Jesus’ Stewardship Plan: Giving it all

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Mark 10:17-31

My sermon from the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (October 14, 2018) on Mark 10:17-31. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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What have you loved this week?

Better yet, what have you said “love” to this week?

If a random stranger asked each of us to make a list of every love we said, I’m sure our first attempt would be something presentable. We’d put down the names of our families, our friends, and some random event we saw and enjoyed. The stranger would take a look at our list and probably force us to do it again. We’d have to admit that maybe we didn’t actually say “love” out loud this week and we’d erase the names on the list. Or maybe we’d need to add to it after remembering how many times we said we loved that shirt or song or food or whatever. Some of us hesitate saying the word love while others are a bit more carefree. This inhibition or exuberance around the word love comes from somewhere. In some cultures, boys are told to not say “love” – to reserve it to the point where we might not say it at all. We might have learned this kind of love language from our families, mimicking how often our parents said they loved us or each other. Or we might be very careful with the word love because we’d experienced too much heartbreak. Love is a powerful word. It’s a noun, a verb, an emotion, an action, an experience, a reality, and – according to Scripture – Love is God itself. Yet in the gospel according to Mark, the word “love” appears in only 3 verses. And in two of those verses, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament. So there’s only one place in all this gospel where Mark used the word “love” all on his own. And that happened in our reading today – at verse 21 – when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him.

I’ve joked in the past that our next church stewardship and funding campaign should be based on these verses from the tenth chapter of Mark. When people ask how much they should give, we could point to verse 21 and then sit down. Instead of asking for a tithe, for just 10% of what we make, Jesus seems to be asking for it all. He continued this theme a few verses later by pointing out how hard it is for those with riches to enter the Kingdom of God. Now, over the centuries, we’ve tried really hard to run away from Jesus’ words in this text. In the middle ages, a theory developed centered on Jesus’ words about a camel and a needle. Some theologians claimed there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called “the needle,” and that a camel, using funky body positions, could inch its way through it. So if this was right, then those with wealth could enter the kingdom of God but they’d need to be a bit more flexible to make that happen. The problem is that theory is completely work. There was no gate named “the needle” and Jesus really said that it’s easier for a camel – a giant animal – to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words here can scare us – so, at times, we’ve turned against the rich young man saying he lied about keeping the law. Or we say he’s too rich, a stand-in for a different wealth class of people we’re not apart of. But that kind of thinking is designed to get us off the hook because we can always imagine someone who is richer than us. My personal trick is to do a close reading of the text, notice that Jesus said to give everything to the poor, and then point to my mortgage and my student loan debt from seminary. We try, as best we can, to manage this text, to make it feel safe. Because, if we have a bed to sleep in, if we know where our next meal is coming from, if we have health insurance, and if we have access to credit, jobs, and other kinds of opportunities – these riches are ones that we don’t want to give to that rich young man. We don’t want to be him. Because we also know that when Jesus showed him, the only person in the entire gospel according to Mark described as being loved – when Jesus showed him how to change his life, he left – sad and full of sorrow.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing Jesus’ love – and then leaving, feeling sad. We don’t want to meet God through prayer, or at Holy Communion, or through the love of our neighbors and have our sense of self torn in two. The rich young man was loved not because he was rich or faithful or because he followed the rules. Jesus just loved him because that’s who Jesus is. That gift of love is something we all want. But it’s a gift that isn’t a commodity that we can store and keep. Rather Jesus’ love is an action, a force, that compels us to discover the truth about who we are. We want to turn Jesus’ love into something we can possess because if we can do that, then we can fit Jesus into the society we’ve already created. People’s worth, we think, is based on what they are allowed to have: whether that’s authority, power, wealth, or status. We’ve defined people by what they possess and those with more are worth more. We act as if life is about accumulating experiences, opportunities, and whatever helps us think we are “self-sufficient.” In other words, we want to earn and grab onto what we imagine eternal life to be. The danger of wealth, of this constant need to possess, is that it can trick us to think we are following God’s rules while we self-justify every divide we create in the world. It’s at that moment when we turn Jesus into a possession instead of a Savior that Jesus finally tells us the truth, undoing the world we’ve built up while showing us something new.

Jesus does more in this passage than tell the rich young man to sell what he owns. Jesus also shows him how to love. We see in Jesus’ own actions and words a formula for what love looks like. In verse 21, Jesus’ response to the rich young man is to look and see him. Jesus, in that moment, sees everything about him – where he comes, where he’s going, and what his entire life looks like. Love can’t be limited to only ourselves. Love compels us to fully see the other – and in that process, connect with them. So after seeing the rich young man, Jesus tells him to sell what he owns so that he can come and follow him. Every one of the actions Jesus highlights points to what love is all about. Love isn’t about gaining a possession. Love is about gaining a relationship with the creator of the universe and, in that process, forming a bond with the world and all the people God loves. We want to split the world and it’s people into groups based on what we think they should possess. Yet Jesus’ love breaks through the dividing lines we draw up, connecting us to each other even though the world wants to keep us apart. Through Christ, we are invited to say “love” to more people than we might, at first, admit. We are called to make that “love” a reality by using the gifts God gave us, including our wealth, to create connections rather than re-entrenching our divisions. And it’s through Jesus where we discover a new way of life that is about more than giving something up. Instead, when we connect with each other, loving people in the same way Jesus first loved us, that’s when we’ll notice that our entire life is finally starting to grow.

Amen.

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Homily for Ruth Eastlund, Memorial Service

Hallelujah! Praise God in the holy temple; praise God in the mighty firmament.

Praise God for mighty acts; praise God for exceeding greatness.

Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lyre and harp.

Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe.

Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud clanging cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Hallelujah!

