Sunday, August 18, 2019

Lectionary 20C/ Proper 15

Luke 12:49-56

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hear Jesus call out, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

But that isn’t what we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel. Far from being the Comforter offering us refuge, here Jesus announces he has come to bring fire and division. It’s not exactly the image of the reconciling God of love who we meet in other parts of the gospels.

Speaking to his disciples still, Jesus tells them, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50) Like the candy bar commercial that says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” this Jesus doesn’t sound like the Jesus we think we know when we sing “Jesus Loves Me.” One colleague suggested she’d like to take him aside and offer him a cup of tea.

But maybe that dissonance is exactly what Jesus intends – he wants to get our attention and he wants us to understand the urgency of the gospel that calls us to “stand before God with open hearts, seeking God’s forgiveness and the courage to live a Christlike life”.[i]

Jesus’ stress is not the anxiety of everyday life, but the weight of mercy. He understands that compassion, mercy and justice shatter the status quo and that discipleship demands choosing sides. [ii]

As much as we appreciate the constant flame that represents the light of Christ in our worship or enjoy the flickering glow of a summer campfire,

when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49a) many of us hear a threat of hellfire and damnation, retribution or destruction.

But fire is used throughout Scripture, and in fact in many world religions, as a symbol of divine presence, for both blessing and punishment.[iii]

Our Old Testament text comes from Jeremiah whose prophetic ministry began in 626 BCE and ended sometime after 586. Denouncing false prophets in an oracle of the Lord to the people of Judah, he says, “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29) Fire destroys what is false.

Another prophet Zechariah, who was also a priest, was born in exile in Babylonia, he was among those who returned to Judah in 538 BCE.[iv] Speaking of the remnant of God’s people who would be restored to proper relationship with God, he spoke of refining fire, saying, “This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” (Zechariah 13:9)

Third Isaiah also speaks to the post-exilic people, saying, “See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” (Isa 48:10)

A refiner’s fire is a very intense fire used to purify metals; after the metal is heated to a molten state, the refiner then skims off the dross that floats to the top. In another refining process, the ore is melted and then hot air is blown “over the surface of the melted metal. The lead [changes] to lead oxide which, in a powdered condition, [is] driven away by the air blast” and what remains is a silver substance.[v] Fire purifies, stripping away the gunk and garbage we accumulate.

And images of fire like these continue in the New Testament. In Luke’s gospel, when John the Baptizer announces Jesus is coming, he proclaims,

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:16-17)

Pastor and scholar Fred Craddock suggests, “The primary goal is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.” (Craddock, 49) And again in Acts, we have the story of Pentecost when “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among [the apostles], and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:3-4) Fire signifies divine activity and presence.

New Testament scholar Matt Skinner writes, “The flame that Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. No wonder he is so eager to strike the match.”[vi]

Writer Annie Dillard captured the exasperation we hear from Jesus. She wrote:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[vii]
Jesus wanted his disciples and all of us who follow Him to see that baptism in Christ is not fire insurance; it is a high-risk activity. In fact, it demands our death!

Lutheran scholar Steven Paulson defines baptism as “God’s attack on sin by attacking the sinner; it is death.”[viii] Paulson writes,

Sin’s power is to point the finger; death is to believe sin….But to believe sin is to call God a liar and negate Christ’s cross. Baptism is the only thing that stops the voice of sin along with its accusing finger once and for all.[ix]

In baptism Christ puts to death to the ‘old Adam’ and gives birth to a new creation, and in Christ, our lives are no longer captive to sin, death and the devil. Luther taught that, when sin or the devil tempts us, we must boast, “I am baptized!” claiming the promise of faith we receive in baptism. Paulson writes, “Faith says to sin what law cannot: “But I have died! Why are you still pestering me?”[x]

Baptism is our inauguration into a new life in Christ. We cannot keep the status quo or leave the hard work to others; Christ calls us to follow, and through God’s promised presence and activity in our lives, the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify us and urges us forward.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
We give thanks for your mercy and forgiveness.
When we fail to remember the freedom of our baptized life, startle and awaken us to Your call on our lives.
Refine us and remove the dross that tarnishes our reflection of You and our witness in the world.
By your Holy Spirit encourage us and empower us to strive for justice and peace and serve all people, following the example of Your Son.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Patricia Lull. Feasting on the Word. Kindle edition.
[ii] Richard Carlson. Feasting on the Word. Kindle edition.
[iii] Gail Ramshaw. “Fire”, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary. 161.
[iv] NIV, p. 1405.
[v] https://biblehub.com/topical/r/refining.htm, accessed 8/16/19
[vi] Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56”. workingpreacher.org
[vii] Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Talk.
[viii] Steven D. Paulson. Lutheran Theology. 155.
[ix] Paulson, 160.
[x] Paulson, 164.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Lectionary 19C/ Proper 14

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

This week the churchwide assembly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) convened in Milwaukee.

