Sunday, November 10, 2019

Lectionary 32C/ Proper 27

2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17

Friday morning I had a meeting in Greenville and I didn’t check the address, and sure enough when I arrived, I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was ok; I was close and I got where I was going despite the disruption. Then, that afternoon as I was driving over to the church to meet folks to go to the high school and feed the football players, coaches and trainers my car acted up. It had been chirping at me every now and then and I knew the noise had gotten louder that morning, but as I was driving here, I decided I better stop at the garage and make sure it was safe. The good news is it was. And I got where I was going despite the disruption.

My dad calls moments like these when you are trying to live your life and you are thwarted by random obstacles “Screwtape moments.” You may remember me telling you about “Screwtape” before. He is a character that theologian C.S. Lewis portrays as a highly placed assistant to Satan in his book The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape corresponds with his nephew “Wormwood” as he directs the younger inexperienced demon to corrupt a young man he knows.

“Screwtape moments” are one way of thinking about the discouraging, nonsensical and chaotic moments that happen in life, but underlying any comical elements is an acknowledgement that the devil and evil are real. “Old Scratch” is another nickname given to the devil. Both Screwtape and Old Scratch embody evil in ways that modern enlightened thinking is quick to dismiss, because in our “secular age” we live in a largely “disenchanted world” where “talking about the Devil is more and more awkward” and more “like telling a story about ghosts, alien abduction, or Bigfoot.” [i] But if we name the existence of forces that work against God, the powers and principalities of this world that perpetuate evil, then, as Rev. Dr. Barbara Blodgett notes, “[we can ] take all the more comfort in the One who saves us from them.”[ii]

When Paul writes his second letter to the church in Thessalonica, he describes the presence of evil in the world in yet another way.

Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and the people in the church there were converted Gentiles, but there were others in the city who did not believe in Jesus Christ and persecuted the Christians.[iii] Paul who had first traveled to Thessalonica after a rough reception from the people in Philippi regarded the Thessalonians with affection that we hear clearly in his first letter.

Now he has heard that they are suffering, and he writes to them to reassure them, to remind them of the promises of their faith, and to comfort them. In this letter, he describes “the lawless one” and the presence of rebellion against God and deception by the ones who are against God. (v. 1-5)

Although the western church does not experience the kinds of oppression that existed in the first century Christian church, we do not have to look that far back in history or even in today’s headlines to see evidence of destructive evil and suffering in the world.

This weekend marks the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, during which Nazi soldiers executed pogroms or destructive violence against Jewish communities throughout Germany and other annexed states. The troops torched synagogues, businesses, schools and homes and thirty-thousand Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.[iv] The destruction is remembered as “the night of broken glass” and its memory continues to bear witness to the shattering of Jewish life that happened during the Holocaust years.

Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians is not to deny the presence of evil, but to remember the promises of faith in spite of it.

Paul tells the church, “Don’t fall for deceptions or false truths or be misled.” The Lord Jesus Christ — the incarnation of the Living God, the Lord of our lives and the Messiah or Savior of the world — is the One who loves us, and by His grace, comforts us and gives us hope.

Remember that you are called  to faith by Jesus Christ. Have confidence in the faith you have received, a faith rich with God’s promises, not that evil won’t manifest, but that it will not prevail.

That same promise is ours today. Evil will not prevail.

Kristallnacht is not the only anniversary being remembered this weekend. Thirty years ago the border dividing East and West Berlin in Germany was opened. What is now remembered as “the day the wall came down” began as a political announcement removing barriers that had obstructed the movement of people between the two states, but it quickly escalated into the removal of the physical wall as people chipped away at it to collect souvenirs and bulldozers moved in.

While most of us remember the day the wall came down in Berlin, what many of us might not have known is that seven years earlier, the people at Nicolai Church, a Lutheran church in the East German city of Leipzig began holding prayer services. People, numbering in the hundreds, came together every Monday night, gathering to pray for peace and democracy in the divided country.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in East Berlin on October 7, 1989 to celebrate the East German state’s fortieth anniversary, pro-democracy demonstrations were put down with force.

But two days later, there were 2,000 or so inside Nikolai Church for the Monday prayer meeting, and when those two thousand went outside, they joined tens of thousands waiting with candles in their hands.

Pastor Christian Führer recalls, “Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you cannot carry stones or clubs at the same time.” So, though there were some arrests, and the East German military units were on alert, there was no massive display of force.

What had begun as a few hundred gathering at the Nikolai Church had swelled to more than 70,000, all united in peaceful opposition to the communist regime.

The following week, 70,000 became 120,000.

And then 120,000 became 320,000.

They laid their candles on the steps of East German secret police headquarters and, waiting, they prayed and sang.

And thirty years ago on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany began to find a new way forward together.

The Good News from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is that the hope we have in Jesus Christ is not in vain. As Christians, we are not defeated by this world or the evil in it. But we aren’t called to ignore it either. Reflecting on this text, Presbyterian pastor Neta Pringle writes, “God
wants to find us at work for those things that are dear to the heart of God.” [v]

Forces that defy God and powers of this world that rebel against God continue. Even as we recognize veterans for their service this morning during worship, it’s estimated that nationally 20 veterans complete suicide every day and 46,000 veterans are homeless.[vi] [vii] Heart-breaking evil persists and humankind suffers.