Psalm 150

My sermon from the memorial service for Ruth Eastlund on October 13, 2018. Translation from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

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The book of psalms is a polyphony of song.” In our context, we usually read the psalms out loud. We try, as best we can, to speak in a meter and speed that brings life to the poetic words on the page. But these poems were meant to be sung. They’re designed to be accompanied by music. Some might have been written for entire choirs while others were meant to be sung when we’re alone and our sighs are too deep for words. These 150 separate texts were written over five centuries by authors scattered all over ancient Israel and parts of modern day Iraq. So this book contains within it a multitude of voices – yet each one transcends their historical context. A poet sitting on the banks of the Euphrates River had no idea that all of us, 2500 years later, would be reading their words today. But that’s the power of the psalms. They can, in a moment, “address different contexts simultaneously.” The songs that gave life to the ancient citizens of Jerusalem are the same ones that gave life to Ruth. She chose all the hymns, music, and readings we are sharing today. Now some of these we might know by heart. For example, Psalm 23 is the standard psalm spoken at most funerals and memorial services. Yet it’s a psalm that’s never emptied of its power or importance. Rather, it grows, evolves, and changes as we celebrate all the people who loved the Lord. The green pastures and the banks of those still waters are full of every person we’ve ever loved. And that’s why Psalm 23 is a piece of Scripture that will never grow old no matter how old we actually are.

But Psalm 150 is a psalm we usually don’t hear. And it’s probably one of only two psalms that were written for the book of Psalms itself. Psalm 1 was designed as an introduction to the entire book after the individual songs were collected, collated, and put into a final form. But that collection needed an ending. So Psalm 150 was probably written to sort-of summarize everything that came before it. Now, it’s almost impossible to summarize all 149 separate songs. Their content alone is vast and varied. Some were written to celebrate the crowning of ancient kings and queens while others are full of sea monsters and tales about the creation of the universe. The psalms also contain almost all human emotions, from the highest joys to the lowest lows. And within its pages we find incredible happiness and incredible sorrow, sometimes only a few verses apart. On one level, the book of Psalms is as vast and varied as each one of us. It’s a book designed to be a soundtrack to human life. So it’s fitting that Psalm 150 is the unique reading that Ruth chose. As she looked back at her life – at every experience that made her who she was and while thinking about every person she loved – what made the most sense to her was to just sing.

I had the privilege to get to know Ruth over these last few years. She wasn’t able to attend church as much as she used to but when she was here, it was as if her entire body and soul absorbed every word that was sung and every note that was played. I’d see her sitting in her pew, right over there, her eyes and her ears glued to the music and man she loved. Ken, over these last few years, did more than offer up his own musical gifts in the church. He also sung for her. She would mention that to me from time to time, usually in the middle of a story about the choir she grew up with in Minnesota or while bragging about how much she adored her grand and great-grand children. I know her life over these last few years wasn’t easy. And she embodied that Northern European pride that made her as tough and as stubborn as she could possibly be. But no matter what these years brought her, they couldn’t stop her song. It didn’t matter that her voice could no longer sing the way it use to because the song of her faith, her love, her family, and her joy could never be taken away. Her song was a gift from the Lord. And she knew that she was Jesus’ and Jesus was hers. We will miss her deeply. Yet she now rests with the eternal song maker, joining her voice with every angel, trumpet, lyre, and harp, as they sing together around Christ’s heavenly throne – forever and ever.

Amen.

But Jesus Said: Jesus and Divorce

[Jesus] left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Mark 10:1-16

My sermon from the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 7, 2018) on Mark 10:1-16. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Start with a pause.

So in the space between when I finished today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark to when I first started speaking, what sermon appeared in your head?

I was reminded this week that there are stories from the Bible that speak to us before the pastor says a word. These stories tend to connect with us on a very personal level. They tug at our heart and our soul, reminding us of personal experiences we’ve had, struggles we’ve overcome, and point to the current shadows that fill our lives. Jesus’ words about divorce is one of those stories. All I had to do was say that word and memories of fear, pain, and sadness bubble up. We might remember sermons in the past that hurt because they used Jesus’ words to condemn us while we went through our divorce. Or we might hold onto a part of what Jesus said and find ourselves struggling to connect or fully empathize with those who have gone through their own separation. Some might hear Jesus’ celebration of the institution of marriage and feel personally attacked because they are single or alone or know they’ll never be married. The wider church has used this passage from Mark to define what our lives through marriage should look like. And if our life doesn’t match up, we’re punished for not being a member of a so-called “biblical” relationship. Now, we know that relationships are not always simple or easy. Our bonds with each other are formed by imperfect people and those connections will never fully match with our “happily-ever-after” expectations. Being married is a calling that not everyone will share. And sometimes ending an unhealthy marriage is the right and Christian and loving thing to do. We know this because we have people in our lives who are incredibly faithful and who are also single or married or divorced or everything else in between. Jesus’ love for us does not depend on our marital status. Instead, Jesus is always with us, whether we’re single, partnered, living together, separated, married, divorced, widowed, re-married, or re-divorced. That’s a promise Jesus gives us in our baptism and our marital status does not change that. So how can we rewrite the sermon that’s already in our head so that we cling to Jesus rather than to the word “divorce?” Well, one way we can do that is by starting at verse 13 with the word “people.”

Now I’ll admit that sometimes the formatting of our Bible trips me up. And for a long time, I saw verse 13 as the start of a separate story. The word “people” seems to mark the beginning of a new scene where families are bringing little children to Jesus so that he might touch them. That touching sounds a little weird but it’s Mark’s way of telling us that these children probably needed healing. So people wanted Jesus to heal their child by gently laying his hands on them. Jesus’ disciples, once again, were not happy that little children were in the room. The children were sick, loud, and annoying everyone who wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. But Jesus, as was his custom, said, “let the little children come.” For the third week in a row, our story from the gospel of Mark has children in it. Children in the ancient world were near the bottom of their society’s social ladder. They were prone to getting sick, were extremely vulnerable, and they needed to be taken care of. Children were loved by their families but the wider society was waiting for them to grow up. But Jesus, like we heard last week and the week before, welcomed them, saying that the ones who are vulnerable, the ones who are weak, and the one who have no authority in their community – they are the ones who are already part of God’s holy family. The little children in that room weren’t supposed to be in Jesus’ presence in the first place. Yet Jesus invited them in because God’s kingdom already included them. It wasn’t the super religious, the super powerful, or the super successful who earned or were entitled to a place in God’s kingdom. Rather, it’s those who find themselves in need, those who are suffering, those who are in pain, and those who have found their lives torn apart – that’s who Jesus goes to. And Jesus promises them that He will never let them go.

