new creation, just as God breathed into Adam’s nostrils to make him into a living being.

And Jesus also says something else, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We usually don’t think about that line too much. But let’s think about it today. The Father sent Jesus into the world to love us, to teach us, to heal us, and ultimately, to die on the cross for us. Now he sends his disciples into the world to love the world, to teach the world, and to heal the world. Some of those disciples would die a martyr’s death; others would not. But even if we are not called to show our love for the world by our physical death, we are sent into the world to give ourselves away, sacrificially.

So, what does all of this mean for us in our daily lives? First of all, as Jesus’ disciples, we, too, have had the holy breath puffed into us. When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death of Jesus so that we might walk in newness of life. We share in that holy breath, that breath of a new creation and that breath of promised resurrection. And that breath is deep and relaxed. There is no fear when we remember that, no matter how much evil there is in the world, Jesus has given us hope in him and in the new creation that he has breathed into us. Every breath that we take is a breath breathed into us by God. And that brings me to the second point: Because every breath that we take is breathed into us by God, we, too, are sent into the world as the Father has sent Jesus. The God-breath in us, or, if you would rather, the Holy Spirit in us, enables us to see that each person that we meet also has God-breath in him or in her. When we recognize that, then we can see that each person has worth in God’s eyes and is loved by God. And so, we are empowered to go into the world, showing God’s love to each person we meet, teaching them about Jesus, and giving sacrificially of ourselves so that others may have enough to live.

On Friday and Saturday, I was at Synod Assembly, both participating in a learning experience and participating in conducting the business of the Synod. Our keynote speaker, Dave Daubert, gave us some good news and some bad news about the ELCA as a whole. The good news is that we Lutherans have great theology: we know that God comes to us, and that we don’t come to God, just as we see Jesus today coming to his disciples and puffing breath into them. The bad news is that we are an aging denomination: Daubert estimates that, unless things change radically, the ELCA as we know it has only about 5 to 10 years of life left. Yes, you heard me right: 5 to 10 years. Here’s some more bad news: when they took a survey of Lutherans, they found that 25% of those who come to church are “functional agnostics”; that is, they come and they say the right words, but they don’t really believe. Perhaps they come because a family member drags them each week. Another 47% of people who come know the story, and believe it, but they leave it behind in the church each week; they don’t know it deeply; they don’t know it well enough to integrate the story of Jesus into their lives on a daily basis. Maybe some of you here today fall into one of these two categories. Maybe some others of you really do have a deeper relationship with Jesus, and that’s great. But no matter where we are in our relationship, we can all stand to grow deeper roots. And when we have those deeper roots, and when we have that deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, then it makes us easier for us to go out into the community and to invite others to come and see, and to deepen their roots as well.

I’m not going to lie to you: those statistics I heard filled me with fear. But I, and each one of us here today, have the breath of God breathed into us. In Jesus, we are a new creation. We have his resurrection-breath in us, and when we remember that, we remember that we have nothing to fear. Jesus has conquered death for us. Jesus is here with us, in us, all around us, everywhere in our daily lives. He is with us not only in the bread and the wine here at the table, but he is also with us when we help our family members who are ill, when we have conversations with one another, when we eat together in our homes. He is with us when we are sad and he is with us when we are happy. Each breath we take is a reminder that God causes us to live, and is a reminder that God causes each person around us to live. What do we have to fear? Let us deepen our roots, re-learn our faith and re-connect with that holy breath, and then go forth to love others, to teach others, to bring healing to the world, and to give ourselves away for the sake of the world. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 7A

Acts 1:6-14

The ascension of Jesus into heaven is an odd event. Artists, not knowing quite how to depict this event, have come up with some really goofy-looking pictures of Jesus floating in the sky with slack-jawed disciples looking up after him. I’ve also pictured the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the wizard returns to Kansas in his hot-air balloon and the people of Oz are all shouting, “Good-bye! Good-bye!” The question we ask today in reference to Jesus’ ascension is, “What really happened?” Luke tells us that Jesus was taken up into heaven, and the disciples were left staring up into the sky until two men in white robes told them to stop staring and go home. But where did Jesus go? We moderns have flown in the heavens and can say with certainty that there is no physical God figure sitting on a throne in the sky with Jesus at his right hand. This leaves us wondering: What is heaven, then, if it is not physically up in the sky? We grasp for answers from science-fiction books and TV shows, as well as what we think we know about physics. Is heaven some kind of alternate dimension that we can’t see? Was Jesus “beamed up” somewhere, like on Star Trek? We simply don’t know, and in the end, it’s not important. The two men in white robes say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, “All right, guys, Jesus is gone. Show’s over. He will come back one day, but not right now. So, stop staring into the sky and waving goodbye. You all need to get to work here on earth carrying on with what he taught you to do.” And what is the work which Jesus has given us to do? The answer to that is just a few verses back: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

