First Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who keeps all promises. Amen
Welcome to Advent
and the beginning of the new church year,
this year we’ll be spending time with Luke
and his gospel account of Jesus’ life,
and as always we begin
by anticipating the coming of Jesus,
and not just in the sense of waiting for the baby in the manger
but for Christ to return as he promised he would,
a return we confess each time we say the apostle’s creed,
“he will come to judge the living and the dead”
His coming will bring about a time of peace
such as the world has never known
and that sounds like a very good thing,
especially when we look around us
we are moved to pray
come Lord Jesus,
come so that we no longer have to live in a world
where children starve to death because of war in Yemen,
come Lord Jesus,
come so that people will no longer have to flee their homes seeking safety,
come Lord Jesus,
come so that if people decide to travel to a new land,
when they arrive they will be met with open arms,
come Lord Jesus,
come so that plants and animals, sea and sky are healthy and cared for,
come Lord Jesus,
God has promised to return,
and God keeps God’s promises.
But God keeps God’s promises
on God’s time, not ours.
We heard God speaking of promise
through the prophet Jeremiah
in our first reading,
the prophet recalls the promise God made
to King David that there would always be a descendant of his
as ruler of Israel,
listen to God’s words of promise from 2 Samuel 7:14-15a
“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him”
God chooses David to be in special relationship with God
But of course there will be consequences
for those kings who fail to trust God
and lead the people astray,
and there are plenty of examples of that in the history of Israel,
but God also promises
that even though there may be times of suffering
God loves the people
and will provide once again
a good and faithful leader from the house of David,
a branch will spring up from what seems like a dead stump
and life will grow once more.
And we believe that God kept God’s promise, in Jesus,
descendant of David.
And while hundreds of years passed between the words of Jeremiah
and the arrival of Jesus.
God kept God’s promise.
on God’s time, not ours.
And so we wait
trusting in God,
Much of faith it seems,
is about waiting.
We begin our year with waiting.
Jesus in our gospel for today
is teaching the disciples about waiting,
he describes the prophesies of the prophets fulfilled,
and frankly they don’t sound pleasant,
signs in the sun, distress among nations,
the powers of the heavens shaken,
heaven and earth will pass away,
nothing is permanent,
except Jesus’ words,
“Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away” Jesus says,
and we cling to these words,
in the midst of the chaos that surrounds us,
chaos that wears us down,
political scandal after scandal,
report after report on climate change,
news of the next hurricane, forest fire, earthquake,
all highlighting the impermanence of this life,
constantly reminding us
that in this world nothing lasts forever
In this we are to wait,
Waiting is difficult,
and Jesus doesn’t pretend that it isn’t.
“be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” Jesus says,
and It seems an impossible task,
to be alert at all times praying,
the disciples certainly struggled with this
in the garden of Gethsemane,
constantly falling asleep
while Jesus talked with his Father
before going to the cross.
And it was on the cross
that Jesus died for those sleepy disciples,
who constantly failed to follow Jesus’ teachings,
whether we are alert and prepared
or have fallen asleep with exhaustion
God is going to follow through on God’s promises.
We know that we get distracted,
weighed down, fall asleep even.
So we begin each year
with a call to wake up,
to return to active waiting,
to attend to the promises of God
and renew our hope in the words that will not pass away
and what are those words?
The Word of God promises
that after death comes resurrection,
the promise that Jesus kept in his life, death and resurrection
that means there is life on the other side of the chaos,
There is hope.
So we wait
and we have hope
knowing that God has already acted,
and in God’s own time,
God will act again
because God keeps God’s promises. Amen
26th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who shows us the path of life. Amen
This is one of those Sundays
where it seems like there should be a question mark
after the gospel response.
Thanks be to God?
How is it good news that stone shall not be left on stone
and that people will come and pretend to be God
and there will be wars and rumors of wars
before the final end will come?
It sure doesn’t seem good,
And today we have this gospel paired with our first reading,
another passage predicting a time of anguish.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of good news in these apocalyptic passages.
As a side note, apocalyptic refers to a genre of writing that deals with a prophetic revelation, not necessarily but often including descriptions of disasters to come, and only secondarily but more commonly has the term come to be used as a description of an end of the world type scenario.
So we have these apocalyptic texts,
these prophetic passages predicting disasters,
and the question is: what do they have to do with us?
On the face of it,
it seems like not much.
A group of Pastors and I meet at the beginning of each week
to read and discuss the texts for the week,
and this week we pretty much agreed
that our best chance of finding a sermon,
finding good news
lay in the other readings assigned for the week,
we weren’t going to mess with these texts.
And then the other day
I was driving to a meeting
and I was listening to NPR,
and they did a story, an update really
on the wildfires in California,
particularly the Camp Fire
that wiped out the town of Paradise
10,000 homes destroyed,
and the reporter on the ground
interviewed a resident, who’d seen her former house
and the woman said something to the effect of
‘it looks like there’s been an apocalypse.’
I don’t remember the exact quote
but she used the word apocalypse.
And it hit me,
the people of Paradise are in the midst of a catastrophe,
life as they know it is over,
in a sense that world ended
and they are faced with the question: now what?
And as I thought about the people in the midst of world altering catastrophes,
the disasters of our readings began to fade
and the hope began to shine through,
yes Daniel begins
“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence”
but then he continues
“But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.”
and sure Jesus says
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.”
but then he pauses and goes on
“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
the birth pangs of what?
Of the new world,
The new way of life that Jesus has promised
he will bring about,
Jesus is saying that the turmoil he is describing,
that the disciples will experience
is not the last say
God will work through it,
and there lies the good news.
