Veterans, Weird Questions, Finding Hope, and a Man Named John

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My friends’ and my favorite photo of John — at breakfast with us, laughing and likely saying something funny right back.

Luke 20:27-38

Whenever Veteran’s Day rolls around, I always think of my favorite veterans: there’s some of you, naturally. There’s my dad. There are several of my friends, as I was part of the generation that witnessed 9/11 as teenagers and had many sign up for the subsequent wars after. 

And then there’s my friend John. 

John and I met in seminary. He always had a quick, sarcastic wit and an easy smile. He was a Marine who was severely injured in Iraq in the early 2000s. He almost died, but he didn’t. However, his injury took out most of his pancreas, leaving him diabetic. He always said he felt like he was living on borrowed time. In 2010, to our shock, that proved true. He died of complications from diabetes that year; it was our senior year of seminary.

I know: Memorial Day is really the right day to honor John now. But Veteran’s Day always brought up good conversations with him about war and peace and theology and service. Not a Veteran’s Day goes by, still, when I don’t think of him.

I don’t mean to start a sad sermon, of course. John would hate that, actually. This is a guy who named his cat Bertrand, after philosopher Bertrand Russell. 

What I want to do this morning is to tell you stories that would connect to this Gospel text.

Two stories come to mind. 

The first is this: John was boarding an airplane once, after his time in the Marines. He was a strong-looking guy, and he also often had a beard and long hair. He didn’t really “look like a Marine” in any traditional sense after he was discharged. John took his seat on the aisle of an airplane, dressed in a suit to travel, just like his mother had taught him. He said hello to the woman next to him and prepared to settle in. He leaned forward to place something underneath the seat in front of him. Just then, a high school ROTC corps came down the aisle to board, clearly on a field trip.

The woman next to him, mistakenly thinking they were active duty military and eager to show her gratitude, put her hand on John’s shoulder and pushed him back into his seat. “Excuse me,” she said pointedly. After pushing what she did not know was a Marine out of her way, she went on to thank a very confused high school ROTC unit for their service to our country.

The other story is this one: John and I were in the same group of seminary interns during our second year of seminary. As part of this group, we’d all meet monthly to do a site visit. We were at one church that had a lovely children’s area, complete with a giant mural with a beautiful nature scene. John and I were standing next to one another when John leaned over and whispered, “Yo, what’s with the creepy kid?”

I followed his gaze and indeed, there was a singular toddler in the mural, just sort of sitting in this beautiful nature scene. Thinking that this was the artist’s odd attempt to help children picture themselves in the scene, we giggled at the artist’s poor choice; the kid did look a bit out of place and creepy. 

Just then, one of our classmates raised her hand and asked, “Who’s the child here?” 

The pastor of the church who was showing us around said, “Oh, that’s Timmy. Timmy died of a rare cancer, and his parents dedicated this play area to his memory.” 

John and I could’ve melted into the wall in that moment. “We. Are. Jerks.” I whispered to him. “Yes, yes we are,” he whispered back. “Drinks after this?” 

Today in the Gospel lesson, some Saducees, or some religious folks, come to Jesus and ask him sort of a creepy, weird, off-the-wall question. The Saducees, Luke helpfully tells us, don’t believe that there’s any resurrection, yet here they are, asking about the resurrection in an attempt to show Jesus what a silly idea it is. 

Essentially, they say, “Look, if people get raised from the dead, what happens if they’re married, and then marry other people? Huh? 

It’s worth pointing out that Jesus at this point is right between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. He is mere days from his own resurrection. And according to John’s Gospel, he is the resurrection and the life, which adds even more irony to the story. 

They ask a weird, trapping question about the resurrection, only to miss the resurrection, in the flesh, in their midst. 

Can’t say I blame them. I miss the resurrection all the time. We all do. 

We look with doom and gloom at the future of the church. We look at the impending doom in our own lives. We fail to see or even look for hope, instead getting caught up in the details: but how will we pay the bills? How will we make it? And if there is a resurrection, how would it even work? 

We’re not so unlike the lady who pushed the Marine out of the way to thank the ROTC kids. And we’re not so unlike me and John, getting caught up in the details of a painting of a kid, yet missing the hope of the resurrection in this play area dedicated in his memory.

When John died, it was the first time I lost a friend to death. I’d lost loved ones, sure. I’d even had people that I went to high school with die, but I wasn’t close with them. But John was my friend. And when he died, it was easy to focus on all that we had lost.

John was a marathoner, and when I first started running over ten years ago, it was him who encouraged me. When I posted my finisher photo after my first half marathon on Facebook, he immediately popped up in a comment: “Great time!” Mind you, my time was not great. John was just kind. When he died, I couldn’t cry until one day, about a week after his funeral, when I was running, and it all hit me at once. Running helped me grieve. 

Now, every time I run a race, especially a long one, I think of John. He was on my mind a month ago when I ran the Hartford Half Marathon. When I crossed the start line, I looked up and thought of him. I pointed to the sky, took off, and ran my best race yet. It was awful to lose a friend in that way, but over time, I’ve begun to see the resurrection manifest itself. John is in my steps and my heartbeat whenever I run. 

My friends, the resurrection is here, in our midst. Don’t miss it. 

Those that we have lost are still with us. Christ is still with us. 

My favorite thing to say to people when they tell me that the church is dying is, “Oh, yes. And I can see why Christians would be worried about death. Our faith is all about how death is the very end of things, right?” And I wait for their reaction. To date, I’ve yet to have someone not understand what I mean.

No, we’re not unlike the Saducees, asking all the questions about the details, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. We’re not unlike the lady who pushed John the Marine out of the way to thank the group of high schoolers wandering by in training uniforms. And we’re definitely not unlike John and I, giggling quietly in our jerkdom and missing a very sweet gesture by grieving parents. 

We have this tendency to get caught up in what’s wrong or what we think we “should” do and very much miss God’s hope and presence in our lives. So don’t do that. 

God is here: in wine, in bread, in water, and in the people sitting around you. God is here, in your breath and in your heartbeat. God is here, offering life, offering hope, and always, always, offering another chance to recognize what’s right in front of you. 

Thank God. Amen.

All Saints Sunday: Bless Your Heart

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Myth: “Bless your heart” is an insult. 
Truth: It can be, but the truth is more complicated. It’s often used affectionately, especially among Southerners. 

Luke 6:20-31

People accuse Southerners of being passive-aggressive compared to people from other places, and I can’t say that that’s exactly wrong. As an example, I’ve had many an argument with those from the North and Midwest about the phrase “bless your heart.” 

“It’s just another way to tell someone to…” … hmmm, there are children present. To tell someone to go… away. People think it’s an insult.

In fact, when I googled a more polite way to express the sentiment “go away,” “bless your heart” even came up in my google search. That translation was posted by a Northerner, of course. I can’t blame them, though. That’s probably the only way a Northerner who thinks they know it all probably ever hears the phrase.

For you Northerners who are humble enough to learn, however, I can tell you that the truth is that “bless your heart” can mean many things, and only one of the options is an insult.*

*I usually explain it this way: it’s not unlike saying “you poor thing.” You can say it sincerely or sarcastically, and the meaning is all in the tone.

