On the Reformation and Climbing Trees


Luke 19:1-10

Jesus says, “For he, too, is a son of Abraham.”

This is his justification for welcoming even the little chief tax collector.

We’ve been talking about tax collectors quite a bit in the past two weeks. Last week, a nameless tax collector came and gave his quick, quiet prayer while the Pharisee opined on and on to God. And Jesus told us that the tax collector was the one who went home justified, because he is the one who understood that we are all saint and sinner — so ruined and so loved.

And today, our tax collector has a name. Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus isn’t just any tax collector, but the chief tax collector. This, as we talked about last week, made him, quite literally in some minds, the chief of all sinners. Tax collectors were reviled, hated. They were seen as traitors, collecting taxes for Rome the occupier. They were also known for skimming a little off the top for themselves, which gave incentive to folks to become tax collectors. Tax collectors drove a wedge into the community — between themselves and their people. It was cruel of the Romans, if you think about it — they not only made conquered people pay them taxes, they made the community’s own people collect them.

And Jesus, this new popular rabbi, tells stories about tax collectors who really understand the Gospel, even better than the Pharisees. Imagine a preacher who goes around praising the most shady, reviled people in the community, preaching that they understand the Gospel better than the clergy. And then imagine that same preacher having dinner with the ring leader of those shady, reviled people.

It’s a risk, to say the least, at least from a PR perspective. Jesus’ mutual ministry team might be nervous at this point. He’d be in danger of losing his credibility.

But it’s worth it to Jesus because “Zacchaeus, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus, who scaled a tree just to see Jesus. Jesus puts his entire reputation and arguably his life on the line to welcome one of the most reviled people in the entire community. Jesus, understanding that each one of us is just as ruined as the others, would rather die than deny Zacchaeus access to God.

Today is also the day that we celebrate the Reformation, and the man who started it, whose name, much to his annoyance and chagrin, our denomination bears. He is Martin Luther, and we are the Lutherans. Like all good historical group names — you know, like Christians — the term “Lutheran” started outside the group. The Roman Catholic leaders at the time were just following protocol in naming a heresy after its author. Those who followed Marcion were Marcionite heretics, those who followed Aruis were Arian heretics, and those who followed Luther would be the Lutheran heretics. The only thing is that you don’t hear about those previous two as an active force in the world today; you only hear about them in seminarians’ jokes. But Lutherans? We’re still here.

What did Luther do to get labeled a heretic? Well, a lot of things. You’ve probably heard about the last of several straws breaking the monk’s back when Luther went off about indulgences — the buying and selling of forgiveness and grace. You’ve no doubt heard about the legend of Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. You’ve probably heard about how he translated the Bible into German — the language of the people — so that ordinary people, and not just clergy, could read the holy Scriptures for themselves.

Luther would become excommunicated, a hunted man, and he became aware of this quickly. Rather than back down, however, Luther is reported to have said “Here, I stand, God help me, I can do no other!”

Martin Luther, monk and professor, put his neck on the line rather than deny anyone access to God. Their access to grace would not be dependent on their access to a priest or their ability to pay. He wrote, “…because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, are

all Christians alike…”

Ordination, Luther held, does not give a person a leg up on anyone else. It does not make me any closer to God than you are, because we still share one baptism, one Gospel, one faith. We are all Christians alike.

Luther recognized that, just like none of us is worse than the person next to us, neither is any of us better. Each of us, whether ordained or laity, each of us is saint and sinner, so ruined and so loved, in the words of Anne Lamott that I used last week.

I posted a meme this week that was a riff on the “Footprints in the Sand” story that’s been circulating for some decades. The original story details a conversation between a person and Jesus where the person’s life is symbolized by two footprints in the sand along a beach. The person noticed that during the hard times, there was only one set of footprints. Assuming this meant that Jesus had left the person behind during the hard times, the person asks Jesus why there was only one set of footprints. Jesus replies, “Oh, my child, it was then that I carried you.”

The meme that I posted on Facebook then took the story a little further: in the next panel, Jesus points and says, “And that long groove is where I dragged you for awhile.”

One of my seminary professors reposted it and said “Lutheran theology in a nutshell: it’s all one long groove.”

None of us was created any more faithful than the person next to us, but we are all in dire need of grace. Anything we do that’s good is only in response to the grace that we’ve been given.

None of us is climbing towards some idea of perfection and none of us is further up the rungs than anyone else.

