July 1, 2018

EVERYONE DESERVES RESPECT AND JUSTICE

Mark 5:21-43; Lamentations 3:22-33

Out of all of the stories about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible, our gospel lesson for today is one of my favorite accounts because of the way that Jesus not only heals this woman and this young girl, but does so without regard for who is requesting his healing touch and without regard for the purity codes that would have prevented him from touching either this woman or this young girl.  There are a number of details in this account that reveal to us how much Jesus is dedicated to the well-being of individuals while at the same time committed to challenging the systemic structures that would prevent the health and wholeness of all people within a beloved community.  We only have to look beyond the miracle of these two healings to see the truth about the all-encompassing liberation and salvation that Jesus has to offer to all people, regardless of their economic status, gender, or privilege in this life.

By the time that we get to this fifth chapter in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus already has been under intense scrutiny by the religious authorities for the way that he has gathered such a huge following and has disregarded the most sacred laws of the Sabbath.  Jesus’ popularity not only is a threat to their authority and control over the people, he also is undermining the very laws that these religious leaders use to keep their people in check.  Truly these religious leaders have become Jesus’s antagonists. 

Nevertheless, when one of the leaders of the local synagogue comes to Jesus for help in healing his daughter, Jesus pays no mind to the fact that this man is a leader in the very institution that is out to destroy him.  Instead, Jesus immediately goes with Jairus in order to see what he can do to help his daughter get well.  Jesus easily and justifiably could have declined Jairus’ request on account of the animosity that the religious leaders already have shown toward Jesus.  However, Jesus chooses otherwise because he has come to reveal how the beloved community that God desires includes demonstrating love even for one’s adversaries.

However, on the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus is touched by a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years.  According to the purity codes of Jesus’ day, as soon as this woman touches Jesus, he immediately becomes unclean and must avoid touching anyone else until that evening.  That having been said, when Jesus finally arrives at Jairus’ house and goes to heal his daughter, Jesus takes her by the hand and tells her to get up—thus technically making her unclean as well.  However, Jairus totally ignores this fact, because all that is important to him in this moment is that his daughter is alive and well.

Another detail of this story that cannot go unnoticed is the way that Jesus addresses this woman with the hemorrhage.  He says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Jesus totally disregards the fact that this woman has been an outcast in her community for 12 years—making her a nobody in the eyes of her own people.  Jesus sees this woman for who she is—a beloved daughter of God and a full member of the beloved community that Jesus came to establish.  This woman, who had been taken advantage of by so many male physicians in her life and had been forced into poverty, was as important to Jesus as was the privileged daughter of this religious leader.  As Jairus watched Jesus heal this daughter of Israel as well as his own daughter, hopefully he has learned through this ordeal that God’s beloved community is open to people of every economic status in this world.

Another important feature of this account is that Jesus did not hesitate to engage with this woman or this young girl even though women and girls were considered to be inferior to men in this Judaic culture.  Women and girls were meant to stay at home and avoid going out in public. If they did go out in public, they would have to cover themselves with two head veils in order to conceal their identity.  In the household, women were confined to domestic chores and were considered to be slaves to their husbands and fathers.  Jesus treats this woman and this young girl with the same respect and dignity that he would any male within the realm of God that he came to reveal.  Whereas most men in Jesus’ day would have reacted in anger toward any unclean woman who had touched the hem of their garment and put her in her place, Jesus responds in love and affirms this woman’s faith as the basis for her healing and her ability to be at peace, not only in this moment, but also for the rest of her life. 

If you recall from last Sunday’s gospel lesson how Jesus chided his disciples for their lack of faith, you will notice that Jesus responds quite differently towards this unclean woman in terms of acknowledging her faith.  She has risked everything to approach Jesus and touch the hem of his garment in the hope that she might be healed.  Then, when Jesus became aware that someone had touched him and tried to determine who this someone might be, this woman overcame her fear and took another risk by telling Jesus the truth and identifying herself as being the one who had touched him.  Whereas this woman might have been concerned about making Jesus unclean, Jesus gives no indication that anything of this sort took place, thereby calling into question all of the man-made rules relating to a woman’s menstruation—of which there were 79 legal paragraphs devoted to this issue of blood in the Judaic Mishnah in Jesus’ day.