For those of us who are relatively safe and secure,
apocalyptic passages sound scary,
we focus on the pain and suffering
that we’d really rather avoid,
but for those in the midst of pain and suffering
they bring hope,
because they describe reality
and a life on the other side of the suffering,
a life brought about by God who goes through the suffering with us
because we have a God who promises never to leave us.
Our God is realistic,
not making promises that won’t come true.
That’s one way you can tell you’re dealing with a false god,
they promise that if you follow them,
give them $9.95 a month
then everything will be okay, your problems will be solved.
Our God does not sugar coat things,
part of life is experiencing pain and suffering
and instead of making false impossible claims
our God promises never to leave our side throughout all of life.
We see this in our psalm,
the psalmist describes different phases of life
and in each God is there.
For those in danger
God is described by the psalmist as a refuge.
This is a familiar image for us,
we turn to God when we’re in trouble.
But the psalmist also assures us
that God is present with those who are content,
at one point the psalmist says
“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; indeed, I have a rich inheritance.”
God is with us in the times when life is going well,
these are often times
we bless God as a way of giving thanks for the good in our lives.
God is with us in the bad times,
God is with us in the good times,
and God is with us when we are in between,
in need of direction,
The psalmist sings “I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;”
and speaks with assurance
that because God goes before the psalmist
they will not be shaken by whatever comes their way.
“My heart therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope.
For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the pit.
You will show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of you, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Whether it seems like the world has ended
or life could never get better
or somewhere in between
God is with us
God shows us the path of life,
God travels the path with us.
Whatever comes our way,
God is there,
and we are never alone. Amen
25th Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one for whom we eagerly await. Amen
Contrary to popular belief,
our gospel text for today is not a stewardship text.
At least not directly.
Jesus observes this poor widow
giving her last to coins to treasury
and points her out to his disciples.
Throughout history this act has been lauded
as a great act of faith,
and held up as an example for faithful giving
but I don’t think that’s entirely what Jesus was pointing out.
You see, before sitting down to observe people giving
Jesus warns against doing things just for the sake of appearances,
then he sits down opposite the treasury
and watches people giving their offerings to the temple,
for the sake of appearances.
This is out in the open,
there is no check folded in half and slipped into the offering plate,
many rich people come and make a scene
putting in large sums,
and they do this because they know that people will see their large sum
and they will honor them for their big gift
and it will increase their standing in the community
and so they’re really doing this for their own benefit.
And Jesus knows their motives,
which is why he points out someone entirely different to the disciples,
the poor widow who comes and gives her last two coins to the temple,
her act of giving is an act of contributing to something bigger than herself,
not to build herself up,
indeed she gives all she has to live on,
and yes this is an act of faith
but what if, included in this act of faith is desperation.
She had two pennies left,
that wasn’t going to get her very far,
just like the widow who Elijah encounters,
who when he asks for something to eat says to him
“I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
She ends up feeding Elijah,
he promises her that the meal and oil will not run out
which seems unlikely but what’s the harm in trying?
She and her son are going to die anyway,
if she feeds Elijah and his promise doesn’t pan out
they’ll just die a little sooner.
I imagine the widow Jesus points out to the disciples
is in a similar situation,
opening her purse and seeing two coins that won’t get her too far
and her saying, well I will give these to the temple
and then I will go die.
And that’s what she does,
in the presence of those who by law
are supposed to be taking care of her,
and nobody but Jesus notices.
Why is the widow down to her last two pennies?
Because nobody notices her,
All throughout the laws given to the people of Israel
by God through Moses
are injunctions to care for widow and orphan
and she is clearly not taken care of,
because to take care of someone
you have to know that they exist,
you have to notice the people around you
and take an interest in their lives,
pay attention to someone other than yourself.
And the truth of the world is
that the people we pay attention to
are the ones with power,
the ones giving the big gifts,
because we want to be like them,
and we don’t pay attention to those who are on their last dime
who are without power
and we hesitate to give to them
because we have falsely equated morality and success with money
which means in the back of our minds
we think if someone is poor or struggling
it is because they have done something to deserve it.
That is sin,
breaking us apart into smaller and smaller divisions,
pitting us against ourselves.
So what are we to do?
In the grand scheme of things
We can’t do anything,
which is why we need Jesus.
Our second reading from Hebrews lays it out nice and succinctly,
Jesus came once, for all,
to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
He’s done that, past tense completed action.
The preacher of Hebrews makes sure we recognize that this was a one time deal,
God didn’t require or request that Jesus suffer more than once.
Now Jesus is in heaven
to appear in the presence of God on our behalf
and Jesus has promised to come a second time-
not to take care of sin, that’s already settled,
but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
Once again we are faced with our place in the middle
of the already and not yet.
We are thankful that Jesus has already taken care of our sin
but still we wait
surrounded by the imperfections of the world,
waiting for Jesus to come again,
and save us from the brokenness of the world.
And here’s the kicker we are not just to wait,
but to eagerly wait for Jesus.
How do we eagerly wait?
The first image of eager waiting that comes to my mind
is of a child waiting for Christmas.
They too are stuck in the middle,
the tree is already up,
and presents have begun to accumulate
and on the shiny package is the little tag that says this gift is for Timmy.
Timmy knows that he has been given a gift,
but it is not yet time to open it and fully enjoy it.
So he waits.
Maybe he shakes the box,
attempts to figure out what is inside,
perhaps he rushes home from school to double check that it’s still under the tree,
and he has trouble falling asleep at night
because he’s imagining what it might be like to open the package
and behold what is inside and how his life will never be the same.
And maybe Timmy’s mom tries to redirect some of his eager energy,
and sets him up with paper and crayons to make Christmas cards
to share the joy of his waiting with others,
possibly others who don’t have a tree
or shiny packages with their name on them
but who are also waiting Christmas
and Timmy realizes that when he gives out those cards
it’s almost like a little Christmas morning
and that’s exciting too,
he’s still waiting
but he’s making something happen while he waits.
