Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Have You Heard the Good News?

Matthew 28:1-10
A Sermon for the people
Of Abiding Presence
April 16, 2017

In the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to attend an ELCA Global Mission Event.  Several thousand Lutherans gathered in Atlanta for a few days to hear about the kinds of work our denomination was doing to participate in God’s mission across the globe.  The keynote speaker that year was a woman named Mudzunga Farisani.  She was beautiful.  The kind of woman who could walk into a room and command it with only her presence.  She was from South Africa and had escaped, just barely, with her life.  She and her family had been detained and tortured more than once by the government because of her (and her husband’s) refusal to accept the evil of Apartheid.  As she spoke, we heard the pain and suffering of that time in her life.  It was palpable.  We could see the rooms she described.  We could feel some of the suffering she felt in her body as she hid from the police. She was so good at her descriptions, we could almost hear the voices of those who came for her and for her family with the intent to harm.  We were so wrapped up in her story that some folks were weeping as they imagined the scenes that Mrs. Farisani described.  Others of us were terrified, but all of us were riveted to what she was saying.  We were absorbed in her story.  We were feeling her sorrow.  We were feeling her fear.  And she told us how her absolute belief that God was with her in those rooms kept her from despair.  Kept her from grief.  How her understanding that God would keep God's promise to use evil for good kept her alive.  Kept her from giving up and giving in.

At some point, she stopped abruptly and asked us, “have you heard the Good News?”  The room murmured, most folks nodding in agreement.  So, she asked us again.  “Have you heard the Good News?”  The room answered a little more audibly.  Instead of a murmur, the response was more of a buzzing and more folks began to answer “yes” and to nod their heads a little more vehemently.  At this point, Farisani drew herself up to her full height and shouted in a loud voice, “I said, ‘Have you heard the Good News?’”  By now, the room full of Lutherans got it, and we shouted back “Yes!”  And she said the only thing that I have ever inscribed in my Bible:  “if the Good News of Jesus Christ has reached your heart, please inform your face.”

I think of her often, but I especially remember her on Easter.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)

The trouble with hearing a story too often is that it can lose some of its emotional power as we become overly familiar with it.  We already know the rest of the story, but let’s think about it for a minute, the Gospel this morning is a frightening one.  And for those who haven’t heard the rest of the story who are living it out, this whole scene would be terrifying.  Jesus has been crucified, lain in a tomb, and sealed with a stone.  The women, Mary Magdalene and Mary, head to the tomb that first Easter morning Matthew tells us “to see the tomb”.  These were the women who stayed with Jesus as he died.  We don’t know for sure what they were trying to do there (maybe they were simply there to watch and to wait?), but we do know that they were afraid for their lives.  Jesus was dead, and you could be sure that the Romans were planning to round of any of Jesus’s followers who did not get the message from the empire “stop spreading hope.  Stop calling for resistance…or you’ll be next.”  The women were on their way to the tomb and risking their lives to do so, but the men were in hiding.

They arrive at the tomb to find it attended by a squadron of guards there by Pilate’s order.  And as they approach, an earthquake hits as an angel, a messenger of God, rolls away the stone.  The guards “become like dead men” (in a bit of literary irony).  They faint and fall over.  But, really, can we blame them?  I imagine the women to be good and frightened by now, but the angel says to them “Don’t be afraid”.  If you study the Greek, you’ll see that it could perhaps more accurately be translated as “Don’t YOU be afraid.”  As in, come on, gals, don’t be like those scaredy-cat guards.  I’ve got some great news… “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.”

And as Wartburg professor Judith Jones says, "The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in."[1]

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the rest of his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Do not be afraid.  Go and tell the story that death, the last enemy, has been defeated.  God, love, has won. 

Have you heard the Good News? 

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Alleluia!  Amen.

[1] Workingpreacher.com

Saturday, April 15, 2017

This Is the Night!

John 20:1-18
A (short) sermon
for the people of APLC
April 15, 2017

This is the night!  This is our Passover with Christ from bondage to freedom, 
from death to life!  Tonight is the heart of our celebration of the Three Days 
and the highpoint of the church year.  Without tonight, Lent, Advent, Epiphany, 
even Christmas…without tonight, none of the rest of it matters. Without 
tonight, our preaching is worthless, and our faith is in vain.

