Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who sees us through the eyes of Christ. Amen
This month my bookclub
read one of the best books I’ve read in awhile,
Wonder by R.J. Palacio,
yes there was a movie made of it with Julia Roberts
a couple of years ago.
The book centers around the character of August Pullman
who is starting 5th grade at a new school,
actually it’s his first school,
he’s been homeschooled up to this point
because he was born with some genetic mutations
that wreaked havoc with his face,
from how it’s described in the book,
nothing is quite where it should be
and is quite startling
to people who have never seen him before
he’s come to expect that people will stare and react
but even the expected isn’t easy
when he is the center of attention for looking so different,
when really he is just another smart, funny kid.
Which is why August’s favorite holiday is Halloween.
He gets to dress up and put a mask on
and when he does
he becomes just another kid celebrating Halloween,
there is no longer any distinction between him and everyone else
he is free to just be a kid.
It’s this kind of freedom Jesus proclaims to us today.
The freedom to be what we truly are.
all of us want this freedom
And when we think of it from our human perspective
Sometimes it looks like being like everyone else.
Because there are so many ways to be divided and categorized,
and while not all of them are bad,
it seems like we humans are obsessed
with figuring out just which box everyone including ourselves fits into,
and if we’ve been placed in a box
we’re not happy with
we go to great lengths
to try and change how people see and categorize us,
we go into credit card debt to get those things that will make us fit in,
we exclude certain other groups of people to fit in,
we constantly try to figure out where people fit in and where we fit in,
and in our quest for freedom
we become bound to these things
and it’s exhausting.
But of course we don’t stop there,
we take this logic and apply it to God.
We want to know just where we fit in with God
and we think we can determine that
based on our own actions,
which is why people are attracted to interpretations of religion
with a lot of rules or strict codes of ethics
so they know where they stand,
if they do everything right then they are clearly on God’s good side
and as an added bonus
feel justified pointing out to others
when they break the rules
and therefore logically are on God’s bad side.
And this too is an exhausting way to live
because no matter how many rules we follow
or things we do right
the law will always end up showing us
just how short we fall of perfection.
This is what Paul is talking about in Romans
when he says “through the law comes knowledge of sin”
the law shows us that if it is up to us,
we will never be good enough
and that quickly leads to despair.
So it’s a good thing it’s not up to us,
Paul continues: “But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
There is no distinction,
just like August Pullman on Halloween,
we are all the same,
according to the law we’re sinners,
according to Christ we’re saints.
God knows that the system of the law only takes us so far,
it gives us structure for living with one another,
and it shows us how much we need God
but that’s about it,
humans need more than the law
and God loves humans
so God sent Jesus to do whatever needed to be done
to bring God and humans together,
and that’s what Jesus did on the cross
a free gift given in love
so that now there is no distinction
when God sees us, God sees us through the eyes of Christ
and Christ sees us each as we are,
fearfully and wonderfully made by God.
Thinking about this reminds me of an experience
that I had the summer after my first year in college.
I taught swim lessons as part of my summer job
and in one class that I had,
I had a very energetic little boy,
he loved swim lessons and the water,
though he struggled with holding on to the wall
and waiting his turn while the other kids had their turns
but I could see that he really wanted to be there
and I was happy to teach him
but the other kids rejected him,
they didn’t want to be near him on the wall
and were impatient with his struggles to hold on,
and I was struck by the contrast,
his peers saw him as annoying,
someone to be avoided,
who they wished weren’t there,
and I saw him as an energetic little kid
who wanted to learn how to swim,
who was worthy of being there.
When God looks at us through the eyes of Christ,
God sees that little kid in all of us,
the one who is excited to participate in life,
who is worthy of being here in our own way.
In Christ we are set free from distinctions
and allowed to be fully ourselves,
not because of anything we have done but as a gift
and we accept that gift by trusting that it is so,
by having faith that God keeps the promises God makes.
