th Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one
who walks with us through unexpected times. Amen
This lent we are hearing and telling stories of faith,
we’ve heard from fellow members of Christ Lutheran
and from our ancestors in the Bible,
we’ve heard how stories shape our identity,
our faith and our understanding of what is necessary.
Today our stories tell of God working through unexpected servants.
That’s a word I think we’re all too familiar with these days,
if you’d asked me last week
what I expected to be doing this week
it was certainly not leading worship via youtube.
But I had already looked at our texts for this morning,
I try to go through a season at a time,
go through the readings to see what’s coming
and make a few notes on what I might focus on
when I get to the day,
and when I opened the page in my sermon prep notebook
at the beginning of the week
I found a note I had made,
That says “Things are not going as people expect.”
now when I made that note I was referring to our scripture readings
but it equally applies to all of our lives right now
and I think it’s comforting to know
that at least God is familiar with this territory of the unexpected,
in fact we find that God often seems to prefer to work through the unexpected.
Take our first reading for today,
Samuel the prophet,
expected that he would serve King Saul until his death
but God removed favor from Saul
and instructed Samuel to go anoint a new king,
one from the family of Jesse of Bethlehem,
Jesse has a lot of sons
and all God has told Samuel is that God will show Samuel which son it will be.
Now when Samuel sees Jesse’s sons for the first time
he sees the eldest and thinks,
‘this has to be the new king, he’s the oldest, he’s tall and he already looks like a king should look.”
and the Lord tells Samuel
“nope, it’s not him, don’t look at his appearance, the Lord is choosing a king based on what’s in the heart.”
and so it goes with all of Jesse’s other sons
until it seems like there are none left,
‘do you have anymore?’ Samuel asks,
and is told there is one, the baby of the family who is out with the sheep.
‘Go get him’ Samuel instructs, and sure enough when he sees David
God says ‘that’s the one’ (I paraphrase of course).
None of this went as Samuel expected
but God chose to work through David
who would go on to become the greatest King of Israel,
so important that the messiah was supposed to be a descendant.
We see this again and again in scripture,
God choosing to work through the least likely in any situation.
We see that in our gospel,
the story of the man born blind.
Jesus and his disciples are walking along
and they see a man who was blind from birth.
The disciples ask a theological question
“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
they are following the prevailing wisdom of the day,
that illness was a result of sin
and are curious because it is hard to imagine a baby sinning before birth,
so perhaps it was the parents.
Implicit in this question is the thought:
how do we avoid this?
And Jesus responds,
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
then Jesus heals the man
who becomes an unexpected witness to Jesus,
one who testifies on his behalf.
First it’s the neighbors who are confused
but hear of Jesus through the man,
then it is the Pharisees,
now the Pharisees really grill the man,
‘were you really blind?’ they ask
and even go as far as making the man’s parents
come and tell them if he really was born blind.
At the root of this investigation is the question: how did this happen?
Again and again they ask the man
who has no explanation other than Jesus
the pharisees are confused
because to them Jesus fits the definition of a sinner,
he broke the law by healing on the sabbath,
but how could he be a sinner if he has the power to heal?
So “they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” and the Pharisees drive the man out of the temple.
The way the pharisees told the story
of who could be a servant of God,
Jesus didn’t qualify.
He acted in unexpected ways
and yet God worked through him
and this threw them for a loop
so much so that they took it out on the man who had been born blind
and healed by Jesus,
who did the only thing he could,
testify to what had happened to him.
But the story doesn’t end there,
Jesus, hearing that the man had been driven out,
goes and finds him
and reveals to him that he is the messiah,
he makes sure that the man is a member of Jesus’ community.
God works through unexpected servants,
again and again God chooses the least likely,
the youngest sons,
the ones labeled as sinners,
those at the margins of society.
And it makes us uncomfortable
because we can’t explain it
using the stories we usually tell,
the stories that say good things happen to good people
and bad things happen to bad people
and then define who is good and who is bad.
because along comes God
who tells us “do not look on appearance... For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
the Lord looks on the heart
and calls into service
whoever God needs
in whatever way God needs
and often the who and the how are unexpected.