As Christians we are called to respond to the suffering we witness, and not with “a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love…”[viii] God wants us to live out our baptismal covenant where we promised to serve all people following the example of Jesus and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[ix]

Here, Paul reminds us that we are not defeated, and we are not helpless. We are Christ’s church, called to bear God’s love and mercy, comfort and hope into the world.

Let us pray…
Holy Comforter,
Thank you for your grace, love and mercy known through You Son Jesus, the incarnation of the living God, Lord of our lives and Savior of the World.
By your Spirit empower us to bear hope into the world, confident Your light will dispel any darkness.
We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

[i] Richard Beck. Reviving Old Scratch. xv.
[ii] Barbara Blodgett. “2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17.” David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 9938-9939). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Robert Brusic, Matt Skinner. “Thessalonica.” Enterthebible.org. Luther Seminary. https://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=13, accessed November 9, 2019.
[iv] “Kristallnacht.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. https://www.history.com/topics/holocaust/kristallnacht, accessed. November 9, 2019.
[v] Neta Pringle. “2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17.” David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 9984-9985). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[vi] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2018/09/26/suicide-rate-spikes-among-younger-veterans/, accessed November 9, 2019.
[vii] http://nchv.org/index.php/news/media/background_and_statistics/#facts, accessed November 9, 2019.
[viii] 2 Timothy 1:7
[ix] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELCA. 236.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2019)

Luke 6:20-31

Today, on All Saints Sunday, we remember church members, family and friends who have died over the last twelve months. And as we recall them and their lives and their significance to us, we also remember the gifts they shared with us, especially those gifts we continue to carry into the world in their honor. Their spirits live on in their children, families and friendships.

Author Alice Walker once wrote a short essay called “A name is sometimes an ancestor saying, “Hi, I’m with you.” Across cultures indigenous peoples call the people who lived before us throughout history our “spirit helpers.”[i] Because her name comes from the Greek word for “truth” Walker names Sojourner Truth as one of her own spirit helpers, writing,

She smiles within my smile. That irrepressible great heart rises in my chest. Every experience that roused her passion against injustice in her lifetime shines from my eyes.[ii]

Walker writes, “The spirit of our helpers incarnates in us, making us more ourselves by extending us far beyond.”[iii]

She then suggests that this is how we might understand the transformation we experience through faith, a way of becoming not only “like” Jesus but embodying Jesus to the people we meet.

In today’s gospel, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, and while we often hear the language of blessing and woe as language of divine favor or damnation, it’s hard to find the good news in that interpretation. Luther Seminary New Testament professor Matt Skinner suggests that the meaning changes when, instead, we hear “blessed” as “satisfied” or “unburdened.” Skinner also translates “woe” as “yikes” or “look out!”, and Eugene Peterson writes in his Message paraphrase, “There’s trouble ahead!” The word is like a bright yellow traffic sign or flashing lights.

With these woe statements, Jesus cautions us to be alert for those things in life that are distractions that divert us from following Jesus and from being Jesus to those we meet.

The poor, the hungry, the grieving and those who have been discarded by the world are people who trust God because their other options have been stripped away. Trusting God is more difficult for anyone who still thinks we can stand on our own or make our own way; it is more difficult when we only look for God’s mercy after we’ve exhausted every other possibility, instead of beginning on our knees at the foot of the cross with God.

Addressing “those who are listening” Jesus seems to acknowledge that some won’t listen, even among those who are close to him, even among those who profess to follow him.

And then Jesus gives a rapid succession of commands to the disciples, instructing them to live in faithful obedience with their eyes set on Jesus, saying:

Love. Do good. Bless. Pray. Submit. Give. Serve.

Just like six of the ten commandments Moses received on Sinai, these commands are focused on our relationships with the people in our lives. Jesus tells us to be motivated by the love and mercy of God to be Christ to them:
  • Love your enemies; love the very same people you despise or you think are unlovable.
  • Do good regardless of whether you will reap the benefit or your good will be appreciated or even acknowledged.
  • Bless those who curse you and pray for those who abuse you; importantly, Jesus doesn’t say to subject yourself to continued abuse or continue in relationship with the abuser, but we are called to see each person — no matter how much it upsets our dual-thinking — as someone whom God can love and redeem.
  • Jesus then says to offer your other cheek to one who slaps you and offer your coat to the one who would take your shirt. He commands us to adopt a posture of humility in the world, to submit to God’s care and provision.
    Give to those who beg.
  • And “do to others as you would have them do to you,” an instruction to serve others selflessly, entering into relationship with them and addressing their needs as brothers and sisters.
It still sounds like a lot of law; a lot of rules to keep and impossibly high standards to meet. And we know that “everyday saints struggled as we do to hear this passage as good news.”[iv]

But just as Walker suggests that our “spirit helpers” empower us to be more ourselves, who we are created to be, Saint Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that we have been “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (v. 13) — that we are no longer trying to imitate Christ by our own power, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, given to us.

This process of becoming more Christ-like, of being made holy and righteous, through faithful obedience is sanctification.

As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation of the third article of the Creed,
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies [or makes righteous] the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith...[v]
This is faith active in our lives, transforming us, setting us apart, sanctifying us or making us holy, and empowering us.

