Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Light to the Nations

It seems that some of you have noticed that I never posted my sermons from June or July.  Thank you for noticing.  Here they are...

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
A Sermon for the People of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
July 6, 2014

I think when most of us listen to the end of today’s gospel lesson, we tend to put on our pious ears and think “if I am having a hard time or if I am sick or dying, then Jesus will fix it.”  In this way, we regard Jesus as a genie-in-a-bottle kind of God.  If we do the right thing, think the right way, pray hard enough, Jesus will swoop in and grant our wishes for health of body or mind and ease of soul.

Sorry to be the one to inform you:  Jesus doesn’t work that way.   
The first hearers of this speech would have understood that the yoke Jesus is talking about is the Law.  Well, not the Law exactly.  Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “The heavy burden they (the Pharisees) lay on the people is not the law per se; it is rather their particular interpretation and practice of the law, which, for instance, excludes from meals the ritually unclean, places restrictions on the Sabbath that ignore human need, is zealous about tithing, mint, dill, and cumin, but neglects the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith".”  In other words, the Pharisees have expanded the Law so that it is no longer life-guiding gift from God.  Instead the Law has become a soul-sucking, shaming, impossible to honor and uphold rigid list of rules and regulations.  It has become a way of saying “You’re a bad person.  There’s no way you will ever, ever get it right…and so there is no way you are ever going to be “good” according to God or to us.  But you cannot give up trying…we’ll shun you for that!”  So there you have it.  Under the lonely yoke of the expanded Law, you can’t win for loosing.

Now remember, the religious leaders of that time were complicit in keeping the Romans in power.  They benefited by helping keep their own people subject to the tyranny of the Roman Empire.   Johnson reminds us, “…the ruling elite secure wealth, status, and power at the expense of the lowly. (but) Jesus rejects this social order as contrary to God's will.

To all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems (of the time), Jesus says, "Come to me... and I will give you rest." Rest here can refer to Sabbath rest, the rest of death, or rest from war when Israel's enemies have been subdued. Rest also functions as an image of salvation, of what will be when the world is finally ordered according to God's purposes....In promising "rest," Jesus promises life under God's reign in the new world that he is bringing into being.”

So what is the message for us today?

Theologian Karoline Lewis, pastor, preacher, and professor says, “To believe in Jesus is not escapism from burdens or struggles or the events in our lives that cause the kind of weariness that might strip us of our very souls. To be a disciple is to be yoked to Jesus.

We are yoked to Jesus, whose yoke is kind, good, useful (better translations than “easy”). Yes, it is still a symbol of burden, oppression, and hardship. But we can’t forget who is pulling the burden with us, with his head through the other oxbow.

With that truth in mind, I think this text says more than: you are not alone in your suffering. Although that is also true about this passage, nevertheless I think there is a promise that the load really will feel lighter. True, you are not alone. And therefore whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone. There’s the difference. There’s the good news -- realistic, good news we might actually experience.”

We are yoked to -- bound to -- Christ. 

In that simple sentence is both promise for us and mission for our lives. 

Now, perhaps we can blame it on the fact that I am married to a sailor, the aunt of one, the niece of another, the granddaughter of still two more soldiers, and the granddaughter of a Marine (yea, you counted correctly, that’s 3 grandfathers), or maybe it is simply because this week contained the 4th of July, Independence Day, or as I like to say, “Happy Birthday, America”.   Whatever the reason, history or proximity, all week, as I contemplated the gospel lesson, I kept hearing the words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” in parallel to the words of Jesus.

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words are graven on a tablet within the pedestal upon which the Statue of Liberty stands.

And I wonder if Emma Lazarus was aware just how deeply her words paralled the words of Jesus.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Friday night, my family and I took to the streets of our neighborhood to celebrate the birth of this nation.  We shared meal with our neighbors and spent several hours igniting explosives, chasing children, and I, at least, spent some time thinking about how amazingly fortunate we are to be living in this country in this time. 

Because of the struggle of our national ancestors, we are allowed to gather here this morning and to worship and to talk about it openly afterward.  Because of their insistence, we have people gathered together in Washington, DC, who have promised to serve as our representatives so that our government doesn’t make decisions without our involvement…no kings or dictators here!  Because of the commitment of the brave signers of the Declaration of Independence, we still publically acknowledge the rights of all people to be treated with dignity and with respect and declare to this day, 238 years later, that these words are true:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Thousands of men and women have carried our flag and given their lives to defend those rights both here and abroad.  For Americans and for citizens of other nations.  And this nation, for more than a hundred years, has been seen as a beacon of freedom and opportunity in this world.  Not perfect, to be sure, but just as surely, striving toward liberty and justice for all.