Jesus tells his disciples
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;
and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
The word of Jesus
is that nothing can separate us from the love of God
we have been set free,
free from the distinctions that others place on us,
free from the distinctions that we place on ourselves,
and Christ invites us to continue living in this freedom through faith.
Confirmands, this is the faith you publicly proclaim today
the faith that you are freed from sin
to love and serve your neighbors,
not because of anything you’ve done
but because of Christ
and as you stand before us, you are saying
you intend to continue in this faith,
to continue in the gift of freedom
living as Christ sees you, with no distinctions.
And it’s true,
there will be times when you feel different,
when you feel bound by the distinctions the world places on you,
but that’s why we gather as a community
where we hear the proclamation that there is no distinction,
and Jesus brings us to the table,
feeds us with his body and blood,
forgives us and reminds us of the gift that is already ours,
and strengthened we go out to live in freedom once again.
So dear confirmands,
dear people of Christ,
in whom there is no distinction,
continue in the word of God,
you know the truth and the truth has set you free. Amen
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
14th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who offers a path to forgiveness. Amen
Our lessons for today
offer up a contrast,
the ideal versus reality.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans
he exhorts them to
“Owe no one anything except to love one another,
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law,”
all of the law is summed up in the teaching
“love your neighbor as yourself”
and he tells them
that now is the time to put on the armor of light,
to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Reading this leads us to expect
that those who have put on Christ,
who call themselves Christian
will do as Paul says,
who out of love will do no wrong to a neighbor.
This is the ideal.
then we have Jesus teaching the disciples in Matthew
beginning “If another member of the church sins against you…”
as he lays out a way to deal with conflict within the church,
taking into account
that it may not be easy
and even impossible
to reconcile a relationship broken by sin.
This is the reality,
and thank God,
Jesus is the one that is realistic,
he knows that when people gather together in community
there will be conflict,
and rather than simply condemning conflict
he provides a way to move through it,
to forgiveness and a stronger community.
One of the greatest complaints
of critics of religion and religious people
is that it is and they are hypocritical.
People say one thing and then go and do another,
they preach love of one another
and then go ahead and stab each other in the back,
or do things that do not look like love,
we constantly fail to live up to the ideal
and it makes people not want to be a part of it.
when the ideal is the only measure used,
we are hypocritical
because part of being human
is failing to love one another perfectly,
and contrary to what some on the outside, or even inside may think,
we are aware of our failings,
we know the painful truth that while God made us saints at our baptism
we are also still sinners,
which is why we come to church,
confess our sins in search of forgiveness
and to praise the God that does forgive.
This all reminds me of an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
It’s a tv show on Netflix and the premise is that the main character was kidnapped by an apocalyptic cult leader and kept in an underground bunker for 15 years before being rescued.
The show starts when Kimmy leaves the bunker and begins to rebuild her life, many 90s references and comedy of errors follow as well as genuine revelations about what it means to live in the world.
In season three Kimmy encounters a person who decides they want to be a Pastor and she freaks out, and she realizes that the only religion she has experienced is the underground bunker kind, so she gets her friend to take her to church.
At first she’s all excited about the nice people she meets who give her hugs at the passing of the peace and offer to pray for her, and who knew that churches did great things like feed and clothe the poor?
Then she gets to know the individuals a little better, particularly Ms. Clara, an older lady who takes cell phones from kids in church, knows everybody’s business and gossips about it
Kimmy’s ideal is shattered and she sets out to expose Ms. Clara as a bad person, when she accuses Ms. Clara in front of the whole congregation she is floored at the response, the minister affirms that everybody there is a born sinner but “as the old folks used to say, when you know better, you do better.”
Ms. Clara tells her “I know I’m a gossip and a scold, but I pray everyday for the strength to do better, I got to do better.” at this Kimmy has a revelation, “So I guess real religion is about knowing we’re not perfect but trying to be better, together.”
And that’s what Matthew 18 is about,
recognizing that we’re not perfect
but trying to be better together,
particularly through instruction.
