Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who gives life to the dead
and brings into existence the things that do not exist. Amen
Let’s talk about suffering.
Not a cheerful topic I know
and something we like to avoid,
sometimes at all costs.
And yet, we live in a world
where most of what is worthwhile
is accomplished through some suffering.
I mean think of all the Olympic athletes
and the amount of pain that they have endured
while building up their muscles and minds
to bring them to the point
where they are able to compete,
and all the injuries that we hear about,
I was watching the other night
and they brought up a diagram of Lindsey Vonn
the downhill skier
and they pointed to all the things she’d injured over the past few years,
there was a broken arm, a torn acl, a concussion,
a sliced tendon and several other things,
all that she’d had to heal from and rehabilitate
before going to the Olympics.
Or there’s childbirth,
the great deal of suffering
that goes into bringing new life into the world.
And then there is the suffering that we don’t seek out,
The suffering from being in the wrong place at the wrong time
or when the brokenness of the world breaks into our lives
but out of which, strangely
comes something good,
maybe a healed relationship,
or a new purpose in life,
motivation for finding a cure.
But because we are human
even as we can logically lay out an argument
for the necessity of some suffering
our instinct rejects the premise,
our heart tells us that it should not be necessary
and our gut tells us to distrust anyone who says otherwise.
In other words, we react like Peter.
In our gospel for today Jesus is with his disciples,
Peter has just blurted out that Jesus is the messiah
“then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
Peter rejects Jesus’ teaching,
he thinks Jesus has gone crazy,
actually he thinks that Jesus has been possessed by a demon
so he takes him aside and tries to exorcise the demon
that is clearly making Jesus say these things.
The messiah is not supposed to suffer.
And how does Jesus respond?
“But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
The human way is self-centered,
Peter is thinking about himself
when he tries to rebuke Jesus,
he’s found the messiah,
he doesn’t want to lose him,
he doesn’t want that suffering.
The divine way is other-centered,
what is done,
anything that is suffered
is for the sake of others.
What Jesus does on the cross
is done for the sake of the world,
And here’s the irony of Christianity,
in a world where things are accomplished through suffering,
we do not have to suffer to be saved.
We are saved by grace through faith,
faith in the God,
who, as Paul says in our second reading
“gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
And this makes no sense by our human logic,
in this instance we could understand
how repairing our broken relationship with God
could involve some suffering on our part,
in fact we often feel like we need to do something
to make amends
but there is nothing that we can do,
there is no way we can contribute
because Jesus has done it all,
And having taken care of the most important part
Jesus extends an invitation,
an invitation to set our mind on divine things,
to be other-centered.
“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘if any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
Here’s the key, crosses are picked up for other people.
We often misuse this statement,
for instance “oh my bum knee, that’s my cross to bear”
or “oh she has a wild child, that’s her cross to bear”
but crosses are not imposed suffering,
they are picked up for the sake of others
in the same way that Jesus picked up the cross for us.
Jesus, in teaching his disciples how to follow him
is preparing them for the fact
that when they testify to the gospel
they can expect to suffer.
Because the gospel message
is contrary to what society says we should want and do,
it is a challenge to the way of the world
which is self-centered
and when self-centered people,
especially self-centered people in power
they respond swiftly and harshly.
To follow Jesus,
to not be ashamed of him,
for his disciples is a life and death decision.
And we know that many of Jesus’ disciples
ended up martyred, killed in various gruesome and public ways
to deter the message they were sharing.
In some parts of the world today,
to be openly unashamed of Christ
is still a life and death decision
but for those of us who live in relative safety
in places where Christianity is the rule rather than the exception
remaining faithful and unashamed of Christ
tends to happen in the smaller moments of life.
I like the analogy used by preaching professor of blessed memory Fred Craddock- he said:
“We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,00 bill and laying it on the table—‘Here’s my life, lord. I’m giving it all.’
But the reality for most of us is that he sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there… Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 629).
Those are those little moments,
where you find the strength to disagree with someone
who says if you pray enough or in the right way
Jesus will make you rich,
no, that’s the world talking using Jesus as a front.
Or the times when you refuse to believe it
when someone says Jesus hates_fill in the blank
and even more importantly
when you refuse to act on it.
It’s the times when you set your mind on divine things,
not on human things,
the times when you put aside your own self-interests
for the sake of others,
for the sake of loving your neighbor
We live in a time of fear mongering,
the messages of the world
tell us to avoid suffering,
our own suffering,
at all costs
regardless of the effects it has on others,
even those closest to us.