Saturday morning, I read the news.  New bloodshed in Palestine.  Murder in Israel. Terror in Iraq.  A return to oppression in Afghanistan.  Kidnappings in Nigeria.  Threats from North Korea.  …And 25 new Americans naturalized at the White House.

We are blessed, brothers and sisters, to live in this country, and the whole world knows it.

With such blessing comes great responsibility. 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
We are blessed beyond measure, my Christan-American friends.  Hear the Good News:  We are yoked to Christ.  “…whatever burden you bear, you do not bear it alone.”  We are yoked, we are bound to Christ.  And, as we carry Christ in us, we are yoked and bound to one another…and to the whole world.  All of us.  American, Iraqi, Palestinian, Israeli, Korean, Afghani, Nigerian, to all those laboring under harsh religious and political systems, and to our next-door neighbors…we are bound to one another by our Creator.  Called to bear one another’s burdens.  Called to be light to all nations…to this one and to all. 

How will you share that light as you move through your week?  How will you help bear the burden of the homeless, of the marginalized, of the oppressed, of the refugee…of your next-door neighbor?  How will you understand that you are not alone in your own troubles?  You are bound to Christ and to one another.  And in that binding…there is real freedom, life, liberty, and happiness. 


Naming the Dragon

It seems that some of you have noticed that I never posted my sermons from June or July.  Thank you for noticing.  Here they are...

Matthew 10: 24-39
A Sermon for the People of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Lake Stevens, WA
June 22, 2014

Pray with me as we begin:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.
“Naming the Dragon.”  How many of you are familiar with that phrase?  It means essentially that you name that thing that terrifies you, and that simply by calling it out by name, it loses some of its power over you.  It’s much harder to be afraid of a “Norbert” than a nameless fire-breathing scaly creature determined to char your flesh and incinerate your bones.  Now, of course, outside of a fantasy novel (with no offense to J. K. Rowling, all you Harry Potter fans), dragons simply do not exist.  But we assign their power and might to other things. 

What are you afraid of?  What are your dragons? 

Snakes?  Flying?  Heights?  or more practical matters…Has your son just gotten his driver’s license?  Are you still awaiting the delivery of your end-of-term report card?  Are family members growing up and moving away or just moving on?  Are you wrestling with the kind of care you can give to your aging parents?  Is your workplace “toxic”?  Is your rent past due?  Is your congregation shrinking?

You should each have half an index card and a pen or pencil.  Take a moment and think:  What are you afraid of?  On the lined side of that card, write down two or three fears that you are wrestling with currently.  Go on.  Name your dragons.  Dig deep.  Make it good and honest.  No one will see these unless you show them, okay? Now…hang on to those cards.  Don’t put them away just yet.   

What happened when you named those dragons?  Are they still frightening?  Sure.  But simply by naming them by acknowledging what they are, you strip them of some of their fire power.   

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks to his disciples about fear.  He’s beginning to send them out, actually, and is giving them a “pep-talk”, if you will, about how to go about God’s mission in their world.

The first thing Jesus says is, “a disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master.”  Which basically means, “hey, they’re gonna treat you the same way they’re treating me.”  Yikes.  So much for the pep-talk.

Then, Jesus goes on to talk about dragons.  Again, not literal dragons, but those things which frighten or worry us.  And he begins this passage by saying, “have no fear of them.” 

Fear not.  (have you noticed that every time someone says that in the Bible, a really great promise follows?)

At first glance, it might seem like our God is a god of mixed messages.  “They’re gonna treat you terribly, but don’t worry.”  “These are all the things you should be worried about, but don’t be afraid!”

The disciples had the ultimate worry.  At the time of Jesus, remember, to be a disciple meant the constant threat of death.  Jesus and his followers were persecuted.  (I assure you, despite what some Christians would have you believe –particularly around Christmas time when the birth story of Christ is not allowed in public schools and Christmas trees are called “holiday trees,” we Christians in 21st United States are NOT persecuted.) 

But the disciples were!  Just by traveling with Jesus and by doing what he asked of them, they suffered rejection and the very real threat of death…every. single. day.  The threat of death may be the ultimate threat…the ultimate claim and abuse of power.  But Jesus says to the disciples that they shouldn’t be afraid of the person who is trying to kill (what??)…instead, they should be afraid of the one who can kill their bodies and their souls.  In other words, no mortal has more power than God.  No human can claim authority over their souls.  God always has the final word.

And this is true for us, too, though perhaps in a more metaphorical sense:  Those dragons and people and things can cause you great fear and worry, but God has the last word.  Don’t worry about the words and threats and fears and “dragons” of this life.  Worry about God.  God alone is the one we should fear.