We are all Timmy
- we have been given a gift, our name is on it, it’s ours,
we claim it, but still we wait for that moment
when the world is transformed fully by the opening of the gift.
But unlike Timmy we’ve been waiting a long time,
a couple thousand years,
and it’s hard to stay pre-christmas excited for that long
so we find ways to wait that, like those christmas cards
Timmy’s mom had him write,
approximate what we’re waiting for
creating for a moment the reality for which we wait.
The reality for which we wait
is one where there is no more hunger, or poverty, pain or suffering,
no more poor widows going unnoticed
no more war and all creation lives in harmony
we’ve been given a vision of what the world will be
and even as we wait
we seek to make it happen right now
and one way we do that is to give,
often to organizations who work to address hunger or poverty,
pain and suffering,
sometimes we give directly to people,
those who are facing enormous health care bills
and in these moments the reign of God is realized
and our eagerness is renewed. Amen
All Saints Sunday
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who gathers the saints in light. Amen
Today we observe All Saints Sunday,
the day when we formally recall those who have died.
I say formally, because when someone we love dies
they are often on our minds and in our hearts,
they’re the ones we want to call when the grief becomes too much
or when we have exciting news,
they’re the ones who shaped us in some way,
and now that they’re gone
we find ourselves intentionally looking for them in ourselves,
or we do something
and it reminds us of our loved one
and we say ‘oh that’s where I got that’
and give thanks to God for their influence on our life.
we bring forward today the saints
naming the hope and the assurance
that we will see them again,
and not just in our hearts
but in the flesh, at the last,
when the promises of God have come true,
when there is a new heaven and a new earth
and there is no more mourning or crying or pain
and certainly no more death.
But until then, we wait.
In many ways
All Saints day is a day where we Christians
are reminded that we are in the middle of time,
stuck between the already and the not yet.
We already have Jesus,
that part of God’s promise and plan has been realized,
Jesus fulfills the promises that God makes in Isaiah
and through the prophets,
Jesus is God’s way of bridging the gap between God and humans,
between God’s hopes for creation and reality.
But the kingdom of God is not yet complete,
it has come near in Jesus,
the process has started but construction is still underway
so we are left to wonder,
what do we do in the meantime?
We have hope certainly,
hope in the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus,
and because of that hope
we work to live our lives according to the way of God
that Jesus taught us,
making the world around us a bit more like God’s vision
but some days that doesn’t seem like enough,
try as we might
there are days where hope and Jesus don’t seem like enough,
those days we’re like Mary in our gospel reading,
her brother has been dead four days
and finally Jesus shows up
and the first thing she says to him is
“Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”
what she’s really saying to him is,
where were you? We sent you a message, you’re too late.
And Jesus, seeing Mary and the mourners weeping
asks to see where Lazarus is laid,
and Jesus too is overcome with emotion and weeps with them,
for his friend,
and here Jesus too is caught in the middle.
Jesus is God,
he knows who he is and what he is going to do,
especially in the gospel of John,
and sometimes, a lot of times
this involves some suffering
especially for the humans he loves
that just don’t understand the scope of Jesus’ mission in the world.
Jesus’ disciples don’t understand
when he tells them what is going to happen to him,
a crucified messiah doesn’t compute
Jesus knows they will be scared and sad,
he tries to give them reassurance,
at the same time knowing that the only way to get to Easter Sunday
and the empty tomb
is through the fear and sadness.
Jesus loves his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus
but, here too he knows that the way to the empty tomb
goes through pain and sorrow,
he has a mission
and Lazarus’ death plays a role in it.
So when Jesus is sent word that Lazarus is sick,
he intentionally waits for two days.
He knows that Lazarus is going to die
and that he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead,
this miracle will be foreshadowing of his own death
and it will bring him closer to the cross.
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead
is the last straw for the authorities,
they meet together and the question is posed
“‘What are we to do? This man is performing may signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” and they have some discussion and the chief priest points out that it’s better to have one person die then all of them die and John tells us “...so from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
The way to the cross and the empty tomb
goes through Lazarus’ death and his sisters’ grief.
Jesus knows this
but when faced with the mourning of his friends,
Jesus weeps with them,
he’s in the middle,
Jesus knows what it’s like to be in the middle of the already and not yet.
Our God knows what we’re going through
in those times when hope and reality collide
and he weeps with us,
he comes to us.
Here in the middle,
Jesus comes to us through the saints,
and when we say saints
we mean those everyday Christians
baptized into Christ
that walk the journey with us
whether it is for a moment or a lifetime,
the people present who weep when we are weeping
and rejoice when we rejoice,
the ones who teach us how to live through the middle,
And when our paths diverge
we’re sad, we weep and Jesus weeps with us
but we also remember how they taught us to live through the middle
and the promise of Jesus
that we will one day be reunited with them
on that day
when Jesus gathers all the saints together
in the completed kingdom of God. Amen
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who is our refuge and strength. Amen
As humans we are familiar with chaos.
Sometimes it is an individual chaos that surrounds us,
the breaking of relationships,
the losing of a job,
health problems or just a really busy time in life.
Sometimes the chaos is experienced as part of a community,
as in times of natural disasters, political transitions,
or acts of violence perpetrated on a community
due to their identity
whether with words or actions.
We’ve experienced this chaos as a country
as recently as yesterday
and even if we try to detach,
even if we don’t pay attention to the news,
we all feel the effects of the chaos
because we are part of the community of creation.
-confirmands I’m looking at you.
have their own particular brand of chaos,
that delightful blend of hormones, forming identities,
social struggles and obligations to activities
all with the future hanging over your heads
in addition to everything else going on around you.
