Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who is revealed as merciful. Amen
The psalmist cries out to God today,
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
in your great compassion blot out my offenses”
then goes on to acknowledge
that they know they’ve really messed up,
they’ve sinned against God
and they deserve whatever judgement God hands down
and yet they are still bold to call on God to forgive them
and end with the petition
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.”
a petition which frankly seems pretty bold
given what the psalmist acknowledged earlier.
Who is this person that would be so bold as to ask God
to do these things,
or perhaps the better question is,
who is this God who would hear and consider these requests?
Who is God?
Yep we’re going there this morning,
who is God?
Paul in our reading from 1 Timothy
describes God as “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God.”
and that is a good general description
of what most monotheists would say about God,
God is the only God,
God is immortal-outside of time
and God is invisible,
we cannot see God,
what we know of God
is only what God has chosen to reveal to us.
And the moments of revelation
upon which we most depend
are found in the scriptures,
the stories of God and people
and while that’s a start,
even these revelations
present a variety of pictures
of who God is
even in just our selections for today
In Exodus we have the all-powerful God
meeting with Moses on the mountain top
and who is acting kind of like a sullen teenager.
God has rescued the Israelites,
the people God chose,
has led them into the desert
and has given them the 10 commandments,
God even let the people approach the mountain
to see the glory of God,
but it was too much for them,
they were content to let Moses do all the talking with God,
so now Moses has been up on the mountain
getting the particulars of the law,
and he’s been gone a long time,
so long that the people think,
well he’s probably dead by now
what with all that glory of the Lord,
it’s time to take matters into our own hands,
so they go to Aaron
and say give us a god to worship,
and Aaron seemingly without questioning the request
takes all their gold
and makes the image of a calf
and says here, go worship this.
Which gets us to our reading for today
where God notices what the people have done,
how quickly they’ve forgotten the covenant they made with God
and “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
The people messed up
and God is ready to give up,
change plans, focus on the one who has stayed loyal,
maybe pout a bit
but unlike a teenager,
God’s wrath could actually consume all the people.
But here Moses intercedes for the people,
Moses reminds God of all the promises God has made over the generations,
all the trouble God went to with the plagues,
and on top of that,
what will the Egyptians think of you if you do this?
that you just brought them out to kill them in the mountains.
“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
God can change God’s mind,
God is merciful.
Which is good for us,
because it also seems like God gets really unhappy
when people break the rules
and God has the power to do something about it.
So that’s one picture of God,
one who gets angry but is merciful.
Then we have Jesus in our gospel for today,
we confess that Jesus is God,
and so what Jesus does
reveals who God is
and here he is,
teaching a wide variety of people,
the usual suspects the scribes and Pharisees
who can always be found around a good lecture
but also the unlikely suspects
the tax collectors and sinners,
those whose lives don’t seem to reflect much time spent with God
and this is annoying to the pharisees,
the professional church goers,
who grumble “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
the subtext is that he must not be a very good scholar of the law
if he ignores what it says about associating with sinners.
And here Jesus, God,
turns to them
and tells two parables, two teaching stories
about first a shepherd who had lost a sheep
and then a woman who had lost a coin
both go to great lengths to find what they had lost
and upon finding the sheep and the coin
gather their neighbors together to celebrate.
Often interpretations of these stories
make the shepherd and the woman the characters who represent God
who here is relentless, stubborn, insistent
and tireless in pursuit of what was lost,
but God here is also foolish
because the one who searches in the story
is also the one who loses the sheep and the coin in the first place,
and they are foolish for spending so much time on one sheep
when they had 99 others
or on one coin of moderate value
when they had 9 others,
surely the expense of the party thrown when the lost was found
far outweighed that one sheep or that one coin.
But this is God’s foolishness,
foolishness that shows insistent mercy to the lost,
who others have calculated to be not worth the trouble,
God here, goes to the trouble
in defiance of common sense.
“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
And the foolishness of God continues on,
for who but a fool
would use someone who is trying to kill a cause to further it.
