Pentecost 17 C – 2016

September 11, 2016  

Luke 15:1-10
While studying in preparation for my sermon, I found a story that illustrates the point of our gospel reading:
God appeared to a hardworking farmer and granted him three wishes.
There was a condition—the condition being that, whatever God did for the farmer would be given double to the farmer’s neighbor. (So, if the  farmer asked for a new barn, the neighbor would get two…)
Well, the farmer wished for 100 head of cattle. Immediately, he received  the cattle and he was overjoyed. Then he saw that his neighbor received  200 cattle…
The hardworking farmer wished for a hundred acres of land. He was filled  with joy when he received 100 acres of land, until he saw that his neighbor  received 200 acres…
The hardworking farmer was jealous. He felt a little bit slighted. He didn’t  like what was happening. Rather than celebrating his own good fortune and  his neighbor’s, he was upset.
The hardworking farmer told God his third wish: he wished God would  strike him blind in one eye.
And God wept.  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9, p. 298).
The parables we heard today speak of God’s joy when what has been lost is found. The lost sheep was found. The lost coin was found. Like the shepherd who joyfully carried the found sheep on his shoulders, and like the searching woman who invited her friends in to celebrate because she found the coin she lost—God celebrates when any one of us who has been lost to sin, repents—turning toward God rather than away.
As wonderful as God’s joy is in these parables—
There is more to the story.
The parables are about us, and how we respond to God’s joy. The stories remind us of those times when we, like the Pharisees, have felt jealous, when we have resented the blessings others have received.
The way scripture readings get chopped up for Sunday readings, only reading a set of verses each week, allows us to forget the context of the stories we hear.
In chapter 14 of Luke, the chapter before today’s reading, Jesus was eating with a leader of the Pharisees. He was eating at the table of someone who had power, who had privilege in the world of the Jewish people.
One chapter later we find Jesus at table with outcasts—with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus was with the powerless. Jesus was with those lacking privilege. Jesus was with tax collectors—men most people despised because many of them were cheats. Jesus was with “sinners.” In those days, “sinners” would have been anyone breaking moral laws—living the wrong way, and anyone whose lives did not meet Jewish purity standards. Perhaps a leper, perhaps someone who touched a leper, perhaps a woman menstruating, perhaps a Samaritan who didn’t keep Jewish law…
In our day and age, who do we despise? In our day and age, who lacks privilege? A person recently released from prison? Someone who practices the Muslim faith? A single mother living in poverty who is pregnant? Someone on welfare who smokes?
In our day and age, who do we resent? Is it the LGBTQ community that rallies around a many-colored flag? Is it an African American person who believes Black Lives Matter? Is it a Native American protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota?
Someone might think:
How dare Jesus gather with one of these—or should I say, one of “those?” How dare they be the recipients of God’s blessings?
I’m not trying to push any buttons this morning—I’m trying to be true to the gospel story we have at hand, a story that clearly calls us to celebrate with those most unlike us—to celebrate the blessings they receive from God, even when it appears to us like they are getting more attention, more blessing, more joy.
Like the Pharisees, anyone of us might think anyone of them deserves a little less attention, a little less praise, a little less joy. We would be wrong. We would be wrong, according to Jesus, because they are the ones Jesus chose to gather with, to celebrate with, because they—the lost in society—are always sought out by Jesus and found, and celebrated.
A scholar wrote that these parables “expose the roots of bitterness that dig their way into us whenever we feel that God is too good to others and not good enough to us” (IDB, vol. 9, p. 298).
God’s love is good enough for us all. God weeps when God sees us guided by bitterness and not by love. God weeps when God sees us guided by resentment and not by love. God weeps when God sees walls dividing us that we built— not God, because God loves us all.
When we are lost God searches each one of us out, even if what we are lost to is the sin of our own jealousies or dislikes.
God loves us all. God frees us all. And God calls us to love one another.
Amen.

Pentecost 17

September 11, 2016  

Pentecost 17
September 11, 2016
Our Savior’s Lutheran, La Crosse
Luke 15:1-10
While studying in preparation for my sermon, I found a story that illustrates the point of our gospel reading:

God appeared to a hardworking farmer and granted him three wishes.
There was a condition—the condition being that, whatever God did for  the farmer would be given double to the farmer’s neighbor. (So, if the  farmer asked for a new barn, the neighbor would get two…)
Well, the farmer wished for 100 head of cattle. Immediately, he received  the cattle and he was overjoyed. Then he saw that his neighbor received  200 cattle…
The hardworking farmer wished for a hundred acres of land. He was filled  with joy when he received 100 acres of land, until he saw that his neighbor  received 200 acres…
The hardworking farmer was jealous. He felt a little bit slighted. He didn’t  like what was happening. Rather than celebrating his own good fortune and  his neighbor’s, he was upset.
The hardworking farmer told God his third wish: he wished God would  strike him blind in one eye.
And God wept.  (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9, p. 298).

The parables we heard today speak of God’s joy when what has been lost is found. The lost sheep was found. The lost coin was found. Like the shepherd who joyfully carried the found sheep on his shoulders, and like the searching woman who invited her friends in to celebrate because she found the coin she lost—God celebrates when any one of us who has been lost to sin, repents—turning toward God rather than away.
As wonderful as God’s joy is in these parables—
There is more to the story.
The parables are about us, and how we respond to God’s joy. The stories remind us of those times when we, like the Pharisees, have felt jealous, when we have resented the blessings others have received.
The way scripture readings get chopped up for Sunday readings, only reading a set of verses each week, allows us to forget the context of the stories we hear.
In chapter 14 of Luke, the chapter before today’s reading, Jesus was eating with a leader of the Pharisees. He was eating at the table of someone who had power, who had privilege in the world of the Jewish people.
One chapter later we find Jesus at table with outcasts—with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus was with the powerless. Jesus was with those lacking privilege. Jesus was with tax collectors—men most people despised because many of them were cheats. Jesus was with “sinners.” In those days, “sinners” would have been anyone breaking moral laws—living the wrong way, and anyone whose lives did not meet Jewish purity standards. Perhaps a leper, perhaps someone who touched a leper, perhaps a woman menstruating, perhaps a Samaritan who didn’t keep Jewish law…
In our day and age, who do we despise? In our day and age, who lacks privilege? A person recently released from prison? Someone who practices the Muslim faith? A single mother living in poverty who is pregnant? Someone on welfare who smokes?
In our day and age, who do we resent? Is it the LGBTQ community that rallies around a many-colored flag? Is it an African American person who believes Black Lives Matter? Is it a Native American protesting the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota?
Someone might think:
How dare Jesus gather with one of these—or should I say, one of “those?” How dare they be the recipients of God’s blessings?
I’m not trying to push any buttons this morning—I’m trying to be true to the gospel story we have at hand, a story that clearly calls us to celebrate with those most unlike us—to celebrate the blessings they receive from God, even when it appears to us like they are getting more attention, more blessing, more joy.
Like the Pharisees, anyone of us might think anyone of them deserves a little less attention, a little less praise, a little less joy. We would be wrong. We would be wrong, according to Jesus, because they are the ones Jesus chose to gather with, to celebrate with, because they—the lost in society—are always sought out by Jesus and found, and celebrated.
A scholar wrote that these parables “expose the roots of bitterness that dig their way into us whenever we feel that God is too good to others and not good enough to us” (IDB, vol. 9, p. 298).
God’s love is good enough for us all. God weeps when God sees us guided by bitterness and not by love. God weeps when God sees us guided by resentment and not by love. God weeps when God sees walls dividing us that we built— not God, because God loves us all.
When we are lost God searches each one of us out, even if what we are lost to is the sin of our own jealousies or dislikes.
God loves us all. God frees us all. And God calls us to love one another.
Amen.