Teaching was a huge part of Jesus’ ministry,
and the command at the end of the gospel of Matthew,
as Jesus is about to ascend into heaven,
is to baptize in the name of the father, son and holy spirit
and to teach everything that Jesus commanded.
Jesus know that we’re not perfect,
but when you know better,
you do better.
Today we’re kicking off our Sunday School ministry for the year,
we’re obeying Jesus’ last command,
gathering as a community
to teach and to learn,
it is important that we pass this knowledge on to our kids,
we promised we would do this when they were baptized,
to help them learn to love their neighbor as themselves
and what to do when that just doesn’t happen.
and it’s important that we keep learning as adults
because we know we’re not perfect
but we’re trying to do better,
a task that takes up our whole lives
and requires a community to hold us accountable.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect
but he does expect us to try,
and to hold ourselves and others in the community accountable,
and throughout all this
Jesus promises to be with us,
to be among us when we gather as a community and invoke his name,
to meet us at the table in bread and wine
offering forgiveness and strength
and in the very end
when we stand before God
because we have been joined to Christ,
God will look on us as perfect
for the sake of Jesus our Savior. Amen
12th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who gives us identity and purpose. Amen
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks the disciples,
Simon Peter says, “you are the messiah, the Son of the living God”
and in return Jesus gives Peter a new identity and purpose,
he is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church,
Peter’s new identity and purpose
are a direct result of who he says that Jesus is,
and he is able to confess this only with the help of God the creator,
Jesus’ and Peter’s identities are intertwined.
The question of identity is all over our readings for today
These days a lot of people
have a lot to say about who Jesus is,
as a matter of fact
a lot of people have a lot to say about who they think we are
and into that conflicting conversation
Jesus has us pause and asks “but who do you say that I am?”
because who we claim Jesus to be
directly impacts who we understand ourselves to be
and how we live in the world.
But first and foremost God claims us.
As the creator of the universe
God is the source of our lives,
and our relationship with God is formalized at our baptisms
when God says “you are mine, sealed with the holy spirit and marked by the cross of Christ forever no matter what anybody says you are a child of God.”
And while this will never change,
we encounter events in our lives,
whether expected or unexpected
that cause us to question: who is God and who am I?
Our readings for today
model how God suggests that we might begin to answer these questions.
In our reading from Isaiah
God is speaking to people who are seeking the Lord,
they have experienced the tragedy of exile from their homeland
and it has caused them to ask who is God?
God points them back to the past actions of God.
Saying “Look to the rock from which you were hewn…
look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; f
or he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.”
God recalls to the people
their collective experience with God,
in a way saying ‘if I acted this way in the past I’ll act this way again,
I was with Abraham and Sarah when it was just them
and I grew them into a great nation,
your number might be depleted but if I did it with them I can do it again.”
In many ways who we confess God to be
depends on our experience of God,
both as a community and as individuals.
Which is why it is important that we gather and tell the stories of who God is,
when we tell the story of the exodus
we are proclaiming that God is a God of liberation,
when we tell the story of Jesus
we are saying that God is one who walks with us,
when we hear of the work of Jesus through the disciples
we are confessing that God works through us.
When we tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection
we are saying that God is not stopped by death.
And we each have our own stories of God in our lives
that shape and define who we confess God to be.
When I tell the story of growing up in the church,
I am proclaiming a God that has nurtured me
When I tell the story of how my community took care of me
At the most difficult times in my life
I am proclaiming a God that is loving and works through community
When I marvel at the times when I had nothing to say
and the right words came out of my mouth
I am proclaiming a God that sends the Holy Spirit to assist me
What we say about God
based on the scriptures, the community and our own lives
paints a picture of a God who is intimately involved in our lives
and this realization causes us to ask, if this is so, who am I and what am I to do?
“You are a member of the body of Christ,” says Paul
speaking to a group of people asking that very question,
“and members of the body of Christ are unique,
with various gifts and talents that all come together
to help communicate to others who God is”
because our main mission,
as we hear at the end of the gospel of Matthew
is to go and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing and teaching them of Jesus.