What does it mean to witness? What do you think of when you hear that word? Do you think of people standing on street corners handing out pamphlets and talking to people about Jesus? (In my younger days, I did do that, by the way.) Or, maybe you think of knocking on doors and inviting complete strangers to come to church on Sunday. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to do either of these things, unless the Holy Spirit is moving you in that direction. Those things strike me with fear and trembling, too. However, there are other ways to witness to people about who Jesus is and how Jesus has acted in our lives. And one of those ways is by telling stories.

From the time that we are young, we want to hear stories. Mom, tell me the story of how you named me. Dad, tell me the story about the fish that you caught that was THIS BIG. If your parents read stories to you at bedtime, you always knew if they skipped a part and would say, “Wait a minute, Mom, you forgot to read the part about. . .” Each family has stories about the people in their family and funny things that happened to them, and we delight in telling and in hearing those stories over and over again. Well, it should be the same way when we tell stories about how Jesus has acted in our lives. I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me to tell the story of how I heard God’s call on my life to become a pastor. And I’m not going to tell it now because the complete story would take too long for the time allotted for a sermon. For now I will say that, as I look back on my life story, I can see God there at every bright place and every dark place, and every twist and turn. Have you ever reflected on your life story and looked for God’s hand guiding you? And if you have, have you shared that with others?

As Lutherans, we believe that God has called each one of us to a vocation. And being a pastor is not any holier than being a teacher, or being a printer, or being a mother or a father. Each person has been called to serve God in a different way in his or her life. But we’re not always very good at reflecting on how God has called us to serve in our vocation, much less telling other people about how God has acted in our lives. And the people around us, especially those who don’t go to church very often or at all, need to hear our stories. They need to hear how the love of Jesus has affected us. They need to hear why we do what we do. And they need to hear that Jesus loves them, too, and is also calling them to love him and serve him.

So, what is holding us back? If we think that Jesus is the most important part of our lives, and if we think that Jesus should be an important part of other people’s lives, then why aren’t we better about sharing this great good news with other people? All of the answers I’ve heard come down to one word: fear. I’m afraid that people will laugh at me. I’m afraid that someone will ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to. I’m afraid I’ll sound stupid. I’m afraid that people won’t want to be my friend anymore. It all comes down to fear.

It’s a natural human reaction to be afraid. And it’s okay to be afraid at times. But we have a Lord and Savior who conquered death for us; who rose from the dead and who ascended into heaven (however that happened!) and now sits at the right hand of God. And this Lord and Savior, this Jesus, has promised us that we, too, will have eternal life through him. We have nothing to be afraid of and wonderful good news to share with everyone we meet. There should be nothing that holds us back from telling our friends and family, and people whom we have just met, why we are Christian, and why we follow Jesus.

But, if you notice in today’s story in Acts, the disciples—once they stopped staring at the sky hoping in vain for Jesus to come back—did not immediately go out and start witnessing to people. Instead, they went home and devoted themselves constantly to prayer. They immersed themselves in prayer, waiting for the moment when the Holy Spirit would arrive and show them where they should go next. And I bet they also prayed for courage—that judgment that something—the stories that they would tell others about Jesus—was more important than their fear.

