Who Brings Good News: Righteousness and Charlottesville

Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that “the person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that comes from faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Romans 10:5-15

My sermon from the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (August 13, 2017) on Romans 10:5-15. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Righteousness is a funny word. It’s not a ha-ha funny kind of word but one of those words usually reserved for fantasy novels or cross-stitched and hung on dining room walls. It’s also a word scattered all over the Bible and one….that even I, as a trained religious professional, don’t always know what to do with. I know that righteousness has something to do with God. And righteousness should be something that I want. But when I take this word that Paul uses at the start of our reading from Romans today, and try to get to the center of what it means, I’m left with something in soft focus. Now, it’s not really fair to jump into Paul’s letter right at this point and with only these few verses to look at. Paul is actually in the middle of an argument that he started in chapter 9 and will conclude in chapter 11. We’re basically jumping into the middle of Paul’s train of thought and that makes this passage tricky. If we’ve studied Paul before, know the book of Romans well, and understand the different logic tricks Greeks and Romans used to make their point, then jumping into the middle of Paul’s argument isn’t as frightening as it could be. But if we haven’t done that kind of work, what then? What do we do with righteousness? We might decide to avoid Romans all together. Or worse, we might assume that a superficial reading focusing only on a few verses in this letter is all that we need. But I think there’s another option. We can come to this text knowing there are things we don’t know. We can enter today’s reading knowing we bring our own definitions, assumptions, and understandings to the text. We don’t have to understand righteousness right away. Not getting it is…ok. God wants us to bring ourselves as we are, fully into these texts because these texts are bringing God fully into us.

On Friday night, as I went to bed, I did what I always do: I grabbed my phone and opened up my social media feeds to get one more look at the world before I called it a day. And in between the cat pictures, animated gifs, and articles telling me what kind of avocados I should put on my toast, I saw pictures that terrified me. In the middle of the night, on a darken college campus in Virginia, a crowd of a few hundred, mostly young men, were bringing more than just themselves to Charlottesville. They also brought lit torches. They first assembled at the edge of the campus of the University of Virginia. Most carried tiki torches that lit up their white faces in a yellow and orange spotlight. No one tried to hide who they were because they weren’t scared of being found out. They were there to make others afraid. As they marched through the campus, they chanted slogans like “Blood and Soil” and “You will not replace us.” They matched their white supremacist slogans with nazi salutes and violence, encircling the 20 or so college kids on campus who protested them. And once the march started to break up, they headed towards a local church where over 700 clergy and faith leaders were hosting a prayer service for justice and peace. After that service ended, they couldn’t leave for several moments because the white supremacists forced them to stay inside. The Friday night terror march was just a precursor to the big event scheduled for the next day. These torch bearing people wanted a fight and they were planning to bring it.

Now, when it comes to events like this, I….take it personally. I read and watch, becoming absorbed as the event plays itself out. I pay attention because, as a Mexican-American, I can’t look away. When a neo-nazi screams “end immigration,” I know they’re not inviting my brown skin self to stay. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told to go back to my own country even though New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado were comfortable places for my ancestors hundreds of years ago. When a white man waving a Confederate battle flag shouts, “you will not replace us,” I’ve read enough “think pieces masquerading as serious thought” to know he’s advocating for a world where my mixed family, where my 2 kids, don’t exist. I can’t pretend that this is only a problem in other places because I’ve seen Confederate flags flying just across the reservoir from here. And the church itself, can’t ignore this stuff either. In a photograph taken yesterday, a black police officer was standing guard, protecting the Constitutional right for these neo-nazis and members of the KkK and armed militiamen to say their hate filled words. And in that same picture, a white supremacist is holding a sign calling the Jewish people the children of Satan with using verses from the gospel according to John to defend that kind of hate and evil. [Note: After I preached this sermon, I discovered this picture was taken in July. However, I believe my point is still the same.] As a Christian, a pastor, a person of color, and as a father, I don’t have the option to ignore when Charlottevilles happen because that kind of ideology feeds a hate and evil that is part of my life everyday.

When Saturday morning came to Charlottesville, the clergy gathered again for a sunrise service. Like the night before, I was following it through social media and more. I saw as men and women, Jews and Christians and Muslims, bishops, pastors, priests, and deacons, including bishops from our own denomination and colleagues I went to school with, marched. They headed to where the rally was taking place and they brought with them their collars and stoles, kippas, hijabs, and that’s…it. That’s all they brought. They stood between the white supremacists and the counter protesters. When the white supremacists finally arrived, they came ready for a fight. They wore body armor and helmets. They brought shields and clubs. Some were armed, wearing army fatigues and carrying AR-15 rifles. They were hoping for violence. They were hoping for confrontation. They wanted to incite terror. So they banged on their shields, shouted slurs against Jews, African-Americans, and gays. They made as much noise as they could…and the assembled clergy, without a weapon in sight, just…sang. They met the evil in front of them with the love of God in the song – this little light of mine. In the face of this one-sided hate, bigotry, and violence, these God-fearing interfaith men and women, met this evil by singing about the light God gives them. And this light lets them stand in the face of hate and sing, sing, sing.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, isn’t asking them to bring their rhetoric or intelligence or understanding to the problem of righteousness. Instead, he’s too busy telling them to stop trying to bring God down and instead see how God is already here. When we take this passage and make it some kind of test, where Jewish law and faith in Jesus are put against each other, we cheapen what we already have in God. We pretend that there’s some kind of work, some kind of thing we need to make ourselves believe, to get God on our side. But if we instead remember that the “you” in this passage isn’t general, that Paul is really talking only to a community of Gentiles, then this passage is less about what the community needs to do to get on God’s good side and, instead, is about God being with them right now. God, through their baptism, has made adopted them as beloved children. They are now newly chosen, bound together in an inclusive story that includes a Jewish savior who, on the Cross, opened his arms to all. Paul’s thought process is focused on these Gentiles, on these Romans, alone. And because they know God, because they are baptized by God, and because Jesus died for them, they now get to bless others like God blessed them. They now get to share God’s story with their family and friends. They now get to pray and worship and sing every Sunday morning. They get to be like Jesus to all who are in need. They get to do all these things not because they are righteous but because God is. And God’s righteousness means that God keeps God’s promises – these promises of love, hope, fidelity, and mercy to all of God’s children. It’s God’s righteousness that let’s us be God’s people. It’s God’s righteousness that let’s us know that love will never be overcome by hate. And it’s because of the hold God has on each us, that we get to stand tall in the face of evil, confront racism and white supremacy in all it’s forms, and undo it’s hold on us and our communities because we bring a different kind of torch, we have a divine kind of light, a light that Jesus gave to us, and we’re called to let it shine, today, tomorrow, and forever.