Tonight is the night when we listen to the stories of our ancestors in faith.  Tonight we have heard the main milestones of salvation.  We have heard how God creates life from chaos, how God saves God’s people time and again…and those stories are told in very different ways, but we see through them all that God is at work accomplishing the impossible for those who would believe.  In all of the stories, just when things look most bleak, most dire, most hopeless, God acts.  And God reveals Godself to us again…showing us that God’s true nature is that of liberator and chain-breaker and bondage-shaker and lover and friend.  God does the salvific thing, the healing thing, the liberating thing over and over in our stories of faith because God loves ALL of God’s people, and ALL people are God’s people.

Tonight is the night we arrive at the tomb to mourn the death of our teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, but we find that he is not here.  He is risen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

God forever bringing life from death.  God forever bringing healing to the world.  God forever making all things new.  God forever creating resurrection stories.  And even the Gospel lesson takes place in a garden…the story of the resurrection where death, the last enemy, is destroyed, takes place in a garden where God is inviting us to imagine an new Creation on the 8th day…and inviting us into the creating, into the resurrection, into healing and hope for a world where all are free, forgiven, loved, and brought from death into life.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!   

with enormous gratitude for the authors of Sundays and Seasons as well as the Sermon Brainwave podcasters and especially for the pastors and bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod who have listened and talked with me during these last three months about healing, death, and resurrection.  these thoughts are a collection from all those places.  thank you. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Communion, Forgiveness, and "Peace of God"

Matthew 26:26-29
A homily for the people
April 5, 2017

In 1984, the movie Places in the Heart was released.  Some of you may recall the movie.  If you don’t or if you haven’t seen it, get yourself a copy.  Seriously.  Or come borrow mine.

The story is set in the year 1935 and in Waxahachie, Texas, a small, segregated town in the midst of the Depression. We begin in church, a place we see the family gather often in community and prayer.  It is evident throughout the film that grace is abundant in the Spalding household.  One evening, Royce Spalding, the local sheriff, leaves the family dinner table to investigate trouble at the rail yards. He arrives on the scene to discover a young black man, Wylie, drunk and loud and waving a gun around.  You can tell that Royce really likes Wylie and that this is not the first encounter they’ve had.  They have a relationship of some sort and there appears to be a genuine affection from each man for the other.  During their conversation, Wylie shoots Royce.  Royce dies immediately and it is clear that Wylie is both shocked and saddened by his actions and the death of the sheriff.  In the era of Jim Crow and lynching, Wylie very likely understood what fate was to befall him. Local white vigilantes tie Wylie to a truck and drag his body through town, for all the community to see, before hanging him from a tree.

The remainder of the movie is the story of the sheriff’s widow as she attempts to keep the family farm with the help of two surprising partners:  a blind white man and a poor Black man.  Natural disaster, the KKK, and crooked bank officials all conspire to keep the motley team from success…and I’ll let you remember or watch on your own the details of that story.

But the scene that always gets me is the closing. 

The story ends, as it began, in church in worship among the community and in prayer.  This time, there is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  The congregation passes the bread and the wine down the pews serving one another, and gathered amidst the living, we witness those who have died in the movie (for a variety of reasons) also receive and give the elements.  The in the very last line of the film, Wylie hands communion to Royce and says, “Peace of God.”

Wylie and Royce are not only crystal clear images of the communion of saints, but they also demonstrate the power of the sacrament as they share the peace and break bread.  Forgiveness.

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that it is the words which Jesus speaks “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” and “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new covenant…the new promise…in my blood, which is shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins; as often as you drink of this cup, do this for the remembrance of me.” “These words [the words of institution] assure us that in the sacrament we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation…It is not the eating and drinking [of bread and wine] that does this, but the words given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins…And whoever believes these words has exactly what they say, forgiveness of sins.” 

It is the words which are important and the command of Jesus that we do this.  That we take the very body of Christ into our own bodies and that we remember his words of forgiveness. 

“Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Life abundant.  Salvation, which means healing.  In the world to come, to be sure, but also in the world that is here and now. 