But what do we know of God?  Here’s the Good News:  God loves you.  God loves you so intimately that God knows the number of hairs on your head.  God has even paid attention to the ones that fell out in your hair brush this morning.  God knows every detail of your physical and spiritual being, and God claims you, God claims you, and calls you good.

God, who has ultimate power over our lives both in the present and in the life to come, holds that power with love, and mercy, and tenderness, and grace.  God loves you.

So what about those dragons which you have named this morning? 

What if we look at them in a different way?  What if we decide that all of those adversities or “what-ifs” are not things to be frightened of but instead are chances to use our faith?  To use an example from my dear professor David Lose, “Is a brewing conflict with a dysfunctional colleague or difficult friend something to be avoided at all costs or an opportunity for setting boundaries, affirming healthier patterns of behavior, and nurturing growth?”  

I don’t mean to imply that the dragons are sent by God to teach us how to live our lives, I don’t think God is sadistic or cruel.  But I do want to remind you that God uses for good the things that the world intends for evil, and God shows that to us again and again and again.  Not only in the Bible but in your life as it is unfolding today. God can and God will use those hardships, those dragons, to create new life.  There is no bigger dragon than the cross…and if God can use that for the good of all, imagine how God might be using our current sufferings to bring renewal.

Now, pull out those index cards once again.  Look at your dragons.  Think for a moment about how you might be able to see some new life seeping its way through them.  How might God use those challenges for good?

Flip those cards over.  On the blank side, I want you to write, “Do not fear—you are of great value to God.” 

Take a good long look at that promise.  God loves you.  I want you to take those cards with you.  Pull them out during the week and allow them to serve as a reminder that God knows you…every hair…every freckle…every anxiety and fear…and God calls you good.  Even and especially as you fight your dragons.

Jesus says, “what I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops.” 

And God sends you out into the world to make that Good News known to all people.  Hear the Good News:  “You are claimed.  You are called.  You are forgiven.  You are free.  You are loved.  You are of great value to God.”  Shout it from the rooftops, people!  Once you have named your dragons, those words will be your dragon-slayers. 


Sunday, November 16, 2014

God in God's Own Corduoy Pants

When I was a little girl, 4 years old, my parents divorced.  Now, I lived with my mother in those early days, but I was a daddy’s girl through and through, and I desperately needed to be near him.  I cherished any amount of time we had together, and I remember being so very anxious without him, and so much more centered when he was able to be around.  We lived near an amusement park which would later be Six Flags over Georgia but at the time, it wasn’t called Six Flags quite yet.  But I remember watching the fireworks from the park every night in the summer from our apartment complex’s parking lot, and my dad allowed me to believe the childish fantasy that those fireworks were a bedtime story just for me. 

I was a lucky kid; I had the privilege of having a wonderful father.  He was steady and reliable.  He was loving and kind, and even though my parents couldn’t live together anymore, I knew that I was the most important thing in his entire world, and I knew that he would never abandon me. 

One day, dad took me to Six Flags.  It was a coolish day, and I remember distinctly that my dad was wearing a pair of light brown corduroy pants.  Remember, I was little…pants were about the only thing at eye level!  At the ticket booth, there was a crush of people and somehow I managed to get separated from my dad.  Once I realized he was gone, total panic swept in.  My heart raced, my eyes welled up with tears, I got this terrible knot in my throat, and I remember sweeping my head back and forth over and over trying to see him…this father I knew so well who loved me so much.  In that 4 year old moment of panic, my whole world stopped.  I was trapped in a sea of legs which were all bare or denim-clad.

And then, I saw him.  Saw those brown corduroy pants and raced up behind my father, put my arm around his leg and breathed a big, gulping breath.  Tears of joy and relief replaced those burning tears of panic, and I looked up…and realized that the man wearing my father’s corduroy pants was not my father at all.  He was a total stranger who took one look at me and laughed.  Laughed at me…at my mistake…at my tears. 

After all these years, I still remember the absolutely sick feeling that accompanied the realization that the man I thought was my safe place was actually an imposter, someone I didn’t know at all.  Someone who didn’t care for me in any way.  And someone who behaved like a real jerk.

That sick feeling of mistaking someone who doesn’t care about me for someone who treasures me is the same feeling I used to get when I read today’s Gospel lesson. 

I grew up hearing this parable interpreted in perhaps the same way that you have.  That the master in the story is God, and we are all his slaves.  We are given a great many gifts and responsibilities, and if we don’t perform the way we are expected to perform…with some great and magical multiplication of those gifts …we will be banished from the arms, from the house, from the love of God.

When the parable is explained to me that way, I can’t help but think some jerk is wearing my God’s corduroy pants.