The word “people” seems like it starts a new story that’s all good news. But that word and it’s paragraph indention wasn’t supposed to start something new. Rather, in the ancient greek text that our translation is based on, the word “people” is really just “they.” Now that “they” could point to the crowd or the Pharisees or the disciples or whoever else was in that house. But I think that “they” also included those Jesus named in verses 11 and 12. The families bringing children to Jesus included not only married couples but also remarried couples, divorced men, and divorced single women. Now, those divorced women and their children would be in an extremely vulnerable position because, in general, it was the men who had access to wealth, power, and resources. That patriarchy was so ingrained in the culture that it was really only men who could initiative any kind of separation in Jesus’ day. A man could, through divorce, pretend as if their marriage never happened. But the woman didn’t have that option. She would be viewed as almost expendable, without a job or money or any kind of resources to support their children. Yet it’s the ones who had their world torn apart that Jesus welcomes and includes. Because, according to Jesus, the ones who suffer, who are in pain, who were tossed aside and left completely vulnerable – they are the ones for whom the whole kingdom of God belongs.

We do a disservice to ourselves, our church, and our faith when we read Jesus’ words about divorce and we forget “they” who brought their children. This story isn’t meant to be split in two. Rather, we’re supposed to read Jesus’ words about divorce and to use his actions with the children as our guide. As human beings, we are connected to everyone else, and we’re called to welcome, serve, and care for each other. No one is meant to be dismissed, pushed aside, or left vulnerable. No one is meant to be unheard or unseen. Our relationships with each other are supposed to support, guide, and help us be the followers of Jesus – God is calling us to be. But when our most intimate relationships end for the well-being of ourselves, our partners, and our families – then the church God has surrounded us with is called to support, hold, and love those in need. Jesus knew that we needed each other because it takes a community to repair what life has torn a part. It takes a church to help us mourn the end of one relationship while we’re being resurrected into something new. That’s why, in our baptism, we are given more than a personal relationship with Jesus. We’re given a whole body, a whole community filled with people who are called to love each other just like Jesus loves us. Regardless of our marital status, our age, or our gender, we are meant to be for each other. And in the words of Rev. David Lose, “when we recognize our own dependence and vulnerability and see ourselves in those who suffer,” it’s then when we “can …imagine … – and thereby receive – the reign and presence of God.

Amen.

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What You Get: Who Jesus Includes in His community

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Mark 9:38-50

My sermon from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (September 30, 2018) on Mark 9:38-50. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Scripture never tells us if Jesus puts the little one down.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark continues the conversation that started last week. Jesus and his disciples have returned to Galilee and are staying in the city of Capernaum. Their journey to Galilee was uneventful but the disciples had a bit of an argument amongst themselves: they argued about which one of them was the greatest. Now, arguing about who’s the greatest is …silly especially when God is literally in the room. But we can excuse the disciples’ behavior because they had experienced a taste of Jesus’ power. Jesus, in chapter 6, sent his disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons all over Galilee. The disciples did what Jesus asked and they were amazed because people listened. People were healed. And even demons, the evil forces that separate us from God and from one another, – even they were overcome by the power of Jesus’ name. The disciples thought that this was what Jesus was all about. So they argued about which one of them expressed Jesus’ power the most. Jesus, in response, asked a little child to join them. Jesus picked this kid, this little one, up and he welcomed them as a full member of their community. This invitation caught the disciples off guard because children, in Jesus’ day, weren’t valued very much. Parents loved their children but the wider society sort of didn’t because children were vulnerable, weak, and needed to be taken care of. Children had the potential to become contributing members of their society but until that happened, until they grew up, children were at the bottom of their world’s social ladder. Children weren’t full members of…anything. Yet Jesus took this child, put this little one in the middle of their community, and said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The power the disciples experienced wasn’t what Jesus was all about. Jesus’ true power was showing all people, especially those we ignore or push to side, that God sees them, that God loves them, and that God will never let them go.

Now, it’s immediately after this when John first speaks. And it’s like he didn’t hear anything at all. One thing I find helpful and that I encourage you to do as well is: visualize these scenes with Jesus. Imagine the room they’re in. See the disciples sitting or standing. Notice the little one with Jesus, and make that child real. Imagine this whole scene. And then listen as John speaks, admitting they tried to stop someone because they didn’t believe that person was part of their community. I imagine Jesus took a long pause before he responded. I can see Jesus re-enacting almost every animated gif, every animated image, where someone is rolling their eyes or sighing or frustrated or moving their mouth but confused about what they should say next. Because Jesus had just placed a little child in the middle of their community, showing the disciples who was included in God’s family. But John still claimed that there were some who didn’t belong.

That’s why, I think, Jesus’ words sort of snowball in the rest of today’s text. At first, Jesus was kind, giving the disciples another vision of what Jesus’ community looked like. Jesus is putting together a body made up of people that is bigger than the 12 apostles in that city by the Sea of Galilee and bigger than all of us inside this church today. God is calling all kinds of people, the faithful, the sort-of faithful, and even those with no initial faith at all, to be part of what God is doing in the world. Our faith and our experiences – our relationship with Jesus – is not the only kind of relationship someone might have with him. Jesus nurtures, in different ways, the faith the Spirit gives us. We can never be quite sure exactly what the Holy Spirit is doing in those around us – but we can trust that the God who is with us is with them too. And if we can’t see God moving in the people around us, then we are putting barriers around what we think is possible with God. Those barriers are ones we create by saying that Jesus only works in one way and in one place and through one kind of experience. We choose, in those moments, to act as if we ourselves are God, because we get to decide where the building blocks of faith are placed in people’s lives. We encourage those around us to stumble, telling them to look for God in the parts of their lives where their faith will not grow. Because we choose to believe the faith life of others when their life of faith matches our own. But the community Jesus is putting together needs everyone, including those who we think are not as committed or as faithful or who express their life with Jesus in ways that will change what this community of faith does. The little one standing with Jesus and that unknown person casting out demons were not a problem that needed to be overcome. Rather, the disciples were the problem because they couldn’t see the ways they were preventing others from living their faith out loud.