Too often we live out of our brokenness, and when we do that, we will have trouble ahead.

But, from Jesus we hear the Good News that through faith, we can live in a world in right relationship with God and with each other.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to live holy and perfect in an imperfect and broken world. We have a great cloud of witnesses who went before us and whose memories continue to sustain us even as we follow Jesus now.

Let us pray…[vi]
Holy and Redeeming God,
We give you our thanks and praise that through your Son Jesus you make us holy and count us among your saints;
By your great power you have called us to a rich hope  and given us the word of truth that gives us life in Christ.
Send us out as your witnesses, confident that we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit, that we may love others and live out Your Good News in the world.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus, our savior and Lord. Amen.

[i] Alice Walker. Living by the Word. 97.
[ii] ibid
[iii] Walker, 98.
[iv] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Kindle Locations 8521-8522).
Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[v] “Small Catechism, Book of Concord, 355-56.
[vi] adapted from Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources, http://laughingbird.net/ComingWeeks.html

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 8:31-36

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Sometimes I wonder what someone new to faith and religion, someone who identifies as “spiritual but not religious”, or perhaps even a “none”, a person with no experience with religion or the church, sees when they come into our worship spaces. Especially on a day like today when we are celebrating Reformation Sunday and recalling Martin Luther’s boldness, when pageantry and exuberance energize the air, and we take in the music and the red paraments and banners,
what do our neighbors see?

A preaching colleague regularly reminds us to “show ‘em Jesus” and certainly, that is my prayer, that people encountering us for the first time see Jesus.

But showing people Jesus doesn’t mean only reading and teaching the parts of Scripture, what we call the New Testament, and particularly the Gospels, that include the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. The Old Testament texts also show how “the Word of God [has entered] communities of faith by calling, warning, exhorting, judging, redeeming and forgiving.”[i] These texts narrate the experience of our spiritual mothers and fathers.

In tonight’s Old Testament text, we hear from Jeremiah, a prophet and an unpopular truth-teller commissioned by God who was active from approximately 627 BCE through the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BCE. Remaining in Judah until he was forced into exile in Egypt, Jeremiah tried to awaken Israel to the ways that the people had been un-faithful to Yahweh.

He repeatedly charged God’s people with fickleness and urged them to return to their God, warning them of the destruction that would follow rebellion, and worse, their indifference, to their sovereign Lord. In defiance to royal posturing, Jeremiah announced God’s severe judgment and offered lament for the unavoidable devastation of Jerusalem.

In contrast, the text we just heard comes from a portion of Jeremiah called “The Book of Consolation” or “The Book of Comfort” because the verses in these chapters voice “comfort, consolation, assurance and hope”, rooted in the character of God.[ii]

From the beginning, God created humankind for relationship, establishing a covenant that was carried through the generations. “Covenant” is a 50-cent word for relationship. First with Noah, and then with Abram, Isaac and Jacob, and again with David, God established a covenant with God’s people, promising to be in relationship with them.[iii]

The covenant God created was meant to be eternal, for-ever, but again and again throughout Scripture, God’s people rejected their covenant relationship with God,
grasping for power, wrenching control away from God and insisting on their own plans.

When Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the Lord in these verses, God’s people are in exile, suffering their punishment for breaking their covenantal relationship with God. And it is into that disconsolation and despair that God promises a “new covenant”. (v. 31)

For we Christians, it is important to remember that these words were spoken first to Israel. The words are ours only because they were spoken to people who were our ancestors in faith. God has not forgotten or replaced Israel.

God names this a “new covenant” because God is offering God’s people a “new” way of being in relationship with God. It is a “new” covenant” because it transforms us, reconciling us to God.

In these verses, Jeremiah explains how this transformation will take place. The teaching and instruction that were written on stone tablets and given to Moses at Sinai were neglected by God’s people, and their hearts were corrupted by sin and willfulness.

Now God’s law will be written in our hearts, at the center of our being, so that it will become part of our nature so that, instead of an impulse toward rebellion against God, we will be instinctively drawn into life with God. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “Our identity will now be internal, “so obeying will be as normal and as readily accepted as breathing and eating.”[v]

This “new covenant” is not an ethereal or ambiguous hope. It is a divine promise that God enables us to live in covenant and relationship with Godself, and empowers us to live according to God’s instruction. [vi] With abundant grace, mercy and forgiveness, God un-binds us from our sin and frees us to begin again.

This promise is at the heart of the Reformation.

This grace-filled God is the one that Martin Luther discovered when he learned Hebrew and Greek and read Scripture in its original languages. Even after he had become an Augustinian monk, Luther had remained terrified of the vengeful God who would exact punishment upon pitiful sinners, but then he discovered the evidence of God’s grace throughout the canon and gained a new understanding of the depth of God’s love for each of us. In his famed 95 Theses, Luther argued against church practices that were corrupt or kept citizens captive to papal authority and he urged reform. His intent was never to separate from the Catholic Church but, like Jeremiah, to speak truth to a culture, authority and institution that was faltering.

One of the revelations that Luther shared was that faith was rooted in direct relationship with God and no one mediates faith for another person. This is the idea of covenant; God’s covenant is not with Rome or with our bishops or denomination authorities, it is with each and every one of us.