And Jesus has given each of us gifts
that allow us to work together as a community
to live out this mission in the world
and sometimes our gifts are not always obvious
so Paul recommends to the Romans,
who are wondering what role they have to play in the body of Christ
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect”
realizing that it is possible to get caught up in the world around us,
that unless we take time to read scripture, pray and think about it
we might confuse what the world wants with what God wants.
Which is why Who we confess Jesus to be is so important
Because understanding who God is
Helps us interpret how God wants us to live in the world
Our confession directly impacts
how we understand ourselves
and what we do with our lives.
Jesus’ identity and our identity are intertwined
and it can take us in some unexpected directions.
Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, the Son of the living God,
and Jesus gave Peter a new identity and purpose,
the foundation of the church
and it took Peter in some un expected direction, the garden of Gethsemane,
the court yard of the high priest,
the empty tomb, breakfast beside the sea of Galilee,
his purpose as the base of the church
even took Peter, a good Jew,
to the gentiles with the message of Jesus
including visions of breaking the dietary laws
for the sake of the gospel
a place he certainly didn’t expect to wind up
but which deepened his understanding of who God is
and expanded who he shared the good new with.
We are at a time in history
where we are being called to reexamine the questions
who is God? and who am I?
and we need to take time to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect
because how we live out our answers is a reflection of who we believe God to be
So we ask: Who do we say God is in the face of Charlottesville? And
How do we live out our answer as the body of Christ?
Who do we say God is in the face of sickness and death?
And How do we live out our answer as a member of the body of Christ?
Who do we say God is in the face of hurricanes and natural disasters?
And How do we live out our answer with the gifts given us by God?
These questions can be daunting
but when we ask them in community,
with the scriptures as witness,
the Holy Spirit our comforter and guide
and Jesus who has claimed us as his own
God will give us identity and purpose.
So, who do you say Jesus is?
8th Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 35-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
This was a Sunday where I preached without a manuscript but the main point was that Paul, in the reading from Romans makes three assertions about God:
1) The spirit helps us in our weakness
2) God has called us (and part of being called is being justified and glorified by God)
3) Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God
In the many of the various characters in the Bible we hear in their stories how these three points play out, how God calls them, helps them in their weakness and is always with them.
These promises are for us as well, God has called us into relationship through our baptisms, helps us in our weakness and is always with us.
7th Sunday After Pentecost
Matthew 13:24-30. 36-43
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who will sort everything out. Amen
So It’s always a fun week
when the gospel mentions sinners
burning in a furnace of fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It’s a dramatic image
that captures our imagination
and there is a certain tradition of preachers
who use such images to invoke fear in their audience
with the idea that fear of such an end
or time spent in eternity
will lead heretofore unrepentant sinners to accept Jesus and salvation
and therefore avoid the eternal sauna of dental abuse.
It should not come as a surprise to you
that I am not one of these preachers
it seems to me,
as I have read the scriptures
particularly the teachings of Jesus
that while he did address the question about what happens next
his main concern, the focus of his teaching
is how we live, in this life, now.
And the focus of the parable of the weeds and the wheat
is actually a call to patience and trust in God.
let’s look at this parable again,
Jesus sets up the reality of the world,
that even if what we do is all good
there will always be times when bad is mixed in with the good
just like the weeds get mixed in with the wheat,
and that sometimes it takes awhile for us to notice
because they look so similar,
the weed referred to in the parable
is one that looks so much like wheat
that the distinction only comes when it’s time for the wheat to produce grain.
We have a hard time telling the good from the bad because they look similar.
So it is surprising to us
when it is revealed
that not everything we’ve let grow in our lives is good
just like the slaves who come to the master and exclaim
“did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?”
Again and again we rediscover
that the world is not as trustworthy as we think it is
and it shocks us.
And our next reaction
is often very much that of the slaves
who now that they realize an enemy has sown weeds in with the wheat
want to go into the field and rip out the weeds,
eradicate the false plants,
the bad plants that are intermingling with the good wheat.