This story about Jesus’ encounter with this woman and this young girl raises all kinds of questions for us today about how we men continue to put women in certain boxes and treat them as “less than” simply because they are female.  The ELCA Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice identifies many ways that women are still treated as inferior and are given less than adequate attention, respect, compensation, and care by the men who still exercise so much control over what goes on in our society and in the home.  The worst offenders in this regard are those who turn to the Bible and use selective passages to justify their treatment of women and girls—sometimes in very violent ways.

Take our first lesson from Lamentations for example—a lesson that is filled with all of the male language that so often is used to subjugate women to the domination by the men in their lives.  I will read this passage once again as it is presented in the New Revised Standard Version, and ask you to envision this passage being read by a man to his wife as a way of justifying his domestic violence:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness.  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”  The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.  It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth, to sit alone in silence when the Lord has imposed it, to put one’s mouth to the dust, to give one’s cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults.  For the Lord will not reject forever.  Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

Based upon this passage and others like it, women of faith have been counseled for eons to stay in abusive relationships in the hope that their husbands or boyfriends will have a change of heart and refrain from any further abuse or violence.  According to this male perspective, to be truly Christian is to turn the other cheek and go the second mile with the man who strikes a blow, then says he’s sorry and asks for forgiveness, only to repeat the cycle over and over again.  Besides, if Jesus could quietly accept such insults, humiliation, abuse, and violence, and then turn around and forgive his torturers and executioners, then certainly any faithful follower of Jesus could and should do the same. 

Why is it that men impose this theology upon the women that they belittle in their lives and expect them to acquiesce, when we men are so quick to fight back and justify our decisions to wage war against those who might call us names, strike us on the cheek, threaten our security, or attack us?  We have so much to learn from Jesus about how to relate with and treat women in our lives.  That’s the real miracle in this account about Jesus healing this unclean woman and this young girl who supposedly had died.  Jesus recognized this woman and this young girl as beloved daughters of God and as individuals who were to be treated with the same agape love, respect, dignity, and justice as every man expects to be treated in this world.

We men lose this respect and dignity every time that we treat a woman as inferior or “less than,” even if the thought is only in our minds.  However, what we don’t lose is God’s love for us, no matter how much we sin and fall short of the glory of God as revealed in Jesus.  Yes, we may be tempted to take advantage of God’s love and promise of forgiveness, and go on treating women in the same way that men have treated women for eons.  However, the purpose of God’s love and forgiveness is meant to transform our lives so that we will be and do what Jesus has called us to be and do—that is, to love, honor, respect, and treat women with the same justice that we trust God has loved us.  Then, and only then, will we be able to go in peace and be healed of our disease of lording ourselves over the women of this world.  Jesus has revealed to us this way of justice and peace in all of his encounters with women in the Bible. Would that we would choose to follow in Jesus way!  Amen.    

 

 

      

                        

 

 

 

June 24, 2018

JESUS’ AWESOME LOVE


Mark 4:35-41; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Have you ever stood in awe of Jesus as the disciples did in our gospel lesson for today?  It seems like wherever Jesus went, people always were amazed at the miraculous things that he did or the astounding words that he spoke.  Here we have a combination of these two dynamics as Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” and immediately the wind ceased and the water became dead calm—not just calm, but dead calm.  It didn’t seem to matter to Jesus’ disciples that he had just chided them for their lack of faith.  They were so awestruck by Jesus’ capability to calm the sea that his critique about their lack of faith went right over their heads.