In the ELCA we celebrate being one church body organized in three expressions – the local congregation, the synod, and the churchwide organization, and the churchwide assembly (#ELCAcwa) brings those three expressions together every three years. There, voting members elected by each of the sixty-five synods, as well as our synod bishops and assistants to the bishop and the Church Council gather to listen for where God is speaking and leading; to bear witness to God’s activity in the world; and to take action that shines God’s light in the world in solidarity with the poor, and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.[i]

I watched worship and plenaries on the livestream from the Wisconsin Center, and while there’s much that could be said about Roberts’ Rules of Order, parliamentary procedure and hot mic moments during the assembly, what made it extraordinary was the joyful worship and preaching that proclaimed that we are saved by a God whose grace has no limits, and the actions taken that spoke to how God’s kingdom is breaking into the world even now.

And, as I listened and watched, the words of our second reading from the book of Hebrews returned to me:

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Like us, the audience being addressed in the book of Hebrews “were not eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus and [they] lived in a community that had been founded some years before.”[ii] Like those “Christians who were having trouble holding onto hope when Christ did not return immediately after his resurrection”, we, too, wait for answers from God, and in the midst of daily life we can become discouraged that evil and sin continue to exist in the world. [iii] But the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are not alone, or abandoned to our despair or our fear.

This text tells us first that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.”(v. 1) Furman University religion professor John C. Shelley notes, “what we hope for is intimately connected to our faith.”[iv] In the gospel, Jesus tells us “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” (Luke 12: 34) The places where we commit our selves – our time, talents and our money – reflect the desires of our hearts, and they reflect our faith because our lives are lived in response to the grace we have been given. The hopes we hold for ourselves, our church and the world cannot be separated from our faith.

One of the actions that the churchwide assembly took was to adopt a memorial that “encourages our synods and congregations to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the ELCA’s ordination of women in 2020;
the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women of color in the Lutheran tradition in the United States and
the 10th anniversary of the ELCA’s decision to remove the barriers to ordination for people in same-gendered relationships..."[v]

I am grateful the ELCA “recognizes the diversity of gifts that women’s ordination brings to this church”[vi] and to this congregation for calling me as Ascension’s first female pastor, but I lament that many congregations throughout the ELCA still refuse to recognize the calls of women in ministry, people of color and our LGBTQIA siblings in Christ. For all who have been told that they cannot serve, in our denomination or elsewhere, our churchwide affirmation of women in ministry witnesses that “the way of Jesus is the way to become who [each of us] most truly is,” as a child of God.[vii] Our action sustains hope for those who do not yet see a way forward.

The text also tells us that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” (v. 1) As Shelley writes, “faith is not supported by the surrounding culture.”[viii] We forget sometimes how political Jesus was; he challenged the existing systems and leaders on behalf of those who were suffering or ignored and, ultimately, he was executed for it. In Luke’s gospel particularly, he speaks up for the poor, with more than 30 references to wealth, money, possessions and alms in Luke-Acts alone.

We cannot listen to Jesus’s words and think he doesn’t have something to say about how we spend, save and give.


Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary, tells the story of how he started tipping more and then realized he was noticing more the people who are dependent on tips. It’s not just wait staff at restaurants. It’s service personnel who don’t have living wages, and often don’t have benefits that provide healthcare or retirement savings. Again, we hear Jesus: “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.”

Budgets are faith statements, and at the churchwide assembly, one of the first celebrations was that “Always Being Made New: the Campaign for the ELCA” exceeded its goal, raising more than $250 million in support of new and existing ELCA ministries. Those gifts will provide needed revenue to expand ministries for supporting congregations, leaders, and the global church and addressing hunger and poverty, and we can and should celebrate the ways God will be made known.