In this time
we have all been called to serve in an unexpected way,
by refraining from gathering together.
Loving God and neighbor
suddenly looks like empty pews and houses of worship,
as we now worship from couches in our own houses,
it looks like turning handshakes into phone calls,
hugs into emails,
finding ways of staying connected
without physically being together.
And all the while,
even as we long to gather in one place
and shake the rafters with our hymns,
we know that God is with us,
leading us to sources of nourishment we wouldn’t have found on our own,
guiding us through the valley overshadowed by death,
promising goodness and mercy
and to always be with us,
in the unexpected. Amen
Third Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who gives us what we need. Amen
This Lent we are exploring stories of faith,
on Wednesdays we have congregation members sharing their stories
and on Sundays our readings are also stories of faith,
so far we have had stories of identity
where we have explored how the stories we tell
shape our understanding of our identity
and stories of how faith is lived out,
by holding on to the promises of God
even as we question and grow.
This week we have stories of necessity,
how we tell the stories of what we need
affects our relationship with God.
We have two examples from our readings today,
the Israelites in the wilderness
and the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus.
Our first example
of how stories of necessity are told and sometimes differ,
is the Israelites in the wilderness.
The Israelites are in a time of major transition as a people,
so far in the relationship between God and the Israelites
appeared to Moses out of a burning bush,
sent Moses to pharaoh to plead for the Israelites’ freedom,
sent ten plagues of increasing intensity on the Egyptians
when the pharaoh refused to let them leave,
saved the Israelites from the final plague
giving them the opportunity to flee,
parted the sea standing in the way of their escape,
traveled with the people as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night,
and provided food by raining bread in the morning and quails at night.
It’s been a lot
their identity has shifted,
they’ve moved from being settled in a place
where they had a long history
and though they were enslaved
they knew who they were and how they fit in,
now they are free
but they are also homeless
and they wander the desert led by a God they cannot see
looking for a promised land that is just that,
so we have to excuse, or at least understand
when the Israelites don’t always come off looking the best,
we as people don’t always make the best decisions
when we’re stressed and in times of transition
and these are a people who haven’t had to make decisions at all,
which is why the time wandering is so important
God is using that time to teach the Israelites
how to live as free people
and the first step is teaching the Israelites
to trust that God will keep the promises that God has made
and as they wander the desert
God has promised to provide for them with manna and quails,
and part of learning to trust
is the instruction to only take the amount of food that is necessary for one day,
the exception being the day before the sabbath.
If they take more than they need
it will spoil because they have not trusted God
to provide for them the next day.
So that’s the set up as the Israelites wander the desert,
God provides for them,
but this is a lesson that is hard to learn for the Israelites
as we see in our story for today.
In their wandering
they come to a place where there is no water,
or at least not enough water
and rather than trusting God to provide
they start complaining to Moses,
now the thing I always enjoy about the Israelites’ complaints in the desert
is that they get very dramatic very fast,
in this case they say
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
You’d think that by now the Israelites
would have known that God would provide for them
but the way they tell the story of what is necessary,
when it’s necessary
is different from the story God tells
and it strains the relationship,
Moses names the place “test and quarrel”
because the Israelites tested and quarreled with God
wondering if God was even with them,
and even though they lack trust in God,
God provides water,
showing Moses where to go to find water among the rocks of the desert,
one of the commentaries I read
mentioned that water does flow through some rock formations,
the water was already there,
it was just a matter of finding it.
That’s another thing about God,
God provides but it’s not always obvious to us humans.
Another thing we humans do
is that we like to make things more complicated than they need to be,
relationships for instance,
we all have a need to belong
and yet we tell all kinds of stories as reasons
why this person or that person shouldn’t be a part of the group
and that’s what’s going on with our second story
of the Samaritan woman at the well,
her community has told her that she needs to be different
and until then
she will not be fully one of them,
It all starts with a need Jesus has to rest,
he’s been traveling,
it’s the middle of the day,
the hottest time of the day
he’s tired, and thirsty and hungry,
so he sits down next to a well,
a source of water
and the disciples go to buy something to eat
and Jesus waits for them,
as he’s waiting
a woman comes to the well to draw water,
now this in and of itself is not unusual
what is odd is the time of day,
carrying water is a heavy hard task
which means that it’s best done
in the mornings and evenings when it’s cooler,
but here this woman comes at the hottest part of the day,
now it may be that she just needed water
but the more likely explanation
is that she came at a time when she was sure to avoid all the other people
who come to get water.