“John’s Gospel, [especially] focuses on the Covenant and becoming one with God.”[vii] In tonight’s gospel text, Jesus, speaking to believers, says,
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”[viii]

When we hear the word “truth” here, in our humanity, like Pilate we want to know, “What is truth?” “What do we have to know?” “What do we have to do to get the ‘true disciple’ badge?”

Is truth found in the right style of worship, the right number of members, the biggest vacation bible school, the prettiest stained glass windows or the best sound system? Is it known through strict piety with morning and evening prayers and daily confession? Tell us and we’ll do it!

Sometimes we want to know we have the truth so that we get the bragging rights. We want to feel special. So, too often, as we observe the anniversary of the reformation, we tell the story in such a way that it sounds like Martin Luther was the first and only one who challenged the Roman church, as though he must have been the one who knew the truth because his arguments prevailed. Of course, he wasn’t the only one, and the truth that Jesus names here isn’t ours to keep for ourselves.

The very first time we hear this word in John’s gospel is in the prologue in the first chapter, when the Evangelist tells us, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth”.[ix]

Jesus isn’t using the word “truth” to describe a coveted treasure, a checklist, or an argument to be won. Jesus is the truth, and the embodiment of God’s compassionate mercy in the world.

God loves us because God cannot help but love us, and in Jesus, we see God’s love with skin on it.

Speaking about Jesus, the incarnation and the resurrection, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes the messiness of the world we live in and says, “the undoing is part of the remaking.” [x]

This past summer, I began pottery classes at the community college and, as a novice potter, I love that phrase: “the undoing is part of the remaking.” Seated at the potter’s wheel, one of the first steps is called centering. You use water and the rotating wheel to prepare the ball of clay, coning it upward and then cupping it and returning it to more of a ball. It gets the air out of the clay and gets the clay to sit evenly on the wheel. One of the ways you know the clay is centered is that your hands no longer shudder or vibrate as the wheel turns beneath them. If you don’t get the clay centered or keep it that way, your work will be lopsided, or as my instructor kindly says, “organic”. Other times, when you’re working at the wheel, the clay gets too wet or thin or collapses on itself, and when you know you can’t redeem it, you scrape it off and put the clay into a bag where it will dry out enough to be shaped into a new ball that can become something new the next week.

“The undoing is part of the remaking.”

The undoing, disorder or disorientation that we experience in our lives is not in vain. It is part of the reconciling work that God is about in the world.

Reformer John Wesley defined salvation as the restoration of our capacity to bear God’s image in the world.[xi] And Luther wrote, “We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road.”[xii]

In this way, we are semper reformanda, always reforming.

A life of faith isn’t predictable or linear and it rarely follows our plans. And sometimes it means starting over and waiting on God to reveal what’s next. A life following Jesus breaks open our ideas about where we find truth and meaning. And through this messy and unpredictable life together, Jesus reveals that God is working in and through us.

Redeemed by God through faith in Jesus, we are invited to participate in this new life and show forth the love of God to our neighbors and the world,
showing ‘em Jesus.

Let us pray…
Holy God, our Redeemer and Lord,
By your Word, you invite us into a new covenant, promising forgiveness and love.
Teach us to abide in Your Word, to remain in your love, to continue in your presence.
By your Spirit, guide us in the truth that is in Jesus, truth that does not exclude but includes, and sends us into the world to bear your love to our neighbors and communities.
We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

[i] Terence Fretheim. The Pentateuch. 21.
[ii] Brueggemann, Walter. Jeremiah. 264-265.
[iii] Breen, Mike. Covenant and Kingdom: The DNA of the Bible. 3DM. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Jeremiah 31:33, NRSV.
[v] Brueggemann, Walter. Jeremiah. 293.
[vi] Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination (p. 56). Augsburg Fortress - A. Kindle Edition.
[vii] Breen. Location 2014.
[viii] John 8:31-32, NRSV.
[ix] John 1:14, NRSV.
[x] “Jesus, Incarnation and The Christ Resurrection”. Another Name For Every Thing with Richard Rohr. Podcast audio. August 3, 2019. Center for Contemplation and Action. https://cac.org/podcasts/1-jesus-incarnation-and-the-christ-resurrection/.
[xi] Joy Moore. Sermon Brainwave #687. Luther Seminary. Podcast audio. October 27, 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.
[xii] Martin Luther, *Defense of All the Articles*, Lazareth transl., as found in Grace Brame, *Receptive Prayer* (Chalice Press, 1985) p.119

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Lectionary 29C/ Proper 24

Luke 18:1-8

When a much-anticipated movie or book is released, people rush to watch it or get their copy, devouring it as quickly as they can. And then they inevitably want to tell others all about it. Warning whoever is listening they’re about to give away something important about the storyline, they say, “spoiler alert!”

I remember when the seventh and final Harry Potter book was released. It was summer and our daughters were with their grandparents, and I had the luxury of being able to read the book cover to cover without any distractions. This was the early days of social media and spoiler alerts were easy to avoid.

Today, you have to turn off the tv, and stay off your phone if you want to escape someone else’s take on a story. And in today’s gospel we see that the impulse to tell others what we think is happening in a scene or a story is ancient.