Later in the week, the assembly adopted the three-year budget for the churchwide expression which designated 75% of expenses to support and grow vital congregations here in the U.S. and to grow the Lutheran Church around the world; provide relief and development to help end hunger domestically and globally; provide coordination and support for churchwide ministries and support and develop current and future rostered and lay leaders in the ELCA.

Clearly, we long to participate in the beautiful kingdom work that God is doing through our church.

But then, one of the last pieces of business that the assembly engaged was the discussion of a cost-saving measure taken earlier this year that changed the healthcare benefits for the employees at the churchwide organization. The assembly was asked to consider restoring those benefits and the difficult discussion highlighted the challenge of managing money, people and ministry. It also, importantly, affirmed our own social statement that acknowledges how health and health care depend not only upon personal responsibility, but also upon other people and conditions in wider society. It states, “Such interdependence is at odds with the common message of this individualistic society, but it flows from the biblical vision of wholeness.”[ix]

We cannot make decisions about our lives and the lives of those around us apart from our faith.
In the verses that follow those that I read, the writer of Hebrews shares the stories of heroes of faith including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and reminds us that, as Shelley notes, “faith may provoke hostility and ridicule…and it also presents itself as courage.[x]

Several of the actions taken this week by the assembly required great courage. After thirty years the ELCA has even fewer people of color than our predecessor bodies of the ALC and LCA did; in fact, we are the whitest denomination in the U.S. No single action or set of actions can change that reality quickly but the assembly took three actions that begin to address our history and our future. First, the assembly apologized to the African descent community for our historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. The second action recalled the events of June 17, 2015 when a young man, baptized and raised in an ELCA congregation in the Carolinas, murdered nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston; in commemoration of those nine martyrs, June 17 was designated as a day of repentance, grounded in prayer. And the third action was the adoption of an unambiguous resolution to condemn white supremacy, proclaiming that “the love of God and the justice and mercy of God are for all people, without exception.”[xi]

There is a Zulu proverb that says, “When a thorn pierces the foot, the whole body must bend over to pull it out.”[xii] We cannot follow Jesus but expect others do the hard and necessary work to address systemic racism in our nation and within the Church.

There are many more examples from churchwide assembly that connect faith and Scripture to our everyday lives and remind us that we are part of the Body of Christ in all its beauty and all its mess. I encourage you to learn more about the actions the assembly took, but also to look at your own decisions and see how your faith informs your live in the every day.

Our faith is alive – it is hope-filled; it is relational and it is public.
It is our faith in Christ whom we proclaim crucified and risen that gives us courage to confront evil and sin in the world with the confidence that God prevails. The writer of Hebrews assures us: we do not need to be discouraged and we are not without hope.

Let us pray…
Creator God,
We give you thanks for the world created by your word
and for Your Son who shows us Your Kingdom.
Forgive us when we fail to put our faith in your promises.
By your Holy Spirit, strengthen and give us courage to seek justice for all your children.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.


[i] Constitution, Ascension Lutheran Church.
[ii] “Hebrews”. Enter the Bible. Luther Seminary.
[iii] David E. Gray. “Hebrews”, Feasting on the Word.
[iv] John C. Shelley. “Hebrews”, Feasting on the Word.
[v] Legislative Update, https://www.elca.org/cwa-2019/guidebook-web-version, accessed 8/10/19
[vi] ibid
[vii] Shelley.
[viii] ibid
[ix] https://www.elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Health-Care, accessed 8/10/19
[x] ibid
[xi] Legislative Update, https://www.elca.org/cwa-2019/guidebook-web-version, accessed 8/10/19
[xii] The Right Reverend W. Darin Moore, Bishop, AME Zion Church, speaking at ELCA CWA 8/8/2019.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Lectionary 18C/ Proper 13

Luke 12:13-21

Today’s gospel begins with a brother bringing Jesus a dispute over an inheritance. But instead of arbitrating between the man and his brother, Jesus tells one of his parables, cautioning the crowd first, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions.” (v. 15)

In the Contemporary English Version or CEV translation, he says, “Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

And then, Jesus tells the story of a man who has a problem. The problem the man thinks he has is that he has stored up so much of his harvest that he needs to build bigger barns to keep all his crops and goods.

This man isn’t someone you’d see on “American Pickers”, who has barns filled with old treasures and junk, or a hoarder who has stacks of newspapers towering in the study and closets filled with paper towels because they were on sale. He hasn’t just let the attic overflow with boxes of stuff. His problem won’t be solved by a good spring cleaning, decluttering, or a yard sale.

