January 7, 2018

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD


BAPTIZED WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT
January 7, 2018
Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7; Genesis 1:1-5

Unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark has no stories about Jesus’ birth or his early childhood.  After a few introductory verses, the Gospel of Mark jumps right into the description about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his public ministry, presumably when he was about 30 years old.  If that is true, then Jesus had a lot of life experience under his belt before he ever stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin, John—a baptism that would change his life forever and actually would result in his life being cut short because of his devotion to living by the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled him to live according to God’s good pleasure rather than be influenced by all of the pressures of this world.

I would guess that all of us could look back on our lives and identify those moments when we had a certain revelation or experience that would change our lives forever.  Related to our lessons for today, I would recall two such moments in my life—both of which occurred when I was 20-years old and both of which would inform my theology for the rest of my life.  The first such moment occurred one day when I was sitting at the lunch table in the dining hall at Concordia Senior College and suddenly realized that the importance of this first story in Genesis had little, if anything, to do with a literal 7-day creation as I had been taught since my childhood.  Instead, it struck me in that moment that this story about God creating the heavens and the earth had everything to do with who God is, who we are in relationship to God, and what our responsibility is in relationship to the world in which God has placed us as human beings.  I blame this shift in understanding and perspective on the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the one, who, according to Jesus, guides us into the way of truth.

The second such moment came that same year after I had learned over the summer that two of my dearest friends had received the baptism with the Holy Spirit and could speak in tongues as a result of this outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  They both were such vibrant and positive persons, and I wanted what they had.  So, when I went to the Senior College that fall, I regularly would go down into the tiny chapel in the basement of our dorm and pray for this gift of the Holy Spirit.  After about 5 months of this endeavor, I still hadn’t had the bright light experience that my 2 friends had described to me, and I had no experience of speaking in tongues.  Perhaps I should have asked somebody to lay hands on me at the time, but I was unaware of this possibility back then. 

Instead, I came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues probably was not going to be my gift, and that the Holy Spirit would have to endow me with some other gifts that would be as beneficial to me and to others in my life, and give me the satisfaction of knowing that I still was a beloved child of God who could please God in other ways in my life.  Little did I know that one of those gifts of the Holy Spirit eventually would be the gift of prophecy as mentioned in our lesson from Acts for today—a gift that has inspired me to recognize that the seventh day as described in this Genesis story is the main reason why this story was written, and to understand that the baptism of Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit gave him the faith and courage to go public with his prophetic message about the good news of God’s realm in which God’s justice and peace would rule the day.

The timing of this baptism in Jesus’ life raises the question about whether or not Jesus was filled with this Holy Spirit earlier in his life.  If we take to heart this description in Genesis about the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the earth at the beginning of time and about God breathing into every human being the Spirit of life from the very beginning, then we might conclude that from the beginning of his life, Jesus already was filled with the Spirit of God as the angel Gabriel had announced to his mother, Mary.  I would suggest that the same holds true for each and every one of us.  When all of us were born, we already had the Spirit of God breathed into us to give us life.

If such is the case, then what is the importance, or better yet, what is the necessity of being baptized in the name of Jesus if this Spirit of God already resides in each and every one of us at birth?  I would answer this question by considering a seed that is planted in the ground.  That seed already is alive and is ready to be nourished.  However, if that seed is not watered, it may never sprout and grow into what it was meant to be.  Baptism with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus serves this same purpose in our lives, without which we may not reach the full potential of being what God has created us to be.

As far as we know, Jesus never baptized anyone with water during his ministry.  However, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus did breathe on his disciples after his resurrection, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and indicated to them that they now had the authority to forgive sins.  That is exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost when Jesus’ disciples experienced another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Being moved by this Holy Spirit, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus so that their sins might be forgiven and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As the Apostle Paul developed his own theology about this gift of the Holy Spirit, he talked about the baptism with the Holy Spirit also being the means by which people are set free from their bondage to sin.  That is why in our Lutheran tradition, we claim that a person only needs to be baptized once in their life, and then we encourage everyone to renew their baptismal covenant on a daily basis.  In doing so, we exercise the power of this Spirit every day to say an emphatic “no” to sin every time that we are tempted to displease God throughout the day, just as Jesus chose to say “no” to the temptations in the wilderness immediately following his baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Here is where the words of the voice from heaven are so important for us to hear today and every day, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”  No matter whether we are baptized as an infant, as an adolescent, or as an adult, this same declaration that Jesus heard at his baptism is pronounced at our baptism as an affirmation of who we are in the eyes of God.  God has created all of us and declared that we all are very good.  That is who and what we are in the core of our being as creatures of God’s design and children of God’s inception.  Consequently, God has an infinite love for us that knows no bounds.  Such is the beginning of our relationship with God that is affirmed in our baptism and is reaffirmed every day that we remember the blessing of our baptism and renew our commitment to be the presence of God’s love in this world in the same way that Jesus reflected God’s love throughout his lifetime.

Contrary to some traditional theologies that emphasize how we basically are poor, miserable sinners from the beginning of our lives and how we have to spend our lives trying to please God or proving to God how good we are until we are forgiven, I would emphasize that we who are baptized in the name of Jesus are reminded about how much we already are loved by God and how we already are pleasing to God in every aspect of our lives. As a result of this confirmation at our baptism, we can wake up every morning with the confidence of knowing in the core of our being that we are eternally embraced in God’s love and that we who are God’s beloved children are totally pleasing to God and are set free from our bondage to sin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grounded in this love of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given the faith, courage, and power to resist all manner of temptations in our lives as Jesus did throughout his life.  This Spirit also helps us to see all of the pressures that we encounter in this life that tempt us to be something other than what God has created us to be and then to be able to say “no” to these pressures that sometimes are very subtle and at other times are so very overwhelming.  If you are uncertain about how you can detect these pressures and resist them, you always have this Spirit to remind you about Jesus’ testimony and witness and to give you the courage to follow in Jesus’ way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.  That is why in our baptismal rite, we make the sign of the cross on a person’s forehead and say to them, “You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

To carry this cross of Jesus Christ is not an easy thing to do because it means that we will live as simply as Jesus did, love all people as boldly as Jesus did, forgive others as graciously as Jesus did, pursue God’s justice as Jesus did, liberate people from their poverty and oppression as Jesus did, treat everyone equitably as Jesus did, resist all forms of violence as Jesus did, and strive to make peace as Jesus did, knowing full well that when we fail to carry this cross of Christ in any way—and we will—we can trust that we already are forgiven completely and forever by God just as Jesus extended this forgiveness to everyone from the cross on which he died.

You may or may not have the gift of speaking in tongues or of prophecy, but mark my word, all of us have been given the authority and power to follow in this way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As you determine how you will exercise this authority and power in your life, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful—faithful unto the One who has breathed on us the Holy Spirit and has put the fire in our souls to want to please God in all that we think, say, and do.  Amen.      

 

 

 

  

December 24, 2017

THE THREE FACES OF JESUS
Christmas Eve

What Christmas story would you like to hear this evening—the one about the sweet baby Jesus all cuddled up in a comfortable blanket and lying in a cozy manger, or the one about the homeless baby Jesus wrapped in rags and placed in a food trough filled with smelly straw?  Of course, there also is the Christmas story about the baby Jesus who was a threat to the Roman authorities of his day because he was thought to be the King of the Jews who would liberate Galilee and Judea from Roman occupation and control.  These variations on the Christmas story raise the obvious question about who is Jesus and what was his primary mission in this world.  Suffice it to say, perhaps there is a truth to be told in each of these emphases of the Christmas story that helps us to understand the importance of this child of God who was thought to bring peace and good will among all people.

