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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Be Excellent to Each Other: finding a fuller picture of Jesus

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

My sermon from the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 12, 2018) on Ephesians 4:25-5:2. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Over the last few months, my brother has been figuring out our family tree. We know a bunch about my mom’s family and some about my dad’s mom’s family. But when it comes to my dad’s dad, my grandfather, we knew practically nothing. Every few years, we searched various genealogical websites, trying to find something about him and his family. Nothing ever came up until this year. We found this: a copy of my grandfather’s registration card for the military during World War 2. Now that’s a pretty neat and helpful thing to find. It’s got his age, a birthdate, a birthplace – Silver City, New Mexico, and my grandfather’s job: he was a farm laborer. The card also recorded the name of someone who knew where my grandfather was at all times. And that person, Sylvester, is my great-grandfather. This image was our first tangible encounter with our great grandfather – and we both wanted to find out more. My brother spent days looking at census records, newspaper clippings, and whatever else he could find. But it was a struggle because my great-grandfather’s last name kept changing. Even on this draft card, you can see how the printed last name of my grandfather doesn’t exactly match his signature at the bottom. And my great-grandfather’s last name is missing a letter. This problem only gets worse when we look at this image from the 1930 United States’ census. I discovered that my great-grandfather spent time in California and that census takers deleted the first 2 letters of his last name. Sylvester’s first name, in the census at least, retained its Mexican spelling and it showed that he, and many of his children, were born in Mexico. They moved to this country at some point but I didn’t know when or where until we found this: an index card recording their border crossing. On February 7, 1917, my great grandfather, my great grandmother, and their kids crossed the border at Columbus, New Mexico. I don’t know why they entered the United States. But they are, on the card, listed as refugees. In 1917, a Mexican Civil War was tearing up Northern Mexico. So it’s not hard to imagine my great-grandfather and his family wanting to escape the bloodshed and violence all around them. They, as family, sought asylum and safety in the United States.

Now, if you look closely at the border crossing card, you’ll see that my great-grandfather’s last name is, once again, spelled differently. And that’s annoying. Yet these constant changes in spelling provide an opportunity for us to engage with these documents in a different way. My encounter with my great-grandfather is bounded by these written words. To uncover the fullness of his story, I need to recognize how the changes in spelling matched his life as an immigrant, and a Mexican, in the United States. To really understand who he was, I needed to see all his words, including their English and Mexican spellings.

This exercise of looking at how we encounter someone and expanding what that might mean, is a helpful exercise for our faith. For many of us, our encounters with Jesus are bounded by words. These words are the ones we hear on Sunday morning and the ones we read and feel when we open our bibles and our daily devotionals. We know that Jesus is the Word but our words can sometimes limit what we think Jesus might be like. Instead of seeing Jesus as this expansive, inclusive, and amazing event, we let our words box Jesus in. And I’m saying “our words” because we need to be mindful that when we encounter Jesus in scripture, we’re encountering him in our language which wasn’t originally his. Jesus didn’t speak 21st century English or Spanish. He didn’t know our figures of speech, our idioms, or what emojis we like to end our text messages with. Instead, he spoke Aramaic. And he probably knew Ancient Hebrew and maybe Ancient Greek. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, made sure that his words were written down and shared through that Ancient Greek dialect that we no longer speak. Our encounters with Jesus’ story happen through a holy, and Spirit guided, translation. But that translation is built on an interpretation of what Ancient Greek and modern day English means. Sometimes, to fully see Jesus and what our life with him might look like, we need to read his story in a different translation or see his story interpreted in a language not our own. We might even need to step into that Ancient Greek text itself. This exercise isn’t always necessary but it’s sometimes helpful. And it makes a difference today – with this text from Ephesians, where we see the author telling us to be kind.

Now being kind is more than just being nice. Being kind requires us to empathize, care, and serve each other with love and respect. Being kind takes work, sacrifice, and is sometimes a struggle. So there’s something good, life giving, and loving about being kind. But when we look at this text in English, is there much here that is Christ specific? The actions and behaviors that Ephesians describes as good are pretty standard, regardless of our religious beliefs. Not lying to each other, working through our conflicts, and not stealing from each other is good advice for any community, religious or not. Much of these ethical teachings in Ephesians can be reduced to the golden rule: where we treat each other the way we want to be treated. It’s not entirely clear how these kinds of actions, when they include Jesus, make a more unique and holy difference in our lives and in our world.

So it’s at this point when reading the Ancient Greek text becomes helpful. As you can see on the screen, this text from Ephesians in Greek is interesting. And I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t read it. But, with a little help, I was able to place red boxes around two important words in this text. The first box surrounds the word for kind. The second box is for Christ himself. The words in those two boxes look similar. And they are because the words translated as kind and Christ are closely related. When the Ancient church heard this passage in Greek, they smiled because they recognized the wordplay being done through the words kind and Christ. They would, through this more expansive engagement with the text, understand that they were being asked to do more than just be kind. They were, at the same time, being asked to be a Christ to everyone they knew.

Part of being a Christ to each other is going to look like we’re being kind. But there are times when being a Christ to each other means we’re going to need to change our point of view, our expectations, and maybe even our way of life. Being a Christ means we have to be with Christ, spending time with his story, with his words, with his world, and with his people, regardless of where they come from or what they believe. What makes our actions as Christians different from everyone else, is that our service and love for each other is wrapped up in a savior who lived and died so that all people might discover God’s love for them. When we see our faith as an expansive act of love, we uncover a core part of our own story. And that story is not limited by our experiences, our thoughts, what’s happened to us, or even what we found on ancestry.com. Our story is Christ’s story because we are Christ’s people and so we love ourselves, each other, and all people as Christ loves us.