Thinking in “We”

September 4, 2016  

Pentecost 16, 2016
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Our Savior’s Lutheran, La Crosse
Thinking in “We”
Tuesday I called my brother up on the phone to wish him a happy birthday. It is a tradition between some of us in our family, when we call to say happy birthday we actually sing it to whoever is celebrating their birthday. So, when my brother answered the phone I sang to him.
Thursday, my brother and his daughter called me up to sing happy birthday to me. I was out for dinner with my niece’s family so I let it go to voicemail and listened to them sing later, at home. My parents called, as well. What a blessing to listen to my 82 year old mother and 89 year old father sing to me.
At the end of my brother and niece’s birthday message to me, I heard my niece say, “Now let’s call Diane!”
Diane is my twin sister. She and I shared text messages during the day on Thursday. But I hadn’t talked to her so I called her after listening to my brother and niece. When she answered I began to sing Happy Birthday. I sang “Happy birthday to we…”
When a person is a twin or triplet or quadruplet, the person lives his or her life thinking in “we.” Even after years of separation, marriages, families, jobs, different geographic locations—twins/triplets/quadruplets—there is always a “we” that transcends space and time.
We don’t live in a “we” world, we live in a “me” world.
When we hear someone say “Me, me me…” we know the person is talking about him or herself, not practicing vocals.
Thursday, when I sang “Happy birthday to we…” to my sister we both started to laugh and said at the same time “Wee, wee, wee, all the way home.” We were both thinking of the little pig going home from the market… Both of us, thinking the same thing, although there was over a hundred miles separating us.
We were thinking in “we.”
In the reading Sheila read from Deuteronomy, Moses was giving his farewell address to the Israelites. He had traveled with the Israelites out of slavery. They had wandered through the wilderness for years. In this reading, they had a bird’s eye view of the Promised Land.
Moses knew he wouldn’t be traveling any further with his people. He had a few last words to share, including a choice: Life or death.
 You might hear the words of Moses and think the choices he offers the Israelites are choices for each one of them, as individuals. You might think each one of the travelers is being asked to choose life or death, to receive blessings or curses, to experience prosperity or adversity. You might be thinking that because it is the way people think in our world, in this society: people think in “me,” not “We.”
Moses was addressing the community. Moses was addressing the Israelites as a people, not as persons. Moses was saying to his community of faith, to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: you people have a choice. As a community, you have a choice. The Israelites would have known that because they lived as a community of “we,” not “me.” They survived as a community of “We,” not as a bunch of individual “me, me, me-s.”
It is called the Deuteronomic Code.
If the people of Israel, Abraham’s descendants, chose life they would receive blessings. Choosing life meant choosing to love God. Choosing life meant choosing to obey God. Choosing life meant choosing to hold fast to God, to cling to God.
Choosing death was to choose to be disobedient. Choosing death was to choose to be separate from God—to either love other gods or to simply step out of having any love for God, at all. To choose death was to choose to let go of God, creating a distant relationship.
Terence Fretheim, a Lutheran scholar suggests that we need to know that the people of Israel were not looking ahead to a relationship with God they might have if they made the right choice, they were looking at sustaining a life they already had (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, www.workingpreacher.org). The Israelites were living in community with one another and with God. Moses was encouraging them to sustain that relationship, to continue to be obedient to God, to continue to love God, to continue to cling to God.
What does this mean?
The answer is difficult.
I say it is difficult because the answer demands that we, living in the 21st century, take on a way of thinking that is thousands of years old.
I say it is difficult because the answer demands that we “think in we” rather than thinking in me.
Everything in our world tells us to think “me.” I need to think about “me” myself, and I. I need to do what’s best for me. I need to protect my best interests. I need to choose between life and prosperity, or death and adversity.
This reading, read from the proper context, wants us to ignore me and think “we.”
Do we choose life or death? Love or separation? Obedience or disobedience? Relationship or individualism? Do we cling or do we let go?
This isn’t about us as individuals or about us as a congregation, this is about putting ourselves in the context of a congregation that exists in a larger context, a context bigger than who we are in this place, bigger than who we are in our synod, bigger than who we are as Lutherans… this is about who we are as Christians.
It is much easier to think about me, because I have some level of control over my relationship with God.
It is much easier to think about us as a congregation because we have a structure in place for thinking that way.
It is easy to think about ourselves as part of a synod, or as Lutherans, because we have structures and doctrines that guide that kind of thinking.
How do we think as Christian people, as a global Christian family? Knowing all of the differences that exist within Christianity—how do we even begin to think about ourselves as a family? As a huge, global, diverse family?
I look to my own family for ideas. What do we do to sustain who we are: we talk, we get together, we play, we sing…
Those are things we can do in a larger context. If we are choosing life, as Christian people living in community, we are asking God to be with us and to guide us as we talk with others, as we get together with others, as we play with others, as we sing together new songs, singing in “we” rather than me.
Thinking in “we.”
Living in “we.”
Amen.