Maybe there’s a message for us about climbing on Reformation Sunday in this Gospel text. Jesus looks up at Zacchaeus, who had hustled ahead of the crowd and climbed the tree to lift himself up — he had given it everything he had just to have access to Jesus. And Jesus laughingly (I think) looks up at Zacchaeus, the unpopular little guy, at once far below the crowd in social status and literally raised above their heads, and Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I’m coming to eat at your place today.”

And so, Luke tells us, Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome him.

But, of course, the crowd begins to grumble. This was not a popular decision. This man defends the worst sinners and now, he’s eating with them. Zacchaeus, after having come down from the tree begins to climb his own resumé, just like the Pharisee did last week. Zacchaeus tells Jesus about the ways that he will make up for cheating anyone. In fact, the Greek here is active — he tells Jesus that he is currently paying back everything he owes and giving money to the poor on top of that. He makes the case that he is not just any tax collector, so Jesus should declare him worthy.

But Jesus is not interested in his resumé, but intent on only one thing. He tells the detractors and Zacchaeus, as his reason: “He too is a son of Abraham.”

Jesus doesn’t seek out Zacchaeus because he climbed a tree, or because he gives to the poor, or even because he’s a bad bad tax collector. He seeks him out because it’s his birthright. Because each and every one of us is just as ruined and just as loved as the others.

That was the Gospel of Jesus and the appeal of Christianity: that no one is reaching or climbing towards God, but that God is always moving towards us. And when Martin Luther saw the Church trying to get in the way, Luther started a Reformation that not only changed the face of Christianity, but wrought profound changes on the Roman Catholic church, too.

Those who know me well know that my home pastors are two of my biggest heroes. Nancy and Beverly have given me so much, taught me so much, and spent their lives building up the Church universal in ways that the Church has not always appreciated. They base their lives and ministries on the crazy idea that we are all equally ruined and equally loved: that each of us, too, is a child of God.

On her first Sundays as our new senior pastor at St. John’s in Atlanta, Pastor Nancy gave each children’s sermon in a different part of our round sanctuary: first at the font, then at the table, then at the pulpit. Each time, she encouraged the kids to touch the water, stand behind the table, stand behind the pulpit, touch the Bible that rests there. Tears filled my eyes each time as I flashed back to my days as a kid, afraid to go near the altar or knock things over or make too much noise in the sanctuary. Pastor Nancy was teaching these kids the opposite: that just because they breathe, just because they’re here, they can stand behind the pulpit just like the pastor. They can approach the table just like the pastor. And they can touch the water because it is their baptismal water. Nothing — not the pastor, not the council, not the Church itself — can keep them from God’s love. God’s love is theirs, always, and God will always be moving towards them.

The truth of the Reformation and the Movement of Jesus in the world is that each of us is just as ruined, and just as loved by God, as the next person. This is who we are. Each of us is called, not just me, to spread that love around. For four hundred and ninety-nine years, we have been Lutherans. We have been loved for much longer.

The Truth of the Reformation is only this: people of God, we believe that because you breathe, you are welcome here. You are welcome at this table, like family. Because you breathe, you are beloved. Taste and see that God is good, not because you must, but because you may. Stop climbing like Zacchaeus. Jesus is coming to eat at our place today.


“So Ruined, So Loved”

Aaron Burr [Leslie Odom, Jr.] finishes telling Hamilton’s story at the end of the musical:
“Now I’m the villain in your history…” (1)
Photo taken from the PBS Documentary:

Luke 18:9-14

Alright, for this Gospel lesson, we’ve got some catching up to do for those of you who may have missed last week’s Episode of Lutheran Story Time with Jesus and Rev. 2.

Last week, we heard a parable about a feisty little widow who continued to badger a judge who was a real piece of work. Eventually, because of her feistiness and her persistence, that judge gave the feisty little widow her way. You can read about that in the passage right before this one should you so choose.

Today’s passage is the one right after that one, and it begins like this:

“Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…”

This is lesson two.

After the passage about the widow you’ve got folks hanging in the back going, “Dude, I pray all the time and I pray really, really good.” In my imagination it’s not unlike your average seminary class on spirituality.

But this is our starting point: that persistence and feistiness alone won’t cut it and we better watch it if we think we’re good to go.

And so Jesus tells a different story for us today.

It’s the story of a Lutheran pastor and a loan shark.

No. Wait. Sorry.

