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.

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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.

Love & a World on Fire

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Jeremiah 23:23-29
Luke 12:49-56

An important question for us to tackle every now and then: why are you here?

People come to church, I’ve noticed over the years, for all kinds of reasons. 

Some come to church to find meaning, some come for community, and some come for reasons they can’t put their fingers on. Speaking more of the general church population of the US than of present company, most come (I think) out of habit. One of the things that makes you special as a congregation is that I don’t get the sense that most of you come here out of obligation or habit. You like being here and you like each other. It’s weird. And awesome.

Many people come to church, too, for comfort, but if that’s you, I apologize that the first thing you saw when you looked at your bulletin this morning was the world on fire. You might think I’ve been reading the news too much, and that such an image is a little on the nose.

Though I’d tell you that if you don’t feel that way about the world these days, and maybe for all of our entire lifetimes, you don’t listen to the news enough. 

The truth is that the world has kind of been on fire since before we were all born. Yes, even you.

The world has kind of been on fire since before Jesus was born. The stakes have always been high, and talking about the state of the world has never been comfortable. Talking about Jesus has never really been comfortable either, when you get right down to it, which makes it all the more surprising that folks come to church for comfort. 

In case you haven’t thought about it today, let me remind you: God broke into human history in the form of a controversial rabbi in an occupied and historically contested and unstable land. 

C. S. Lewis turned atheist at age 15, but later, he intentionally came back to the church.

Of our faith, Lewis wrote in a very English fashion: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy, I always knew a bottle of port will do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Don’t get me wrong. My ability to hold myself together when I look at the state of the world is and always has been some at times vague belief that God’s got all of this, and that Christ holds all things together, and that someday even the worst and ugliest injustices that we’ve witnessed in all of human history shall somehow, somehow, be made right, that someday there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth, and that God’s home will be among mortals, and that every tear will be wiped away. 

If you come to church for comfort, I’m not scolding you. In fact, I have a stated policy of never scolding other adults. 

But, I mean: what thing that you love makes you happy all the time?

Football season is coming up soon. Need I say more.

Church is no different, and with quotes like this from Jesus, it’s no wonder that church isn’t more of a challenge than anything else that we love: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided…” 

Challenging? Yes. Comforting? No.

One term that I’ve learned in recent years is “spiritual bypassing,” which is when someone raises a valid disagreement and we don’t deal with it, but instead talk about how Jesus was always nice and wanted us all to get along.

I guess no one ever asked the money changers or religious leaders or even Jesus’ disciples about this, and listening to him today, I wonder where we get the whole thing from. Truth be told, it’s a little dishonest. 

Further, what Jesus is saying here, quite frankly, reminds me of our national and our world today, namely: “…division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two…” 

If that sounds like Thanksgiving dinner to you, then you’re like most Americans today.

We mourn and lament our divisions, and we swear that the world is on fire because we can’t seem to have real conversations anymore. But I want to posit this morning that we were never really good at having real conversations in the first place. Our current times of division are just revealing what was already there. 

The truth is that we as a church and we as a nation have already been through division, and stress, and disagreements. We’ve all already done this before. The world has pretty much always been on fire.

One of my favorite things about you, Our Savior’s, is that you have been through conflict and decided it wasn’t the end of the world. If anything, it’s brought you closer to one another. That’s not to say that anything was easy — it has been painful as anything — but it hasn’t killed us yet. And that means something. 

What we can do is to show our community that division isn’t the end of the world. We can have hard conversations about real things. But only if those conversations are rooted in the Gospel. Let me explain. 

There’s a temptation to either bypass our sharp disagreements about real things or to drive out anyone who disagrees and then make social justice our Gospel. Neither works, church. Neither works. 

Here is what does work, I think: I’ll explain it by way of camp. 

This past week, you all lent me out for the second and last time this year to Camp Calumet, our synod’s outdoor ministry. I’m always grateful to go, because personally, I believe that it’s like a continuing education event, but better, and free: I learn new things, I refresh my soul (even as my body is exhausted), and I always, always leave a better pastor than I was when I arrived. 

Here’s what happened this week at Camp Calumet that made me a better pastor for South Hadley: observing the final performance for Calumet’s music camp. Music camp happens every last week of camp, and it culminates in a concert at the end, which then leads into closing ceremonies for the summer, which of course include fire. 