That’s what Paul was doing,
trying to kill the Jesus movement
through actually killing those involved,
and it’s this person
on the way to expand their terror
that Jesus comes to and calls,
and whose life is changed
to where his travels are then to spread the news of Jesus
and his letters go to various communities around the world
to strengthen their faith in Jesus.
Paul says “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.”
Much like the psalmist
Paul is fully aware
that he deserves whatever judgement
God decides to hand down for his actions as a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence. And he wonders at the grace and mercy of God,
who sought him out
was patient with him,
who changed his life drastically
so that now he lives as an example to others of life in Christ.
God is revealed as one who not only uses
but seeks out
and is patient and persistent with them
as grace and mercy turns their lives upside down.
Who would do something like that?
God, creator of the universe, that’s who,
God who gets angry, and then changes their mind,
God who is relentless, stubborn, insistent, tireless, foolish, patient, confusing,
God, who time after time is revealed as merciful
choosing to forgive rather than judge,
choosing to set aside anger
or what would make the most sense
in favor of life and a fresh start
no matter how angry God is
like with the Israelites,
or how little the person is valued by the world
like the lost sheep and coin,
or even how hopeless a case it seems to be
God can and will forgive
and will create clean hearts
and renew right spirits,
and God has promised us,
that God will treat us in the same way
When we confess our sins knowing we deserve to be judged,
God responds with forgiveness,
when we feel lost and insignificant
God goes great lengths to find us
when we intentionally turn from God,
God pursues us with grace and mercy,
and when God finally finds us,
stuck in a ravine or under the couch covered in dust,
because that’s who God is. Amen
Transfiguration of Our Lord
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who speaks to us. Amen
Speaking and listening
These two actions lie at the heart of the transfiguration story.
Speaking and listening are the transfiguration story.
Jesus has been teaching
he’s been speaking to crowds,
and now he needs some time with God.
So he takes with him three disciples,
Peter, John and James and goes up a mountain to pray.
Jesus likes to go to deserted places to pray,
less distraction that way
but going up a mountain signals that this is a special occasion,
God is often met on mountain tops,
And sure enough while Jesus is praying something happens,
Jesus’ face changes
and his clothes become dazzling white
and suddenly he is joined by Moses and Elijah
they’re having a conversation about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the cross
and Peter, John and James witnessing the glory of God
want to hold on to the moment
Peter offers to build permanent structures
so the moment never has to end
and at this God overshadows them
and speaks to them,
telling them to listen to Jesus
and terrified they keep silent.
Speaking and listening
That’s where it all starts
with Jesus going up the mountain to pray,
prayer is a combination of speaking and listening,
we’re more familiar with the speaking side of prayer
but prayer also happens in listening,
listening for what God is saying to us.
Jesus goes up the mountain to pray
and is visibly transformed by encountering God.
This is keeping with tradition,
we heard how Moses’ face was transformed
as he spoke to God.
Being in the presence of God changes us.
Listening to God visibly changes us.
And that frightens us.
Moses took to wearing a veil around the people
because when they could see the glory of the Lord shining in his face,
they were afraid to come near him.
Yet they still listened to Moses speak,
when others are transformed by being in the presence of God
we are afraid yes,
but we’re also intrigued,
part of us wants to see more,
but we can only take so much.
We’re like little kids experiencing something new,
at first it startles us and we run and hide our face in our parents leg,
but soon enough we’re ready to take another peak,
and a peak turns into a longer look
and eventually, step by step we move toward a full encounter.
It’s a different story when we’re the ones who are changed.
Peter, dear impulsive, enthusiastic Peter
witnesses Jesus’ transformation along with Moses and Elijah
and determines that this is a good place,
he wants to see more
so he suggests building houses for the trio.
He wants to make this brief moment permanent
even though that is impossible,
we are told that Peter didn’t know what he was saying,
that this was a moment for just a moment.
To be fair to Peter it’s a very human thing
to suggest what he did.
We humans love to embark on building projects
around sites of significance.
In seminary I got to go to Israel and Palestine
as part of a class on the Holy Land
which included visiting sites of significance to Jesus’ ministry.