It’s the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector. But I think that, in order to really understand it, we have to understand whom we look down on and whom we look up to — whom we tear down and whom we put on a pedestal.

See, I think that, often, Jesus tells these stories with profound truths with Good News about God, and we make them into good vs. bad stories about us.

So we read this story and we think, “Alright, Pharisee bad, tax collector good. Be like tax collector. Okay. Done.”

But that interpretation would have astounded Jesus’ hearers. Tax collectors weren’t good people. There is much more here than “This one good; this one bad. Be like the good one.”

Remember: the Gospel is a story about God.

So on one hand you’ve got the Pharisee.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, this Pharisee is clearly a jerk.

But, we might also call him a model churchgoer, even if he wasn’t the first person you’d invite to your cocktail parties. Pharisees were scholars of the Law. They knew their Bible. They prayed, fasted, gave money. They were reliable. They were no doubt indispensable members of the community. They’d be the ones who were in church every time the doors were open.

And this particular Pharisee is that one overachieving friend that everybody has that probably gets on everybody’s last nerve, but they also show up when you really need them and you know that your family or friend group couldn’t really do without them either.

This Pharisee comes in, stands by himself, reading his resumé off to God. And he says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” I mean, really, I’ve found myself saying this a lot this election season, but really — who says that? The Pharisee seems to think that God blessed him by creating him to be faithful, unlike that tax collector over there.

Yeah. About that tax collector.

Tax collectors were reviled, known for cheating the people. This is the guy in the neighborhood who has the shady job, who just might be taking advantage of innocent people, but no one is sure. You’re not sure whether you should hate him, but you’re pretty sure you should stay away from him.

The tax collector stays in the back of the sanctuary and he won’t even come forward. He offers a simple, quick prayer and gets the heck out of there: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And we have no idea what happens after that. Maybe the Pharisee goes off to feed the poor, while the tax collector continues in his life as he is, either because he won’t or can’t escape the life of a tax collector. Or maybe he turns it around. We don’t know what happens after. This is not a parable based on actions, but prayers alone.

The simple truth is that both of these guys are sinners and it’s really likely that they both know it. But the Pharisee brags in self-protection, making his strong case for sainthood.

What the tax collector does is to fall headlong into the arms of grace. He knows that he can’t hide behind his accomplishments or his status, because everyone already sees him for what he is, so he might as well do the same. And in that way, he’s free. He goes home justified.

We have spent the entire election year dividing ourselves into groups and factions. Democrat. Republican. Third Party. Not Voting. We live in entirely different realities from our neighbors and our families. In our best moments, we try to understand that we all have failings, and that no position is perfect in our complicated world. In our worst moments, we point fingers and we thank God that we’re not like those people — and we align ourselves with the Pharisee.

This weekend I watched, with many others, the documentary on PBS about the musical Hamilton. And one thing struck me about the story that never had before — in this story of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, we are told from the beginning the Burr shoots Hamilton. Hamilton is our hero. Burr is our villain. At the end, Burr sings, “Now I’m the villain in your history…” (1)

But between the beginning and the end, we get to know both Hamilton and Burr. We hear them sing their hopes for the new nation and their tender hopes for their children. We hear from other heroes like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who, in addition to helping to win our freedom, also, paradoxically, held slaves. They owned people.

The Hamilton documentary called the audience to hold these things together, because all of it is true. George Washington was a great man without whom we could not be free today. He also owned human beings. Both of these are true, and we cannot see history correctly if we do not see both.

No one is just one thing.

This should not offend us, because the same is true of all of us. We are all sinners. We are all saints. So, rather than label and dismiss each other and historical figures as the Pharisee did — as good or bad — we have a choice. I pray that we will make the choice in humility that the tax collector made: to see our own failures, and the failures of others, and throw ourselves and others into the arms of grace.

We can make our lives a story about us: a story about how we were always right, about how much we gave, how much we did, and how wonderful we are, or. Or we can realize that we are all flawed and in need of grace. We can make our lives and our church’s life a story about God, one that can be a great story independent of our failings, one where we throw ourselves headlong into the arms of grace. And the crazy thing about throwing yourself at the mercy of grace is that you allow others to do the same. When we stop building our own lives on our accomplishments, we may eventually stop feeling the need to berate others for their failings, entirely checking out of the merit-based system that bases respect on accomplishments.