Our gospel this morning includes yet another parable, and Luke is quick to tell us what it’s about. The gospel writer says it’s about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.”(8:1) If we let him, he will take away any chance we have to listen to the characters for ourselves and draw our own conclusions.

But we’re not going to let him do that.

Instead, we’re going to look at the text of the parable in verses 2 to 5 and listen for what God is saying, recognizing that the verses before and after the parable are Luke’s commentary on it.

The first character Jesus introduces us to is the judge. The parable’s often titled “the widow and the unjust judge” but it’s Luke, not Jesus, who identifies him as “unjust”, later in verse 6.

In verse 2, Jesus says the judge “neither feared God or had respect for people.” In the Small Catechism, Luther teaches that the very first commandment “You shall have no other gods.” means that “we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Luther then teaches that our fear and love for God directs all of our human relationships. The judge doesn’t follow the commandments
given to us by God
to govern our relationship with God or with others.
He denies God.

When I hear Luke’s word “unjust”, I immediately think the judge is corrupt or dishonest, but what Jesus describes isn’t necessarily a criminal or a miscreant. It is someone turned in on himself, selfish and self-centered, without regard for God or neighbor.

The second person that Jesus introduces is the widow. I recently re-read an article that talked about how different words are “marked” or carry assumptions with them.[i]
The unmarked form of a word carries the meaning that
goes without saying -- what you think of when you're
not thinking anything special.
I think “widow” is a marked word. When we hear widows named in Scripture, we may remember Anna, a prophet at the Temple in Luke Chapter 2, the widow at Zarephath who met Elijah (1 Kings 17) who Luke references in Chapter 4 or the widow who gives all she has to the treasury in Chapter 21. In Luke’s telling, all of these widows are aged and alone, with little means of their own.

But maybe not.

Amy Jill-Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt, suggests that because Anna’s husband goes unnamed but she is introduced as “the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher” explicitly connecting her to the Northern tribes of Israel that were taken into exile, she “represents the tenacity of holding on to her identity.” Levine also notes that the widow at Zarephath argues with Elijah, advocating for her son who is ill, instead of submitting to his demands. And finally, the widow who gives her two coins clearly had her own money and choices to make about how she used it. No one had exploited her. These women all have “agency and individuality.”[ii]

In the translation we just heard, Jesus tells us that the woman kept saying to the judge, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”

But the word translated here as “justice” is ἐκδικούμενα
(ek-dee-kó-mena) which is “vengeance” or “revenge”,
not the κρίσις (kree-sis) that we recognize from the prophet Isaiah’s instruction to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)

Hearing the woman sought vengeance changes how we hear the parable. Vengeance or revenge is consuming; it distorts how we view the world and events. It isolates us from others who do not share our passion. Reconsidering how we imagine “widows” and casting the woman as vengeful makes her character less sympathetic or morally exemplary.

Continuing the parable, Jesus tells us that the judge relents. We shouldn’t mistake his action as a change of heart, or repentance, turning toward God. Still adamantly denying God and neighbor, he is motivated by self-preservation; in our translation, it says the woman will “wear him out” but the Greek is actually a boxing word that is better translated as “beat on him” or even “give him a black eye.” He acts because he feels threatened, not compassionate.

So now what?

Jesus doesn’t commend the judge to us as a moral exemplar. The judge remains turned inward, searching out the most expedient way to get rid of the fuss and bother that interacting with his community brings.

And Jesus isn’t commending the woman’s dogged pursuit of vengeance to us either. After all, in Leviticus we hear the Lord command Israel,
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…. (Leviticus 19:18)
and in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul writes
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." (Romans 12:19)
As we have listened to the parables, we have learned that Jesus often told these stories to disrupt and prompt us to see the world a different way. So perhaps this parable points us to think differently about what justice is, and how it’s achieved.

This weekend, a Mississippi memorial to Emmett Till was rededicated. Kidnapped by two white men in 1955, the fourteen-year old black boy visiting family in the South was beaten and killed. His body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River three days later. The two men arrested for his murder were acquitted, and because of double jeopardy laws, were never convicted even after they publicly professed to what they had done. Till’s mother had her son’s body brought back to Chicago and his casket was open during his funeral to display the brutality inflicted on him. Today you can see that casket on display in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

There was no justice for Emmett Till, but more than fifty years after his death, a memorial commission was formed in Mississippi and people continue to work to tell the story of his death and work for racial justice now. One of the ways they tell Till’s story is through markers or memorial signs, and after the first three signs were vandalized with graffiti, bullets and acid, they constructed a more durable memorial that was rededicated this weekend.

Justice – setting things right – is what we hear the prophets argue for. It is what Amos calls for when, as Eugene Peterson wrote in the Message paraphrase,
“Do you know what I want?
I want justice - oceans of it. I want fairness - rivers of it.
That's what I want. That's all I want.” (Amos 5:24)
Where revenge is personal, justice is rooted in community and society. It isn’t about “getting even.” Instead, it is about correcting wrongs that have been perpetrated and systems that have gone unchallenged.[iii]

Where revenge is punitive and wants someone to suffer, to be hurt or feel pain, justice is restorative, recognizing that God cares for both victims and perpetrators and we are created for relationship. Restorative justice doesn’t eliminate accountability or consequences but seeks reconciliation and repairs relationships.