When I walked into the music camp concert, I was prepared to give a super brief talk at said campfire about how they can carry the experience forward. As the music camp performance went on, my talk changed and got much, much shorter. 

Here’s what I saw: I saw little kids and college students and adults and everyone in between performing beautiful music together, which is what I expected. Here’s what I didn’t expect: otherwise shy kids stepping up to the microphone and BELTING at the top of their lungs, on key, beautifully, to raucous applause. 

Those kids were brave. They were brave because they knew that everyone in that room loved them.

Was every kid the next Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes? Goodness no, and thank goodness. We need those kids to become doctors and contractors and teachers maybe even a pastor or two. Not every performance was perfect, of course. Some of the kids had a bit of trouble staying on rhythm. The first time it happened, I started to shift uncomfortably in my seat when I heard a snapping sound rising from the next row in the audience. Then it grew louder until it filled the room. The congregation was tapping out the beat, helping get the kid back on track, in the most supportive way possible. 

Sure, they could’ve not had a music concert at all, and no kid would’ve had to risk embarrassment. But what actually happened was so much richer. 

It made me think of division and peace and spiritual bypassing. We may think we’re helping by stifling hard conversations. We may think we’re helping by hearing someone say something harmful and not saying anything back. We may think the alternative is to pretend like disagreements don’t exist and keep the peace that way. We could pretend that the rhythm of a song is a thing that can change and smile politely when someone gets it wrong. But that just makes everyone uncomfortable. 

Jesus says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

We know how to interpret the rhythms of the earth and sky and seasons. We should learn to keep the beat of truth, too. Everyone can’t be right all the time. Sometimes we have to clap together to keep each other on the beat. And sometimes that’ll be weird and hard and uncomfortable at first. No one ever said that church is always comfortable, especially when it feels like the world’s on fire. It’s not niceness or even peace that drives the church; it’s love. 

Love speaks up when something isn’t right, in our church or in our world, and sometimes that’s incredibly hard and awkward at first. 

Love keeps the beat. 

But just like the beat, love is for everyone, not a select few who manage to get it right naturally. 

So this is what I told the kids at the campfire and this is how I’ll end my time with you today: people come alive at Camp Calumet and in good churches like this one because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that everyone in that room loves them no matter what. Everyone is embraced for who God made them to be. Whether you’ve been there for thirty years or whether you just arrived today, you will be greeted with a warm welcome as if you’ve been a regular for years. When people say they feel the Holy Spirit in that place, the prevailing feeling they’re usually describing is love: they feel loved. They can be themselves, in all of their beautiful weirdness. They can be themselves; they don’t have to be perfect or right all the time. And that kind of love is infectious. It quickly moves beyond the boundary lines of the property and out into the world. 

Because people who know they are loved are better, kinder humans. They’re themselves. They are funnier, they are happier, and they are braver. They don’t feel like they have to be perfect because they know they‘re much better off just feeling like themselves. It’s much easier to admit your flaws when you feel secure.

And this is the gist of the last thing I told them, and this is the gist of what I want you to know: you are loved, just as you are. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t have to be perfect. We’ll help you keep the beat.

You are loved. And people who know that they are loved can do anything.

This whole church thing won’t always be easy, and it won’t always feel good. We must always be willing to say to each other “You aren’t always right, but you are always loved.” 

The world is on fire, which means we need you to be your bravest, most beloved self. 

So may we promise this one thing: the stakes are high, and the world is on fire. Given that, church can’t always make us feel comfortable, but it can always make us feel loved. So it should be. Amen.

Fighting Fear and Finding Family

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Ladies and gentlepersons, our own Bob Stehlin: veteran, altar care extraordinaire, and all around great guy. 

Genesis 15:1-6
Luke 12:32-40

Do you remember what you did ten years ago today? How about fifty? Anniversaries remind us to be thankful, and they remind us, at times, of our own strength. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of the service, it’s an important day for one of ours. Many of you have heard the story, and on this day, we’ll revisit it a bit for those of you who haven’t. 

Of this day, our own Bob Stehlin writes,

“[Today is the] 10th Anniversary of the hardest phone call I ever made in my entire life time.  A call I made on August 11, 2009 to my sister to ascertain whether or not with could have a brother/sister relationship.  The 10th Anniversary of my moving to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not occur until April 1, 2011, two years later.

I was seventeen year old when I found that my father was alive and stationed in Germany in the United States Army.

