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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost - August 20, 2017

Pentecost 11 Year A Proper 15
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Pastor Elizabeth Ekdale

Nevertheless, she persisted
I want to thank and give credit to our Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, for the title of today’s sermon.  He spoke these words earlier this year to describe another Senator during nomination proceedings for the Attorney General. Senator Elizabeth Warren was persistent and persuasive with her colleagues in arguing against the nomination.   She was in the middle of quoting Coretta Scott King when the Majority Leader attempted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren by invoking an archaic procedural motion.  While he may have silenced her during that particular moment in the proceedings, she succeeded in speaking her mind and leading by her convictions well beyond that particular moment on the senate floor.

When asked to justify his actions, Senator McConnell said, “She was warned. She was given an explanation.  Nevertheless, she persisted.” 

Nevertheless, she persisted.   These very words seem so fitting about our unnamed woman and heroine in our gospel story - a powerful woman of faith in spite of the labels placed on her and the efforts of Jesus and the disciples to silence her.

And this is why the story is both disturbing in its portrayal of Jesus and inspiring for us today.  For this is what faith looks like in action:  resistance, persistence, and vigilance.  What is so disturbing is Jesus seems to draw the lines about who can receive God’s grace and healing and who cannot.   This image of Jesus doesn’t fit the inclusive and welcoming picture of Jesus we have from other gospel readings.  It is a puzzling and upsetting image of Jesus who he himself will be transformed by the faith of this woman.

Jesus draws the line about who deserves to receive God’s blessing and she won’t stay on her side of the line.  She won’t take no for an answer. Jesus dismisses her but she won’t be dismissed.  Jesus is silent during her plea for mercy and healing.  But she raises her voice, pleading even louder.  When the disciples encourage him to order her away and she refuses.  Jesus then insults her with a harsh and rude label - describing her and her people as dogs. 

There is all kinds of speculation about why Jesus is acting this way.  Some say the author of the story is making a sharp point about the church expanding and welcoming gentiles into the community.  Others say Jesus isn’t really being rude to her, he’s just testing her by constructing barriers to see if she’ll overcome them.  And still others say Jesus is overly exhausted and discouraged by those who have doubted his authority and take offense at his teaching.  He’s in a grumpy mood. 

Whatever the reason, I believe this woman – whose faith embodied- persistence, resistance, and vigilance – enables Jesus to come to a new understanding of who he is and what he has been called to do.  Something in Jesus which had prevented him from sharing God’s gracious healing word of life to this woman and those like her, is changed forever.  Through this woman’s faith, Jesus learns that God’s purpose for him is so much bigger than he imagined – God’s love so much deeper than he first thought, God’s welcome so much wider than imagined.  He learned from this woman – a foreigner – about the breadth and depth of God’s goodness and mercy. 

But the lesson for us today doesn’t end just there.  Persistence, vigilance, resistance are all vital and critical aspects of our faith – especially in light of the racism, hatred, and bigotry displayed in Charlottesville.  This woman is a model of faith – for what she did – persistence, resistance, vigilance – not taking no for answer, not settling for the status quo, refusing to be silenced, speaking truth to power, speaking her mind, advocating for the vulnerable – her daughter – offers us a testimony that rings down through the ages.    She claimed her identity as a child of God for herself and her daughter reminding us that God’s love knows no boundaries or limitations.  Her testimony empowers us today when boundaries and limits, labels and limitations are being placed on people of color in the most ugly and violent ways; hatred fixated toward our Jewish brothers and sisters, and ugly speech couched in the language of faith. 

Her response back to Jesus, when she is called a dog is nothing less than brilliant:  Yes Lord . . . yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  O woman, great is your faith.” 

We are called to proclaim the living daring grace of God through our words and actions. 

The SF Interfaith Council put out a statement signed by dozens of Interfaith Religious leaders including your pastors declaring: 

As people of faith, we stand united to denounce those who use words such as "prayer," "unity" and "peace" to mask any agenda of hate, intolerance, and bigotry.  In the days ahead, we will use the voices of faith communities - through prayer, the pulpit, and our communications networks - to educate and inform, and to fight racism, hatred, and bigotry wherever it may occur, particularly in our City of St. Francis. We will not step aside but will stand strong for our values of inclusivity, respect for all persons, and justice.

Silence is not an option and our Canaanite woman of faith models the power of speech. 

Elie Wiesel a holocaust survivor challenges us – people of all faiths – to act:
"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Lady Gaga – whom I’ve come to admire for her advocacy and work for victims of sexual abuse – spoke out during her concert a week ago at ATT Park“I usually use this part of the show to shout out to the LGBTQ community - but tonight I cannot do just that. Tonight we must say hello and a great welcome to every single person of every single type and color and background and religion that is here.

“Don’t worry, I’m not confused,” she continued. “I know I’m a white woman standing up here tonight saying that to you, but I promise you that I will speak love into this world every day and I will remind myself every single day to speak love to every color, to every background, to every religion no matter what. And I dare you to do the same.”

Our own Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton – spoke on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America“We recognize that the kind of violence we witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend is very real and affects all of us,” said ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton. “We need to stand up firmly against racism and anti-Semitism, show up for and advocate with others. Jesus, who makes visible those who are invisible, is already there. We need to show up, and we need to listen in each of our communities.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we may be discouraged or weary or simply grief-stricken – but this is our call in this time and place as Christians- to love our neighbors, to protect our neighbors from harm, and to stand with our neighbors against hatred, violence and tyranny.  We must speak out – our faith compels us to act -  and we have a role model of faith in today’s gospel – thank God, she persisted and showed Jesus that she and her daughter – and all the foreigners and all the despised – are worthy and deserving to be called beloved children of God. 

In spite of Jesus, she persisted – and her story and courage are gifts for us to receive and use in our own lives of faith.  Amen.