As we visualize the rest of this text, the image of Jesus holding a young child while talking about maiming and hell and unquenchable fire – that’s a pretty harsh vision. These exaggerations make it easy to runaway from this part of the text. We can claim that Jesus is embracing hyperbole and that he doesn’t really mean everything that he says. We do listen to his words, about the ways we put stumbling blocks before others, but we downplay how serious those stumbling blocks are. We assume that any stumbling we cause in others are minor hiccups in someone else’s life. They can, and should, move past them and if they can’t, that’s their problem, not ours. Yet hyperbole [always] points to [a] truth.. [that] must be taken seriously. And in the words of Rev. Karoline Lewis, “the hyperbole points to what is at stake in being the cause of a stumble in faith. It’s not just about standing in another’s way of faith but denying their individual expression of faith. It’s not just that we have somehow prevented someone from having faith, but [we] have prevented a life of faith that they, and only they, can embody.” Too often “hyperbole becomes [a] convenient excuse to stop listening, to stop believing, [letting us] question the veracity of [any] claims,” made on us. But “when we place stumbling blocks in the paths of those trying to answer God’s call — as they and only they can hear it and live it — we are effectively silencing them.” We end up preventing others from being who Jesus is calling them to be. And in the face of that reality, a reality we too often create for others and a reality that we too often find ourselves in, Jesus – with that little one still in his arms – looks at the ways we try to silent the life of others – and Jesus says: “No.”

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The Company You Keep

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Mark 9:30-37

My sermon from the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (September 23, 2018) on Mark 9:30-37. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Imagine standing on a small ledge, 50 feet above the earth. On your right and on your left is just air. You feel safe because you’re wearing a harness and there’s someone below holding a blue safety rope. You’re on that ledge because you’ve embraced your inner Spider-man, climbing to the top of a thin rock wall inside a vast indoor playspace devoted to wall climbing, obstacle courses, and everything needed to become an American Ninja Warrior. Ten feet in front of you is a large red punching bag, hanging in the air. All you need to do to complete this obstacle is to jump on that bag, wrapping your arms and legs around it. Now, you know you’re safe. And you’ve spent the entire day doing things you’ve never done before. You’re feeling great. So you stare at that bag. And then you look down. And then you stare at that bag once more. All you need to do is jump. But then you hear it – a chorus of fifteen six year olds at a birthday party shouting “jump!” It’s sort of impossible to do great things when a bunch of little kids, their faces covered in pizza and cake, are shouting at you to “jump.” I felt bad for that teenager up on that ledge who was trying to do something great. But they recognized that their situation changed. So they sat down, letting their feet dangle over the edge. And after a minute or a two, they slid off – letting the safety rope control their descent down to earth.

In our reading from the gospel according to Mark, we have disciples and a savior who do very silly things. Jesus is wandering through Galilee, the northern part of ancient Israel. He’s trying to be discreet – so he doesn’t feed a thousand people or cast out any demons. Instead, he focuses on his disciples – telling them the next part of his story. The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about but, as we heard last week, their confusion is completely understandable. Peter knew that Jesus is the Messiah – the one who would turn the world upside down. But Peter and everyone else assumed that this would only happen when Jesus used our tools of war and violence to establish God’s kingdom. Even after Jesus said, “that’s not how this works,” the disciples still didn’t get it. But they were listening because when Jesus told them, again, about his death on the Cross, the disciples decided to change the subject.

Now, on the surface, arguing about who is the greatest is pretty silly. The disciples are literally walking around with the guy who can feed thousands of people with the crumbs in his pockets. And their acting like kids, arguing about who is Jesus’ best friend. We can, however, give the disciples a bit of pass on their behavior because, just a few chapters earlier, they had experienced Jesus’ power when Jesus sent them to preach, teach, and heal in villages all over Galilee and Judea. Each one of them had been like Jesus, getting a little taste of the unlimited things Jesus could do. And that, I think, gave them a confidence that God was going to overcome with power the pain, suffering, and violence all around them. They imagined that this overcoming of the world was just the beginning of what Jesus was about to do. So, I think, as they talked about who was the greatest, they told stories of the sermons they preached, the healings they participated in, and bragged about how many people heard them in synagogues, homes, and in marketplaces. And since they knew their Bible, they imagined themselves to be the heads of a re-established Israelite kingdom. The 12 tribes of ancient Israel would return, after having been reduced to only 2 over 700 years before they born. The disciples didn’t see themselves as only students of Jesus. They also imagined themselves to be his future generals. It’s silly to be arguing about who is the greatest when God is literally in the room but it’s normal to cling to whatever power we see – so that we can overcome our reality and receive its benefits today and for years to come.

So Jesus responded to a very human but very silly argument with a silly maneuver of his own. He invited a child to be with him and the rest of his disciples. Now we might not realize what Jesus is doing here because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to bring kids to Jesus. We’ve invested in our Sunday school, Confirmation, and our new multi-church high school youth group. I’m personally grateful when kids are here in worship because, as baptized children of God, Jesus says they belong here, just like I do. And any homeowner in our area can look at their property tax bill and see how much we invest in childhood – through education, sport leagues, music lessons, and giving kids experiences so that they can live a life we think they deserve. But in Jesus’ time, there wasn’t a childhood. Once kids were old enough to help their parents on the farm or in the home, that’s what they did. We have ancient statues of four year olds holding mining equipment because kids worked. But kids were still kids. They were still growing and learning and being themselves. They needed to be taken care of. So, in Jesus’ day, being a kid wasn’t something anyone really admired. No one wanted to find their inner child or spend time chasing their childhood dreams because a child, back then, was seen as someone less than being an adult. In the social hierarchy of Jesus’ day, this meant children were at the bottom. And until kids grew up, they weren’t worth much. They were marginalized, vulnerable, and powerless. The disciples imagined themselves to be Jesus’ generals because they were hanging out with the ultimate power in the universe. And in response, that power took the powerless and said this is who God chooses to be with.

