Renovation: Violent Texts after Violent Acts

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33-46

My sermon from the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2017) on Matthew 21:33-46. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below. Note: the manuscript isn’t perfect. It could have used another going through.

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

Growing up, I had a friend who bragged that his dad was the very first person in Colorado to buy a red minivan. This “state changing” event took place in the late 80s and was as a point of personal pride for my friend. Before this, roadways in Colorado were blah – filled with tan, beige, and dull people movers. But once his dad made the bold and visionary choice to buy a bright red Dodge Caravan, the streets of Colorado were never the same. Now, if I’m honest, I never really believed my friend. His dad was a nice guy but he was never a trend setter. I couldn’t see him somehow convincing the entire mini-van buying population of Colorado to change. Instead, I thought my friend never saw the red minivans on the road before because until his dad bought one, he didn’t have to. Minivans are usually boring vehicles to look at. They’re not designed to be seen or paid attention to. But once a red minivan was sitting in my friend’s driveway, once he had to ride in one to and from school everyday, his eyes were finally opened and he saw the red minivan truth that was all around him. He thought the world had suddenly changed once his dad bought a red minivan but it hadn’t. My friend just had no reason to see any red minivans until his dad came home with one. This phenomenon of not noticing what’s really around you until it becomes personal is something that’s been in the back of my head these last few days. I think this phenomenon shows up regularly when we read and hear scripture. We can read the same text from the Bible over and over again but then something changes and we see something we haven’t seen before. We might hear the words spoken by a different voice, experience them in a new place, or just be at a point in our life when these words impact us in a very different way. And sometimes, there are events, events outside our control that just seem to keep happening. And then the words we hear on Sunday take on a new meaning.

For me, in light of last Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I wish we didn’t have these scripture passages today. I wish the passage from Isaiah didn’t say bloodshed. I wish the parable Jesus shared in Matthew didn’t talk about people being violently killed. And I wish Jesus didn’t describe himself as a cornerstone that somehow bashes and breaks the people it encounters. Couldn’t this be a Sunday where Jesus welcomed little children? Couldn’t it be a Sunday where Jesus healed someone? If I picked the Bible passages for each Sunday, something more…comforting…would be on our agenda today. But today’s readings were assigned by our lectionary, a three year cycle of texts a team of scholars from many different Christian traditions put together years ago. When they crafted this cycle, they didn’t know Las Vegas would happen. They didn’t know that another record breaking hurricane would be hitting the gulf or that 88% of Puerto Rico would still be out of power after hurricane Maria hit 18 days ago. They didn’t know that the threat of war might be keeping us up at night. They didn’t know about the countless things dominating our news cycle right now. And those crafters of the lectionary also didn’t know what our personal lives would be like, right now. They didn’t know about the fears or anxieties or worries we brought with us into church today. They didn’t know about our broken hearts, our financial concerns, or the hard choices we’re being asked to make. Those scholars didn’t know the personal prayers we repeat every night, those secrets that we hold and wished we could share, and the tears we shed for our loved ones who seem to find a new rock bottom everyday.

Now I believe that the lectionary was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe God was personally involved in making sure we hear the words God knows we need. But that’s also a bit of a problem because we, sadly, aren’t God. As much as we would like to tell God how we want God to make us feel, God wants more than being reduced to some kind of feel-good magician in our lives. God wants us to know honest-to-goodness love. God wants us to experience true mercy. God wants us to expect unbelievable hope. And God wants us to live, right now, knowing that God made a bold choice by saying “you are worth living and dying for.” That kind of life isn’t going to always feel good or comfortable because that kind of life requires us to see the world as it truly is. We can’t act as if our personal perspectives and our personal experiences are the one true reality. We live in the world God made and tends. We are not the center of the world. The words Jesus shares with us are not always peaceful because we are not as peaceful as God made us to be. Jesus talked about violent tenants, killings, and other acts of violence because these are images and experiences we are all familiar with. We might never personally experience a mass shooting but if we can hear about it, imagine it, and feel that kind of terror in our souls, then we are never as distant from the kind of violence as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. We can’t just shrug our shoulders and pretend that this is normal, that this is just the way things are meant to be, and that there is nothing we can do change it. That way of thinking assumes that violence is part of what God’s reality is all about. But when we see Jesus, and pay attention to his story, that thought is re-written. When Jesus was arrested and threatened by clubs and swords, he did not lash out. When he was tortured, interrogated, and sentenced to the most violent and shameful death known in the ancient Roman world, he called for no army from above to save him. And when the same crowd that inspired fear in the Pharisees and sadducees today demanded Jesus crucifixion just a few days later, Jesus prayed for those who killed him. And then when he rose on that first Easter morning, he sent his followers to preach, teach, serve, and heal. The violence we inflict on each other is not part of God’s normal. It’s not part of the kingdom of God that Jesus talked constantly about. When violence happens, we mourn, we shed tears, we cry out, we protect each other, and we ask why. And then we move forward, living into a reality where the pain we inflict on each other is not treated like it’s some kind of natural disaster, some kind of act of God that we are helpless to do something against. Instead we notice the true acts of God, the acts of Jesus himself, who did not let our violence win and who promised that no matter what may come, the violence in this world will never overwhelm the eternal love, mercy, and grace God gives to you. Because you are still worth living, dying, and rising for. You are worth living in God’s eternal reality where violence is no more. And since you are worth all of that, we are invited to see experience a foretaste of that reality right now.