Fear makes us turn in on ourselves,
the definition of sin.
Today Jesus calls us to set our minds on divine things,
To turn toward others
embracing the reality
that to accomplish something worthwhile
we will go through some suffering
and we are able to do this,
to set aside our own self-interests
because of our faith,
faith that is grounded in the God who gives life to the dead
and calls into existence the things that do not exist,
the God who finds a way out of no way,
the God who has already saved you,
who has set you free to live for others
and who promises that death is always followed by new life. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
1 Peter 3:18-22
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who found another way. Amen
Did you know that it only takes five chapters in Genesis
for God to get sick of humanity?
At the end of chapter one
God creates humans on the sixth day of creation
and by the beginning of chapter six
God is already tired of the fighting and wars and misuse of creation
and begins planning a genocidal flood
to wipe out everything and start over.
In my Lutheran Study Bible that’s seven pages, impressively fast.
But Noah found favor with God
and so God decides to put Noah and his family
and two of every animal on a big boat
- that Noah has to make-
and use them to start over.
And we know this story,
how Noah follows God’s instructions
and brings the animals into the ark two by two,
how it rains forty days and forty nights
and everything not on the ark dies,
how the ark drifts for a long time
until the water begins to recede
and the ark finally settles on top of a mountain
Noah keep sends out the dove to see if it’s safe to exit the boat,
the dove finally brings Noah an olive leaf
and then on the next expedition doesn’t come back
at which point Noah and his family
spill out of the ark and give thanks to God
and hearing their praise and worship and smelling the sacrifice that Noah makes,
God in chapter 8
realizes that destroying everything isn’t the answer
and says “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”(8:21)
And so God makes a covenant with Noah,
and we get part of that in our first reading,
but only the second part,
a covenant is an ancient legal contract
where both parties have responsibilities.
The human part of the covenant that God makes with Noah
is much like the first time around with Adam and Eve,
Noah and his family
are to go be fruitful and multiply,
fill the earth and care for it
and for God’s part
God promises not just Noah,
but all creation, all flesh,
to never again destroy the earth with a flood
and even though God will not forget this covenant
God creates a sign of the covenant,
placing God’s bow in the clouds
so that when everyone sees the bow
they will remember the covenant God made with all flesh
to never wipe out the earth again with a flood.
Now you might be wondering,
why on this first Sunday in lent
we are talking about God’s covenant with Noah.
How do Noah and rainbows
connect with Jesus being baptized and tempted in the wilderness?
In many ways the story of the flood leads to Jesus.
God has promised to never again destroy all flesh
even as God realizes that there is still evil in the hearts of humans
and that it will spill over into the rest of creation as it did the first time.
This doesn’t mean that God is giving up on humanity and all of creation,
but what making this covenant means
is that God will have to find another way of dealing with
the brokenness and violence of humanity that spills over into the rest of creation.
And Jesus is the way God ultimately finds
to bridge the gap between divine expectations
and the brokenness of humanity.
Our second reading from 1 Peter
makes the connection and summarizes what we as Christians believe
happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, “
Jesus resisting temptation in the wilderness
before his ministry begins
maintains his righteousness,
it marks him as someone special,
who does what no other human has done
-that is resist temptation
and it sparks the interest of the listener,
what will happen to this remarkable person?
We know what happens,
and yet God is able to work through all that
to save us.
God found another way to deal with humanity,
that way was Jesus.
but I want to be clear here,
it is not the violence and suffering
that is particularly salvific,
there’s been a lot of attempts at explaining how it worked
and all of them fall short,
in the end salvation through Jesus
is both mystery and truth,
the how is the mystery
but the truth is that God has healed the broken relationship between us and God
and set us free from the human need for violence
to live out our part of the covenant,
to take care of all creation.
And just like with Noah,
God seals this covenant,
this promise, with a sign,
where we are joined to Christ’s work
which again from 1 Peter
“now saves you--not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
God knows that we humans have a need for divine reassurance.
God was not going to forget the covenant after the flood
but humans need reassurance and reminders,
so God made the rainbow as the sign
that the promise would be remembered.
In the same way
God knows we are beloved children of God
whom Jesus saved,
but we humans often wonder,
we have doubts,
so God gave us the sign of baptism,
so that we can point to a moment in time
and name without a doubt
that God has claimed us and joined us to the work of Christ
we are God’s
and in the waters of baptism
God forgives our sins
and brings us to new life.