As Jesus tells us the story, we see that the man’s problem isn’t what he thinks it is. His problem isn’t the abundance of crops and goods, possessions and things. Or, maybe it is, but having enough storage for his things is not the cause of the problem.

If you have watched "Seinfeld" maybe you remember a scene when Jerry, George and Kramer are in a locker room after a basketball game and they’re talking about a fourth player named Jimmy who was really on top of his game. And then Jimmy comes in the locker room and talks about himself in the third person for the whole conversation. “Jimmy played pretty good.” “Jimmy couldn’t jump at all before he got these training shoes.” “Jimmy will see you around.”

Like Jimmy, this man in this story only refers to himself; six times in fact he addresses himself and his soul, questioning how he can solve his problem and proposing a solution that would leave him with “ample goods laid up for many years.” (v 19): “What should I do?” “I have no place” “I will do this” “I will pull down” “I will store” and “I will say”.(v. 17-19)

He was a rich man, so it’s unlikely he worked his own fields, and yet, he never mentions the people who helped him prepare the land and reap the harvest; he never mentions his neighbors or community, or even family; and, of course, he never mentions God.

This kind of self-centeredness and individualism is the very turning in on oneself that is Martin Luther’s definition of sin.

And, then, there is his lack of compassion. As a rich man in Jesus’ time, in what was a subsistence economy, his neighbors would have been more concerned about “daily bread” – where their next meal was coming from – than whether they could “eat, drink and be merry” in the future.

While the story is set more than two thousand years ago, it remains relevant to us today. While many of us have refrigerators, freezers and pantry shelves filled with groceries, many of our neighbors right here in Shelby and Cleveland County experience poverty, homelessness and food insecurity every day. Even when people are employed often their earnings aren’t enough to pay for housing, food and medical expenses. And, of course, it’s not just adults. As much as kids love summer vacation, the start of school means many children and teenagers will eat free breakfasts and lunches again after a lean summer. So even in 2019, for many families, like our ancestors in faith, the concern isn’t where to store an abundance, but whether they have “daily bread”.

Going back to the parable: is it really that surprising that God calls this man a fool?

His disregard for others impoverishes him in ways he doesn’t even recognize.

Artist James B. Janknegt (jankneg), in his painting “The Rich Fool” shows “Death” – a skeleton dressed in a dark robe – and the rich man at a dining room table in a large empty house while in a more modest, neighboring house, eight people including children are gathered around a table together and there is a fenced-in yard and toys by the front door. While the rich man has his ample crops and goods, he has no one to share them with and no community where he belongs and is loved.

And that brings us back to Jesus’ initial warning:
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes has learned this lesson. We only have a few verses from the book’s first two chapters, but the rest of those chapters tell the story of one who went searching for meaning and found great wisdom but no satisfaction. Wartburg College religion professor Walter Bouzard notes that, the writer, who is called the “Teacher” continues searching “in pleasures of sensuality, labor and wealth” but ultimately “declares all these activities to be equally vain” or pointless.[i]

What the Teacher discovers,
and what the rich fool fails to learn,
is that the “stuff of life” is not “stuff” at all.

Life
is not found in work, wealth, pleasure or achievement.[ii]
Life is found in the relationships we build and cherish, in the communities where we live and give of ourselves, and, especially here in our context as a community of followers of Jesus, in our faith.

Today’s texts remind us that our own efforts can not deliver security, safety or salvation.

That is the rich fool’s problem. Either he fails to acknowledge that all he is and has comes from God or he is ignorant of the truth and does not see that God provides both his daily bread and his hope for the future.

The Good News is that, forgiven of our sin and reconciled to God, our security, our safety, and our salvation are in Christ Jesus. As Saint Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin….having died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:6, 8)

Even as we rest confident in God’s reconciling and redeeming grace, as we listen to Jesus tell this cautionary tale, we are encouraged to ask ourselves how we are like the rich fool and how we are poor in the sight of God:

When has avarice, greed, or arrogance closed my eyes to the ways God has provided for me?
Who have I overlooked as I rest in the safety and security that I enjoy?
Where do I find life – with God and in community?

Today especially, with the echoes of gun violence again reverberating through our lives after shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, Jesus’ warning that “things cannot make our lives safe” brings us again to the cross – empty-handed, heavy-hearted and gut-wrenched at the death of dozens of innocents – where we meet the One in whom we find safety, security and life.