We, too, the people of St. John’s and Salem, are in that in-between time—that time of waiting. I don’t think God is finished with us yet, because if he were, I wouldn’t be here. I see signs of life in both of our congregations like new shoots of green coming up amidst the dead grass of last year. But like those new shoots of green grass, we are still untried and need to be strengthened. And the thing that will strengthen us is prayer. And so, I would like to call on both of our congregations to immerse ourselves in prayer and to listen for the Holy Spirit whispering to us which way we should go. The Holy Spirit can speak to us in many different ways: in times of solitude, through other people, through the Holy Scriptures, and probably any other way that we can think of. In prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us where God has been at work in our lives and can help us find ways to share our stories with others. And in prayer, the Holy Spirit can show us the gifts which God has given us that can be used for the benefit of others. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit will strengthen us and unite us as one body so that we can bear witness to the community of God’s love for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Another way, besides prayer, that we can be strengthened during this time is by studying our Holy Scriptures. I mentioned before that one excuse that I’ve heard people use for not sharing their faith with others is the fear of not knowing enough about the Bible. Well, I can tell you that I have been studying the Bible for many years now, and I still have questions about the stories of our faith. I think we always will, even if we study the Scriptures every day for the rest of our lives. While this should not prevent us from sharing our faith, this can also motivate us to be in a Bible study and learn more about how much God loves us, so that we can feel better equipped to share our stories with others. Currently we have a Bible study at 10:00 am on Thursdays at Salem. If your schedule does not allow you to come to that study, please let me know what time and day would work for you. We can always set up an additional time so that those of you who work can also have the opportunity to learn more about our faith story.

Like those disciples on that long ago day when Jesus ascended into heaven, we still look around us and wait for Jesus to return and to set all things right. And that day will come. But Jesus doesn’t want us to sit around twiddling our thumbs while we are waiting for him. He wants us to listen for his direction, to come together for worship, study, and prayer, and to witness to everyone about how he has wonderfully acted in our lives. So let’s be enthusiastic about sharing our faith stories with one another. Let’s look for opportunities to share our stories with a broader audience. Let’s tell others how much Jesus loves them and invite them to come and worship with us on Sunday mornings. And let us daily remember that Jesus was crucified, died, resurrected, and then ascended into heaven, all for love of us. What great and marvelous love that is! Amen.

 

Sermon for Easter 6A

Acts 17:22-31

I have a really awesome sister-in-law.  She has done a lot of cool things in her life, but one thing that I find really cool is that she has worked at comic book conventions, and thus knows a lot of famous people in the television and comic book worlds. For those of you who don’t know what these conventions are all about, it’s a place for comic book vendors to sell their wares, and it’s a place for comic book fans to come and meet the people who draw the comic books, as well as meet the stars from some sci-fi and fantasy TV shows. Several years ago, I went down to Florida to visit my sister-in-law and my brother, and she got me into MegaCon for free.  I am a huge Star Trek fan, and I was excited because I got to meet Brent Spiner when I was there—he played the android named Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  MegaCon is also a place where people can walk around in costumes, dressed up as their favorite characters.  I saw several people dressed up as characters from Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek, and many, many others there.  To say that this was a weekend of weirdness would have been an understatement.  Towards the end of my visit, I began to reflect on this—because I was in seminary at the time, and they teach you to think theologically about everything there—and the question I came up with was, “How would you preach the gospel to this sci-fi/fantasy/comic book crowd?”  When I posed the question to one of my fellow students, they looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “Well, that’s easy.  Characters in comic books die and come back to life all the time.  There’s your way in.”

The reason that I bring this up is because this is what the apostle Paul is doing in today’s lesson from Acts.  Before arriving in Athens, Paul had been in Thessalonica and Berea, spreading the gospel of Jesus, but had been run out of town by people who thought he was teaching the wrong things.  Athens was a place of culture, a place where new ideas were exchanged all the time.  Athens was the home of the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Athens was also the place where all those Greek gods that we learned about in school were worshiped.  So, here’s Paul, a good Jewish man who has been taught that there is only one God and that all the rest are idols, cooling his heels and waiting for his traveling companions to catch up with him in a city that is full of idols and where the people are sleek, educated, and cultured.  Luke says that Paul “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  That was probably an understatement.  So what does Paul do?  He starts arguing with the Jewish people in the city in the synagogues and starts talking to the philosophers in the marketplace.  So, they bring Paul to the Areopagus, the place where the city council of Athens meets, and ask him to clarify what he is talking about.  This is the context for the speech we hear Paul making in our first reading today.

And the interesting thing about this speech is that Paul does not start with who he is and where he is on his faith journey.  He does not start by talking about Jesus being the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, because these Greeks have never heard of the Scriptures that Paul holds dear.  No, Paul starts from where the Athenians are:  He talks about the gods that they worship, even though he himself finds them distressing.  He then finds the point of contact between where the Athenians are and the message that he wants to give them: the altar inscribed with the words “to an unknown god”.  Claiming that this unknown god is the one true God who made the heavens and the earth, he speaks of how all people were created by this one God, calls the people to repentance by talking about the coming day of judgment, and finally speaks of Jesus being raised from the dead as the sign that the day of judgment is coming.  And notice that Paul does not even call Jesus by name.  This is a beginning teaching for a people who had no concept of one God but of many.  Paul eases them into the idea of the resurrection in what is a seemingly backward way.