I’m pretty sure the disciples would struggle to understand why we celebrate the birthdays of 6 year olds and why we have whole event centers filled with obstacle courses and climbing walls so that hordes of little kids can shout “jump” while they’re eating pizza and birthday cake. But I think they would understand what it’s like to feel as if they are on the cusp of greatness only to then slide down into reality. Every sermon they preached and healing they participated in, gave the disciples a personal confidence that they were heading towards something great. They saw themselves as climbing up a rock wall of faith that would let them overcome everything. Yet they struggled to see how, through the Cross and through the resurrection, God was about to transform it all. There was nothing the disciples could do to become the greatest with God because the greatness of God had already decided that they were worth living and dying and rising for. As the baptized, as the faithful, as the ones who follow Jesus – every time we worship, pray, read our bible, and serve in our church – we hope that this kind of experience will grow our relationship with Christ so that we can become a little more great in our faith. Yet the God we try to be great for is a God who is already here, in our midst, loving and serving and being great to us because that’s who God is. In Christ, there’s nothing we can do to be greater with God. We can’t climb that wall of faith because Jesus has already come down. Instead, we can only live God’s greatness out by sometimes taking a seat, letting our feet dangle over the edge, and then sliding down to live and love and serve each other and our neighbors just like Jesus did.

Amen.

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Who? Who? Who? Jesus is an everyday messiah.

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

My sermon from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018) on Mark 8:27-38. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the neat things I get to do is visit people and, if they want, bring them communion. I have a little kit with 4 individual communion cups, a little bronze box that holds communion wafers, and a tiny plastic bottle filled with either red wine or white grape juice. I bring this kit with me when I’m visiting someone who hasn’t been at church in awhile or if they’re seeking a more tangible experience of Jesus. I don’t do these kinds of visits every week – but there are days when I get a lot of Jesus in a short amount of time. I’ll visit someone, set out the cups and wafers, share communion with them, and then drive to my next visit to do the exact same thing. When I do these back to back to back to back communion visits, I pre-plan my route, making sure I have enough wafers, wine, and clean glasses on hand. These Jesus-filled days develop their own kind of rhythm and afterwards my mouth is dry because of all the wafers I’ve consumed. And by the end of the day, my heart is usually completely broken because of all the pain and anguish that exists in people’s lives. But at the same time, my heart is very full because Jesus is there, in all of it.

If I had to guess, I’d say we don’t have many days when an overwhelming amount of Jesus shows up. Most of the time, saying our nightly or morning prayers is all we need to know that God isn’t done with us yet. There are other days when we don’t think about our faith much at all – and still more when we wonder if the creator-of-everything has turned their back on us. So these short and intense Jesus moments are sometimes few and far between. But when they come, they can show up in the most unexpected ways. A friend might say the exact thing we didn’t know we needed to hear. And a stranger might offer us mercy in such a way that we actually see what God’s kingdom looks like. Or we might receive a handwritten note from someone telling us we matter. It might take only 20 seconds to read those words – but that experience of Jesus lasts for hours. We probably need more of these kinds of moments in our lives. But there’s a grace in not being overwhelmed by Jesus all the time. We get to catch our breath, reflect on what we’ve heard, and discover how this faith makes a difference in our lives. If we had to engage with an overwhelming Jesus on a conscious level every day of the week – we might become so overwhelmed that we end up missing what God is trying to say. I think we need space, and time, and distance so that we can see the whole story of what God is up to. Otherwise we might end up feeling a little like Peter did in our reading from the gospel according to Mark.

Peter, at the start of this passage, probably felt pretty full of himself because Jesus asked who they thought he was and Peter blurted out the correct answer. It’s got to feel pretty great to get God’s question right. Yet the chapter didn’t end with this question. Jesus kept talking. And as he talked, sharing with his disciples who he was, what he’s doing, and what’s going to happen to him – Peter and his recently inflated ego felt the need to respond. Peter tried to be discreet, pulling Jesus aside before he rebuked him. But his private moment with Jesus became very public once Jesus called him – Satan. Now, Peter took quite an emotional roller coaster – shooting up to the top of the world at the start of our reading only to be, just a few verses later, staring at us from the bottom of a pit. Our moments with Jesus aren’t always going to be filled with a sense of peace and joy that we know only comes from God. Our moments with Jesus are sometimes rough, as if our world is being turned upside down. And in Peter’s case, it was. Peter thought he got Jesus’ question right. People knew Jesus was special but they didn’t know exactly what to call him. So they used what they knew, typecasting Jesus in roles they could explain and understand. And that’s exactly what Peter did. He knew Jesus was the Messiah, the One who would turn the world upside down. But Peter assumed he knew what that meant. When he said that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter wasn’t only identifying Jesus’ title. Peter was also, in that moment, telling Jesus what kind of Messiah Peter wanted him to be. Peter needed Jesus to turn the world upside down but he assumed that could only be done in the way we expect it to happen: through strength, power, and violence. Peter’s Messiah needed to act in a specific way – by raising up an army to drive the Romans back into the sea. Through military might and political violence, Peter wanted Jesus to build God’s kingdom in the ways kingdoms usually are. Because, for Peter, Jesus was a general, a superhero, a religious teacher, a politician, and a miracle worker who could make ancient Israel independent, mighty, and great once again. Peter’s declaration wasn’t only his way of identifying who Jesus was. Peter’s declaration was also an attempt to tell Jesus what Jesus was supposed to do. So when Jesus started talking about becoming a victim of violence rather than causing it, Peter had to speak up because Jesus wasn’t getting this Messiah thing right. Peter wasn’t just rebuking Jesus; Peter was trying to tell God how Jesus was supposed to work. Peter thought he knew better than God what God is all about.

Peter’s desire to make Jesus be what Peter wanted him to be, is a pretty normal thing to do. We all, at various times in our lives, want Jesus to act in the way we want. It would be awesome if Jesus was a little more over the top and flashy so that we could see him during the regular busyness and noise of our lives. But the Son of God who was born in a barn and who lived a very human life wasn’t interested in overcoming us. Rather, God is interested in transforming us. And that transformation is centered in everyday things – like eating and drinking, visiting and talking, living and dying. God can do over the top things and there will be moments in our live when we will see Jesus clearly. But those moments are not the primary moments where God is at work. Rather, these overwhelming Jesus filled experience help us uncover what God is doing in all our moments. There is no part of our life that’s too small for God to notice. And there’s no part of our life where Jesus isn’t already with us. Peter couldn’t see that because, in Mark chapter 8, he didn’t know the rest of Jesus’ story. Even when Jesus told him what would happen next, Peter couldn’t hear him over the expectations and assumptions making noise in Peter’s head. But once Jesus’ life played out – from his sharing of meals with all kinds of people, to his execution by the state, through his resurrection and the women standing at the empty tomb – it was then when Peter saw what Jesus was all about. We might not see God working in our lives all the time. But know that, no matter where you are or who you’re with, Jesus is already there. And when we gather together around the Lord’s table, whether in this sanctuary or around a coffee table in our living rooms, the everyday thing of eating and drinking, of sharing communion, points us to our everyday reality – that Jesus is busy filling every one of our moments with all his mercy, love, and grace.