Let us pray…
Wondrous God,
We give thanks for Your Son Jesus who reconciles us to You,
even when we sin and fall short,
failing to love as we are loved.
Guard us against all kinds of greed and idolatry
and set our minds on the ways of Your Kingdom.
Lead us by Your Holy Spirit to abundant life in relationship with You and our neighbors.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
Amen.

[i] Walter C. Bouzard. “Working Preacher Commentaries.” Workingpreacher.org, 2016.
[ii] ibid

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Lectionary 17C/ Proper 12

Luke 11:1-13

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray and he provides them with a very brief skeleton of a prayer that we recognize as the bones of the Lord’s prayer we pray in worship. But quickly he goes on to tell them a story and we know that the parables or stories that Jesus tells as he teaches use examples from everyday life to explain something about who God is.

Jesus reorients us so that the question is no longer “How do we pray?” which implies that there is a pattern or script that guarantees we can “get it right.” The better question is “Who is this God to whom we pray?”

A traditional reading of the parable casts God as the neighbor inside the house, and the disciples – including you and me – as the one who comes to the neighbor in the middle of the night. In an honor and shame culture like the one that existed in the first century, the unprepared host would have risked embarrassment if he could not provide for his guest. But the neighbor, too, if he had not eventually responded to the appeal for help would have been shamed for his failure. The best outcome for them both was what eventually happens in the parable: the neighbor rises and answers the need.

But, when I hear that interpretation of the text, I am uncomfortable with the idea that God is annoyed by our prayers and I bristle at the picture of God as one who has to be goaded or nagged into responding to us. I also object to the idea that God answers our prayers to prevent shame from falling on God. None of these images of God – annoyed, reticent, or prideful – is how I understand God to be.

Parables, particularly, invite us to wrestle with their meaning, so I invite you to join me in wrestling with this parable and what is says about who God is.

One possibility is that while we are drawn quickly into the story of the neighbors, we miss the way Jesus frames it because the NRSV translation of the Bible that we use in worship and another popular translation, the NIV, both translate verse 5 as “Suppose one of you has a friend….” When the Greek actually translates as, “Who out of you will have a friend….?”

It is a rhetorical question similar to those he asks later in verses 11 and 12. When Jesus asks, “Who among you?” the response would be a resounding, “No one!” In that way, Jesus leads us away from the stingy neighbor, and away from the father who gives a serpent instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg, to the heavenly Father who gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. (v. 13)

Another way of hearing the parable is offered by Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon. He suggests that our attention should be on the word translated here as “persistence”. Other translations call it “boldness”, “importunity” or even “impudence.” But the Greek translates as “shamelessness”. That transforms the image of the one knocking from someone who is incessantly nagging or begging to one who has surrendered. The one who has gone to the neighbor has surrendered any pretense of preparedness or control and placed himself at the mercy of the neighbor at whose door he stands, just as we stand before the cross, convicted by our sin and dependent upon God’s grace to rescue us. In this telling the parable becomes one of death and resurrection, and God becomes the one who meets us and restores us. We are called again and again to surrender ourselves – to die to our sinful nature, our desires and priorities – and live in new life with Christ.

Yet another way of hearing the parable is to re-imagine who we are and who God is in the story. What if, instead of being the person knocking at the door, you and I are the ones who are asleep in bed and awakened? What if it is God standing at the door, trying to get our attention and asking for us to respond to a needful person who has just appeared, raising us out of our sleep to feed the hungry traveler?

However you hear this parable, it is clear that when Jesus teaches about prayer he doesn’t demand that his disciples learn a particular form or script with specific words; instead, he urges us to pay attention to the relationship we have with the God who hears us

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Thank you for Your Son Jesus who reveals to us Your character – loving and generous, not reticent or stingy;
And thank you for forgiving us when we become self-centered, busy or aggravated;
By the good gift of Your Holy Spirit, empower us to pray, confident of your faithfulness, and respond to a world in need when you call us.
Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Lectionary 16C/ Proper 11

Luke 10:38-42

This part of Luke’s gospel – the ten chapters that began when Jesus set his face to Jerusalem – is called a travelogue, a narrative that describes the encounters people had with Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem, where he is crucified, dies and is raised. Many of the stories here are unique to Luke, including the one we hear today. Martha and her sister Mary only appear in Luke and then in John with their brother Lazarus.