Amen.

Play

To and From: Loneliness and Promises

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5

My sermon from 9th Sunday after Pentecost (August 6, 2017) on Romans 9:1-5. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Rev. Marc A. Stutzel at Christ Lutheran Church, Woodcliff Lake on Aug 6, 2017. Romans 9:1-5.

Yesterday, for me at least, was a day devoted to birthdays. Now, I know that everyday is someone’s birthday. And thanks to Facebook, I wake up every morning knowing which of my friends are celebrating their big day. On some level, we’re never far from a birthday. But yesterday was different. As I sat in my room, composing this sermon, I was tired and completely stuffed because my family and I had just come back from a fun birthday party for a new friend. And the party was perfect for a five year old. There was a pool, bouncy houses, and more food than any person could possibly eat. As my stomach groaned and grumbled, angry at the amount of chicken wings I’d consumed, my sermon writing was distracted by the sound of my neighbors singing “Happy birthday” at a party they were hosting next door. Everywhere I turned, a birthday was there. In fact, even if I could have escaped to Mars yesterday, I wouldn’t have escaped from birthdays. And that’s because August 5 is also a birthday for the Curiosity Rover on Mars. It’s there, on the dusty slopes of Mount Sharp, where that little robot had a birthday party…of one. There were no bouncy houses or pools for Curiosity to play in. And there was no endless pile of chicken wings for everyone to eat. Instead, Curiosity was… alone. The friends who celebrated its big day were here on earth. When it was time to sing “Happy Birthday,” the Curiosity Rover was a choir of one – and in 2013, it sung that song alone on Mars.

Now, there’s something sad about the Rover spending its fifth birthday alone and millions of miles away from home. Even though the Rover is just a machine, our heart feels compassion and empathy for our robotic friend. It’s current situation might remind us of what our own lonely birthdays felt like and bring to mind those we know who have no one to wish them a happy birthday to. This kind of loneliness and isolation can be brutal. Being separated from what we know, who we love, and who loves us can leave us sad, depressed, and feeling incredibly broken. In some ways, one of the hallmarks of being human is learning how to deal with being alone. And that’s not something all of us are good at. Because we know that being around other people doesn’t always mean we are not alone. If no one knows our name, knows our hopes and dreams, and stops by to actually see us, loneliness stays with us instead. And this loneliness can show up in a multitude of ways. We can move to a new city and not know a soul. A broken relationship can take our friends away from us. Or a new path or life style or way of being can leave us feeling alone if no one else seems to join us. We lament and cry out as these feeling of isolation break into us. We can even wonder out loud if maybe this new reality, this new life, this new way of being should be undone. Our thoughts and prayers can sound a little like Paul’s does here. With sorrow and anguish, we too might want to be cut off from this new reality, because the isolation is just too much. Which might be why Paul says something in our reading from Romans’ today which doesn’t sound like Paul at all. For a brief moment, while dwelling in his sorrow and anguish, Paul wonders if he might want to be cut off from Christ.

Now, even the thought of Paul writing this is a little bananas because this is Paul we’re talking about. This is a guy who traveled around the Mediterranean, preached in city markets, and invited Gentiles to know how God’s kingdom includes even them. This is a guy who had no problem going to Jerusalem to confront Peter when Peter stopped eating meals with those who were non-Jews. Paul is one of the few workhorses of the early church that we know and celebrate. He’s the last person we can think of who should even hint at something like he does in verse 3.

But Paul says this surprisingly thing and I wonder if he does because loneliness is that strong. We know, from scripture, that Paul had many companions on his travels. We know he wasn’t the only Jewish believer who, in the generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, traveled throughout the Mediterranean Sea. And we know pockets of Jesus’ followers were all over the Roman Empire. When we take a step back and look at the wider context, we can see how Paul wasn’t really alone. But Paul probably felt alone because his isolation was very real. Not every Jewish person experienced Christ like he did. And most Gentiles could never accept a savior who died, crucified on a cross. And even in the communities that agreed with Paul, Paul kept finding Gentiles who were trying to earn God’s love through the good works they thought God demanded. Paul dealt with people all the time but that didn’t mean he never felt alone.

Yet being alone and feeling alone are two separate things. Paul, immediately after his words in verse 3, spends the next two verses on all the ways he’s not alone. As a Jew, Paul knows his lineage and his connection to God’s story. Paul never in his writings renounces the love and the special relationship God has with the chosen people. God picked them while they were slaves in Egypt to be God’s people. God chose this band of people with no rights, no legal status, and no power, to be God’s beloved. It wasn’t the Egyptians, with their chariots and gold and military might, who God chose in this special way. God picked these strangers, living as foreigners in the land of Egypt, as the people who will change the world. The covenants, the law, the prophets, and even Jesus himself, were given to this former nation of slaves who, in Paul’s day, were still occupied by an empire not their own. And God did this, according to Paul, because God made a promise to Abraham and to Jacob and to the people of Israel. And God is, first and foremost, a God who keeps promises.

Which is why the Messiah, this Jesus, isn’t for the select few. Jesus is Jewish but God’s promises are for all. Abraham wasn’t only an ancestor to the people of Israel. He also was the father to many nations – nations and peoples and races and ethnicities that now populated and crossed borders with the Roman Empire. This Jesus, as the culmination of Abraham’s promise, makes a difference to everyone because he is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Even in our loneliness, Jesus is there. Even when we feel like no one knows who we are, he does. In fact, we don’t hold these feelings of loneliness by ourselves. Jesus holds those emotions with us because there is nothing God won’t go with us through. Jesus isn’t only a part of the Trinity. Jesus is also a promise that, no matter who we are or what we’re experiencing, we are known….and we are loved.