Growing up in the South, I think, makes it clearer that the phrase can be used in absolutely genuine love and concern. When you’re a child, after all, and you come to your grandmother with a skinned knee and she says “Bless your heart,” you can safely assume she’s not insulting you.

Another option for “bless your heart” is that you’re being lovingly patted on the head — for many varying reasons. Which, even at its harshest, is still very different than being told to [blank] off.

Today, Jesus moves through a lot of “blessed”s in the Gospel passage, and it’s kinda hard to figure out what he means by “bless your heart,” what his point is, and why we would want to read this passage today, as we remember the saints who have gone before us. 

Bless our hearts. Saints & blesseds, what does it all mean?

People, especially here in Catholic country, often have a bit of a complex when it comes to calling their loved ones “saints.” It’s one of the biggest differences in language that we have as a result of the Reformation; for Roman Catholics, the emphasis is often placed on famous saints who have been canonized by the church. As good Lutherans, however, we emphasize the we are all both saints and sinners.

Still, because of the visibility of icons and our own weird and selective sense of humility, we hesitate to call ourselves or our loved ones saints. What does it even mean to be a saint?

There’s a Reader’s Digest story that Delmer Chilton of Two Bubba’s and a Bible told this week on the podcast that goes like this. 

A little boy was out trick-or-treating in a Superman costume. He came to the door of one of his neighbors with his mother, who was holding his pumpkin for him. The neighbor asked why his mother was holding the boy’s candy. The boy didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because it’s heavy!” 

“Heavy?” the neighbor said. “But you’re Superman!” 

The boy leans in somewhat conspiratorially and whispers to the neighbor: “It’s just pajamas.” (1)

Bless his heart. 

We’re just like him when it comes to calling ourselves or our more imperfect loved ones “saints.” Told of God’s grace, we at best think of ourselves as forgiven sinners, but not saints. Not worthy of recognition as models of faith. Like “bless your heart,” we struggle to define what a saint is, other than that we aren’t saints ourselves.

But it seems to me that if there’s one message in the Gospel passage that’s especially relevant for All Saints’, it’s that Jesus is saying loud and clear that saints aren’t going to look like you’d expect them to (2). We think of passages like this as being about who’s getting in to heaven, but given that Jesus doesn’t make any such claim in the text, we’re free to think of it in bigger terms than who’s going to heaven.

It’s about what God’s reign on earth looks like, and what it looks like to live as if God’s love has made a difference. It’s not just pajamas. 

This whole day is about how we are stepping into this tradition, this stream of faith, that has been flowing for thousands of years before us and will keep flowing when it is our names that will be spoken in November every year (3).

Before an Auburn football game one year, then-head coach Gene Chizik addressed his team in the locker room of Jordan-Hare Stadium. He talked about tradition. 

Coach Chizik’s words were simple: “This place was great way before you got here.” 

He said this not to make the players feel unworthy, but to wake them up to the opportunity they had to carry on a tradition that was far bigger than they were: that they  can be an example of what it means to carry this great tradition forward. They get to wear the uniform no matter what; now it’s their chance to set an example of what makes this tradition great.

This is true of us, too. The church was great way before we got here. 

It’s not just pajamas.

An alb is what we all wear whenever we serve in worship; it’s the garment of all the baptized. When we bury our dead, we put a white pall over the casket, also symbolizing baptism. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, with everyone who has gone before us and with everyone who will follow us.

That uniform is real, and we get to wear it no matter what. It was great way before we got here. We are saints. And now we carry this tradition forward: to do crazy things like loving our enemies. Being generous. Being joyful. The church’s legacy throughout the centuries isn’t untarnished, but it is ours. No human has been perfect, but we have all been loved. 

Bless our hearts.

It’s a lot to take in, and we probably feel unworthy and will always wonder what, exactly, it means. But I think Luther said it best when he wrote, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

So that’s it.

Let’s speak the names of those who went through the waters of baptism before us and who now rest with God. We’ll light candles to remember them, then, surrounded by those candles that remind us of the great cloud of witnesses, we will gather around the table again, just like Christians have for well over 2,000 years now. Then we will leave to continue the legacy of Christ’s church for another day. 

Bless our hearts. Amen. 

1. I listen to “Two Bubbas and a Bible” just about every week. You can find it here.
2. This snippet also comes from Delmer Chilton of “Two Bubbas and a Bible.”
3. The “stream of faith” metaphor is from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who used it at her ELCA Youth Gathering talk in 2012.

Prince, Michael Jackson, and Martin Luther: Reformation Sunday 2019

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John 8:31-36

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

I was dreaming when I wrote this; forgive me if it goes astray. 

But when I woke up this morning, could’ve sworn it was Reformation Day.

Well, my friends, here we are for another year — celebrating the five hundred second anniversary, as it were, of the Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther, whose name we bear whenever we refer to ourselves as Lutherans. Luther: the monk, scholar, and pioneer who utilized the technology of his day (namely, the printing press) in order to get his ideas out there and to change the course of history as we know it. 

Today, I also want to talk about faith and technology and pioneering and reformation via another pioneer who used the technology of his day: the artist, as it were, formerly known as Prince. 

Whether or not you were alive and aware of pop music in 1982 doesn’t matter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty years, you know this little clip of music. [Click here to listen.]

That drum machine. That blast of sound. It’s iconic. And it’s also musically groundbreaking in ways that I didn’t quite realize until this week. 

No, this isn’t a setup to a joke about partying like it’s 1517. 

All of this information comes from a little podcast called Switched on Pop, which I highly recommend. This week’s guest was Anil Dash, who usually appears on a tech podcast called Function. This week, however, he joined Switched on Pop to talk about his Prince fandom.

You see, that blast of sound and those drums didn’t just come out of nowhere. Prince was fond of using drum machines, at least in part because he didn’t have to worry about contacting actual drummers while he was working in the studio at 3AM. In 1982, before the release of “1999,” he had one called the Linn Machine 1, or LM1. It was created by Roger Linn in the 1970s in order to produce “the most faithful sound” — in other words, it was supposed to mimic actual drums. 

It’s what Prince did with it, however, that made both it and the song groundbreaking. He turned the knobs of the LM1 too far intentionally — much further than the inventor, Linn, intended. The result, as you can hear on the track “1999,” wasn’t the sound of real drums — it was the sound of otherworldly drums. You might even call them futuristic.

From there, Prince added an Oberheim synthesizer and also cranked it up further than anyone else was doing at the time. His goal: to stretch his audience. To be innovative. To figure out what was possible. The result, you’ve already heard: the song “1999.” It was his breakout, iconic single, and one that expanded his audience and launched him to the iconic status that he has today. The song even had a revival naturally, as the new millennium approached almost twenty years ago.

The freedom Prince had with music was based on his knowledge of music and his willingness to take what he was given and innovate. He pushed and expanded and changed the face of music.

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

Someone else heard the song “1999” when it was first released in September 1982. That person, naturally, was Michael Jackson. At the time, he was working on a track called “Starlight,” which was a synthy, soft rock song. Now, you’ve probably never heard a Michael Jackson song called “Starlight,” unless you’re as big a pop music nerd as me. Well, there’s a reason you’ve never heard it. 