Before today’s gospel, Luke told us that Jesus had sent the 70 out with instructions to accept the hospitality of others when they arrived in a town. And then, when he was teaching, Jesus told the story about a neighbor who showed mercy and loved generously.

We know some of his disciples traveled ahead of him, and we can imagine that news of what he was saying and doing reached the people in the towns there before he arrived in person. From his teaching, it was clear that following Jesus and being his disciple requires humility and self-sacrifice, a willingness to serve others first. As Martin Luther wrote in his essay “Freedom of a Christian”: [i]
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all…
Explaining the apparent contradiction, Luther writes,
Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in [First Corinthians], “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” [1 Cor. 9:19] and in Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” [Rom. 13:8] Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to [the one] who is loved.
So when Martha extended hospitality and welcomed Jesus into her house, she was showing her readiness to serve her Lord. But then, wearily and grumpily, she cried out to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care?”

With her outcry, she exposed her own brokenness, her self-centeredness and fear – her sin. Like a petulant child, she complained against her sister Mary who was sitting, actively listening to all that Jesus was saying. In contrast, Luke tells us that Martha was distracted by “her many tasks.”

The Greek verb that describes Martha is translated as “dragged around” or “drawn away.” For anyone sitting here thinking about your grocery list or what chores you need to do when you go home, you can relate to Martha’s predicament. There is work to be done – necessary and important work – and someone has to do it.

When Jesus answered her and told her that Mary had chosen the better part, he was not saying that Martha had chosen poorly in offering hospitality or that being attentive to the task at hand is bad. But Martha had lost sight of why she was serving. She became frustrated and resentful. Pride and anger turned her gaze in on herself where she could no longer see or hear her Lord.

Dutch priest Henri Nouwen taught that we spend much of our lives answering one question:
“Who am I?”

and he said that, often, we answer:
1) I am what I do.
2) I am what other people say about me.
3) I am what I have.

Nouwen preached that these ways of seeing ourselves are three lies of identity that we are told by the Enemy, demons or the devil.[ii] When we succumb to one or more of these lies, we no longer see ourselves made in God’s image and we no longer hear Jesus call us by name and tell us he loves us. All we see and hear are the lies.

In her distraction, Martha fell captive to the three lies that her identity was found in what she was doing – the works or the many tasks she had taken on; in what others were saying about her – that she was a generous host to her guests; and in what she had - a welcoming home where they were comfortable.

Like Martha, we get caught up with the everyday work of life, making our lists and checking off our tasks, and we become preoccupied, thinking about what’s next: “Oh, I need to make that appointment, pay that bill, run that errand; oh, and I have to go here or there….” And we busily fill up every space in our lives and are drawn away from Jesus. And when that happens, the background noise of life is so loud that we can’t hear Jesus anymore and we think Jesus must not care.

But when Martha complained that Jesus must not care, her corrected her and told her “only one thing is necessary” and the “one thing” was not her works, her hospitality or her home. It was Christ himself.

Martha saw herself as unappreciated and overwhelmed,
but Jesus gently turned her gaze from herself, her works and her needs to her Lord so that she could see herself as God saw her,
wholly loved,
a beloved daughter of God.

Nouwen preached, “What is said of Jesus is said of you. You have to hear that you are the beloved [child] of God.” When you know that Good News, “All that you do is nurtured by the knowledge that you are the beloved.”[iii]

Meeting Jesus invites us to encounter God’s Word in the flesh. Jesus invites us to listen and, as Nouwen taught, “hear again and again: “I love you because I love you because I love you because I love you.”[iv]

Let us pray…
Holy God,
We give you thanks for your Word that creates faith and sustains us with your promises.
We give you thanks for your Son Jesus Christ
who comes in flesh and shows us your mercy;
who forgives our sin and self-centeredness;
who lives among us in our lives and in our world today,
repeating the words, “You are my beloved.”
May the Holy Spirit lead us out into the world to share the Good News of your abundant love.
Amen.

[i] Martin Luther. “The Freedom of a Christian.”
[ii] Henri Nouwen. “Being the Beloved.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SFWfYpd0F18
[iii] Nouwen.
[iv] Nathan Kline. “Identity Theft.” https://www.friendlyhillschurch.org/blog/identity-theft

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Lectionary 14C/ Proper 9

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 

All three of the synoptic gospels include the account of Jesus sending his first twelve disciples out. But only Luke includes the sending of the seventy that we hear in this morning’s gospel.