In this regard, the story about the sweet baby Jesus presents Jesus as the one who has come to comfort us in our sorrow, heal us when we get sick, forgive our sins, and bring peace to our weary souls.  All of these things Jesus did by the power of the Holy Spirit with whom Jesus had a strong relationship that enabled him to care for people like no other.  Jesus is the one who said, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  Jesus reportedly healed hundreds of people who were sick or mentally ill during his 3 years of ministry.  It didn't matter whether it was a man, woman, or child, Jesus was unafraid to reach out and touch anyone who had an ailment and cure them of their disease.

Then there was the face of Jesus that revealed his preference for those who were impoverished and oppressed by feeding those who were hungry, calling on those who were rich to share with any who had need, and telling parables that always seemed to favor the underdog.  As in any generation, women and children always seem to take a back seat to the men in a society—at least in a patriarchal society.  However, Jesus made sure to treat women with equal respect and dignity, and he invited children to become visible and viable members of his beloved community.  He truly embodied the concept of having no child left behind, no matter whether that child was the slave of a Roman soldier, the daughter of a foreign woman, or the son of a poor widow.

Jesus also was known as a radical subversive.  As his mother once sang, Jesus came to bring down powerful people from their thrones.  Jesus himself declared at the outset of his ministry that he would liberate those who were oppressed by advocating for the cancellation of debts, the freedom of slaves, and the equitable distribution of the resources throughout the land.  He regularly violated the legalism of the Sabbath day in order to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  As a final effort to transform his country into a more compassionate society, Jesus went to the temple, chased out the corrupt moneychangers and animal sellers, and denounced the religious leaders for their economic oppression and their violent treatment of outspoken prophets like himself.  Jesus even defied the militarism of the Roman government by refusing to take up arms and defend himself.  As a result of this advocacy and resistance, Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and nailed to a cross as a common criminal.

Most people have a propensity to favor the face of Jesus that portrays him as the nice, meek, and mild person who always is ready to heal our wounds, mend our broken hearts, care for our weary souls, and pave the way for us to get into heaven after we die.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has done a tremendous job in presenting this Jesus as the good shepherd, the compassionate servant, the great physician, the gentle lamb of God, and the redeemer of the whole world.  In this regard, we all can be pretty selective about how we are attracted to a Jesus who serves our interests and needs rather than the Jesus who invites us to put aside our pride, accept the radical cross that he endured, and follow him in his way of love, justice, peace, and freedom.

In this day and age, when the common response to so many inquiries about attending church often is, "I tend to be spiritual, but not religious," I can understand the apprehension about getting involved with an institution that has put too much emphasis on the dogma about Jesus and has committed some pretty awful atrocities throughout history in the name of Jesus.  Those of us who belong to this institution can only own up to this history, and repent of the ways that we continue to be led astray by a culture where might makes right, the almighty dollar is our god, lording ourselves over others is an acceptable norm, and the inclusive diversity and equity that Jesus espoused throughout his ministry has been replaced by a divisiveness favoring the most wealthy people throughout our land.

As always, we are called by Jesus to be something more than simply being religious or spiritual.  We are called by Jesus to be faithful—faithful to the entirety of who Jesus is and what he represents.  That is why on this Christmas Eve, I am offering to you at least 3 faces or images of this Jesus, because unless we have the complete picture of who Jesus was, then we always are going to favor the easy way out and find the best way of avoiding what Jesus' complete love for us expects of us in return.

No matter whether we favor the image of Jesus as being this sweet little baby, the impoverished little baby, or the subversive little baby, the essence of who Jesus is can all be boiled down to one word, and that word is love—the love that God had for Jesus and for all humanity, the love that Jesus demonstrated to everyone in his life, and the love that he instructed us to have for one another.  Jesus understood his relationship in this regard when he told his disciples that the love with which God had loved him was the same love with which he loved them.  Therefore, they were to abide in this love by having love for one another.  At another point in time, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was.  His response was profoundly simple.  He said, “You are to love God with your entire being, and you are to love all of your neighbors as you yourselves have been loved by God.”

We don't have to make Jesus out to be any more complicated than this.  Therefore, no matter whether you put your trust in this Jesus or not, we all have something to learn from this baby Jesus about the way that we are to relate with and treat one another in our society and throughout the world.  Unfortunately, the way that many of our supposedly Christian governing authorities have tended to abandon this Jesus and have replaced Jesus' mission of peace and good will among all people in order to placate the most wealthy people among us, the call of this baby Jesus to counter all of this animosity, enmity, and hostility with an ethic of inclusive love, liberty and justice for all people, and resistance to any form of violence is needed now more than ever.

Therefore, I encourage you tonight to take a few moments to consider how you can be a more loving person of peace and good will in your own life.  We all have these opportunities each and every day, no matter who we are or in whom or what we put our trust.  Personally, I lean towards putting my trust in the face of God that Jesus chose to reflect—a God who loves all people, forgives us when we do God wrong, seeks justice and freedom for all people, desires that everyone have enough food to eat, and longs for the peace that will unite us in the beloved community to which Jesus gave testimony and witness throughout his entire ministry.  Jesus was willing to give his life for this vision of a beloved community for all people.  Whatever face of this baby Jesus that you might choose to emulate this night, they all point us in this same direction of embodying a beloved community of justice, peace, and freedom for all peoples and all nations.  May we all become ever more faithful to this vision of Jesus in the days ahead.  Amen.        

Advent Vespers

St. Mary’s Vesper Service

Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today, and to reflect upon what I would consider one of the most significant songs of this Advent and Christmas season—the Magnificat that Mary sings when she visits Elizabeth and is blessed by Elizabeth for the baby that is in her womb.  In addition to all of the lessons that you have heard this afternoon, I invite you to listen to the words of Mary once again, and allow these words to sink into your soul as you envision with Mary her hopes and dreams for the reign of God that would bring about the upheaval of the way things are in this world and introduce a whole new world order where God's justice and peace would rule the day.

"My soul magnifies my God and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God's name.  God's mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation.  God has shown strength with a mighty arm and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.  God has helped the servant Israel in the remembrance of God's mercy, according to the promise that God made with Abraham and Sarah and to their descendents forever."

At first glance, this song appears to be a description about a God who has turned everything upside down.  Those who are humble and lowly, like Mary, will replace those who are proud and powerful.  Those who are hungry and impoverished will replace those who are wealthy and have all the food they will ever want to eat.  Instead of this complete role reversal that always opens up the door for those who are the oppressed to become the oppressors, I like to think of this song more as a description about what it will take to level the playing field so that everyone has an equitable place at the table to decide what our common good will be and everyone will experience the equitable distribution of all of the wealth and food resources that are available in any community.

Such was not the environment in which Mary found herself as she prepared to deliver this baby.  Her country was occupied and controlled by the Romans.  Most of the land throughout her country was owned and operated by a wealthy elite that comprised no more than 10% of the population.  Her religious leaders were known for their hypocrisy, corruption, and oppression of their own people.  Mary's parents lived under the burden of a double taxation—by the Roman government and by the religious establishment—that kept the majority of the population living in abject poverty.

As far as we can surmise, Mary was a teenager when she became pregnant.  Whereas we often portray Mary as this sweet young radiant woman all dressed in bright blue clothing and usually Caucasian, in reality, Mary was a peasant woman who was subject to all of the norms of her day like not being able to own any property, being dominated by the men in her life, and having to work hard to support her family.  Now that she was pregnant, she faced the possibility of being publicly humiliated and ostracized by her community.  According to the letter of the law, she could have been stoned to death.  It's no wonder that Joseph wanted to break off the engagement.