And having set up how the world is,
Jesus then tells us his response,
how he works in the world.
The Master in the parable tells the slaves
who are all fired up to go rip out the weeds
to leave them be.
“For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
and he counsels them to let the two plants,
remember they look very similar until the very end,
to grow until the harvest
and in the end, at the harvest
he will have the reapers, the experts
sort out the weeds from the wheat
and only then will the weeds be discarded
as the grain is gathered in.
Jesus wants us to leave the sorting to him
because there are times when the bad looks so similar to the good
that we confuse the two and rip up the wrong plant.
If our lives are any judge of our ability to tell the good from the bad
we don’t have that great a track record
so why would it be any different when sorting with vengeance in mind.
Sometimes plucking out the weed
causes more harm than good,
it uproots the good plants around it too
when, if left alone the good plant matures just fine alongside the weed.
Jesus counsels us to have patience
and to trust that he will take care of everything in the end,
that evil is temporary
while good lasts forever,
all he asks is that we let him do the final sorting.
So where does that leave us in the meantime?
Are we to stand idly by as evil works in the world?
part of our calling is to work for justice and peace in the world
following the example of Jesus
who when he fed the hungry fed everyone,
when he healed the sick healed all the sick,
who when he died on the cross died for everyone.
And it doesn’t always make sense to us,
we have trouble understanding why someone
who may not appear to deserve help
or be appropriately thankful
should be taken care of along with those we deem to be good,
and once again we’ve fallen into the trap
of trying to tell the weeds apart from the wheat.
In this case Jesus doesn’t expect us to understand,
and in fact it’s probably good in a way that we don’t.
as Paul said in our reading from Romans today
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
In the same way, if we claim to completely understand God,
what we understand is not God,
but we trust that God is good
and we wait for the kingdom of God
where all will live under that goodness.
Until then the reality is
that there will always be weeds mixed in with the wheat,
in our society and in ourselves
and we can’t always tell the difference,
which is why we need Jesus
who is all good,
who promises that evil is temporary
while good lasts forever
and who we were joined to in our baptisms
and for Jesus’ sake
God counts us as good
and promises that we will last forever.
We don’t know about others around us,
all we know is that God has promised us life everlasting
and that promise is open to others through Jesus as a free gift.
So focusing on what we know,
we are called to share this joy with others
and leave the judgment to God. Amen
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who lightens our burdens. Amen
Being human is hard.
I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate too much on that statement,
you’re all human, you understand the difficulty.
In his letter to the Romans today
Paul addresses one part,
perhaps the essential part of the human struggle,
the conflict that arises between expectations and reality
particularly the expectations God has for us as given to us by the law.
Often the law is portrayed as a negative thing,
a burden that God placed on us
but Remember the law is a gift from God,
initially given to help the newly freed slaves from Egypt
form life giving community with each other,
relationships that were ordered by personal expectations
rather than forced on them by another power.
the people recognized that the law was good,
and a gift
and they also learned pretty early on
that because of the presence of sin in the world
keeping the law was really hard,
over and over again
they broke God’s expectations for them
as well as their own expectations for themselves.
The whole arc of the story of God and the people of God
turns on the continual struggle
of people to live in abundant life giving relationship with God and one another
and the suffering and alienation that occur
when the law is ignored,
the expectations are broken.
And most of the time,
the people knew what they were doing,
in the beginning of each phase of the story
when the words of the prophet have finally gotten through
they lament their actions,
they realize that to live according to the law leads to a good life
and yet inevitably they break the law and the relationships it protects.
Being human is hard,
Paul expresses the frustration in our reading from Romans today
exclaiming “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. “
We all have situations in our lives
where we know, without a doubt
what the right course of action is
and yet we continue to do the opposite,
whether it is something small
like knowing that fresh veggies are the healthiest, best option
yet choosing french fries
or something more serious
like knowing that for a relationship to be healthy
open communication is necessary
yet choosing to avoid conflict.