You see, the traditional interpretation calls God a ruthless business person.  A slave owner.  A man who is more concerned with profit than with people.  Who is cold blooded and merciless.

But over and over in the Gospel accounts, Jesus tells us that God is exactly NOT like that.

What if we scrap the usual interpretation that says this story is about how we should manage ourselves in order to earn God’s favor and instead look at this as a story about the state of the world?  An indictment of a society and of a financial system which says more is more and however you have to go about it, get ahead at all costs…no matter who you have to step on to get there.   

In this new interpretation, the master is a very wealthy man.  The amount of money that he possesses is vastly, insanely, incomprehensible.  He has so much money, in fact that he can casually hand over a large sum to three of his slaves as he heads off on a journey. Carla Works is a New Testament scholar and she tells us this, “Although the first receives five times as much as the last, each receives a significant sum of money. A talent is equal to about 6,000 denarii. Since one denarius is a common laborer's daily wage, a talent would be roughly equivalent to 20 years wages for the average worker. Five talents, the largest amount entrusted to any of the servants, is comparable to one hundred years’ worth of labor, an astronomical amount of money.”

This is important to understand because there is no ethical way that a slave in that age could double that amount of money in the time it takes to make a journey.  Yet, we are told, slaves numbers 1 and 2 do in fact double the amounts handed over to them.  Something unscrupulous must have happened here.  The master returns and is so proud of their ability to make such a huge amount of money in such a short time.  And he welcomes them into “the joy of your (their) master”.  “Awesome,” the master says in what I imagine to be the voice of Marlon Brando in “the Godfather”.  “You did very well.  I got another job for you.”

But slave #3 refuses to participate in this immoral behavior.  He removes himself from this financial system.  He takes the amount delegated to him and he buries it.  When the master returns, the 3rd slave turns on the bravery and speaks a difficult, terrible truth, “Master I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”  He digs it up and gives all of the money back.  The master is furious because he wanted the slave to make a larger profit even if it comes at the expense of another through unethical trading or gambling or goodness only knows how!  And for what?  We don’t know for sure, but I think it is purely for the sake of having more.

          The 3rd slave is our parable’s hero.  He refuses to participate in a system that will injure others.  He speaks up about this unjust system, and he suffers the penalties.  The slave is cast into outer darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing” of teeth which sounds like a special kind of hell.  One marked by the rejection of the culture which says that you are valued by your financial worth and by your ability to contribute to the advancement of those who are already in power. 

          AND this sounds more than a little bit like an autobiographical account. For soon, Jesus will be summoned before the powers of his day.  He will continue to tell the truth about a broken society and about the relationship that God wants us to have with God and with one another.  And then, Jesus will suffer the consequences for telling the truth as he dies on the cross—that horrifying symbol of a powerful and merciless society.

But here is the Good News…we encounter the risen Christ in the margins of society, in places of deep pain and rejection and separation…God-with-us as we suffer through tears and anxious tooth-grinding. 

This is the God I recognize.  The man cast out because he stood up for truth.  The man who refused to be complicit in the abuse of another.  The man whose kingdom values got him killed.  God in God’s own corduroy pants as it were.  The God who commands me…who commands us…to do the same.

Can we do it?  Can we be brave enough to look at our own financial practices and relationships and figure out who is hurting because of the ways we want to get more instead of giving more?  Can we publically call out those whose money-grubby hands place a strangle hold on the poor?  Can we speak the truth on behalf of those who are not given voices in this powerful and merciless society?  Can we venture into the anxiety and sorrow of the outer darkness and meet Christ there?

Greg Ronning was my pastor at Texas Lutheran University. He is also a song writer, and all week I have been hearing his song “Exorcism” running around in my head.  Greg writes,

The rich make their money at the expense of the poor
And most of the world sleeps with that whore
On and on and on, day after day
Doesn’t anybody see …
It’s time to exorcise the demon away

God is not in heaven with all well on the earth. 
God is with the oppressed and the poor and all hell’s breaking loose.”

Use your voice.   Use your words.  Use your dollars.  Use your gifts.  Use your possessions.  Use your land.  Use whatever you have.  Take all of those things that make you powerful and use those things to stand with those who live in places of pain, separation, and vulnerability. Give them your voice.

Greg is absolutely right.  God is not in heaven with all well on the earth.  God is with the oppressed and the poor in the margins of society… and those margins are not limited to money…God’s people are ostracized or disregarded because of poverty, homelessness, substance dependency, abuse, race, gender, sexual identity.  But God is there.  God is there in the outer darkness. 

We are called to bear truth in the world.  And sometimes being a truth bearer is a frightening role to play.  It might get us banished.

But the God we know is there in the outer darkness.  And we do not have to be afraid.