You can imagine the scene: while a group of twelve fits around a long table, this group of disciples is about the same size as our worshiping congregation. Addressing his followers Jesus adopts the language of harvest, saying "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few….” (Luke 10:2a)

Bringing in a harvest isn’t a task that anyone can do alone. Today I’m not even talking about the hours of labor that go into sowing seed in acres of land or protecting the crops against pests and weather. At harvesttime, before mechanized equipment, a farmworker could expect to hand-pick 100 bushels of corn in a day if the conditions were good. [i] Whole families would begin at dawn, trying to get the first “50 bushels, 2,800 pounds of corn, before lunch, and another 50 bushels in the afternoon, often harvesting until dark.” And it could take weeks to get it all picked. [ii] It was rigorous, exhausting work that seemed to go on forever.

And Jesus was describing not just one small corner of the world but all of it. The people listening to him had to be wondering, “How much can two, or twelve or even seventy of us do?”

Then Jesus says, “therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.”

The very first instruction that Jesus gives is to pray.

Pray for the harvest, remembering it is God’s work and God is Lord of the harvest, not us. And then pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Pray for more church members” or even more Lutherans, but for more laborers, co-workers who will bear God into the world just as we are called to do.

The Lord’s harvest is about being open to God’s timing – a kairos time that doesn’t follow our human wants or demands – to tend to those whom God has prepared; those who can hear the Good News of God’s love and see God at work in the world.

The twelve were sent with “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, … to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. (Luke 9:1-2) Here Jesus goes into more detail as he prepares the next group to go out. He sends his followers out, not to proclaim our expertise or our superiority, but with humility and vulnerability. Jesus asks us to bear God’s peace into the world and receive the hospitality we are given, without criticism or judgment.

Often, when we talk about going out into the world, in local service or international mission trips, we make our lists, plans and preparations and the people we intend to help become objects of our attention. As well-meaning as that is, here Jesus tells his followers to go out empty-handed, dependent on the provision of others, and be fully and peacefully present with people where we find them. It is a model of accompaniment, and relationship-building, that is focused on the person and not on a project or a job to be completed. Sometimes, that will mean taking a risk, being uncomfortable, and going places that are outside of our familiar routines and hangouts.

At the beginning of this gospel, Luke says, Jesus sent the seventy to “every town and place where he himself intended to go.” (Luke 10:1) In Luke’s gospel, that includes the synagogue and temple, but more frequently it includes places where demons inhabit adults and children or disease has withered and defeated people, places where people have been declared unclean and unwelcome; and it includes both deserted places and places crowded with hungry people.

Although Jesus tells us to go out and says he is sending us “out like lambs into the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3), he does not send us alone.

Jesus sends us with authority. We have received authority because in Christ, God comes to us, and gives us all that the Son has, and the Son takes all that is ours. We no longer live as ourselves but as God’s people. We empty ourselves and become vessels to bear God’s love and grace into the world, and through our words and actions, we proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:11) Not because of our human presence but because the God who saves is with us.

We are given authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and power over the enemy, but too often, we forget that we have this authority.  The enemy is the one who tells us that we don’t have enough people or money or children and the Church is dying. The enemy is the one who defeats us when we are asked to do something new and are afraid. The enemy is the one who tells us God’s Word isn’t for us.

But the Good News we have from Jesus is that God’s Word is for us –God speaks the promise of forgiveness for our sin and promises the Holy Spirit is with us, here and now. These instructions that Jesus gives are not just for the seventy appointed on that day two thousand years ago, but for each one of us now.

Let us pray…
Holy and forgiving God,
We give you thanks for Your Son Jesus who sows seeds of peace and bears our burdens, freeing us to proclaim your nearness;
Take away our arrogance and our fear.
Give us courage and help us remember You have given us authority and power over the Enemy.
We pray in the name of Your Son Jesus.
Amen.

[i] https://www.tnfarmbureau.org/how-much-corn-can-you-harvest-day, accessed 7/5/2019.
[ii] https://www.tspr.org/post/how-much-corn-could-you-pick-hand-20-minutes, accessed 7/5/2019.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Lectionary 13C/ Proper 8

Luke 9:51-62

At the beginning of today’s gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, determined that he will go there, but first he will stop in Samaria.