Jesus, sitting by the well,
asks her for a drink of water,
and she’s surprised,
because the story of society is that it is necessary
for men and women to stay separate
and for Jews and Samaritans to avoid each other,
but if there’s one thing we know about Jesus
it’s that he doesn’t pay attention to what society says is necessary
but what God says is,
and so he starts a conversation with this woman
and even though she’s surprised she is curious,
and after they’ve covered why they shouldn’t be talking
Jesus tells her “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘give me a drink’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
the woman is thrown by practical considerations,
she points out that Jesus doesn’t have a bucket
and he responds “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Now the woman is really excited about this,
she might never have to come to the well ever again!
And Jesus knows that this excitement
is not about the work of carrying water
but about avoiding all the other people that come to the well,
he reveals to her that he knows about her history,
she’s had really bad luck with relationships
she’s had five husbands and is now living with someone
who she isn’t even married to
and perhaps to change the topic
the woman observes “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”
and they get into a theological discussion
that ends with Jesus revealing to her
that he is the messiah!
This is the first time he has told anyone this,
and this revelation changes the woman’s life,
she runs back to the city,
to all those people she was avoiding
and she tells them “come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah can he?”
and amazingly enough they listen to her!
And we are told that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”
the woman who comes to the well alone
at the beginning of the story
is back with the community by the end,
Jesus has given her living water,
that is, a relationship with Jesus,
and a relationship with Jesus is one that restores other relationships.
God tells the story of necessity through relationships,
what we need is a relationship with God
and a relationship with our neighbors,
isn’t that what Jesus says when pressed about the greatest commandment?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might
and love your neighbor as yourself.
If we attend to these relationships God says,
everything else will fall into place.
so often the stories of necessity we tell
focus on other things,
we’ve seen this first hand as COVID19 spreads around the world
as we’ve heard many conflicting stories of necessity,
the story that says we need lots of toilet paper
and the story that says it’s not so bad,
the story that says carry on with life
and the story that says the best way to care for your neighbor
might just be to avoid them.
As we go through this time
we are having to navigate the path
through the many stories of necessity we hear
and the ones we tell ourselves
and it’s not easy,
but I think it is made easier
when we first listen to God’s story,
the one where God loves us and our neighbors
and promises to be with us whatever comes our way,
and secure in that love
we are then able to consider
how we might best live that love out.
I’ve kept this in mind this last week
as each day I’ve prayerfully considered
how we as a community will live out our trust in God,
stay in relationships
and care for our neighbors,
even as this might mean changing the way
we physically live some of this out.
I don’t know what the future will hold
but I do know that however it happens
we as a community,
saved by God’s grace and rooted in Christ,
will continue to be nourished by worship
and serve Christ and community.
As we go out into a world today,
where there are so many stories of what is necessary,
we go having drunk from the living water of Jesus,
we have been fed and forgiven,
our relationships with God and others have been strengthened
and so we go out trusting that God will provide for us,
show us the best way to love our neighbor
and care for the most vulnerable among us,
and we go knowing that God goes with us. Amen
Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who keeps promises. Amen
This Lent we are telling stories of faith,
last week we explored how what stories we listen to
impact our understanding of our identity,
this week our stories explore what it means to have faith,
what having faith looks like.
And I think this is something that we all wonder about,
at least at some point in our lives,
what does it mean to have faith?
Do I have enough faith?
How do I get more faith?
Why do some people seem to have an easier time than others?
Any of these questions sound familiar?
It’s pretty easy to go down a rabbit hole of questions
when it comes to faith
which is why it is helpful to have some examples
of what is meant by having faith
and we have two good examples in our readings for today,
Abraham and Nicodemus.
