Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who chose life for all. Amen
We have some pretty stark choices
before us in our lessons for today,
Moses starts us off in Deuteronomy,
he’s addressing the Israelites
just before they enter the promised land,
they’ve wandered in the desert for 40 years,
learning how to be a free people
while still being taken care of by God,
but the manna will stop when they cross the Jordan river,
and there will be other people there
and it will be time to put the lessons learned
over the past forty years to the test.
You are free to choose,
Moses tells the people
and here are your choices:
life and prosperity,
death and adversity.
And he urges them to choose life.
That seems like a pretty obvious choice doesn’t it?
The comedian Eddie Izzard does a bit
where he says,”Cake or death That’s a pretty easy question anyone can answer that.
‘Cake or death’
‘uh cake please’
‘very well, give him cake’
‘ah thanks very much’
‘you, cake or death?’
‘ah cake for me too please’
‘very well, give him cake too, we’re going to run out of cake at this rate, you cake or death?” ‘Death please, no cake, cake, cake, sorry’
‘you said death first’
‘I meant cake’
Life or death, that seems like a pretty easy question to answer doesn’t it?
But of course
because we’re humans
we make it more complicated than that.
After the initial offering of life or death
Moses goes on to explain what living out that choice looks like:
Choosing life looks like obeying the commandments
loving God, and walking in his ways
“But,” Moses continues
“if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.”
Serving other gods is the choice of death
and here’s the thing,
those other gods, those false idols
make it seem like they are the better choice,
whether it’s because following them is easier
or more comfortable
or even more exciting,
they disguise death in flashy shiny things
that grab our attention for a moment
but ultimately lead to death
because in making these choices
we’re serving ourselves,
we’re thinking of our own lives and comforts.
Life as God defines it
is bigger than just ourselves,
life encompasses all of creation,
life is lived in community with others and God,
that’s what the rules God gives the people are about,
living with God and others in community
to us at least,
choosing life means giving up some things,
namely being self-centered.
And that’s hard
because the messages we receive on a daily basis
tell us that we should be thinking about ourselves (and families) first
and these false idols lead us astray
promising life with quick fixes
or the next great thing
when all it leads to is death.
Choosing life is hard.
It’s what Jesus is talking about in our gospel for today,
it’s one of those readings
where we want to put a question mark at the end of the proclamation,
the gospel of the Lord?
Because it doesn’t really sound like good news does it?
Hating family and giving up all possessions
but here Jesus is in the process of choosing life
and he’s trying to communicate
to those following him
just how radical choosing life is.
Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem
and the cross where he will die
so that all may live,
in dying he will destroy death
and bring about everlasting life for all.
And yes that sounds backwards and foolish
but that’s how our God, the author of all life works.
So Jesus turns to the crowd following behind him,
waiting for him to do miracles and overthrow the Romans
and he asks them to consider just how far they’re willing to go,
what they are willing to give up to be his disciple,
to choose life,
when you choose life Jesus says
it means caring for the whole community,
especially the most vulnerable,
and sometimes you will get caught between caring for your family
and the most vulnerable
and with Jesus, the most vulnerable come first
And Jesus says
when you follow me
you’ve got to be willing to make your resources
available to the community,
if it’s a choice between your things and someone who is hurting,
they come first.
And boy how foolish you will look
if you say you’re going to follow me
and then change your mind partway through.
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity... Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”
Choosing life should,
well, it should change our lives.
means doing things that seem foolish to the world around us,
like taking time on Sunday mornings
to gather with a community broader than our family,
it looks like using our time, talent, and treasure
for the sake of people we don’t even know
because we believe that their needs should be taken care of
in the same way ours are
even if that means we use less for ourselves.
means that we care about all lives
with a special emphasis on the marginalized,
understanding that our call to love and serve our neighbors
expands around the globe,
that in Christ we are one body
and when one part hurts all the parts hurt.
Choosing life means
that if they way we’ve done something in the past
hurts others we must acknowledge that hurt and change our ways.
So, what’ll it be? Life or death?