Amen.

Play

Eraser: Jonah is more than a whale.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Jonah 3:10-4:11

My sermon from the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (September 24, 2017) on Jonah 3:10-4:11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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

A couple of miles up the road from here, in Park Ridge, is a big cemetery on the right hand side of the road. Opposite the cemetery is Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church so everyone thinks the graveyard belongs to them, but it doesn’t. Instead, the cemetery belongs to Pascack Reformed Church which has been in the area for a long long time. This graveyard, like all active graveyards, is both new and old. Located inside its property lines are the remains of people who were buried this year and also those from the earliest farm families who first colonized the area. In the 1830s, free blacks started to be entombed there and they were followed years later by African-American veterans of the Civil War. Since the cemetery is old, some of the grave markers have toppled over, been buried, or had their markings rubbed away. But, overall, we know most of the people who were buried there. Yet there’s one section in that cemetery that’s a little mysterious. Behind the parsonage is a hollow in the trees that extends down the hill and to the creek below. There are no grave markers there. Only bushes, grass, and leaves. It looks almost empty…except it’s not. Instead, it’s an old section of the graveyard that might even pre-date the graves we know about from the 1740s. According to word of mouth, that hollow is where Native Americans were buried. Now there’s a debate among local historical societies about who is really there. The hollow has never been scientifically studied and there are no gravestones, of any kind, marking where a body might be. But the words of this graveyard’s existence are still in the air. And the tribes and people that buried their dead there – are, at this point, merely whispers…their names and identities lost to history. In a sense, these Native Americans are still around. We name our roads, towns, and high school mascots after them. But that’s about it. The families that might have remembered the names of those buried in that hollow were replaced by Dutch and Brits, Swedes and Germans, people who took over the land and passed it down to us. The native people who used to call this area home have been forgotten and it’s almost like they never existed. The hollow in that graveyard is the final resting place for a culture, a tribe, and a people that is no more. And that feeling, that reality of a people lost to history, is why Jonah, in our first reading today, is…so upset. As we see in these last verses from his story, Jonah watched as God did a completely ridiculous and unfair thing. God saved the people of Nineveh from destruction even though Nineveh had wiped ten tribes of Israel off the face of the earth.

Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrians, the center of an empire that, in 722 BCE, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Its capital city, Samaria, was burned. It’s population, ten of the twelve tribes that made up the Israelite people, were deported from their homes. They were forced at spear point to move to cities and villages on the other side of the Assyrian empire. Over time, they lost their traditions. They lost their identity. In short, those ten tribes were lost to history and almost forgotten. Only Jonah, and the remaining Jews around Jerusalem, remembered who they were.

