Sunday, August 13, 2017

10th Sunday after Pentecost

Since ancient times, water has symbolized chaos. In Homer’s Odyssey, Poseidon curses Odysseus to wander at sea ten years.

In Hebrew thought, water was emblematic of anything opposed to Yahweh and so, in the Old Testament, time and again, we have stories of how God triumphs over the waters,

beginning with the creation story in Genesis 1 when God separated the waters that above and below and named them;

in Genesis 6 when God brought a flood upon the earth that destroyed everything that was evil;

in Exodus 14 when God drove the Red Sea back and turned the sea into dry land so that the Israelites could escape from Egypt’s Pharaoh;

and in Joshua 3 when God cut off the overflowing waters of the Jordan river so that the nation of Israel could cross over to Canaan.

In the New Testament, for followers of Jesus, water and storms still represent chaos, whether it is in the meager living earned by fishermen who drop their nets and follow him, or the two lake-crossing stories where the disciples encounter storms.

Amid the chaos of the world, whether it threatens our safety and security, our livelihood or our future, God remains sovereign over all the other powers and principalities that are at work.

In Matthew’s telling of the lake crossings, both in chapter 8 and here in chapter 14, Jesus addresses the disciples as “you of little faith.”

What he doesn’t do is give them ‘seven habits of highly faithful people’ or prescribe a twelve-step plan to achieve deeper faith.

After all, they cannot, by their own effort or strength,
increase their faith, because,
after all, it is a gift of grace.

Jesus just names what he sees – people debilitated by their fear – and then he says to them,
“Do not be afraid.”

They are the same words the angel Gabriel speaks to Joseph when he learns that Mary is pregnant;
that Jesus teaches when he compares God’s love for us to that for two sparrows;
that God speaks to the disciples when they witness the transfiguration of Christ on the mountaintop;
And that first the angel, and then Jesus himself, says to the women at the tomb on the day of his resurrection.

His words do not offer mere reassurance; they offer a promise. A promise that God is present in this place, in your life, in the things you do not – that you cannot - understand.

“Do not be afraid.”

Jesus doesn’t say they should not be afraid, or mock them for being afraid.

That’s comforting in a week where the headlines included threats by and against North Korea; torch-bearing protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia and the return of rising floodwaters in New Orleans;
it is good news in a world where suffering is evident on the faces of people living in poverty and homelessness;
where hope can be elusive and where death is inescapable,
whether it arrives unexpectedly or after a diagnosis.

There is a lot about the world where we live that escalates our fears and makes us afraid. But, Jesus doesn’t dismiss our fears; instead he reminds us that our fears do not go unanswered.

In this Gospel, Jesus reached out his hands to Peter and called him to himself; he grabbed him and did not let him go,
just as he did for the world two thousand years ago, when he reached out his hands to be crucified.

Jesus’ death and resurrection demonstrated that God’s power is greater than any political system or civic leader; God is sovereign over the chaos.

But, did you notice that Matthew said Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead…?” He does the same thing to us whenever we gather in the naves of our churches. The word “nave” comes from the Latin navis – it’s the same word that gives us Navy and navigation; it’s the word for “boat” or “ship.”

God calls the Church – us, puts us into a boat and sets us out on the storm-tossed water, into the chaos of the world, to tell the world about the one God, who is our Lord and Savior, our Creator and Redeemer.

Staying tied up in port, where we know our surroundings and where we can provide for all our needs is not acceptable. Neither is merely testing the waters, or venturing a little way out and setting anchor in a protected cove. In Second Timothy, the author of the epistle writes,

6 …I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are called to follow Jesus and sent into the world and accompanied by God’s grace to go and love our neighbors, even when we are afraid.

We each can remember an iconic image of someone whose life has embodied what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus:
Pope Francis washing the feet of Muslim migrants and kissing them on Holy Thursday;
Martin Luther King, Jr. walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma;
Martin Luther on trial at the Diet of Worms saying, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

But God doesn’t stop with the people who are known to history.