You may remember that Samaria was where Gentiles, or non-Jews, live. Unlike the Jews who worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans worship at a temple on Mount Gerizim (G…ôrizim). And in fact, in John’s gospel, the Evangelist tells us Samaritans “shared nothing in common with Jews.” (John 4)

So we shouldn’t be surprised that when Jesus sends his messengers ahead of him, the Samaritans reject his visit. Maybe there was another innkeeper who declared there was no room or the local merchants locked their doors and shuttered their windows, but it was clear that Jesus wasn’t welcome there.

A few verses earlier in this chapter, Luke told us that Jesus sent his disciples out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (v. 2), and, when he sent them out, he instructed them to shake the dust off their feet if they were not welcomed. (v. 5)

Luke doesn’t give us any time markers in this chapter so we don’t know how many days or weeks or months had passed since that sending, but James and John clearly have forgotten his instructions, and they become defensive and angry and ask Jesus if they should command fire to come down and consume the Samaritans.

While we don’t hear the exact words he says or the tone of his voice, Luke tells us that Jesus rebukes them. After all, he has already told his disciples to expect his suffering, rejection and death. (Luke 9:22) The One whom the angel foretold would “guide our feet in the way of peace” (Luke 1:79) isn’t bringing destruction or hellfire upon those who do not share his beliefs.

Instead he does what he told his disciples to do: he shakes the dust from his feet and goes on to the next village, galvanized toward Jerusalem. But that’s the last we see of a compassionate or merciful Jesus in this passage. It’s the last we see of the Jesus we meet as children or when we are hurting. And I’d guess that many of us find his next words hard to hear.

Because the next three conversations he has are with “would-be” disciples whom he meets on the way. Two volunteer to follow Jesus, while another one responds to his command.

In his first encounter, someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” The person’s sweeping grand gesture elicits a reminder from Jesus that becoming his disciple doesn’t provide any guarantee of the creature comforts of a home or a bed. And we know, on this side of Golgotha, that following Jesus “wherever he goes” means the cross. The call to discipleship is costly.

The next conversation we hear is when Jesus commands someone else, “Follow me.” And the “would-be” disciple replies, “Yes, Lord, but first” let me bury my father. (9:59) It isn’t like he asked for something trivial or selfish; he asked to be allowed to fulfill the commandment to “honor father and mother.” It’s entirely possible if he was the eldest son that he would have had responsibilities to his mother and perhaps to his siblings. But the call to discipleship is unyielding.

The final conversation in today’s gospel happens when a third person says he, too, will follow Jesus, but first he wants to say goodbye to his household. Remember Jesus’ words when he said, "Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it and whoever loses his life shall preserve it.”? (Luke 17:33, NAS) Brusquely, Jesus tells the man that no one who “looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (9:62) The call to discipleship is disruptive.

Discipleship demands that we reorder our lives and priorities to follow Jesus. The text brings us face-to-face with Jesus, and compels us to ask ourselves, “What do we say when we hear Jesus call, “Follow me.”?

When Jesus says “Follow me, and love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27) We say, “Yes, Lord, but first” let’s show them we have the strength and power to destroy them.

When Jesus says “Follow me, and give to everyone who begs from you;” (Luke 6:30) we say, “Yes, Lord, but first” let’s make sure they won’t make fools of us.

And, when Jesus says, “Follow me, and be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) we say “Yes, Lord, but first” let’s make sure they can be useful to us.

Is it any wonder Jesus is terse with the “would-be” disciples?
Our answer must be “Yes, Lord.” without any of the conditions or excuses.

Remember Martin Luther’s definition of sin? It is being “curved in on ourselves.” In our human condition we will always look first to our own abilities and priorities and protect our own egos and comfort, placing our needs before others.

But on the cross, Jesus sacrifices himself – emptying himself – to redeem us. He forgives our sin and promises we will be with Him in the kingdom of God – a kingdom that is now but not yet.

Confident in God’s promises and of God’s presence with us, we live here and now. As his disciples, Jesus calls us to humble servanthood, invites us into a new covenant relationship with God; and asks us to look and see all that God is doing in and through His people. May our “yes” be yes. (James 5:12)

Let us pray…
Holy God,
We give you thanks for Your Son Jesus who shows us the Way to abundant life full of love, generosity and mercy;
Forgive us when we put ourselves ahead of others, even when we think we have good reasons or mean well;
By Your Holy Spirit, set our faces to Your Son that we will follow Him with obedience, discipline and commitment.
Amen.