Amen.

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Now What? Our Spiritual Gifts are life-giving mysteries

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16

My sermon from the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 5, 2018) on Ephesians 4:1-16. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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So if you are a fan of the Internet, your social media feeds might have been devoted to goats over the last few days. A goat on the internet can mean many different things. It can be an acronym, referring to someone who is a g o a t – the greatest of all time. But it can also refer to that hairy little animal with horns that eats practically everything. On Friday morning, a breaking news report shook Boise, Idaho because over 100 goats were wandering in a residential area. At first, no one knew how they got there. They just showed up, wandering from yard to yard. Now, if your yard is mostly crabgrass like mine is, a bunch of goats coming over to have lunch isn’t really that scary. But if you have a yard you actually care for, a herd of goats showing up at your front door is downright terrifying. Those goats were on a mission and they were going to eat every plant in sight.

Now, if you followed the story, you know how the goats got there and what happened next. Everything, eventually, worked out and the goats went back to where they came from. It’s a fun little news story with a happy ending but instead of focusing on how the story ended, I want to spend time with how the story began. And it started with a tweet. Joe Parris, a reporter for a tv station in Boise, received a tip about these goats, so he went out and found them, taking 4 pictures of the goats with his phone. He immediately sent word to the wider internet that by writing this: “#Breaking – About 100 goats are on the loose right now in a Boise neighborhood. They are going house to house eating everything in sight. Nobody has a clue where they came from…updates to follow.” Goats on the loose is a really great sentence we don’t hear often. And this short news tweet had everything in it to keep us interested. But what drew me into this story wasn’t only the goats. Rather, what enticed me was how no one knew how they got there. It was a mystery! And the very best kind of mystery there is. If imagine ourselves as one of the homeowners on that street, seeing one goat in our front yard would be unexpected. But seeing over 100 goats would totally blow our mind. We would wonder where they came from but that question would have to wait because the mysterious herd of goats would be making our flower and vegetable beds disappear in a very non-mysterious way. We wouldn’t get to dwell on where this mystery came from. Instead, we have to live with it, and engage it, right away. And that’s what makes mysteries powerful. A mystery is an experience we can’t, in that moment, fully explain but it is something we have to live through. We run into these kinds of mysteries all the time and they’re usually very small. We might get a phone call late at night from an unlisted number and wonder who called us. But when that person leaves a voicemail, that little mystery is solved. Yet there are other mysteries that we are asked to hold onto; mysteries we can’t fully explain. And that’s important because it’s those mysteries that teach us who God is calling us to be.

We have spent these last few weeks taking time during worship to explore our spiritual gifts. And we’ve done that because of this passage from our second reading today. This is the moment in Ephesians when the focus of the letter changes. Before this, the author talked about everything that God had done and how God, through Jesus, had included Gentiles into a new humanity God was bringing about. This new humanity isn’t here yet so God created a community of faith, a church, that could be a inclusive, welcoming, and loving community for us all. God gives the church a sense of unity by connecting us to each other through the gift of faith and the gift of baptism. But this unity doesn’t ask us to forget who we are. We all have our own histories, backgrounds, experiences, and identities. We are all different. And that’s great because God wants the church to include all the diversity present in God’s world. Living with this kind of diversity isn’t always easy. So the letter to the Ephesians moves away from talking about what God has done and invites us to consider how our lives can respond to God done. And one way we do this is by discovering the gifts God has given to each of us.

These gifts, our talents and abilities, are not always easy to see. And, in fact, they can be quite mysterious. A gift we use in our everyday life might not be the gift God wants us to use in the church. We might be an amazing public speaker, able to articulate a clear point of view that impresses our coworkers and our boss. Yet in the church, God might want us to hold back, to not speak out as much as we do, and instead nurture a prayer life that prays for everyone in our bulletin and in our prayer chain. Or this mystery could be the exact opposite. We might be shy when we’re out in public and at school. We might be unassuming and quiet when we’re part of a large crowd. Yet in this place, surrounded by people who recognize us as a necessary part of what God is doing in the world, the spiritual gift of preaching might be exactly what God wants us to do. We can’t assume that the gifts we use in the world are the same gifts God calls us to use inside the church. Because the spiritual gifts God gives to each of us are designed for one thing: and that’s to help all of us grow into the kind of people God wants us to be. That happens when we, as a community, know each other and know ourselves. The gifts we bring into the church are needed so that the people sitting next to us can become the Christians they’re meant to be. And their gifts other people have are necessary for us so that we can fully follow Jesus Christ. These mysterious gifts from God are not designed to remain a mystery to those around us. We need to tell each other our stories and share the gifts God has given us. We need to listen to each other so that we can discover who we are and how other people’s gifts can change our lives. And we need to recognize the gifts we see in others before they see it in themselves. Our spiritual gifts, right now, might be mystery. Or we might think that we don’t have any gifts to share at all. But if 100 goats can show up mysteriously in Boise, Idaho, then we can take a chance and live more deeply into the mysteries of faith, love, hope, and mercy that God gives to us each and everyday. It’s in those mysteries where we discover who God is and why Jesus makes a difference in our lives. And it’s through those mysteries where we learn how we can make a difference in Christ’s Church and throughout all of God’s world.

Amen.