You see, when Jackson heard the wall of sound in Prince’s new song, his competitive edge hit him. He also wanted something that sounded like a wall of sound, something iconic, that would make history and help change music forever. The result of this musing, you also know — you may have even heard it recently, as it’s a Halloween mainstay.

[Click here to listen.]

And all of this came from pushing boundaries far past what was originally intended, to include more sounds, louder sounds, bigger sounds. It was, in its own right, a kind of musical reformation that would shape pop music for the rest of the 1980s and beyond. 

My friend Kimble, a UCC pastor, describes theology in different traditions like a stereo. The Presbyterians turn up the knob on God’s sovereignty, while the Episcopalians might turn that one down a bit and turn up sacramental theology. Well, my friends, Martin Luther takes the “grace” knob and turns it way further than anyone had before 1517, and he changed the course of history. He rejected the idea that the clergy nor the institution of the church was the sole arbiter of grace, and he really rejected the idea of the church selling indulgences, or the forgiveness of sin for a price. And so, that fed up monk wrote a little document called the Ninety Five Theses, and depending on whom you ask, he either nailed it to the door of a church or mailed it to the church authorities, but either way, the rest is history. 

Now, this is not to denigrate our Catholic neighbors, of whom we have many. It’s not to denigrate the members of your families who may be Catholic. Christians of all types have tended to take that “truth shall make you free” passage and use it to feel smug, but that’s not the intention. Luther, before all hell broke loose, didn’t intend to create a new church with his 95 Theses, and everything he was saying was originally in an attempt to reform the church he loved so much. Nothing he said was actually all that contrary to Catholic theology; in his view, he was simply calling them back to what he understood the Catholic faith to be. 

Or, as I like to put it when someone tells me they’re Catholic after finding out I’m a Lutheran: “Ah, well, what’s a little damage to a door five hundred years ago between friends?” 

The gist of what Luther wanted to get across wasn’t so much Lutheran as it was just Christian, even if he did crank grace knob all the way up to eleven: the Gospel is a story about God, and salvation is an act of God. By grace we are saved, through faith. 

If Prince produced a wall of sound that hits your ears, Martin Luther produced a wall of grace that hits your heart. He cranked that knob up further than anyone intended, except for Christ himself. 

There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Just before that line, when Jesus says “If you continue in my word,” it’s important to note two things: first, that the word translated “continue” is really “abide,” and that when Jesus refers to the “word,” he’s not talking about the Bible since, you know, the New Testament didn’t exist just yet. When the writer of John pens this line in the eighth chapter of the Gospel, he’s calling back to the first chapter: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). What Jesus is saying is “abide in me,” live in me, and I will make you free indeed.

My friends, on this five hundred second anniversary of the Reformation, I want to posit this: that, just like art, and music, and science, and our own lives, faith and theology are dynamic, not static. A healthy faith is always growing, changing, re-forming, discovering new things, all while holding to the core truths that set us free. After all, in music, basic music theory isn’t going anywhere, but in the right hands, some amazing things can happen that would blow the socks off Mozart himself. 

The color for Reformation Sunday is red with the Holy Spirit’s dove logo for a reason, you know: that the Holy Spirit, wild, untamed, creative, is always doing a new thing. The same Holy Spirit that first whispered in Luther’s ear to turn that grace knob all the way up is here today, whispering in our ears, too, if we know how to listen. And while we may have changed some things since 1517 that Luther did not intend and would not recognize, the creator of both faith and music, wild and untamed, is unsurprised. 

“… and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

The truth is that we are saved by grace, by God. Set free from having to earn God’s love, we are free to play, to create, to fail, to learn, to experiment, to grow. And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in the next year as we undertake the synod’s Forward program and look not with fear, but with, creativity at our future. And the Holy Spirit will be there, too.

It’s Reformation Sunday, folks. So turn it up. Amen.

One in Ten

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Our Savior’s people on God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday: as Lutherans, we do good not because we must, but because we’re grateful. 

Luke 17:11-19

I have to confess something to you. I don’t usually like Christian movies. 

Why? Lots of reasons: for one thing, I often find them to be a little too simple and sweet; they’re like eating a cupcake with lots of icing when I want a meal. 

The other reason is because of this line that we find at the end of the Gospel passage: “Your faith has made you well.” 

How often are these movies about someone in the moving having great faith and finding their problems solved by God?

“But Pastor,” you may say, “You literally just said it’s right there in the Bible!” 

Yes, yes it is. “Your faith has made you well.” 

So that’s it, isn’t it? If we have enough faith, God will solve our problems, just like Jesus did for the grateful leper who comes back to praise him. 

But as you might imagine, this ain’t no sweet Christian movie. It’s a complex story. And we’ve got a few minutes, so while we’re here, we might as well talk about it. 

It begins:

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” 

“Samaria” is already a warning sign. Good Jews did not go near Samaria. That’s where “those people” lived. The first readers of Luke would’ve leaned forward at the mention of “Samaria.” Samaria was a whole other nation, and a hated one. Jesus is going near the border. 

We talk a lot about Samaria and how the people were despised, and about how the Jewish folks of the day regarded them as those who have it all wrong. We say this, and we compare it to the hatreds of our own day, but I don’t think we take it seriously. You see, we don’t personally have anything against Samaritans. I’ve never met one, myself. And the groups of people we hate, well, they’re clearly different than the people we find in the Bible. They’re harmful, and dumb, and they really have it all wrong. Jesus would understand, right?
Nope.

In Luke, Jesus spends most of his time setting his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross. Gradually, he gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, though he takes a bit of a circuitous route. You’ve got to wonder if the Son of God has a busted GPS. 

Hence, going by Samaria. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.

Here, on the way to his destiny and going by the place where the hated people live, ten lepers cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 

They keep their distance, Luke says. They don’t want Jesus to just walk quickly away from them, which would be well within his rights; not only were they unclean, but on a practical level, no one wants leprosy. 

Jesus instructs them to go and show themselves to the priests, and Luke says that as they went, they were made clean. 

This could be a nice, simple, sweet story, one where Jesus directs people to go and rejoin the community by going to the priests who will declare them clean. Except that it isn’t that kind of story.

One of them didn’t go to the priests. He didn’t because he couldn’t. He was a Samaritan. He was one of those people. The priests wouldn’t welcome someone who was both leper and Samaritan who dared to approach a Jewish priest. Strike one, strike two, strike three, sit down.

He couldn’t go to the priests so he came back to Jesus, seeing that he was healed and made clean. He came back praising God with a loud voice. He came back grateful. He fell at Jesus feet and thanked him. 

Luke adds: “And he was a Samaritan.” 

And that’s when Jesus said it, the line that echoes back through the centuries and gets into our theology and gets us into all kinds of trouble: “Your faith has made you well.” 

Does faith make sick people well? Maybe. But then I suppose we’ve got a lot of explaining to do. In my own life and as a pastor, I’ve known plenty of people with faith far greater than my own who have not been made well, but who have died of illnesses and injuries of all kinds. Christian movies can be a nice escape for us, because they put us into a world where faith is simple. But the truth is that faith is rarely simple. 

“Your faith has made you well.” 

Does Jesus really mean that the Samaritan leper’s faith healed him? 