And this sets us free
to live contrary to the way of humanity,
to respond to violence with peace,
hurt with forgiveness,
hatred with love
and when the brokenness of the world
seems to be too much,
or we give in to temptation
or are paralyzed by inaction
water points us back to the promise
that God has made,
the forgiveness God offers
and our true identity,
beloved children of God. Amen
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In the play of life,
what role are you playing?
What character do you act out for the world?
Perhaps it’s the role of dutiful worker
that you bring to life
or enthusiastic student
or maybe you’re trying to play that fictional character
the one who can do everything effortlessly and to perfection.
You have multiple roles in life,
facades that you put on and take off like masks
and you’ve been doing it for so long
that it seems to be a part of who you are,
you’ve become so good at playing these characters
that you have trouble distinguishing
where the character stops and you begin
we all do it,
we get so caught up in the expectations and fantasies of a society
that tells us we have to act a certain way
and buy certain products
so that our lives will be better,
we’ll feel younger, live longer,
be one of the attractive people without worries,
that if we make smart decisions or vote for this party or that party
that everything will be okay
and if we don’t everything will be horrible.
Into this whirlwind steps Ash Wednesday and says
‘Stop. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
and with those words
and a smear of ash on our foreheads,
we are brought back to the fundamental truth of life
that we all started as dust
and will end as dust
and nothing we do,
no role we play
will change that fact.
It’s a sobering moment
and it serves as an invitation,
an invitation to return to God,
who molded us at the beginning,
who breathed life into us
and who knows exactly who we are,
no matter what we tell ourselves or others,
and who loves us as we are.
The invitation of Lent
is an invitation to return to authenticity,
it’s an invitation to see ourselves as we are
without the masks and characters
because that is who God loves,
that is who God goes to the cross for.
Jesus teaching his disciples tonight
points out the hypocrites,
I think our general definition of hypocrite
is someone who says one thing and does another
and that’s relatively easy to disassociate ourselves from,
we generally see ourselves as consistent in what we say and do,
it’s easier to see hypocrisy in someone else
than in our own lives,
but what Jesus is pointing to
has more to do with the intent behind actions
than the consistency of word and deed,
In the Greek language, a hypocrite is one who plays a part,
especially on the stage,
a hypocrite is an actor who changes masks with the change of a character.
The flaw that Jesus points out in the hypocrites
is not their actions,
giving alms, praying and fasting
are all good honorable actions in and of themselves,
what Jesus is critiquing
is the reason the hypocrites are giving alms and praying and fasting,
they want to be seen by others.
They are playing the role of a pious person,
it’s a character acted out on a stage
so that others will honor them as a pious person,
rather than actions that are intended to care for the poor,
build a genuine relationship with God
and heighten spiritual awareness.
Rend your hearts and not your clothing
says the Lord in our first reading
and when we look at it this way
we begin to see ourselves in the people Jesus is pointing to,
we think of the time when we went to church
because we wanted people to see that we went to church,
or the time when we smiled and said ‘I’ll pray for you’
and then did no such thing,
or when we went and did a service project
and made sure that pictures of us working were pasted all over social media.
Beware of practicing your piety before others
in order to be seen by them;
Stop. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
In the end it doesn’t matter what other people think.
What matters is your relationship with God
who formed you from dust,
who loves you so much
that Jesus, the Son of God
died on the cross, for you,
who in the waters of baptism
joined you to the death and resurrection of Jesus,
marking you as God’s own
in the shape of the cross on your forehead
so that death will not have the last say,
so that freed from the fear of death
we no longer need to try to escape from it
by playing a variety of characters
but instead we turn around,
look death in the eye
we mark it on our foreheads
and then we walk through it
to the new life on the other side
because with God
death is always followed by new life. Amen
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Kings 2:1-12
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the beloved of God. Amen
“And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.”
Now I know what you’re thinking, it’s a Tide Ad.
For those of you who did not watch the Superbowl,
or follow the superbowl advertisements,
this year there was a series of ads by Tide,
the clothing detergent company,
their premise was that as long as there were clean clothes in an ad,
it was an ad for their product,
it was quite clever how it was done,
the commercial would start
and it would look like a stereotypical ad played during the superbowl,
a sleek car roaring around a curvy road at dusk,
a group of friends at a bar,
a horse galloping through a pasture,
all scenes that we as consumers
have been conditioned to associate with particular products if not companies,
we see a group of mature ladies playing tennis
and we immediately think
this is going to about some medication
followed by a list of horrific side effects,
but just as the commercial gets to the point
where the voice over should start talking about increased such and such
the spokesperson jumps into the ad,and says
‘no, it’s a tide ad’
and points out that there are no stains on the ladies’ white tennis outfits.