Sometimes a disciple looks like my friend Christine, now a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, who spent four months as an ecumenical accompanier in Hebron in Palestine, walking alongside Palestinians who were under Israeli occupation while their homes and their wells were destroyed by soldiers.

On Friday night it looked like a group of interfaith religious leaders gathering in St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, praying and singing before they marched in silence on Saturday while another group of people including KKK and neo-Nazis rallied in a nearby park; following Jesus, the clergy were witnessing to the power of God’s presence and love to triumph over hate-filled speech and racism.

But God doesn’t stop with pastors and clergy leaders either.

God calls each one of us, too, to do God’s work in our everyday lives, to live by faith, instead of fear,
and trust God’s promises that God is with us,
grabs onto us, and won’t let go.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Thank you for your Son Jesus
who comes to us amidst the storms of destruction,
pulling us up from the despair that would swallow us
and with a word, brings his terrifying peace.[i]
By faith, you have made us your disciples and given us the power to be your hands and feet in the world.
May your Holy Spirit give us courage and calm our fears as we go
out into the world to tell others about your miraculous love for each one of us.

[i] Laughing Bird liturgical resources. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

9th Sunday after Pentecost

In today’s gospel the parables that Jesus has been teaching are brought to life as the disciples and the crowd witness an abundance that satisfies everyone’s needs,
appearing out of the smallest of beginnings.

Between the last parables we heard and this passage, Herod has murdered John the Baptist, and Jesus has just learned of his cousin’s death. Matthew tells us that he retreats to a deserted place, alone, leaving his disciples and escaping the crowds that had been with them.

When the crowds follow him from the city, Jesus sees them and has compassion for them and Matthew says that he goes to them and heals their sick.

While there are other healing and feeding stories included in each of the gospels, this is the only story that appears in all four, which demands that we ask, “What does this story say about God?”

First of all, I think it challenges us to see God in the barren and desert places in our lives. Sometimes we talk about that barrenness as the stark places in our lives where we feel alone or isolated, stripped of faith and cut off from the world and from God’s love.

But when we recall the temptations of Jesus and the wilderness where he journeyed for forty days, like we do during Lent, we reflect on how emptying ourselves can make room for God to act in new ways in our lives. God is in the desert with us.

This story reminds us what Jesus and the ancient desert fathers and mothers, after him, knew: that in finding solitude, we create a space where God can act, where we can,
as the priest Henri Nouwen says, “shake off our compulsions and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.”[i]

In that same space “Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us.”[ii] And, following Jesus, we are able to imitate his own compassion, “go[ing] with others into the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken.”[iii]

Jesus wasn’t the first person to be called a Messiah in those times, but uniquely, he responded with compassion to the people he encountered. When he saw that they were hurting and in pain, wracked by illness, he healed them. When he saw they were hungry, he didn’t send them away; he fed them.

Or perhaps, more accurately, he told his disciples to feed them.

This story demonstrates to us how God calls us to participate in God’s work on earth. Next month we’ll again celebrate our churchwide day of service on what is called “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday.

God enacts grace and mercy through us!

As disconcerting as that may be sometimes, it is also a sign of God’s grace that God works through each one of us to meet the human needs that present all around us.

The disciples were surprised by God’s invitation, too. When they ask Jesus to send the crowds away, he tells them there’s no need. (v. 16) Looking out at the vast crowd of men and women and children, they despair, telling Jesus, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." (v. 17)

In the face of overwhelming need, the disciples have forgotten Jesus’ instructions to them about how to pray and to trust in God for their daily bread. They have forgotten his admonition not to worry about what they will eat or drink. (Matt. 6)

Like them, when we witness suffering in our neighbors and community, or in our nation and the world, it is easy to forget what we already know about God and God’s promises.
It is easy to become overwhelmed, to look at the resources we have readily available and to feel hopeless.
It is easy to send people away and tell them to look for help someplace else, to hope others will step in and meet their needs.

But God doesn’t promise us that discipleship is easy.
Instead, this story offers us another promise:
that God prepares us and equips us, that God provides for us.

In his compassion, then and now, Jesus offers presence and healing; we experience those benefits at this holy table where we receive bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, given for us for the forgiveness of sin, and it is at this table where we are made whole, nourished and fed and sent out into the world as God’s people, equipped with the transforming knowledge of God’s love for all.