You might have already guessed this, but the answer in the text is no, for a few reasons: first, the nine ungrateful lepers, the faithless ones, are also healed. 

But the text says what it says, right? “Your faith has made you well?” Some translations even say “your faith has healed you.” 

Well, Luke originally wrote in Greek, and Greek is a funny thing. “Healed” is one translation, “well” is another, but I think here, the best word is “whole.” 

“Your faith has made you whole.” 

Theeeeere you go. Is that even different? Goodness yes. 

You see, as Lutherans, we believe that faith is a gift from God. If you believe that you’re earning your way into heaven by being here, I hate to disappoint you, but we believe that salvation is an act of God, not a reward for good behavior. If you’re waiting for an excuse to not go to church, well, here it is: you’re fine even if you don’t. When we declared you beloved at your baptism, we were just saying what God already knew: you’re beloved beyond measure. God’s not keeping score anymore. God has claimed you and healed you. You have been made clean. If all you want is a healing and a ticket to heaven, you can leave now.

But this is what I love about Lutherans: you know that. And you still come back every Sunday morning. As if that weren’t enough, you show up on Sunday nights to teach and take care of kids and serve food at Financial Peace University. You show up in the middle of the week to fix things around here that need fixing. You show up at Sok’s Bar to sing and be grateful and enjoy one another’s company. You keep coming back, all the time, not because you must, but because you may. 

Because you’re grateful. Not because your own faith has healed you, but because your faith has made you whole. Because this community makes you feel whole. Because Jesus makes you feel whole. 

The pastor of a church in Atlanta that is 90% LGBTQ, Beth LaRocca-Pitts, once preached on this text when it happened to fall on Pride Sunday in October in Atlanta. “One in ten,” she mused. She added, “I can’t help but think of something else that occurs in about one in every ten people.” Of course, she meant being LGBTQ. She went on to celebrate them, her congregation full of the one in ten. (1) The one who turned back and praised God with a loud voice because not only had he been healed, he had been made whole. 

I’ve never forgotten that sermon. 

I have never served a congregation that was 90% LGBTQ. But I do serve a congregation that is full of the one in ten.

As you may have noticed, practically nobody in New England is all that religious. The usual story, as you know, is “I was raised [fill in the blank, usually Catholic], but these days, I’m spiritual, but not religious.” 

According to Pew Research, 45% of our neighbors in Massachusetts seldom or never attend religious services, while 33% say they rarely do. In my experience, a lot of those 33% actually belong with the 45%. 

And yet, here you are. 

Your faith has made you whole. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning anyone who’s happily sleeping in right now. Many Sundays, I wish I was doing the same. Don’t forget — all ten who met Jesus were healed, even the ones who never saw him again. But I’ve got a congregation filled with the one who came back to praise God with a loud voice. 

No, it’s not a simple story. This story, as good as it makes us feel, is no usual Christian movie where someone with a lot of faith gets healed because they have a lot of faith. It’s a story about how Jesus throws out healing like he’s made of it, because he is. 

And then one guy comes back to Jesus in gratitude, and he is made whole by his own gratitude, by realizing where his healing came from, by being thankful. 

You’ve already begun practicing gratitude by showing up today. Keep it going. What are you grateful for? Who are you grateful for? 

I’ll start: I’m grateful for you. You make my soul whole by showing up, Sunday after Sunday, week after week. I’m the pastor of the one in ten, and I could not be more grateful. 

Our story isn’t a saccharine movie. It’s much more complicated with a few more beers and probably a lot more cussing, but it’s got just as much Jesus, just as much healing, just as much wholeness. 

And for that, I’m grateful. Amen.

1. That church is St. Mark United Methodist Church, Atlanta.

Mustard Seeds: Get It?

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Actual mustard seeds, as seen at children’s Sunday school on Sunday at Our Savior’s.

Luke 17:5-10

When I was in college, for the first two years, my coach was a very Bill Belichick type character: highly successful, wicked smart about strategy and the game in general, all with the cuddliness of a Brillo pad. He wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to trifle with, and if you played for him, you’d better do your best. 

When someone hit a home run, we weren’t to lose our minds. We were to come out of the dugout calmly and deliver our fist bumps and high fives. Why?

Because we weren’t supposed to act like home runs were rare, or in any way a surprise. 

No, we do this all the time. If success is routine, you don’t lose your mind when all you did was your job. 

Makes sense now why I, someone with no previous NFL loyalties, so quickly became a Patriots fan, don’t it?

This morning, Jesus essentially says a similar thing at the end of the passage. Those who do what they’re supposed to don’t expect congratulations. So yeah, you guessed it: Jesus’ message is, essentially, Do your job.

There’s also this thing about mustard seeds. 

You may be familiar with the parable of the mustard seed. Starts as a little seed, grows into big tree, birds come and nest in its branches, etc. This isn’t that, but it’s close. Jesus really loved mustard seeds for some reason. I think it’s this: there’s a truth about mustard seeds that we miss because, well, we’re not first century Middle Eastern farmers. 

Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden tree that provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s a sudden tree that gives itself for the life of the world around it.

Get it? 

We often think that it’s our job to have faith. We think that what Jesus is telling us here is that if we could muster even a little faith, we could do great things. DO YOUR JOB – have faith. 

But everything gets in the way, and faith becomes hard to muster. More than anything, I wish I could take you all to my seminary for just a day, to go undercover and listen to what pastors sound like when no one else is around. What you would encounter is probably not what you’d expect, unless you’re friends with a lot of pastors. What you’d encounter is a bunch of people just like you: punchy, funny, just a little bit irreverent, and really, no more faithful than you are. What you’d encounter is just a bunch of people who are doing the best they can, and sometimes that’s not enough. 

The world feels like it’s in chaos, but then again, it often does, doesn’t it? 

I can hardly think of a time when I looked around and thought, “Wow, everything in the world is really peaceful and going really well.” I mean, maybe when I was a child, but then again, I was a child. It’s easy to think the world is a great place when your parents make your food and pay the bills and keep you from doing dumb things.

Once, when I was a teenager, I asked a pastor how to keep faith. You see, I was having a hard time maintaining my faith and my emotions around it. I would get stressed or sad and just not feel the passionate faith that I thought Christians were supposed to feel. To me, faith was something that I was supposed to maintain. This pastor replied, “Are you asking how do you keep the fire from going out? You just don’t let it.” 

For him, faith was an act of will. Do your job.

Little did he know, I would grow up and become a pastor and realize that that was terrible advice. 

For Lutherans, faith is a gift. It’s not something you feel and it’s not something you earn. It’s something you have even when you really feel like you don’t. It’s a mustard seed that pops up when you least expect it, giving shade and food and new life. When you’re just going about life, like any other sower, doing your job, scattering seed, faith is a little thing you throw out by accident that can start growing unexpectedly. 

Faith like a mustard seed: small, sneaky, and prone to start growing just about anywhere. 

Get it?

So what Jesus is saying here, I think, is don’t act like it’s a big deal when you manage to do the right thing or have faith. Faith and good works are acts of God, popping up everywhere, sometimes when we least expect it. 