Now the connection and the timing to the Transfiguration were too good to pass up.
I mean, it’s an odd story,
what are we to make of this trip up the mountain
where Jesus is changed before the very eyes of the disciples?
It’s not a Tide Ad,
that’s a joke
but the more I thought about it
the more I saw how the transfiguration story parallels these ads.
It is a story where people think they know what’s going to happen
And it turns out they don’t.
The story begins and it is a scene that those listeners who are Jewish are familiar with,
they have been conditioned to associate a story like this
with particular religious events.
We’re a little less conditioned but the cues are there.
The story starts “six days later”
six signals the days of creation,
on the sixth day of creation God made humanity,
this is a cue that something important is about to happen.
The event this story follows is Peter proclaiming at Caesarea Philippi
that Jesus is the Messiah
and Jesus predicting his death and resurrection
an idea that Peter finds so ridiculous
he tries to exorcise whatever demon has possessed Jesus.
Next Jesus leads the disciples up a mountain.
The mountain is a cue that there may be some communication with God coming up.
In the wilderness after the Exodus,
Moses went up Mt. Sinai to talk to God,
on the mountain was where he received the gift of the law
and when he came down from the mountain
his face shone with the Glory of God
and was so bright that the people couldn’t bear to look at Moses’ face
and they made him wear a veil.
And sure enough,
up on this mountain,
Jesus changes before the eyes of the disciples
the dazzling white of his clothing
associated with the glory of God
and other apocalyptic legends,
and then Moses and Elijah show up,
two more important figures
in the life and history of the people of Israel,
both servants who talked directly with God,
Elijah even ascended to heaven without dying
as we heard in our first reading.
These are important figures and they’re talking with Jesus
who has confirmed that he is the messiah
is a new era about to begin?
Peter responds to the cues as he’s been taught,
he opens his mouth and says in amazement
that this is a good place to be
and then offers to make dwellings for each of the major figures,
one commentary I read said that tents or booths
were associated as the dwelling of divine beings,
there’s also a Jewish holiday, the festival of booths
that commemorates the Israelites wandering in the desert.
Either way these are things that Peter is familiar with,
when faced with something we are hard pressed to explain
we generally try to find a way to fit it in to how we understand the world already.
And of course only after Peter opens his big mouth
are we told that he did not know what to say for they were all terrified.
Peter responds to the cues given him
but just as he thinks he knows what’s coming next
God breaks in and says it’s not what you think Peter
“This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”
Jesus is in a new category,
one that Peter and the other disciples don’t yet understand
and they won’t understand for a while
at least not until after Jesus rises from the dead.
And Jesus knows this,
after the presence of God disappears
leaving the disciples alone with Jesus
it’s time to come down off the mountain,
and as they’re traveling down
after this amazing experience
Jesus orders them to tell no one about what they had seen
until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
We can’t understand the transfiguration
without the cross
where the beloved of God dies for the sake of the world.
And we can’t understand Jesus
without obeying the order from the voice of God at the transfiguration,
to listen to Jesus the beloved Son of God.
We are to pay attention to everything he says and does
in an attempt to answer the questions who is Jesus?
And what does it mean to confess that Jesus is the Son of God?
And we must wrestle with these questions
knowing that we have been conditioned to respond
to the cues of past generations
that place Jesus in a framework t
hat we are comfortable with
but which fail to capture to full picture of the new life
that the resurrected Jesus is bringing into our lives here and now.
There’s an old pastor’s joke, you may have heard it before, but we tell it to one another to warn about teaching these cues too strongly, There’s this pastor in worship and it’s time for the children’s sermon and the kids come up and that pastor says, kids, I’m going to describe something for you and I want you to listen and tell me what you think I’m describing, what I’m thinking of is brown, and small, it’s furry, and has a tail, it likes to eat nuts, and the kids just stare at the pastor, who is running out of descriptors until after a long pause one of the kids raises his hand and says to the pastor “I know the answer is Jesus but is sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Beware of the expected answer
Because Jesus is always beyond our expectations and
As we head down off the mountain of epiphany
and into the season of Lent,
we are invited to wrestle with the questions of faith,
to listen to what Jesus says and does
for us and for the sake of the world,
and we’d better pay attention
because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from listening to Jesus,
it’s that he rarely does what is expected of him,
especially when people think they have him figured out...
5th Sunday After Epiphany
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who raises us up. Amen
I’ve got to be honest with you,
this healing story has always rubbed me the wrong way,
at least on the face of it,
it seems so self-serving.