Lutheran preacher David Lose suggests that “instead of [worrying that we do not have enough – not enough children, not enough people, not enough choir members – that] we give thanks for what we have, put it to use for those [in need] and see just how far God might
stretch, and indeed, multiply it.”[iv]

Here at Ascension, we have an abundance of physical space and land that is used by Lutheran Men in Mission, Lutheran Services Carolinas, and local quilters;
we have rich relationships where people know each other’s stories and notice when someone is hurting; and,
we have ministries where we feed hungry neighbors, honor military veterans, and generously give to meet needs throughout our community and the Church.

We are encouraged this morning to give thanks for the ways God has already equipped us to meet the needs that surround us, to rely on God, and to witness God’s surprising grace in our life together.

Let us pray…
Nourishing and nurturing God,
We give thanks for your Son, our Lord and Savior whose life teaches us how much You love us.
Lead us by Your Spirit to the places where people’s needs are greatest.
Teach us to empty ourselves and make room for You to act in our lives.
Feed us that we will have strength for the journey and to answer your call to serve others.
We pray in Jesus’ name,

[i] Henri Nouwen. The Way of the Heart. 30.
[ii] ibid, 32.
[iii] ibid, 34.
[iv] David Lose, In the Meantime.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

8th Sunday after Pentecost

The reading in Matthew’s gospel provides us with five parables, a rapid-fire succession of examples of what the kingdom of heaven looks like. Different scholars classify the different parables noticing how some of them, like last week’s weeds and wheat and today’s dragnet, end with judgment, while others, like the sower from two weeks ago, focus on what life with God looks like. Four of the ones we heard this morning are known as “kingdom parables.”

Speaking first to the crowds and then to the disciples, with this grab-bag of parables Jesus reminds us again that God’s kingdom is beyond our understanding of how stuff works.

Jesus has entertained us with his images of inept characters like the one who wastefully and extravagantly sowed seed and the farmer who didn’t care about weeds. But he also spoke truth about who God is, what God’s love for us looks like, and how we are to live as a community of God’s people. Now, hearing another series of parables, we must ask,

“What is Jesus really saying?”

In the parable that we have in verse 33, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a woman who hides leaven in three measures of flour, until the whole lump of dough was leavened.

It’s hard for us to hear just how audacious his description is.

But first of all, he describes a woman,
not a man, not a priest or Pharisee.

Most women in the first century had no status — no property of their own, no education or trade, and no wealth. But that doesn’t prevent Jesus from saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a woman.”

Then he continues: the woman hides leaven into three measures of flour. I don’t know about you, but I measure flour by the cup, and when I make the communion bread that we sometimes have, I use three cups of flour, but that’s not the same as three measures. A measure here is the same as a peck and a half, or 48 cups. Altogether, he is describing a massive amount of flour, between 40 and 50 pounds!

And in this mountain of flour, the woman hides leaven.

Our modern translations make that word “yeast”, but it’s really more like the starter one keeps to make bread. If you aren’t familiar with starter; you can make it from scratch, but more often, it is handed down from one baker to another. It’s water and flour that has been mixed together and allowed to ferment, creating a wild yeast. And once it’s active, that is light and bubbly, “it needs to be fed. It asks to be used.”[1]

When the leaven is mixed into the flour, it may look like nothing is happening, but the starter changes everything and something new is being created.

Jesus says this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

When we create space where God can act,
we will be surprised and delighted, nourished and fed,
by God’s abundant grace and goodness.

Of course, as Jesus knows, like any of us who have tried to double or triple a recipe, anytime you create something in large quantities,
you introduce a degree of uncertainty into the mix.

But the parable shows us that uncertainty, mystery and surprise — an unpredictable change-able-ness — is characteristic of the kingdom of heaven.

Something else I love about this parable is its conclusion. It says the whole lump of dough is leavened. In the earlier parables, you could argue that someone could return and sweep away the seed that didn’t yield a harvest, or even dig up the bad seed before it could take root, but once leaven is introduced into flour, there’s no way to retrieve or remove it; it is all mixed in together.