Now, when we remember the story of Jonah, we usually remember the whale. We remember Jonah running away from God’s call. But we usually forget why Jonah refused to go. He didn’t want to bring God’s word to the people who tried to wipe his people off the face the earth. He didn’t want to share God to those he didn’t think were redeemable. Jonah didn’t want the people of Nineveh to hear from God because if God actually spoke to them, then Jonah’s feelings of anger might be undone. Jonah had every right to be angry. And in the system of justice that make sense to us, where retribution is central and people are punished in response to the harm they caused, Nineveh should be destroyed. Jonah should not have to go there. But Jonah, in the end, cannot outrun God. He goes to Nineveh. He spends day and night preaching the same one sentence sermon, telling them to repent. And then….they do. They actually listen. They shouldn’t but they do which makes me think that the Holy Spirit gave them the ears to hear what this prophet from a people they tried to destroy, had to say. And Jonah can’t stand it. Nineveh isn’t supposed to be saved. But God, in the end, is bigger than Jonah. God’s grace and mercy and love are greater than the feelings of hatred and exclusion and violence that cause us to think we can decide who God cares about and who God doesn’t. We want to make our love the limit to God’s love. We want to make the grace we give be the limit to what God can do. We want to decide who gets to exist, who gets to be remembered, and who is finally lost to history. Jonah wanted nothing to do with God’s love. He wanted to erase Nineveh from the world. But the grace of God wanted to do something more. It…loved. God loved the enemy. God loved the ones Jonah thought didn’t deserve mercy, but God gave them mercy anyways. In the end, God loved because Jonah could not. And God showed him and all of us, the only kind of love that can truly change the world.

Amen.

Play

Who Are You: Food Fight Edition

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Romans 14:1-12

My sermon from the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (September 17, 2017) on Romans 14:1-12. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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

This September, for me, is a month filled with weddings. Over Labor Day weekend, I officiated the wedding of my sister-in-law and her fiancée. Two days ago, I was in Beacon, NY, standing next to a roaring waterfall as two people committed themselves to each other. And in less than two weeks, I’ll be in the foothills of Colorado, officiating the wedding of one of my good friends from high school. Each one of these weddings is different. Each one is unique. And each one is filled with rituals. From the ceremony to the reception, each couple has its own vision of how their wedding day will go. The music will be done in a certain way and the DJ will play specific songs at the right time. The center pieces on the table during the reception will be big…or small…full of flowers or with candles floating in water. The ceremony will include traditional vows that are repeated, or vows written by the couple themselves, or I’ll recite the words and wait for the very simple but very powerful “I do.” For the couple and their families, each part of the wedding event is a ritual that requires careful consideration, time, and attention. But there are other rituals at weddings too. And one of my favorite is, as a guest, the ritual of standing at a table, looking at a sea of name cards, trying to find the table I’ll be sitting at during the reception. There’s usually a table at the entrance covered in name tags or a poster with the seating chart printed on. And once I find my name, I then scan all the other names, trying to see who is sitting at the table with me. This ritual of finding our table mates can be nerve wracking. We want to sit with people we know but…what if we don’t? Are the people who will be sitting with us going to be like us or will they be totally weird? Or maybe we’re the weird one and we just don’t know it yet? These and countless other concerns and fears zip through our heads when we’re standing at the seating chart, trying to figure out who we are eating with. And these same feelings and anxieties about who is sitting at our table was right there, in the city of Rome, when Paul wrote his letter 2,000 years ago.

Today’s reading from the letter to the Romans is our last selection from that book for awhile. We spent this whole summer discovering how this community of non-Jews struggled connecting their culture to their faith. The Romans hoped the teachings from this Jew named Jesus would help them master their passions – those feelings and emotions that stop them from being their best selves. The rules and rituals and methods they saw in Jesus’ teaching seemed to provide a way to turn these Romans be into the best Romans they could possibly be. Yet, the rules weren’t so simple to understand. Different people interpreted the rules in different ways. Even when this small community of believers ate together at the 1st century version of coffee hour, conflict happened. Now, this wasn’t a battle between vegetarians and omnivores even though verse 2 sort of sounds like it is. The problem was really about where the meat came from. Meat, in the ancient world, was very expensive. Few people could afford to eat meat on any kind of regular basis. Instead, people waited for these animals to be given out after they were used in a sacrifice. The animals would led into a temple dedicated to some god or goddess. They were prayed over, blessed, and then ritually slaughtered. Once the ceremony was over, the meat was served to anyone who needed it. For some in the Roman community, this meat was free and anyone could eat it because, well, those gods and goddesses didn’t exist. But others felt eating such meat would violate the food laws that even Jesus might have followed. The act of sacrifice made the meat unclean and, in the eyes of God, would harm anyone who ate it. So, at the same table and during the same meal, there would be those who ate meat and those who didn’t – and each side, at a minimum, would see the others are being totally weird.