Jesus and his disciples go to Simon’s house,
Simon’s mother-in-law is sick
so they tell Jesus about her,
he heals her and then she begins to serve them.
Um really Jesus, you heal the poor lady then have her make you a sandwich?
What I’m guilty of doing when I read it this way
is putting my 21st century ideas and expectations
on a 1st century group of people,
and while it’s unfair of me to do that to the text
it’s also understandable,
we all bring our own perspectives to our reading of the Bible
which is why it is important,
especially in these stories where we have trouble connecting
to combine what we know from the story
and historical research
and put ourselves in the place of the characters.
So imagine with me
being one of the disciples in the group leaving the synagogue,
you’ve just heard your rabbi teach in a new way,
unlike any other teaching you’ve heard before,
you’re excited about what you’ve heard
and on top of all of that
your rabbi just commanded an unclean spirit to leave a man
and the spirit obeyed him.
Your head is whirling with a thousand questions,
your heart is pumping,
and you’re feeling like you made the right decision
to drop everything and follow this guy,
you knew he was something special
and you feel proud of yourself for being in the inner circle.
Your group leaves the synagogue
and people gather around,
they’ve got questions too,
it’s kind of a mob and Simon says,
‘hey, my place is close by, let’s go there and get out of this crowd.’
You’re relieved to have a place to go get out of the way
and things quiet down as soon as you step across the threshold.
Once inside the rituals of hospitality start,
it’s an honor to host guests
and you look around expecting to see Simon’s mother-in-law,
she’s the elder and so the honor of serving guests usually goes to her
but she’s not there,
she’s sick in bed
‘ what a shame’ you think,
‘she loves welcoming people, she’s going to be really upset
and even ashamed that she was not able to offer hospitality. Hey wait a minute,
Jesus just healed that guy at the synagogue
maybe he could do something for her,’
you look around and see that the thought is dawning on everyone else
so you all turn to Jesus and tell him about the situation.
As soon as he hears Jesus goes to Simon’s mother-in-law,
she’s lying in bed with a fever
embarrassed that the guest of honor is seeing her in this state,
she tries to get up
but is too weak to do it by herself,
Jesus reaches out his hand and helps her
and as he raises her up the fever leaves her,
her strength returns
and restored to health she is also restored to the place of honor
and is able to offer the hospitality that gives her pride in herself
and standing in her community.
It’s a miracle!
Now that’s a much different experience of this healing story
than my first take on it
and it reveals a few things about Jesus’ approach to healing
that we will see again and again throughout the gospel.
When Jesus heals
he usually hears about the person needing healing through others,
the disciples tell Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law.
It is important for us as disciples of Jesus
to advocate on behalf of those who are sick or in need of medical care,
especially if they are unable to advocate for themselves
or even bring them to get care,
later that evening Mark tells us
that the townspeople brought everyone
who was sick or possessed with demons to Jesus
and he healed them all
when Jesus heals,
he heals more than the body,
he also attends to the social and spiritual health of the person’s life.
In this instance Simon’s mother-in-law
is restored to her place of honor within the household.
In other healing stories as when Jesus heals people with leprosy,
he restores them to their spiritual community
which they have been excluded from because of their illness.
Sometimes these healing stories are hard to hear,
especially when there’s been an experience of chronic illness
and you’ve prayed for Jesus to heal your loved one or yourself
and the sickness only keeps progressing,
why some people are healed and others are not
is one of those mysteries
that we wrestle with in our life of faith,
I don’t have an answer
but given the many aspects of life involved in the way Jesus heals,
perhaps one approach is to look for healing in other areas of life,
perhaps there is not physical healing
but there is social or spiritual healing that is taking place.
When Jesus heals it is a gift of grace,
Jesus heals people because they are in need of it and for no other reason.
Sure there are often responses to Jesus’ healing,
the word about Jesus being spread around,
service to God and neighbor but that is all a side effect.
When Jesus heals
he then moves on to the next place
even though people try to get him to stay put.
The temptation after a miraculous healing
is to hold onto that experience of Jesus for ourselves
but Jesus, as he tells the disciples the next morning
came to proclaim the message to all the people.
Ultimately Jesus is about raising people up to new life.
He does so most dramatically through his own death and resurrection
to which we are joined at our baptisms,
which means that whatever hardships we experience in this life,
whether it is chronic illness or addiction or mental illness
Jesus promises that we will be raised to life everlasting with God
And that not even death can get in the way.
But in the meantime
Jesus raises us up in smaller ways,
and calls us to raise up all whom we encounter. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.