Abraham is often held up as the model of a faithful person,
Paul points to Abraham in our second reading,
and Abraham’s story of faith is quite simple,
God comes to Abraham and says “go to the land that I will show you”
then promises to make a great nation of Abraham
with many descendants and through Abraham bless the world
“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him”
Almost too simple,
so simple as to be impossible to live up to,
I know I take a lot more convincing than a single command
Even from God
But really when we think about it
why wouldn’t Abraham go?
God has made all these promises
seemingly based on the one command to go.
On the face of it,
it kind of looks like one of those transactions
that Paul attributes to the law,
until we remember that God says ‘go’
but does not give a destination,
and God says ‘I will make you a great nation’
and at this point Abraham is very old and very childless
and then it is easier to see Abraham's going as a great act of faith,
because what God proposes to do seems impossible,
when Abraham goes,
he goes into the unknown,
holding on to the promise of God
and trusting that God will keep that promise.
And yes this is remarkable and an ideal
but I don’t know about you
but I’ve found faith- the act of trusting God-
much more complicated than that.
Which is why I love the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a religious leader,
people know who he is,
they go to him for answers to religious questions
he’s supposed to have it all,
okay well, mostly
but when Jesus comes onto the scene,
Nicodemus is intrigued,
he wants to know more,
but here’s the catch,
he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s interested in Jesus,
so when he goes to see Jesus
he goes at night covered by the darkness
and he comes with an attitude that says
‘I’m going to figure you out Jesus’,
he begins “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
and the way Jesus responds
it’s almost as if he’s saying
‘oh you know do you?’
and goes on to utterly confuse Nicodemus
by speaking of being born again and born of the spirit
and when Nicodemus asks him
“‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”
I hear Jesus saying this in a rather sarcastic false shocked tone of voice,
undertones of ‘what, you don’t know everything?’
I don’t think that Jesus is judging Nicodemus
as much as making a point
that the mechanics of God’s work in the world
are confusing boarding on impossible to understand,
because then Jesus gets serious and says
look “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony if I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”
Seeing Jesus perform signs has only gotten Nicodemus so far along the path to faith,
he struggles with hearing what others have experienced of God,
at some point understanding will fail
and that’s where faith has to take over,
the trust that however it happens
what God promises will come to pass.
And that’s when Jesus tells Nicodemus what God is going to do
- out of love send God’s son to be lifted up for the sake of the world-
now remember this conversation is taking place
long before the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday
Nicodemus has no idea that Jesus is referring to the cross,
and even if he did,
he’d be stumped as to how anything good could come of Jesus dying by crucifixion,
but at the end
Jesus gives Nicodemus a promise he can hold on to:
“Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus promises that however incomprehensibly God chooses to act,
God intends salvation.
Nicodemus doesn’t have to understand the how,
his role is to trust that God is acting for good.
And that it seems Nicodemus can do,
we get no indication that when the conversation ends
Nicodemus understands the particulars of who Jesus is
or how God is acting
any better than when he started
but throughout the gospel of John,
Nicodemus keeps showing up
in ways that show his faith in Jesus is increasing.
The next time Nicodemus pops up
is when Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the festival of Booths,
Jesus has been publicly teaching
and people are starting to wonder if he is the Messiah
and all this is making the leadership anxious,
they want to arrest Jesus
and it’s at this point that Nicodemus speaks up
and says “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51)
and the other Pharisees
because remember Nicodemus is one of them,
but also they do not arrest Jesus.
Speaking up for Jesus in front of his peers
Nicodemus has come a long way
from sneaking out to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.
The last time we meet Nicodemus
is at the foot of the cross,
he comes with Joseph of Arimathea
to prepare Jesus’ body for burial
and he brings with him 100 pounds of spices and ointments,
an amount so excessively lavish
that it could only represent the grace of God,
and here at Jesus’ seeming defeat
does Nicodemus make public his faith in him.
Nicodemus gives me hope,
because it means that faith doesn’t have to be an instantaneous ascent
nor does it mean we have to believe everything as true right away,
can start as a small seed,
as curiosity paired with a lot of questions,
and that seed can be nurtured to grow
and God offers a promise to hold on to
while faith grows,
the promise that God loves us
and nothing can change that.