And it’s really annoying isn’t it?
To know even as we’re doing it
that what we’re doing is wrong
and we wonder why is this happening?
It it a lack of will power,
a flaw in our character?
or is something else going on?
this is when we start using the language of sin and temptation,
sin being the insidious force
that works its way into a perfectly reasonable and ordered world
and offers options that bring pleasure in the short term
but death in the end.
On the one hand it is a matter of free will,
we make choices,
on the other hand
there a power at work
that draws us away from God and in on ourselves,
a power that makes choosing the good,
following the law
that much harder in our free will.
So with Paul we ask “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
And Paul of course answers his own question
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
and he goes on to explain,
(now this is dipping a little into the reading for next week so don’t be surprised if it sounds familiar but it’s really the point that Paul is setting up in our reading for today),
that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.”
God’s response to sin is Jesus.
Basically, When it comes to sin, we need help.
It is beyond our humanity to live up to the expectations set,
even lovingly set, by God.
So God sent Jesus
who in the gospel calls out to us
“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
the yoke is a traditional rabbinical image for the law,
Jesus came to take a load off our shoulders,
to teach us the law of gentleness and humility,
earlier in Matthew
Jesus tells the disciples that he has not come to abolish the law
but to fulfill the law
and to do this, Jesus boils it all down to one word,
some might say the essence of God; love.
Love that is first lived out in the relationship between the father and the son,
that is then shared with the world
This is love that points out that God’s will
is made known in many different ways for different people,
for some the will of God was made known in John
who fasted and lived an ascetic lifestyle,
for some the will of God was made known in Jesus
who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners
The law of love
allows room for God to be revealed in both ways
and other ways as well
in the relationship that Jesus has with each of us.
And this was not what people expected
so they didn’t see God.
How often do the differences between our expectations for God and reality
prevent us from seeing God in the world?
We keep falling into the old trap
of trying to dictate
how or how not God’s will is make known
to those around us,
and all this trying to keep track of what is God’s business
is a heavy load
Jesus says to us ‘here, let me take that off your shoulders,
I’ll take care of worrying about my relationship with everyone else,
you just focus on our relationship
and remember it’s one of love and forgiveness,
learn how to do it with me
and it will be easier to be in loving, gentle, humble relationships with others,
which is all God has wanted for you all along.’
And that is the gospel,
that in Christ we are freed to live the abundant life that God expects of us.
That with Christ
we are able to do
what we were unable to do under the law.
As I was thinking about all of this this week
I experienced an example of the struggle between the law and the gospel
in my own life.
I hadn’t given blood for a while,
it wasn’t like I didn’t know that giving blood is a fundamentally good thing,
or that blood of my type was urgently needed,
the red cross kept calling to tell me that,
so much so that I learned which number they used
so that I could ignore their calls
and then when I ignored enough of their calls
and they switched numbers on me I learned that number too,
you see where I am going with that.
I knew I should give blood
Yet I persisted in not giving
because the last couple of times when I’ve given blood
I’ve gotten dizzy and almost passed out
and then have kind of wanted my blood back for the next couple of days
because I’ve missed it
and frankly I selfishly did not want to feel like that again.
That’s a classic struggle with the law
I knew what was the right thing to do
but I chose not to do it out of selfish reasons.
But then I went and visited Jacque in the hospital,
and while I was there she was being given a blood transfusion,
with blood that someone had freely given, that was giving life
and it was experiencing that free gift
that called me to give blood once again,
and I’ve got to say it was easier time
because I was giving not out of a sense of obligation or righteousness
but in response to a gift already given.
And that’s how the gospel works in our lives,
it, Jesus, frees us from the requirements and obligations
that make choices of living
seem like personal self sacrifice
and transforms the choices of living
into a grateful response to a gift already given to us,
a gift of life with a light burden,
filled with love
and a relationship with the creator of the universe.