Harbinger

August 28, 2016  

Pentecost 15
2016 Our Savior’s La Crosse
Hebrews 13:1-2
Harbinger
Here’s a cool thing: If I go online and Google a word, wanting its definition, I not only find the definition, I can tap on the little speaker icon and hear how to pronounce the word. For those of you who grew up with Smart Phones, you probably take these things for granted. For people my age and older, this is too cool for school. There was no way, growing up, I could walk into the kitchen where the phone hung attached to the wall, pick up the receiver that had a cord attaching it to the phone attached to the wall, and look up a word. Cell phones are wonderful things…
So Friday I looked up a word that I found when I was studying the biblical meaning of the word angel. I was confident I knew what the word meant, but wanted to double check.
[Do this as you describe it…]
I picked my phone, opened the internet, and typed the word into Google.
H a r b i n g e r
Here is how the words sounds: “harbinger”
Harbinger.
In The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible angels are described as first messengers, second as celestial beings. I am most interested in the first description: angels as messengers.
The IDB (vol. 1, p. 129) describes the functions of angels as messengers to be fourfold:
First, they convey the mandates of God. They tell us humans what God  demands of us.
Third, they protect the faithful—as individuals or as groups. They protect  each of us and all of us…
Fourth, they serve as instruments of divine displeasure. They tell us when  God is angry with us.
But, it is the 2nd function, the one I haven’t told you yet, that I am most interested in:
Angels are “to harbinger special events.” They tell us when something good  is going to happen.
Angels are harbingers.
As Jessica read, it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews:
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (NRSV Hebrews 13:1-2)
Another translation of the same verses reads:
“Keep on loving each other as brothers [and sisters]. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (NIV Hebrews 13:1-2)
This letter to the Hebrews was written to a community of faith that seems to have been in distress. They were doing good things, they were baptized and trained to understand their beliefs—but some kind of crisis was occurring. Folks were leaving the community, some abandoning Christianity, returning to Judaism. Scholars think there were several possible problems: first, Jesus had not returned to the world, as they had thought he would. Second, Christians were being persecuted by other believers, and by the government. Some were put in prison. Others had their property taken from them—all because they were Christian.
Others wanted a different kind of worship life than what was being provided.
Then there were the strangers that were coming to their churches, asking for hospitality. They were itinerant Christians, people without homes, traveling from place to place. They asked more stable Christian congregations to help them. The congregations were getting a little suspicious, not completely trusting the strangers. They feared the strangers could be agents of the government, there to find out who the Christians were. Some congregations created tests the strangers had to take and pass before they would be allowed in the church.
So they were told: Keep on loving each other. Love each other like family. Be a family to each other, but also to others. Love even those who are strangers.
Those strangers may be angels. Those strangers may come to you, not as someone to be feared, but as someone to celebrate. Those strangers may be harbingers of something wonderful. Harbingers of good news. Harbingers of love.
Monday morning when I arrived at church there was a woman sleeping on the bench, a stranger. I was asked Monday what our policy is about people sleeping on the bench. I said my policy would be to let the person sleep. Clearly, she found this place, Our Savior’s, to be a sanctuary, a safe place. So we let her be.
But, I’ve been thinking. What if she was an angel? What if she was a harbinger of good news we never received?
Since beginning ministry here, I have met with several people asking our congregation for assistance. Besides the clothing we have in the Womens Clothes Closet and the food we bring to share with others at Come for Supper, we distribute vouchers for gas. I meet with those who are asking. All have been strangers to me. All have been given something, a tank of gas, to help them out. What if I began thinking of them as angels? What if I began thinking of them as harbingers of something wonderful? Something wonderful for us, for me, for the community?
We have a homeless man staying here, outside. He has been at Our Savior’s off and on for a long time. He isn’t a stranger to us, we know his name, we know his circumstance. He is welcome here. When I introduced myself to him, so that we (he and I) were no longer strangers, he said it was his job to protect us. He watches over this church, our property and our people.
Surprise! That’s the third function of an angel, to protect. Friday I went outside to ask him if he was an angel but, he was asleep. Since my policy is to let homeless people sleep, I left him alone. I think he is an angel. He is a protector. Perhaps he is a harbinger. What does he have to tell us, to teach us?
There are parts of the world, parts of our nation, people we know—perhaps some of us—who see strangers as a threat. Just like the people reading the letter to the Hebrews for the first time, almost 2,000 years ago, strangers are thought of as someone to fear, someone to keep away. It is called Xenophobia. It means the dislike or fear of foreigners or strangers.
In the letter to the Hebrews, in the verses we read today, the Greek word used for hospitality is Philoxenia. It means the love of strangers.
Which do we choose? Xenophobia or Philoxenia?
Scripture tells us to choose love. To love strangers just as we love one another. Scripture promises us that, when we do, we may be loving unknown angels—we may be loving unknown protectors—we may be loving unknown harbingers.
Those strangers may have something to tell us, to teach us.
And so, like angels ourselves, we proclaim God’s love, we proclaim God’s welcome to all we meet. Then, they are no longer strangers to us, or we to them. We are sisters and brothers, We are family. We are family.
Amen.

Pentecost 9 C 2016 – Pastor Jolivette Retirement

July 17, 2016  

PENTECOST 9 C 2016

JULY 17, 2016 OSLC

RETIREMENT SERVICE OF PASTOR JOLIVETTE

 

I stand here this morning wondering what to say and how to say it all:

 

Let me start by saying, I am in awe of people who in their 90’s drive to church every Sunday.

 

And I am in awe of people who come to church the Sunday after a family member dies.

 

I am in awe of people who do not let a little thing like cancer keep them from worship.

 

I am in awe of people who put together menus of great food week after week and serve it for free to an audience which may or may not appreciate the gourmet feast they are eating.

 

I am in awe of people who get up early on a Tuesday to be at church at 7 am for Bible Study.

 

I am in awe of parents who bring children to worship and train them to join in the singing and the praying.

 

I am in awe of children who run down in front with joy to be cheerful givers.

 

I am in awe of children who say table prayers in school cafeterias.

 

I am in awe of altar guild members who come in on so many Saturdays to prepare for our worship needs.

 

I am in awe of ladies who serve funeral lunch after funeral lunch.

 

I am in awe of people who mow the church lawn on a hot summer day.

 

I am awe at the incredible sounds that our organists produce.

 

I am in awe of all the beautiful people God has put in this place.

 

I am in awe of a God who can take all of our burdens, including finding a new pastor, into God’s care.

 

I am in awe of our God who gives us far more than we can think or ask.

 

I am in awe of Jesus who picks ordinary people to be ambassadors to the world of God’s forever kingdom.

 

I am in awe of God who has let me try to tell God’s stories while feeling that I still have so much yet to learn.

 

I am in awe of Jesus who would not let a little opposition, or a lot, or wandering minds, or social norms, or etiquette, get in the way of a chance to be authentically and fully God to us and for us in our world.

 

So today we have a Gospel story we think we know well, the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus coming into their home.  Something out of the ordinary is going on.  These two adult women are apparently not married. They must be from an early Lake Wobegon,  precursors to Norwegian bachelor women, a bachelor family with a brother Lazarus thrown in on other stories.  How else can you explain 3 unmarried people living in this house?  That clearly wasn’t normal in Jesus’ day. I have met some of  their kin living  in some coulees around here.  And in Jesus’ day, a man didn’t enter an unmarried woman’s house.  But Jesus did.  He actually seemed to think that He belonged there. There are other times in Scripture when Jesus came to this family.  Sometimes it happened in a place called Bethany just east of Jerusalem, but this episode as Luke tells it seems to happen up north in Galilee some place.  So not all the details are clear about who Martha and Mary really are or where they live,   but Jesus shows up.  And He was not alone.

Did you hear the start of the story? “Now as they went on their way…” it begins. Clearly they means a group of some kind.  So what would you be doing if a group of people decided to descend into your living room?  You’d put out something to eat, of course. Hospitality would be the concern of the day. Maybe it’s stories like what happened to Martha that inhibit us now from inviting people to our houses.  There’s a whole lot of work involved. And cost.  There is also more than a little risk in offering hospitality.  Martha and Mary had just been put to the test.

A bag of potato chips would be easy, some oreo cookies put on a nice platter just fine, but this was Jesus, and special company needs something special.  So you would go into the kitchen and cook something up, right, and hope you had stuff at hand in the pantry.  Or if not cook, at least put a nice cheese tray together, with some nuts and berries maybe, because it would always be helpful to impress the Big Guy with something tasty and healthy.

So you’d be right there with Martha, wouldn’t you?? Of course you would.

I don’t think this is a story about good choices and bad choices, good Mary, bad Martha.   I don’t think Martha gets a big put down from Jesus. I don’t think this is a story about Mary being a winner and Martha a loser in Jesus’ estimation.  I think Jesus breaks the rules, comes into the house of single women, because this is about the kingdom and God. Martha gets a great big invitation, which is this:  Please stop worrying about hors d’ouevres and come eat the main course with me. I want you at the table right next to me, you and Mary together.

This is the One who sent disciples out 2 by 2 to announce peace and the kingdom of God, and 35 pairs went out to prepare the way for Jesus.  And their amateur hour turned into a night of stories and joy, of celebration that demons were sent packing and Satan fell from the sky like lightning, of doors opening in advance for Jesus to come to their village.

And when some wanted to take detours from heading toward Jerusalem and the cross and all that Jesus had laid out for them, he had told them to let the dead bury the dead, and not to go hang out with friends at parties before they left families and friends.  They weren’t to look back, but ahead.

And they were told about opening their heart and soul and mind and strength to God and equally to their neighbor, and then given a story about the Samaritan who opened a charge account to pay for all the medical costs of the enemy he found lying by the side of the road, with a promise to come back and check in on him regularly. And Jesus would become the Good Samaritan, offering an open charge account to care for all, including his enemies.