God lives out that promise
by continually coming to us in love,
in the water and word of the font,
in the eating and drinking of bread and wine
blessed, broken and poured out for us,
in the stories of faith shared with us
where we get to see how God comes to others
and as we live
both questioning and holding on to the promise of God,
we may find our faith growing,
we still have questions
but we no longer need the cover of darkness to ask them,
we also might have times where growth stalls
but through it all God keeps coming to us
keeping the promises God has made,
and we find that ultimately what it means to have faith
to is to hold on to the promises of God,
to trust that God is acting for good. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the great story teller. Amen
our theme is Stories of Faith,
we’re exploring how the stories we tell
affect our faith,
we’re listening to a variety of faith stories
from congregation members during our Wednesday services
(if you can make it I really encourage you to come, Ramona Witte is sharing this week)
and on Sundays our lectionary this season
is giving us at least two stories a week,
stories of faith and doubt.
This week our stories show us how what story we listen to
shapes our understanding of our identity.
we have two stories where identity is both declared and questioned,
but the outcome is very different
based on what story is listened to.
First we have Adam and Eve,
God finishes up creation by making these two earth creatures
and gives them responsibility for the other creatures in the garden,
‘this is who you are’ God tells them
‘you are the care takers of the garden,
you are to till it and keep it and eat the fruit from any of the trees,
with the exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
if you eat that fruit you will die.’
These seem like pretty clear instructions
a clear story and picture of who the humans are
and what they are to do.
And things are going well,
until the serpent comes along
and questions that story,
provides an alternate narrative
and it’s amazing how simple it is
for the serpent to get the humans off track.
All he does is ask a clarifying question,
“Did God say ‘you shall not eat from any three in the garden?’”
and the woman responds with the original narrative from God,
‘no God said we can eat of any tree,
except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
if we eat from that tree we will die.’
She’s got the story from God down,
but in asking the question
the serpent has put it into her mind
that she might have heard the story wrong,
and into that questioning space
the serpent places another option, a different story,
saying “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And that’s the story the humans end up listening to,
they eat the fruit,
their eyes are opened,
and the mark that something has changed
is that they are suddenly ashamed of their bodies
and take measures to cover up,
despite the fact that God made them,
called them good
and gave them everything they needed,
presumably they didn’t need clothes,
but now that they have listen to a story other than God’s
they are calling bad what God has called good.
And though that’s where our lesson ends
the story goes on with the humans hiding from God,
trying to place the blame for their predicament
on anyone but themselves
and being cast out from the garden.
Now this story has been interpreted in many ways,
and we could spend a lot of time sifting through all those interpretations
but for our purposes today here is what I want you to notice:
The humans are presented the story of their identity from God
and provided with everything they need,
and when the serpent comes in,
questions that identity and offers them a slightly different story,
one where they have more power,
they listen to that story and turn from God
and it changes how they see themselves for the worse.
And we’ve been doing that even since,
but it doesn’t have to be that way
That’s where our other story comes in,
it parallels our first story but with very different results.
Right before the gospel lesson starts
Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river
and as he comes up out of the water
the heavens open, the holy spirit descends in the form of a dove
and God’s voice is heard from heaven
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is God’s story of Jesus’ identity,
definitively declared from heaven.
And then the spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness
to be tempted by the devil.
This may seem odd
but it is true that hardships help to define our identity,
we often don’t know how strong we can be
until we are tested,
so Jesus goes and fasts for a long time,
he is weak,
and that’s when the tempter comes to him
and questions his identity,
provides an alternate story.
The tempter says “If you are the son of God”
the challenge under these words says ‘prove to me that you are’
“If you are the son of god, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’
the devil starts by playing off our human need
to prove to others that we are who we say we are,
it’s not enough to believe it ourselves,
others have to believe it as well,
‘prove it’ the devil says.
And Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
He quotes scripture back saying
“it is written one does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
And then the devil tries again,
adjusting his tactics,
Jesus used scripture to refute that temptation
so the devil decides to use scripture to tempt Jesus.
Again he questions Jesus’ identity,
challenging him to prove it
according to what the scriptures say:
“If you are the son of God, throw yourself down for it is written ‘ he will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
and again Jesus resists,
refusing to question, to test,
the story God has told him.