Also, because all of the flour was leavened, we know that the woman didn’t stop at doing what was “manageable”, making just one or two loaves and reserving the rest for next time. Instead, I imagine a scene like we saw in Disney’s Fantasia when the sorcerer’s apprentice conjured a broom to carry buckets of water to fill a cauldron, but he can’t control it and soon the cauldron is overflowing. At first, he is exhilarated, and then a little overwhelmed, and even a little frightened.

Aren’t we all?
…when we realize that God’s kingdom is bigger and more complex than our understanding, and that we cannot exert control over what the kingdom looks like.

In this one parable, in this one verse,
Jesus urges us here to imagine what life together looks like when we remember that we live under God’s extravagant grace,
to reflect on what about our life with God surprises us and maybe even shocks us, and where, as a congregation,
God may be leading us.

Let us pray…
Gracious God,
Let us delight in seeking your power and presence all around us;
Give us courage to recognize change and creativity as Kingdom building gifts from you;
Guide us by your Spirit, that love, like yeast in dough, will permeate all we do.
We pray in the name of your Son Jesus.

[1] Sam Sifton. “Sourdough Starter, America’s Rising Pet.” The New York Times. March 22, 2016.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

7th Sunday after Pentecost

If we had any doubt after last week’s parable of the sower, this week’s gospel confirms that Jesus was no farmer. Last week he applauded the sower who recklessly and extravagantly sowed seed everywhere, and, this week, the master in his parable tells his workers to leave the weeds where they are and let them grow up alongside the good seed.

More importantly, this parable confirms that God’s kingdom is beyond our understanding of how stuff works.

Remember that, with parables, Jesus draws on images and stories from everyday life to illuminate who God is and what the kingdom of God looks like. Around us, kudzu and poison ivy are greater threats than a look-alike weed growing among good crops, but I think we can still hear the truth in Jesus’ words, especially when we remember that he really isn’t teaching about farming or gardening, but about how we live together in community as God’s people.

Jesus tells the disciples a story about a master who sows good seed. The Master’s vision is fields of amber waving in the sun. The Master never intends for rot or decay, fungus or disease to develop.

But the parable says, “While everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat…”

So when some time has passed, the plants come up and begin to bear grain, and the workers see what has happened. There among the healthy wheat are tares, look alike plants that will spoil the flour.

And they want to do something about it. They want to fix it. So, they go to the master and ask to weed the fields before the harvest time.

But the master explains that they can’t fix it. The plants are too similar, and their roots are intertwined, so if they tear out one, they’ll likely destroy the other too. The good and the bad will have to be allowed to grow up together. The Master is not panicked; he is confident that, at the harvest, the wheat and the tares will be separated and the good crop will be salvaged.

The parable affirms that, despite appearances, the Master knows what is happening and is in control. We have all heard someone say, “God is in control” in the face of circumstances that eclipse our ability to manage them or fix them.

Often, I think those words can often do more harm than good, but this parable may provide us with another way to hear them. 

It is clear here that the Master intended good and the enemy came in and sowed evil alongside it. Understanding the Master as God, God’s intention remains unchanged, and, in due time, good will prevail.

In the midst of crisis, faced with the realization that I cannot do something to fix what has happened, and in fact God doesn’t make that my responsibility, I find comfort in God’s recognition of the presence of evil that opposes God’s good vision for God’s beloved people.

So if that’s what this parable teaches us about God,
what does it have to say about God’s kingdom?

First, the parable affirms that God does not leave us alone. God remains engaged and involved in the work of the kingdom, and Jesus tells us there are other workers in God’s kingdom, too— planters, workers and reapers. We all have a place and a role, and God works alongside us all to bring about the kingdom here on earth.

But even more importantly, I think, it tells us how we are to live together in community as God’s people.

In verse 30, the Greek word translated as “let them grow together” comes from the same root as “let go”, “pardon” or “forgive.”

Writing about this parable Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon observes that “because good and evil inhabit the same individual human beings…the only result of a campaign to get rid of evil will be the abolition of literally everybody.” [1]

In our human condition, sin is ever-present in our lives, we cannot, by our own strength, successfully yank it out.