Jesus was calling disciples to go all in, not to go halfway, and Jesus was constantly inviting and calling and instructing those whom he would soon leave behind about all this. As I have been going through these last few weeks of Luke’s stories about Jesus’ last weeks and months, I have been clearly thinking about what it means to invite people and train people and get ready to leave them. Today’s Gospel is one more story in a string of stories about Jesus offering a group pushed to the side an equal participation in His work.  Today’s Gospel is about two women, a focus on women in a day when women didn’t study at the feet of any rabbi,  and they are asked to be disciples, with everything that involves.  Today’s Gospel is Luke’s reminder that the church is an open house built with all people, no exclusions,  sitting down for the main course with Jesus, and then living out the story they have been told.

Here was Martha, getting those cheddar slices all lined up nicely, and he wanted her to hear about the kingdom; not just hear, but announce it, and be in it.  He wanted both Mary and Martha to be His disciples.

Jesus is still calling disciples, I hope you know, and frankly, Jesus wants you right next to Him. Jesus would like us to eat the main course with him and then take that walk to Jerusalem with Him.

I am in awe of Jesus who was so intent on including everyone in this incredible opportunity that he stopped at this house and made sure all its inhabitants were onboard.

I am in awe of a congregation who wants everyone to be invited to be part of this journey.

I am in awe of God who wants no exceptions to our participation.

I am in awe of God who can take one who threw the first stone to kill one of the first deacons of the Christian church and turn him into an unrivaled missionary.

And that missionary named Paul writes a letter to a bunch of adults who have just been baptized into the salvation story of this Jesus, the story Mary and Martha had just joined. These new Christians were now disciples with Martha and Mary and Lazarus.  The letter is called Colossians, and in it Paul is so excited to talk about Jesus whose cross they now wear and whose name has become their new identity that he writes in great big run- sentences.  He is just pumped to tell them about Jesus. It sounds something like this:

Jesus is the one who makes God known to us, the image of the invisible God, and what he did was to create everything and then hold it all together.  But he didn’t stop there.  He founded his church, and he is the head of this church, and he is the bridge pulling heaven and earth back together.  He is the reconciler, the one who brings peace between God and all people, even those who have been wicked and fought against the church. And he has given you faith to believe in his story and he has been working so that you will never stop believing that story. Even when I am suffering, I will not stop talking about this story. God commissioned me to keep telling this story, even when life is not fair or easy.  And I have the joy of telling you the great mystery, hidden for years and years and ages and ages.  Jesus made it clear. God chose to make God’s-self known to you who didn’t grow up as believers or as insiders who already knew about God.  And it will always be my job to help you understand this mystery.  I can’t wait to tell you more about our great Lord Jesus. And if I can’t make it clear, Jesus will do it Himself.”

Paul was so in awe of what Jesus had done for him that he couldn’t wait to have more baptisms and more adult inquiry classes and more deep, deep discussions with anyone about the greatest mystery of all – God opening the doors of the kingdom through Jesus to all people.

I am in awe of a church which feels this joy that Paul felt.

I am in awe of a God who called me to join Paul, commissioned me to join Paul, to tell this story to all who will listen.

I am in awe of a church that can write our welcome statement and mean it. Read it with me one more time:  All are welcome in this church!  The Good News of God’s grace is for all, regardless of age, abilities, physical & mental health, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, education, income or strength of faith.  There is nothing we do, have done or will do that can separate us from the love of God.  God makes no exceptions, nor do we.  Come join us in praise, prayer and the work of our Lord!

 

And I am so awe that you, my dear brothers and sisters, invited me to help lead the story telling right here.  I am counting on all who come to this place to join Martha and Mary in receiving the main course that Jesus offers.  I am confident that we, fed by Jesus, will never stop feeding our community with the rich food which Jesus brings.

 

 

PENTECOST 8 C 2016 – JULY 10, 2016 OSLC

July 10, 2016  

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

Jesus is challenged to explain what is involved in obeying the greatest commandment. Jesus tells a parable rich in surprises: those expected to show pity display hard hearts while the lowly give and receive unexpected and lavish mercy.

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s how our Gospel starts. Do you hear anybody asking that question?  Do you hear people asking about getting saved, about salvation?  Do you hear people saying they want to get to heaven but don’t know how?  I hope people still care about life beyond, and life in God’s hands.  Jesus did. Here goes the answer, Jesus’ answer, so we can be the answer for others.

Jesus does a good teaching technique.  “What’s written?” he asks back.  “What do you already know?  What does the Torah say?” And the answer comes forth: “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” The man should have stopped there, but he decided to question Jesus, so he presses on.  “And who is my neighbor?” he asked Jesus.  That will always be a key question. And the response is the story we call the “Parable of the Good Samaritan”.

There are several actors in this story: some robbers, an innocent man who becomes their prey and gets injured, a priest, a Levite, a Samaritan, and the innkeeper.

We might be each person in this story on any given day.   I don’t always give money to people on corners with cardboard signs asking for money for food.  I don’t always trust people who stop me outside the Co-op looking for money for whatever is in their story.  I know people use money to buy booze and meth and cigarettes and sometimes food.  I don’t know who to trust or how to verify. I step, so to speak, to the other side of the road and walk by. But this always bothers me.  And of course, I hear all kinds of stories as people walk in off the street to ask for funds that come from the Second Offering we are taking today. Am I the priest or the Levite? And on some other days I feel victimized by something and identify with the wounded man by the side of the road.  As someone once said, some days we are the windshield and other days we are the bug. Either way, we are in this story.

And it is clear that Jesus’ story turns the expected answer on its head.  This isn’t some comfortable morality tale about how we are to be good and do good.  We are invited to understand that God’s grace comes to us when we are at our worst.  God’s mercy comes when we cry out for help.  And those who want to be in synch with our God are the ones who will link arms with all the world in mercy, even with those who are our enemy. Whether we are the ones walking by on the road, or the one lying in the ditch waiting for help, there is something in this story that links us all together and tells us that God is coming for us.  God will nurse us back to health and pay for the unlimited care we need at the inn, and those who wish to understand how God saves simply receive the mercy and do the same.

The violence against innocent people that has filled our hearts with pain and terror this week links us all.  We are linked to the black men who appear to be innocent and yet are struck down by police.  We are linked to innocent police who are struck down in a boldfaced attack based on hatred.  We are trying to admit to the racism in our country, and we are trying to bridge the gulf of mistrust that has been deepened by this week’s painful shootings. It is hard work, and we have taken some steps backward. I hope you understand that these shootings and the cries of hurting people link us all to one another and our common need for unlimited mercy, the mercy of the Good Samaritan who doesn’t ask for reasons to give love.

Who is my neighbor?  There was an interesting and uncomfortable movie that ended up being very moving.  It came out in 2007 and is called “The Visitor”. Rent it.  A professor comes to present a paper at a conference in NYC, where he keeps an apartment. I surmised that he came from a nearby New England university. He is recently widowed, and he has some hesitancy heading to this place of memories.  Once there, he finds some immigrants residing in his apartment, a young couple, and they have been hoodwinked by someone who is pretending to be the owner and has rented it out to them.  He is upset with them, they are upset with him. Neither knows whom to trust.  So the real owner, and a struggling couple who think they are the lawful renters, have to figure out how they will live or not live with each other.  It is moving story about distrust that turns into friendship and support, about the need for mercy in a really tough situation.