In some respects, the decree from Rome requiring Joseph to go to the hometown of his ancestry in order to be counted and taxed was a good thing because it allowed Mary to escape the humiliation that she certainly would have had to endure had she stayed in her own community.  As far as we know from archeological reports, Bethlehem was a very small town of about 200 - 300 residents at that time.  Even though Bethlehem was the place of Joseph's ancestry, he had been gone long enough that apparently he didn’t know anyone who currently lived there.  Otherwise, he and Mary might have had a place to stay.  Instead, as the story goes, after failing to find room in an inn, they were allowed to sleep in a stable where Mary gave birth to her son.  At this moment in her life, she and Joseph would qualify for what we call today “being homeless.”

Most of my ministry has been with homeless people, especially with homeless women.  I can tell you that given the plight of women in our country, even in this 21st century, the story of Mary gets played out over and over a hundred thousand times every single day as homeless and at-risk women seek shelter, safety, warmth, food, clothing, hygiene amenities, support services, housing, and most of all, community.  As the "me-too" movement gains momentum in our country, we cannot forget all of the homeless and at-risk women whose voice may never make the news, but who have as much right as anyone in terms of their freedom from the way that they are harassed, abused, prostituted, trafficked, and cast to the wind as if they can be used up and discarded like someone's object. 

Mary's song comes out of her own plight in life as she sees this gift of a child as a sign of what is to come, not only for herself, but also for all of the other women in her life who have been treated as mere chattel.  According to the Gospel of Luke, in which this Magnificat is recorded, Jesus is portrayed as having a strong preference for women in his day.  They are mentioned as being part of his company of followers.  Women often are the recipients of Jesus' healing touch.  Widows get Jesus' special attention because they are the ones most liable to end up begging on the streets.  Jesus welcomes women into the audience of his teaching—a place that only men belonged.  The women who cry out to God for justice are told by Jesus that God will hear and respond to their plea.  Even as Jesus is marched off to his crucifixion, he notices the women who are beating their breasts and wailing for him because they recognize the injustice that is being done in putting this innocent advocate on their behalf to death.  Jesus urges them to weep not for him, but for themselves because of the devastation that will come if the vision of his mother Mary doesn't see the light of day.

Every Wednesday as we gather for our midweek Advent service, we begin the service with the chant, "Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, a light that no darkness can overcome."  I have seen this light of Christ in so many homeless women who have shared with me their faith journey and held on to the hope of a better day when the song of Mary will become their reality—a reality where they will have a permanent roof over their heads, enough food on the table each and every day, a steady source of income to make ends meet, and an opportunity to be reunited with their children and their families without living with the fear of what the men in their lives will do to them. 

Therefore, as we listen once again to Mary's description about a God who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty, keep in mind all of the women who, like Mary, are on the margins of society, living in make-shift stables, dressed only in the ragged clothes on their backs, and longing for the day when they not only will be free from all of the suffering and pain that they have had to endure, but also will find themselves with a place at the table where they will be able to speak out as Mary has and offer a vision of justice and righteousness that we all can celebrate as we await the coming of the One who promises to make all things new and who will guide all of our feet into the way of peace.  May this peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior Immanuel.  Amen.

 

December 17, 2017

GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessolonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Perhaps you have noticed that the theme that we have chosen for this Advent-Christmas season is "Good News of Great Joy," which are the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds when they were told to go to Bethlehem and look for the child who would be their Messiah and the Savior of the whole world.  Who would have ever thought that 2000 years later, we still would be proclaiming this good news of great joy because the world still needs a savior today as much as the world needed a savior way back then.  In fact, we can go back even further to the time of Isaiah and hear the same announcement about bringing good news to those who are oppressed and being reminded that the good news of God's realm where God's justice and righteousness would spring up before all nations would be the cause for great joy among God's people at any time in human history.

If we take a closer look at this announcement by Isaiah, we also are told that this one on whom the Spirit of God has rested will proclaim the year of God's favor.  Most scholars today would suggest that this reference to the year of God's favor is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee that is described in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  According to this description, every seventh year the people were to give their land a rest from being farmed so that the dirt would have a chance to replenish itself.  Also, during this seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled and every slave would be allowed to go free. 

After seven cycles of this seventh-year practice, the people would come to the fiftieth year, known as the Jubilee year, when, in addition to the cancellation of debts and the liberation of slaves, the land that originally had been owned by someone else fifty years previously was to be given back to that owner, or to that owner's descendants if the owner had died during the past fifty years.  This practice would ensure that no one could acquire and accumulate more land than they needed on which to grow their own crops and feed their own families, and would prevent the amalgamation of too much land by one person.

The people who had lived under the monarchy had learned the hard way about this abuse of authority and power as God had warned the people when they came to Samuel to demand to have a king like all the other nations.  The kings, most of whom did what was evil in the sight of God Yahweh, had devised ways that allowed their supporters to take over the ownership of the land that originally had been owned and farmed by regular people who had become indebted because of the taxation that had been levied on them.  As a result of this economic system, the wealthy landowners amassed huge amounts of land while the majority of the people became tenant farmers, or worse, slaves to the wealthy elite.  Sound familiar?

After the Babylonians had conquered Judah and deported the people to Babylon, the nagging question on everyone's mind was, "Where did we go wrong?"  According to scholars, the priests were the ones who concluded that this economic disparity was one of the worst things that had happened to their people under the monarchy, and they devised this new plan of expanding the concept of resting on the Sabbath day to include this sabbatical practice of justice and righteousness as a way of keeping the Sabbath day holy.  Prophets, like Isaiah, were quick to pick up on this new plan, and became champions for the year of God's favor.

Jesus also was a champion of this sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee.  He made this point very clear from the very outset of his ministry when he went to the synagogue of his hometown and read this passage from the Book of Isaiah to indicate to the people that he also had come to proclaim the year of God's favor by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The conditions that had existed under the monarchy 600 years previously were the same conditions that now existed under Roman occupation and the control of their own religious leaders.  The people were being taxed by both of these authorities, and as a result, many of the people were going into debt and were being forced to sell their land in order to pay off their debts and ended up being tenant farmers or indentured slaves.     

When the people heard this proclamation from Jesus about the year of God's favor, the people knew right away that this Jesus could be their messiah and savior just as John the Baptist had described to the people how the one who would come after him would do great things, including baptizing the people with the Holy Spirit.  Having been baptized with this same Spirit himself, Jesus set out to challenge the way that the Sabbath had been so corrupted by the religious leaders of his day.  They had turned the Sabbath into such a legalistic system of 613 laws that no one could lift a finger to help a friend in need on this day without being in violation of the Sabbath.

Time and time again, Jesus attempted to recapture the original intent of the Sabbath by healing people on the Sabbath, feeding people on the Sabbath, and allowing his own disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath simply because they were hungry.  Every Sabbath, Jesus would find himself in the synagogue or out in the countryside where he would be teaching and proclaiming the good news about people being liberated from their poverty, from their oppression, from their enslavement to other people, from their captivity to an unjust economic system, and from the anguish that they were experiencing as a result of this bondage.  Jesus' message of salvation was music to their ears, and gave the people a whole new understanding about what it meant to keep the Sabbath day holy.

The Sabbath day would always remain a day of rest in terms of taking time to focus on one's life and on one's relationship with God without all of the pressures about what we must do to put food on our own table.  However, Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath day also was meant to be a holy day when we might concentrate on the justice, as Isaiah says today, that God loves by doing something to right the wrongs of our society, by seeking reconciliation with someone who has wronged us, or by laying down our guns and bullets down by the riverside and studying war no more.  The reason why this day has been set aside as being holy is because if we can pursue the justice and peace that God so dearly loves on this day, then perhaps the joy of this holiness will carry over to all of the rest of the days of our week.     

Now I can hear some of you saying to yourselves, "But I already am pursuing this justice and peace that God so dearly loves in my daily life, especially in the work that I do throughout the week.  I need the Sabbath day in order to rest and get geared up for the demands of my work that is devoted to the good news of liberation for which Jesus was such an advocate and was willing to die."  If that is the case, then I would suggest that you devote your entire Sabbath day to the rest and rejuvenation that you need for the days ahead, because the demands of people who are in need in our society and throughout the world never go away and will always be there whenever we open our eyes to see, open our hands to serve, and open our mouths to advocate on their behalf.