For all of us, who have a lot more in common with the widow and the judge than with Jesus, this parable is good news that gives away the ending of the greatest story we have. God doesn’t play the games that these two characters play. We neither have to pound on God for attention, or fear God’s disdain. God welcomes us with abundant love and gives us unearned grace in faith. God knows us fully, even we fail to love and fear God,
even when we are angry or vengeful,
or selfish and unmoved by the troubles of those around us.

And God invites us into this life with God, with each other and with the world, trusting us to seek justice, to set things right, that God will be known.

Let us pray…
Good and gracious God,
We give you thanks for your Son Jesus and for the grace you have given each one of us —
grace that is patient with us as we learn what it means to fear and love You; grace that strengthens our voices and encourages us to love our neighbors and seek justice in an unjust world.
Prompt us to listen to Your Word and what You are saying to us as You call us to follow Jesus.
Amen.

[i] Deborah F. Tannen. “Wears Jump Suit. Sensible Shoes. Uses Husband's Last Name”, New York Times. June 20, 1993, Section 6, Page 18.
[ii] Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus. 257-260.
[iii] Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. “Don’t Confuse Revenge with Justice: Five Key Differences.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201402/don-t-confuse-revenge-justice-five-key-differences, accessed 10/19/2019.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Lectionary 27C/ Proper 22

Luke 17:5-10

For all of us who were in school before the internet and search engines like Google, John Bartlett’s “Book of Familiar Quotations” was a standard reference where you could find well-known sayings from Scripture and from poets, authors and politicians. You didn’t have to know the whole quote, just a keyword or phrase or perhaps whose words they were.

Today’s gospel reads a little like an entry in Bartlett’s. The first ten verses of this chapter are a collection of seemingly unrelated sayings of Jesus, first about forgiveness and then about faith and then about servanthood.

Instead of trying to find a thread that connects the different themes, I’m going to focus on verses five and six where Jesus and the disciples are talking about faith.

The disciples have been traveling with Jesus and listening, as we have, to his parables and watching how he responds to the people around him. And after another series of hard teachings, the apostles say to him, “Lord, increase our faith!” They plead with Jesus to add to what’s there or give them more of this thing called faith.

It’s something every one of us probably has said at some point in our lives. “Lord, increase our faith.” Because we fall captive to the lie that the answer to whatever challenge we face is located in being more or having more.

Jesus rebukes the disciples and that way of thinking.

Faith isn’t an object or an asset that can be measured or quantified in ounces or pounds, square feet or acres.

I had the privilege on Friday of listening to Pastor CeCee Mills speak in Durham. Pastor CeCee is the new Associate Director for Evangelical Mission in the North Carolina Synod. And she was talking about ministry in small congregations. Or rather, given that 80% of ELCA congregations now have fewer than 100 people in worship on an average Sunday, she was talking about ministry in our churches today.

And one of the first things she asked us to do was to define the word “small.” I’m going to ask you to do the same thing. Not out loud and I won’t ask you to write it down, but take a minute to think, if you were going to look up the word “small” in Webster’s Dictionary, or on Google, what would it say?

And now, I’m going to ask you to listen, and pay attention to how you react, what emotions you feel and what adjectives come to mind, when you hear the following:

small car              big car

small house         big house

small tumor        big tumor

small church       big church

small group         big group

small debt            big debt

What are the associations you made?

Efficient, nimble, precious, intimate and visible were some of the words we used to describe the small things she named.

Through our conversation with Pastor CeCee, we recognized the lie that says, “bigger is always better.”

With his rebuke, Jesus tells the apostles, “You are worried about the wrong things.”

Earlier in Luke, Jesus had described the kingdom of heaven as a mustard seed that was sown into the ground and became a tree where birds could nest. (13:18-19) And here in our gospel text, Jesus describes the power of faith as a mustard seed. (17:6)

In our humanity, we think the kingdom of heaven is more visible when the church is big and boisterous and there are more people in worship, but Jesus says, “Listen, you are paying attention to the wrong things.”

In our humanity, we think faith must be big and boisterous to be any good at all, but often the Spirit of God comes upon us as a breath or even a whisper. (Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 29)

And the Lord says to us, as he did to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”[i]

Faith is surrendering ourselves to God, admitting our weakness and our dependence upon God in all things.

Four times in Luke leading up to this exchange with his apostles, Jesus bore witness to the power of faith active in the lives of the people he meets.

First, he encounters the friends of the man who cut a hole in the roof of a building to lower their paralyzed friend down to him. Luke tells us, “When [Jesus] saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." (Luke 5:20)

Next the centurion whose slave is sick sends friends to Jesus and when he receives the soldier’s message through them, he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And the slave was healed. (Luke 7:9)

Then dining at a Pharisee’s house, Jesus defends a woman who bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with perfume, saying to her, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (7:38 - 50)

And finally, Jesus is on the street when the woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve years touches the hem of his cloak, and he tells her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace." (8:43-48)

“Faith is putting our trust in God, in life and in death.”[ii]

However, it is important to say out loud that these verses have caused harm at bedsides and in exam rooms and emergency rooms when doctors have explained a difficult diagnosis or condition and someone has responded, “If you have enough faith, they’ll be cured.” Faith isn’t a magic charm or potion that can promise a cure or prevent death.