Or maybe you have watched the Disney Academy Award winning animated movie “Up”, a story also about a loving couple and their home, their lives entwined through the years, and then the man loses his dear bride. A young boy enters his world, and the two begin quite an adventure. The boy becomes the neighbor who cares about this lonely man.

Or the movie “the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, one I really enjoyed, where older British people who cannot afford a retirement in England arrive in this somewhat second rate hotel in India which they can afford, and become quite the community with each other and with the owners from India.  They are some of the most caring neighbors one could ask for.

I mention these, not because I watch so many movies, but because in a world that truly is global and interconnected, yet so often seems disconnected, the question of who is my neighbor actually becomes the question of our existence.  The food we eat and the clothes we wear often come from around the globe. Just read the labels on your clothes. Are the people who produced them our neighbors?  What would it take for that to happen?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached on this text a number of times.  In 1967, he said this: “On the one hand,” he said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” In other words, caring about salvation and doing something about social justice are intricately linked. Our elections do matter. Listen carefully to the politician’s answers about who are our neighbors.  Our actions do matter.  Our hearts wanting to be united with God then do go out and get united with our neighbor.

And everyday we are surprised by whom they might be.

This past week I heard a troubling story on National Public Radio.  You might recall the horrors of Sarajevo during the unraveling of the former Yugoslavia, when Serbia and Croatia were at war so brutally.  This city which had hosted a beautiful winter Olympics lost 20% of its citizens, many of them simply becoming targets of distant marksmen. Shopping was a trip into a death zone.  Current residents, asked to reflect on that horrible period with those who now come as tourists, often say that though they do not miss the horror of war, they miss the community they became when things were at their worst.  Their humanity shone. Tough days made them better neighbors. They do not so easily shine that way today.

We pray that it doesn’t take bullets and bombs to make us a better community.  But that has been our week as a nation. Once again we are asked to seek out neighbors, to answer the question “who is my neighbor” based on the actions of Jesus who answered this man.  He answered when he said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”. He answered our answer from the cross when he offered unlimited forgiveness and mercy to those who killed him. Jesus does not give a morality answer, a treatise on how to be good people.  Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom as he tells us about the Good Samaritan.

We tell this story with our lives.  Mercy and grace flow from us as we invite the world to meet Jesus who is our Good Samaritan, picking us up when we are at our worst as individuals and as a nation.

 

 

PENTECOST 7 C 2016 – JULY 3, 2016 OSLC

July 3, 2016  

It’s the Fourth of July weekend.  Is it ok if my sermon is a bit shorter than usual today?

As I am getting ready to leave all of you in a couple weeks, I want to make it clear, because Jesus makes it clear in today’s Gospel, that the sharing of the Good News and even the opportunity to preach about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven does not belong only to the professionals.  The kingdom is entrusted to all believers.  The proclamation of the Gospel is entrusted to all believers.  Telling our faith stories is part of the mark of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The works of sharing new life in Jesus’ name, the healing of sick and the bringing of comfort, is entrusted to all believers. That means that this ministry doesn’t end when I leave.  In fact, perhaps it can even pick up.  Some may do a better job than I.  Some may be more authentic than I.  Some may make better connections with certain individuals or groups than I.

Today’s lesson starts with Jesus sending out either 70 or 72 disciples in pairs, depending on which ancient manuscript we read.  That’s 35 or 36 pairs, people.  If we think of the world of disciples as being only 12 guys, we have missed the power and breadth of this story.  If we think that only the insiders can be trusted, we are mistaken.  There are at least 35 pairs of people whom Jesus trusts strongly enough that He tells them go out and heal the sick and tell the world, neighborhood to neighborhood, village to village, that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. God is right here, and we are sent to tell you how real that is, we say. The good news about Jesus and God’s new vision of human reality is meant to be spread throughout the world by the ordinary and the humble and the non-professional.

Think about some of our greatest literature and movies.  In The Lord of the Rings, an orphan named Frodo lives with his uncle Bilbo, and at the end of Bilbo’s life, Frodo is entrusted with a ring.  A great and evil ruler wants this ring so that he can rule Middle Earth, and this untrained and very unpretentious thirty-ish man is given the job of saving his village from this evil person.  It soon becomes a much bigger mission.  He is to get rid of the ring at a certain mountain where the ring will be tossed into the fires. This very ordinary person ends up on an adventure that saves all of Middle Earth.

Luke Skywalker, of “Star Wars” movie fame, is a water farmer on a distant planet.  He is a friend with a smuggler named Hans Solo, and with his sister Princess Leia, he ends up forming a trio that will save the universe as we know it. Great stories are made of ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

Each person here today is called upon to go beyond their front door to be a messenger of the Lord of the universe.  Each person here today is invited to go out with a brother or sister in the faith and share the stories that have changed our world.  Each person here is invited to go out and introduce the world to its Savior, Jesus of Nazareth.

Add that to your Fourth of July list.  You are probably planning to go out a bit, to a barbeque or to Riverfest or just to sit in the summer sun.  There is even more you can do.  Take a friend and tell the world that you bring health, healing and peace in the name of Jesus. We add to the Independence Day stories of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and the now even more famous Alexander Hamilton by talking about the real source of our new freedom, Jesus who frees us from sin and death and the devil and ourselves.

So what are we supposed to do?  Proclaim peace.  What a great thing to do in our world today.  We read of struggle after struggle and battle after battle.  We go to proclaim piece.  Salaam aleikum.  Shalom.  Peace.  And how do we do it? We are urged to eat whatever is put before us. For the Jewish disciples, this was a way of saying that the food didn’t have to be kosher or ritually pure.  For all of us, we know what a big part food plays in all hospitality, including right here at church.  This church knows a thing or two about food.  It’s one of our strengths.  We can do this food thing, no problem. Eat with people.  Stay with them a bit.  Don’t be in a rush.  Form relationships.  And let them know that there is an even more authentic way to live.  We are to engage in community, in justice, in healing, in peace.  This isn’t so that we get over our problems.  It is so that we can look beyond all of the earth’s problems with the love and grace we have been given by Jesus the Christ.  Then we will fill in the conversations with our own stories of the love and grace and mercy and hope and new life that Jesus has given to us.  Those stories should be just as easy to tell as stories about our children and our grandchildren and our favorite sports teams and our favorite musicians and the best movies of all time.

When the disciples do this, they end coming back to Jesus with great joy and powerful stories.  The journeys worked. Sick were healed, demons were sent flying, and people responded to the stories of Jesus and the kingdom of heaven being close at hand. Joy abounded.  I have it on good authority, Jesus’ authority, that the same joy can happen among us!

This is our joy, that the story we tell about Jesus will change lives; not just our own, but others.  And not every one will listen.  Come on.  We don’t stay in the fairways with every golf drive, we don’t get on base with every trip to the batter’s box, we don’t always succeed.  We just keep on telling the story, going to new places and starting over.  We can do this, people, we can do this.

We go out.  That actually is where we start our journey as a welcoming community.  We go out the doors on a journey this and every week.  We bring bread to the hungry, and compassion to the afflicted.  That’s where the welcome is given. Wherever your journey takes us, we are invited to live authentically as people in love with Jesus.  We will tell that story to the next house and the next neighborhood. God’s welcome goes with us.

We have those stories to tell right in this area.  How do we get the neighborhood into this building?  I have to think that it comes from doing what Jesus invites us to do, going out in two’s to them, and then we start eating, start talking, start sharing.  There are no shortcuts to this method, no bypasses.