Forgiveness is liberating, life-giving, and healing, both for the wronged and for the wrong-doer.  And Jesus invites us into forgiveness…that we are released from sin and delivered through salvation and healing into life abundant.  And there we will and we do find the “Peace of God”.  Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Unbind Him, and Let Him Go

John 11:1-45
A sermon for the people

Thursday night, Paul Furukawa, Pastor Steve, and I went to a kick-off assembly for the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee (we’re still working on the name).  This is a new and diverse collaborative coalition of leaders from congregations, schools, and non-profits which are building a network with the capacity to act effectively and faithfully by organizing our time, talents, and resources so that we can use our gifts to affect life here in town for the common good.  Our hope is to inspire businesses, the city, clergy, and laity, people of faith, to address issues that affect everyone in the city such as high quality public education, access to health care, living wages, and fair lending among many, many others.

Thursday night, with the permission and blessing of the executive council, Abiding Presence publically announced our commitment to the work of the Sponsoring Committee by making a financial pledge for the year, by promising to attend workshops which will help form the work and intentions of the committee, and by committing to a time of conversation, a “Campaign of Conversations”, if you will, in which we at APLC will sit one-to-one or in small groups to talk honestly with one another about the things we are concerned about, especially those things which affect in our lives here in the San Antonio area.

So I’m wondering, what gets you up in the morning?  What are you passionate about?  What worries you?  What keeps you up at night?  Is it a rise in neighborhood theft?  Is it the cost of healthcare?  Is there are feral cat problem near your workplace?  Does someone you love have difficultly reintegrating into society following incarceration?  Is your child getting what she needs from the school system?  Or are you a teacher struggling to get what you need from the school system?

What has you so worked up that you have trouble resting or trouble focusing on other things?  What has you feeling cut off and alone?  What has you bound?

…In the gospel reading today, Jesus performs his biggest miracle…he raises Lazarus from the dead. 

Jesus is away from Bethany when he hears the news that Lazarus is ill.  And he waits for two more days before going to him.  So, by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, has been dead for four days.  Now, this is important, because the ancient Jews believed that the soul would inhabit the body for three days, but on the fourth day, the soul was gone.  A little nod to Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride here, after the 4th day, the person was no longer “mostly dead” but really, really dead.  Beyond hope for resuscitation.  Beyond mortal hope for resurrection.   

But Jesus knows better.  Jesus knows where to place hope, and (spoilers, dear ones…it’s not in the grave!).  And so he travels to Bethany and greets Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus.  And he is moved to tears by their grief…which is his grief also.  And he says two things. 

First, he says to Lazarus, “come out!”  And Lazarus, trusting the voice of his beloved teacher and friend, does the impossible, he responds to the invitation and comes out of his tomb…out of the place which has been holding him trapped and cut off from everyone else…he comes out of a place which by its very design supports death.  But holding onto hope and trust, Lazarus moves toward the voice of his Savior.

Second, Jesus addresses the community, “unbind him, and let him go”. 

Unbind him.  Take off the oppressive garb of death and free him to life in the sun among God’s people.

Now, Jesus was most assuredly capable through either human or divine movement of unbinding Lazarus.  He could have pulled off that linen by hand or snapped his fingers and commanded a legion of angels to do it for him, but instead, Jesus instructs the community to “unbind him, and let him go.” 

When we were baptized, we were baptized into community.  We were baptized into the body of Christ.  And, let me just tell you, in the body, there are NO insignificant parts.

Some of you know that about two weeks ago, I broke my little toe.  I had gone back to Alabama to pick up my kids and our belongings.  Someone had left the weights from the grandfather clock in the middle of the walkway, and since my arms were laden with boxes, I couldn’t see them and WHAM!!...a great deal of hopping around and several naughty words later, we determined that my sweet little baby toe, the one which never gives me a reason to think twice about it, was broken.  Let me just tell you, since then, I have had many occasions to think about that baby toe.  You just don’t realize how much you use it until you can’t use it well.  That little toe provides balance and stability and mobility in ways I never even imagined until it was injured.  The part of my body I regarded as insignificant and cute-but-useless is actually terribly important to my daily life.  The last couple of weeks I have really been living into the Corinthians text:  there are NO insignificant parts of the body.

Which is beautiful, because we are baptized into the body of Christ.  We have become part of one body with all of humanity.  And there are NO insignificant parts.  And by our baptism into the body of Christ with ALL OF THE PARTS we are therefore bound up in the very Trinity.  And we are bound up in God’s continual creating, redeeming, and sustaining work in the world for all of God’s people…and God’s people are ALL people.