I assume that most of you know about the Christmas truce that happened between the British, French, Belgian, and German soldiers during World War 1 when soldiers on both sides of no-man’s land began singing Christmas carols to each other on Christmas Eve.  After a while, the soldiers were inspired to call for a momentary truce, put down their weapons, and exchange conversation with each other for the rest of Christmas morning.  Reportedly, over 100,000 soldiers participated in this impromptu cease fire, which later was viewed as an act of subversion by the leaders of these armies.  To this very day, people are still wondering how and why these men could go back to killing each other as if this holy day of Christmas had never happened.

The Sabbath day is meant to be such a subversive holy day every week when we call a truce and focus on all that we can do to right the wrongs in our personal relationships, enact the justice that God desires of us throughout our nation, and pursue the things that make for peace in a world that is fraught with oppression, corruption, and violence.  If everyone in the world who goes to church on this holy day would do just one thing toward this end on this day, what a different world this would be!  Is this too much to ask for?  I hope not, because the One who came after John revealed to us this way of peace every day, and has called us to follow him, not only by proclaiming the good news about the year of God’s favor, but also by living into this vision where the land is regularly given a rest, debts are cancelled, slaves are set free, and there is an equitable distribution of land, food, and all resources such that no one needs to be hungry or have a reason to study war anymore.

Such is the good news of great joy about which we are reminded in our lessons for today—good news that we may not be able to accomplish on our own.  That is why we are told today that the Spirit of God is the one who will cause justice and righteousness to spring up before all nations and that the God of peace is the one who is faithful and who will make us completely holy so that we might be sound and blameless at the coming of Jesus, our Savior.  As we continue our journey through this Advent season in joyous anticipation of Jesus, our Christ, may the God of all grace keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto the One who proclaimed the year of God’s favor in word and deed for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.   

 

 

     

December 10, 2017

REPENTANCE AND HOPE
Mark 1:1-8; Isaiah 40:1-11; II Peter 3:8-15a

No matter how old we may be or in what generation people might have lived or may be living, we always find ourselves having to deal with the reality in which we live and wondering about or hoping for what could be.  All 3 of our lessons for today convey this same message—a message that is expressed in the opening lines of a Missouri Synod hymn that I learned as a child, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.  Earth is a desert drear, heaven is my home.” 

Most of the Judaic people who were living in Babylon couldn’t wait to return home.  The elders among them had experienced the conquest by the Babylonians, had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, and had been marched through the treacherous desert by the Babylonian army and resettled in a strange land where they were allowed to set up their community and live together in relative peace.  Faced with the nagging question about where they had gone wrong, they longed for the day when God would bring them back home so that they could live a life of repentance and attempt once again to be faithful to the word of God that, as Isaiah says today, will stand forever.

In our gospel lesson for today, John finds himself in a similar desert or wilderness where he is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for a messiah who would come to liberate the people from the occupation by the Romans and re-establish the Judaic nation where God’s way would be able to shine and thrive once again.  Even their own religious leaders had turned away from God’s truth and had participated in all kinds of oppression, corruption, and violence against their own people under the guise of being totally devoted to the law of God that they had fabricated and under the guise of being righteous in God’s sight.

Several decades later after Jesus of Nazareth had come and gone, the author of our second lesson for today is writing to a people who also are waiting and hoping for a better day—a day when God would usher in new heavens and a new earth where righteousness would be at home.  Things are not going well for these people, many of whom have been banished by their ancestors for following in the way of Jesus and who continue to be harassed and persecuted by the Romans for their loyalty to the one whom they now profess to be their Christ.  How long will they have to wait?  Only God knows, because with God one day is like a thousand years.  In the meantime, the best that these people can do is to live a continual life of repentance and strive to live at peace without spot or blemish until the day when God would come to fulfill their hopes and dreams about what could be. 

Two weeks ago, as you know, we went to visit our sister congregation in the city of San Salvador.  We spent 6 days with these people who are living under such harsh conditions.  Gangs roam the streets and threaten anyone who does not pay for their protection.  Corruption and violence are rampant throughout the country, and those in authority and power will do anything to protect their domain—a domain that is controlled by a few extremely wealthy families while the rest of the people live in abject poverty.  Sufficient food is scarce.  Healthcare is abysmal.  Loved ones are still being disappeared even though the revolution supposedly has been over for 25 years.  No one knows from one day to the next whether they will live or die.

Yet, in the midst of all of this reality, we experienced a small community of faith that continues to give thanks to God for each new day, celebrates the joys of life and community, sings songs of hope for a better day, and holds on to the word of God as if there was no tomorrow—a word that cries out to them, “Comfort to you, my people, for the anguish that you are experiencing today will not always be.  For I am always about creating new heavens and a new earth where repentance and forgiveness will rule the day and my peace will reign over your city, in your country, and throughout the world.”

Those of us who are experiencing a similar demise in our own country and who are seeing the disappearance of so much that we have achieved over the past few decades certainly can get a sense of what this hopelessness and despair might be like.  Even as people of privilege, we are not immune to these feelings and wondering where we might have gone wrong.  Whether directly or indirectly, we all have contributed to this demise.  Our fear of getting involved, our apathy, our own greed, our silence, our parochial failure to organize with others, our busy-ness, our lust for comfort and convenience, our need for security—you name it and we all have been there in one way or another.  Not to forget our inbred racism, elitism, individualism, and protectionism. 

God’s hope is that we all will come to repentance.  John’s proclamation is for all of us to repent and be open to receiving the forgiveness of sins and experiencing the freedom of the Spirit.  When Jesus came along, one of the first words out of his mouth was an invitation and expectation for us to repent because the reign of God and the day of salvation had come near.  That day of salvation also had come near for the Judaic people who were living in Babylon.  As far as they were concerned, they had paid double for their sins and now were preparing themselves to return home with repentant hearts and a renewed willingness to serve their God Yahweh as their Sovereign rather than the kings who had led them astray while claiming to be agents of God in their midst.

Repentance is not always an easy road for us to travel.  In fact, repentance often is the road less traveled because it means that we have to admit where we have gone wrong, what mistakes we have made, and how we have failed to heed the word of God and follow in the way of Jesus.  The baptism that we proclaim was meant to liberate us from all of these apprehensions about naming, admitting, and confessing our sins so that we truly could experience the forgiveness that God is so eager to bestow upon us.

Amazingly, in our gospel lesson for today we are told that the people from the whole Judean countryside and all of the people from Jerusalem were going out to John, confessing their sins, being baptized in the river Jordan, and receiving God’s forgiveness.  Jesus’ baptism supposedly would have the added benefit of people being empowered by the Holy Spirit so that once the people would be absolved of their evil ways, they would be liberated and empowered to live into Jesus’ vision for what could be.

We all have a vision of what could be in terms of how we could be more faithful to and consistent with the word and the will of God and with the way of Jesus where justice and righteousness are at home, where peace abounds, and where everyone is free to be what God has created and called all of us to be—people without spot or blemish, people whose love for others will win the day, people who welcome everyone into the beloved community, people who are willing to share with anyone who has a need, people who dare to expose and address the oppression, corruption, and violence that infects the human heart, and people who practice the art of forgiveness.