However, I am curious!  When you visualize Jesus in this boat with his disciples, do you see any women in the boat with him?  Why not?  The disciples were only crossing the Sea of Galilee to get to the other side.  They weren’t going out fishing, which generally was a man’s occupation in those days.  So, why wouldn’t some of the women who faithfully followed Jesus and stood in awe of him as well be included in this transit across the sea?  Then again, if some of the female disciples of Jesus had been in the boat, perhaps they might have demonstrated a little more faith than these men who were afraid for their very lives.  Jesus obviously wasn’t too concerned about dying.  He was fast asleep in the stern of the boat.  So, why were these men, several of whom were experienced fishermen, so terrified?

This morning, I would like you to imagine some women in this boat with Jesus.  That is the frame of mind that it will take for us to begin to recognize that the people who followed Jesus included women, and presumably even some children.  Here is where Jesus was so awesome in his own right because he did so much to break down the patriarchal system that was so dominant in his day as it continues to be to this very day.  I know that I am reading a lot into this gospel lesson for today by placing a few women in this boat with Jesus, but if we don’t change our image of those who were faithful followers of Jesus, then we will miss out on all of the ways that Jesus also was an awesome challenge to the patriarchal system of his day.

Twenty eight years ago, when I was asked by the staff of N Street Village in Washington DC to facilitate a spirituality group for 8 previously-homeless women in recovery who were living in Sarah House, I accepted the challenge and ventured into a world for which I was ill-prepared.  As a way of opening up the conversation, I would read a story about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible and then invite these women to share their own stories as they could relate with the conditions of these women in Jesus’ day.  As I listened to their stories about how they had been abused, mistreated, beaten up, prostituted, and raped by the men in their lives, including their male pastors, I couldn’t help but wonder how much I was a part of the system that enabled this kind of male domination and behavior to continue in our society.   

About this same time, one of our volunteer art therapists discovered through her work with these women that one of them showed signs of having a multiple personality.  As this therapist began to explore this means of using art to invite the women to express their various personalities, at one point, 5 of the 8 women in Sarah House were diagnosed with multiple personalities.  A woman who has this condition generally has experienced a severe trauma or traumas caused by other people in her life, and has created a new personality for herself in order to escape from and cope with this trauma.  The skilled staff of Sarah House had not been trained to deal with this newly-discovered behavior, but their motherly intuition kicked in and they would end up reading bedtime stories to these women at night when their child personas would come out.     

As the population of Sarah House was always in transition, I could usually count on at least two of the women in the household at any one time self-identifying as being lesbian.  They were completely accepted in this milieu, but they had their own stories to tell about how they had been shamed and rejected by the fundamentalist churches in which they had been raised.  That they had any faith left to speak of was a miracle in-and-of itself.  The stories about Jesus’ encounter with women in the Bible and his acceptance of the women who were considered to be outcasts or heathen in his day spoke volumes to them about the love with which Jesus walked this earth.

Probably the most painful part of these women’s journey was the separation from their children that they had to endure due to their own choices around their drug addiction, their prostitution, and their criminal activity that sometimes resulted in their incarceration and eventual homelessness.  They longed for the day when they could be somewhat whole again so that they could be reunited with their children.  Until that day, they knew that they had to work on themselves and become stable enough to be able to live on their own without entering the revolving door of becoming homeless once again.

For many of these women, one of the things that had sustained them through all of these trials and tribulations was their faith in God, and especially their trust in Jesus as the one who had been with them in the depths of their suffering and pain, and who had brought them to where they were today—on the road to recovery and a place to call “home.”  If anyone could attest to having survived the stormy seas of life, many of these women could make this claim.  As far as I am concerned, these women are the heroines of faith who could stand up with Jesus in that boat and say, “Peace! Be still.”  They understood the meaning of resurrection.  They knew all about the implications of being given a new lease in life.          