I was nineteen years old when I knocked on his door in Germany and introduced myself as his son and the look on my step-mother’s face who was standing behind my father was absolutely priceless. During this visit I was introduced to my sister Evelyn Carol Stehlin (Belanger), who was no more than a year at the time.  That visit lasted exactly four days. I never saw or spoke to my father again.

In May 2009, I told myself that I wasn’t getting any younger and I should see if I could have a relationship with my sister.  I had strong desires for the first time in my life to have A REAL FAMILY.

Having a brother/sister relationship with my sister would provide me with [that].”
Long story short, Bob has friends who are good at finding out things, and soon, he found his sister living in Belchertown, just down the road from here. Of this day, ten years ago, he writes,

“On Sunday, August 11, 2009 at approximately 4:00PM I picked up my phone and called my sister… This was two days after my 66th birthday and 11 days before my sister’s…wedding. I was extremely scared and apprehensive before I picked up the phone which made it extremely hard for me to even dial the number.

4 and a half hours later, I was no longer scared or apprehensive, and I knew I had made correct call in calling my sister and knew that yes I was going to have A REAL FAMILY.  I was extremely excited that in 20 days I would meet not only my sister, but my nephew, niece and brother-in-law. I meet my sister, brother-in-law and nephew at Bradley International Airport on August 31, 2009 and the rest is history.
I have never once since I moved to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regret that I moved here.”

Bob, we love you, and we celebrate with you, and thank you for sharing your story with us. We’re glad you made that call, too. 

Acceptance makes fear melt away. 

Another anniversary happened this week too, and it was recognized at our denomination’s triennial assembly: the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of women in the Lutheran tradition. You might’ve seen it on social media this week: when women clergy of all ages came streaming into the assembly in procession – many of them long ago had looked fear in the face and decided here they stand, in true Lutheran fashion. I stand on many of their shoulders. Because of their courage, the church’s acceptance has, in many ways, made women’s fear melt away. Today, women pastors, deacons, and laypeople are part of the fabric of our church, seen as equal and strong, with plenty of gifts to share. 

We Lutherans, of all genders, are family. 

In the Old Testament reading, Abraham is afraid of rejection, and of not having a family, too, and God drags him outside and shows him the stars. 

God is in the business of quelling our fears and giving us a family. A real family. 

In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” He’s just spent the several verses before that telling them to not be afraid. He knows. 

He knows they live in an occupied land. He knows they’re afraid of the possibility of getting kicked out of their religious communities for following Jesus. He knows they’re afraid. 

We, too, know what it means to be afraid. Despite having faced our fears in years past, fear always comes again. 

Shootings in Dayton and El Paso, which are only the latest mass shootings of the over 200 that we’ve endured this year. Fear over white supremacist terrorism and political turmoil. Fear over talking to our relatives and neighbors about politics. And when we fear our neighbors, we start to hate them.

In the words of Yoda, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

To add to that, we’ve got our own more personal fears, too. Fear that we’re not good enough. Fear over jobs and money and relationships. Fear that we will somehow be left all alone. Depending on your religious upbringing, you might have even felt some fear over this Gospel reading: will you be ready when the bridegroom comes?

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

Not because you’re good enough or tried hard enough, but just because you are. I know. In this era, in every era, that’s hard to believe. Grace is hard like that. But in those times when we allow ourselves to believe it — that we are loved, that we can have a real family, that we can love our neighbors as ourselves, or simply that we’re not getting any younger and we might as well just go for it — we get glimpses that it really is true. We find family. We find ourselves. We find acceptance and love. And no matter what, always, God finds us. 

Often despite myself, I still believe that there’s value in searching ancient texts for clues to help us deal with fear in our own time. That maybe our ancestors knew something about how to deal with uncertainty. Maybe they knew something about fear and pain and joy and heartbreak and hope. Maybe they knew something deep and true about how to be human. From Abraham to the disciples, they knew. And Jesus knew, too. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Because the truth is that none of us is getting younger, and none of this — whether it’s the news or our own lives — none of this is getting any less scary. So as far as I’m concerned, we might as well take Jesus at his word. We might as well look back to our ancestors and think about what they have come through and on whose shoulders we stand. We might as well take courage, and acceptance, and family, where we can find it. 

Yes, we are all afraid and nervous about the future. But here, we find family. At its best, the church gives us the courage to show up and Jesus gives us the nourishment at the table to keep moving, despite our fear. At its best, the church is a family, too, full of love and full of acceptance. 