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Dwell: In Absurdity

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21

My sermon from the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (July 29, 2018) on Ephesians 3:14-21. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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In Provincetown, Massachusetts, there’s a boat sitting inside a building. The building itself is old, a former church that once fit over 900 people in its 128 pews. A large bell tower dominates the front and the sanctuary space overshadows the rest of the town. The building has been many different things over the years. It was an art gallery, a cultural center, and a heritage museum, but it’s now the Provincetown Public Library. And on that library’s second floor is a boat. Now since Provincetown has a long history of ships and sailing, it’s not surprising to find a boat inside its library. We should expect to find lot of boats, models of the various sailing ships that once called Provincetown home. But the boat I’m talking about isn’t a little model. It wouldn’t fit in a bottle and you couldn’t display it on your desk. No, the boat in the library is a half-sized model of a schooner, the Rose Dorothea, that was built in 1905. The original ship was 109 feet long, weighed 108 tons, and had 26 sailors for its crew. The ship was famous for winning the one, and only, Lipton Cup – a race organized by the inventor of the individual tea bag, Sir Thomas Lipton – in Boston harbor in 1907. The Rose Dorothea was low in the water, with a thin central mast, large sails, and a rounded bow which let it zoom through the water. The ship had a productive career, sailing all over the Atlantic until it was sunk by a German submarine in WW1. Rose’s dramatic story became a stand-in for all the fishermen and women and sailors who called Provincetown home. And in 1977, the grandson of one of the sailors who won that Lipton Cup decided to build a half-sized model of the Rose Dorothea inside the heritage museum that was in that old church. So -today, on the second floor of the Provincetown Public library, is a 66 foot long schooner with full sails and a mast poking through the top of the ceiling. It’s a boat designed to never sail. It has shelves of books around it, blocking it from ever entering the Atlantic Ocean. The boat is just sitting there, a memorial to a way of life that still matters in Provincetown, and with a funny little sign on it that says: Do Not Climb.

It’s a bit absurd to build a big boat and keep it inside a building. But this boat is even more odd because it looks as if it could actually sail. I’m not a ship builder but I’ve seen plenty of museum replicas and models in my day. These models are usually small, imperfect, and very dusty. They’re designed to let our us imagine what a real life version of it would have been like. But the boat on the second floor of the Provincetown Public Library looks as if it could sail in the harbor just outside it. The master builder of the model, Captain “Flyer” Santos, was a real life ship builder. He knew what he was doing and he spent over 11 years making sure his team made the Rose Dorothea right. You would think he might have wanted to cut corners during construction because the model would never face a storm at sea. But Captain Santos didn’t because I think he had a story to tell. That ship is designed to invoke memories and feelings in us that we might not even know we have. We’re supposed to marvel at its design and beauty, while at the same time be in awe that anyone would want to sail a little wooden boat across the ocean. We might personally have never sailed or stood on an ocean going ship. But this half-scale model invokes in us a sense of wonder, uniting us with a story that is central to who we are. For many of us, these kind of ships are a part of our own story. We might have sailed across the ocean, passing through Ellis Island as new immigrants to the United States. We might be a descendant of someone who boarded an old rickety sailing ship, hoping to start a new life here in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries. Or our ancestors might have been shackled or the ones doing the shackling on the many slave ships that brought so many people involuntarily into this country. Not everyone in the United States is a descendant of immigrants who came from somewhere else or who came to this country willingly. But we, together, have a collective history that is tied to these ships that sailed over the ocean and created this nation along their way. It’s absurd to build a ship inside a building but the feelings, thoughts, and wonder that ship invokes in us, all that good and all that bad; that’s what grounds and root us in our collective story.

And that’s why, I think, the author of Ephesians ended the third chapter of their letter with a prayer. Today’s second reading marks the end of the first half of the letter, the part of the letter designed to tell us why it was written. The author was writing to a small community of Christians made up of Jews and Gentiles. And the letter focused first on the Gentiles, the non-Jews, letting them know that they were a necessary part of God’s kingdom. These people who never grew up Jewish were part of God’s plan because God, through Jesus, was uniting all people into a new humanity. This unity, I think, wasn’t supposed to ignore our differences but, rather, the author wanted to focus on what it is that keeps us together. It’s Jesus, this wandering Jewish Rabbi who casted out demons, fed the hungry, and lived a life showing us what it looks like when God comes near – that’s who connects us to each other. It isn’t our nationality or ancestry or history; it isn’t our race or language or gender; it isn’t our wealth or status or even sharing the same exact beliefs – that’s not the focus of why we’re here. We’re here because Jesus called us to be here. We’re connected to each other because, in our baptism, we are connected to the One who makes us one. And we matter to God because all people, in every kind of human family, comes from God. It’s absurd that a Jewish rabbi, killed by the Romans 2000 years ago, would call Gentiles to follow him. But Jesus did that then and he does that still. He calls all of us to cling to him, to follow him, and to know that his absurd love for us will overcome the absurd ways we run from him. We might not always know what that kind of love actually looks like. And we will have questions about what it is God wants from our lives. We’re not going to have every answer to every question that we ask. But we, through Jesus, will receive every answer that we need. In Christ, we are all connected to each other. In the Father, we are rooted to the One who has made all people One. And we, through the Spirit, have been given a faith that will remind us of the many way God is transforming us even when we don’t feel that way at all. Its this faith, grace, and hope that keeps us rooted and grounded in a love that will sometimes call us to do absurd things, like building a boat inside a library, so that all people, knowing who they are and whose they are, can finally see the new future that God is bringing about.

Amen.