I no longer like this hymn that I learned as a child because it paints the entire earth as a desert drear—a place from which we must escape so that we can get to heaven after we die.  So many people who have been baptized in Jesus’ name have this perspective, which is one reason why we have not taken such good care of this planet earth as we have been instructed by God to do so.  From the prophet Isaiah to the author of Second Peter, the vision for the future is the creation of new heavens and a new earth—a new earth where life is not so dreary or despairing and where we all will lead lives of holiness and godliness all of our days.  If we think that such a vision is futile, just remember and hold on to the hope that, as we are told today, the patience of God is our salvation.  Amen.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

RESISTANCE IS RISKY BUSINESS
November 19, 2017
Matthew 25:14-30

If ever there was a passage in Scripture that could be used to justify our economic system of capitalism, our gospel lesson for today would be the perfect proof text.  The slave who had received 5 talents from his master traded with them and made 5 more talents, and the slave with 2 talents traded with them and made 2 more talents.  When the master returned, he congratulated both of these slaves for their trustworthy initiative, but he told the slave who had buried his one talent that he should have invested his talent with the bankers and earned some interest on the master’s money.  If the master in this parable is supposed to represent God, then we could draw the logical conclusion that God must be in favor of the practice of usury.

Of course, in order to avoid such an application of this parable, traditionally we have concluded that Jesus is using the example of money really to talk about our other talents—that is, the gifts, skills, and abilities that we have been given by God to use in order to spread God’s good news and draw other people into the realm of God.  Anyone who fails to maximize their talents for this purpose basically is portrayed in this parable as failing God and could be subject to the hellfire of damnation, whether that be in the here-and-now or at the end of time.

Such attempts to situate this parable in some eschatological time tend to ignore the historical context of Jesus’ parable and the location of this parable in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus recently has entered Jerusalem whereupon he immediately went to the temple to chase out the money changers and the animal sellers—both of whom were ripping off the people in order to line their own pockets and support the lucrative business of the religious elite.  The next day, Jesus returned to the temple and engaged in a day-long conversation with people who were trying to get him to incriminate himself so that they could find just cause to put him to death.  In the course of this conversation, Jesus denounced the religious leaders for their hypocrisy, oppression, corruption, and violence against their own people. 

Afterwards, Jesus took his disciples aside and described for them all of the trials and tribulations that would come about if all of this oppression, corruption, and violence would be allowed to continue and no one would take a stand to put a stop to these atrocities. That’s when the author of the Gospel of Matthew records 3 parables attributed to Jesus—the parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids that we heard last Sunday, this parable about the slaves and their use of the master’s talents, and the parable about the sheep and the goats that is the gospel lesson assigned for next Sunday.

This parable about the slaves and the use of their master’s talents realistically reflects the economic situation in Jesus’ day.  According to Donald Kraybill in his book “The Upside Down Kingdom,” an elite aristocracy had called Jerusalem their home—the city where Jesus now finds himself presenting his vision of the beloved community and challenging the injustices of his day.  This aristocracy included the chief priests of the temple, wealthy landowners, merchants, tax collectors, and the Sadducean Party—all of whom derived their extravagant wealth from vast estates throughout the country that were being worked by slaves, hired hands, and tenant farmers who lived in abject poverty and made up about 90% of the population of Galilee and Judea. 

Peasant farmers who used to be fortunate enough to own a small piece of property would become go into debt due to the double taxation by Rome and also by the temple in Jerusalem.  In order to pay off their debt, these farmers would be forced to sell their land to a wealthy landowner and become enslaved for the rest of their lives in working for their master.  Within this economic system, this wealthy aristocracy would accumulate and own massive estates, but often would be absent in order to live in the city or go traveling throughout the region.

This parable is a commentary on and critique of this capitalistic system.  The first two slaves buy into this system in order to stay in the good graces of their master.  Both of them double their master’s money—not their own money, but their master's money—and are rewarded with greater responsibility on the estate.  On the other hand, the third slave, with some fear and trepidation, resisted this temptation, and decided to hold on to the one talent that he had been given to invest.  When the master returns, this slave not only returns the master's talent, he also takes the opportunity to expose the master for who he is.  The master is a harsh man—meaning that he does not treat his slaves very well.  The master also is a person who benefits greatly from the labor of others, because he accumulates his wealth on the backs of those who farm his land while he takes off and pursues the pleasures of his life.

Jesus has been putting up this same kind of resistance throughout most of his ministry.  Over and over again, Jesus has exposed the injustices of this wealthy aristocracy by addressing the ways that they have enslaved and oppressed their people, used whatever means necessary to accumulate more and more wealth, and resorted to violence whenever anyone comes along that exposes and threatens their luxurious lifestyle.  The slave who was given the one talent in this parable is the only one who dares to join this resistance in order to embody the realm of God that Jesus came to inaugurate and establish so that everyone could experience the justice, peace, and freedom that God intended for all people on this earth.

Jesus has just warned his disciples that if they would choose to follow him in this way, they could count on being handed over to the authorities, be tortured, and be put to death.  That’s exactly what happened to this rebellious slave in this parable.  He refused to play by the rules of the economic system in which he found himself, and what little he had was taken away from him and given to those who did everything that they could to placate the wealthy elite.  Jesus can expect the same kind of treatment because immediately following these 3 parables in the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest and conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him—which they did 3 days later.

The easiest way for us to deal with this parable is to put it off until the end of time when God would come to reward us for the way that we have used our talents to promote the reign of God and to punish those who failed in this regard—which for me totally subverts any image of a gracious God who in the end will forgive the sins of everyone and remember them no more.  The more challenging way to interpret this parable is to portray the last slave as the one who has a vision for the realm of God that Jesus espoused and who dared to expose and challenge the political and economic system that the wealthy elite had devised and used to accumulate more and more wealth while forcing most of the people to live in abject poverty and keeping them in that bondage for an entire lifetime.

Has anything changed in 2000 years?  The way that our predominantly Christian Congress is going about their business this very day by proposing tax reforms that will benefit the most wealthy people in our land while threatening the well-being of so many who already are struggling to make ends meet simply perpetuates the dynamic that Jesus is describing in our gospel lesson for today—a dynamic that is so harsh and so cruel because the rich keep figuring out how to get richer while those who already are impoverished have little if any hope of living without the fear of what tomorrow will bring.

Those of us who are privileged to be among what our society refers to as the middle or upper middle class would do well to figure out how we could best resist this trajectory of increasing economic disparity that is driving more and more people into the slavery of homelessness, hunger, drug dependency, mental illness, hopelessness, and despair where there is perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The master in this parable has done his best to create this economic disparity and two of his privileged slaves have played along and have contributed to his already vast estate. 

The third slave was the one who dared to call out the master for who he was, and for that he paid the price with his life just as Jesus did.  What price are we willing to pay to turn this trajectory of economic disparity around and promote the beloved community known as the realm of God that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated throughout his entire ministry?  As we wrestle with this question, both individually and preferably as the body of Christ, may the love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the One who also has called us to take up our cross and follow him.  Amen.

Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost

WISE AND FOOLISH BEHAVIOR

November 12, 2017
Matthew 25:1-13

No matter whether it is a coincidence or not, I find it rather ironic that our gospel lesson for today talks about a bridegroom and bridesmaids on the very same day that Kyle and Rommel are affirming their marriage.  Whereas this parable talks about one bridegroom, we befittingly have two bridegrooms before us today who will be reaffirming their vows to one another and recommitting themselves to a life-long relationship of love and faithfulness.

The question before Kyle and Rommel today is the same question that all of us could be asking ourselves about any of our relationships, and, particularly for some of us, about our marital relationship.  How is it that you will be wise in your relationships with one another and how is it that you could be acting foolish in your relationships?  Based upon your personal experience, all of you here today could offer all kinds of advice to Kyle and Rommel, but allow me this morning to take a few minutes to offer my own suggestions based upon some readings from the Apostle Paul, and see if they would resonate with what your responses might be.