Jesus is all about giving everyone a new lease in life.  The Apostle Paul received this new lease in life when he was called by the voice of Jesus to leave his violent ways of persecuting Jesus’ followers, to put away his sword, and to proclaim the good news about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection and the reconciling power of Jesus’ forgiveness as one of the primary ways that God’s reign would take place in this world.  For this reason, Paul is able to declare in our lesson for today that now is the acceptable time and now is the day of salvation—not some time off in the distant future after we die.  This gift of forgiveness that Paul experienced in his own life was evidence of God’s grace as revealed by Jesus and was the inspiration and motivation for Paul to go out and tell the world about God’s amazing love and the awesome deeds that Jesus had done to reveal God’s love to this world.

As the result of Paul’s faithful endeavors, we learn today that he had to endure all kinds of afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and hunger.  In this regard, Paul experienced his own stormy seas in this life time and time again.  His message often was not well received by men who were threatened by this message of God’s love that called for a new beloved community in which the patriarchal hierarchy that was the dominant norm in his day would be replaced by a much more egalitarian way of being together in community.  Granted, Paul did have his own issues about women speaking out in the solemn assemblies of the church, but he admittedly was as much in recovery as anyone else in terms of being liberated from these systemic divisions between men and women in order that he might realize Jesus’ vision of a new community and a new way of life in which everyone had a voice at the table and no one would lord himself over others as men are prone to do.

Today, as we celebrate the pride of people of all genders and sexual orientations, we remember and lament the way that straight men, many of whom have professed to be followers of Jesus, have been the primary source of suffering and pain for those who were too afraid to reveal their true identity.  Needless to say, the seas have been very stormy for those who were rejected by their parents, cast out of their faith communities, incarcerated for their supposedly illegal activities, and persecuted and sometimes killed by homophobic men whose own identities were threatened by those who simply wanted to exercise their right to celebrate the way that God has created you and accepts you to be yourselves in this world. 

Given all of the different people whom Jesus welcomed into his company and accepted for who they were, we can confidently say today that people of all genders and sexual orientations certainly would be included within Jesus’ beloved community.  There isn’t a word that Jesus spoke or an act that he performed that would give us reason to think otherwise.  In this regard, Jesus is still very much present with us here today, especially in this meal, saying to all of you who have experienced these stormy seas in your lives, “Peace, be still, and know that I am the revelation of God’s love for you and for all people in order to assure you that God’s grace is not in vain, but that God’s grace is meant to be your liberation and salvation today and every day.”  Amen.                     

June 3, 2018

THE CHALLENGE OF BEING JESUS’ DISCIPLE

Mark 2:23-3:6;
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Today, all of us have the opportunity to affirm our faith and reaffirm the covenant of our baptism as 3 of our young people are confirmed into this community of faith.  In doing so, we recommit ourselves to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in Holy Communion on a regular basis, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus through word and deed, to serve all people, following Jesus’s example, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.  These five commitments cover the height, depth, and breadth of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and are a reminder to all of us that our whole life is wrapped up in being faithful to the call of Jesus by obeying his commandments and following in his way, not just on the Sabbath Day, but every day of the week.

As important as the Sabbath Day may be, the other six days of the week are no less important when it comes to living the life for which we have been created and to which we have been called by God.  Although the Sabbath Day may have been established as a day when we make sure that we rest from our normal daily earthly labor and routines, the Sabbath Day is not a day when we take a break from being a faithful follower of Jesus and pursuing the justice and peace that are the bulwarks of God’s reign.  That’s the point that Jesus is attempting to make in our gospel lesson for today as he reminds the religious leaders that the Sabbath Day is still a day when we are to make sure that everyone has enough food to eat and anyone who is in need of medical attention will receive the care that they need.

When I was growing up, keeping the Sabbath Day holy primarily meant going to church every Sunday, even when our family was out camping over a weekend on vacation.  Similarly, the opening day of the fishing season always was on a Sunday.  My Dad often would take me out fishing early that morning, but he would always make sure that we would get home in time to make it to church and Sunday School no matter whether or not we had caught our limit of trout.  As much as I might sound critical about such a narrow understanding of this commandment about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, as a pastor, I wish that going to church on Sunday mornings wasn’t as much of an option as it is today.  However, what is most important to me is that you want to be here today, and that you don’t come to church because you are afraid that you might be sent to hell for all eternity if you break this sacred commandment.