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Remember That You Were: In Christ, Unity and Diversity

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:11-22

My sermon from the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (July 22, 2018) on Ephesians 2:11-22 Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Did you notice a bit of weirdness in our second reading from the letter to the Ephesians? Well, it might be hard to pin down just one bit of weirdness because there’s a lot in there. The passage begins by talking about Gentiles, moves to the circumcised versus the uncircumcised, and brings up aliens and strangers. The text then get a little Halloweeny by talking about Jesus’ blood and the walls of hostility that exist between us and other people. It’s easy to get lost in these verses since the sentences are long, the grammar is poor, and it’s difficult for translators to take this ancient greek writing and interpret it into modern English. Last week, I pointed out how eleven or so verses in the first chapter of Ephesians is really just one sentence in the greek. The author, in an enthusiastic way, wanted to overwhelm those hearing the letter, making sure they knew that they were destined to be children of God. They, as they are, were necessary so that the community in Ephesus could become Christ’s church. We’ve moved a bit from last week’s reading and it’s easy to hear these verses today and get confused by all the details. So we need to take a step back, skim through the passage, and pick out the main idea. And when we do that, we see unity. Jesus, according to Ephesians, brings together different groups of people and unites them into a new community. Faith and baptism gives everyone an additional identity, so that what unites us is greater than whatever divides us. Being with Jesus means we’re part of a diverse community that cares, serves, and loves each other. That’s the focus of this confusing text. Life with Jesus isn’t supposed to be like life anywhere else. Life with Jesus is full of difference; full of possibilities; and full of unity.

So if we keep that in our back pocket and read through this passage again, the details are still strange but maybe not as weird as they were before. The author is speaking to the people in the Ephesian community who followed Jesus but who didn’t grow up Jewish. As non-Jews, they’re called Gentiles. And it’s odd for Gentiles to believe in a messiah who was (and is) Jewish. But Jesus’ ministry always crossed cultural, religious, and national borders. The people who heard about him, who met him in marketplaces, at water wells, and on mountaintops were Samaritans, syrophoenicians, Israelites, Galileans, men, women, children, the sick, the healthy, the faithful, the non-believer, the Jewish person, and the Gentile. Jesus crossed the borders we built to keep ourselves apart. And it wasn’t long before his followers did the same. Paul, in his travels, preached in synagogues but he also went to the marketplaces. And I think his faith communities grew the most when he invited Gentiles to put aside their worship of many gods and instead discover the Jesus that lived, and died, and lives again for them. This kind of border crossing is never easy. And there were debates over how to bridge the Gentile and Jewish difference. Arguments arose over what kind of behaviors, what kind of actions, and even what kind of eating habits determined whether someone was part of the right group or not. The author of Ephesians is looking at the Gentiles inside that faith community and affirming that they are beloved children of God. In Christ, the walls, borders, and barriers separating the members of God’s publicly declared holy family comes down. And in the rush to make this point clear, the enthusiastic author of Ephesians emphasized this unity by saying something really weird. They wrote that Jesus “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two…”

Now, that’s weird because if we know our Bible, we know that Jesus isn’t really described elsewhere as the One who abolished the Jewish law: the commandments, the ordinances, the rules, and the way of life that connects God’s original covenanted people to God. Jesus, in his own words, described himself as fulfilling the law and Paul, in the letter to the Romans, promised that he will keep following the law while he follows Jesus Christ. So how can the author of Ephesians make this claim? How can they write as if Jesus himself wanted to abolish the Jewishness of his own identity?

When we take “fulfillment” and merge it with “abolished,” then the unity described in today’s passage isn’t really unity. Because abolishing assumes that one identity and one way of life will replace all others. And that’s dangerous because we tend to take the additional identity we gain in Christ and assume that turns all our identities, our language, faith, culture, race, and background and converts it into an identity package that is more pure, holy, and Godly than all others. The true followers of Jesus, then, are required to look, act, and speak in exactly one way. And if someone can’t match that holy package, then they’re on the outside with no hope of ever being part of whatever’s right. This package we create always becomes an idol that ends up replacing Christ. And it’s this kind of idol that has led to programs, violence, and genocide directed towards the Jewish people, and others, for centuries. This same idol still shows up whenever someone complains that a dominant culture is being diluted and replaced by something that seems sub-human and different. When Jesus is described as someone who removed his own Jewish identity, then this passage from Ephesians stops being about unity and instead becomes a tool for disunity, violence, and suffering.

So it’s at this point, when we have a verse from scripture that is contradicted by other verses, that we have to make some choices. We can ignore this verse and act like it’s not really there. But it is there so we have to engage it. We can try to explain the problem away by claiming that this verse isn’t contradicted by other verses but that’s not helpful either. The Bible is full of verses that we will struggle with and God wants those verses to be there. We can choose to acknowledge that this problematic verse exists but, at the same time, let other verses, including Jesus’ own words, be the ones we choose to follow. We can also try to put this verse into context, noticing that the author is focused on Gentiles, on non-Jews, and we can give the author a pass for their over exuberant attempt at comforting the anxiety that existed in their community. Or we can do a combination of all of those thing while still clinging to the main idea: that in Christ, we are one but that doesn’t mean that our differences aren’t real. Diversity is hard. And being a community where difference exists is difficult because it’s easy to focus only on what divides us. We can spend all our energy alienating those who don’t look like us, who don’t speak like us, who don’t dress like us, and who don’t think like us. It’s easy to focus on where we are different because it’s harder to remember what unites us, what gathers us, and what brings us together. And the One who does that is Jesus Christ. We who once were far off and also who were near, we have been united by the blood of Christ. Through his calling, through the gift of faith, and through the joy of baptism – we are here to love and serve and care for each other because all of us, whether Christian since birth or brand new to the faith; all of us are needed to make Christ’s church the church God wants it to be. Differences will always be a part of this faith community. But as long as we cling to Jesus, we will be built into a community that is always loving, always faithful, and always new.