Do not be afraid, little flock. 

Do not be afraid of shrinking numbers or white supremacists or the future. Do not be afraid to talk to your neighbors or call your family. And do not be afraid to walk into the future that is yours. Do not be afraid to pick up the phone and make that call, to say I love you to that person who needs to hear it, or to finally look in the mirror and love yourself. And when it gets really hard, let God drag you outside like Abraham and show you the stars — and may you see that you are a small but beloved part of this world, and that the world is not ending just yet. 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” 

This, my dear, sweet Lutheran family, this is most certainly true. Amen.

Golf, Prayer, and Honesty

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Jeff, Our Savior’s worship chairperson and best golfer, hands down.

Genesis 18:20-32
Luke 11:1-13

These texts, I must confess, confound me. They give me a certain sense of shame, even, because if I may confess something to you, I don’t think of myself being very good at prayer. But there’s more to it than that. 

This sermon got personal for me very quickly, so I’m inviting you into my head for a minute — well, about ten to twelve minutes, as usual — but I hope you enjoy the journey. 

All around the preacher-sphere this week, with “preacher-sphere” being a term that I just made up, there were rumblings about these texts. And by rumblings, I mean bitter complaining. There just doesn’t seem to be much for a Lutheran pastor to go on here. 

First, you’ve got Abraham haggling over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with the speed of an auction announcer: give me one righteous man, one, gimme two, there’s two, gimme three.. Because some of us  know the story, we know that after this, Sodom and Gomorrah get destroyed anyway, and the one righteous man, Lot, loses his wife as she becomes a pillar of salt. Well, that’s messed up.

Then in the Gospel lesson, you’ve got Jesus explaining prayer in terms of the Lord’s prayer. “Great,” we think. “I can get a sermon out of this.” 

Then, to sum things up as one of my pastor friends did, you’ve got Jesus saying “Bug your neighbors, because it’s kind of like bugging God. And don’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg; that’s messed up.”

The idea you’d get from our English translation is that because the friend was persistent, you’d give in, indicating that if we are persistent before God, God will give in and give us what we want. God likes to be nagged, apparently.

That’s kinda messed up too. Especially considering how we can all recount instances where we or someone we love was absolutely persistent in prayers that never got answered. We pray and pray and pray for someone who is sick or injured, and they still die. We pray and pray and pray for relationships to be healed, and they aren’t. And so it goes. I long ago finished with platitudes to explain these things away. 

I do not think that God needs our excuses. 

So what is Jesus saying about prayer? What is livable, and useful, about these texts?

Here’s where I let you into my brain. One of the things that I find almost funny about being a pastor is when people confess things to me as if I’m not just another person like them who does the exact same things. 

People guiltily confess to me that they don’t go to church that much. 

Meanwhile, I wake up many Sunday mornings just grateful that some of my favorite people go here because otherwise I’d be dragging myself out the door with the mantra “I have to go to church. I have to go to church. I can’t sleep in. I can’t go to brunch. I’m the pastor. I’m the pastor.” 

Thanks for making it easy for me to go to church, by the way.

People apologize for cursing. They use some of my favorite words.

Finally, they confess that they aren’t very good at prayer to me, someone who is decidedly not very good at prayer. 

Now, before you fire me, don’t get me wrong: I went to seminary. I can wax theological and philosophical about prayer. I can tell you why it’s good for you psychologically and why it helps you to see people differently. I believe it’s good for me and for you. I’m just not a naturally pious person. I’ve tried to be, a long time ago, but it never felt right.

I’m not a mystic. I’m not a prayer warrior. I’m just a person who tries, a person whose prayer books sometimes gather dust until Advent or Lent rolls around and I make a fresh commitment to try doing morning prayer every morning. Or maybe three mornings a week. Or maybe… and then I forget, and the books start collecting dust again. I find myself praying for people real quick right after I say that I will because at least then I did it once. Then I’ll think of them again and say another quick prayer. I become a prayer opportunist, which I am pretty sure is better than nothing. 

The point is, if you tell me shamefully that you struggle with prayer, I’m probably going to look right at you and say, “me too.” 

There’s a lot of shame around church and piety and prayer: who does it, who doesn’t, whose prayers get answered, and why. So I’m hoping I can help cut out the shame by being more honest with you myself.