I think that, as we witness today to the society around us about Jesus—who he is and what he has done for us—we can learn from Paul’s speech to the Athenians. As I mentioned before, Paul starts with where the Athenians are. Rather than speaking to them about the Hebrew Scriptures, which they wouldn’t have known anything about, he begins with their altar that says “To an unknown god” and uses that. He proclaims that the god that they don’t know is the God whom Paul knows, and the God who wants to make himself known to the Athenians. He uses what the Athenians know and then proclaims the good news from that starting point.

Over many years, our society has become more and more secular. A growing number of people have had either no contact with the church, or bad contact with the church. So, we too need to rethink how we talk to others about Jesus, because we cannot always assume that they know who Jesus is and what he is all about. So, when we encounter someone today who is not churched, how do we speak to them about a god that they do not know, or a god who they may dimly remember from a childhood when family members brought them to Sunday school?

Well, let me tell you a story to illustrate how we might approach this. My first congregation, before I came here to be with you all, was in northwestern Wyoming, about a half hour from the Montana border. And about an hour from where I lived was a cute little town nestled at the foot of the Beartooth Mountains called Red Lodge. And in the town of Red Lodge, there was a small bookstore with a tea bar at the back. The owner of the store would get all sorts of different kinds of loose leaf teas and mix them together to produce new flavors of tea, and you could sit at the bar and make your choice of tea based on which scent appealed to you most that day. As I was sitting at the bar one day drinking my tea, I started having a conversation with the woman next to me. And when she found out I was a pastor, she started asking me all kinds of questions. You see, she had been brought up in a fundamentalist church, and when she came out of the closet, she was hurt by family members and members of her congregation, and she had fallen away from church completely. But she was now feeling a lack in her life, and I think she was trying to find her way back to God. In my conversation with her, I did my best to proclaim that God was a God of love, and I directed her to a couple of congregations in the area who would love her as she was and where she would hear that God loves her, too. I don’t know if she ever did find her way back to a congregation or not. I hope and pray that she has.

But, friends, this is the society which we live in today. We’re not in the ’50s and ‘60s anymore, where everyone went to church and where the Sunday school classrooms were filled to overflowing. We are in a society now that has become disenchanted with the church, and sometimes for good reason. We are in a society where many people have been brought up without the church, or where people have been brought up in the church but have been hurt by it, thinking that we are nothing but a bunch of hypocritical do-gooders who condemn anyone who does not follow the rules as sinful people whom God cannot love unless they shape up. And such a God is not the God that I worship—that is a god that is unknown to me. We serve a God of love, a God who does not demand perfection before he has a relationship with us. We serve a God who loved us even while we were still sinners, and who gave up his Son to die on the cross for us because he loves us so much. And we, the church, need to be better about proclaiming that God to the rest of the world.

So, how do we do that? How do we talk about Jesus to a society that, while it is disenchanted with the institutional church, often likes to think of itself as still somehow spiritual? How do we witness to people who are, as the apostle Paul puts it, groping for God? Well, we have to start by listening. We have to listen to people when they talk about how the church has hurt them in their lives, no matter how painful it might be for us to hear. We have to listen and find out what’s important to people. We have to listen to what people need and see what gifts God has given us where we might be able to meet the needs of the people around us. And only after we have listened to people do we get to speak and to act. Only then can we say that we’re sorry they’ve been hurt. And only then can we tell them about the God we worship: the God who loves us so much, who loves us even when we mess up, that he gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. And then we can tell them that not only did Jesus die for our sins, he rose up from the dead, and so we, too, have new life in him here in this world and in the life to come. We may not know if the person to whom we are speaking will actually return to the church, but when we witness in a manner that is respectful of the other person, then the Holy Spirit can use that to touch the other person’s heart with God’s love.