To be fair we were a bit skeptical
that we were visiting the exact place where Jesus appeared to the disciples
after the resurrection and made them a breakfast of fish,
or the exact place where Jesus was baptized
but our tour guide
a wonderfully faithful Palestinian Catholic named Johnny
had an explanation,
‘we know this is the place because the early Christians built a church here’
and there were a lot of churches dedicated to specific events in Jesus’ life.
It’s what we humans do,
we try to capture significant moments in permanent buildings.
But back on the mountain
God has other things in mind,
the moment is too significant to get caught up in a building project
and so even as Peter is offering his suggestion
a cloud comes and overshadows the disciples,
this is the presence of God,
when God appears to people in the Bible
it is often in the form of a cloud,
For example God led the people of Israel out of Egypt
appearing as a pillar of cloud by day.
And the disciples are terrified as they enter the cloud.
Then God speaks “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
And when the cloud lifts,
all that’s left is Jesus.
And this time,
their reaction is to keep silent,
and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
They obviously eventually told someone
otherwise we wouldn’t know the story
but it took them awhile to be able to tell the story,
my guess is that it was only after the resurrection
did they feel comfortable enough to tells others of their encounter with God
and what God said to them.
And this too is a perfectly human response.
Because as much as we long for God
to work in us and in our community
- we pray for that every Sunday,
when the time comes,
like the disciples
we are terrified to enter the cloud of God.
Covered in clouds we can’t see where we’re going,
even on top of a mountain
and we don’t like that feeling,
we like to be able to look out and see where we’re going
anticipate what’s coming next,
it’s less scary that way,
God most often speaks when we’re covered in clouds.
Those times in life
when we can’t see what the future holds,
we can barely see our hand in front of our face.
a broken relationship,
a job loss,
any kind of loss,
we don’t know what the future will bring
and it terrifies us
and that is when God speaks,
and when the clouds lift,
in that first moment of clarity
what do we see?
who was there all along.
“Listen to him” God says,
so we do,
as we move forward we listen to Jesus,
we save the speaking for later.
The Church, with a capital C
is in a time of clouds,
things that worked for decades are no longer effective
and frankly, we’re afraid,
this comes out in all kinds of anxieties,
I’m not going to list them
but I’m sure you can think of something
that worries you about the Church,
we’re afraid because we can’t see the path in front of us
and yet, when we pause,
take a deep breath, and a moment to collect ourselves,
we find that we do know what to do.
Listen to God who speaks in the midst of clouds,
who tells us to listen to Jesus.
I’ve been listening for awhile now,
And you know what?
I’m not afraid of the clouds surrounding the Church anymore.
Because I know that when the clouds lift
what we’ll find is Jesus,
who has been there all along
and who will lead us down off the mountain
who will show us the way.
Realizing this has made Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians
so much more meaningful,
listen to them again:
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”
In Christ we have freedom,
freedom from fear,
in Christ we see the glory of the Lord,
In Christ we are being transformed,
In Christ we are engaged in ministry.
In Christ we do not lose heart.
“This is my son, My chosen; listen to him!” Amen
Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ
grace and peace to you from the one who is found among us. Amen
Where do you go to find God?
In Jesus’ day
if you wanted to go spend time with God,
you went to the temple in Jerusalem
and the way you communicated with God
was by offering a sacrifice,
certain animals depending on what you wanted to say
or if you were poor
you could substitute some doves.
That was it. Very clear.
It all started back at Mt. Sinai
when God claimed the Israelites
as the people of God.
This was particularly unusual at the time,
People chose which God to pray to,
usually the one thought to be most helpful in that moment,
having troubles with your crops?
Pray to the fertility goddess,
need some help winning a battle?
pray to the God of war
and so on
but God tells the people of Israel
that from this point on God,
I am who I am who appeared to Moses in a burning bush
will be the God of the people
and outlined how the relationship would work in the ten commandments.
Fresh out of slavery from Egypt
God gave the Israelites structure and direction
for the newly freed life,
life that had meaning
because it was a life claimed by God
and directed by laws written on stone tablets
by the hand of God
and brought down off the mountain by Moses.
And these tablets came to signify not just the covenant
between God and the people
but also the place to find God.