It’s an easy question to answer,
it’s a hard choice to live out,
and it seems that no matter how hard we try,
we always seemed to be lured away again
by the ease and comfort of just focusing on ourselves
And God knows that’s going to happen
which is why Jesus,
fully God and fully human,
chose life for all
and lived out that choice
through the cross all the way to the empty tomb
Which means when we fail,
there is forgiveness and the chance to try again,
joined to Christ in baptism
each day we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ
each day a new chance
to chose life so that all may live. Amen
First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one at the center of the story. Amen
The season of Lent is a time of storytelling.
During this 40 day period
we tell the stories of Jesus’ last days
leading up to the greatest story of Easter morning.
We tell these stories every year during this season,
we tell them because they are important to us,
we tell them so that new people might hear them,
we tell them to remember who we are and whose we are
because stories form our identities.
We start with our reading from Deuteronomy,
I love this passage because it combines the power of storytelling with worship.
In this passage
Moses is instructing the Israelites
before they enter the promised land
on how to worship God who is giving them the land.
It is clear that Moses is concerned
that once the people settle in
and start working the land
and providing for themselves through farming
that they will forget God.
Moses says some variation
of “the land that the Lord your God is giving you”
six times in this short passage,
he has a right to be worried
it’s a very human temptation
to forget God
when it appears that we can take care of ourselves through our own work
even though God made it possible for us to work in the first place.
So Moses prescribes a ritual for worship
designed to both praise God
and remind the worshipper of God.
When the land,
a gift from God,
starts to produce
the Israelites are to take the first harvest,
put it in a basket,
bring it to the temple and give it to the priest
who will put it before the altar of God.
Seems simple enough,
but there is more,
in addition to bringing the first fruits
the worshiper is to retell the story of the people and God
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." Deuteronomy 26:5-10
The story puts the act of offering in context,
the ability to offer these first fruits
is only possible because of God’s saving actions and gracious gifts.
Telling the story this way
makes sure that God stays at the center of the story.
Worship is designed to keep God as the main character
in the story of life,
and let’s be honest
we need all the help we can get
we humans love to think that it is all about us,
and when we start to make ourselves the center of the universe
we get into trouble very quickly.
It is this human inclination
that the Devil plays on as he tempts Jesus in our gospel for today
and Jesus resists
by keeping God at the center of the story
In his first attempt
the Devil plays on Jesus’ pride and hunger
by saying “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Now imagine if Jesus were living with the perspective
that he was the center of the universe-
he would be insulted at the Devil’s questioning of his identity
and authority as Son of God,
and being hungry it would make sense to prove the devil wrong
by creating some bread,
seems like killing two birds with one stone.
But keeping God at the center
Jesus, even though he is the Son of God and is very hungry answers:
“It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil tries another common weak spot for humans,
he offers power,
all the kingdoms of the world.
In exchange for allegiance that is.
We only have to look through history
at the various dictators
to know how this temptation might have played out.
But again Jesus keeping God at the center
answers: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And now the Devil knows he’s working with a really tough case
and so in his last attempt
he combines a question of Jesus’ identity
with quoting scripture,
playing Jesus’ own game saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’
there you have it,
the word of God straight out of Psalm 91,
how can you argue with that? The Devil implies
this tactic has worked really well for the Devil over the years
playing on the pride of people
who then pressure other people
saying: “If you are a Christian, you will go and do____ something very un Christ like”
and by backing up their claim with scripture
people fall prey to the desire
to prove that they are Christian
rather than to act like Christ.
but yet again Jesus sees through the devil’s ploy
and keeping God at the center of the story
responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
At this the devil departs-
but not for good, just until another time when Jesus is ripe for temptation,
a time like this one where his defenses are down.
That’s when the devil likes to tempt us,
not when we’re at our strongest,
but when we’re at our weakest,
those times of struggle
where we desperately desire a certain outcome
because we are so overcome with the events in our lives
that we’ve started telling our story with ourselves at the center
we are so focused on ourselves
that we give into temptation
and start testing God saying things like:
“God, if you’re really there I’ll know because you’ll make the one I love all better.”
or “God, if you’re really compassionate make all this pain go away, right now.”
Of course that way lies madness,
because God doesn’t work like that,
God is not a cosmic vending machine
where if we insert our prayers like dollars
our desired outcome will be dispensed.
And how do we know God doesn’t work like that?
Through all the stories of how God has acted in the past,
the stories where again and again
God chose to work through death to bring new life.