Thankfully, as Luther wrote, “grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you and destroys it.”[2] God recognizes what is good and beloved in us even when we are infected by sin, and, by his infinite grace, roots out the sin and restores us to wholeness. God does that, not us.

Recognizing that our lives are connected to each other and our wellbeing — our ability to grow and thrive and embody God’s kingdom on earth — is dependent on each other, we are not called to destroy or exclude others while we strive for an elusive purity or perfection; we are not called to bring brute strength to bear to make others conform or grow in the same way we do.

We are called to be a mixed community and to listen for God’s direction and trust in God’s intention, power and grace to bring about the harvest that God has ordained and that God is working out in our midst.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
Help us remember that your labor brought forth creation and we are but workers in your Kingdom;
Give us patience with ourselves and others as we live in the weeds and brokenness, the evil and sinfulness of this world;
Teach us to always see sin in ourselves and others in the light of your grace, confident in your abundant love and mercy.
In the name of your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, we pray.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace Judgment. 87.
[2] “Sermon on Preparing to Die,” Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (2nd ed.),” Timothy F. Lull, Editor. 422.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

6th Sunday after Pentecost

In this passage, we hear the first of seven parables in Matthew’s gospel. Teaching this way, Jesus draws on images and stories from everyday life to illuminate who God is and what the kingdom of God looks like.

Here, Jesus tells what he himself calls “the parable of the sower.” Mark, Matthew and Luke all include it in their accounts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Matthew also includes an explanation of the parable that most scholars agree was added later in the first century to encourage new Christians who faced challenges to their faith.

Like any teacher or storyteller, Jesus wrapped his point in a story that held the attention of his followers. Talking about God or trying to understand God’s kingdom might be overwhelming and confusing, but planting seeds and harvesting crops were familiar to his audience.

Today, even as we are less connected to the earth and fewer of us are farmers, many of us still have some experience with digging in the dirt, protecting our gardens from hungry deer, and having the satisfaction of growing things ourselves. And we’ve also weathered failure — when the seedlings never appear, the roots rot from too much water, or the vines wither in the scorching sun.

Because we can picture the scene that Jesus describes, the recklessness of the sower’s activity is even more noticeable.

First, the sower just goes out to sow.
No one has cultivated the ground ahead of time. No one has picked out the rocks, pulled the weeds, or amended the clay. No one has tilled it over or added compost to it.

And, then, the sower scatters the seed.
No one has measured the space between the plants or the depth of the seed into the furrows . No one marked sections for tomatoes or corn, squash or beans.

To our modern ears, and perhaps to his original listeners, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

But, where some hear a lamentable wastefulness and lack of preparation, what Jesus describes is the extravagance of grace and the wideness of God’s mercy for each one of us.

The sower does not judge ahead of time where the seed may be sown, but broadly and generously sows;
The sower has confidence that, when it takes root, the seed will accomplish exactly what it needs to do; and,
the sower knows the harvest will be plentiful in spite of predators and hostility.

And so, with joyful freedom and hope, God sows the Good News of abundant love and forgiveness in us.

Teaching with parables Jesus turns what we know on its head and moves us from the safety and security of what is familiar into something else, something new.

When we rush to explain the parable, our focus shifts to the four soils and we miss learning about the sower. Trying to determine which soil we are most like, we begin to assign a grade to ourselves or others, forgetting that labeling people is rarely easy, or accurate. Any one of us, at different times in our lives, may be hardened toward God, or more receptive to receiving God’s love.

Other times, we create an illusion that we have some control over the conditions where the seed will be planted, or the yield that will be harvested. But again, we are overreaching, forgetting that God is the life-giving creator and we are not.

“This parable is a vivid reminder of all God has overcome – rocks, scorching sun, thorns and snatching – to bring life into the world.”[1] It invites us to reflect on all the uncultivated places where the gospel can be shared.

Our congregation may be a greenhouse where all the “right” conditions exist for the gospel to be heard, but the world is a lot more messy and uncontrollable. And yet, there is no place or person beyond the reach of God’s mercy.