And we are called to look closely at our neighbors…the ones in our community…and to see where they are bound and to “unbind them, and let them go.”   To unbind them from the things that would keep them tied to worry and resentment and to death…both literal and figurative…and to release those bonds so that they may be free to live life as God intends…safely and creatively and freely and with the joy of being bound not to death but to God in love and in life abundant.

 This new chapter at Abiding Presence of community work through the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee is just that, a new chapter in a long story of community commitment.  At APLC we are no strangers to unbinding others.  No strangers to being a caring community…to caring for our greater community.  We were born out of this very neighborhood…out of community…and we spent our early years caring for those who live in it.  Did you know that this congregation is responsible for the first fire station in the area?  We are!  We organized and did the work to show the city that a fire station was necessary in this part of San Antonio, and eventually our efforts paid off…and our neighbor’s homes were made safer.  Ask Jarrell Pruitt to tell you the story.

And we are really good about caring for folks who come to us.  I’ve seen members of this congregation offer rides, meals, and extra nights in a hotel for all kinds of folks.  I’ve never, ever seen anyone leave this place hungry.

And those are just a couple of ways we’ve organized our resources to unbind our neighbors.  I imagine you can think of several more. 

The challenge is to keep doing the work of unbinding our neighbors from the death shroud.  But it is not ours to do alone.  God has provided us with a community…one which we unbind and one which unbinds us so that we all may be free to be tied up in God’s abundance.  We only need to be open to living into our baptismal call…in which we are claimed by God, called into community, and propelled forth to “unbind him, and let him go”…the whole body of Christ…even, or especially, the baby toes.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Word about Luther's Small Catechism and the Ten Commandments

Exodus 34:1-9, 27-28
A homily for the people of
APLC San Antonio
March 8, 2017

Grace and peace to you from Jesus who is the Christ.  Amen.

As you’ve no doubt heard, this year is the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, that tumultuous period of protest and advocacy as some pastors and other church leaders sought to change and to reform the unjust systems which governed the lives of the common people in Europe at the time…primarily, the church.  (That’s why we are called Protestants.  Our traditions were born out of protest.) As we go through this Lenten season, we will be spending Wednesday nights hearing and thinking about some of the good work which our unwitting founder did…we’ll be talking about Martin Luther’s small catechism, and tonight we talk a little about the Ten Commandments.

Luther was frustrated about the faith formation that was (or more accurately was not) happening in Saxony and Meissen.  He wrote, “Dear God, what misery I beheld!  The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.  Yet supposedly they all bear the name Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments!  As a result they live like simple cattle or irrational pigs and, despite the fact that the gospel has returned, have mastered the fine art of misusing all their freedom.
O you bishops!  How are you going to answer to Christ, now that you have so shamefully neglected the people and have not exercised your office for even a single second...Shame on you forever!”  (Luther was a passionate man.)[1]

But he wasn’t wrong.  For us to call ourselves Christian in any organized meaningful way, we must first proclaim Jesus is lord, but then also have a basic understanding of what exactly that means. So Luther wrote Luther’s Small Catechism and distributed it so that heads of households and pastors might teach everyone in their home or in their parishes what it means to be a follower of Christ.  Lutherans of all stripes use the Small Catechism to teach the basic tenets of Christianity still today.  How many of you had to memorize the whole thing for confirmation?  Or for seminary or college?  Me, too.

In our scripture reading tonight, Moses takes two tablets of stone up the mountain as God has commanded and stands before the Lord.  And the Lord says, “God is a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true…forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.  But not ignoring sin.”

Moses falls to the ground and worships God and says, “God, if you see anything good in me, please go with us.  And although we are stiff-necked, hard-headed and obstinate, forgive us our sins.  Own us and possess us.”

And God says, “Alright, Moses, but write this down.  By these words I’ll make a covenant with you and Israel.”  And Moses wrote down the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

And Moses wrote them down as a whole bunch of “you better not’s”.  With the exception of the 4th commandment, all of these commandments are written in the negative.

But Luther takes these commandments, the words of the covenant as written down by Moses, and in the tradition of Jesus, he flips them.  Turns them upside down.  Makes them positive and expands them.

“You shall have no other gods” becomes “we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”

And then Luther uses the first commandment’s explanation to explain and expand the rest of them.