Questioning identity hasn’t worked
so the devil tries one last play,
appealing to the human desire for power,
for a price of course,
and of course Jesus doesn’t fall for that either
and the devil finally leaves him.
Jesus was able to resist temptation
because he held onto the story of his identity
that came from God,
even in the face of other plausible stories.
We too have a story from God,
God created us and called us good
and since we tend to doubt that
God gave us a sign for us to point to, baptism,
when we are washed in the waters of baptism
God definitively declares our identity,
God claims us as children of God
and promises that this will never change,
that this is an identity that cannot be taken from us
even when the world tells us otherwise,
and the world has all sorts of other stories
about who we are
the dangerous thing is that they all sound plausible,
the story that says you are defined by where you were born,
what language you speak
or even the color of your skin or shape of your body,
the stories that whisper that you are not enough
but that you can become enough
by treating people in a certain way,
by only looking out for yourself,
that you are better or worse than others,
sooner or later one of the stories grabs our attention
and we listen to it rather than the story God is telling,
when we do our eyes are opened
and we become ashamed of what God has called good and beloved
and we try to hide,
from ourselves and from God.
But God doesn’t give up that easily,
God made a promise,
so God sent Jesus,
who firm in his own identity and story
reached out to those who had been hiding from God for so long
that they had begun to believe that they would never be part of God’s story,
and Jesus offered them another story to hold on to,
to the sick he told the story of health
and then he healed them,
to the outcast he told the story of inclusion
and then he welcomed them,
to the hungry he told the story of being full
and then he fed them,
to the sinners he told the story of forgiveness
and then he forgave them
that’s what Jesus does for us too,
he gives us other stories to hold on to,
to tell again and again and again,
stories that define us as God’s beloved children
washed with water,
stories of meals where Jesus comes to us in bread and wine body and blood
offering forgiveness and new life,
stories of death and resurrection.
These are the stories that define us,
and when the other stories start sounding plausible,
Jesus brings us back to the font and table,
the places where the true stories are told,
and washed, fed and forgiven,
we are reminded of the only story that matters,
the story where we are beloved children of God
we are sent out to tell others this story
in the same way Jesus told it
by living it out
offering healing, welcome, food and forgiveness
treating all we encounter as the beloved children of God that they are,
because that’s who we are.
God told us so. Amen
2 Corinthians 5:20=6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
It’s a story in 12 words,
12 words within which
lie the whole scope of the human life,
that we start as dust and end as dust
and that we do well to remember that while we are living in between.
As humans we tell stories to make sense of our lives,
now if this 12 word story were the only one we told,
it would be horribly depressing,
but it’s not,
it’s one story among many that we tell about life,
and it has a place among all those stories
as they all come together to reveal the truth about life.
This Lent we will be focusing on telling stories of faith,
and thinking about story telling and meaning making,
I was reminded of a Ted Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie from 2009
Titled “The Danger of a Single Story”,
you can still find it online and watch it for yourself.
And in this Ted Talk
Chimamanda talks about the power that the stories we tell
have to shape our reality and understanding
both of ourselves and others,
she shares about how as a child
the books she had access to were British or American in origin
and so when she as a child
started writing her own stories
all of her characters were blond haired and blue eyed
and ate strange things that she had never tasted before
and it wasn’t until she found books by Africans
that she realized that people that looked like her
could be in stories too
and do things that she was familiar with,
that was the danger of a single perspective,
the danger of a single story
that people, even ourselves, get left out of the picture.
She also talks about a boy that worked for her family growing up,
and all her mother told her about the boy
was that he and his family were poor.
So she was surprised when they went and visited his home
and saw a beautiful basket made by the boys’ brother,
the single story of poverty that she had
didn’t include hard work.