Amen.

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Dog: A Woman Changes Jesus’ Ministry

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

Mark 7:24-37

My sermon from the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 9, 2018) on Mark 7:24-37. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the problems with relying on GPS and the map on our phone to get us from point A to point B is: we don’t always know where things are. We might know how to get to places – like, how to get to school, work, church, and our favorite restaurant. But we don’t carry in our heads a map of where those places are in relation to everything else. We, instead, keep driving straight until our phone tells us to turn right or left. The first verse in our reading from the gospel according to Mark sounds like an instruction we might give to the GPS in our phone. Jesus was preaching, teaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee – the area he grew up in. But Jesus wasn’t going to stay there. He moved on to Tyre. Tyre is a city mentioned many times in the Bible, first appearing in the book of Joshua as a city destined to be controlled by one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yet that was always a dream instead of reality. Tyre was first Phoenician, then Greek, and – in Jesus’ day – Roman. So….on that map in our heads displaying all the different places mentioned in the Bible, where’s Tyre? Because Tyre’s spot on the map helps us understand why Jesus compared a woman to a dog.

The image up on the screen is a map of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan during the time of Jesus. Near the bottom is the Dead Sea with Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron on its right. At the top of the Dead Sea, we see the tail end of the Jordan River. So if we follow that river north, we travel through Samaria and end up at the Sea of Galilee. This map is pretty great because it zooms in on the area around Galilee, showing us Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana. We see where Jesus was and where those places were in relation to everything else. Our mental map of Jesus’ world has Galilee in the north, Jerusalem in the south, and we follow Jesus as he travels down the map. But in today’s text, Jesus goes a different way. After spending time around the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t go south. Instead, he turned north, traveling towards the coast of the Mediterranean Sean and entered the city of Tyre.

Tyre, as see in this current satellite view, is a coastal city and a major port for the country of Lebanon. Tyre is also old, established almost 5000 years ago, and the tip of the current peninsula was once an island, surrounded by thick walls and supported by a strong navy. The island was joined to the mainland by Alexander the Great who built a causeway to the island to capture it. By the time the Romans occupied the city, Tyre was a wealthy metropolis, with a thriving culture that was very Greek. The Romans built a massive race track, large fortifications, and many temples – leaving behind ruins that can still be seen today.

Tyre wasn’t a Jewish city. It was very Greek and very Roman. I imagine, when Jesus first entered the city, he saw its diversity: including its many pagan temples and a harbor filled with ships and sailors from Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. As a Jewish rabbi with an entourage of Jewish disciples, Tyre wasn’t the place where Jesus was supposed to be. In fact, Tyre was in the complete opposite direction – literally, culturally, religiously, and politically. So that made Tyre the perfect place where Jesus could hide, letting him live anonymously by being absorbed into the diverse community that lived there. We don’t usually recognize Jesus as someone who hid from the world. But the Son of God needed a sabbath too and the gospels are full of moments when Jesus withdrew as a way to refresh and recharge. Yet Jesus’ sabbath never lasted long. Even in a Greco-Roman city far from Jerusalem, Jesus couldn’t hide from his reputation. A woman with a daughter suffering from a spiritual and physical ailment, tracked Jesus down. And when she entered Jesus’ life, everything changed.

The unnamed woman was Syrophoenician and a Gentile – which is Mark’s way of letting us know she wasn’t Jewish. She was as Greek and as Gentile as she could possibly be. And since she was a gentile woman, Jesus wasn’t supposed to talk to her. She would have expected this meeting and conversation to be improbable if not impossible. Yet her daughter was sick. And the syrophoenician woman believed Jesus could make her better. So in a city Jesus wasn’t supposed to be in, a woman who wasn’t supposed to believe in him – came to him. And as she knelt at his feet, begging for her daughter’s life, Jesus’ compared this desperate mother to a dog.

Jesus wasn’t saying that she was loyal, brave, and loving like our favorite pets are. Jesus called her a dog, a slur common in his time and in ours. He’s completely rude to this mother looking for help. We might want to defend Jesus, saying he didn’t really mean it or that he was testing her faith. But if we keep Jesus in context, letting this almost impossible situation – where a Jewish rabbi in a Gentile City is talking to a Gentile woman who isn’t supposed to believe in him – than Jesus’ heated and un-savior like response makes a little more sense. That doesn’t excuse what he said and no woman should ever be called a dog. But Jesus, in this very human interaction, listened to her – and he responded by appealing to the limit of his mission. He didn’t see himself as a savior or a teacher or a healer while in Tyre. He went there to hide; to, I think, not-be-Jesus for just a moment. Yet this unnamed woman refused to let Jesus limit who he was. And, to Jesus’ credit, he listened to her. He heard what she said. And Jesus let her win this argument – because he knows she’s right. In an improbable place, during an improbable conversation, an almost impossible thing happened – Jesus opened himself up, fully embracing what being Jesus actually means. He’s not here to save only some people. He’s here to love, serve, and save the world. Jesus is Jesus – everywhere and always. And he responded to this deeper understanding of who he was by heading north to another Gentile city – to Sidon – before turning south to the region of 10 Greek cities known as the Decapolis. And there he healed a man who was deaf and mute, inviting everyone to open up to what’s possible with God.