Yet Paul’s vision of Jesus broke the Romans’ expectations. The meat wasn’t really important; rather, it was the people at the table who mattered the most. Since their baptism put them in a public relationship with Jesus, their relationship with each other mattered too. They were no longer just individual Romans trying to live their best lives. They had put on Jesus and are now the hands and feet, arms and legs, of God’s Son. Even though their bodies might feel like they did before and they might still struggle with their thoughts, emotions, and passions that caused them to sometimes hurt those around them, these Romans were no longer just themselves. They’re Jesus too. They carry with them all the promises God makes to all of us – a promise of love, presence, and fidelity. Jesus gave himself fully over to the task of reconciling the world to its Creator; to the task of showing love to those shouldn’t be loved; and saying that everyone, including you, has value. Jesus devoted himself to his neighbors. He gave himself to a world that didn’t fully understand him and who killed him for sharing his table with people he wasn’t supposed to. We can imagine Jesus, at that wedding in Cana, finding his name on a little card, seeing his table number, and refusing to scope out who he might be sitting with. Instead, he would be the first at the table, ready to welcome and care for all who sit by him, whether they realized he was Jesus or not. Our ritual of trying to foresee or maybe even control who we sit with is replaced by a Jesus who is already at the table, ready to eat and share and love whoever shows up. This kind of ritual isn’t a ritual that is easy. It’s an approach to life that is downright scary. It means we have to talk to people, to all kinds of people, and learn who they are and what their story is. We need to know who at the table eats meat, who doesn’t, and why. We need to know ourselves well, to discover the side eyes of judgement we’re throwing at those around us. And we need to be flexible in our own way of life so that we can adjust to the needs of whoever God puts in our path. Living this kind of life takes work. It does takes effort. It takes an imagination and a faith that knows we won’t be doing this work on our own. Instead we get to live this kind of life because Jesus has already given his life for each of us. We get to serve our neighbor, to bear their burdens, to share their tables, and to help them thrive because the Lord, each and every day, helps us stand gracefully, faithfully, and wonderfully, tall.

Amen.

Play

A Living Sacrifice

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Romans 12:1-8

My sermon from the 12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 27, 2017) on Romans 12:1-8. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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

I can’t imagine 46” of rain in just a few days. When it rains an inch here in New Jersey, my backyard starts to look like a pool. So if we had 46”, I’m sure my house would just float away. It’s hard to imagine that much rain falling from the sky but that was the forecast I saw yesterday morning as Hurricane Harvey stalled over the southeastern coast of Texas. When the Hurricane made landfall on Friday night, I watched online as a hurricane-chaser was broadcasting the storm coming ashore. I couldn’t actually see anything. It was too dark and too stormy. I could only see these white pixelated blobs, being blown around violently. The stormchaser narrated what he was experiencing which, as the hurricane eye came ashore, was only fear and terror. Even though they were surrounded by thick concrete blocks while taking shelter in the stall of an automated car wash, their car shook back and forth. Once the storm passed, these broadcasters posted pictures of the damage. Houses were blown apart, lakes now exist in what used to be farmer fields, and boats are inland, far from shore. Harvey has weakened into a tropical storm but its threat has skyrocketed. Cities and towns, including Houston, are flooding. They will receive as much rain in a few days as they get in a year. This morning, I saw reports that Houston received 20” of rain overnight and in only 3 hours, broke all their projected once-in-500 years rainfall amounts. People are in danger because not everyone evacuated. Some stayed because that’s what they were going to do. But others were stuck because of health issues, age, or immigration status. The storm is still there. The rain is still falling and falling and falling. It’s hard to even imagine what will happen next.

Now, those of us who lived in this area when Sandy hit, know what storms can do. It’s been years but youth groups from Lutheran churches across the country still come to New Jersey to rebuild and repair homes. These once-in-a-lifetime kind of storms now seem to happen every few years. And the damage they cause can’t be fixed overnight. Once the homes are repaired, the rebuilding of people’s lives begins. And many will never have the kind of life they used to because these kinds of moments, these kinds of storms, change everything. Storms like Harvey, where forecasters don’t even have enough colors in their map legends to show just how much rain will actually fall, disrupt lives, change the physical landscape, and leave lasting wounds on the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of everyone who lives through it. The damage from storms like Harvey lingers. Time can’t make this new reality fade away. Instead, the world and our lives become different when we experience a storm like Harvey, or Sandy, or experience a personal hardship that we know we will never get over. Instead, we keep on living because that’s all we can do.