Today we’re celebrating our work on September 8, when we served our neighbors via distributing batteries and cleaning the food pantry. Though it took a lot of planning, in the end, it did feel to me a little like a mustard tree springing up out of nowhere. Though we knew what was going to happen, I think we were also plenty surprised along the way: by the reactions of our neighbors, and by how good we all felt at the end despite a day of hard work. 

So let’s continue to get out there and do our jobs. But remember: faith is a gift, and a surprising one at that. So if you’re feeling like you just can’t keep that fire going, let go and let faith surprise you, like a mustard tree that pops up out of nowhere. I think you’ll be glad you did, because God, for one, always gets the job done.

Get it? Amen.

Stewardship, the O’Jays, and the Parable of the Guy Who Cheats

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Amos 8:4-7
Luke 16:1-13

In the famous words of the O’Jays:
“Money money money money, MONEY!
Some people got to have it
Some people really need it
Listen to me why y’all, do things, do things, do bad things with it
You want to do things, do things, do things, good things with it…” 

It’s a great connection to the Gospel. I got it from a podcast. Because I needed a little help this week. Because I got a little lost between this confusing parable about the dishonest manager and the dilemma that every pastor has during stewardship season: balancing the Gospel and the belovedness of every person with the pressing knowledge that running a church ain’t free.

And here Jesus is, coming in with a whole chapter on, you guessed it: “Money money money money, MONEY!”

I’ll be honest: I’m usually not one for church podcasts. I’d rather listen to something about the news or music or language or something besides what I have to think about all day for work. Recently, though, I’ve discovered a church-related podcast that I actually enjoy. It’s the Lectionary Lab, put on by “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” a lectionary podcast by Delmer Chilton, a colleague down in the Southeastern Synod, and John Fairless, another Bubba/pastor. I love listening to them drawl on about the Hebrew and Greek and biblical scholarship and theology, sprinkled with the plenteous use of “y’all.”It’s like a giant bowl of chicken and dumplin’s for this relocated Southerner.

(And yes, Delmer’s real name is, in fact, Delmer.)

This week in the Gospel lesson, we’ve got the parable of the dishonest manager, a story about how a guy who was going to be fired for his incompetence found out about his firing and responded by straight up cheating his master. But he didn’t get thrown into the outer darkness, oh no. He got commended for it. Then, after the parable, Jesus says weird stuff like “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9). 

What.

And to top it all off, it’s stewardship season. 

This week when talking about the texts, Delmer and John, the aforementioned Two Bubbas with the Bible, said something like this: we tend to think of Jesus’ parables as neat little stories that tell us neat, simple  little lessons about how to relate to God and how to serve God. 

But if we’re looking for that, we have come to the wrong parable. 

The Bubbas concluded that that there’s no completely satisfying explanation for this parable, and I agree. If we get to the end of my sermon and you still feel like there’s a loose end or two in this story, it’s because there is. Somehow, down through the centuries, we’ve missed something. So — if you were hoping I’d tie this story up into a neat little moral bow for you, then adjust your expectations now. I’ll wait.

Sometimes I find it helpful to tell you about all the bad sermons I decided not to preach before landing on this one. Here are the titles, in no particular order: 

“How to Minimize Your Debt: Find a Debt Collector Who’s Getting Fired” 

or , for stewardship season: “Cheat your Boss; Give More to the Church”

and finally,

“I Don’t Know What to Preach Here, but Like the Text Says, ‘I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg,’ So Here I Am” 

Here’s what I think the actual point of the text is, with some help from the two Bubbas and a Bible: use your money, don’t let your money use you. 

“Money money money money, MONEY!
Let’s go back to the parable.
I’m going to take you to seminary for a half second. First lesson in parable reading: rethink what you know about who the characters are. Often, we’re straight up told in the text who they are. Often, the master of the house, the rich one, is God. But not always, and in this parable, Jesus doesn’t say who’s who. So for the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re dealing with a flawed, more human, but still smart, master, shall we? Less Jesus Christ, more Robert Kraft. 

The manager, our hero? finds out from our Mr. Kraft-like character that he’s going to get fired. The manager tries to figure out what to do about his looming unemployment, and he weighs his options. Finally, he decides, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 

“Forget the money,” he thinks, “I’ll make sure I have friends.”

Then he systematically does make friends by reducing his neighbors’ debts. Will he make any money from this? No. Will it help him survive? Yes. And his master, despite being the one who gets cheated, is so impressed with him that he commends him.

The manager uses money to make friends. Of course, he’s a dishonest manager, so he does it out of self-preservation rather than kindness, but the lesson is the same: use money; don’t let money use you. 

Another lesson: it benefits everyone to put people before profits.

Jesus ends the whole chapter, which has been about money this whole time, with one of his most famous sayings: “No one can serve two masters; for they will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13).

To serve wealth means that you have to step on people in order to amass more. To serve God means forgoing some chances at wealth to serve people.

What God’s mad about in the Amos reading is people pretending to be all religious but really being all about the money money money money, MONEY.

What God is saying to us in all this, I think, is “You are so much more than what you can own.” You are worth more than a life of living, amassing money, and dying. You can’t, as they say, take it with you.

It’s also pretty easy to say this if you have enough money, if you’re being paid fairly, if you have everything you need. But as anyone who’s ever struggled knows, focusing on relationships before making bank is even more important when you’re poor. It’s much easier to ignore your neighbors when you don’t have to depend on each other to survive. 

What Jesus is trying to get us back to, I think, is depending on each other, talking to each other, forming relationships. Focusing less on the capital and more on each other and the world around us that needs us. 

It is indeed stewardship season. And runnin’ a church ain’t, indeed, free. And we are, indeed, beloved.

The Good News, friends, is that we are beloved children of God. Humans are too precious to serve wealth. Life is too rich, too valuable, to always have your head down, working on making the next buck. What we have in this place is a chance to put relationships first, to serve our neighbors first, and to not be, as every other organization is, one that’s focused mostly on dollars.

So as we get ready for commitment Sunday next week, I challenge you to look up and into the eyes of your fellow members, your friends, your neighbors. Invest in relationships. And if you find something valuable here, invest in this place, however you can — using time or talent or 

“Money money money money, MONEY!”

Running a church ain’t free, but grace is, and grace abounds in this place, thanks to all of you. 

And thank God. Amen.

Revisiting Repentance: Sorry, Not Sorry

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Camp Calumet’s Reach the Beach group for 2019. Thanks to everyone who’s given to send kids to camp; if you haven’t and you’re still interested in giving, click here.

Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

This sermon begins our annual stewardship season, which ends in Pledge Sunday, September 29. If you’re a member of OSLC and haven’t received your pledge card in the mail, pick one up at church in the next two weeks! 

If I seem a little dazed and tired today, there’s a very good reason.
If you didn’t know already, it’s because I’ve just returned from a 12 person, 200-ish mile, 34ish hour relay from the mountains of New Hampshire to the beach. I, personally, ran 16 miles on no more than three hours of sleep. You might be wondering if this was for fun. No, no — I went to seminary for this. I ran to support our synod’s summer camp. We raised money for Camp Calumet’s campership fund, so that every kid who wants to go to camp might have a chance. I want to say thanks to all of you who gave, and if you haven’t and you want to, let me know and I’ll figure something out for you. Otherwise, when all of my work is done today, let me sleep. 