This week, I went golfing with three of the best humans I know, who also happen to also be members here. We talked about prayer on the way back to the clubhouse, mostly because it was Thursday and I still needed a sermon. I heard some good answers — tales about surprising encounters with missionaries that still inform prayer for them. About how prayer is praising, asking, and confessing. I heard confessions of what often feels like a one-sided conversation, but is worthwhile nonetheless. About how it’s hard to hear the replies to our prayers, even if we believe God is a friend who walks alongside us all the time.

That’s when it started to click into place that, despite our shame around prayer, this prayer thing is just different for everyone. We think of prayer as if it only has to take one form when really, it takes many forms for all of us at different times.

“Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Jesus’ answer to this question becomes the most famous prayer in Christianity, one that can usually be found in almost any Christian worship service of any type. One that gets repeated over and over before some sports games and often when a group of Christians wants to pray together but no one wants to lead. It’s the prayer that we’ll say right before we take the Eucharist: the one we know as simply “The Lord’s Prayer.” Luke doesn’t include the whole thing that we know today. In Luke, it’s simply: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

I think you’ll agree that Luke’s version would’ve been far easier for many of us to memorize as children, but no one asked us, so it’s Matthew’s version that gets repeated, including the part about temptation and the forever and ever bit.

Then there’s that story about the horrid, intrusive friend. And once again, our English translation might get in the way. The version we read today has Jesus telling us that because the friend was persistent, he gets what he needs. But “persistence,” you see, isn’t the right word at all. 

The right word is more like “shameless.” 

My best pastor buddy pointed this out to me, and it all started to come together. We have so much shame around prayer: who does, who doesn’t, who should. How we pray, why we pray. What we pray for, and what we don’t. Who we pray for, and who we should pray for.

Even the disciples get in on this a bit: essentially, they ask Jesus how they should pray.

Should should should.

In his answer, though Jesus says instead: when you pray, be shameless. Not persistent. Not nagging. Shameless. 

Think about the people you love most. Think about the people who love you most. Think about the purest expressions of love that you’ve ever experienced or seen. Think about any time anyone has ever said to you when you felt like you were being a bother: “Of course I will do this for you. I love you.”

Real love is shameless. 

From the first offense in the garden of Eden, shame has crept into our relationships with God and one another, as the humans hid themselves and God cried out “Who told you that you were naked?” 

I’ve seen it over and over as a chaplain and a pastor: real love is shameless. Shameless love is a parent who cares for their sick child, a spouse who tenderly changes the bedding, a friend who lets someone they love collapse in their arms in a fit of anxiety or mourning. When we love someone, we will care for them in the most intimate of ways. When we love, we feel no shame over what our bodies do or what they look like, and we feel no shame over our emotions. 

As my friend Kathleen says, real love is when you “no longer have to tuck in your crazy.” 

You may experience this with a parent, a child, a sibling, a dear friend, a spouse, a lover, or just with God, but wherever you’ve found it, you know: real love is shameless, because you know that all of you, all of you, is accepted. You know you’re not perfect, and you know that you’re loved anyway. That is shameless love. 

And that is what Jesus says that prayer is supposed to be like. 

And that’s when I started to realize that maybe I’m not all that bad at prayer after all. 

I’ll tell you shamelessly that I’m very bad at sitting at a home altar and lifting up the people I love in prayer. I want to be good at it, but I never have been, not for any long period of time. 

But what I am good at is running. The rhythm. The simplicity. 

There is only the road ahead. There is only my breath. Everything that I am is there. And in my more pious moments I’ve imagined that maybe, just maybe, God matches my stride. When I’m running, my shame is gone. There is no room, and no time. Sometimes there’s prayer, I think. Not in words, usually. There’s no room for words, which is probably why there’s no room for shame. But that’s where this sermon came from: a good hour on Friday, enduring the heat, surviving. Thinking of you, and thinking of prayer, and thinking of what to say in a sermon about prayer, step after step, breath after breath. Shamelessly.  

Then I finished my run, went to a coffee shop, and wrote you this sermon.

So I invite you to drop the shame around prayer and focus instead on where you feel most at home, most you, most human, most connected, and most shameless. Consider that maybe that is a form of prayer, too. It can be running, hiking, writing, heck, even skydiving. 

So yeah, this is a pretty messed up set of texts. But humans — all of us — are a pretty messed up set of people. 

Thank God, then for being God — for being shameless. Amen.