In Martin Luther’s “Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans”, he writes:

Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.[iii]

When we are afraid, the Good News is that the answer is not found in getting more. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s promise that we have life in Christ and power in the Holy Spirit sustains us and God provides for us all that we need.

Thanks be to God.

[i] 2 Corinthians 12:9
[ii] Bishop Mike Rinehart. https://bishopmike.com/2019/09/29/pentecost-17c-proper-22c-lectionary-27c-october-6-2019/, accessed 10/1/2019.
[iii] Martin Luther. “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/luther-faith.txt, accessed, 10/5/2019.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lectionary 26C/ Proper 21

Thinking this week about what this parable says to us, I came across a cartoon that shows a smiling robed angel and a man standing on clouds, looking at an elevator clearly marked “up for heaven “and “down for hell” and the man is saying, “Somehow I thought it would be somewhat different.”[i]

The parable begins with a rich man who is richer than anyone can imagine, clothed in “purple and fine linen” and feasting sumptuously or extravagantly every day, not just at Shabbat or on high holy days. In my imagination, I picture Midas who is remembered in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touched into gold.

And then Jesus tells us about a second man, a poor man who was laid at the gate of the rich man, at the entrance to his property. In other translations, this man is called a beggar. He was dependent on help from neighbors and community, but we never hear that he received any help from the rich man or anyone else.

All we are told about him is that he has sores that the dogs lick, and we are told his name. He is named Lazarus from the Hebrew el azar which means “God has helped.”

Popular interpretations of this parable often add things that aren’t part of the story. Nothing is said about ritual purity and uncleanliness. Nothing is said about either man’s demeanor. Nothing is said about either man’s piety or religiosity, faith or belief, or righteousness. They’re just two men, one rich and well-fed, one poor and hungry.

However, we know from Scripture that for Torah-observant Jews, and for Christians for that matter, the biblical mandate to care for the poor is clear.
  • In Deuteronomy 15 the people are instructed, “"Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land."[ii]
  • In wisdom literature, Proverbs says, “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.[iii] and “2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.”[iv]
  • And the prophets add their two cents, too: Isaiah tells the people, “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;[v] and Zechariah instructs us, “show kindness and mercy to one another; 10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;”[vi]
Hearing this parable, we wonder, Why would the rich man ignore Lazarus? Maybe he felt powerless to help, or anxious that he would be taken advantage of. Recognizing our human condition though, it seems as likely that he never saw Lazarus as his responsibility; he either didn’t care what happened to the man or he was blind to the suffering right in front of him, and never even saw the poor man.

Our bewilderment is short-lived.

In the verses that follow we’re told each man dies and come to inhabit Hades, which translates literally as the “unseen place.” Ironically, Lazarus, who was not seen in life, is seen there.

Hades, hell, Sheol or Gehenna are all used in Scripture to describe the place of the dead. The descriptions we have aren’t literal or geographical and our understanding of heaven and hell has changed throughout time. Ancient Israelites believed in a three-tiered world where heaven was above and the dead went to a morally neutral underworld below. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Jews adopted the Hellenistic view of heaven as a place for the saved and hell as a place for the damned.[vii] Many of the familiar and graphic images of hell we might recognize today originated with Dante’s fourteenth century epic poem Divine Comedy and 15th and 16th century paintings of the Last Judgment and these images persist in popular culture today.

This parable describes a completely different place “where the saved and the damned could see each other.”[viii]

When the rich man cries out, it’s clear that the only thing that has changed is his location. His way of thinking is the same as it was in life . While he now sees Lazarus, and even knows his name, he still “others” him, speaking about him, instead of speaking directly to him. The rich man first asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him water. And when that fails, he asks him to send Lazarus to his five brothers so that they might be spared the torment that he’s experiencing. He remains blind to the truth that he and Lazarus are both children of Abraham, brothers in God’s sight. [ix]

Even when Abraham tells the rich man there is a chasm that cannot be bridged, he fails to see his own complicity in his fate. His own ignorance and lack of compassion carved out that chasm; it is the same chasm he used in life to separate himself from the poor and the suffering. It is as deep as his fears and disdain, his selfishness and contempt. Now, as theologian Amy-Jill Levine writes, “he will spend eternity seeing what he cannot have”[x] — a wholeness that is only possible in life with God, as part of the kingdom.

This parable reminds us that “God does not play by our rules.”[xi] When we encounter God’s kingdom, it’s going to be different than we imagine, just as God is beyond our knowledge and understanding now. What we know, right now, and what we are taught in the law and by the prophets, is that we have the responsibility to pour out God’s mercy and compassion here and now.

Let us pray…
God of heaven and earth,
Thank you for your mercy and grace that make us Your children and heirs to Your kingdom.
Teach us to see people through Your eyes and to love them as You love them.
Make us compassionate and generous as we go out into the world to share the Good News of your abundant love.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Werner Wejp-Olsen. https://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/o/otis.asp, accessed 9/28/2019.
[ii] Deuteronomy 15:11
[iii] Proverbs 14:21
[iv] Proverbs 22:1-2
[v] Isaiah 58:7
[vi] Zechariah 7:9-10
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_cosmology, accessed 9/26/2019.
[viii] Amy-Jill Levine. Short Stories by Jesus. 286.
[ix] Levine, 288.
[x] Levine. 289.
[xi] Levine, 300.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Lectionary 25C/ Proper 20

Luke 16:1-15

Hearing the gospel for today, do you think Jesus just wanted to make sure people were listening? I have heard of university professors who add instructions at the end of the syllabus to test whether students read it in its entirety, and in seminary we joked about inserting random text, like lines from a favorite hymn, into our papers, just to see if they were really being read. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells the Pharisees this parable that appears to commend dishonesty.