When we make our lives a story about God, it becomes about the ways that God showed up — in that relationship, at this table, in that moment of love, in that moment of grace. In that moment of reconciliation. In that moment of hope. You can take off the pressure of having to create happiness for yourself based on what you can produce.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott writes, “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” (2)

Pharisee and tax collector are saint and sinner. One is a model citizen but a jerk to be around. The other is a shady professional with a humble heart that knows how to fall on grace.

But only the tax collector really gets it: he “is so ruined, so loved, and in charge of so little.”

The Gospel is a story about God. It is a story about how God redeems those three terrible truths of our existence.

We are so ruined.

We are so loved.

We are in charge of so little.”

And in those three truths, we are free.

We are, as we said last week, a feisty little congregation so created and loved by God. But we are not loved because we are feisty. We are loved because we are Our Savior’s, because we are imperfect, ruined, loved, redeemed.

The Gospel is a story about God.

We just get to be a part of the dance. So let us gather around the table again, in feistiness, in prayer. And let us continue to see ourselves and one another in the light of grace around this table where we are so ruined, and so loved. Amen.

(1) Lin-Manuel Miranda et al, Hamilton: An American Musical, Act II, “The World Was Wide Enough,” 2015.
(2) Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Thorndike Press, 2012.

Mighty, Underestimated

Dr. Tamika Cross

Luke 18:1-8

We all have a friend who’s constantly underestimated or misjudged.

Or that person in your friend group may be you.

Because of their size, because of how young they look, because of their race or their gender or their real or perceived economic status  — usually it’s a combination of some of these factors — these folks are regularly underestimated. Most regularly, through no fault of their own and through all the fault of the world’s assumptions, this affects how they are seen professionally.

Take Tamika Cross, a physician who, this week on a flight from Detroit to Minneapolis, went into “doctor mode” when a man a few rows in front of her became unresponsive. Cross, an obstetrician and a gynecologist and also a young black woman, attempted to get a flight attendant’s attention to let them know she was a doctor and could help the unresponsive man.

Dr. Cross was not prepared for the response she got. “Oh no, sweetie, put [your] hand down,” the flight attendant said to Dr. Cross, who was ready and willing to help. “We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”

Even after a few frustrated attempts to exercise her expertise in the unconscious man’s service, Dr. Cross was told that she would have to show credentials and questioned about where she works. Moments later, a middle aged white man, also a doctor, was escorted to the man’s seat without showing any credentials other than his more expected medical professional looks. Though Dr. Cross was eventually consulted in the man’s service, the entire story and experience made me nervous as a frequent traveler and as an American: do we really still underestimate young professionals and female professionals, especially young female professionals of color, this way? (1)

Or, more humorously, take my friend Kathleen. She is currently a United Methodist pastor in the DC area. Kathleen, a white woman in her early thirties, is often misjudged by those around her to be a teenager despite having more varied life and professional experiences — and, honestly, better pastoral instincts — than many fifty year olds. Kathleen and I became good friends a few years ago when she married my college friend and then, as a second career seminarian, was a seminary intern at the hospital where I was a chaplain.

Seminary interns had most of the same responsibilities as the full time chaplains. They were still charged with attending to deaths, comforting patients in crisis, and handling codes as the on call chaplain. One day, Kathleen was called to her regular medical floor for a code — a man was in cardiac arrest. Kathleen went to be with the family while the medical team worked on the patient.

She found the room and the patient’s girlfriend, where she stayed by her side through an immense amount of family drama, going back and forth between the medical staff and the family, until the patient was finally pronounced dead. Kathleen then continued to navigate the crazy situation with arguing family members and girlfriend, going from person to person as chaplains do, hearing them and comforting them, and was finally walking down the hall with the patient’s girlfriend, her arm around her, consoling her, when an attending nurse came up behind the both of them and put her arms around them together.

“Aww, how sweet,” Kathleen thought, right before the nurse said “Don’t worry, y’all, I’ll call the chaplain.”
I told her next time to turn so that her badge was visible, look the nurse in the eye, and say “And I’ll call the nurse.”

How often do we embarrass ourselves and others, not to mention put others in harm’s way, because we underestimate people based on how they look?

With regard to the Gospel story about the widow, I have to confess: until this week I’ve underestimated her.

You see, we are told from the beginning of today’s Gospel reading that Jesus’ goal in telling this story was to tell the people the importance of praying and not losing heart.

The entire point of the story is to give them hope. As my other chaplain colleague was fond of saying, “To keep the rumor alive that there is a higher power that just might care about them enough to move in their lives.”