Further on in the story, which we don’t have in front of us today, Luke tells us that most of the people who heard the apostle Paul speak on that long-ago day scoffed at him when he started talking about the resurrection of the dead. But there were a few people who continued to listen to Paul and eventually became believers in Jesus. And when we speak to others about Jesus today, there will be some who will laugh at us. There will be some who can’t get past the mistakes of the institutional church, but who will respect us for our beliefs. And there may be some who actually become believers based on the words that we have spoken to them. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit will move in a person’s heart or when, and that’s the good news: it’s not up to us to convert people, it’s up to the Holy Spirit. Our calling is simply to give others a reason for the hope that we have in Jesus. And when we have such good news to share with the world, then nothing should hold us back. So let us be open to the unexpected opportunities to share Jesus with others, but let us do so by first listening to the other person, and then finding ways to connect our faith in Jesus with where they are in life. We may just be surprised by how the Holy Spirit may work through us. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 5A

John 14:1-14

Every night I say a prayer in the hope that there’s a heaven
And every day I’m more confused as the saints turn into sinners
All the heroes and legends I knew as a child have fallen to idols of clay
And I feel this empty place inside so afraid that I’ve lost my faith

Show me the way, show me the way
Take me tonight to the river
And wash my illusions away
Show me the way

This song by the rock band Styx talks about how the person singing it is asking for guidance, and how he wants someone to show him the way, to wash away his illusions and his confusion so he can see clearly the way that he is supposed to go.  It’s an age-old longing:  we human beings have ached for a sign, a sure sign that we should turn to the left and not to the right, and then for assurance that we have made the right decision.  We are always confused, groping and stumbling about in what seems like the darkness.  We find out that the people we follow, the ones we thought had it all together, are just as confused as we are.  And so, we say with Thomas in today’s gospel, “How can we know the way?”  Into this confusion and perplexity, where our illusions are stripped away and our fears seem larger than life, Jesus speaks a clear word of promise, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Unfortunately, many people don’t see this as a promise, but rather as a threat.  Coupled with Jesus’ next words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” these verses have been used to say that unless one believes in Jesus—and believes in Jesus in the exact right way by attending the right church, behaving oneself, and doing good to others—that person will not go to heaven to be with Jesus when he or she dies.  These beautiful words of promise have instead become a stumbling block for many, and cause people to say that if that’s the way things are, they don’t want anything more to do with the church.  These words have been used as an excuse for infighting among Christians as to who has the right way to Jesus, as well as an excuse for well-meaning Christians to convert others forcibly to Christianity.  Those Christians who want to improve interfaith relations have done well until they are confronted by these words, and then they either find ways around them or they ignore them completely.  And finally, these words have caused people to wonder about the fate of their loved ones, alive and dead, who either don’t believe in Jesus or who do, but not in what the person considers the right way.  In short, these words spoken by Jesus in John’s gospel have caused much pain for many people over the centuries.  Can the words be redeemed and given new meaning?  And if so, how?

Like so many verses and passages of the Bible that have been taken out of context, I believe this one has been, too, and so it is helpful to explore that original context.  In this passage, we encounter Jesus with his disciples on the night of the Last Supper.  He has just washed his disciples’ feet.  Judas has gone into the night to make arrangements to betray him.  Jesus has given the disciples the commandment to love one another.  Jesus has predicted that Peter will deny him three times.  And after all of this, Jesus begins speaking about the things he wants to tell the disciples before he goes to the cross to die.  Of course, after all of the charged events of the evening, Jesus starts by telling the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Because of course the disciples are troubled, and so Jesus wants to comfort them.  He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them.  Thomas asks Jesus where he is going and how they are supposed to get there, and Jesus replies that he is the way.

In this context, it is hard to see how Jesus would even think that his words would one day be interpreted in a manner that would create fear, mistrust, and alienation.  He was not saying that in order to follow him to his Father’s house, one would have to believe in the right way, behave correctly, and do the right things.  Where was Jesus going and how was he getting there?  He was going the way of the cross, and by being crucified and resurrected, he was himself becoming the Way.  In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals God the Father to the world.  And God loves the world, the whole world, as Jesus himself says earlier in the Gospel of John:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

So our troubles then, I think, come with the English word “believe”.  In order to believe, in our culture, we must believe in certain teachings and doctrines.  But the Greek word which Jesus uses here can not only be translated into English as “believe” but also as “trust”.  So, how would that change things around if we were to have Jesus saying, “Trust in God, trust also in me”?  Then we’re not so limited when we look at these verses.  It makes it easier for us to say, “Hey, even though the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc., don’t believe in all the same things we do, they still trust in God and trust in Jesus, so I bet I’ll see them in the life to come.”