Such was the leverage that the religious leaders in Jesus’ day had over the people as the priests compiled a list of 613 deeds that the people were to avoid doing on the Sabbath Day in order to keep this day holy and stay in God’s good favor.  That’s how the religious leaders were able to get all of the people to come to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day, because the people couldn’t do much of anything else on this sacred day.  Jesus is making the point that the Sabbath Day isn’t just about God and me.  The Sabbath Day also is all about how we demonstrate our love for our neighbors in order to make sure that God’s justice and righteousness are being made complete, especially on this holy day. 

The Sabbath Day is meant to be the day when we put our best foot forward, and make sure that we are loving God with our entire being and loving our neighbors as we have been so graciously loved by God.  That’s what Jesus was doing on this particular Sabbath Day, even though it meant violating one of the most sacred laws of his day.  Here is where we are compelled to move beyond our discussion about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, and focus on the faith and courage that it took on Jesus’ part to commit this act of religious disobedience.  It’s no wonder that at the end of this day, the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with Herod’s cohorts in figuring out how to destroy this Jesus.  Jesus already was a marked man, and it’s only the beginning of the third chapter in the Gospel of Mark.

According to our second lesson for today, we also learn that the Apostle Paul was a marked man.  In his attempt to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus and strive for God’s justice and peace wherever he went, Paul has encountered much resistance and opposition from civil and religious authorities.  However, he has not lost heart because as he tells this faith community at Corinth, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; and struck down, but not destroyed.”  Despite all of the trials and tribulations that Paul has had to endure on account of his proclamation of the good news about God’s love as revealed in Jesus, Paul has not lost hope that he will be able to weather this storm and continue to serve all people following Jesus’ example by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, let me be very clear today.  If we are going to recommit ourselves to the covenant of our baptism in Jesus’ name, then we might want to be prepared for some pushback, even by people within the church who are more beholden to an institution that is governed by all kinds of rules and regulations, dogmas and doctrines rather than seeing the church as a living organism of people who are open to the Spirit who has called and gathered us together to hear the Word of God and share often in this Holy Communion so that together we might know more clearly what is the will of God and receive the inspiration, desire, and power to serve our neighbors whatever day of the week it is, just as Jesus has done today.

Having laid this foundation, I (will) come back to our 3 confirmands this morning, and challenge you (them) to hang in there and continue to stay connected with God’s faithful people—whether here at St. Mark’s or in some other community of faith, to open your (their) Bible once-in-a-while so that you (they) remain open to the calling of God’s Word, to share in this holy meal often and be strengthened by the presence and power of Jesus’ Spirit, to let your (their) light of love shine in this world that is so weighed down by fear, hatred, and violence, to keep your (their) minds focused on Jesus as the model for your (their) lives, and to be willing to speak out on behalf of those who are being treated unjustly and oppressed unnecessarily.

One such example was brought to my attention this past week.  Apparently, the City of San Francisco has a policy that the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing only qualifies pregnant women for family shelter before the third trimester if they can prove that they are medically at risk.  According to this Department, very few women qualify for this Prenatal Program in their first and second trimesters.  What this means is that the vast majority of pregnant women who are homeless have to fend for themselves during their first two trimesters, thereby creating a much greater risk that the lives of their unborn children will be permanently damaged if not subject to imminent death. A letter signed by many faith leaders, including our Bishop Mark Holmerud, has been sent to Mayor Farell with a simple request that this policy be changed so that homeless women who are pregnant can qualify for family housing in their first trimester without having to prove medical necessity.