Each commandment begins, “We are to fear and love God…” so that we call God’s name in times of praise and thanksgiving, so that we regard the Word as holy, so that we respect those in authority (which doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with them; not calling their bad behavior or lies or inaction into accountability is very disrespectful…of them and of those whom they have been called to serve.)  We are to fear and love God so that we help our neighbor in satisfying their physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, sanctuary.)  We are to fear and love God so that spouses respect one another and that our sex lives are healthy and loving, so that we help our neighbor improve their means of making a living, so that we defend our neighbor and think the best and kindest of their actions, so that we help our neighbor keep what is theirs, and so that we help our neighbor keep their relationships in good standing.

It’s a bigger job than those “shall not’s” would have us believe.  Because those Ten Commandments when lived out in the tradition of Jesus are counter-cultural, completely contrary to the systems we encounter in the world.  Even though some of those systems positively insist that they are “Christian”.

If you call out or protest or push against or seek to reform systems that would attempt to control or condemn your neighbor in the world today, you get called all kinds of names that are meant to hurt:  “radical”, “activist”, “bleeding-heart”.  Because somehow, though we are assured through scripture that God cares for the little ones and that God expects us to risk ourselves and our privilege to care for them, too, we are terrified that if we help our neighbor or share what we have…there won’t be enough left for us.

But God’s faithfulness through the ages shows us that God will always care for the little ones.  Even if we become the little ones.  And part of God’s care is nurturing communities where those who have, care for those who don’t have.  

A few weeks ago, the week before my first sermon as your pastor, I was talking with some Texas colleagues at the Tri-Synodical Assembly and this “fear and love God so that…” language came up.  In the course of conversation, we agreed that this must mean, “fear God more than you fear conflict” and “love God more than you like making people happy”.  This means we take risks, dear ones.  We are called and commanded to risk our well-being and our reputations for the sake of the little ones, for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of the gospel.

We seek God by serving others.

Even if it feels risky or scary, we fulfill our responsibility in God’s covenant by living into the upside down expansion of the law through the tradition of Jesus.  We fear and love God above everything else…and we love our neighbors and the little ones as well and as much as we love ourselves.
And God loves us all.

[1] The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, 2000, p 347

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Changed, Bone-deep

quilt blocks by the women of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Marysville, WA

A sermon for the people of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas:

This story from our Gospel lesson is bizarre.  Flat out weird.  Theologian Will Willimon says, “This story is kinky and weird.  It’s almost a judgement on the over-rationalization of Christianity….This story kind of blows that [rationalization] to bits.”[1] 

This is a story which will hurt your brain if you think about it too hard.  You almost have to feel this one to make any sense of it at all.

Jesus takes Peter and James and John up (yet another) mountain.  Geography is important to Matthew.  As we read through this gospel account this year, pay attention to the setting of the scene.  Where they are is often as important as what they are doing to the whole of the message.

For example, this week, the mountain is intended to evoke the scene in Exodus when Moses receives the stone tablets of the Law.  Here, we receive Jesus – the fulfillment of the Law.

So, they’ve climbed another mountain.  (I like to think they’ve packed all they’ll need for a camping trip.  A guys’ weekend adventure or something.)  And at the top of the mountain, Matthew tells us, Jesus is transfigured before them.  Now, I’ve paid attention to my professors and my pastors and my parents and Sunday school teachers, but no one yet has been able to tell me exactly what transfigured means.  What does that look like?  Does Jesus get all bright and shiny?  Is it really blinding?  How did Moses and Elijah get there?  What happens afterward?  Where do Moses and Elijah disappear to?  Does Jesus just go back to being regular old Jesus? Or can we sense something different about him from here on out?

I’ve heard “transfigured” explained as “change,” and I’d be tempted to buy into that theory except that the change in this story appears to be a temporary visual change, and the God we find in the scriptures time and again is, in fact, a God of change but of the permanent, bone-deep variety.

So I wonder, if this light show was just a way to get the disciples to pay attention to the rest of the story.  After all, they are so painfully human that they often miss the important stuff because they’ve slept through it or run away or are just seriously blockheaded.  I can totally relate.  I’ve missed the meaningful stuff too many times because I was expecting something bigger or brighter or “more important.”