Amen.

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Gifted: You Are Part of God’s Promise

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:3-14

My sermon from the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (July 15, 2018) on Ephesians 1:3-14. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Have you ever tried to get your mouth to stop talking? Like, say you’re at a job interview or on a first date with someone you actually like. You’re doing your best to make a good first impression – so you make eye contact, answer their questions, and make sure you act as if you’re happy to be there. But sometimes we forget to turn on that part of our brain that gives other people a chance to speak. We talk…and talk….and talk. Our inner monologue, that little voice inside our head, tells us to stop talking but we just can’t. The words spill out, like a flood. If we’re lucky, the person we’re talking to understands our enthusiasm and they give us another chance to make a new first impression. But usually the person we’re talking to walks away with a look on their face that destroys all hope for any future conversation. One of the first things we learn when talking to other people is that we need to pause and create a space where others can speak. We need to stop talking. Because it’s in the small periods of silence when we discover how to listen to each other. When we stop filling our corner of the world with our own words, we hear, for the first time, thoughts, ideas, and stories from others that we never noticed before. It’s in the pauses and in the silence where we create opportunities to learn about, and connect with, each other.

Which is why these eleven or so verses from the opening chapter of our second reading, the letter to the Ephesians, is so weird. Because if you look at our english translation of this text, we see plenty of commas, periods, and other punctuation marks that slow the words down. There is no flood because the verses have pauses and silences inserted into them. But the ancient greek text behind our english translation has….none of that. These verses are one long and unbroken sentence. So imagine, for a moment, reading this text differently. Start like we did with “Blessed be the God and Father…” but when you get to the end of verse 4, right where it says “blameless before him in love,” don’t stop to take a breath. Don’t pause. Instead, head straight into, “He destined us will…” and then keep going. When we get to “he lavished on us;” continue “with all wisdom and insight.” These verses do not pause. They don’t take a break. They keep going, faster and faster until, by verse 11, we’re stumbling over the words. Our inner monologue wants us to stop, it needs us to slow down, but when verse 13 shows up, we can no longer keep straight who is in him, who is you, who believed, and who has been marked and who hasn’t. Instead, at the end of verse 14, everyone collapses into a heap, exhausted, worn out, and confused. Together we take deep breaths, trying to get our bearings, and wondering what it was that we just read and heard. Any of the spaces and boundaries between us – like our beliefs, our gender, our age, and our social and economic class – has been temporarily replaced by a flood of words that started with a blessing and ended with God’s praise. We are, whether we realize it or not, united by a run-on sentence that fills the space between us and forms us into a new community through our eternal connection to Jesus Christ.

Which is, I think, the reason why the letter to the Ephesians starts this way. The author, at this point, isn’t interested in creating new periods of silence, new spaces, where we can connect and deepen our relationship with God. Because when we stop talking, when we create a period of silence that someone else fills up, that’s something we did. It’s an act of connection that we choose to create. But the author wants to begin this letter by first pointing out how God is connected to us in all of our moments, including those moments we didn’t choose, and those moments where we, at first, didn’t notice that God was with us. These kinds of moments are varied and sometimes, in hindsight, easy to name. When we look back and reflect on specific moments in our lives, we can see how Jesus was there when we were sad or afraid. It’s after the fact when we recognize how Jesus carried us through those parts of our lives when we couldn’t feel God’s love for us. When we look back at the brokenness that we lived through – or the brokenness that we’ve learned to live with – that’s usually the moment when we can see how Jesus made a difference in our lives. But Jesus doesn’t only show up when we’re having a hard time. And he isn’t only visible after terrible things have happened. No, Jesus is here – right now. And not only is Jesus here but your connection to God is something that didn’t started at your baptism or your confirmation or when you finally stopped running from God and said, in a prayer, that you believe. Your connection to God, your relationship with Jesus Christ, was something God promised to you before the world was made. The space that you are living in, the space that we occupy and fill with our words, thoughts, emotions, and experiences – all of that, is connected and filled up, by God. There are no moments of our lives where God isn’t present. There are no periods of time when grace upon grace isn’t being given to us. All of us, as we are, are beloved children of God. And this relationship doesn’t depend on what we look like or what exactly we believe. It doesn’t depend on our age, how much money we have, what grades we got in school, or even who we love. The spaces we create to keep us separated from each other are spaces that, in Christ, God fills up. Each of us, as we are, are essential and precious to God. We are more than our bank account, more than our last health screening, more than what other people say about us, and even more than our citizenship or our nationality. You are, grace upon grace, part of God’s family. You are a part of Jesus Christ. And you are always necessary. You are necessary for this church. You are necessary for what God is doing in the world. And you are connected to a worldwide communion of believers that is rooted in love. This love doesn’t stop even in those moments when we are embarrassing ourselves with the flood of words coming out of our own mouths. And this love hasn’t stopped when the only words we can speak are, “God, why me?” In our deep desire to connect to God, to notice God, to understand what it is God wants from us – we first have to recognize that God is with us in every moment of our lives – and that we have been, and always will be, loved.

Amen.