It’s a lot to handle sometimes, it’s chaos.
And into this chaos the Psalmist speaks a word of hope,
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble,
therefore we will not fear,
though the earth be moved… the nations rage and the kingdoms shake;
God speaks and the earth melts away.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
God is with us,
a steady constant
among the shifting sands of change all around us,
a place of peace like the eye of a storm
calm at the center of swirling winds,
an anchor holding us steady.
Whatever chaos threatens,
God is there
offering shelter and hope for the future.
Today is reformation Sunday,
a day when we as Lutherans
take time to remember Martin Luther and the reformers of our heritage,
with their simple questioning of how the church cared for its people
unleashed the chaos that had been bubbling below the surface.
Much of what went on during the reformation was not pretty
nor was all of it helpful,
Luther himself became embittered and anti-semetic
and his writings against the Jewish people
have been used to justify acts of violence
against the Jewish community
much like what happened at Tree of Life Synagogue outside of Pittsburg yesterday
as heirs of the reformer
we as Lutherans have had to confront our role
in the spread of chaos
and have renounced as a church the writings and the ideas
that form the root of anti-semitism,
the Jewish people are our brothers and sisters
children of the same God,
the God who has promised all of us to be a refuge and strength.
Taking shelter in God is an act of resistance
To the chaos around us
but Chaos is nothing if not persistent
so we cling to the gifts of God
brought forward by the reformers,
the emphasis on the fact that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works.
For preaching this Luther was excommunicated from the church he loved
and only wanted to reform
and a price was put on his head,
and in the midst of it all Luther wrote the hymn
A Mighty Fortress,
a paraphrase of Psalm 46,
a reminder that sometimes it is darkest before the dawn
and that God will see us through whatever comes our way.
Professing our faith in God
can unleash unexpected consequences
because our faith runs counter to the ways of the world
but in the midst of it all
God will be there with us
because our faith is a gift from God,
God knows we can’t calm the chaos on our own
any more than we can save ourselves,
the world is just too broken by sin for that,
as Paul says in Romans “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
but thanks be to God for the gift of the justification by grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
because of Christ we are set free,
we are freed from the requirements that chaos places on us,
the need to be perfect,
the need to take care of it all on our own,
to be better than the next person,
to attempt to secure ourselves against whatever might come our way,
we are set free,
even from things we didn’t think we were bound to.
In our gospel
Jesus is speaking to some disciples who believe in him.
Jesus tells them “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 disciples are confused by this
insisting that they’d never been slaves,
forgetting it seems
the history of their people in Egypt as slaves,
and the time when Babylon conquered Israel
and took the people into exile as slaves,
and then is was the Persians and then the Romans.
As people we’re good at self-deception,
we insist that we are free
even as we are enslaved
by debt or social expectations or the systems of the world
that we must rely on for the basic necessities of life.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jesus tells the disciples,
continuing in the word of God
we learn the truth,
The truth that we need a savoir,
and we learn the truth that we have a savior,
had one even before we knew we needed it,
Jesus, who on the cross died for all,
so that we might be free from the demands of chaos.
We were given this freedom at our baptism
The moment when God named and claimed us
Took us under the shadow of God’s wing
Into the refuge of our God
when you publicly profess your faith in a few minutes,
what you are doing is acknowledging the freedom you have in Christ,
you along with the rest of the congregation
will renounce the devil,
and embrace the freedom that has been yours since your baptism,
the freedom of being loved so deeply
that nothing can separate you from God.
And having been set free
you are able to live your lives focused on God
rather than on yourselves.
How this will play out
is yet to be seen,
each of you has been given gifts by God,
gifts that will help you share the love of God with others,
you will find them as you continue in your faith
and explore your freedom in Christ
but all the while, whatever comes your way
you will be anchored by God who is our refuge and strength. Amen
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who came to serve. Amen
The disciples in the gospel of Mark,
bless their hearts,
are particularly dense
and I’ve got to say I love them for that
because as exasperating as it is
to watch them throughout the gospel
stumbling along as they follow Jesus,
never quite fully understanding his teaching,
often turning around
to do the opposite of what Jesus just told them to do
what we are witnessing is the disciples’ humanity,
a humanity that mirrors our own.
how many times in following Jesus
have we never quite fully understood his teaching?
And how many times do we hear Jesus say one thing
and turn around and go do the exact opposite?
More often than we’d like to admit.
The gift of the disciples’ humanity in the gospel
is that we get to see how Jesus responds to them,
in all their density and contrariness,
giving us an idea of how Jesus will respond to us
in all of our density and contrariness.
Actually we should probably give the disciples a break
because in Jesus they are encountering not only new teachings
but a way of looking at the world
that is completely counter to the way they are used to.
The Kingdom of God is very unlike the world,
and the way the kingdom of God comes about
often runs against the common sense of the world.
Take for example what it means to be a savior.
According to the world
a savior is someone who is heroic,
one who is more powerful than average
and who uses that power to defend the little guy
against some other powerful force,
which generally increases the power of the hero.
And yet, according to the kingdom of God,
a savior is one, the one, who serves others in suffering.
We heard in our first reading from Isaiah
part of the suffering servant passage
that we as Christians view as a prophetic description of Jesus
and it is not pleasant,
struck down, afflicted,
wounded, crushed, oppressed
and yet God says “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.”
This is how God has chosen to save,
and we wonder at that,
why is suffering necessary? we ask
we are confused because suffering on behalf of others
goes against the common sense of the world,
the sense that says we protect ourselves and honor the strong,
common sense that tells us to avoid suffering at all costs.