Rooted in Paul’s experience of Jesus is an acknowledgement that Jesus really is for us, that Jesus is really with us, and that God’s blessings are not reserved for only a select few. Paul knows that God’s kingdom is expansive and has space for Jews and Gentiles and everything in between. God’s love isn’t reserved for the select few; God’s love is for all. And as part of God’s people, our love and care for others is to be as expansive as God’s, regardless of their race or class or background or where they were born or where they go. Because, in Jesus and in the Cross, the walls between us and God were torn down – so that the walls we build between ourselves, these walls that make us lonely and afraid and full of sorrow and fear – can be torn down too.

Amen.

Play

Sighs Too Deep For Words

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:26-39

My sermon from 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 30, 2017) on Romans 8:26-39. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Who are your faith partners? Who do you pray with? Who are your go-tos when you need a little Jesus in your life?

These were the questions on my mind last night, as I sat on my bedroom floor, drafting my sermon. On the bed behind me was a pile of laundry I needed to put away and, next to me, was a pile of pillows that were in the wrong place. Next to the pillows, however, was one of my newer faith partners. She was just lying there, half covering my bulletin, my bible, and the commentaries I was looking at. In fact, her and her brother always seem to be around when I’m sermonizing. It doesn’t matter where I am in my house – If I’m working on a sermon, my two cats, Finn and Flotus, show up. Any bible or biblical commentary I’m using becomes the pillow for a fuzzy friend. If I wiggle my toes while I write, I soon have claws deep into my socks. And if I’m sitting there, staring at a blank screen with no idea what to write, both Finn and Flotus act like they’re listening as I bounce ideas off their furry little heads. These 2 friends hear every word I preach. They listen as I scrap my first and my second and my fourth draft. And if it’s 3 pm or 3 am, they’re both just…there, my two faithful companions accompanying me in this life of faith.

Now, I have no idea if Paul had a pet while on his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean. It might have been helpful if he did because science shows that a pet helps lower your blood pressure, decreases your stress levels, and increases your quality of life. Based on some of the things we know Paul wrote, there are times when being less stressed might have been good before he put pen to papyrus paper. But our reading today from his letter to the Romans isn’t one of those pieces. Instead, it’s one of the most beautiful verses he ever shared. The love embedded in these words is why this passage was read at the last memorial service and funeral I was a part of. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul is telling this community of Gentiles located in capital of the most powerful empire in the world, an empire that crucified Jesus because he was a rabble rouser in a small city in an insignificant part of the Roman Empire. Paul is telling this small group of men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor, that there is nothing they can do to get God to love them more. It’s too late to try and bargain with God. God has already played God’s hand. Jesus has already showed up. So what else could they possibly need?

Paul’s confident declaration is….awesome. It’s empowering, inspiring, and amazing – all at once. But that confidence isn’t, always, our default reality. Paul’s confidence isn’t something we always have. Sure, we might be able to say God loves us, but there are plenty of times in our life when God….isn’t on our minds. Or maybe there’s a crisis or a loss, or doubt or fear or worry or concerns or a million other reasons – that are making this Jesus thing something that doesn’t feel like it includes us. When the church hurts us or when we watch as self-professed Christians hurt or discriminate or attack others because of who they are, or how they were born, or what’s happened to them…it’s not hard to look at this Jesus thing and think it’s not for us. There are times when Paul’s words empower us to feel and love and be the Christians God calls us to be. But there are other times when Paul’s words seem like bits of air that sound meaningless.

I would like to be able to stand here and say that little Harper, who we’re about to baptize today, will never have those kinds of moments. I want her faith to be strong. I want her to know that Jesus is with her no matter what. I want her to experience what being with Jesus is all about so that Paul’s words are her words, always. But I know that the life of faith isn’t always like that. There are times when, even after we do everything right, things just…don’t seem to go the way they should. Harper will live her life and, at some point, she’s going to feel loss. She’s going to shed real tears. She’s going to suffer that broken heart even though all who love her will do everything they can to prevent that from happening. She’s going to discover that there are moments in our life when we are at a crossroads and, as one commentator put it, we don’t have the words to say and we have no idea even what to pray.

And that’s why, I think, God gives us a faithful companion that’s a little less fuzzy that Finn and Flotus, but one that is more permanent and always present. At those times when we don’t know what to say, this faithful companion will give us the words we need. And when we can’t pray, this faithful companion will intercede and get others to pray for us. Because once we’re part of Jesus’s family, once those waters of baptism are poured over us, our relationship with God doesn’t depend on having the confidence of Paul. Even when life has taken away all the words we can muster, the Holy Spirit, this faithful companion, is ours, forever. And this companion does more than just sit, curled up next to us, with ears twitching when we call her name. This Spirit gives us the breath we need and empowers us so that we can become a faithful companion to God and to all who God claims. The life of faith isn’t just something we have. The life of faith is lived. It’s a life active in love, active in care, and filled with hope because we, along with Harper, are part of a larger family – a family where Jesus leads us, a family where Jesus loves us, and a family where being a faithful companion to all becomes who we are. The Spirit will give us the words. The Spirit will keep us silent when we need to be. And the Spirit will keep turning us into Jesus’ people, whether we’re eight months old or 102. We might not be able to speak Paul’s words but, through the Spirit, those words are already ours. So let’s trust what we have been given, this faithful companion that will keep Jesus’ promises close to us, no matter what may come.

Amen.

Play

Spirit of Life

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:1-11

My sermon from 6th Sunday after Pentecost (July 16, 2017) on Romans 8:1-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Did you know that standing still had to be invented? That’s a bit silly thing to say because standing still is standing still. When we’re walking or running or skipping, we’re not standing still. But the concept itself is important because standing still and staying in one sport, isn’t so easy…when you’re on a boat. And that’s what I noticed yesterday, while on a 40’ pirate ship off the Jersey shore. Yesterday, my family and I attended Pirate Adventures in Brick, NJ. My two kids, Oliver and George, dressed up like pirates, with swords, striped shirts, and pirate bandanas. We joined a dozen or so other families and took an hour long adventure looking for treasure along the Jersey shore. The kids learned to talk like pirates and were led by “real-life pirates,” aka college kids who are probably drama majors and are living their best life four voyages a day. Our search for treasure involved shooting water cannons at the notorious Pirate Pete who had taken the keys to our secret treasure chest. And when all was said and done, we walked off the boat with our personal share plastic pirate gold and jewels. Now, since yesterday was a beautiful summer day, we were not the only boat on the water. Jet skis, fishing boats, speed boats, and more zipped by us as they headed out to deeper waters. Every time they passed us by, the wake they left would hit us, causing the pirate ship to bounced around. Trying to stand still while on the ship was….sometimes impossible. Even Pirate Pete needed a solid anchor to keep her from floating away. Standing still isn’t something we think about until standing still is something we can’t easily do. And when we’re in a boat, caught in a current, with waves and wakes slamming into us, what we need is a good, solid anchor, to keep us where we want to be.