The last remaining question, then, is what about those of other faiths, of no faith, or who are still searching?  When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” where does that leave Jewish people, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and so many others?  In the book Love Wins, by Rob Bell, the author wrestles with the idea of heaven and hell, and towards the end of the book, he tackles today’s passage from John.  Bell states that yes, Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him.  However, Bell says, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”  Or, in simpler words, Bell says, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.”  The letter to the Colossians says essentially the same thing in chapter 1:  “and through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”  Jesus goes the way of the cross and in so doing, becomes the Way himself through which the earth and everyone and everything in it will be saved.

So, right now, we’re going to engage in a prayer exercise.  I would like you to call to mind a person or people whom you have loved and lost to death, especially someone who you may have wondered if they went to heaven or not.  Perhaps at the time of their death, someone shook their head and said sadly that they weren’t in heaven because they didn’t believe in the right way, or they didn’t believe at all, or their behavior here on earth wasn’t the best.  You can also think of those people in your life who are still alive and who do not identify as Christian. Take a few moments to think about these people, and then I will begin the prayer.  *pause*  Lord Jesus, we remember before you our loved ones who have gone ahead of us.  Lord, we trust in you and in your love, that you are indeed the way, the truth, and the life.  We pray forgiveness for those times when we have used your words of comfort and promise as words of separation, division, and exclusion.  We commend our loved ones into the comfort of your arms, and we trust that you are, indeed, in a mysterious way, reconciling the entire world and everyone in it to God.  During those times that we feel the pain of missing our loved ones, and in those times of doubt when we wonder about the fate of those who do not believe or trust in you, we pray that you would comfort us with those words that in your Father’s house are many dwelling places, and that we will one day see all of our loved ones once more.  Into your hands, O Lord, we entrust the care of all whom we love, both living and dead, and we trust in your mercy upon them.  In your holy name we pray, Amen.

“Show me the way,” the singer pleads.  God has indeed shown us that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and Jesus has revealed the love of his Father for the whole world.  May we never take those words as a threat to keep us in line, but instead as the beautiful promise of comfort that Jesus meant them to be.  Amen.

Sermon for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)

John 10:1-10

We all love sheep. They’re cute, wooly white animals who make funny noises. We have pictures of Jesus gently carrying a lamb over his shoulders and these cute, woolly white critters frolicking all over, listening to Jesus’ voice and following him with no questions asked, because he’s, well, Jesus. If that’s our picture of sheep and Jesus as the good shepherd, though, it’s a good bet that our only experience with sheep has been at the petting zoo. Has anyone here today been around sheep on a regular basis on a farm or a ranch? Well, I haven’t either, but here’s what I’ve learned from people who have been around sheep. First of all, sheep are not the most intelligent creatures in the world. I had a friend once whose father raised sheep, and she told me that, if you place a fence in front of the lead sheep and get him to jump over it, and then a few more sheep jump over it, and then you take the fence away—the rest of the sheep will jump as if the fence were still there. Secondly, another friend of mine talks about his uncle who raised sheep, and how his uncle disliked coming to worship on Good Shepherd Sunday, because the pastor would say things about sheep that simply weren’t true. This friend writes that, “Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (Provoking the Gospel of John, p. 269). In other words, Jesus is not paying us a compliment when he calls us sheep.

But, these descriptions of sheep fit us as human beings in many ways. In a crowd, we will follow a leader regardless of how intelligent that leader is. And if he jumps over a fence, we, too, will jump over a fence, even if the fence is no longer there. We human beings also know when we have a good thing, and we will stay where we are comfortable unless someone points out that we have used up all of the resources that are of benefit to us in one place and we need to move on to another place. And that is where I’d like to focus our meditation today: who are we following, where is he leading us, and, as we listen for his voice, what is he asking us to do?