The tablets were placed in the ark of the covenant,
(yes the one Indiana Jones was looking for)
it was the home of God
and because the Israelites were a nomadic people
they carried the ark with them, wherever they went,
even into battle,
because it meant that God was present
and if the ark was there, if God was present
the Israelites would win,
even against much larger armies.
Eventually, 40 years later,
the Israelites enter and settle into the promised land
and once the question of leadership was settled
King Solomon built a more permanent home for God,
the temple in Jerusalem,
which by all accounts would put the most baroque palace to shame,
covered in gold and silver,
the finest linens and most expensive decorations
and that was where God lived,
that was where God could be found.
When the Babylonians came and conquered Israel
and sent them into exile
they destroyed the temple,
but the tragedy of the Babylonian exile
was not only that the people had lost the promised land
but that the Israelites were physically separated from their God.
Eventually the Israelites were allowed to return home,
they were reunited with their God
and they began rebuilding the temple, the home of God.
All this to put in perspective
what Jesus does in the temple today in our gospel lesson,
he brings the whole system to a screeching halt,
calls into question everything the temple stands for,
interrupts people’s communication with God
and when confronted makes the outrageous claim
that if the temple were destroyed he could raise it in three days.
That’s it, centuries, generations of tradition
Wiped out with the crashing of a few tables
And a wild claim to some priests.
but in this claim
Jesus shifts the location of God
from the temple to himself.
Jesus is the new temple,
the new home of God.
If you want to find God,
know what God thinks,
go to Jesus,
if you want to talk to God,
talk to Jesus
because Jesus is where divine and human meet.
This is the claim that John has been making since he started his gospel
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
God has gone from residing in the temple
to residing in Jesus,
as a human, with humans,
experiencing all the joys and sorrows
of what it means to be human
even the experience of death,
death on a cross,
as our reading from 1 Corinthians puts it,
and yet that foolishness is how God
brought us back into a healed relationship between divine and human.
It’s as simple as that,
and of course more complex.
Our relationship with God
has been healed
but as we have daily proof
the perfection of the world has not yet come into fullness,
those original covenant laws are broken daily.
So where do we go to find God?
Especially post ascension
Some days it seems like God is both everywhere and nowhere
at the same time.
We go to Jesus
who meets us at the font in the waters of baptism,
who comes to us in the bread and wine of communion,
his body and blood forgiving and strengthening us.
Who speaks to us through the words of scripture and preaching.
who makes himself available for us to serve
in the bodies of the least of these,
the hungry, poor, sick, imprisoned.
And while it may not make sense according to our human wisdom
this is how God has chosen to work in the world
always present in and through us.
Some days we may wish that it were as simple
as offering a sacrifice at a temple,
and other days we get distracted by life swirling around us
and we fail to see Jesus right in front of us
that is why our yearly calendar includes the season of Lent,
the season that invites us to return to God,
to become aware once again
of the places God comes to us in our lives,
to renew that covenant relationship
and bask in the foolish love of God that makes us whole.
To find Jesus among us. Amen
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the God who died for us. Amen
Our texts for today portray a God who
in the words of Walter Brueggemann
“refuses to be domesticated”
Brueggemann is a Biblical scholar
specializing in the Hebrew scriptures and a master of preaching,
I got to see him last month at the preaching festival I went to
and I’ve been working my way through a collection of his sermons.
One of them, titled “God’s Relentless If”
is based in part on our first reading from Exodus
where we join the Israelites,
freshly freed by God from the Egyptians,
are as they are Led into the wilderness
when they finally make camp
Moses goes up the mountain for further instructions
God tells Moses to say to the people
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on Eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation.”
that sounds pretty good right?
To be God’s treasured people,
and here Brueggemann notes that
“Already with Moses, God has said that the status of Israel depends on an enormous IF”
God says if you follow what I say to you,
you will be my people
and though it is unspoken
the other side of the if holds true as well,
if you don’t you won’t.