“Come to me” Jesus calls out
“ all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” Amen
4th Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who brought us from death to life. Amen
You have been brought from death to life,
This is what Christ does for us
when we are joined to him at our baptisms,
he brings us from death to life.
In our reading from Romans
we join Paul as he tries to unpack what it means
to say that we have died to sin and risen to Christ
both on the cosmic scale and in our day to day lives.
On the cosmic scale
Paul paints with broad brush strokes
and absolute statements.
“Sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under the law but under grace.”
“You..have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching which you were entrusted”
“You have been freed from sin”
And we say alleluia
because this is good news,
to be freed from sin, that’s amazing!
And to be freed from sin
means to be freed from death
And yet even as we shout alleluias,
we witness death in our daily lives,
whether it is death with a capital D,
of loved ones or innocent ones
or whether it is death with a lower case d,
the ending of a relationship,
a time of sickness,
a transition from one way of being to another way of being,
all times when it seems like sin and death still reign
and we wonder what difference does the cosmic make
if all this suffering still exists.
It makes all the difference in the world.
because just as God brought us from death to life on a cosmic scale
God brings us from death to life daily.
When someone goes from isolation to being a member of a community
they are brought from death to life.
When you hear “I love you” after you thought you’d never hear those words again
you are brought from death to life.
When we go from fearing the future to being at peace with what life will bring
we are brought from death to life.
To belong to Christ
means that life always has the last say,
even though death has been defeated it hasn’t given up.
but no matter how many times death tries to enter in life will be the result.
As Christians we confess that we are in the middle,
the already and not yet,
Already Jesus has defeated death
and not yet has this come to full fruition throughout the world.
And as those who have been brought from death to life,
God calls us to serve life,
to resist the powerful temptation of sin and death
and to bring life with us wherever we go
moving the world a little closer to perfection as we do so
Paul, writing to a first century audience
puts our service in the stark terms of slavery,
even as he realizes that the imagery is a little ridiculous
Paul knows that his audience lives in a reality
where all relationships are understood in terms of power over or power under
and that perhaps with the exception of the emperor
everyone was under the power of someone else.
In Paul’s terms,
before Christ we had no choice in who we served,
we were under the power of sin,
after Christ, because of Christ
we are under the power of God
and have a choice whether or not to serve sin or God
and why Paul wonders would you serve sin
when the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You have been brought from death to life,
Jesus in the gospel puts it a little more simply,
The way to serve life, God, is through welcome
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”
This teaching comes
right after Jesus has explained to his disciples
the cost of discipleship,
saying “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
putting yourself before God
is serving sin and leads to death
while putting God before yourself leads to life
God is served through welcome
all kinds of welcome,
it could be as simple as giving someone a cold cup of water
or a wandering disciple a place to stay for the night,
in the first century middle-east
where there were no hotel chains or fast food restaurants
especially travelers like the disciples
who Jesus instructed to travel light
welcome was a matter of life or death
Welcome is still a matter of life and death
though we tend not to see it that way,
in our own lives
we are seduced into thinking
that we can care for ourselves
and that since we can others should be able to as well,
but frankly all of us at some time
will not be able to care for ourselves
and this has nothing to do with our own abilities
and everything to do with what it means to be human
in a world where sin and death are still a reality
and when those times come
the matter of welcome
is still a matter of life and death
For babies, children,
welcome, how they are cared for
is a matter of life and death
for refugees fleeing violence
whether they are welcomed is a matter of life and death,
for lqbtq people especially teens
whose suicide rate is astronomically higher than the rest of the population
welcome is a matter of life and death,
for those seeking treatment and help with addiction and mental illness
welcome is a matter of life and death.
You have been brought from death to life
now it is our turn to share the gift of life
with all we encounter
in ways large or small
for the wages of sin is death
but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Alleluia, 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.
1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
This was a Sunday without a manuscript. We compared and contrasted the two temptation stories (Adam and Eve, and Jesus after his baptism) and thought about how salvation is not a "return to paradise" but a journey of healing toward God's ultimate goal in Christ.
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.