Paul, in this week’s reading from his letter to the Romans, is continuing the argument we heard last week. In an almost repetitive, yet tongue twisty kind of way, Paul is reminding the Romans who they were and who they are now. In a sense, Paul is being very pastoral here which is usually something we don’t talk about when it comes to Paul. But as I continue to live my life as a pastor, and as I keep growing into being the Christian God calls all of us to be, my reading of the Bible and of Paul, has changed. Since Paul is writing to a community he’s never met before, and with Romans being his longest letter, we usually act like Paul is trying to explain, in just a few pages, his overall experience and understanding of faith. But Paul doesn’t write abstract letters. He writes letters to real people. And he knows real people, with their own thoughts, concerns, and ideas will hear his words. Paul isn’t being general in his letter. He’s not focusing on coming up with some grand scheme that defines who knows Jesus and who does not. Paul is writing to people who love and cry and smile and feel fear. They are people who Paul expects to meet and people who expect to meet Paul. And, as Paul reminds them over and over again, they are people who know Jesus. And, in their baptism, they are something new.

But how new are they? Yesterday, for a few moments at least, I got to pretend I was a pirate. But after the swashbuckling and water cannon fighting, I was still… me. Once my feet were back on dry land, I still had to live my life. I still had kids to take care of, a sermon to write, emails to read, and a million new things to add to my to do list. The same worries and joys and fears and concerns I had before I got onto the boat were still there, waiting for me, once I got off it. I can imagine the Romans, listening to Paul’s letter, noticing how he keeps reminding them that their baptism makes them new….and then thinking to themselves “really? But I’m still…me. Even after my baptism, the things I am concerned about, those passions and actions and emotions I want to get rid of – they’re still here.” After the joy and excitement and amazing feelings a baptism brings, that energy can feel like it fades when real life comes roaring back. That might be why Paul keeps reminding the Romans who they are, over and over again. And that might be why we gather here at church, over and over again, to hear that same promise. Our relationship with Jesus doesn’t depend on how we feel, or what we know, or what we think we need to know. Our relationship with Jesus depends only on what God has decided to do. And God has claimed each of us as God’s very own, through the gift of faith and baptism. When we’re not feeling Jesus presence, we can cling to the promise that he is here, right now. When we’re wondering where God is in a world that can be so brutal, we can cling to a savior who, even when he was dying on the cross, opened his arms to all. When we’re living our lives with busyness and joys and other concerns that cause us to forget Jesus, our baptism means that Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are real people with real lives and with a real savior who never gives up on us. Paul’s letter to the Romans is reminding all of us about this seed of faith, this seed of relationship, this seed of a new life that God gives to each of us.

This seed, this Spirit of Life, is something we have right now. And Paul invites all of us to take that Spirit seriously. Since we have it, we don’t need to wait for it. We can engage with it right now. Prayer, study, and worship are just some of the tools we have to dig into this Spirit that God gives us. And by taking the time to explore this gift anyway we can, we become as life giving to our neighbors as Jesus is to us. This is how we discover how Jesus is that anchor we need in our lives. Because Jesus never says that storms won’t come. There will be times when the wakes and waves left by other people will crash into us. There will be moments when we will be the wave that tries to overcome us and our neighbors. And there will be times when staying with Jesus will be very hard. But it’s at those times when having Jesus will be the only thing that gets us through.

Amen.

Play

Do The Twist: Romans 7 and the Flemington Neshanocks

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:15-25a

My sermon from 5th Sunday after Pentecost (July 9, 2017) on Romans 7:15-25a. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Section headings in the Bible can be scary and, sometimes, unhelpful. When the bible was first put to paper, it looked different from what we have today. It wasn’t written in English. It didn’t have chapters or verse numbers. And before the invention of spaces between words, each word in the Bible ran into the one next to it. As time went on, and different translations of the Bible were composed, editors added tools to help our interaction with the text. And one of those tools was section headings – these short phrases that describe what the editors think the passage is about. For today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, different bible translations use different headings to describe what Paul is talking about here. The Message labels all of Romans 7 as “Torn between one way and another.” The New International Version labels this part as “The Law and Sin.” The Common English Bible Translation calls this bit “Living under the Law” and the New Revised Standard version, which we use in worship and which we just read, calls this section “The Inner Conflict.” Section headings are sneaky because they provide a specific point of view that greases the gears in our brains, giving us an interpretation of the text before we actually read. And since these headings are on the physical pages of the Bible’s we read, we sometimes forget these headings are not scripture. Section headings can be helpful but I don’t think they are helpful today because labeling this section from Romans as “the inner conflict” doesn’t jive with what we heard last week. Paul told us in Romans chapter six that we are changed people. In our baptism and in our faith, we are united and connected to Christ. We are no longer enslaved to sin but are now part of Jesus himself. In a sense, our struggle with sin – our struggle with what keeps us separated from God – has been undone because of what Jesus did. Jesus, through the Cross, gave each of us a new subheading describing who we actually are. We are followers of Christ. God has fixed our relationship to the divine by breaking into our world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul believed this. Paul knew this. Paul experienced this. So it doesn’t make sense for Paul to write these verses as if the “I” here means him or if this is just some generic I that represents each of us because, through our baptisms, we are something new. So what is Paul talking about here? Well, I think it has something to do with old timey baseball.