Maybe Jesus just wanted to make sure he had their attention, but maybe not.

Remember what we know about parables. Sometimes, parables were a way to put two things such as the kingdom of God and a mustard seed or yeast (Luke 13), alongside each other to help us understand them. Other times the parables teach us about the kingdom of God through stories like the Good Samaritan where it’s easy for us to imagine who we are supposed to be in the story. Last week we were reminded that often the parables are there to challenge us or shake us up. And often they surprise us, awakening us to the way God is breaking into our lives and turning the wisdom of the world upside-down or inside-out.

At the time that Luke is writing, around 80 CE, the Romans occupied Palestine, and as the Empire demanded higher taxes, sometimes the rich who lived in the south “rescued” the small farmers in the north, who sold their land and stayed on as tenant farmers. Where once they might have harvested crops that provided food for themselves and their households, now the farmers were planting production crops to be sold to the Romans, and a manager would keep track of what was owed to the landowner.

The parable begins with someone making charges against a manager. We don’t know what he’s done, but the rich man calls him out and accuses him of being dishonest. There’s no denial; instead what we hear is his internal dialogue, or calculations, as he considers his options. And then Jesus tells us that the dishonest man acts quickly, speaking to the tenants and lowering the figures for what they owe.

We can speculate what he was doing. As a manager, he would have earned a commission, so perhaps he reduced their debts by the portion he would have taken. Or maybe he reduced their debts to hurt the landowner, or to ingratiate himself into their lives.  We cannot know his motive. And we don’t need to.

The result is that the tenant farmers have a little bit more for themselves and their households. The manager, who has power because of his position, chooses to use his power, while it lasts, to help others.

Jesus still recognizes the man for what he is, calling him the “dishonest manager” even when the rich man commends him. What is being commended isn’t the manager’s dishonest practices but the steps the man took to address the wrongs he had committed.

This isn’t a parable that obviously works as an allegory for our lives of faith. Featuring a dishonest manager and an opportunistic rich man, we aren’t eager to identity ourselves or God as one of the characters.

But aren’t we all dishonest managers?

Five times between verses 8 and 11, we hear the word “dishonest.” The Greek words are ἀδικίας and ἄδικός which can also be translated as “unrighteous” or “unjust”.  Eugene Peterson who wrote The Message paraphrase of the Bible calls this character a rascal. That sounds about right, I think.

By our nature, apart from Christ, we are dishonest or unrighteous, rascals and scoundrels, captive to sin and to death, self-centered and self-indulgent.

In this parable Jesus contrasts what is dishonest or unrighteous with what is faithful or believing.

But faithfulness and believing are never the result of anything we do – no measure of hard work, earnestness, or ability will achieve them.

As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation of the third article of the Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but [the Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies [or makes righteous] the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.”

It is only through Christ, and the gift of unearned grace – what some might even call dishonest wealth – that each of us is wholly beloved and forgiven. Giving us what is his, Christ makes us children of God and heirs to the kingdom.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, now we are dead to sin and alive to Christ, and as ones who have been brought from death to life, we are instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6)

As instruments of righteousness, we are given the power to intercede on behalf of the suffering, the sick and the poor.

Indeed, in our baptismal covenant we promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth”[i] and accept this responsibility to intercede on behalf of others. And we do have power; we have the power of the Holy Spirit acting in our lives and those around us, and we have the power of our voices to engage in difficult conversations; we have the power to use our vote on election day; we have the power to use our time to volunteer or write letters to the editor and congressional representatives.

This parable challenges us to look for the places where we could give up some of our power and wealth so that others might suffer less, despair less and hunger less.

There are ways we do this in our everyday lives, giving out of the abundance we already have:
  • Many of you have donated hotel-size toiletries that we are able to give to people who don’t have anything.
  • I know someone else who never pays with exact change; instead, she rounds up and donates the difference to charity.
  • Scrolling through Facebook, I saw a post where a mother told a story about her son who had asked every day for a week for two of everything he usually took to school for lunch. She had chalked it up to growing pains, figuring the kid must be hungry. And then the boy’s mother got a note from another mother in his class thanking her for providing lunch for her child when she’d been in the hospital.
While these actions may feel small or incidental, they are ways we take steps to lessen the suffering, despair and hunger of others. But after Jesus finished the parable he told his disciples, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much;…” (v. 10)

The Good News we hear today is that God gives us the power to transform the world around us, sharing our inheritance as God’s children and making God’s kingdom present and visible here on earth, if only we will act.

Let us pray…
God of Righteousness,
Thank you for grace and mercy that makes us your children and heirs to Your kingdom and thank you for Your Son Jesus who shows us what Kingdom life looks like here on earth.
Show us ways that we can be instruments of righteousness in our community and world.
Empower us by Your Holy Spirit to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ELCA. 236.