Now, Peter (I love Peter.  He gives us hope for ourselves.  If God can love and use that guy, there’s a chance for the rest of us.) but Peter is so taken up with the whole light show that he starts to babble…on and on…”hey!  Wow!  Dudes, check it out!  Jesus, it is so AWESOME to be here!!  Let’s stay and make a couple of tiny houses.  It’ll be a great party all the time, I’ll make three houses…one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” and as he’s babbling on, the very voice of God comes from a cloud.  And God cuts him off mid-thought.  “Hey!  Be quiet for a minute.  This is my Son, marked by my love, the focus of my delight.  He’s my Beloved.  Listen to him.”

Here’s the head-scratching part to me.  Through the whole light show and the return of Moses and Elijah from the dead, the disciples are completely into the scene.  They’re wide-eyed, paying attention, totally engaged, and excited.  But the moment that God declares God’s love for Jesus, the disciples are “overcome by fear”.  They fall to the ground. 

I wonder if it was easier for the disciples to see the sheer awesomeness of God than it was for them to hear a total declaration of love.  I think that the part that changes the story and that ultimately changes us is not simply the voice of God, but the words which God speaks. 

See, a light show is something you can brag to the rest of your friends about later.  But to know that the man with whom you are standing is called Beloved by the One who created you…and that your call is simply to listen to him and that Creator thought it important enough to deliver that message in person, so to speak…well that changes everything.  And it’s a bone-deep kind of change.  Once we hear that message, once we own that message, nothing is ever, ever the same again. 

Because Jesus says a whole lot of things to us.  And we are commanded by God to listen.  And that message is challenging to relay to our friends because it is SO counter-cultural.

The whole message of the life of Jesus of Nazareth can be boiled down to a small number of things.  1) Love God above and before everything else 2)Love your neighbor; don’t be a jerk to your neighbor 3) Your neighbor is everyone but especially that person you’d rather not even think about 4) love and nice are not always the same thing 5) and sometimes the loving thing is really, really hard.

And when you think about how big and important the words and commands of Jesus are, and when you think about how difficult living up to that really is, but you also remember how God says, “Listen to him”.  Well, that responsibility and its magnitude are absolutely terrifying.  I might fall to the ground, too, because a “listen to him” from God implies a command to do the things Jesus says.

But there, on the mountain, God says, “listen to him.” 

Hear the good news:  God says "listen," and then the very first thing Jesus says on that mountain top is “get up and do not be afraid.” 

We have heard the words of God, and we have been changed.  We are freed, forgiven, and we are loved deeply by the One who made us and called us “good”.  And if we can really, truly believe that, then we can get up, without fear.  And we can begin to seek God by sharing our lives with our neighbors.

And then, the whole world will be changed.  Bone-deep.


[1] Workingpreacher.org

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blessed and Called to Action

 Big Four Mountain, Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie National Forrest, WA

The Gospel lesson for today is Matthew 5:1-12

The Beatitudes.  The Blessings.  The Sermon on the Mount.

This is one of those Biblical passages which we hear so frequently that many of us who have grown up in the church or who have been dwelling in the Word for a long time tend to gloss over, to assume we’ve heard it before.  Or maybe we think we understand what’s being said but we’re not really certain.  That happens to me an awful lot.  I think I know what someone is saying, but I’m not quite sure I’ve heard it right or completely or maybe I’ve zoned out for a half second and now I feel lost in the conversation.  I'm sure this has never happened to any of you!

I'm trying a new practice with moderate success, I’ll stop the person who is speaking and ask them to “please, say it again a different way”.  In the context of conversations, this usually works pretty well, and the person to whom I am listening is usually grateful for my demonstration that I am trying pretty hard to hear them.  But what to do when it’s an ancient text?  Well, we read a different translation.  I like to read Eugene Peterson’s The Message.  It is written in modern English, and I often find something new to help me hear the Word speak.

So, we’ll read the Gospel again in a different way in just a moment.

Now, my Goddaddy Pastor Delmer Chilton says, “Well, the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ Little Instruction Book.  It is, rather, a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  It is a rallying cry aimed at those called by God to become a part of that Kingdom.” [1]

Over the four Sundays, we’ll be exploring the Sermon in its entirety, but today we are just focused on the Beatitudes.  The blessings.

Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary says, “The Beatitudes are identifiers of discipleship; characteristics of the faithful; attributes of believers. They are truth-tellings. They name our blessings but also what is at stake in these blessings. This is why this sermon has to be preached here and now (at the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus) to the disciples and not later. They have to know who they are in order to be able hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about who he needs them to be….