Having only one story is dangerous
because we come to believe that it’s the only way to think about something,
this holds true for the stories we tell about others and ourselves,
but also for the stories we tell of God and faith in God
And of course not all stories
are ones we wish to think about or tell all the time,
but these uncomfortable stories,
the ones that remind us of our mortality
and the ways in which we fail to love God and neighbor
must be told as well
because they are a part of life
that’s what Lent is for,
it is a time set aside to tell stories
that we might otherwise shy away from
but which reveal important truths,
namely that ultimate power rests with God
Which is why we start with the story of Ash Wednesday,
remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,
we rarely tell the story of life this way
but it holds out to us a truth
that we need to understand,
a truth that we tend to forget
or even intentionally ignore,
the truth that our time is finite
and whatever we do,
we all end up the same,
We like to tell other stories about life,
most often we are the main characters,
the ones in control of our own actions and destinies,
we are the heroes and others are the villains
And yet the story of Ash Wednesday
takes us and points us to the one who originally took that dust
formed it into a shape
and breathed life into it,
God, creator of heaven and earth,
the only one with the power to make dust more than dust.
This story re-centers us,
prepares us for the stories to come,
the stories of life where God is the hero,
and God has the power to shape the future of all people
these stories return us to God.
In a moment we will confess our sins,
Luther defined sin as being curved in on one’s self,
navel gazing as it were.
In our readings for tonight
we are warned against this inward turn.
In our first reading God calls out to the people,
who even in their repentance
are focusing more on themselves
than the reason for their need to repent.
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers...such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” God tells the people through the prophet,
Instead, God says “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually…”
The story the people had been telling themselves
was that whatever ill they were experiencing
was the fault of God
and God turns it around on them,
shows them that their own actions
are at least causing some of the harm
and the solution is focus less on themselves
and more on their neighbors,
to change the story being told about what God wants.
Jesus in our gospel reading
points out the hypocrites,
their actions are driven by the kind of story they want others to tell about them,
that they are religious,
not that they actually wish to become closer to God.
If you wish to become closer to God, Jesus says,
the only one who needs to know what you’re doing
it doesn’t matter what story others tell of you
but what story God tells of you.
Those human stories will fade,
God’s story lasts forever.
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return
The season and stories of Lent
call us back to focus on God
and the stories God has to tell,
stories where God works through the people that go unnoticed,
who are left out of the stories of the world,
stories where God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,
stories where dust filled with life is treasured by God.
Tonight we hear a short story,
and are invited into a time
where we reflect on all the stories
between the dusty beginning and endings.
So as you go out this evening
marked with the Ashy cross on your forehead,
consider the stories you tell.
Of yourself, of others, of God,
What stories will you seek out this Lent?
Your old favorites or something new?
Stories where you are the hero?
or where God is at the center?
And as you go
remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Amen
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Peter 1:16-21
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who
gives us what we need, Amen
I’ve got to admit,
I have a soft spot in my heart
for the festival of the Transfiguration,
perhaps because this moment,
told as a brief story
encapsulates the entire experience of a life of faith,
no matter where you are on your journey of faith
there is something for you
in the story of the transfiguration
which we experience through the disciple Peter.
Peter is the disciple
whose relationship with Jesus
is laid bare for us to see all throughout the gospel,
and it’s not always a pretty sight,
but at each turn,
Jesus gives Peter what he needs,
and at this moment
Peter needs to be reaffirmed in his relationship with Jesus,
and Jesus knows,
he will need this experience in the days to come
when there are more questions than answers
about who Jesus is.
the conversation about the identity of Jesus
is what that started all of this,
six days earlier Jesus, taking a break from the crowds
drew his disciples aside and asked them “Who do people say that I am?”
the disciples responded, Moses, Elijah, a prophet
and hearing these wrong answers
Jesus asked them,
the ones closest to him
“but who do you say that I am?”
and Peter in a moment of clarity
that Jesus later attributes to the Father
says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”
he gets the right answer,
Peter is the first to confess the truth about Jesus,
and Jesus praises him for it
and tells him that he is the rock
on which he will build his church.
That’s quite a moment,
Peter is riding high,
he got the answer right,
Jesus has given him a special commission,
Peter knows what’s going on
(or at least he thinks he does)
so when Jesus starts to show the disciples
that what it means to be the messiah
is to travel to Jerusalem,
suffer, be killed and on the third day raised again,
Peter doesn’t hesitate to jump in,
he takes Jesus aside and tells him
“God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.”