And then Jesus tells us about the judge who had no fear of God and no respect for people. And he tells us about the widow who keeps coming, day after day, to the judge, asking for justice, until he finally relents. Now, the translation I read this morning says “so that she may not wear me out.” And so I’ve always thought of this woman as sweet, meek, and persistent. But “wear me out” is a muddy phrase and not the best way to translate this.

My New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson prefers to put it another way. He interprets the judge to say this instead: “so that she may not finally come and give me a black eye.” Another translation says “so that she may not finally slap me in the face.”

And this was the point that I had to admit that I had underestimated this widow all along.

You see, we are told twice in this reading that the judge is a real piece of work who ain’t care about nothing. He is 100% the least likely of any judge on the planet to listen to her. Do we really think that he’s swayed by her persistence? I don’t.

I think that, instead, each and every time this lady comes, she’s madder and madder. This is no small, meek widow. This is a feisty lady who’s tired of being underestimated. And so the judge, when her anger is at a fever pitch, finally gives her what she wants so she won’t pop him in the face.

That tells quite a different story, doesn’t it?

And we are told that God, who is just, will even more swiftly grant justice. The judge did not see the woman for what she was at first, but the God who created her does. And that same God would be underestimated, betrayed, hung on a cross, and left for dead, and we all know how that turned out.
How often do we sell ourselves — and others — short at a glance?

Today, we have a budget meeting after church. We will have to look at our finances and make decisions together. Of course, we can sell ourselves short. We can see ourselves as vulnerable, live in fear, and draw ourselves in further. The widow could have done this too. She had no one to speak up for her but herself. She could have regarded her lonely estate as lowly and given up altogether, relying, if she was lucky, on her sons to take care of her.

Instead, I call you to be the small and mighty congregation that I know you to be. I call you instead to be feisty and determined, intent on finding a way to do what God has called us to do in the world.

Because as Jesus says, the world may sell us short. We may sell ourselves short. But the God who created us sees exactly who and what we are and knows exactly what we’re capable of.

Like the flight attendants on the plane and like the nurse at the hospital who underestimated my friend, it is easy to fall victim to our own initial assumptions about a situation. But often, our assumptions are wrong, and they hurt the community.

So let us look fully at ourselves, trying to see ourselves for what we are — as God does.

Young women of color are doctors. Small young white women are chaplains. Even you might see yourself as competent and capable, if you could only see yourself for what you truly are.

And, finally, small congregations have the nimbleness, feistiness, and determination to do amazing things. My pastor friends at larger churches pine for the ability to do what we can do, without the red tape of a corporation-like, over-programmed large church.

We have a choice in our own lives and in our congregation’s life today. You can choose to see yourself as the world might: small. Inferior. Vulnerable. Not unlike the way that world would see the widow of Jesus’ story.

Or you can see yourself the way that Jesus saw that widow: able to sway even the most jerkface judge simply by the determination in her heart and by the fire in her belly.

So let’s gather at the table today with the God who never left us, and the God from whom our feistiness comes. And then let’s go and celebrate who we are and what we’ve done over the last year, and then let’s imagine together what we can do together in the future. We serve a feisty Savior. I think it’s only right that Our Savior’s be a feisty congregation to match. Amen.

(1) Derek Hawkins, “Flight attendant to black female doctor: ‘We’re looking for actual physicians’”, Washington Post, 14 October 2016.

A Sermon on New Babies, Healed Lepers, Changing Leaves, and Potential Energy

The changing leaves on the property of Merck Farms, Rupert, Vermont.

Luke 17:11-19

One of my favorite things to do as a pastor — okay, maybe even my favorite thing — is to go and pray over newborns. When Ken and Bonnie called me separately a several weeks ago to proudly tell me that their new grandson had arrived, it was great to be able to go to the hospital to visit the brand new baby Pueschel and his parents. It was a beautiful experience to hold baby Bodhi, less than twelve hours old, with his entire life before him. Only God knows what that tiny one will grow up to be and do — and that’s the beauty of holding a new baby.

And I think of this, my first autumn here in South Hadley, as the trees that I have come to know around here, one by one, show me what color they will become in their fall brilliance.

And I think of us, just getting to know one another in these nine months (to the day, actually) that we’ve spent together. We are just beginning to discover what we will be together, and all we know at this point is that God has put us together and is with us for the time that we will spend together. God began something new by putting us together, and now? What we will be is up to us.