Yesterday, at historic New Bridge Landing, the Bergen County Historical Society hosted a baseball game between the New York Mutuals and the Flemington Neshanocks. The field was muddy. The sun was hot. And the rules for the game were close to what I knew but also….a little different. For one thing, no one had gloves. The teams played by 1864 rules so all ball handling was done by hand. An out could be made by catching a ball after its first hop. And there was an umpire in a top hat and several handlebar mustaches on the players. During the game, one of the Neshanocks would go up and down the sidelines, asking if anyone had questions. Someone near me asked about the number of old timey ball clubs in the United States. And he told us that here’s probably more than 300, with 20-25 along the East Coast. Someone asked if they played tournaments and that’s when his answer got interesting. Tournaments for old timey baseball clubs do exist but this player doesn’t like them. When a tournament is played, teams are trying to win something. They’re trying for a prize or a trinket or even just the satisfaction of knowing they beat a bunch of teams. Once you’re playing for something, the competition heats up and the nature of the game itself changes. For this player, the experience of ball clubs filled with men and women from the ages of 20 to 65 playing by old fashioned baseball rules – loses its identity. It’s no longer a gentlemanly and gentlewomans outing. It becomes just a game they’re trying to win. But, if you’re already playing by 1864 rules, wearing old fashioned uniforms with knee high socks, and you’re having a having a great time, and spending it with friends with unironic beards and facial hair – haven’t you already won?

That person, the “I,” in our reading from Romans today is someone in need of a savior. As I shared a few weeks ago, this I is a person trying to solve the Roman problem of the passions. They have emotions and feelings and appetites they believe they can overcome by simply practicing the Jewish rituals that Jesus did. But they can’t because there is a deeper problem at hand. Since Paul’s letter is a letter to Romans, the people he’s talking to here are not Jews. He’s reaching out to gentiles. Now, Gentiles have a relationship with God since God created everyone but they don’t have that special and connected relationship with the divine that the Jewish people have. But God, through God’s own initiative, decided to change that. God’s son lived a very human-kind life, showing everyone just how welcoming, loving, inclusive, and challenging God’s kingdom can be. Through acts of love and mercy, Jesus showed what justice and love actually looks like. And then…the people killed him for it…but God’s love had something else in store for all of us.

Paul, in this part of his letter to the Romans, isn’t trying to describe the inner conflict we all have about what’s right and wrong. He’s, instead, reminding the Roman community that their savior has already come. The struggle with following the law is being undone because the gentiles themselves, are being changed. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through the gift of faith itself, we are being re-written so that we are a little more like Jesus each and every day. That doesn’t mean, however, that our journey, in faith, is finished. We still have to show up, each and everyday, to the reality of our lives. We’re still going to feel hurt. We’re still going to struggle with the decisions we have to make. We’re still going to discover the ways we cause injustice in the world and we need God to push us to care about the liberation of our neighbor instead of focusing only on ourselves. Paul’s words here sound very real to us because we still need Jesus to help us be Jesus. But Paul is reminding the Romans, and he’s reminding us, that we get to go into the ballgame of life wearing our personal version of a baptized old timey baseball uniform, knowing that the game has already been won. God has done and is doing the heavy lifting to fix our relationship with God. Life isn’t a competitive game that we need to win. Instead, life is about living Jesus-like lives so that the other people around us a – thrive.

Amen.

Play

Set Free: Romans & Lutherans & 1776

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:12-23

My sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost (July 2, 2017) on Romans 6:12-23. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

It’s Sunday, January 21, 1776 and a Lutheran pastor named Peter Muhlenberg is preparing himself for worship. Now, I imagine he did what most pastors do before service starts. He walked through the sanctuary, making sure everything was in order. He looked in the mirror, making sure his clergy uniform was on straight. And then as people arrived at his church in Woodstock, Virginia, I’m sure Peter greeted them and asked how they were. I wonder if the people he talked to noticed how Peter…was probably a little nervous. Or if they realized his clothes didn’t seem to hang on his body like they normally did. I wonder if any of them knew how different this Sunday would be.

When worship started, the candles were lit. The words of confessions and forgiveness and the prayers of the day were said. And then Pastor Peter Muhlenberg started to read verses from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… We know thethse verses because we hear them at funerals. So I imagine the people in Peter’s pews knew these verses too. But when Peter got to the end of the passage, saying a time for war and a time for peace, he stopped speaking. He looked out from his pulpit at the people in the pews and then, with a dramatic flourish, announced “and this is the time for war.” Peter removed his pastor’s uniform to reveal the military uniform of a colonel in Virginia’s militia. He left the pulpit, walked out the main church doors, and went off to fight in the American revolution.

Now, that’s a pretty dramatic story, isn’t it? A Lutheran pastor gave up his calling in the most dramatic way possible to fight in the American revolution. This is a great story for this kind of weekend, when we will spend time launching fireworks, singing patriotic songs, and wearing American flags on our socks. It’s also a great story because it shows how this son of a German immigrant, in a time when people like Ben Franklin considered Germans to be aliens, to be people unwilling to lose their native language and culture and become true “Americans,” – this story shows how Lutherans could, and would, embrace the war for independence. Peter Muhlenberg’s story is a fun story…and it’s probably just that – a story. We don’t hear about this event until a great-nephew, decades after Peter’s death, writes it down. Peter probably never dramatically left his church in the middle of worship but he did serve in the American revolution, retiring with the rank of Major General. He fought at Brandywine, Germantown, and Yorktown. And after the war he served in the very first Congress as a representative from Pennsylvania – and was there when another Lutheran Pastor turned politician, Peter’s younger brother Frederick, became the first Speaker of the House.

