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.

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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.