But Jesus doesn’t live by the way of the world,
had Jesus lived according to common sense
he would have tried to befriend the most powerful rather than the lowly,
if he had lived according to common sense
he would have avoided the sick and the poor,
he wouldn’t have touched lepers
or eaten with tax collectors
and he certainly wouldn’t have talked about a kingdom of God
more powerful than the kingdom of Rome.
but Jesus did all those things,
Jesus lives by un-common sense,
and his un-common sense leads right to the cross
because the world moves swiftly
to remove anything that upsets the way things are
Jesus knows this,
and he’s tried to teach his disciples this,
by the time we get to our gospel for today
Jesus has already made all his passion predictions to his followers,
he’s sat them down and told them look:
this is what is going to happen,
I’m going to be arrested, put on trial and crucified.
And three days after that I will rise again.
And he heads toward Jerusalem.
the disciples continue to follow him
but they don’t understand,
today James and John come up to Jesus
and ask him to treat them according to the ways of the world.
They understand that something is going to happen soon
and they believe Jesus to be great, the messiah even
and they want to assure their places in the new order,
and so they make their request,
They want to sit in the highest worldly places of honor
when Jesus comes into his glory.
And Jesus looks at them and says
“You do not know what you are asking.”
because Jesus’ glory is the cross
“are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He asks them,
referring to his suffering,
and they with all the confidence of ignorance reply
“we are able”
and Jesus grants them what they ask
“The cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus tells them,
but the positions of honor at the right and the left are not Jesus’ to give out,
that is determined by God
and those places will be filled by the two thieves
who will be crucified on either side of Jesus.
And while we might wonder at Jesus
granting James and John’s request
without their understanding,
what Jesus is doing in that granting
is offering a moment of grace,
what they will understand later
and what we as listeners hear
is that the moments of failure in the lives of the disciples
do not determine the final outcome.
Yes, James and John don’t understand,
but they are earnest in wanting to follow Jesus,
yes they along with the rest of the group will run away
when Jesus is arrested,
but we know, as Mark’s audience knows
that they went on to play vital
roles in the spread of the message of the good news of Jesus Christ,
Acts 12:2 tells us that James is martyred,
killed because of his witness for Jesus.
James and John spoke the truth,
they were able to follow Jesus in his glory.
To be dense, confused, contrary and fail is to be human,
to not let it get in the way,
that is the way of God,
our reading from Hebrews this morning
in speaking of Jesus says
“He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness”
Jesus, son of God,
knows what it’s like to be human
since he himself is human,
he understands suffering
because he has experienced it,
he knows how we mess up
even with good intentions,
he knows common sense would say
do not to rely too heavily on humans to get things done,
and yet Jesus with his un-common sense,
calls us, humans,
to be his disciples,
to live in the world according to the way of the kingdom of God.
We are to love and forgive our enemies
and those who hurt us,
befriend those cast out by society,
share our food and resources
so that all have enough,
speak truth to power
even and especially when that truth is not what power wants to hear.
and yes living in this way
will probably result in some suffering,
but it will also make the world a better place,
more like the kingdom of God brought near in Jesus.
and yes we will make mistakes
and fall back on common sense,
and that is when Jesus brings us to the table,
to share in his cup,
the new covenant for the forgiveness of sins
poured out by Jesus on the cross
as he gave his life so that we could be righteous
and could dare to live un-common lives. Amen
21st Sunday After Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one for whom all things are possible. Amen
There’s a bit of folk wisdom
that I think we’re all familiar with,
the wisdom that prohibits
the discussion of religion, politics and money in polite society.
And while this is probably a smart rule to follow
around the dinner table at Thanksgiving
(because you just never know what Uncle Bob is going to say)
we have taken this prohibition to the extreme,
to the point where we rarely if ever discuss these topics,
even and especially at church- the exception being religion of course.
And this is a problem,
because while we might wish we could separate
each part of our lives into individual compartments and boxes,
the truth is that they are all intertwined,
what we believe about God
should impact how we deal with money and society.
So as disciples of Jesus
we neglect part of our spiritual formation
if we fail to take time to consider how our faith impacts
all the aspects of our lives,
including how we handle money.
In our gospel today,
Jesus teaches about money,
actually, if we look closely as Jesus’ teachings
we find that they are often concerned with economics,
Jesus frequently mentions the poor
and teaches care for the poor,
and not just in a causal here have some sandwiches and old clothes kind of way,
but care that gets at the heart of why people are poor,
care that overturns the systems
that have allowed some people to amass a great deal of wealth
while many don’t have the basics.
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus teaches the disciples.
It is impossible to separate our money/ resources
from our life of faith
and Jesus points to this again and again.
The man in the gospel finds this out the hard way,
he runs up to Jesus and asks him
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
and Jesus quizzes him a bit,
finds out that he’s been diligent about keeping the commandments,
living a life of faith
and we are told that Jesus looks at the man and loves him,
and out of love says “you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”
and when the man “heard this he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
It’s a shock to find out
that even if you’ve lived a godly life
when it comes down to it
you love your stuff more than eternal life.
Then Jesus turns to the disciples
and comments about how hard it will be for someone who is rich
to enter the kingdom of heaven,
it will be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
that’s how hard it is.
And the disciples look at one another and ask
“then who can be saved?”
Because while they might not be the most well off,
they’re doing okay,
they’ve got enough to eat and a purpose in life,
so will it be hard for them,
followers of Jesus to enter the kingdom of God?
And Jesus responds to their confusion “for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life,
and Jesus out of love
told him to do something that he knew was impossible for the man,
revealing to him and the disciples watching,
that he was asking the wrong question,
the man assumed that he had the power to achieve eternal life.
if we’re not careful that’s what wealth will do,
it will lead us to ask the wrong questions,
it lures us into believing that we are self-sufficient,
that we do not need God
because we are able to do everything for ourselves,
even make sure we inherit eternal life,
and that Jesus says that is impossible for humans,
salvation is up to God
and we must trust that it is so,
we must have faith.