I wonder where we might be surprised by God the way Jesus surprised his followers when he told this parable.

After all, life springs forth all around us from unexpected places and people — flowers bloom in the cracks of sidewalks and wildflowers flourish in highway medians. But we must open our eyes to see and open our ears to listen to our neighbors, if we want to witness what God is doing in our midst.

Let us pray…
Generous God,
Thank you for your reckless love for us,
even when we harden our hearts toward you or waste your gifts.
Help us follow your Son Jesus as disciples every day even when his teachings challenge us.
Sanctified by your Holy Spirit, may Your word take root deep in our hearts and minds, that we would share with our neighbors in the abundant life you prepare for us all.

[1] “Day Resources,” Sundays and Seasons. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

5th Sunday after Pentecost

How would you define insanity?

My favorite definition is that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” Whether it’s arguing with Google maps about which route to take, trying to cook without a recipe, or following the same broken pattern of trying to control or master everyday life on my own, it doesn’t end well. But still I hesitate, clinging to the idea that maybe this time, it'll turn out differently.

Of course, it doesn’t. I have to find a turnaround, or dump the whole pan into the trash, or confess my conceit or arrogance,
my sin.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to me, and to any of you who are like me.

You can imagine him throwing his hands up in the air, as he wonders out loud, “To what will I compare this generation?”

First, his cousin John had come to the people proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near, but they had dismissed him; and now Jesus is with them, showing them what the kingdom of God looks like all around them, and they find fault with him as well. But it isn’t their fault-finding that Jesus abhors; it is their refusal to see that God is offering them abundant life. Instead, they are distracted and disgruntled by adiaphora, the inconsequential things.

Their attitude remind me of a group of students I was with at Lutheridge a couple of weeks ago for confirmation camp. During our teaching about where God shows up in our lives, we include a number of scenes from “Simon Birch”, a movie based on the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. In one of the scenes, a mother dies unexpectedly after she is hit on the head by a baseball, and in the minutes after the scene, the kids in the group began dissecting the physics of what had happened. They were asking questions about velocity and anatomy; anything to avoid the harder and more ambiguous questions: questions like,
Where was God in this story? and 
How is our loving God present in the midst of tragedy?

As we brought the conversation back to those big questions, someone noticed out loud on how much easier it is for us to focus on the minutia, to tackle the questions that have concrete answers and don’t force us to engage faith.

The crowds around Jesus were doing the same thing. They were focused on what John wore or who Jesus ate with and what he drank, and they ignored the harder questions of what it would mean to repent or how they might love someone who is very different from themselves.

And Jesus calls them out,
“Stop paying attention to things that don’t matter!”

And then, with great gentleness, he reminds his followers that God’s mercy is still there for them. For us.

Saying, “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”, Jesus reminds us that we do not bear the weight of the world, or even our own lives, alone.
God accompanies us and offers us rest and respite.

Relying on ourselves, shouldering the load and refusing to seek the help that is available doesn’t mean we’re more competent, capable or stronger. It only means we’re alone, and the God we know in Scripture didn’t create us to be alone! God created us for relationship, with God and with one another.

When we take on the yoke of discipleship
where we are listening to God’s Word in our lives and building relationships with one another
and where we live in response to the mercy we have first been given,
we are strengthened for the challenges we face in this life.

Recently I heard a teacher describe Belgian plow horses - forgive the comparison - but this is a breed of draft horses who are incredibly strong. And, as he told us about these beasts, he noted that alone, a single horse can pull 8,000 pounds, and then he went on to talk about how much weight two horses yoked together can pull. And, it was a staggering amount, but what was even more remarkable was that when two of these horses have been brought up and trained together, they can pull not twice as much, but four times as much – 32,000 pounds![1]

Over and over, we forget God’s promises,
we try to carry our burdens alone and then we wonder why we are so exhausted.
God provides us with partners in the gospel, and in life, to help us.

That is what it means to be church together. Together our strength is increased.

Jesus isn’t making new promises here; he is recalling familiar, but perhaps overlooked, or even forgotten, words from the psalmists and the prophets who first proclaimed God’s promises to be with us and bear our burdens.