If you look closely at our collective history, the founding generation of the United States is filled with Lutherans. Native-born Lutherans and immigrants served, fought, and died for the American revolution. But that concern about Lutherans and their commitment to the United States, took generations to finally disappear. As a faith tradition rooted in immigrant communities, Lutherans were suspect. The early stories about their commitment and service to the founding of this nation disappeared. Time and again, people wondered if Lutherans truly belonged. In the 20th century, when World War 1 broke out, Lutherans started putting American flags in their sanctuaries to show our collective commitment to the country we call home. And even as Lutherans served bravely and admirably in the American armed forces in World War 2, the Lutheran seminary in Columbia, South Carolina had to tear down buildings to prove their loyalty to their country. As Lutherans living in the 21st century, we might never have experience others questioning our loyalty to the United States. But we are, through our shared heritage, connected to a history where the Lutheran and American identity were not always seen as compatible. The flag in our sanctuary does more than just honor all who served bravely for their country or celebrate the founders of this nation like Peter Muhlenberg. The flag also connects us to the generations of Lutherans who felt they need to prove to others who they truly are.
And that need to prove who we are…is right there, in our reading from Romans today. Two weeks ago, I shared how Paul was writing to a community that didn’t know him. They wanted to know what kind of Christ-follower he truly was. Last week, we heard how the Roman community struggled with their own identity. As a people who saw themselves as slaves to their passions – to lust and anger and the desires that caused them personal suffering – they looked to Jesus as a way to better their lives and fix who they were. By participating in the Jewish practices that Jesus did, the Romans thought they could break their cycle of bad behavior and become people God actually loved. The community embraced their identity as Romans trying to solve a Roman problem and saw Jesus and his Jewish rituals as a way to discover a new way of life. By following Jesus, their feelings of lust would end. By following Jesus, the world would treat them better. By trying this Jesus thing, they would become the best Romans they could possibly be. Following Jesus, they thought, would make them better at being the Romans they knew themselves to be. But Paul looks at this community and challenges them. They are not only Romans. They are not just Gentiles who happened to meet God. They are baptized. They know Christ. When the waters of baptism covered their heads, their old ways of looking at the world were buried. When they stood up, with that same water dripping off their faces, they entered a new reality. Even though they were still who they were before they were baptized, with the same bodies and hair and eyes and thoughts – they now were something more. Their old way of looking at the world, asking what God could give them to make them better Roman, is no longer their priority. They have new questions to ask. They have a new point of view to live into. This connection with Jesus is not about what we can get from God. Rather it’s about what God, through us, can give the world. Because, with just a few drops of water and God’s word of promise, we were changed. Even if we were just a child, a baby who couldn’t even walk, we were connected in a very public way with a Jesus who did more than just die for us. He also lives with us, right now, too. He helps us, through words of encouragement, through moments of insight, and through the he brings into our lives, to refine us into people who change the questions we are asking. Instead of asking how others can be like us, Jesus invites us to discover how we can give others the gifts of love and service. Instead of spending time asking about other people’s’ identity, Jesus helps us focus on what it means for us to be identified with Jesus Christ. As human beings, our old questions will never truly die. We will still struggle with concerns that focus on ourselves rather than others. We will still need our own version of flags in our sanctuaries to prove to others and ourselves that, no matter our race or sexuality or ethnicity or beliefs or gender that we, and even those who are different from us, still belong. We are still broken human beings. We are still people who don’t always get things right. Yet, in our baptism, Jesus invites us into something more. We have been given a new identity. We get to ask new and loving questions. And because of who Jesus is and what Jesus did, we are finally set free to be the true Christians God calls us to be.

Amen.

Play

The Right Time: Promise, Hope, and Faith

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 5:1-8

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 18, 2017) on Romans 5:1-80. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

Yesterday, around noon, I was sitting at my dining room table, putting the finishing touches on a funeral sermon I would share a few hours later. When I was done, I gathered my things and headed out the door. And that’s when I noticed…the rain. By the time I was halfway down the block, it was pouring. This..wasn’t good because the funeral service I was about to lead was taking place outdoors in our Memorial Garden. When I finally got to church, I stood in the narthex, looked out the front doors, and did all I could to make the rain stop. I said a prayer. I stared intently at the sky, hoping the seriousness of my face would convince the clouds to back off for a little bit. But nothing I did worked. The rain kept falling. I then decided to move the service inside, hoping we could by some time, and give the skies another 15 minutes to clear out before we would bury ashes in the ground. We started the service, read the lessons, said our prayers, and the rain kept falling. Now I know it’s a bit presumptuous to act like yesterday’s rainstorm was specifically designed to interfere with what I wanted to do. But the rain came at the exact right time to upend the plans I made. If the clouds had stayed away for just one more hour, the service would have gone on without a hitch. But instead, the right time for the funeral was also the right time for the rain to fall.

Our reading today from the book of Romans mentions this…idea of the right time. Now, we call Romans the book of Romans but it’s really a letter. Paul is writing to a group of people in the city of Rome who believe in Jesus. We don’t know when this community was founded or who was first to bring Jesus there. Yet by the time Paul is planting churches all over the Eastern Mediterranean, a church in Rome had already been formed. Paul is hoping to visit this community and he introduces himself with a very long letter. The community in Rome seems to have some…concerns about who Paul is and what he’s teaching. They want to know more about what the gospel means to him. We sometimes make this long letter to the Romans seem like it’s Paul’s great attempt to put all his experiences of Jesus and faith and the church into a neat, cohesive, and coherent package that should be easy to understand. But I don’t think that’s Paul’s goal. He’s not trying to talk about Jesus as if Jesus is…some kind of fancy thought experiment, something we only have to keep in our heads. Paul isn’t hoping that the community in Rome will hear his words and then start nodding their heads in agreement. Instead, Paul is trying make Jesus happen to them. He’s trying to convey an experience that touches the core of all who hear it. Paul, using the only thing he has at that moment to share Jesus, uses a scroll and a pen to plant seeds of faith in those who hear it. And this faith doesn’t start by understanding an idea or a concept. This faith begins with a promise. In Christ, God has claimed you. In Christ, God has shown how much God loves you. In Christ, you are given a gift of faith that’s always in awe because the creator of everything has decided that this is the right time for you to know how much you matter. And you matter not because you are perfect or because you always do the right thing. You matter because God has created you. And that’s…enough. In a society that still makes up rules about who has value and who does not, God promises that even those society views as valueless are seen and noticed by God. The values of our society and of our culture are not the limit to the values God has. Everyone’s value is grounded in the relationship God starts with them and not the other way around. This promise God makes is a promise of hope. Because when your hope is rooted in God, it’s a hope no one can take away from you.