But I’ve got a few more miles to go first. 

The first order of the day is these texts, all vaguely referencing repentance, but not in the way you might expect. We usually think of repentance as kind of a dirty, wash, rinse, repeat cycle. You sin, you feel sorry, God looks at you like “Oh, no, again?,” you say sorry, and finally, you are forgiven because you feel bad and God feels sorry for you. That’s usually the way repentance works in the real world, between people. Usually, saying sorry is required before we get forgiveness. We’re expected to demonstrate true remorse, and maybe the other person will take pity on us and forgive us, and maybe not. Occasionally, you might hear (or be) a very strong person who’s able to forgive without needing an apology, but it’s certainly not common, and we definitely don’t expect God to act that way.

But since my brain is still in New Hampshire in the middle of the night, I want to begin my explanation of all this by describing the time we lost Sam. 

Okay, we didn’t lose Sam. We just misplaced him for awhile in 2018. 

About every other year, a runner in the middle of the night makes a wrong turn. My 1AM run this year had a ton of turns this year, but luckily, it wasn’t me this year.

When you’re running through rural New Hampshire in the middle of the night, you’re looking for signs with singular blinky lights on them that tell you where to go. If you miss one and keep going straight when you were supposed to have turned, you put everyone on your team, including yourself, into a panic. Oh, and did I mention that cell service is terrible run rural New Hampshire?

So we misplaced Sam. And thus my metaphor about these texts begins.

Sam went the wrong way and it separated him from us. It doesn’t really matter if he did it intentionally or not, though he definitely didn’t because, in the words of some Bostonian Calumet visitors, “Theh’s beahs out theah.” The night is dark and full of terrors. 

Immediately when they realized that Sam wasn’t coming to the transition when he was supposed to, people began to call. When calling didn’t work, some folks got into the van. They searched until they found him, corrected that wrong turn, and got him back to the right transition area, fixing the problem and reuniting him with his community.

What you’ve got in today’s readings is repentance, but it’s not about feeling sorry. It’s not about us at all, really, but about God and God’s character. 

The Exodus reading is the passage right after the famous golden calf, when the Israelites decide they need a better god and so they build themselves one out of gold. God, as God does, gets angry, and the argument in this Exodus reading between Moses and God is what ensues. It sorta goes like this for awhile: “They’re your people!” “No, they’re your people.” “No, they’re YOUR people.” In a very Jewish argument in which a person argues and struggles with God in the way only God’s chosen people can, God relents and decides not to wipe them all out. If “repent” literally represents a change of mind (and it does), God repents here, which tells us from the get-go that we have to think about repentance differently today than we’re used to. 

God doesn’t have much of a need to feel sorry, you see, but God does change God’s mind (Exodus 32:14), as conscious beings often do. The King James version actually does say that God “repented.” 

So what the heck is repentance if it isn’t crying about our sins? And what does that tell us about grace? And what the heck does any of this have to do with us losing Sam?

Let’s go to the Gospel. 

In the Gospel reading, you’ve got Jesus accused of, as usual, hanging out with the wrong sorts of people. He’s been at dinner with some good religious people, and they start to notice the crowds coming near to listen to Jesus. Rather than saying “Wow! We’ve been trying to get these people to listen to us for years,” they grumble jealously: “Can you believe he lets these people hang around him?” 

So Jesus, never one to miss an opportunity to offend such folks, starts talking about two other marginalized groups: shepherds and women — looking for a lost sheep and a lost coin, finding each, and rejoicing.

Just like we rejoiced when we found Sam. And boy did we.

You see, in the words of Delmer Chilton, a pastor down in the Southeastern synod that I adore, “the Gospel is rooted in a Hebrew understanding of God as gracious…. Jesus is not God’s Plan B… Jesus doesn’t represent God saying, ‘Well, that didn’t work, so I’ll send Jesus to change the rules.” 

No, Jesus is simply describing what true repentance is: it’s a story about God restoring us. 

The crux of Lutheran theology, friends, is that we get so broken that we can’t make our way to God. So God always comes to us and makes us new, again and again. And if you ask me, that’s a far better story than a story about God taking our sorry butts back. 

So if you’re feeling lost, my friends, like you’re on a dark New Hampshire road and you don’t know which way to go and you long ago lost sight of the last blinky sign, take heart. God will find you. Because the Gospel is, above all, a story about God. 

Our job, it seems to me in this Gospel reading, is to not go second guessing God by griping about “those people.” 

So, yes. Repentance can entail feeling sorry. It can also just be about reconciliation. When God changed God’s mind in Exodus, it wasn’t about God admitting fault, it was about setting the family right. It’s about who God is, not who Israel is. It’s about God taking action to restore, to bring new life from death, to set things right. 

So it is with us. 

As we enter another stewardship season, keep that in mind. You’re not giving so that God will love you. We’re not selling tickets to heaven or tickets into God’s good graces. You look just as cute to God whether you give a lot or none at all. 

We give so that we might work with God to set things right in the world. To do a little good. And most of all, we give because we’re grateful to be found. You can’t earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. So it is with us. 

And so, my fellow lost and found sheep and coins, let’s get ready for another year of being found. Let’s get ready for another year of doing good because we’re grateful. Let’s get ready for another year of being awesome not so that God will love us, but because God already does. Amen.

God’s Work, Our Hands

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Our Savior’s worship on God’s Work, Our Hands day, 2019.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Luke 14:25-33

It seems to me that we’ve got two conflicting messages in our Old Testament and Gospel readings. 

Don’t worry; we’ve got work to do. It’s God’s Work, Our Hands day, so you can bet this won’t take long. But I had to point this one thing out, and then we’ll talk about it, and then I’ll teach you a song with some motions, and then we’ll go help some people. Sound good, everyone? Good.

So the Old Testament reading says this: “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” 

Despite its being hijacked as a political slogan, the phrase “choose life” still rings with truth. Choose blessing, not cursing. Choose good, not evil. Choose kindness, not meanness. Choose life, not death.

We have a choice, Deuteronomy says, and we can choose life. 

Then comes Jesus, complicating things. He’s telling us to take up that cross. The cross, which, to his original listeners, would have represented death at the hands of the Roman Empire. His mostly Jewish audience in the first century had been raised all their lives with Deuteronomy, being told to follow the law, and in so doing, to choose life. And Deuteronomy also says “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). In case you were wondering, yes, a cross counts as a tree.

Of course, he’s not actually telling them to choose death. But he is telling them to give their lives, and later on, their possessions. If we ever really want a scorched earth stewardship policy one year, we should definitely use that last verse, 14:33: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Sound good, Barb?

Wait, does Diego count as a possession? I’m out.

Everyone, from the most fundamentalist to the least literalist biblical reader imaginable, tries to talk their way out of this one. We try to explain why Jesus didn’t really mean that.

But what if he did?

As Lutherans, we believe that you don’t, and that you can’t, do anything to earn God’s grace. It’s a free gift. Becoming a disciple of Jesus isn’t even required — a disciple, after all, is a learner. Being Jesus’ disciple isn’t the same as scoring a ticket to heaven. 