And joy will come.  New friendship will be made.  God will be at work in our humble efforts.  We will find our own Bilbo Baggins and Luke Skywalkers, and the universe will be blessed.

We are going to be sent out into a world that is not necessarily looking for the story we bring.  Jesus calls us “lambs among wolves”.  That sounds like an invitation to acknowledge our fear and just sit this one out.  But the Gospel began with these two words “after this”.  After what, we ask?

After Jesus had told the disciples, in the story we heard last week, that they didn’t have time to go back to bury their fathers or say good bye to relatives.  They had no time for excuses, distractions, or detours.  Now you might think that this kind of answer would have sent a lot of would-be disciples away.  Perhaps.  But it still left Jesus with 35 or 36 pairs of people that He could trust to send out with this incredible ministry.

I think this congregation has at least 35 or 36 pairs who could do this ministry in our day and in our place.  Don’t you?  And don’t we want to try, by the help of God?

 

 

PENTECOST 6 C 2016 – JUNE 26, 2016 OSLC

June 26, 2016  

39 years ago, about this time, I was meeting with my first call committee.  It turns

out that in the Lutheran system, newly graduated seminarians don’t get to choose where

they live.  We call it the draft, the gathering of bishops who pick the new seminary

graduates, usually with a specific congregation in mind when they choose them.

I had put down that I wanted to be in a Midwestern small town with one high

school.  The bishop told me that I was going to suburban St. Louis, to a place of extremely large high schools.  Not only that, but he sent me to a congregation that was only 10 years old and already split in two, with half of the charter members gone to a Pentecostal mega-church in the same community. And to make matters worse, there had been 11 candidates interviewed, and no one wanted to go there.  I was now their only choice. In the excitement of graduating from seminary and starting down the road of public ministry, this was not what I had in mind.

And looking ahead, I had no clue where my future would take me, and I had absolutely no idea where I would ever retire.  That is unfolding right now and right here, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have made Our Savior’s and this community my last stop on the ministerial trail.  Thank you.  That trail didn’t start easily, and there have been bumps in the road on the way to getting here.  Many of you can say that about your own lives.  But God has been walking that road with us.  Today we have a story about that journey, and what faith means, and specifically what Jesus is calling disciples to do.

Today’s Gospel lesson is an important story we only get in Luke’s Gospel, meaning this is only recorded once in the New Testament.  Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, we are told.  You know what that means.  Jesus refuses to walk away from the fight of his life.  The cross looms ahead. Jesus didn’t invite people to a faith walk which is a technique for helping the self-satisfied become more self-satisfied.  Jesus cannot be accused of false advertising. When Jesus called out “Follow me!” he was very upfront about the dangers and struggles of discipleship.

And that is exactly what is happening here on this early summer morning.  God is making disciples.  You could be somewhere else, but you are here. Wonderful.  Listen with an open heart.  Let me continue by saying that there is no coach I have ever respected who allows the athlete to define the workouts.  And we all know that the way to become a better athlete is simply practice, and practice and practice. Or a bricklayer. Or a host of other fine and noble endeavors.  Repetition and practice, often at hours we would not choose and in amounts we would not gladly do without someone pushing us, are the ways to getting better.

It is the same for anyone who wants to become a good musician. I had a fantastic high school band director.  He always found something wrong at my lessons, something I could improve on.  I thought I was doing great, but he found something else for me to focus on in the upcoming week.

Malcolm Gladwell, award winning author of several best seller books, says something that is often quoted from his book Outliers: the minimum requirement for those who wish to be great at anything is 10,000 hours.  10,000 hours is what it takes to separate one’s self from the others, to be great at piano, or chess, or basketball, or golf, and the list goes on and on.  For those of us starting something new, it begs this question: are we willing to put in that time and effort to succeed? And the same came be said of faith: how do we daily practice?  What amount of Bible reading and Scripture study and prayer and works of kindness and giving does it take for us to get the hang of this discipleship thing?

So as Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and that fight of his life, there is hard work to do.  Discipleship isn’t easy, and there are always going to be some distractions.  There was a city in Samaria they were walking toward that wouldn’t receive him and his disciples.  For whatever reason, things didn’t work out for them there.  Those two brothers, James and John, the ones elsewhere called Sons of Thunder, wanted to make noise and do something thunderous.  They asked Jesus if they shouldn’t command fire to come down from heaven to consume these unready and unwilling and ungrateful Samaritans.  Jesus wouldn’t let them go down the shortcut trail of hatred and anger.  There are times when we feel our cause is so right and those who oppose us are so wrong that we would do anything to get their attention. Jesus says that we’re not taking that detour.

Instead, Jesus talks about having no place to lay down his head.  The Samaritans were not giving them a bed and meals and a welcome.  But Jesus really had no place to call home, not even in Israel.  It is as if Jesus in this verse is indicating that He is one of the homeless among us, identifying with all without a roof over their heads, or as we used to say out in the field with the Marines, no cot and three hots, no roof and no beds and no hot meals.

And then come the excuses from would-be disciples, good sounding all of them.  The ones being called to join him and the twelve have some business to attend to.  There is a family funeral to go to.  There are the good byes with the parents and all the siblings and all the cousins and all the friends in the village.  That probably means a barbeque or two or three, and a brewski or more, and a long lingering kiss with the current honey, and Jesus has no time for that.  He is headed toward Jerusalem. He says “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven”.  Wow.  This is true, we know. You can’t plow a straight line if you are looking backward.  But not being able to give proper good-byes and proper burials seems to raise the stakes a bit high.  How in the world are we ever going to get disciples in today’s church if we talk like Jesus talked that day?  How can people go toward Jesus without basic human needs being met? These persons sounded so normal, and Jesus so difficult.

Well, why is it that the Marines are always the branch of the military that fills its recruiting goal most quickly?  It is simple, really – they make it clear that they are the toughest and fittest and most demanding of all the branches of the military.   And having done so, they have lines out the door.

Which coaches attract the most attention?  Are they the ones who are the kindest and easiest to work with?  Usually not.

While it seems that Jesus is asking way too much of us, it doesn’t work to sugar-coat the making of disciples. We are talking about Jesus, even when many people find it hard to even say his name out loud.  We are talking about the cross, when many people want success and see the cross as failure.  We are taking about tough love, and deep love, when a lot of people want only sentimentality and sweetness. We are talking about life changing actions when many only want to look good on the surface.

Jesus is talking about throwing caution to the wind and going on the journey of a lifetime.  He makes no apologies when he faces down the life issues that would be disciples bring him.  He wants us all in, all with him on the journey to Jerusalem.

It may sound terribly unpleasant. Imagine the scene in our first lesson, as the mantle of prophetic leadership was passed from Elijah to Elisha.  For those of you who have seen the Amish working their spring ground with six horses, an incredible and powerful team, Elisha had a twelve yoke of oxen team.  That is incredible.  It’s huge.  It indicates his wealth and power and prestige as a farmer of his day.  And what happens when he is called to be a prophet?  He knows he can’t be a farmer anymore, so the twelve oxen turn into perhaps the Bible’s biggest barbeque.  It’s a huge event.  They are boiled. But the reality is, there is no turning back.  This mantle from Elijah now on his shoulders means this is an all in moment.  Elisha will never go back.

Jesus is calling us, asking us never to go back.  My calling took me from small town Iowa to you.  I have no regrets.  I’m glad we have come together in this place to serve our Lord Jesus. God knew where God was taking me.

Jesus’ call for you might take you back to your work or into your classroom with a new heart for other people.  Or Jesus calling you might take you to a new community, or even to a place of new neighbors.

Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem.  He knew his goal, and nothing, not even a community that let him down, or disciples who came with their distractions, would cause him to veer off course.  And as he sets course for the place where He will lay out his life for us, he invites us to be part of that journey, no distractions, no detours, all in.

 

 

PENTECOST 3 C 2016 – JUNE 4, 2016, 0SLC

June 4, 2016  

A new business was opening and one of the owner’s friends wanted to send him flowers for the occasion. They arrived at the new business site and the owner read the card, “Rest in Peace.” The owner was angry and called the florist to complain. After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, the florist replied, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, but rather than getting angry, you should imagine this: somewhere there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying, ‘Congratulations on your new location.'”

A man died, and the first son was trying to arrange everything himself, because he knew that the other son was not so bright and sure to mess something up in some way. The dim brother insists that he wouldn’t.  Finally the first brother relented and gave him a small task: “Just make sure dad looks nice for the service.” The day of the service arrives and everything goes off without a hitch. The first brother congratulates the less trustworthy one on a job well done. A month after the service, the first brother received a bill for $200 from the funeral home. He assumed it was a missed cost and sent the money. Another month went by, and again he received a bill for $200. Thinking something must be wrong, he called the funeral home and asked why he’s being charged another $200.The funeral home director replied, “Well, your brother was insistent on your father looking nice for the funeral, so he rented him a tux!”

Marvin, was in the hospital on his death bed. The family called Marvin’s Preacher to be with him in his final moments. As the Preacher stood by the bed, Marvin’s condition seemed to deteriorate, and Marvin motioned for someone to quickly pass him a pen and paper. The Preacher quickly got a pen and paper and lovingly handed it to Marvin. But before he had a chance to read the note, Marvin died. The Preacher feeling that now wasn’t the right time to read it put the note in his jacket pocket. It was at the funeral while speaking that the Preacher suddenly remembered the note. Reaching deep into his pocket the Preacher said “and you know what, I suddenly remembered that right before Marvin died he handed me a note, and knowing Marvin I’m sure it was something inspiring that we can all gain from. With that introduction the Preacher ripped out the note and opened it. The note said “HEY, YOU ARE STANDING ON MY OXYGEN TUBE!”
Three friends die in a car accident and they go to an orientation in heaven. They are all asked, “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you? The first guy says,” I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man.”
The second guy says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher which made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow.
The last guy replies, “I would like to hear them say … Look, He’s Moving!

It is easy for us to think that death disrupts our lives, but today, in our Good News gospel story, at a funeral, it is Jesus who disrupts death.  Just outside a little village called Nain, the people had taken the body of a young man beyond the city walls for burial.  It was a desperate time for his mother.  She was all shaken because she was already a widow and this son was her only support and sustenance.  Without him with her now, she had no future.  She could most certainly be reduced to begging. It was as if her social security check was cancelled for good.

Jesus approached this village and disrupted this procession.  As one person put it, every time Jesus shows up, there is a distinct possibility of an outbreak of life. And that is just what happened on this day.  Death does not get the last word.  Jesus does.  The future for this young man opened up again. The future for his mom opened up again.  The resurrected presence of Jesus will disrupt our lives as well. What in the world might that mean?

 

Last week we learned, when Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion, that his ministry could turn a slide toward death totally around.  The word about that healing spread.  When Jesus traveled anywhere, he traveled not only with his disciples, but with a crowd.  So it was both Jesus and the crowd that had come upon this sad scene.  I imagine the whole village grieving.  I imagine this young man as someone everyone knew and appreciated as they do in a small town.  I imagine him as a neighbor who helped others out on a regular basis, because all living was communal living. I imagine the crowd with Jesus wondering why they were stopping in this God forsaken outpost.

 

Jesus and his crowd are confronted with a grieving mom and widow and with death’s crowd. Jesus says to the widow a very comforting yet perplexing invitation: Don’t weep.  It sounded like he had real compassion, but it is still a strange order.  Maybe some people watching as their procession ground to a halt felt that this was a bit strange or even a bit rude.  Who wouldn’t grieve in these circumstances? Why should this mother not be allowed to cry her heart out?

 

But that’s what Jesus does.  Jesus disrupts our thinking.  Jesus disrupts our expectations.  Jesus makes our expected responses ultimately seem foolish.

 

Now Jesus didn’t reside at Nain.  Jesus didn’t put down roots after this episode and remain there.  We doubt that he knew this small town and its citizens at all. But I am sure that they knew Him from that day onward. When Jesus disrupts our world, it is changed forever.

 

After the strange command to stop crying, Jesus gave another strange command. Talking to the body, he said “young man, arise!”  We know what happened next. This event doesn’t happen in the middle of a great plaza in Jerusalem surrounded by great crowds.   It doesn’t happen late in his ministry.  It happens in an almost unknown village and very early in the story Luke tells us. The man gets up, and mom and son are joyfully reunited.

 

Early in this story about Jesus, Luke is telling us that what seems supernatural is just another day at the office with Jesus.  Luke is telling us that when Jesus enters our village or our city, we have no idea what is going to happen.  Luke is telling us that Jesus has compassion on all the needy, and reaches deeply into their worlds, and when Jesus comes into our world, there also comes new life.

 

Luke is telling us that nothing is off limits for Jesus, not even death itself.

 

Luke, who will tell us of the Holy Spirit of Jesus coming to shake away the fear and quiet that had taken over the disciples after the death and resurrection of Jesus, tells us in this story that Jesus pushes into territory that previously seemed off limits.  Jesus pushes into death and brings life. God breaks into death, and life breaks out.

 

We have no names to remember, neither a mom nor a son.  There are no names to immortalize today.  Just two unnamed persons and an almost unknown village take center stage. God came very close to them, speaking in ways that made little sense at first, but all the difference in the end.  Life came on some sad day, and life came to a whole village because God comes so very close to people who need Jesus.

 

Luke tells us in an interesting sentence about what happened next.  “Fear seized the whole village, and they glorified God”, he writes.  What a combination – fear and glory!

 

Now what were they afraid of?  Was it that Jesus had come too close for their comfort?  Are we some of those who like it better when Jesus doesn’t get up close and personal with us? Perhaps this is an example of what is stated elsewhere in Scripture: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, said one of the prophets.  Does that mean it isn’t a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a dead idol?  Hmmm. It’s an interesting phrase, this fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.   Anyway, I think the fear is that our normal expectations and our normal experiences are totally changed when Jesus walks up to our town, which means, when Jesus shows up in our world, we never really quite know what to expect but we know we will never be the same, and we kind of like sameness.

 

And when Jesus is free to speak Jesus’ words, and when Jesus is free to do what Jesus came to do, our world will never be the same. Joy abounds.  So our fears and our songs of glory get all wrapped up together, change and wonder all wrapped up in our song.

 

And they couldn’t figure out what to make of this, either.  There seems to be a division of the house, so to speak.  Some in the village thought it meant that they had been visited by a great prophet, someone like Elisha who had visited the house of a widow in another small town called Zarephath.  Her son had almost no breath left in him, we are told in our first lesson.  That’s a nice way of saying that he was on his death bed. And he carried the boy upstairs, prayed to God over him, and the Lord revived this boy.  They figured that a Bible story they had read about from long ago was happening to them, so it had to be a prophet who visited their town.

 

And others said, this must mean that we’ve gotten God’s favor.  We are in good with God. This happened to our town because we’ve done something to make God smile on us.  Somehow, from something we have done, we have qualified for special divine favor.