The people heartily agree to God’s terms,
but it doesn’t work out as easily as saying yes for them,
because their actions must follow their words
and pretty soon they are building a golden calf
and starting the cycle
where the people break the covenant,
there are consequences and the people suffer,
the people turn back to God
and follow God’s ways for a while
until they get distracted and the whole process starts over again
all turning on that big IF.
in this cycle with the people
is characterized as overly harsh, vengeful even
but this is unfair to God
because what we witness in the stories
of the interactions between God and the people,
is a God who keeps promises,
who refuses to be domesticated,
taken as a push over,
(honestly, would we want it to be any other way?)
A God who loves the people so much
that God stays with the people in their suffering,
reaches out to them with prophets and judges,
offers them second chance after second chance
even while standing firm on the big IF.
Brueggemann concludes from all of this
that it costs to live in God’s world.
There are expectations and consequences,
and he notes
that when we try to domesticate or cheapen God
our neighbors become inexpensive.
When we try to tame God to fit our whims and desires,
to fit the way of life we want to live
we justify to ourselves all kinds of ‘if’ ignoring actions.
Right now, in the world around us
it seems that neighbors are inexpensive and only getting cheaper
Our neighbors with black and brown bodies are cheapened
as time and again they are judged according to their outward appearance
and not their humanity,
when fear is found to be a valid excuse
for violent interactions among people of all shades.
Our neighbors fleeing violence are cheapened
when they are refused entry into safety
and become targets of fear because of their homeland.
Our neighbors with whom we disagree are cheapened
when instead of listening we turn to violence.
Our neighbors who need medical care are cheapened
when money and profit is of more importance
than access to basic medical care,
and so on and so forth you get the idea
and maybe the covenant
God made with the people
all those years ago seems irrelevant
and we ignore it
but ignoring it doesn’t make it go away
we feel the consequences of our covenant denying actions,
the increased fear and division,
the news that we don’t watch anymore because we can’t handle another depressing story
we might even wonder where God is in all of this.
Where is God?
Right in the thick of it all,
where people are suffering,
that is where God is found.
Even as God stands firm on the if,
God loves us and reaches out to us,
assuring us that we are at peace with God,
because in the words of Paul to the Romans,
“God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Jesus came into the world
in a time when neighbors were extremely cheap,
and he came to the people who were the cheapest.
he gave them hope by proclaiming the kingdom of God come near,
he gave them dignity by curing every disease and sickness he came across,
he felt sick to his stomach
when he saw how they were being treated
and how they had no one to speak for them,
so he empowered some of their own to continue his work.
He proclaimed a peace different than that of the Roman Empire,
whose peace was built on cheap neighbors
and whose emperors styled themselves Lord and savior.
Jesus’ peace is built on the reconciliation between creator and creation,
and God does the heavy lifting in the relationship
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly”
and through this act of grace
offers us peace with God,
which we receive through our faith.
Over the centuries
people have tried to explain exactly how this works,
how Christ’s crucifixion made peace for us with God,
and frankly, all the explanations fall short
but we trust that what God promises is true,
because our God is a God who keeps promises,
who refuses to be domesticated
even when the consequences of promise keeping are painful
and who continues to love and be present in the midst of the pain.
Jesus is God’s recognition
that we need help living in God’s costly world
especially because it is through us
that God works to transform the world.
Through the gift of the Holy Spirit,
we are God’s hands in the world,
so the only way that our neighbors will go from cheap to valued
is if we value them,
the only way that people who are suffering
will know that God is with them
is if we are with them,
the only way that people will get medical care
is if we give it to them,
the only way that people will know that God loves them
is if we love them.
And here we are back to that little two letter word
and the unspoken other side,
if we don’t they won’t.
It is costly to live in God’s world,
Paul recognizes that,
in the midst of his expounding on the glorious gift of God
he mentions suffering.
the suffering he talks about
is the suffering that comes
when the world reacts to people who dare to live as God calls them,
who value neighbors and call others to do the same,
and dare to hope that through them
God is transforming the world
one helping action at a time
We are God’s chosen people
Claimed by God at our baptisms
so we stand firm in the knowledge that
“since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Amen
Brueggeman, Walter. The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Minneapolis: Fortress press) 1996.
 Brueggeman, 70.
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.