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Asleep on a cushion: Where we sometimes want Jesus to Be

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus said to the disciples], “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Mark 4:35-41

My sermon from 5th Sunday after Pentecost (June 24, 2018) on Mark 4:35-41. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Let me know if this has happened to you. You come home after a busy day and you’re completely worn out. Your feet hurt. Your back is sore. And your brain can’t think straight. You take off your jacket with the intention of hanging it in the hall closet but gravity is extra strong today so the jacket slides off the hanger and lands on the floor. You could pick the jacket up but you need a moment to ready yourself. And it’s in that moment when something shows up to remind us that we’re not alone. Because without warning and without us even noticing, our pets sneak up and sit on that jacket. These fuzzy and scaly super spies will sit on anything that falls onto the floor. A stray jacket becomes a new bed. A shirt that didn’t make it into the laundry basket becomes their new lounge. In fact, anything that lands on the floor – from bubble wrap to a vinyl raincoat to a new couch cushion – everything becomes a pet’s new throne. Our pets know what we don’t want them to sit on and so that’s exactly what they do. They curl up on it, fall asleep, and look downright adorable. We want to move them but we feel bad. So we leave them there on that jacket, shirt, or cushion, and we just watch them, wondering when we got so gullible.

I’m pretty sure the disciples, in our reading from the gospel according to Mark today, didn’t think Jesus looked super adorable as he slept on that cushion in the boat. But they probably did wonder when they got so gullible about Jesus. They were in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, a shallow lake that several of the disciples had fished in for years. They knew this lake and they knew how quickly storms showed up. Once the weather started to shift, the disciples knew the threat that was coming. These followers of Jesus looked at the storm around them, knowing it was too late to turn back. So they looked at the boat itself, hoping it was strong enough to last. But their boat was small, the size of a large canoe, and the waves started flooding it. They realized how much trouble they were in and it’s then when they see Jesus, still asleep, on a cushion.

The disciples looked around and knew exactly the terror they were getting into. But in that very same moment, they looked at Jesus, and they were confused. Here was their teacher, their rabbi, who could cast out demons, cure the sick, and make someone’s withered hand brand new. This Jesus had spent the last few chapters preaching, teaching, healing, and inviting different kinds of people from different kinds of nations to cross their borders to see him. The disciples had seen him do amazing things and watched him bring new life to those society wanted to keep separated and locked away. Jesus, as he was, is God’s love lived out loud. Yet in this moment, as the storm raged, Jesus slept and I bet the disciples probably wondered why they were following him. We, like those first followers of Jesus, rarely imagine him to be a heavy sleeper. When trouble shows up, we want Jesus to be ready. We hope, and sometimes expect, Jesus to see our need and to fix us, right away. When we pray, we know how we want him to act. So when the storm comes, we want Jesus to be awake, like a well trained service dog, ready to respond. When we are in need, we don’t want Jesus to be asleep on a cushion.

But if we’re honest, there are times in our lives when Jesus napping on a cushion is exactly where we want him to be. Before the storm came, we have no hint in scripture that the disciples minded that Jesus was asleep. They were busy sailing their ships, rigging the sails, rowing the oars, and they had no problem with a Jesus snoring the evening away. As long as their journey was going the way they expected; as long as they were traveling along the path they found comfortable; as long as they thought Jesus wasn’t needed right away – the disciples were fine living as if Jesus wasn’t really there. Sure, Jesus was literally in the boat with them, but he was quiet, in the background, and he wasn’t causing any fuss. Jesus wasn’t in their way. Before the storm, he was the easy kind of Jesus to get along with because his nap induced silence seemed to affirm the status quo they were living in. When our life is going well or even when it’s just okay; when our challenges are real but they don’t confront a deep part of who we are – a Jesus asleep on the cushion is the kind of Jesus we expect we need. It’s a Jesus we assume we already know. It’s a Jesus we want to stay quiet. And we want him to be sleeping until the storm finally comes.

So I can understand, at a gut level, why the first thing out of the disciples’ mouth is: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They didn’t ask for help. They didn’t ask to be saved. They simply wondered why Jesus didn’t care? I don’t know many people who haven’t asked this same question. And that question might be the most human and faithful question we can ask. When our heart breaks, when our strength fails, and when we notice the evil that surrounds us – asking if Jesus is asleep on a cushion is the most normal thing we can possibly do. We want him to act; we want him to show up; we want him to make his presence known. And we think, deep in our gut, that we know exactly what Jesus’ action will look like.

But we really don’t. And the disciples had no idea either. Scripture doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought Jesus might do but we know, based on their last question, that the calming of the storm wasn’t on their mind. Jesus slept because he trusted something the disciples didn’t. He knew that every single disciple and every person on those boats had Jesus, right there, with them. In the moments when we feel like we don’t need him, Jesus is there. And in those moments when we do, he’s there too. Having Jesus in our life doesn’t mean that we won’t face storms. And it doesn’t mean that the waves that hit us won’t swamp whatever ship we’re in. But when we have Jesus, when he comes to us in our baptism, when we meet him at the communion table, and when he shows up as we gather in his name – when we have Jesus, we have a savior who is with us 24/7. And this Jesus makes a difference in every moment of our lives. When Jesus, after he calmed the storm, asked the disciples, “Have you still no faith?” Jesus wasn’t asking them about what they think or what they believe. Instead, he’s asking if they have trust. And like a pet who shows up, uninvited and unannounced, to make their presence known by sitting on a jacket we didn’t hang up, Jesus is always with us and he invites us to trust that, no matter what, he will always show up and he will carry us through.

Amen.

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Except In: Did Jesus Tell Jokes? And can you imagine that he did?

[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

My sermon from 4th Sunday after Pentecost (June 17, 2018) on Mark 4:26-34. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Do you think Jesus was funny?