Being Jesus’ disciple, for a Lutheran, isn’t about earning God’s love by giving up everything. You can’t earn God’s love; you can only live in response to it. And what do you give the God who has everything?

Just taking a gander here, but knowing Jesus, the answer seems to be: your whole life. Carry that cross and give your life. Give your limited waking hours on this earth to make someone else’s life better. And in so doing, especially in this divisive day and age, we are choosing life. 

That’s the thing about us humans. We’re fragile, and no one knows how long they have. To give up precious moments of life on a nice day in September to help someone else is a sacrifice. 

But here’s the thing: not long after he tells everyone to take up their cross, Jesus dies on one, but every one of you knows that it’s not the end. We pop champagne every Saturday night before Easter because new life walked right out of the grave. 

When I was a pastor in Montgomery, they had a tradition of having a flower cross on Easter. Because it’s the South, everyone’s garden is already flowering by Easter. Everyone brings flowers and puts them in the chicken wire-and-wood wrapped cross.

Let me tell you, that cross is ugly without the flowers. We used it on Good Friday, a twist of wood and metal, glaring with death, and ugly. When the congregation arrived on Sunday, though, it was full of flowers, teeming with life, transformed. 

That’s the opportunity we have today: to give away moments of our one wild and precious life [apologies to Mary Oliver] to our neighbors, so that they can be safe and so that they can have food. And if Jesus shows anything, it’s that we get back everything we give away, tenfold. We give not because we have to, but because we’re grateful. We give because we believe that it is in giving that we receive. We give because God first gave life and breath to us. So let’s give, gladly, not so that God will love us, but because God loves us. Let’s give because God transforms everything, even death, into new life, always. 

Even when death chooses us, God chooses life for us. Turns out there’s no contradiction there at all.

And with that, I want to teach you a song.

To hear the song taught and sung by David Piper, the original composer/songwriter, click here!

Word of God, word of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Jesus at Mealtime

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Our communion meal starts here: with simple ingredients, mixed together and placed in the oven. 

Luke 14:1, 7-14

I say it over and over and over because it never ceases to be true: I love the fact that our life together as Lutheran Christians is centered around the table, and how I don’t need to explain one of my favorite lines to you: “Jesus loved meals so much, he became one” (original quote attributed to Dr. Don Saliers, Emory University). 

This isn’t just because I love to eat and drink and enjoy the company of others, but it has a lot to do with it. It just makes me feel human to sit at a table with people I love, whether blood family, chosen family, or church family. Humans are kind of pack animals, all told, and we need to eat, and therefore, group meals have been a thing since pre-history, when our ancestors huddled around fires, ate meat roasted over fires, and told each other stories. 

Who we eat with has always been really important, too, and it still is. We have a renewed sense of tribe, encoded into our DNA, whenever we sit down to eat. If a stranger sat unannounced at your restaurant table, that would probably alarm you. Furthermore, when two people at the table have a personal problem with one another, these meals are the least fun meals you’ll ever have. 

Jesus is having this kind of meal in the Gospel lesson for today, unfortunately for him. He’s been invited to a meal with a leader of the Pharisees. When I started looking into this text, I found something kind of ridiculous: this meal seems to go on in Luke for quite awhile, and has lots of little awkward twists and turns that make it so stinking relatable as an awkward meal. 

First, Luke tells us that Jesus is going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal with him on the Sabbath. Luke says they were “watching him closely.” You’ve been watched closely at a meal too, I’m betting, and you’ve probably done the watching, too. It’s like when your child brings home a new person they’re dating, or when you finally sit down to a meal with that person at work that you’ve been having personal problems with for months. 

The tension in the air is thick even before they reach the Pharisee’s house. Just then, popping out in front of Jesus (in the part of the text that was cut out of this morning’s reading), there was a guy with dropsy, which is an old fashioned term for excess fluid collecting in the body and making it swell. Jesus looks at the leaders. He’s just gotten in trouble with the leader of the synagogue for curing the woman who was bent over — see last week’s reading for that episode. Jesus asks the question and it hangs in the air. They won’t tell him anything.

The swollen man doesn’t ask for help, and the Pharisees give Jesus no guidance, but Jesus heals the guy anyway. If there’s two things Jesus knows how to do, it’s eat and heal people, so he heals someone on his way to eat, and no one says anything. 

Then they get to the house, and Jesus can’t help noticing how people clamor for the most visible places next to the most important people. And Jesus decides to be that guy and reference the Bible. In his advice to the Pharisees in the Gospel reading, you see the exact echoes in the Proverbs reading. As usual, he’s just calling them to pay more attention to the rules and the spirit of their own faith. 

But he doesn’t stop there. He tells them that when they give a meal, they should always invite the riffraff, you know, like a radical rabbi and his group of mismatched disciples. 

Then, in the passage just after this one, one of the other poor dinner guests decides to try to break the tension by saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 

And immediately he must’ve wished he hadn’t done that, because then Jesus launches into one of his stories. This story is about how a rich person threw a big dinner and invited a bunch of people, but they all started to make excuses at dinner time, so he invited the riffraff, the ones who didn’t deserve it at all. Then there was still room, and so the owner of the house went searching for even more people to bring into the banquet. 

At this point, if you read along in Luke at all, you’ll notice that Jesus apparently has a studio audience, because Luke has him turn to the crowds (v. 25) and tells some of his most famous parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager. The poor folks probably didn’t get out of dinner for awhile. 

The point is and the point was, though, very simple: you don’t earn your way to a meal with God. God finds you. And God is always, always out looking. 

Indeed, we still have a lot of rituals around meals. Meals invoke something pretty primal in us. There’s nothing quite like a meal, and nothing will ever replace it. If you don’t believe me, try imagining the posts you see on Facebook or Twitter announced at a dinner party. There’s just something different about not hiding behind a screen, being in person, and nourishing our bodies and our souls together that still gives us, at its best, the kind of peace and full belly that nothing else quite can. 

If you take nothing else from Jesus’ dinner table conversations or from our conversation before our weekly meal today, know this: it’s not, and it never has been, about what you do or how hard you try or how much you’ve done to earn your place at the table. 

I don’t doubt that you’ve had to fight for a place at the table at work or maybe for an authoritative voice at the table in your family.

Jesus gives some practical advice for how to handle that kind of thing: be humble. Sit at a lower place. Let others realize your work and call you to sit up higher.

But in here, it’s not like that. At this family table, it’s not just that everyone is welcome, it’s that everyone found, not by us, but by whatever wind of God blew you in here. 

Here, there are no places of honor. Here, we are all just people, family, gathered for a meal with the one who loved meals so much he became one. Here, you can bring your whole self and meet God in bread and wine. 

And like any good meal, I hope you leave with a sense of peace and maybe even a full belly. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Shabbat People

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Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17

Today’s opening sermon illustration is brought to you by a chaplain I know at a college in the United States.

At this particular college, the Jewish students each week hold a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. I’ve been to the Shabbat services myself, and I always find them beautiful, like a piece of our faith heritage that we’ve lost: every Friday night during the semester, the group of mostly students gathers to sing in the Sabbath, welcoming the day of rest, Saturday, like a bride. They understand what we’ve forgotten: the Sabbath (no matter when you celebrate it) is a beautiful gift sent from God to delight our souls. 