 

The town couldn’t decide why this had happened, but that was ok.  They had a mom and a son reunited. When Jesus speaks to us, we can’t always figure out the gap between us and God, nor the connection between us and God.  That’s just fine.  It’s ok. Why has Jesus come to me?  We might never know. Jesus whom we meet today, the Jesus we have celebrated as both dying and being raised from the dead Himself, invites us simply to marvel at God’s goodness every time we meet encounter Jesus.

 

And the spirit of this same Jesus invites us to expect Him to show up here.  Strange and wonderful things happen when we invite Him to our village.

 

And not only that, but we are invited to take our Pentecost shaped lives, our Spirit formed lives, and believe these stories, and even come to expect these stories to happen now.

 

We are invited to be prepared, whether crying our eyes out or watching in wonder, for God to disrupt our walks, for God to disrupt our days, for God to disrupt our village. We our invited to believe that God even disrupts death.

 

If Easter is the joke God played on the devil, then this day is the day that God played a joke on us.  The dead are not to be buried.  The dead are invited to come back to life.

 

And when we worship this Jesus, we can expect every day that the joke will be on us.

We bring our fears and our joys, all wrapped together, our worries and our doxologies, and we praise God for new life, even in the face of the steepest odds. And we dare laugh for joy, and wait with expectation, for Jesus to speak the words that change our life forever.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PENTECOST 2 C 2016 – MAY 29, 2016 OSLC

May 29, 2016  

I Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

The questions of today’s Scripture are as real as the political campaigns. Who should be allowed to come to this country?  Who is entitled to receive the programs that taxpayers fund?  Who should be guaranteed the opportunities that our constitution enshrined?  In other words, who gets the gifts of this great nation?

It also touches the core of our religious leanings.  Who does our God favor?  Who gets the ear of God?  Who gets the attention of God?  And that all leads to questions like, who does God choose to answer?  Whom does God choose to heal?  Is there an inside track to God’s favor?

I have to admit to you that I stopped going to religious book stores a long time ago, and you will seldom see me browsing the aisle at Barnes and Noble marked Christianity.  Yes, I have a library full of books, and yes, most of them are about Christianity, but they are carefully chosen to open the subject matter up, not to close it.  Way too many of the books in religious aisles and book stores reduce Christianity to some technique.  Then we can use that technique to get whatever we are wanting: hope, peace, healing, a great marriage, things we desire in life.  In essence, the hook is this:  you tried many things, just fill in the blank…… exercise, drugs, a positive attitude……and now you should try Jesus.  “Here are ten Biblical steps to have a better marriage”; “here are the fundamentals for money management”; “here is how to pray rightly so you get connected with God” – these are the ideas behind many of the books.  They are about techniques to use God to get what we want.  I stay away from those books.

Why?  Our relationship with God is about being shaped in God’s image, about listening to the voice of the One who calls us and guides us. Our relationship with God is not about wrapping God around our fingers to get what we want. It’s about responding to words of love and encouragement from the One who has given His life for me.  It is not about techniques.

So today our Scriptures face us with those things that block dialogue with God and one another, and with those things that open up our ears and hearts to the living presence of God.

It starts in the First Lesson.  The ancients built grand temples that were meant to be earthly homes for the divine.  Representations of that god were found in statues and carvings and paintings.  The Israelites finally got their wish, which was to build a Temple for their God.  But this one was different.  The truth about the temple is that is was built with slave labor, so it didn’t start out much differently from the others.  But instead of carvings and statues and paintings of the Almighty One who had called Abraham and Sarah and called Moses from the burning bush and led the people back to this place in Israel, they had a box, the ark of the covenant.  They had a box bearing the 10 Commandments.  Without a physical representation of their God, what led people to worship there?  It was the story they carried in their hearts and acted out in this place.  They told of the One who had led them across the Red Sea. They told of the One who had anointed David with power as a child.  They told of God’s promises that were kept, and they came to renew their end of the promise, the covenant that bound them to this God.  And when we hear Solomon praying in the dedication prayer that was our First Lesson, he did an amazing thing. He called on the God of Israel to hear the prayers of every foreigner who came to the Temple to pray. In other words, this Temple wasn’t just for the Jews.  It was open to all who would call on the Lord.

All were invited to worship in this temple, not just the Israelites.  Their land and their worship were open to all.  That was the gist of this great prayer from the beginning of worship in the Temple.  A common language of prayer and praise and worship could come from the tongue of any person of any nation, and they were invited to be in the Temple, and God was called upon to hear their prayers just as God might hear the prayers of his Israelite faithful. Unfortunately, this open-heartedness was not always the prevailing mind in this place.

In the second Lesson, Paul was talking about Christians deserting the message he had built the church upon, the gospel of the One who frees us from ourselves.  God wants to give us freedom, but this other gospel was a message that would bind people.  We call its proponents the Judaizers, and they wanted every Christian to become a Jew first.  That meant keeping a kosher kitchen and having every man get circumcised and everyone following the calendar of the Jewish holy days and festivals.  Paul said that Jesus came to free all people from the demands of the law, and that the good news of Jesus Christ is both for the Jews and the non-Jews alike.  To quote our welcoming statement, “God shows no partiality, nor do we.”

The Gospel involves a Roman centurion, the leader of 100 or so men.  The Jewish leaders vouched for him and said that he was a man worthy enough for Jesus’ help when he had a slave who was close to death.  He loved the Jewish people and built them a synagogue.  His kindness and good works indicated that he was a moral, righteous and good person. The Jews he had helped told Jesus that this guy was worth helping.

The centurion knew that the opposite was true, that no one is worthy, in spite of how much good we do.  We do not merit healing or God’s mercy in any way.  And he knew power and ability, so when Jesus came near, he told Jesus it was enough for him just to say the word, and he knew his servant would be healed. The centurion knew power because he could back up both his promises and his threats with action.  He knew that Jesus also had the power to back up his words with action, so by faith he waited for Jesus’ word to come true.  He acknowledged Jesus’ power and authority, and faithfully waited on Him. Jesus ended up praising this Roman leader of men, saying that in all Israel he hadn’t found such faith. And the servant of the foreigner was healed.

Obviously, in the early Christian Church, this story clearly was told to remind people that Jesus came for everyone.  Even Roman soldiers could receive God’s mercy and love and new life.  A living sign of Rome’s power and might opens his heart and his need to Jesus, and this army officer received God’s embrace, as did his servant. The Christian Church would not turn people into enemies, but celebrate that Jews and Gentiles alike received the attention and help of Jesus.

Those foreigners who came to the temple King Solomon had built didn’t’ come because they were forced to pray their or make a pilgrimage there.  When they came, the doors to God’s living presence were not shut to them, but opened. In the Gospel, both Jewish leaders and the Roman leader worked together to bring Jesus’ healing to someone who needed it badly.  Doors were not shut, but opened. No one forced the centurion to come to Jesus, but his need and his viewpoint drew him to Jesus.

On this weekend when we focus our attention on American service members and American losses, we come as people who take our role in the world seriously.  Let us remember that we are not the whole of Jesus’ world by far.  When we talk about American dreams and American stories, let us remember how precious they are, but also that neither they nor our country are the focal point of God’s love.

These three Bible stories are invitations to see God’s wide embrace and God’s wide welcome for all people.  We don’t need special techniques to get God’s favor.  We don’t even need an American birth certificate.  We simply need open hearts, and God is ready to offer God’s gifts freely and openly to all.

That is a celebration worth remembering every day. God’s heart is open to all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, every single day.

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