Last week, our reading according to Mark had folks saying that Jesus “was out of his mind.” Now, that’s a kind of funny but it’s not the funny I’m thinking about. Instead, I want to know if Jesus told jokes. Like, when he sat around the campfire in the middle of the Judean desert, after having left one village where he casted out demons and before he walked into the next – did Jesus unwind by telling everyone a funny story? The odds are good that he probably did. And if we take a look at his life as shared by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – Jesus probably needed a sense of humor just to get through it all. His life, from the very beginning, was full of the kinds of stories we tell over and over again. There were incredible joys, like when magi from the east came to visit him when he was merely a baby. But there was also terror, like when his family fled to Egypt as refugees, escape King Herod and the government’s violence. Jesus life, I think, needed humor and laughter to help carry him to the next part of his story. So I’m sure Jesus laughed. And when he was at the countless campfires and dining room tables Scripture doesn’t tell us about, I’m sure he told funny stories. Yet we rarely, as a church, talk about Jesus as being funny. We rarely listen to the stories he tells and expect to laugh. Instead, we assume that everything Jesus says must be very deep and full of a kind of spiritual flavoring that strips his words of most human emotions. We don’t let Jesus get angry or tell a joke. We demand that every word Jesus says sounds like what we imagine “holiness” to be. Because it’s easy to say that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s harder to say that Jesus was also a human being. And human beings, when they speak, aren’t always as holy or reverent or spiritual as we would like them to be. Sometimes a person gets angry. Sometimes they yell. Sometimes people cry and sob and we can’t understand a word their saying because of their tears. Our words are filled with a variety emotions. And today, in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells a joke.
Now the joke is subtle but it’s there. And it involves that mustard seed. Jesus starts his story by saying that the kingdom of God – God’s dream for what world can be – is like a mustard seed that is put into the ground. Jesus, like all good storytellers, ramps up the drama by claiming that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (even though it’s not) and when the seed grows, it multiplies and becomes something huge. This tiny seed grows…and grows…and grows until it is something so big that even birds can make their home in it. The mustard seed is amazing because it can grow into something bigger than itself. But this is where Jesus’ joke shows up. And we miss seeing that joke when we focus only on the seed’s size. We marvel at how big the seed grows but we forget what the seed is. It’s a mustard seed. Now, I like mustard; I like it with pretzels; and I know that the mustard plant served all sorts of medicinal purposes back in Jesus’ day. But it’s still mustard, and in Jesus’ day, this was a normal everyday plant that grew like a weed. It didn’t need much soil or sun or water to take root. And once it did, good luck trying to get rid of it. This weed would dig in, sprout more versions of itself, and keep growing. And it would grow and grow and grow until it was the greatest of all shrubs. Now, that shrub would be big – maybe 10 feet high. But a shrub is still just a bush. When you imagine what heaven on earth would look like, what this kingdom of God might be, does it resemble the beauty, girth, and strength of a well manicured house plant? Probably not. And even scripture, when it imagines God’s kingdom, usually talks about a tree. Because a tree can be huge. A tree is full of life and it becomes a home for all kinds of animals, from squirrels to birds to rabbits who live in its roots. In the book of Revelation, the final image of God’s kingdom on earth includes a giant tree that grows 12 different kinds of fruit. A tree is something tall, strong, mighty, and majestic. And when we imagine the kingdom of God, it should include everything a powerful tree symbolizes. And that usually doesn’t involve shrubbery.
Jesus, in this short parable, takes aim at the assumptions we bring when we encounter him. We want God’s kingdom to be mighty, strong, and overwhelming. We want Jesus’ presence to show up in a way that’s spectacular and in a way that stands up to the test of time – just like the best oaks or elms or cedar trees do. We want our faith to be precious and expensive – like a vintage of wine that comes from only the very best grapes. We come to Jesus with the expectation that his presence and our faith will be obvious, mighty, and important. And when it’s not, we then wonder if maybe there’s something wrong. Or maybe Jesus doesn’t really care about me. Or maybe Jesus isn’t important at all. We come to scripture, to Jesus, and to our faith with expectations and assumptions. And we need to know what those things are. Because when we don’t, we let our broken expectations define our faith rather than letting our faith grow into what Jesus’ expectations for us actually are.

Which means we need to let Jesus tell jokes. And we need to be ready to laugh when he does. Because the kingdom of God is really like an ordinary weed that pops up, is hard to remove, and it will get into everything. Our expectations and assumptions will be re-written by this Jesus who shows up in our every day. Jesus is going to be everywhere, even in the smallest moments of our lives. He’s going to be present in every one of our interactions. And he’s going to show up in our relationships. He will re-oriented our desire and expectation for what is mighty, strong, and powerful; and he will show us that when we are at our most vulnerable, when we are our most human, that’s when we can see the kingdom of God in our midst. The kingdom of God is present in the ways we listen, care, and empathize with each other. The kingdom of God comes close to us when we are a Jesus – not only to those we adore but also to those we don’t. It’s in the everyday moments of love and care for the other – for the vulnerable, the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the migrant, the old, the young, and all their families – it’s in those moments when the kingdom of God pops up to show us just who God is. The Christian faith is an everyday kind of faith. It’s a faith meant to be lived and experienced. And it’s a faith that’s not only for the perfect – but it’s also for imperfect people like us. When we follow Jesus, when we leave our assumptions about what he says and how he says it – behind, we discover that the faith he gives us is one that unravels all our expectations. And this faith gets into every nook and cranny of our body, mind, and soul – and it will be a way of life for us that will change us, so that we can love others in ways we never imagined possible before.

Amen.