Faith in God is not about hoarding everything that comes our way,
wealth is not a sign of God’s favor,
but nor is faith about throwing every material thing away,
we heard in our psalm for last week
that God created humans to be caretakers of creation,
food, clothing, housing, meaningful occupation are all necessary for life,
all provided by God,
the key is how we use these resources
in a way that all have what they need as God intended.
But because sin entered the world,
some hoard while others starve.
It is because of sin
that we believe we can take care of ourselves
and I’d say it’s even because of sin
that we don’t like talking about money.
Which is all the more reason to talk about it,
not in the way of bragging
but in the way of working out as a community
how to take care of the resources that God has entrusted to us,
and when we talk in this way,
we keep God at the center of our lives,
we recognize that only God has the power to save us,
to invite us in to the kingdom of God
and because of Christ,
we believe that God has already extended that invitation to us,
we are saved,
it is all God’s doing, not ours.
And because we are saved we are freed from the need
to believe that we can or have to save ourselves.
Now of course, it is always a struggle
to determine just how much is enough,
enough to keep, enough to give
and in this struggle there is grace.
This week I was reading “A Christian View of Money: Celebrating God’s Generosity” by Mark Vincent, and in it he remarked on this struggle
“If we experience the vast chasm between our good intentions and our hopeless inadequacy, we are blessed because we know our need for God. When God’s grace meets us, we realize that salvation means peace and wholeness, and we cannot hoard anything. We cannot be selfish with income or possessions because of the generous God we serve.” (pg 61)
What we need is God.
Everything else is details,
when we realize this
we are freed to follow Jesus rather than money.
We are freed to share what we acquire
because we have all we need,
we are freed to talk about money in community
because it is a tool to be used
not a means of salvation,
a tool to follow Jesus
in overturning the way of the world
that leads to some amassing great wealth
leaving some without the basics,
and yes on our own that’s impossible,
but with God, all things are possible. Amen
19th Sunday After Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who shares responsibility for the kingdom of God with us. Amen
The disciples in Mark
are notoriously dense
Jesus spends all this time with them
doing deeds of power and teaching them the ways of the kingdom of God
and yet when a new situation comes along
they almost always react with the way of the world.
This time it’s John
who tries to be teachers’ favorite by tattling on another kid.
“Teacher we saw someone cast out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
I can almost see his chest puffing out
in self-righteous pride
while Jesus makes a gesture of consternation.
Face-palm they still don’t get it…
The disciples have given in to
the all too human propensity
to create insiders and outsiders
despite the fact that Jesus’ ministry
has been concerned with breaking down those barriers.
In fact Jesus’ ministry
has been to those considered outsiders by the world,
just last week Jesus taught the disciples who to welcome
by bringing a small child into their midst.
So, with the patience of God
Jesus tries again to get his message across to the disciples,
Don’t stop people like this guy, he tells them
because no one who does a deed of power in my name
will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
Whoever is not against us is for us.
What concerns Jesus the most
is the spread of his message
to as many people as possible
and he will do anything to spread the message,
eating with tax collectors,
crossing the sea to the gentiles.
Even sharing the responsibility with others.
Jesus has commissioned the disciples
to go spread the word,
the silly dense disciples
who are frequently disappointing
yes they have been entrusted with the message-
so it’s little wonder that Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned
about this stranger doing deeds of power in his name,
it means the message is spreading beyond even the disciples
Jesus wants as many people as possible
to hear the good news that the kingdom of God has come near
and that means a variety of ways are needed
to get the message across
because different people respond to different approaches.
For example, the emphasis on the blood and suffering of Jesus
in the African American gospel songs
doesn’t really resonate with me
but it is a source of good news for the African American tradition
because the songs originate in the days of slavery
when it was a great comfort for the slaves
to know that despite what their masters told them about God
wanting them to obey,
they had a savoir who had suffered just as much as they were suffering.
Or, again, the question have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,
this question makes me extremely uncomfortable.
Yet it has led many people to live a life of faith.
What works for me is the message
that we are saved by grace through faith as a pure gift from God
and that is the message that informs all my preaching and teaching
All these approaches have a place in the spread of the gospel
what Jesus reacts strongly against
are actions that lead to the loss of faith
or interfere in the faith of another person,
for example the disciples trying to stop the man they saw
because he wasn’t a part of their group.
And that’s when Jesus starts to sound like an old timey mafia boss, s
peaking of hanging millstones around necks before a swim
or cutting parts of the body off that cause stumbling.
While it seems a little extreme
what Jesus is trying to get across to the disciples
is the seriousness of the responsibility of discipleship,
yes Jesus shares the responsibility with the disciples,
and that is not a responsibility we should take lightly
because while we have the power to help bring people to faith,
we also have the power to cause them to stumble,
to lose faith
and we should take that as seriously as amputation.
Jesus really isn’t advocating self-mutilation
but his point is that if something starts to get in the way of the good news of Jesus Christ
we need to cut it out,
if being right is more important than sharing the love of God
and news of salvation with the outsiders of society
then we might as well go jump in a lake,
Jesus shares the responsibility for the spread of the reign of God with us
it is a serious task,
one that we do not do alone,
it is a task shared by the community of disciples
Toward the end of this section of teaching
Jesus turns his attention back to the community,
the one the disciples were so eager to defend,
in referring to fire and salt
he is drawing on food preparation metaphors,
often for something to become palatable it must be cooked,
exposed to heat.