But what does living look like? Paul, in our reading from Romans today, calls us to be a living sacrifice which is a weird phrase to begin with. We mostly think of sacrifices as something we give up or it’s some kind of mental exercise that stays in our head and remains abstract. But in Paul’s day, sacrifices were an everyday reality. Rome was a city full of temples dedicated to various gods who needed real sacrifices. Cows, goats, birds, vegetables, and all sorts of living, breathing, things were regularly killed, burnt up, and sprinkled on altars everywhere. Sacrifices were not abstract to Paul, because he could walk out his front door and see an animal being offered to a god. A sacrifice in Paul’s day meant that a very real thing had to die. This kind of sacrifice asked a god to do something for you or for the nation. Some gods demanded a regular sacrifice as a way of maintaining this human and divine relationship while other sacrifices were one time deals, like buying a lotto ticket and hoping for the best. Sacrifices were also something even God accepted and encouraged at the temple in Jerusalem. People in Paul’s day knew what sacrifices were and what they meant. Something had to die so that others could live. The thing be sacrificed didn’t actually benefit from what happened because it didn’t keep on living. But it was hoped this sacrifice would make a difference for others.
So Paul, writing to these Romans who understood sacrifices and who, as I shared at the start of this journey through Romans weeks ago, were trying to figure out what they needed to do to master their passions and feelings and become the best Romans they could possibly be, Paul knows that these Romans want to know what a Christian life looks like. And he tells them to live a life for others and be that living sacrifice that makes a difference for others instead of themselves. “A living sacrifice” is a ridiculous phrase that doesn’t make any sense but it’s a phrase that shows us what living with Jesus actually looks like. This is Paul taking Jesus’ “love your neighbor as yourself” and fleshing it out. Our relationship with God isn’t just about the big G and me. It’s about you and I and the person sitting next to us being for everyone else. Love, as Paul and Jesus both knew, isn’t just an emotion. Love is a life lived for others.

And that kind of love is…hard. It isn’t easy. And it’s the kind of love that doesn’t always know what to do when we see our friends, neighbors, or even strangers suffering. When we watch as storms uproot and change people’s lives forever, it’s easy to be overwhelmed because we don’t always know exactly what others need. When we ourselves are undergoing our own storms, this call to live for others becomes almost impossible because we are barely keeping our own heads above water. When we can’t help, we need others to step in and when they need help, we need to take a hard step, a difficult step, a step that might cost us something very real and get involved. It’s not easy, as an individual, to be a living sacrifice but Jesus doesn’t ask us to live this Christian life alone because being a Christian isn’t something we can do alone. Storms happen. Floods come. And even if we discover how to turn back climate change, there is still going to be some natural or man-made disaster or war or personal tragedy that is going to make this life hard. We need each other and Paul knows we do because the “you” in this passage isn’t singular. It’s plural. It’s about…all of us…right now. When we were baptized, we were drafted onto Jesus’ team. We were connected with a savior who knew what humans can do, who faced the evil we do to each other, and still went straight to the cross for all of us. We are united with those followers of Jesus in all times and in all places who just lived…and loved..and made a difference even when their hope was just a flicker that only a few people could see. We get to be a living sacrifice because Jesus was, and is, a living sacrifice for us. And we are connected to a community of individuals called to live for each other, no matter what. Our Christian life needs others and is lived most fully when we are in a community because it’s by being in a community that we can get through the storm.

Amen.

Play

Total Eclipse of the Heart

[Paul writes:] I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Romans 11:1-2a,29-32

My sermon from the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (August 20, 2017) on Romans 11:1-2,29-32. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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

29% and 99%. Those two numbers are important for tomorrow afternoon. That first number, according to last night’s forecast, will be the amount of sky covered by clouds at 2:44 pm. The other number is the probability that I’ll be outside, looking straight at the sun, with gigantic eclipse sunglasses protecting my eyes. I know our zip code will only get a partial eclipse but I’m still excited to see the roughly 70% of the sun covered by the moon. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen any kind of solar eclipse and the last time I did, I was putting holes in a cardboard box, wearing it as a strange kind of helmet, and watching a little dot of sunshine grow dim on a white piece of paper. I’m a little disappointed that I won’t be in the path of totality, watching the sun as it disappears behind the moon. I wish I could see the ring of fire that shows up around the moon and then experience our tiny bit of the world being consumed by the moon’s shadow. Eclipses are natural but they’re also kind of weird. We don’t expect the sun to just disappear like that. We expect the sun to be there, doing what it always does. We rarely acknowledge just how necessary the sun is to our lives. I mean, when I’m at a party and someone asks “what do you do?,” I’ve never heard anyone respond by saying, “well, without the sun, I wouldn’t be able to do much.” We get to live our lives the way we do because the sun is there and it works the way we expect it too. It burns, rotates, and shines – day in and day out. The sun is the unacknowledged foundation to who we are because without it, we’re not here.