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Behind the Yellow Line: Jesus and the Unforgivable Sin

[Jesus went home] and the crowd came together again, so that [Jesus and his disciples] could not even eat.When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 10, 2018) on Mark 3:20-3. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are many spoken and unspoken rules of etiquette that make mass transit work. Some of these rules are obvious, like a sign in an airplane bathroom saying “No smoking.” But other rules are only learned through experience. It usually takes a trip or two to figure out what our airplane attire should be so that we can slip on and off our shoes quickly as we go through airport security. As a former daily rider of the New York City subway, I learned a lot of these unspoken rules while taking rides on the A, the W, and the 1,2, and 3. I learned, for example, where to stand in the subway car when kids did their “what time is it? Showtime!” routines, so they wouldn’t hit me in the head while they twirled around on the overhead bars. I also discovered why you don’t count your blessings when you walk into what appears to be an empty subway car on an otherwise very full train. And I mastered all the jumps, hops, and skips needed to transfer from an express to a local when the doors on both trains are about to close. Yet the place where the spoken and unspoken rules of the subway really made their presence known to me was on that bright yellow line located in the subway stations themselves. That line, usually chipped and barely visible, marks the edge of the subway platform itself. It tells us where it’s safe to stand and where it’s not because when a subway train zooms through the station, the edge of that subway platform ends up being a very dangerous place to be. We’re asked, through vocal announcements and posted signs, to always stand behind the yellow line. But it’s not hard to take a step on that line because there’s nothing really stopping us from doing that. And once a train does enter the station, all of us end up inching onto that line – trying to find that sweet spot on the platform so we can be the first on the train once the doors open. The yellow line marks a place of real danger. The yellow line is there as a warning. And in our reading from the gospel according to Mark, Jesus is pointing to his version of that yellow line when he mentions the sin against the Holy Spirit.

Now, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus – this Son of God who forgives sins all.the.time – talking about a sin that’s unforgivable. What sin could be so great that even Jesus would stay away from you? Sadly, Jesus isn’t very specific. All we get is this “blasphemy” against the Holy Spirit. We usually want something a little more clear so we let our imaginations run wild. We create lists full of the terrible things people do to each other and to themselves, trying to dream up where Jesus’ line actually is. This kind of list making is pretty normal. But it also can be extremely dangerous. I’ve walked with people who are new to Christianity, who end up spending years in a kind of spiritual torment thinking that something they did in their past was something that God would never forgive. I’ve been at the bedside of people who’ve lived incredibly meaningful lives, but who end up spending their final days in incredible guilt, not knowing if Jesus would welcome them in. I’ve seen church authorities, theologians, and pastors say that something as small as using the wrong word when you stub your toe or something as big as suicide would be the one thing that would keep Jesus away from you. None of these pronouncements are life giving. None of them bring hope. And none of them, I think, get to the heart of what Jesus is saying in this moment. Because this searching for the sin that Jesus won’t forgive pulls us away from the bible and we end up missing what Jesus actually said. When our response to scripture is to pull a quote from Jesus out of it so that we can find something out here we think makes more sense, that’s when we should do the opposite and jump back into scripture, back into the story, and spend time with Jesus as he is. We need to see Jesus in this text. We need to see who he is with. We need to see the crowd.

Now, we’re only in the 3rd chapter of Mark so we’re still at the beginning of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story. Yet, Jesus has already been pretty busy. He’s been preaching and teaching all over Galilee. He’s already started casting out demons, healing the sick, and telling all sorts of people their sins are forgiven. Word about him is starting to spread so people from all over Galilee and from other places like Judea, Jerusalem, and even foreign cities like Tyre and Sidon, come to see Jesus. This crowd around Jesus is full of all kinds of people. Men, women, and children; the educated and uneducated; locals and foreigners; everyone from every part of society is there, including the kinds of people we like and those we try to ignore. Every person in that crowd, through their encounter with Jesus, are being, in some way, restored. People are seeing demons being casted out and lives becoming full and whole. Jesus is seeing people as they are, showing them their value, and loving them because they are worth God’s love. This attracts the attention of the religious elites who come to see what Jesus is doing. They know Jesus is doing something incredible. They see the new life Jesus brings. But they can’t help but call what they see as false and unreal. These religious authorities are so cynical, so prideful, so trusting in themselves, that they can’t see God at work right in front of them. God’s grace and hope and love transforms lives; yet those in the know: the religious, the spiritual, the faithful; they are the ones who can’t see it.

The bright yellow line that Jesus mentions in this reading from Mark isn’t really a line that he draws himself. Rather he points to the line we draw when we miss seeing what Jesus is doing in our lives and in our world. When we give up on grace; when we fail to trust that Jesus is with us; and when we imagine that the new life we see in others somehow means our life is now less; we end up calling good evil and evil good. Now, since we are human beings, we are still sinners. We will look at the world around us, see what God is doing, feel uncomfortable, and let our uncomfortableness define what we do next. But we don’t have to do that. Instead, we can always lean on grace. We can always lean on love. We can do the work it takes to move past our uncomfort and discover where life is being made whole. We can notice the places in our world where brokenness is being restored and we can work to be a community where all people are seen and where all demons are casted out. But when those demons can’t be, when they are present in those we love and worship with, we can be a community that lives with them, offering help, love, and support, even when they can’t ask for any of that help themselves. The yellow line of warning that we imagine Jesus laying down for us is really a line of danger we create for ourselves when we think we know the limits to how God actually works. But when we do that, we forget that Jesus never gives up on us. He never gives up on those he claims and he loves. And his transformative power of grace is with us right now and it’s also out there, moving throughout God’s beloved world. The lines we put down are not the lines God draws. Our limits cannot hold back where God’s grace goes. And that’s a good thing. Because a God who is as limited as we imagine God should be – is never a god who can offer us the limitless love we do need – so that we can become the followers of Jesus that this world, and this church, needs us to be.

Amen.

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