You are blessed. You have to hear that on the front end. And note that being blessed is not just for the sake of potential joy, but also for the sake of making it through that which will be difficult.”[2]

Let’s read from the Message.  But I want you to listen actively.  Listen for that little bit that pricks up your ears.
Matthew 5:1-12The Message (MSG)
You’re Blessed
1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.[3]
What did you notice that was different?  What struck you for the first time?  What had you forgotten but the new translation helped you remember?  Or is this the first time you are hearing this story at all?  Take a couple minutes and share your ah-ha with your neighbor.

How many of you (this is NOT a test!) but how many of you caught that in this telling of the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking to his disciples and NOT to the crowd?  That’s what caught me this go ‘round.  In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus is preaching to a crowd in a field, but here, he’s gone from the crowd and has taken his disciples, or as Peterson calls them, the committed, with him up the mountain and begins to speak once they are alone.

This is significant, I think.  It appears to me, from reading the previous chapter, that Jesus loves the crowd.  He calls them out to him and preaches to, teaches, and heals them.  But when he sees the scope and reach of his words, he takes his little band of believers, those committed to him, he takes them away, and expects them to really learn something about Kingdom values. 

And so I wonder and will keep wondering over these four weeks, are we called to be a part of the crowd?  Or are we called to be disciples, committed to learning from Jesus and putting those teachings into action for the sake of the Kingdom?

As we heard in this space last week, we are living in turbulent times.  And daily, if you aren’t white, cis-gendered, straight, and (preferably) male, not that there is anything wrong with being any of those things (you are who God made you after all), but if you aren’t all of those things the world is getting a more frightening. 

In one week, in one nation, we have witnessed environmental racism as the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines were reauthorized to the detriment of Native communities…we are still willing to sacrifice our promises and brown bodies for money. In one week, in one nation, healthcare has been jeopardized for millions of people.  In one week, in one nation, our voices, both public and private, have been threatened as those who seek to keep us informed are silenced.  In one week, one nation, the rights of people who love differently from the heterosexual “standard” or who are differently gendered have been threatened and our bodies threatened, too, as conversion therapy has once again made it to the forefront of public discourse on LGBTQ issues.

But most shockingly to me, and it appears to the world, in one week, in one nation, millions of people have been endangered, turned away, shut out.  We are witnessing the rejection of the immigrant which is absolutely mind-blowing for people who have studied American history.  And for those of us who believe in the God of Abraham, we know that this kind of action is completely contrary to our faith story.  As far back as the book of Leviticus (19:33-34), we find instruction from our God regarding the immigrant.  “When an alien/immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien/immigrant.  The alien/immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; for you shall love the alien/immigrant as yourself, for you were aliens/immigrants in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God.” 

Instead, this week, in this nation, Christians are promised priority regarding entrance to the United States.  And here is where it becomes extremely important for us to remember that Jesus Christ, our God, says over and over and over again, “the first shall be last”.  In other words, if we, Christians, find ourselves in a place of privilege, it is our job to elevate someone else.  It is our commandment given to us by the One who showed us exactly what it looks like to empty oneself for the sake of another.

Now is the time to demand that immigrants be treated with the same care and respect that citizens are.  Now is the time to call the people who have public authority to change national policy on immigration, on healthcare, on equal (not extra) rights, and to tell them what you think…what you believe…what your faith requires you to say.  Now is the time for us to show up and use our voices and your authority (you’ve got it, believe me! And I do, too) to advocate for those whom God adores as much as God loves us.

Oh, it’s not easy.  It’s not even fun most of the time.  In this time in our world, it’s even dangerous.  I’ve been threatened a few times myself.  But it’s our baptismal calling.  When we are doing the work and it feels scary or like we might be risking ourselves or our stuff or our privilege, that’s when we must remember the first sermon Jesus delivers to his disciples in the book of Matthew.  “When things feel scary, and you do the work of elevating someone else, you are closer to me.  And you are blessed.”

Hear the Good News:  baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, you, me, we are freed, forgiven, and beloved.  Go and seek God by serving the Other.  Even when it feels scary.  It’s there we’ll find our blessing.

Jesus says, “And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

Go, disciples, cause good trouble.

[1] www.lectionarylab.com
[2] www.workingpreacher.org
[3] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5%3A1-12&version=MSG