What Paul is doing in these short verses from Romans is to invite the community to live that promise out loud. This hope-filled promise begins in a God who sees them, knows them, values them, and won’t leave them on their own. This kind of hope isn’t wishful thinking or one that is so abstract and heady that we leave it out there, on the horizon, knowing we’ll never see if fulfilled so it never inspires us to live a different way. The hope that Paul sees is certain and sure and true. And it’s hope that knows God acts. In the words of Elizabeth Shively, “what God will do for the believer in Christ is grounded on what God has done.” God didn’t wait for us to be perfect before Jesus visited us. Jesus didn’t wait for us to understand everything he said before Jesus claimed us as his own. The God who acts is a God who doesn’t wait for us to catch-up. Instead, the God who acts is a God who comes to us first. Because the right time for God to meet us is always at our beginning. And God keeps coming to us over and over again because we need a lot of new beginnings. We need God to give us new eyes to see the world as it truly is. We need God to give us new hearts so we can love each other as much as God loves us. We need God to break the bonds of injustice that keep systems of oppression firmly in control. And we need God to keep giving us this hope that the God who has acted in Jesus won’t let upended plans get in the way of what God is about to do.

For people who are claimed by God, the trick to living your faith out loud isn’t trying to wait for the right time or right situation or right feeling to hit you before you start living. The trick is to always live in God’s love and hope and promise – even when the rain of sorrows, anxieties, fears, and hardships fall. Faith doesn’t mean that sorrows won’t come. Faith doesn’t mean that we never will be anxious. Instead, faith means that in spite of what comes, we live and act and believe that the future God has planned will actually come. And faith trusts this because Jesus has already come. Jesus has already called you by name. And once Jesus knows you, there’s nothing in this world that can push that promise away.

Amen.

Play

The Seed of it All: forgetting and remembering

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (June 11, 2017) on Matthew 28:16-20. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

What’s the last thing you forgot? I…don’t remember. I’m sure, if you asked my kids or my spouse or checked my email inbox which is my default to-do list, I’m sure you’d find the last thing I forgot to do. But when we frame forgetting in this way, we make forgetting seem like it’s only about a promise we broke or it’s something that happened when the busyness of life got in our way. But forgetting is more than that. Forgetting can feel like we’ve lost something. This week I stumbled on an article from the New Yorker written by Kathryn Schulz with the title “When Things Go Missing.” It’s an essay that starts in Portland in the summer when suddenly, according to Kathryn, everything “fell out of place.” She writes:

My first day in town, I left the keys to [my] truck on the counter of a coffee shop. The next day, I left the keys to the house in the front door. A few days after that, warming up in the midday sun at an outdoor café, I took off the long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing, only to leave it hanging over the back of the chair when I headed home. When I returned to claim it, I discovered that I’d left my wallet behind as well….later that afternoon I stopped by a sporting-goods store to buy a lock for my new bike and left my wallet sitting next to the cash register. I got the wallet back, but the next day I lost the bike lock. I’d just arrived home and removed it from its packaging when my phone rang; I stepped away to take the call, and when I returned, some time later, the lock had vanished. This was annoying, because I was planning to bike downtown that evening, to attend an event at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore. Eventually, having spent an absurd amount of time looking for the lock and failing to find it, I gave up and drove the truck downtown instead. I parked, went to the event, hung around talking for a while afterward, browsed the bookshelves, walked outside into a lovely summer evening, and could not find the truck anywhere.

Even on our best days, we’re forgetting something. One insurance company claims that we misplace nine objects every single day. That means, by the time [we’re] [Marcus is] sixty, [we’ll] [he’ll] have lost up to two hundred thousand things. Now, we mostly find the things we lose. But looking for things takes time. When you add up all the time we will spend in our lives looking for things we’ve lost, we’ll spent almost six months looking for our keys and wallets. We’re good at losing things because we’re good at forgetting. But we shouldn’t limit forgetting to just losing things. Forgetting can also be heartbreaking. I’ve witnessed an illness causing someone to forget their own name. I’ve been at the bedside of people who forgot how to speak English and instead, started speaking Spanish and Swedish and all these other languages they hadn’t spoken since they were six. Many of us have parents or siblings or loved ones who have forgotten who we are and who, at the same time, seem to have lost who they are too. Forgetting can be as simple as asking a friend to call our cell-phone because we have no idea where it is in our house. And forgetting can be as terrifying as losing who we are.

Which is why I struggle with our translation of Jesus’ last words in the gospel according to Matthew today. Jesus, after his death on the cross, after his resurrection, and after he has spent time showing his followers that the brokenness of this world is not the final chapter God has planned for us, Jesus makes one more public statement. He gathers his friends on a mountain top because, in Matthew, that’s where important things happen. Some of his followers are excited to be there. Others…don’t really know what’s going on. Even though Jesus is right in front of them, some of his friends doubt. But Jesus pulls them all together because he has one more thing to say. In a few short sentences, Jesus explains who he is. Jesus gives his followers a list of things to do. And then he ends on a word of promise, a promise that our translation today begins with the words: “And remember…”

Now, there is something powerful about remembering, especially during difficult times. When life is hard, we can remember that Jesus lived and died for you not because you are perfect but because Jesus loves you. Jesus is there with you while your heart breaks because his heart is breaking too. That’s… who Jesus is. But the words, “And remember…” can also be a tad terrifying because it seems as if Jesus is giving us a task to do that we’re not always cut out for. I mean, I have literally forgotten where I have put my shoes. And I have sent texts to my spouse, telling her to bring the plastic collar I wear around my neck, this collar that signifies my role as a pastor, because…I forgot it and left it at home. Jesus is asking an awful lot of us when he asks us to remember because there are times when we won’t. There are times when we can’t. And there are times when we’re experiencing so much joy and so much sadness that Jesus will be the last thing on our minds. When we take a step back and look at our entire life of faith, it’s easier to talk about what we’ve lost rather than what we remember because losses linger. Loved ones die. Friends move away. Relationships end. We lose our jobs, our sense of stability, and our bodies no longer work the way they use to as we get older, ill, and frail. As Kathryn Schulz writes further in her article, “We lose things because we are flawed; because we are human; because we have things to lose.” I’m not sure Jesus should rely on our ability to remember because forgetting and loss is sometimes all we have.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is doing in these last verses from Matthew. The Greek word that our translation translates as “Remember…” isn’t usually used in that way. Instead, it’s an interjection. It’s a shout. It’s the same word that announces the sudden appearance of an angel and lets us know that Jesus’ friends freaked out when the prophets Moses and Elijah showed up on a mountain. The word really means “Look! See! Hey, over here!” It’s pointing out something that is sudden, exciting, and totally unexpected. It’s a word to that let’s us know that whatever follows it, matters. Jesus doesn’t order his disciples to remember his promises, as if our actions can somehow make these promises true or not. Instead, Jesus is saying: “look! I am with you. I will be with you. And you cannot lose me like you will lose your car keys…or even your memory.” Once God knows us, we cannot stop God from coming to us. Once Jesus claims us in our baptism, we can’t ever stop him from loving us. Our faith and the relationship God has with each of us is too important for God to leave up only to us. Instead, God takes the initiative to claim us, to hold us, and to live with us because God says we are worth more than we will ever know. Our relationship with God doesn’t depend or being with something that we do or rely on whether we can remember who God is. Our relationship depends only on the promises God gives to us – a promise made real in the gift of faith itself. This faith moves us, this faith transforms us, this faith pushes us into the promise Jesus makes here. “Look! See! Hey, this is important.” No matter where we are, or what we do, or where we go – Jesus promises that little Marcus and all of us will never be alone.