As human beings, it’s not easy to understand who or what we are. The mental map we carry of ourselves, where we came from and where we’re going, isn’t always as clear as we think it might be. A challenging experience, an unexpected obstacle, a setback of our own causing – all of that can unravel our plans, our expectations, and our understanding of what makes us, us. We might want to escape, to go to a place where no one knows us, so that we can recharge and restart our lives. But, like Jesus, we bring ourselves to any place we go. We can’t run away from ourselves. Yet the syrophoenician woman reminds us that we are more than we think. We are the beloved and baptized ones of God. Wherever we go, Jesus goes too. And he isn’t only on the side of the select few who believe the right things and who’s faith never falters. Jesus is for all of us – including those who get lost no matter what map or GPS they use. We’re invited to open our eyes to what God is doing through us, because we are the improbable people in an improbable place sharing an almost impossible thing to believe and hear: that God’s kingdom of peace, love, hope, and wholeness includes even you.

Amen.

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Your Day and Night and Day Job: Jesus, Hand Washing, and Changing Traditions.

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23

My sermon from the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 2, 2018) on Mark 7:108,14-15,21-23. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of my favorite questions that’s appears on the internet is: can I eat this? Now, the question isn’t from someone wondering if this herb or plant or insect is edible. No, this question shows up when someone wonders if a food is still safe to eat. For example, someone asked if they could eat a tuna fish sandwich they packed for lunch but accidentally left on the kitchen counter all day long. Another person wondered if chicken broth that says it’s good 7-10 days after opening would still be good after 12. And someone else, after accidentally sending fresh green grapes through the wash cycle of their washing machine, posed a question to the entire internet asking if they could still eat them? From the folks finding a potato with a black part in the middle to the people who left tofu in their hot car for far too long – there’s people, everywhere, wondering if they can eat that.

Now we know, from personal experience, that the question they’re asking is a good one. Any food that is undercooked, poorly prepared, or left out in the sun too long will end up becoming something we can’t eat. There’s a lot of food that, when it goes into our mouth, leaves us feeling defiled. The cleanliness of our food, our dishes, and even our hands protects us and our families from food poisoning and illness. Our well-being depends on making sure that whatever we put in our mouth is safe and clean.

Which is why this passage from the gospel according to Mark might make us feel a bit queasy. At first glance, we assume we know what Jesus is talking about because, for generations, we’ve made the Pharisees into the “bad guys.” We imagine they were a group of people who took scripture and turned it into a list of rules that helped them earn God’s love. Since this passage starts with the Pharisees asking a question, we already know they’re wrong so we ignore what they say, skip to verse 15, and tell each other to work on our moral character so that we make Godly choices. But scripture has a habit of inviting us to re-evaluate what we think we already know. And when we stop and listen to the Pharisees’ question – about washing your hands before you eat – we’re left feeling a little askew because that question is completely reasonable. We know, through the God-given gifts of science and medicine, that washing your hands regularly, especially at meal times, is a good thing. It stops the spread of germs and makes sure that the dirt from the day doesn’t end up inside our mouths. As 21st century Americans living in an affluent part of Northern New Jersey where the use of antibacterial gels is so widespread that brand names like Purell are verbs instead of nouns – we’re unsettled by today’s gospel text because the Pharisees’ question is perfectly sensible. And based on the words the Pharisees’ used to frame their question, we know that some of Jesus’ disciples washed their hands just like the Pharisees did. That uneasy feeling we have isn’t because we’re wondering if the yogurt we left out will still be good when we get home later today. Instead, we’re queasy because the people we’re not supposed to like actually made a really good point.

So let’s accept the fact that the Pharisees asked a good question. They had a tradition of washing their hands before they eat and some of Jesus’ disciples did the same. The Pharisees, however, did not wash their hands for hygienic reasons, nor did they think that washing would somehow earn themselves God’s love and blessing. They washed because they took God’s Word seriously. They read their bible and knew that the priests in the Temple washed as a way to keep parts of their lives sacred and holy. The commands to wash are contained in the Torah, in the first five books of the bible, and is part of what’s called God’s law. The law, for the Pharisees, wasn’t a to-do list to earn God’s love. Instead, the law was a gift from God that helped them live a different way. The Pharisees wanted the law to make a difference in every part of their lives so they expanded its application, moving the priestly washing into their everyday lives. This expansion was a tradition created by the Pharisees to protect and nurture their faith, identity, and connection to God. By taking all of God’s gifts seriously, the traditions of the Pharisees were created to show all people that God is active in their lives and in their world. Hand washing made every meal, for every person, sacred; a visible sign that God cared for every part of our lives.

It’s these kinds of traditions that help us seek, discover, and live with the God who is always with us. We create them because they give us life and we pass them on to the ones who come after us because we want them to have that life too. We might, for example, choose to read devotions in the morning and to say our prayers at night. We celebrate certain organ based hymns and guitar heavy songs, letting artists and styles of music define what our church sounds like. We clap, sway, and put our hands in the air while shouting “amen!” Or we stay as silent as a mouse, letting God’s words fill the air around us. Church happens in specific places and in specific ways through the traditions we create and share. When we do church, we are deeply rooted in our traditions. And it’s these traditions that help us be faithful because they make us faith-filled.

But these traditions are just that: they’re traditions. Human beings, with the help of the Holy Spirit, created them as ways to grow our faith and help us see God. Without our traditions, we wouldn’t be who we are. But if we cling to these traditions too tightly, we end up forgetting why those traditions existed in the first place. They exist so that we can be God’s people in the world; so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and love our neighbors as ourselves. When our traditions wall us in, cutting us off from the world and the people around us, then our traditions are getting in the way of us being the church. Part of following Jesus means we need to be a community that invites self reflection, asking out loud if how we do things is truly the way God wants us to be in the world. There are parts of our tradition that God wants us to keep doing and sharing. But if we’re honest, there are other bits and pieces that God might be inviting us to let go because they way we’ve always done things is now getting in the way of what Jesus is doing next. I’ll admit that looking at traditions in this way is pretty scary. It’s hard to let go of something that gave us so much life. But even in the moments when it feels as if we’re losing who we are, we are invited to remember that what fed our traditions is still feeding us now. Jesus, is here, right now, giving us courage and peace as we struggle through change and transition. We might not know where Jesus is taking us and we might not know, at first, what new traditions we’ll need to be the people God wants us to be. But when we follow Jesus, holding tight to the center of his life and to his Cross, everything we do will be grounded in a love that opens up all sorts of possibilities. Because Jesus will never give us anything we can’t fully eat, swallow, and digest as we grow into that new thing he is making us into.

Amen.