It reminds me of the lepers that Jesus heals in this story today — he gives them entirely new lives by healing them, and it’s entirely their choice what they will do after they show themselves to the priests.

One of my mottos for ministry comes from the musical Hamilton: “If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.” As I thought about these texts about lepers being healed, skin was a common theme that led me to think about that motto quite a bit.

Because the Gospel story is about Jesus healing ten lepers — leprosy being a skin disease, after all. When these folks found out they had leprosy, their lives as they knew them were over. It was a skin disease that, in those days, rendered a person an outcast, unable to be part of society, having to call out “Unclean, unclean!” as a warning if they got too close to healthy people. But when these lepers see Jesus, who’s on his way to Jerusalem, they call out something else.

The story goes like this: “As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.”

It would seem that their skin was transformed as they walked.

And there was one particular leper who was so overcome with joy by this that it seems he didn’t make his way to the priests at all, but came back to Jesus, thanking him.

And he, Jesus tells us (and his Jewish audience, meaningfully), was a Samaritan.

A Samaritan. The folks the Jews hated. They were heretics. Half-breeds. Outcasts. Jews, we are told over and over in the Gospels, did not associate with Samaritans.

It seems to me that from the Samaritan leper’s perspective, there are two miracles here, of which the healing is the second. The first miracle is that Jesus, the famous Jewish rabbi, a rock star of his time, stopped to care about this Samaritan leper at all. Though they all received a gift, it seems the Samaritan received a gift twice over.

If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”

Now, Jesus heals all ten of them. Their reactions to that healing, and their newfound lives afterwards, were entirely up to them. Practically speaking, they were born again, with a new lease on life. The ones who went to show themselves to the priests were following Jesus’ instructions: they would show themselves to the priests and be declared clean and be able to re-enter society.

(As evidenced in the Old Testament, priests had the not-so-great role of getting to examine people’s skin for infectious disease. Let’s just say I’m not sad that this role in our age has fallen to dermatologists instead of clergy.)

The other lepers follow Jesus’ instructions, are healed on the way, and get a new lease on life, their certificate of clean-ness, declared by the priests. Assuming that the others were all Jewish, they would be able to re-join the Jewish community and live productive lives.

But the Samaritan turns back. He turns back, I think, because he is overcome with awe for this Jewish rabbi who, against all odds, saw him — really saw him, and cared. He turns back because he wants to know this Jewish rabbi. He wants community. The stakes are higher for this guy.

The Samaritan had more on the line than the others. He was twice-ostracized, a Samaritan and a leper. And Jesus has given him a new lease on life, a newfound humanity, first by seeing him, then by healing him. And so before he begins his new life, he turns back and gives thanks. He’s not finished with Jesus just yet.
“If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”

Every single Sunday at this table we go through what is called the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer before we take the Eucharist together. You can find it, each Sunday, noted in your bulletin.

Every single Sunday, we turn back to give thanks. The Great Thanksgiving changes by the season, but it always swirls back into history from the dawn of creation to the coming of Jesus, giving thanks for God’s love and presence at our table, inviting the Holy Spirit to fall anew onto us and the Holy Supper. Every single Sunday after gathering and hearing God’s Word, we turn back together to give thanks.

God became flesh and bone and skin for all people, giving each of us a new lease on life, leaving it entirely up to us what we would become. And some of us turn back to give thanks and some don’t, but all are loved and healed. But some of us aren’t finished with Jesus just yet, so here we are.

It’s at this point that you might be expecting the sermon to talk about how we should become thankful people. Regardless of how you feel, I’m here to tell you that your presence here signals that you already are.

“If you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.”

You’re not done with Jesus, and Jesus ain’t done with you.

You may not feel like it now or all the time, but you’ve got skin in the game.

You are here because there’s something at stake for you. You are here because something in you wanted or needed or felt like you had to be here.

You may not feel like it, but you — we — have turned back, come here, taken the time to give thanks. We have all felt ostracized, a little weird, a little out of step with the world at some point. We’re here because we’re amazed that Jesus cared — or maybe we’re still wondering if he could. But we all have skin in the game, and “if you’ve got skin in the game, you stay in the game.” And here we are, staying in the game, Sunday by Sunday and days in between.

I see it in you all the time: the way that your actions tell me that you have skin in the game, and that you’re staying in the game. All the time, and every single Sunday, you come here and you pull your cars into the parking lot and tell the world: “We’re still here! Hallelujah!”