First of all I draw upon a reading from Paul's letter to the Colossians where everyone in the community is affirmed for being a chosen and beloved child of God.  This gracious blessing is the basis for how everyone is to behave and relate with everyone else in the community, including Kyle and Rommel with each other.  In this regard, Kyle and Rommel would be wise if they would approach their relationship with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience as we all would with one another.  Obviously the opposite of such behavior might include such traits as disdain, meanness, self-centeredness, violence, and impatience—traits that would fall within the category of foolishness when it comes to maintaining and sustaining any healthy relationship.

Paul goes on to say that we are to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against the other, we are to forgive each other.  We all have our idiosyncrasies when it comes to being who we are rather than becoming what someone else wants us to be.  The wise challenge in any relationship is learning to accept the other person for who they are without shaping or molding the other person into exactly who I want that person to be.  That's not to say that we ought not point out to each other those things that bother us or get on our nerves, but once such a comment is made, then it is up to each person to decide if changing one's behavior is worth doing for the sake of the relationship.      

The second part of this wise piece of advice is the more important instruction from my perspective because of its subtle meaning.  If anyone has a complaint against the other person, you are to forgive each other.  As I hear this statement, if one person does the other person wrong, both persons are to forgive each other.  Well, that doesn't seem right!  Why should I have to forgive you if you think that I am the one who has done you wrong?  The simple truth is that if you have done me wrong, I may be holding on to my anger against you for a long time, I may be resenting or despising you, I may be thinking about ways to get back at you in revenge, or I actually may justify doing you harm for what you did to me.  In any of these situations, the air only can be cleared if our forgiveness becomes a two-way street and we wisely put behind us whatever it is that has caused a division between us.

Above all, Paul says, clothe yourselves in love which binds everything together in complete harmony.  Such wise and sound advice may seem rather trite, but the love about which Paul speaks includes so much more than the emotion that may run hot or cold on any given day depending upon which side of the bed you get up on, how the other person looks in the morning, or whether or not you get your morning cup of coffee.  According to Paul's letter to the Corinthians, the love about which he speaks is patient, kind, not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice at the other person's wrongdoing, but rather rejoices in whatever the other person does that is righteous in God's sight.  We already have heard how being patient and kind are wise ways of being in a relationship, and how being envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful can foolishly undermine the health of any relationship. 

However, the new wrinkle in this description of love by Paul is the dynamic of rejoicing at the other person's wrongdoing.  When a loving and committed relationship gets to this point, you know that it is time to get some help.  Rejoicing at another person's wrongdoing is a sign that this relationship has deteriorated to the point of hatred, spite, and even cruelty—such foolishness in the sight of God when it comes to the kind of relationships that God desires of us.  If a personal relationship gets to this point, then you know that the love that once was present has long been smothered by the worst of passive-aggressive behaviors.

Paul then counters with the positive insight that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  I know of no love that is this complete because all of us are simultaneously saints and sinners, wise and foolish, blameless and guilty, right and wrong.  However, come to think of it, we do have someone in our lives that comes close to this complete love—the One whom we profess to be our Christ.  Except for a few instances of angrily calling people names and disrupting corrupt businesses, Jesus was the most complete revelation of God's love that we will ever witness on the face of this earth to the point of giving his life in order that we might be assured that all of our sins are forgiven and that we may know the way of making peace in this world.

Therefore, when Paul says that we are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, he was speaking about much more than the state of feeling a peaceful calm within ourselves.  To let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts also involves all of the wise ways that we strive to make and keep this peace in all of our relationships—with our partner, with our children, with our parents, with our co-workers, with our classmates, with our boss, with our teachers, with our neighbors, and  even with our adversaries.  We only fool ourselves if we think that the peace of Christ is meant solely for my personal gratification while we ignore the plight of those who are hungry or homeless in our society or contribute to the racism and materialism that continues to divide this country of ours.

Finally, Paul concludes this instruction by telling the people to be thankful.  What would life be like if every morning when you woke up, you said to your partner, "I thank God for you"?  The same question would hold true if you said this to your children in the morning or to your parent.  For those who live alone, this gratitude could extend to those with whom you interact on a daily basis.  If you know someone in your life about whom you do not feel very grateful, then you might ask yourself, "Is there anything that I could change within myself to rectify this relationship?"  We certainly cannot control how another person may relate with us or treat us, but in a world where it is so easy to foolishly blame the other person for everything that may seem wrong in our relationship, we would be wise to search for and acknowledge the ways that we might be contributing to this strained relationship as well.

This parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids traditionally has been applied to the end of time when we all will have to face our God and either be received into the realm of heaven or be cast into outer darkness forevermore.  Instead of thinking about this parable in regard to the end of time, what if we would think about this parable in the here and now, and consider the realm of heaven as the beloved community that Jesus espoused throughout his entire ministry?  How is it that you and I could embody this beloved community in all of our relationships and wisely behave and act in a way that serves the common good of everyone within this community?

Such is the purpose and the power of this holy meal that we share this day.  Here is where we all can experience the love of God as revealed in Jesus and encounter the One whom we call our Christ. Here is where all of the foolishness that we have done to sabotage any of our relationships is exposed, forgiven, and laid to rest.  Here is where our relationships are restored to the communion that God desired from the beginning of time and promises to make complete at the end of time.  Here is where all of us receive the power of God's Spirit in Christ to make wise decisions and act wisely in all of our relationships—ones that contribute to the health, the wholeness, and the peace of the beloved community where no one is left out and everyone has a place at the wedding banquet that has no end.  Amen.                 

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

THE SPIRIT OF TITHING
October 15, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16; Philippians 4:1-9

 

There is no beating around the bush this morning.  Today’s sermon is all about tithing—a Biblical concept that carries a lot of baggage, especially when we start talking about other people’s money.  The good thing about tithing is that it is so easy to calculate.  All that you have to do is move the decimal point one place to the left, and you know exactly how much you are being asked to give.  If you make $200, you give $20.  If you make $200,000, you give $20,000.  The math is simple.  It’s the amount that may be much more difficult, especially if you are on a fixed income, or don’t make much money in the first place.  At this point, we all remember the story about how Jesus commended the poor widow who gave all that she had to the temple treasury—something that Jesus did in order to make the point that everyone else was simply giving out of their abundance.

Most of us do give out of our abundance, and that is a good thing.  However, depending upon where you get your information, on a national average, people generally give about 3% of their income to charitable organizations.  Given that the annual median income in the entire Bay area recently was reported to be $96,000, that 3% amounts to $2,880 of benevolence per individual or household earning any kind of income.  If we introduce the concept of the tithe into this conversation, that amount would be $9,600.  Too often people will shrug off this challenge by saying that the tithe is just a religious thing that religious leaders use to obligate their people to give more money to their churches.  Besides, I’m already obliged to pay my taxes.  So, why should I feel obliged to anyone or anything else in terms of my charitable giving?

This natural reaction to the tithe is reinforced by Jesus’ own repudiation of the scribes and the Pharisees whom he accused of tithing their mint, dill, and cumin in order to earn God’s favor, while neglecting the more important matters of justice, mercy, and faith.  In this instance, Jesus was not critiquing the concept of the tithe.  He simply was exposing and denouncing how the religious leaders had turned the concept of the tithe into a legalistic practice that it was never meant to be.  As the practice of the tithe was originally introduced within the nations of Israel and Judah, it was a religious construct that was meant to ensure that those who had little if any means to support themselves—like widows, orphans, and sojourners—would receive some kind of welfare to be sustained in this life.  Thus, the tithe was meant to be a contribution to the way of justice and peace throughout the community.

Based upon Ron Sider’s book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” introducing the tithe is just the beginning of this conversation.  He suggests that if we only advocate for everyone to give 10% of their income for charitable causes, then those who only make $20,000 annually will be left with $18,000 on which to live, while those who make $200,000 annually will have $180,000 at their disposal in order to support their lifestyle.  Quite a difference in terms of available living expenses!  Therefore, Sider introduces the concept of a graduated tithe—a practice that involves increasing the percentage of your giving beyond a tithe as your income also increases.  This practice is a much more progressive way of considering how we make our contributions rather than the strict practice of tithing for everyone across the board.