So, here’s the first question: who are we following? Well, if you’re here today, I’m going to assume that your answer is going to be: we are following Jesus. Or, at least we are doing our best to follow Jesus. Sometimes other voices can drown Jesus out in our society. Or sometimes, we hear voices claiming to be Jesus who preach a message that Jesus himself would not recognize. If we are listening to those voices that say that God wants us to be happy and to be wealthy and that all we have to do is follow some simple steps and pray until good things start happening to us, then that is not the voice of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that Jesus was wealthy and that he claimed for himself the glory of God. And nowhere in the Gospels does it say that our lives will be happy and easy if we just pray hard enough. Instead, the Gospels tell us that Jesus went to the cross and suffered an agonizing death for us. And when Jesus says that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly, he is not talking about material wealth. Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. When Jesus talks about abundant life, he is talking about having relationships: a relationship with him, and a relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He is talking about coming together and helping one another through this life, in both our sorrows and our joys. Anyone who says that Jesus is talking about material possessions when he is talking about abundant life is one of those thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy.

So, we are following Jesus, who assures us that he came to give us abundant life in the form of relationship with him and relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Where is he leading us? Well, let’s start with some of the language that Jesus uses in this passage. One of the things that you will discover about me is that, since I studied German as my major when I was an undergraduate, and since I have learned some other languages since then, I am fascinated by translation issues and how sometimes, we don’t always get the nuances of the original language and culture when we read something in translation. So, when you hear Jesus say, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out,” you’re probably thinking of Jesus standing in front of the flock, calling them, and the sheep docilely walking behind him. But sheep and other animals don’t always cooperate like that. So, let’s hear Jesus saying this, “He calls his own sheep by name and drives them out.” That would mean Jesus is behind the flock, pushing them and using his staff to knock a few sheep back into place, getting them to go where he wants them to go, because the sheep have eaten up all the grass in the place where they are.

I like this picture because, in the short time that I have been here and I have been learning what’s been going on both at Salem and at St. John, I think that’s what Jesus is doing with us. He is calling us and he is driving us out of our comfort zones and out of our church buildings and into the community. And it’s not just our two congregations, but the church as a whole. Let’s use this metaphor of sheep and shepherd as we think about what’s going on. Could it be that we as the church have gotten too comfortable in one spot and have, in fact, eaten the grass down to the roots? Could it perhaps be that Jesus is starting to drive us out of the spots where we have overgrazed and is calling us to get out of our buildings and to find new pasture in the communities around us?

We are following Jesus, who is driving us out of our buildings and into new pastures in the community. As we listen to his voice, what do you think he is calling us to do as we go out into our communities? Well, I think that our two congregations are off to a good start. We are working more together with one another and with our two neighbors, Trinity two blocks down from us and St. Peter’s in Highspire. We are starting to look around at our neighborhoods and realize that they have changed drastically since our congregations were founded, and we are beginning to get to know our neighbors and to listen to what their needs are. And I believe that, as we listen to the voices of our neighbors, we will also hear the voice of our Good Shepherd, Jesus, calling us to follow where he leads and showing us how he would have us serve as witnesses to his love as we serve our neighbors.

And that is the good news in all of this. Jesus tells us that, “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” In other words, after Jesus has been behind us and driven us out of our comfortable places, he does not leave us alone. He goes ahead of us. So, whenever we are facing uncertainty in the times ahead, we know that Jesus has not left us alone. We know that, in whatever new places we find ourselves, Jesus has gone ahead of us and is already there, waiting for us. We do not need to be afraid of this new world that we, the church, find ourselves in, because we know that Jesus is already here, and is with us, both behind us driving us out of our comfortable places and ahead of us, calling us forward and urging us to listen to his voice.

And so, as you and I begin our walk together, and I join with you in ministering in this time and place, Jesus urges us not to be afraid. Yes, we will stumble, and sometimes we will fall into holes. But Jesus will be there with us, pulling us up from our mistakes, dusting us off, and urging us to keep moving. So, yes, it may not be a compliment when Jesus calls us sheep. But we know that Jesus loves us in spite of the bad traits we share in common with sheep, and Jesus is with us. Always. Amen.

Coming Back East

In February, I accepted a new call to St. John Lutheran Church in Steelton, PA, and Salem Lutheran Church in Oberlin, PA. These communities are about a mile or so apart and are part of suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The two congregations have been yoked together for several years as neither one can survive on their own, and they are in need of renewal and revival. I left Wyoming the day after Easter. It was hard to say goodbye to my parish in Wyoming, but I do believe that this is where God has called me. I am already experiencing new challenges in my work with the congregations, and I am experiencing renewal and refreshment myself. Since I am no longer in the West, I have retitled my blog, “Coming Back East,” and I will continue to post sermons and other thoughts on this blog. The URL is the same: http://www.tonyaeza.wordpress.com. Happy Reading!