Paul, when he stays for hours to work on the property. Deb, when she spends countless hours on the bulletin and the other business of the church. Bruce and Marty, who are here so often with food and cheer. Marge and Bob, for their constant service and smiles. Barb, taking so much of her time to lead members of the community and our own members in the Financial Peace University program and spending even more time on our many outreach projects, and Margit when you organize our meals for Cathedral in the Night and do our financial stuff, and Howie as he continues to organize our finances, and Sue and Beverly when they meet for prayer — praying for me and for you guys, by name, each and every week — and I could go on and on and on with this list for days, naming each and every one of you. There is something special here, in this small but mighty congregation of people who are so full of gratitude that you can’t help turning back to show it, over and over and over again.

It’s your love, your dedication that flows out of your gratitude to God that makes me want to be a part of this church’s legacy — this future, full of potential, that we get to build together or however long God keeps us together. We are here together and we will change each other forever, and God only knows what we will become.

And just like the new babies that pastors have the high privilege of praying over, and just like the leaves that are transforming into a myriad of brilliant colors that I’ve never seen before, and just like lepers who get a new lease on life, we get to see together what we will become, because we’re not done with Jesus just yet.

So let us together, like we do every week, turn back to thank God. Let us pray together in hope for healing, let us marvel at God’s grace so apparent here among us, and let us say the Great Thanksgiving together, like we do every week, sharing in the Holy Feast together, like we do every week. And then let us go into the world in gratitude, knowing that the God that started this good work among us will bring it to completion.

God has given us all a new lease on life, free of charge, and it is up to us what we will become. And so let us get up and go on our way: regardless of the states of our bodies, let us be confident — what Jesus says to the leper he also says to us: our faith has made us well. Amen.

Softball Games and Mustard Seeds

Luke 17:5-10

I have a distinct memory from college that coincides with the fall time quite well.

It was my freshman year, which every year in college, for me, meant fall softball. Spring is the regular season, but collegiate rules allow for a period of training in the fall as for every sport. I was a junior college athlete hoping to one day, as every JUCO athlete does, to be able to go D-1. Every year during the fall season, softball programs at four year colleges host tournaments where they invite junior college teams to come and play each other and one another.

It was the cool of early October, on a dreary day like today, and we were playing the University of Alabama on their home field in Tuscaloosa. A cool mist sank down from the top of the stadium and onto the field, feeling heavy. For our part, we, the Wallace Community College softball team, were nervous, not because we were losing, but because we were, by some miracle, winning. One to nothing.

It was the seventh inning and I was only beginning to clean the stars out of my eyes. I’m from a small Alabama town where the field that I learned to play on was mostly rocks and sparse grass. Nothing like this. I barely felt worthy to be anywhere but in the stands, but here I was.

And now it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and my team was beating the Crimson Tide. We had a really good pitcher. She signed with Alabama not long after the game.

Gathering us into a huddle prior to going out onto the field, our coach looked at us sternly. He was a classic old grizzled baseball coach. The kind that always has chewing tobacco in his mouth, speaks gruffly, and smiles only rarely.

I can’t repeat everything he said to us in a sermon else I risk offending sensitive ears, but the gist of it was this: “Y’all don’t lose your… minds when this game ends. Don’t act like you ain’t never won a game in your life. Just another day at the yard.”

Just another day at the yard. He said that every single day at practice.

The first batter grounded out. The second batter sent a fly ball into center field. Out two.

The third batter swung once. Missed. Swung twice. Foul. Swung three times. Missed. Out three.

It was, no doubt, a David and Goliath story. We whooped, clapped, shook hands with the Tide, gathered our things, got on the bus, and left. Just another day at the yard.

I learned a valuable lesson that day about how to treat daunting feats, expectations, and success.

Jesus words at the end of the Gospel reading for us today carry that kind of message. He’s just gotten finished telling the disciples a lot about forgiveness, namely this:

“Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Well, you know what they say. “Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, I forgive you again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.”

The disciples, understandably, are upset as heck by this, but they don’t argue about the need for forgiveness. Instead, they look at this impossible task he’s given them and cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

There’s just no way. There’s just no way that a thinking, non-Messiah kind of person like myself could possibly forgive someone that many times, over and over, every single day.