Today I want to give you a reminder that God offers us a different life,
a reminder that we don’t have to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

I have a prayer square, like this one, for everyone here today
the tag has Matthew 11:28 on one side:

"Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

and the other side reads:
"This square is made with prayers for your comfort, encouragement, safety and well-being. When you feel lonely or need comfort, reach for me in your pocket. You are not alone. God and our prayers are with you always. God bless and keep you."

As you take a square this morning, I invite you to remember that God carries your burdens day by day and offers you rest. 

Let us pray…
Holy God,
When we are wearied and burdened by sin,
help us remember that you forgive our sin and give us new life;
Give us wisdom that we would choose the yoke of discipleship and follow Jesus;
Help us find rest in you and by your Holy Spirit, fill us with joy that our words and actions would reflect your merciful love.

[1] Dave Ramsey, Financial Peace University.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

4th Sunday after Pentecost

Today’s gospel is at the end of a section of Matthew called the missionary discourse. The texts from the last several weeks have come from this same speech that Jesus is making to his followers that began with the Great Commission to go out into the world and make disciples, warned them that it would be difficult and challenged them that they would face hatred even from their own families. Here, he speaks about welcome.

Often when we talk about welcome in the church we talk about how we welcome other people into our spaces. We ask if there are physical obstacles, like stairs? Are the amenities, like our restrooms, clearly marked and are there clear direction signs? Is it obvious where to enter the building?

Or, we are attentive to people who are new to us, encouraging each other to greet guests who aren’t regular worshipers, learn names and stories and invite them to lunch or out for coffee.

We make welcome and hospitality synonymous with good manners and kindness, and, especially in the south, we’re pretty sure we learned all we needed about that in kindergarten.

But while we must never forget that Jesus instructs us to welcome the stranger — the refugee and the widow — as though we were entertaining the Christ himself, today’s gospel has a different emphasis.

In this passage, Jesus’ words about welcome are about all of us who go into our communities as Christ’s representatives.

They are not just for me as the called pastor,
or for our council members who you elected to lead,
but for every person who hears them. Especially as culture becomes more secular and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious,” you may be the only Jesus someone ever meets.

More than five hundred years ago, in his essay “Freedom of a Christian” Martin Luther wrote that we are to become Christ to one another. He did not believe that faith should be mediated through a priest and fought against the sin of indulgences that literally put a price tag on God’s free gift of grace.

Centuries later, in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis stated that “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”

Jesus’ words remind us that the smallest gesture — even offering a cup of cold water — made in Jesus’ name counts. The truth is that “in the kingdom of God, there are no small gestures.”[i]

The call to discipleship is not a call to heroics. The life of faith is one of showing up — being present — and it is made up of a thousand acts of grace:
calling to check on someone you haven’t seen in a while;
offering a hug to someone who is lonely;
listening when someone needs to talk;
providing a ride to someone who needs one.

God is at work in our individual acts of kindness and generosity,
as grace overflows the wells of our lives and floods into the lives of the people we meet.

The poet Mary Oliver writes,
“[we] have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light and to shine.”[ii]

We may not ever see the effects of our being in the world as “little Christs”; our sole responsibility is to live in response to the grace we’ve first been given, sharing God’s love in the world as best as we can. Like a stone skipping across a lake, each act of grace, large and small, causes ripples and transforms lives.

The transforming work is God’s responsibility and promise, but in this missionary discourse, Jesus clearly invites us to participate in God’s work in our community. While we may be more comfortable staying in familiar surroundings, and focusing on things we can control – like how we welcome others when they come to us – here, Jesus makes it clear that we are sent into the world on God’s behalf.

So, let’s pray and let’s go:
Gracious God,
Send us without fear into the world as messengers of your love and grace that the world would know your mercy.
Give us courage to go out when it’s easier to stay home and give us confidence that you are accompanying us and equipping us.
We pray in the name of your Son Jesus,

[i] David Lose. In the Meantime, Pentecost 4A.
[ii] Mary Oliver, “When I am Among the Trees.”