Here is where the distinction is made.  A straight-across-the-board practice of tithing may seem to be a fair way of administering this concept, but what often is considered to be fair is not always the just thing to do.  Take for example our gospel lesson for today.  Those who worked all day thought that it would be only fair to pay everyone for the number of hours that they had worked, while the landowner paid everyone the same amount according to his standard of justice.  Likewise, when the Apostle Paul concludes his letter to the church at Philippi today by encouraging the people of faith to concentrate on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just—not fair, but just—whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, and whatever is commendable, and to do these things, we could include in this list of things the practice of a graduated tithe.

As you might have deduced by now, I am an advocate for the challenge of tithing, not as a matter of legal obligation, but rather as a way of taking care of those who are the least among us and seeking justice for all people as well as for all creation.  Therefore, as we move into a conversation about a graduated tithe, there is an assumption that the tithe—or 10% of our income—is the starting point for any intention of charitable giving, whether it be to the church or to any other organization, ministry, program, or cause that falls within our baptismal commitment to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth.

Today, I would like to follow Pastor Elizabeth’s example from a few weeks ago when she invited us to write down our personal statement of faith and beliefs as a spiritual exercise.  Knowing that she wasn’t going to ask us to do something that she wasn’t willing to do herself, she then shared with us her own statement of faith and core beliefs.  I find myself in a similar situation this morning because asking you to consider a tithe or even a graduated tithe in terms of your charitable and justice-oriented benevolence, I had better be able to hold up my end of this proposal or be held accountable for not doing so.     

All that I need to say in this regard is that when Cynthia and I were married, we made a commitment to give at least a tithe of our income to strive for justice and peace in our community, in our nation, and throughout the world, whether it be in and through the church, or through other organizations, ministries, or causes that were consistent with our values.  Consequently, when we moved to Washington DC, we were living on Cynthia’s meager salary, I was without a call, and Cynthia gave birth to our first child.  Even under those circumstances, we continued to give 10% of our income to justice and peace organizations and ministries that we wanted to support.  When we both became gainfully employed, we increased the percentage of our benevolence as we saw fit, and knew that we still were simply giving out of our abundance.

At this point in the conversation, we all are reminded of the famous verse about God loving a cheerful giver, and the implication that if you cannot give cheerfully, then maybe you ought not be giving anything at all.  From my perspective, there are many, many other criteria to use that are more important than cheerfulness in determining the heart of our benevolence—criteria like love, compassion, commitment, and whatever is justice-seeking, peace-making, and life-giving.  Add to these criteria, Paul’s criteria of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, and we have more than enough foundational criteria on which to build our community and support all that we do as individuals and as a congregation.

Now I know that your heart is in the right place, because as a congregation you have committed 10% of this current capital campaign to support the ELCA Campaign that will fund new congregation starts, leadership development, hunger and poverty relief, and global missions.  Besides that, we—and I now feel like I can say “we”—have pledged 10% of our pledge and freewill offerings to our Synod, a significant portion of which goes to the national ELCA.  In addition, we give to so many other ministries and organizations through St. Mark’s such that our total benevolence as a congregation is well beyond the tithe that we already have committed to the broader church.  We do this as a congregation because we are a people of faith who are inspired and moved by the Holy Spirit to do so.

Look around you this morning at everyone gathered here.  We have so much for which to be grateful, nothing more significant than this holy meal that we are about to share together.  Here we are reminded that we have a God who loves us, who always is ready to forgive us, and who promises never to forsake us or abandon us.  Here is where we encounter Jesus, the One whom we profess to be our Christ, and who, as the image of God, has revealed to us the inclusive love of God, the beloved community that God desires, the justice that God requires of us, and the way of reconciliation and peace that will heal our broken world.  Here is where we are renewed in the Holy Spirit, the one who has called and gathered us together as one people—a community of faith that is united in the body of Christ which we are called to build up so that every part is working together properly in love.        

Our financial gifts to the mission and ministries of this congregation is one of many ways for us to build up our community of faith within these four walls as well as to contribute to the health and wholeness of the neighboring community that surrounds us and of the world in which we are global citizens.  At the heart of these gifts is our desire to love our neighbors as we have been loved by God and to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth.  As you consider your pledge to St. Mark’s for another year, may this love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the cornerstone of our community and the bedrock of our faith.  Amen.       

 

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 3, 2017

LIFE IN COMMUNITY
September 3, 2017
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

We have this wonderful reading from Romans for today that describes how we, as members of a community of faith, can relate with one another as well as relate with others in our society and throughout the world.  Having listened to this reading only once this morning, you may not have noticed that this entire passage describes for us how we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are to behave with one another.  In this regard, some people would say that this entire lesson is all law and that it offers nothing to us in terms of God’s grace because this passage is all about what we are supposed to do, and says nothing about what God has done for us.  I actually would agree with this simplistic assessment, but we have to remember that this lesson is situated in the middle of an entire letter—a letter that does remind us about all that God has done for us.  I will share with you a few excerpts from earlier in this Book of Romans to give you a sense of how much God has done for us in order to create for us the space and give us the motivation to do all that the Apostle Paul is suggesting to us today.

Paul writes earlier in this letter to the Romans, “Since we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the only way that we can be justified and saved is by the gift of God’s grace and the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ.  As a result of being justified or made right by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that God has given to us. Jesus also came to make peace between us and God by offering to us the complete forgiveness of all of our sins and reconciling us with God forevermore.  Through our baptism, not only have we been buried with Christ Jesus, we also have been raised from the dead figuratively so that we might walk in the newness of life today and every day.

“Once baptized, we no longer are slaves to sin, but we are free—free to live by the grace of God and by the power of God’s Spirit without being dominated by our desire to sin.  Even though we still can be tempted to sin every single day of our lives, the Spirit that we have been given will always be present with us to intercede for us in our weakness and to remind us that nothing in this life, including our death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God—a love that does not condemn us, but always will find a way to save all of us for all eternity.”

It is at this point in Paul’s letter to the Romans that our lesson for today begins—a lesson that describes how we are to respond to this amazing grace, love, and mercy of God.  What I would like to do for the remainder of this sermon is to read through this lesson from Romans once again, line-by-line, and comment on each suggestion that Paul makes as we go through this very important text about how we can build community as followers of Jesus Christ.

Paul begins this passage by stating that our love for one another and for all people is meant to be genuine.  This suggestion raises the logical question, “How do you know when love is genuine—either your love or the love of another person?”  I can assure you that there is a lot of fake love out there in this world—love that solely is intended to get what I want out of a relationship, love that is meant to dominate and control another person, or love that is used to cover up a multitude of sins.  Genuine love knows how to give without expecting something in return.  Genuine love knows how to forgive without conditions.  Genuine love knows how to see even the most unlovable person as a beloved child of God because that is who we all are in the sight of God.

Hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good.  Notice that Paul does not say, “Hate who is evil.”  We can hate the evil that a person does all that we want, but we are not to extend this hate to the person.  This may be a very challenging distinction to put into practice at times, but the distinction helps us to continue loving the person, just as God loves us, in spite of the evil that any of us does.  I also love this imagery about holding fast to what is good because doing so helps us to avoid getting mired down in all that is evil in this world. 

Then Paul says, “Love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honor.”  When we are in a community, it is so easy for us to get caught up in putting each other down, talking behind someone’s back, or finding fault when no fault is to be had.  Honor and respect for the other person is where any relationship is to begin, grounded in our mutual love for one another.  If we would practice this kind of love and honor for one another within our community of faith, then hopefully it would be easier for us to do the same with other people in our society—people who are homeless, people who are in positions of authority and power, or people who may disagree with us ideologically.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer.  These are the tools that we have been given to endure whatever trials and tribulations may come our way as a result of being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  Putting aside our pride and truly following in the way of Jesus by being willing to lay down our lives non-violently for the sake of the common good is never going to be easy.  Therefore, we persevere in prayer because we all need every ounce of courage that we can muster to give witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus, our Christ.

Contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to strangers.  A couple of weeks ago, I did a Biblical survey for an AMMPARO presentation regarding God’s call to welcome the stranger and the resident alien in our land.  It is amazing how this Biblical mandate is so relevant today in terms of our treatment of immigrants in this country.  Also, given my history and ministry with homeless people, this directive about extending hospitality to strangers speaks volumes to me about how homeless people are to be welcomed into our community of faith and treated as if they are one of us and one with us.

Given all that has transpired in our country in the past several weeks in regards to all of the hate that has been demonstrated against people of color and people of various faith traditions, this next directive is quite challenging for us.  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Oh, but I do want to curse those white supremists, those Klan members, and those Nazi sympathizers, especially when they use religion to justify their hatred and violence.  “Not so with you,” Paul says.  As a disciple of Jesus Christ, we are to bless these folks with the love that comes from God, and let this love be at the heart of our response.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Most often we think of this directive as a description about how we are to rejoice with those who give birth to a new child or weep with someone who has lost a loved one.  However, what if we heard this directive in light of rejoicing with a homeless person who was just given the keys to a new home or weeping with a person who lost their home because they lost their job and have huge medical bills?  How would the world be changed if our empathy went beyond our immediate circle of family and friends and was extended even to those who hate us?

Paul goes on to say, “Live in harmony with one another.  If it is possible, live peaceably with all.”  I don’t know about you, but I take this word “all” seriously, and include in this “all” the people with whom I disagree, whom I don’t like, or whom I would consider to be my adversary.  I might try to deceive myself by thinking that I can live in harmony and peace with these people by avoiding them or ignoring them.  However, true harmony and peace will only come about when I am willing to be reconciled with others as Jesus has made peace between us and God.

If this peace of God is going to be our way of life, then we are to repay no one evil for evil, or try to avenge ourselves.  Within the realm of God that Jesus came to reveal, there is no room for an eye for eye or the use of violence to overpower someone else’s use of violence against us.  The peace that may result from this kind of revenge and retaliation really is no peace at all until two opposing parties sit down without the use of force or violence and come to some resolve and eventual reconciliation.  No, Paul says, if your enemies are hungry, feed them, and if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.  In so doing, you will show them a different way of relating with one another that hopefully would lead to some kind of mutual honor and respect and eventual peace.

Finally, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  This statement brings us full circle to the beginning of this passage when Paul said, “Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”  Given that what is good for one person may not be good for another person, we may have to discern how best to respond to anyone who plots evil against us.  However, one thing is for certain, our genuine love for those who hate us or wish to do us harm is a constant and universal response that might open the door to the way of peace between us—the way of love and peace that Jesus revealed to us in the non-violent way that he responded to those who chose to nail him to the cross by asking God to forgive them.

Too often, we are called to follow Jesus without being given any description about how we are to do so.  Well, Paul provides us with more than enough suggestions today about what it means for us to put aside our self-serving ways and take up our cross in this life to follow in the way of Jesus.  We may not always hear these suggestions as good news, but trust me, if we would be willing to live as Paul suggests today, the whole world would benefit and be transformed, and that is the good that only will come about by the grace of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we renew our commitment today to follow in this way of Jesus, may this love and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, the One who continually calls us to follow him.  Amen.

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost - August 27, 2017

12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 27, 2017
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Pastor Elizabeth Ekdale

On Friday evening, I attended a special Shabbat service at Temple Emanu-El- an interfaith service focused on acknowledging the sin of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism.   The service began with a Buddhist call to prayer ringing a bell for peace.  Together, we lamented over the possible presence of the Patriot Prayer Rally here in our city and celebrated the beauty and inclusivity of our Interfaith Community - we committed to stand together against hate speech and acts heard across the country – and committed our faith communities to stand together. Our worship was a living out of the vision we heard last week from the prophet Isaiah:  “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” In the synagogue of Temple Emanu-El all creeds and colors, genders and orientations, gathered as one body to pray.   It was a completely packed synagogue of several hundred worshipers united in spirit while embracing the diversity of creeds among us as the people of God. 

Underneath the tension of why we were gathered was this common understanding - there comes a time and place when we are asked what we stand for and what we believe in.  Today’s gospel reading is that time and place:  “who do you say that I am?”   We could describe this question as a “come to Jesus” moment in the best sense of that phrase.  Just who do we say that Jesus is to us?  When is the last time you’ve been asked?  I think this question from Jesus is akin to What do we stand for in our lives of faith?  How is our Christian faith lived out in the world? – all excellent questions which boil down to the one asked of us today, “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asks the disciples and each of us to articulate our response in the best way we can- being as clear as possible about who it is we follow on the path of discipleship.  For some claim to be Christian and use the language of faith in order to disguise their agendas of hatred and divisiveness.   They too might claim to follow Jesus.  They too might have a correct sounding answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Our text from Romans is helpful in our nuanced reflections on this question.  Paul writes, “Do not be confirmed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”   Is Jesus wondering if the disciples have conformed to the world’s way of thinking?  Is he leading them to be transformed in their living?  Is this why he asks them to put their faith on the line?  I believe so.  Jesus is leading them and us to a new way of being, toward understanding that Jesus is bringing in transformation and ushering in God’s reign of peace and justice - a new heaven and a new earth – a beloved community in which all are welcome, valued, and affirmed.  And we are part of it – part of creating and building community in this congregation as we discern together the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Who do you say that I am?  Your answer becomes a living breathing response and is embodied at St. Mark’s through your service to the community and beyond the community.   Your response is lived out in your relationships among family members, in your workplace, and your volunteer work out in the world.

Your life becomes your answer to the question - a life of service and sacrifice – a life of generosity and sacred purpose – a life of worship and praise to the One from whom all blessings flow.  But it might come handy to have a verbal response – in your back pocket - for someone surely might just ask you, “What do you believe in?  or Why do you bother going to church?  or Who is Jesus anyway?  - all variations of that one most basic of questions. 

Your answer might matter a great deal to the one who is asking – a seeker, a doubter, someone who has been harmed by religion but is drawn to be part of a community.  You may say something helpful - or your response may be inspired from an encounter with God you experienced in your life.  The important thing is to go ahead and try to respond to the question – not only to live what you believe but say what you believe.

Who do you say that I am?  Here is my response – Jesus is the divine and human child of God – a suffering servant who reveals God’s heart – a sacred heart which aches and rejoices and celebrates and loves.  Jesus is the face of God – the embodiment of God’s desire to heal and reconcile and welcome and affirm.   

Your response may be longer or shorter than mine – a verse from scripture, a poem, an image or music may help you put into words your response.  The hymn which is the closest to who Jesus is for me is one we sing during both Lent and Easter – “There in God’s Garden”.  The 4th verse for me is sheer gospel:

See how its branches reach to us in welcome; hear what the Voice says, Come to me ye weary! Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give blessing.”

 Your answer might change or evolve given your life experiences.  How might you respond today?  But let’s be clear – I don’t think Jesus asks us to confess who we believe he is for his sake, rather for ours – that our personal and individual response helps root us in the love and forgiveness that Jesus offers.   With time, we sink deep into our words so they shape every part – every aspect of our lives.  And we are not alone in this effort - we respond together – week after week – in worship through Word and Sacrament – in service – through our varied ministries.  Together in community, we are shaped by the loving and living Christ in our midst – who continues to gently ask and prod us with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” 

Amen.

Sources:
David Lose, 2014 reflections on this pericope