And Jesus seems to know that. I love what Beverly, one of my home pastors, said about this text years ago. She interprets it as nothing short of Grade A Messianic Snark coming from the Son of God: “If you only had faith like a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Sensing a Southern lady’s sarcasm in Jesus’ words, my pastor friend Kathleen adds, “Bless your heart.”

Now, knowing full well that trees of any kind do not normally go and uproot themselves at all, much less trod on over to the ocean and plant themselves there, I too find it hard to believe that Jesus is being anything other than snarky.

Pastor Beverly, one of my home pastors, interprets his words similarly: “If you only had faith like a mustard seed — but you don’t.”

And then Jesus goes on to ask whether we thank slaves for doing what is commanded. I admit, in my Americanized politeness, my immediate reaction was, “Of course we say thank you!” But Jesus isn’t talking about politeness.

It’s just another day at the yard.

When you’re a disciple, even the impossible is routine.

But we don’t treat success as routine. And we don’t have faith like a mustard seed. Because we’re afraid.

We’re so afraid of losing people, we’re afraid of displeasing people, we’re afraid they’ll leave and not come back. We’re afraid about the future and we’re afraid of what other people think of us and we’re darn proud of ourselves for even showing up. I know I am. We treat church as something that we do, a chore we accomplish, rather than something that becomes part of who we are.

But Jesus shows us something different. Because Jesus isn’t just telling us to be servants. That’s something that any ordinary boss would do, but I can tell you from personal experience that we do not have any ordinary boss. This is the same Son of God who took off his outer robe and washed the disciples’ feet, whom Paul says lowered himself to take on the form of a servant. The early church knew this rather well and often repeated it. To follow Christ, to be like Christ, is to be like a servant.

It is to come and serve not through great effort, but because you can’t do otherwise because it’s part of who you are. Like Jesus.

And knowing this, and knowing how hard it is, we cry out like the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Someone at Bible study last week pointed out the Luther quote over our sanctuary doors (beautifully refinished by Lisa and rehung by Paul). It’s the paradox of the Christian life: “The Christian is perfectly free, subject to none; the Christian is the dutiful servant, subject to all.”

It sounds like it’s about effort, but it isn’t. We spend so much of our time trying to muster up enough faith, to give intellectual assent, to serve enough, to give enough, to be enough, because we’re so scared that we’re not enough. And we don’t just do it at church.

But Jesus chides us by reminding us, “If you only had faith like a mustard seed… but you don’t. If you could only serve and have that be unremarkable, expected… but you can’t.”

I can’t.

We will never be “enough,” and we will drive ourselves crazy by trying to be.

When my coach gathered us together right before the final inning of that game in Tuscaloosa, he already knew we were going to win. He had hand picked us, recruited us, trained us himself. He had been coaching longer than any of us had been alive. He knew that success wasn’t about pressing and pushing and trying too hard. Trying too hard and heaping anxiety on yourself and being afraid to fail will lose you more games than it will win. Winning, for us, was about living into the potential that we already had, that we were born with, guided by the expertise of a coach who had been there before us. Not just anyone can win like that, but we were not just anyone.

Not that different from church, really.

You are not just anyone.

You are baptized and beloved. You have found your way here to the font and the table. That’s not nothing.

The reason I became a Lutheran can be summed up by Luther’s words in the Small Catechism about the Holy Spirit. After spending my entire life trying to climb the spiritual ladder, I came to rest in these words: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith; in like manner as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the true faith; in which Christian Church He daily forgives abundantly all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and will raise up me and all the dead at the last day, and will grant everlasting life to me and to all who believe in Christ. 

This is most certainly true.”

In baptism, we are each claimed by God and given a unique call in the world. Faith is not about mustering intellectual energy or trying to produce warm fuzzy feelings. Faith is about showing up, time after time, day after day, and trusting that the God who calls is faithful, and trusting that God keeps showing up too. Faith is a gift, not something we muster. It’s who we are, given by God, our birthright. It is not tarnished by failing and it is not graded on a scale of 1-10 like everything else in our lives.

Christ has gone before us, and Christ calls us. You are not just anyone.

You are “called through the Gospel, enlightened by its gifts, and sanctified and preserved in true faith,” not because you tried hard enough, but simply because you are. Stop trying to muster up a feeling. You already have what you need.

The faith to pull up mulberry trees — or in our case, I suppose, maple trees —

… the faith to pull up maple trees and plant them in the Connecticut River is already ours. Bless our hearts.

We already have what we need. Just keep showing up.

This is most certainly true. Amen.