Paul, in our reading from Romans today, isn’t talking about a solar eclipse. But he is, I think, poking the Gentiles in Rome, trying to get them to see the foundation of what makes them who they are. In this handful of verses, Paul lifts up an assumption some in this Christian community had. And this assumption isn’t, in fact, strange to us at all. I would argue that their assumption is still at the heart of a lot of our Christian theology, identity, and practice. According to Paul, there are people in this Jesus’ community who believe that God has rejected the Jewish people. The Jewish people had their chance to accept Jesus as the Messiah but they didn’t. They turned away. The followers of Jesus, then, are starting to act as if they are true people of Israel, the right followers of God, and the Jews are not. Even in Paul’s day, when the number of Christians was ridiculously small, and Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus outnumbered people who did by the millions, there were followers of Jesus who believed that their smallness, their specialness, made them part of the “winning” side. They picked God. They chose to believe. So they, according to this kind of thing, are the new Chosen people. Christianity has superseded the old covenants God made with the Jewish people, making Christians the new and improved version of God’s holy family. And since different parts of the Jewish community rejected Jesus, those who call themselves Christians believed they now get to treat the rest of the Jewish people as the opposite of God’s beloved children.

This kind of theology has been part of the Christian story for a long, long, time. It’s such a part of our history and story that it’s sometimes difficult for us to see how this kind of thinking, how this kind of ideology centered on Christians replacing Jews as God’s chosen people, has embedded itself into our own personal theology, thinking, and point-of-view. Even if we see ourselves as good people, we have inherited thousands of years of thoughts, practices, and language filled with this kind of anti-Jewish thinking. It’s part of who we are even though we didn’t actively put it there. Our baptism didn’t embed replacement theology into our bones but our Christian history did. And we feed and sustain this kind of thinking, teaching, and way of life when we focus only on being “winners,” because if there’s a winner, we need to identify, and ostracize, and penalize the loser.

This ideology of winners and losers, this way of life that tries to make ourselves the only true Chosen People of God, only works if we refuse to take Paul’s own words seriously. Paul knows there are people in Rome saying that God has rejected the Jewish people. And Paul responds with a “no.” Our translation today doesn’t really reveal the tone Paul is actually using here. Paul isn’t just saying, “no.” He’s saying “NOOO.” He’s saying that kind of “no” an almost three year-old says when you tell him it’s time to leave the pool. He’s answering with a “no” that can’t even believe you’re making this kind of statement in the first place. Paul is affirming, 100%, that God has not rejected the Jewish people and, in fact, God’s relationship with them hasn’t changed. They are still chosen. They are still God’s people. And we know this because Jesus himself was a Jew. Paul affirms and celebrates his own identity as a Jew, too. And even though there are other texts in the New Testament, verses from Matthew, John, and Hebrews, that people have used to convince themselves that they are chosen and the Jews are not – Paul rejects that kind of thinking and interpretation. The covenants, the promises God made to the Jewish people, still stand. God is still loving, caring, and tending the relationship God has with them. Paul is telling us to not let our own assumptions about winners and losers blind us to our true, and honest, reality. We are here because God loves, and cares, and is in relationship with all of us. God tends and nurtures non-Jews in a way that is unique, special, and rooted in the promises God made centuries ago to a man named Abraham who looked up, saw the stars, and knew his diverse and multicultural descendants would be countless. God promised to be with them, treasure them, and, through the Jewish people, make them whole. We don’t expect Paul to write these kinds of words that are universalist in scope. We don’t expect God to be intent on leaving no one behind. We expect God to care about winners and losers just like we do. But God is focused on creating a world where wholeness, mercy, and justice is something everyone has. Because the only thing that can outlast the evil and hatred in this world is God’s promise of mercy, hope, and love. And in a world where the shadow of terror and hatred is long, touching lives in Charlottesville, Barcelona, Kissimmee,Turkey, Finland, and more – we can live and advocate and struggle for a world where hate does not win because our sin can’t eclipse God’s ultimate expectation.

Amen.

Play

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