And Jesus’ response is not what Peter is expecting,
at Peter’s rebuke Jesus turns and says to him
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In a moment the corner stone
has become a stumbling block,
can you imagine how devastated Peter felt?
He has gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows
and I imagine that at that moment
he is questioning everything
even his role as a disciple,
thinking that he’s blown it with Jesus.
I think most of us have had moments like that,
where we’ve disappointed someone important to us,
or we’re afraid that we have irreparably broken an important relationship
and it is a bad feeling.
But Jesus hasn’t given up on Peter,
he lets him be for awhile
and then six days after those extreme highs and lows
takes him and James and John
literally out of the valley and up a mountain
where he is transfigured before them,
his face shines like the sun
and his clothes turn white.
The fullness of who Jesus is,
is revealed on that mountain,
in that moment before Peter.
It’s one thing to stumble on the right answer,
it’s quite another thing to witness Jesus surrounded by the glory of the Lord
and speaking with Moses and Elijah
and Peter never wants this moment to end,
‘this is a good place’ he tells Jesus,
‘if you want I’ll build the three of you places to stay and you’ll never have to leave’
he is caught up in the glory of the moment,
but I bet at the back of his mind
is Jesus’ passion prediction,
even after Jesus’ strong rebuke,
Peter is still trying to find a way out of what Jesus has told them must happen,
this might be the answer.
But as Peter is speaking
they are all overshadowed by a bright cloud
and from the cloud comes the voice of God saying
“This is my Son the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
and the terrified
disciples fall to the ground
overcome by fear,
because that is what you do when you hear the voice of God,
you are terrified
and Jesus comes over,
picks them up, and says “do not be afraid”
and when they look up,
they are alone with Jesus
and he leads them back down the mountain.
Because the truth of mountain top experiences,
whether literal or figurative,
is that as important as they are,
they cannot last forever,
at some point you have to come down off the mountain
back into the valley,
because that’s where faith is lived out,
in the valleys of everyday life,
but we are able to live it out
because of what we have experienced on the mountain top.
Peter and James and John will go with Jesus to Jerusalem,
and things will go as Jesus has told them
there will be moments of great faith
and moments of doubt and despair
but even in the depths of fear and doubt
they have the experience of the transfiguration,
the voice of God,
the reassuring touch of Jesus,
the view from the mountain top.
The life of faith is never straight forward,
there will be times when like Peter,
for a moment we get it right,
and in the next instant we will get it so very wrong,
there are the times when we are enthusiastic and energized,
and times when we are disheartened and tired,
and then there are the times when we are just plain terrified,
And in all these moments
Jesus gives us what we need,
sometimes we need a rebuke,
and sometimes we need to be led up a mountain
and shown the glory of the Lord,
or a calming touch
and then Jesus leads us back down the mountain,
to see life in the valley through new eyes,
eyes that have seen the glory of the Lord.
There’s one final detail to this story,
as Jesus leads the three disciples back down the mountain,
he tells them not to tell anyone about their experience
until after he has risen from the dead.
It may seem like an odd request
given how amazing the experience was,
but I think it speaks to the truth
that we often only understand moments where the glory of the Lord is revealed,
long after the experience.
We don’t forget about them
but as we live our lives
we see more clearly than in that initial moment
the impact of that time on our journey of faith,
and only then
it is time for us to share the story with others,
and perhaps our story telling will be Jesus,
giving someone else what they need at that moment
on their journey of faith.
This Wednesday marks the beginning of a season of journeys and stories.
We start by being reminded of the most simple story of humanity
that we begin as dust and we return to dust.
Then we join with Jesus
as he journeys to Jerusalem and the cross,
this is a story we tell every year,
we are still unpacking it’s meaning, 2,000 plus years later
and as we go with Jesus,
we reflect on our own journeys
and tell our own stories
whether they take place on mountain tops or in valleys.
But before all this starts,
we take a moment to rest in the glory of the Lord,
we look around and say,
it’s good to be here,
and even though we know we can’t stay
we will carry this moment with us
on the rest of our journey. 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.