Amen.

Play

Keep My Commandment: a sermon on dos and don’ts

”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

”I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

John 14:15-21

My sermon from 6th Sunday of Easter (May 21, 2017) on John 14:15-21. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

****************************

In New York City, there’s an old, boarded up gas station located on Hudson Street. The entire perimeter is sealed by a 12 foot high chain linked fence and, inside it, is a dilapidated garage with a few white delivery vans parked around it. Along the sidewalk is an old, rusting, gas pump with its last sale still on the dials. The last time it was used, 9.87 gallons of gas cost 3 dollars and sixty-five cents. And because this is New York City, the chain link fence is covered in signs. The last time I walked by this gas station, there was one sign in particular that I noticed. On this giant old white sign, big black letters said: “Unapproved parkers will have the air let out of their tires and their license plates removed.” Now I actually have no idea if it’s even legal to do that but it’s quite a threat, isn’t it? I can totally see myself driving on Hudson street and thinking, for a moment, I finally found the last available parking spot in all of New York City. I pull in, thank Jesus for giving me the spot, and then I look up and see that sign. Those words are saying, in no uncertain terms, just…don’t. Don’t park here. Don’t interfere. Don’t get in the way of the people working here. Because if you do, there will be trouble.

That don’t….is sometimes exactly what we think about when we hear anyone in scripture use the word commandment. Commandments can sometimes be God’s version of a big white sign with big black letters that simply says “Don’t.” And we think this because the word commandment is dominated by the Ten Commandments we once learned in Sunday School or Confirmation Class or that we saw cross stitched and hung on a wall in our great aunt’s home. Don’t have any other god but God. Don’t take God’s name in vain. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t desire something that belongs to your neighbor. Now, there are some commandments that are not “don’t” related like remember to keep the sabbath, to give that day fully to God, and to also honor your parents. But the “don’ts” outnumber the “dos”. And that ends up giving the word “commandment” an essence and a flavor. A commandment from God is seen, consciously or unconsciously, as God telling us “not” to do something. Commandments are God’s way of creating boundaries for us, fencing us in so to speak, so that we can stay on a straight and narrow path that will lead us to God. The thinking goes, if we stay within the boundaries God sets up, we will be okay. When we follow the rules, we show God and Jesus just how much we love them. And if we show God the right amount of love, then God will fully love us in return. The God of the “dont’s” will shower blessings on those who listen and will finally answer all those prayers that sometimes go unanswered. When the word commandment becomes a word that only means “don’t,” then the God who speaks those don’ts becomes a God who cares only about what you don’t do. And a God who cares only about what you don’t do isn’t the God Jesus is talking about today.

For Jesus, commandments are not about the “don’ts.” The commandments are always a do. And commandments are never fences that keep us on a straight and narrow path that, eventually, bring us to God. Rather, because God is already alongside us, the fences which hem us in are torn down by a love that breaks walls and never builds them. So to understand Jesus and the word commandment, we need to remember a passage in John that never shows up in the 3 year cycle of readings we use in worship. In John chapter 12, just 2 chapters before today’s reading, Jesus is giving his last public speech before John’s version of the last supper. A mixed crowd of many different ethnicities is gathered around him. Jesus is teaching, preaching, and showing signs of who he is but not everyone believes him. There are some that do but they refuse to share this publicly because they are afraid about what others might think. Instead, they remain quiet. But Jesus doesn’t hold their quietness against them. He refuses, at that moment, to judge them. Instead, he talks about his purpose, about his mission, about his goal to save them. He’s there to love and to show everyone who God is. Because seeing Jesus is seeing God. To see how Jesus loves, how Jesus heals, how Jesus embraces and prays and talks to everyone, even those who are his enemies….that’s who God is. Jesus is telling the world exactly what God says and showing everyone how even a Cross can’t stop God from saving them. All of this, Jesus says, is the Father’s commandment for him. This commandment for Jesus isn’t a don’t. It’s a do. It’s a live-a-human-life, love like God does, tell the world just how much it means to God even though this will lead to the Cross – kind of commandment. And Jesus, in chapter 12 verse 50, calls this kind of commandment….eternal life.
Commandments are more than “don’ts.” Commandments are a way of life that embodies God’s love. When Jesus shares his last public speech, he’s telling everyone that love is more than just a feeling and more than just being kind. Love is a way of life that is willing to sacrifice itself so that even a stranger can live and thrive. And today, when Jesus is in the middle of his long speech to his disciples, telling them that Jesus will be with them and they’ll never be orphaned no matter what tragedy befalls them or him, the commandments Jesus points to are centered in a deep and abiding love that even death can’t overcome. When we turn God’s commandments into a series of only don’ts, we sin. We impose limits on God’s love that simply do not exist. We forget that we have, through God’s promises, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus with us, forever. And it’s this spirit that empowers us to change these commandments of don’ts that we think are focused only on limiting what we do in our lives and instead see how God’s commandments invite us to help the person next to us – thrive. Instead of holding signs with big black letters telling others what we’re going to do if they get in our way, the Holy Spirit guides us to take down our signs of don’t and instead help others become the people God wants them to be. This might take some work on our part. And it might cost us some time, some money, and force us to break out of our comfort zone. But this is something we get to do because we are loved; we are chosen; we are, through our baptism and through our faith, part of God’s holy family. We are not orphans. We have Jesus. So let’s act like we do.

Amen.

Play