The community will undergo struggles
but that will serve to make them into the best version of themselves,
and salt, seasoning
is essential to life,
we need salt to live
and it adds flavor to our food,
a community is seasoned by the wide variety of people it encompasses,
it needs the seasoning of many different people
to sustain the life of the community
and add flavor
but when many people gather
there is the possibility for conflict
be at peace with one another Jesus says
and welcome others,
they add to the flavor of the community
even if it’s not an individual flavor we prefer
it adds to the taste of the whole dish.
Discipleship, is a serious business,
like the disciples, we often get it wrong,
we get sidetracked by who is in or who is out,
we give preference to our own tastes,
and yet Jesus still shares the responsibility
for the spread of the kingdom of God with us,
calling us to be at peace with one another.
Offering us grace. Amen
18th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the last of all and servant of all. Amen
There’s a term I came across recently, GOAT,
no I didn’t just learn about goats the animals that eat everything,
GOAT is an acronym standing for
Greatest Of All Time,
it’s one of the pastimes of sports fans and commentators
to debate who is the GOAT of their favorite sport.
I did an internet search
and from a cursory glance
it seems like the most popular GOAT debate is in basketball
Michael Jordan vs LeBron James,
(though Serena Williams looks to be a hot contender for GOAT of tennis).
I even found an article in Sports Illustrated
titled “The Art of the GOAT Debate: MJ vs LeBron Examined”
where the author went as far as consulting a college debate coach
to dissect the discussion.
In doing so the debate coach, a Dr. Scott Harris
made two points I found particularly relevant:
one, he remarked “People never win arguments in sports because people tend not to recognize when they’re losing as much at it. They just think ‘I’m right and it doesn’t matter what you say.”
the GOAT debate is really just an argument,
if it were a true debate
those involved would be open to having their mind changed by their debate partner,
as it is people tend to go into the conversation with their minds made up.
The second point he made
was that before the merits of each particular player can even be brought out on the table
you have “to establish a definition of what constitutes ‘greatest’ and the criteria used to determine greatness.”
What makes someone great is subjective,
each of us admire different qualities in our basketball players,
some place higher value on teamwork,
while others admire brute force.
All of which is to say that to engage in an argument
over who is the greatest
is generally an exercise in futility,
it will never be fully resolved
because the definition of greatest is always changing
depending on the time and place.
In our gospel for today
the disciples argue with one another
over who is the greatest
leading Jesus to teach them the definition of the greatest
according to the kingdom of God.
Now of course they don’t just start arguing this out of the blue,
Jesus, traveling with his disciples
hosts another teaching session
where for a second time he tells them
what’s going to happen to him,
he will be betrayed, killed and after three days rise again
and Mark tells us that
“they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They don’t understand,
And they don’t ask for help
So they do what we all do
when we don’t understand and don’t ask for clarification,
they concentrate on the part they do understand
even if it’s only half the picture
the part they do get
is that Jesus has said once again that he is going to die,
which means they will be left on their own without their leader
so as they walk along
they try to come up with their back up plan,
who is going to be our leader when Jesus is gone?
Well, who is the greatest among us?
And I bet their argument went along the lines of Michael vs. LeBron,
where most had their minds already made up
and some placed higher value on teamwork,
while others admired brute force.
Jesus of course knows what they’re talking about
but he asks them anyway
and they’re embarrassed
because it’s pretty awkward to get caught talking about who is going to take over
after the one asking you the question is dead
and this is where Jesus sits down
- signaling that he’s going to start teaching again,
and teaches them the definition of greatest
according to Jesus’ way, according to God.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
and then like the good teacher that he is,
he gives them a concrete example,
he takes a child in his arms and tells them
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now this wasn’t like an ancient Lamb Time,
where there was a time set aside for the children to come up
and for everyone else to see how cute they were, aww.
Children, vulnerable and dependent on others for survival and protection
had no value socially,
they had nothing to offer in terms of honor or status.
Despite the varying definitions
the GOAT in that time would definitely have had lots of honor and status,
which you gained or lost based on who you associated with.
This is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome,
the socially invisible,
and that by doing so they are welcoming God.
This is what it means to be the greatest Jesus says to his disciples,
climb down the social ladder,
welcome and care for those without status.
What motivates your actions matters,
when you welcome according to Jesus’ way
you are practicing welcoming
out of love of neighbor and God,
you are not welcoming because of what that person could do for you
but for who they are,
a person created by God.
The one who does this,
acts without regard for personal status on behalf of other,
this one is the greatest.
According to this definition
Jesus is the GOAT.
His teaching, his actions and even his very existence
overturn what it means to be the greatest of all time in the world.
Jesus, Son of God,
fully God became fully human,
immortality becoming mortal,
seeking out the least- the sick,
the poor, those without direction and certainly without status.
This is where God on earth can be found,
not among the most religious or the most righteous
but among the most sinful,
the ones most in need of forgiveness.
and for his troubles, for his love
Jesus will die,
he will be killed, for daring to forgive sins,
for loving people because they are children of God
and teaching others to do the same.
But his love is so strong it overcomes death,
on the third day Jesus rises again,
just as he said,
not because of what we can do for him
but because of who we are,
children of God.
All of us loved by the Greatest of All Time. Amen
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ
grace and peace to you from the one who is the messiah. Amen
There are a lot of tongues in our lessons for today.
Both Isaiah and James mention that small but important body part.
According to James
the tongue is a slippery creature (pun intended)
“with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
for such a small part of our body
the tongue wields disproportionate power,
like a rudder that steers a great ship
or a spark that sets a forest on fire
a word on our tongue has the power to build up or tear down.
James seems to find the tongue a mostly negative influence,
calling it a “restless untamable beast full of deadly poison”
James is concerned with the alignment of word and deed,
especially as it relates to Christians.