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Submit: a sermon on what to do with wives being subject to husbands

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Ephesians 5:15-33

My sermon from the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (August 19, 2018) on Ephesians 5:15-33. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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The readings from the Bible we hear on Sunday morning are not set in stone. They can be changed. Traditionally, our community follows the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3 year cycle of readings that assigns specific texts to specific Sundays and days of the week. The lectionary is used by many different Christians denominations, including Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodist; and serves as a powerful reminder that our differences as Christians does not replace our unity as members of the body of Christ. I like the lectionary because it invites us to spend time with all 66 books of the Bible instead of only my personal favorites. But the lectionary doesn’t show us everything. And it sometimes goes out of its way to avoid the more difficult writings on Sunday mornings. I consider a text difficult if I don’t want it read out loud when my two young kids are in the room. The bible is full of these kinds of passages, especially ones used to justify the atrocities we commit against each other. Wars, genocide, slavery, and sexual assaults – it’s all in there. I prefer a bible passage telling me to do something really hard, like love my enemies. But I’m less comfortable with a passage like Psalm 137, which celebrates the brutal killing of my enemies’ children. The lectionary tries to avoid these biblical texts of terror. But there are times when, I think, the Spirit wants us to engage these uncomfortable texts. And so that’s why I chose to expand our reading from Ephesians today, making sure we heard about wives, and husbands, and “being subject to.”

Now, these verses, especially 22 through 24, can be hard to hear because the universal church has used these verses terribly. I’ve seen writers use Ephesians 5 to deny a woman’s individuality and the gifts God gave her. I’ve seen church leaders use this passage to encourage wives to stay with their abusive husbands and partners. This text, along with others, is why women weren’t allowed to become pastors or even serve on their church council – which is a position that dominates many Christian churches today. It was thought that a wife, regardless of her vocation or her calling, would never be able to lead men because she would always be led by one. So this is an odd text to hear in our context because Lutherans have ordained women as pastors for the last 45 years. The bishop of New Jersey, Tracie Bartholomew, has preached from this pulpit and presided over that altar. And in the history of Christ Lutheran Church, we’ve had one woman pastor, held at least one ordination for a woman, and have had countless women leaders, including council presidents, who have lead this church. This kind of change is still relatively recent, especially when compared to the 2000 years of history that came before it. But we now recognize that gifts for leadership are not bound to any one gender. The Holy Spirit has helped us discover the more inclusive church we are called to be. This text from Ephesians doesn’t seem fully relevant to us anymore. So we might want to ignore it. But this text is still in our bibles. We can’t pretend it’s not there. Instead, we can use the Spiritual gifts God has given us – gifts of knowledge, experience, intellect, and guidance – to engage our bible seriously and faithfully. So, with all of that, what can we do with a text asking wives to be subject to their husbands?

Well, we can first figure out what this text actually is. These verses continue the moral teachings started in Ephesians 4. Our life with Christ has something to say about how we treat each other and ourselves. Yet our connection to Jesus, while made real in our baptism, in holy communion, and in our faith, is still pretty mysterious. It’s hard to know exactly what life with Jesus looks like even in our most intimate relationships. The author of Ephesians looked around in his cultural context and noticed people living in ancient Roman households. Now, all households are different, but every society has a vision of what they think a family unit should look like. Think of the rules we hear in Ephesians as Rome’s version of the Leave it to Beaver, 1950s vision of what home life should be like in the United States. The author of Ephesians took this idealized model of the Roman household and showed how Christ matters there. But he also used the Roman household as a model and a metaphor for what our collective life with Christ might look like. This metaphor is tricky because a Roman household assumes that certain people, because of their gender and their social status, are entitled to having power over others. When these assumptions are not questioned or examined, then our model for Christian community and the Christian home ends up being very Roman. So when we see a hierarchy, with some at the top and others at the bottom, we want to be the ones who stay on top. Which is why some, I think, have clung to this text from Ephesians even though it’s rooted in a Roman cultural concept developed almost 2,000 years ago.

So when we listen to this text and see the cultural hierarchy imported into it, we discover the flaw within it. Every model for living that we take from our cultural context and merge into our life with Christ will always be an imperfect metaphor because we are imperfect. We are sinners. And as we try to flesh out what the mystery of living with Christ looks like, the models we use will never be as perfect as we want to be. We will latch onto models and metaphors that give power to some while denying it to others. And people, especially men in the church, have too often used that power for harm. The church continues to struggle with this text because, in my opinion, we haven’t paid enough attention to what it actually is. We haven’t always recognized how the Roman household was imported into it. And, at the same time, we didn’t noticed what Christ is doing in that household. Since wives are named first, we focused on making them subject to their husbands. But we didn’t see that the “obligation of the husband to love is treated more extensively than the obligation of the wife to be subject.” We didn’t notice how “the radical thrust of the gospel is putting pressure on those who have authority and power.” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 1997). We spent so much time trying to assert our power over others, that we forgot what Jesus actually does with his authority and power. We’re not here to try to hold onto our power or keep it only for ourselves. Rather, as people baptized into Christ, we are heirs to Jesus’ mission and his ministry. We have, because of Christ’s self-sacrifice and love, been given a deep and ever present relationship with the creator of everything. So our life together, in our churches, in our neighborhoods, in our families, and even in our marriages – our life together isn’t about what power and authority we think we’re entitled to. Instead, our life together is about how we get to like Christ to one another.

As human beings living in a very human world, we will always create new idealized models of how we think life should be led in communities and in families. But none of these models will match fully the Christian life we’re called to lead. Some of the models will work for a time but, eventually, they will be replaced by something else. Yet regardless of the model we find ourselves living in, our life in Christ commits us to changing those models so that we can empower and give new life to those around us. We get to help all people, including our spouses, and the most vulnerable, live the lives God is calling them to live. The model that demanded a wife be subject to her husband is fading into a new reality where we together help all women lead the body of Christ. The idealized models we use to imagine our communities, our homes, and our churches will change. The old ways will turn into something new. But because we are faithful, loved, and fed by Christ at his table, there is one model for Christian living that will never fade away. All of us, regardless of our gender and our marriage-status, are called to seek out what we can give up so that everyone around us can love, live, and thrive.

Amen.

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