So how do we make it through the tough times and resist temptation?
the stories of how God has acted in the past
and promised to act in the future.
In worship we hear the stories,
and we give to God in recognition that in the great story of life
God is the main character to our supporting role,
and we celebrate the life God has given us.
And fortified by the story,
gratitude and communal celebration
God sends us back out into the world,
to live through death into new life. Amen
Sixth Sunday After Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from God who gives the growth. Amen
Life with God is a process,
a journey that is only completed
when we are commended to God at our death
and because it is a journey that we are on
there is always room for improvement,
Life with God takes practice.
Our texts for today
make it very clear
that life with God, as a child of God
is never a one and done event,
God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt
and brought them to freedom and the promised land
but that was only the start of their life with God.
God knew that after being slaves for so long
they didn’t know how to live freely and peacefully with one another
so God gave the people leaders in Moses, Aaron and Miriam
and the commandments,
a guide for peaceful prosperous life together
and God gave the Israelites time to practice this way of life without distractions
while wandering in the desert
before entering the promised land,
they couldn’t handle it all at once,
they had to take baby steps to get there.
Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning
is Moses’ last address to the people
before they enter the promised land,
full of riches and opportunity
and other people with their own gods and way of living
and one last time
Moses calls the people to follow the way of life
that they have been practicing,
that God has laid out before them
he puts it in stark terms,
life and death,
the way of God is life
any other way is death.
Choose life Moses says!
Practice life by living according to the guide God has given you,
it will lead you to life. Choose life!
By the time Jesus comes on the scene
the people have been practicing the law of Moses,
with varying degrees of success
for a long time,
and in the sermon on the mount
Jesus joins the group of rabbis who say,
it’s time to take it to the next level,
‘I didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it’ Jesus tells the crowd
life is even more complex than the law
and the interpretation of the law have been,
now it is no longer good enough
to follow the exact letter of the law
but one must look at the intent behind the law,
what is at the root of murder?
It is anger,
we’ve established that murder is bad Jesus says,
now let’s work on what leads to murder.
It’s the next step on the way to the abundant life
that Jesus came to bring,
and if all of this seems overwhelming and impossible
The truth is that it is
but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,
it means we are aware of how much we need the grace of God
given to us through the cross of Christ
God both expects us to follow the law
of love of God and neighbor
and God knows we will fail and need the grace of Christ.
Life with God takes practice
Paul points out in our reading from 1 Corinthians
that it’s okay, necessary even
to take baby steps in our practice,
he calls the Corinthians infants in Christ
and says that he fed them with milk
because they were not ready for solid food.
The life of faith is a life of growth in faith,
growth that takes time, nourishment and practice.
One of the main ways we nourish and practice
our life in faith
is through worship.
When we gather for worship we gather to praise God, yes
and to be nourished yes
but also to practice,
in the time and space of worship
we practice for the rest of life,
we practice how God calls us to live beyond worship.
We start with confession and forgiveness,
practicing mending the inevitable broken relationships
that go along with being human.
We give thanks in worship,
acknowledging that all we have in this life are gifts from God,
We listen to the word of God, in the readings and sermon,
practicing listening for what God is saying to us in our daily lives.
We pray for others and ourselves
practicing communicating with God on a personal level.
We offer one another peace
practicing for the times of conflict
when it will be necessary in life
to cross the aisle
and take the hand of someone you profoundly disagree with
and make peace.
We give in worship
practicing living materially God and neighbor centered lives,
acknowledging that we are dependent on God
and not on ourselves for our lives and livelihoods
and that we are called to share what God has given us.
We eat a meal together
at a table where all are welcome
and there is enough for everyone,
practicing God’s truth for the world,
preparing us to know that it is a lie
when we are told there is not enough for everyone
and that some are better than others.
We bless one another and receive blessings
practicing offering affirming words to one another
in a world that most often offers criticism.
And then we are sent out into the world
as servants of God
to spread this way of life
We go out taking baby steps,
a kind word here,
a radical welcome there,
a small moment of peace making,
a word of blessing,
and God takes our baby steps
and uses them to give the growth,
to make the kingdom of God a reality.
Paul planted, Apollos watered but God gave the growth.
Paul reminds the Corinthians
Whatever we do
However we contribute
Ultimately growth is up to God
And for that I say thanks be to God.
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.