In the last couple of weeks in James
we’ve heard him call on believers to be doers of the word,
not just hearers
saying that faith without works is dead
now he’s turning it around,
just as what we do should reflect what we say we believe,
so should what we say
James is highly sensitive to hypocrisy
and to him it seems hypocritical
for someone to praise God in one breath
and in the next be horrible to another human,
one made in the image of God.
What we do and say matters,
because these actions reveal who we really are.
James says “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?”
Trees are known by the fruit they produce,
and we will be known by what we produce,
it doesn’t matter if we call ourselves fig trees
if all we produce are olives.
It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves Christian
if we don’t say and do Christian things.
What we say matters because it reflects who we truly are.
And yes I’m am bold enough or foolish enough
to still believe and proclaim this
in an era where what people say
and how they say it
seems to matter less and less.
I maintain my belief that words are powerful
even more so when we don’t give them their due.
What we say matters.
Isaiah on the other hand
has a decidedly more positive take on the tongue.
In our first reading we hear the prophet proclaim
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
The prophet Isaiah has been sent to the people of Israel
living in exile in Babylon,
and removed from their home in the promised land,
all they have left are words,
the promise of God
that they will one-day return home.
God has appointed Isaiah to speak those words to the people
but the job of prophet is not simply speaking
but first listening to the word of God.
Isaiah praises God for the gift the teaching tongue
followed immediately by praise to God
for opening his ears each morning
to first listen to God.
and because Isaiah listens to God
he is able to stick to the job God has given him
even though he is mistreated because of his message,
the job of prophet is not only to sustain
but to point out the often uncomfortable truth,
the truth that people have more responsibility for their current misfortunes
than they’d like to admit
people who often get upset with the messenger
and go to extreme lengths to shut them up.
The life of a prophet is not easy
but because Isaiah is listening to God
rather than the people
he is able to be steadfast in his call
even proclaiming “the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;”
The shame that the people try to put on Isaiah doesn’t stick
because Isaiah is listening to God not the people.
Who we listen to matters.
Who we listen to,
even in the background,
forms our concept of the world and ourselves,
if we are not careful about who we listen to,
it will be the loudest often most negative voices
that shape our view of ourselves and the world.
Who we listen to matters.
The importance of all this speaking and listening
come to a head in our gospel for today
with Jesus questioning the disciples
“who do you say that I am?”
knowing that their answer
will reveal who they’ve been listening to,
who they’ve become.
The disciples have been with Jesus for a while now,
we’re about halfway through the gospel of Mark,
they’ve heard Jesus’ teachings,
seen him heal and do miraculous deeds.
Now Jesus takes his disciples of Caesarea Philippi,
and while this may seem like a minor detail
it tells us that Jesus is setting the scene.
You see Caesarea Philippi is an ancient place of idol worship,
a spring is located there in a cave
that, long before Jesus and his disciples wandered there,
was dedicated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan.
Later King Herod added Caesarea to the name of the place
to honor the Roman ruler Caesar.
Jesus takes his disciples
to a place where the prevailing culture
is shouting loudly,
the availability of other gods,
the bowing down to the Roman empire
and it is here he asks them two questions:
Who do people say that I am?
And Who do you say that I am?
What Jesus is asking the disciples with these questions is:
who have you been listening to?
And who are you because of what you’ve heard?
the disciples report what they’ve heard people say about Jesus,
John the Baptist, a prophet, Elijah,
figures out of the history of Israel
and when Jesus presses them for their answer
Peter opens his mouth-
he’s always the one speaking-
and he says “You are the messiah”
He gets the right answer.
And Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about him.
Why Jesus keeps telling the disciples
to keep his deeds and identity a secret is a mystery,
but it might have to do with what happens next.
When Jesus tells the disciples
what is going to happen to him,
the suffering, rejection, death
and after three days resurrection
Peter, who has just proclaimed Jesus the messiah
opens his big mouth again
and with the tongue that just uttered a blessing
rebukes him, tells Jesus he’s wrong.
What Jesus describes is not the messiah that Peter is thinking of,
the one for whom the Israelites are waiting is a King of the line of David,
who will come and throw out the oppressors
who have taken over the land of the Israelites
and bring them freedom to purify and restore Israel.
A dead messiah, no that’s not right Peter says
and Jesus turns and corrects him.
“Follow me, you’re upset because you’re listening to humans not God. you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Yes Jesus is the messiah,
but he’s not the messiah Peter or we want him to be.
We often talk about Jesus like he’s a magic genie,
someone who if we say the right thing will grant our wishes
solve our problems
and bring prosperity and freedom,
of course prosperity and freedom as defined by humans.
But if we listen to Jesus carefully
and watch what he does,
we find that what Jesus is most concerned with
is his quest to identify with the lowliest,
again and again he seeks out those outcast by society
and offers them what other humans have denied them,
healing, food, dignity
and for his troubles he will be rejected and killed.
This is the divine way.
And Jesus expects his disciples to follow the divine way.
what Jesus is saying when he talks of cross bearing
and losing and saving lives
is that if you are listening to God,
and you say that you follow God,
and you live your life according to the divine way,
you will get push back,
people will treat you like the prophet Isaiah,
but like the prophet Isaiah
you’ll be able to endure, stick with it,
because you’re listening to God
and not the people
and there is no shame in following the divine way,
it is the way of everlasting life with God.
Jesus knows that living in this way is extremely difficult,
that our sense of self-preservation will often overrule
our desire to follow God,
on the way to the cross Peter denies Jesus three times
and all the disciples abandon him,
Jesus knows that this will happen too,
and when he is raised up on the third day
who does he go to?
Because while the divine way is difficult,
it is also one of forgiveness,
and second chances.
No matter how many times we abandon him for ourselves
Use our tongues for both blessings and curses
Jesus will welcome us back
because Jesus is the messiah
according to the divine way. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.