At this school, the Jewish students who hold Shabbat services also hold a the fancy Seder service in the spring. Consequently, this year, the fancy Seder plate was returned to this particular chaplain’s office (which also houses Jewish student life) with the note, “Needs to go back to Shabbat people.” 

It was certainly not offensive, but it was an exercise in being almost culturally competent.

Given this week’s reading about the Jewish understanding of Sabbath, “Shabbat People” really seemed like an accurate way of getting us to a more Jewish understanding of Sabbath. We inherit a lot of things from our Jewish ancestors in faith: for one thing, well over half the Bible, as any Hebrew Bible scholar will tell you. Our Jewish neighbors and ancestors in faith are also the reason we have any concept of Sabbath at all: one day a week set aside for rest and reconnection with God and each other. 

Unfortunately, we Christians quickly forget the Jewish roots of our faith. Too often, Christians try to remind ourselves for no reason whatsoever that the Christian faith is somehow superior, through our roots go deep into Judaism. We wouldn’t be here without the Jewish faith, but Christians throughout history have visited terrible things on Jewish people, from casual horrid comments all the way to genocide. 

But these days, in most progressive churches at least, we settle for a more casual antisemitism. I say “casual” antisemitism because it’s not formal or intentional — we don’t mean any harm, and we don’t even think of it as being harmful or hateful. We know the Holocaust happened and that genocide is ugly and horrible. We know that saying explicitly antisemitic things is wrong. But still we forget the Jewish roots of our faith. But still we forget our Jewish neighbors. We hear stories like today’s Gospel reading and we point the finger at those terrible Jewish leaders who had too many rules — and in doing so, we miss the point of the story entirely. Bible interpretation hack: if reading any story has you pointing the finger at someone else or making yourself into Jesus in the story, you’re probably reading it wrong.

The story is a familiar type of story in the Gospels: Jesus gets in trouble for breaking Sabbath rules. If you’ve even casually been attending church for more than a few years, you know that this happens a lot to Jesus. He’s always getting into trouble on the Sabbath. 

Here’s a fun fact: in the Gospels, he always gets in trouble on the Sabbath for feeding someone (in one case, allowing his disciples to eat) or for healing someone. Once, in Mark, he says this profound thing: “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” 

This is where we lose something profound when we sit back and casually point the finger at the Jewish leaders. After all, it’s not like Christians don’t know something about sacrificing people on the altar of the rules. When I was at Camp Calumet a few weeks ago, I told the kids that a little more than fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to be their chaplain simply because I’m a woman. There was an audible gasp in the room — the kids couldn’t even conceive of it, yet’s it’s part of our history.

Soon, we figured out what Jesus always knew: the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

All the religious leaders are doing here is pointing out what the rules of the faith are. They don’t mean to be cruel, they’re just telling you what the Bible says. Christians have done this over time with regard to, in no particular order: divorce, slavery, LGBTQ+ folk, gender, women in ministry, and a host of other issues. They didn’t mean to be cruel; they were just reminding us all of the rules. 

We Christians are capable of forgetting, too — the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. The rules are necessary; the rules were made for us. When all goes well, the rules of a religion keep us safe and at peace and remind us what the faith is really about.

The reason we have rules is obvious to the newest of kindergarteners: laws and rules keep us safe and teach us to be good humans. They tell us what’s okay and what’s not okay. They tell us what the consequences are when we hurt others. They keep us from dominating one another, from talking over one another, and from stealing from each other or hurting each other in a number of ways. Just like we need rules on the road, we need rules in our faith communities, to keep us safe and keep us productive and remind us what the point of all of this is.

In the case of the Sabbath, the rules were created to give the people a dang break. In our council discussion this week, we talked about what it means to take Sabbath: to rest, to stop working, to remember that the world can go on without us, and most of all, to delight, in both God and one another. The Sabbath rules were created to make us more human, and to remind us that we aren’t just machines who were created to work all the time. And just in case we weren’t sure that resting doesn’t make us weak, God went first. God took the first Sabbath and commanded that we do the same. This is important. 

And the rules created around the Sabbath were for people, too: okay, so we can’t work. But what does “work” really mean? And immediately, someone said, “I can get away with doing just a little work, right?” 

Humans need rules. We need boundaries. We need guidelines, or else, “a little work” quickly turns into just another workday, and humans are just as crippled by work as we were before, with no rest in sight.

And that is the context in which we find our story today.

“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman” who was unable to stand up straight, and she’d been that way for eighteen years. Can you imagine? Eighteen years of being bent over, unable to fully stand. Eighteen years — the entire lifespan of a new high school graduate — bent over. 

Jesus, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, saw this lady and called her over and told her she’d been set free from her ailment. And she stood up straight and looked God in the eye.

“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” 

It’s a thing we’ve all heard before: “The Bible says…” 

Jesus’ response is simple: he says she ought to be set free on the Sabbath day. Not that he just did healed this woman on the Sabbath because it happened to be the Sabbath. But because the Sabbath is, above all things, about God setting people free. Whenever Jesus gets in trouble on the Sabbath, remember, it’s usually for feeding or healing.

What Jesus responds with is a Jewish understanding of Sabbath. The Jews, held in bondage as slaves in Egypt, relish the freedom to take Sabbath. They rest because that is what free people do. It is their God-given inheritance. The Jews, the “Shabbat people,” understand Sabbath better than Christians do, even today. It is from my Jewish friends that I learned that Sabbath is about dropping your burdens so that you can stand up straight. It’s about being healed. It’s about being fed. It’s not about what we do to keep the rules. It’s about what God does for us — namely, heals us, feeds us, and sets us free.

We rest because that is what free people do.

So when Jesus gets in trouble for violating Sabbath by healing and feeding people, he isn’t getting rid of Judaism or the Sabbath. He’s reminding the people of who they are — like the plate returned to the chaplain’s office says, they are Shabbat people. 

We, too, are a free people who should take Sabbath. Truth be told, everyone should — for a day or even for an afternoon. 

Drop your burdens. Be free. Let Jesus heal you and feed you. And maybe, just maybe, stand up a little straighter.

Let it begin here, at this table, where Jesus feeds us with his very self with the same elements that Jews still use at their Sabbath celebrations: candles and bread and wine, praising God, being free.

I invite you, along with the dining services of the aforementioned college, to “Return to [being] Shabbat people.” It’s not about keeping or breaking the rules. You weren’t created for the rules; the rules were created for you.

Sabbath is about what God does for us. And what Jesus does, over and over in the Gospels, is to heal and to feed and set free. 

So come and be fed. Come and be healed. Come with joy. Be free.

Today as long ago, Jewish folks welcome the Sabbath as a free gift from God. In one song sometimes sung at Shabbat services, the Sabbath is welcomed as a new spouse at a wedding. I close with the translation of some of the words to that song. It goes like this: 

“Come, my Beloved… we welcome the Sabbath bride, for she is the source of blessing; from the beginning, she was chosen; last in creation, first in God’s thought.” 

May you welcome the Sabbath in whatever form she comes today. May God heal you, feed you, and help you stand up straight.

Let’s “go back to [being] Shabbat people,” for Shabbat people are free people. Amen.