Today is Sunday and supposedly a day of rest, but before we get all caught up in our busy lives on Monday, what if all of us would contact Mayor Farrell and Jeff Kositsky, the Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, today, and ask them to change this policy?  Today, we supposedly are making a renewed commitment to strive for justice and peace in all the earth, and there are a zillion ways to put this commitment into effect.  However, if we just took on one or two ways today to advocate for a more just society, perhaps our joint effort could have some impact on the liberation of a few pregnant women, just as Jesus stood up for his disciples who were hungry and healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath Day.  Certainly there were many more people in this city who were famished or were in need of a cure, but according to this particular account, Jesus gave an example of what everyone could be doing on this day to challenge the restrictions of an unjust policy and improve the lives of so many people who constantly receive the message that they don’t matter. 

As I have journeyed with these 3 young women over the course of the past 16 months, I can attest to the fact that they have a heart for the well-being of other people.  They may not have completed memorizing all of the books of the Bible or learned the difference between the first, second, and third uses of the law, but they have been well mentored in what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus and in the importance of being a member of a community of faith that has love for others at the core of its existence.  Therefore, I ask you to join with me on this Sabbath Day in affirming them as beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased just as they were affirmed by God on the day of their baptism.  Amen.

May 27, 2018

GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
John 3:1-17

Just as the patriarchs almost 2000 years ago established a Trinitarian formula in order to explain their understanding of God, so also today, we are searching for ways that we can understand who God is and talk about God in less patriarchal language and in more universal terms.  Therefore, as we acknowledge this festival day known as Trinity Sunday, I am going to concentrate on God as the lover of this world, because as we are told in our gospel lesson for today, “God so loved the entire world.”  In fact, as our scriptures tell us, “The essence of God is love.”  However, for centuries, this understanding of God as love has been greatly overshadowed by our human attempts to explain a formula that has held us captive to one predominant way of ever imagining God.

As scholars have pointed out, the word “trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but love—well, every page you turn uses the word or talks about a relationship that is grounded in love.  The same holds true for the hymns in our hymnal.  When we were using the former green hymnbook, someone actually put together a concordance of all of the words of the hymns in our Lutheran Book of Worship.   According to this concordance, the word “trinity” is used only 16 times in all of the hymns, whereas there are 7 full pages of the word “love” in this concordance for all of the times that this word is found in a hymn in this hymnal.

Likewise, when we turn to our scriptures, we hear that God is love, and that we love because God first loved us.  Jesus explains this relationship later in the Gospel of John when he says, “As God has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love so that you may have love for one another.”  When he was asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied by telling the people, “Love God with your entire being, and love your neighbors as you yourself have been loved by God.”  The Apostle Paul weighs in on this matter when he talks about faith, hope, and love, and says that the greatest of these three is love.

Today we are reminded by Jesus that God has loved the whole world with agape love—the kind of love that is considered to be graciously unconditional.  As much as we all would love to personalize this love and consider how much God has loved me, we are to remember that God loves everyone in the entire world in the same manner.  There is no favoritism when it comes to the bounty of God’s love.  Consequently, we would be doing God a disservice if we start comparing how much God loves each and every individual in this world.  This temptation can only lead to what I would call the privatization of God’s love—one of the worst forms of sin that often leads people to think that the vast amount of their earthly possessions must be an indication of how much God loves them.

When we can accept that there is no quantification of God’s love, that is when we can begin to see everyone as a beloved child of God just as Jesus knew himself to be.  Grounded in this self-awareness and assurance, Jesus was able to love everyone whom he encountered in his life, including those whom he would consider to be his antagonists or enemies.  Even when he was criticizing them for their pride, greed, hypocrisy, and lust for power, Jesus was doing so out of love for who he knew them to be—namely, beloved children of God just as he knew himself to be.

Each and every one of us has been given this assurance in our baptism.  And even if you haven’t been baptized, know this in the core of your being—that God has loved you with a love that has no beginning and no end.  From the moment that you entered into this world and until the moment that you die and beyond, you are enveloped in God’s love.  Such is the essence of what we often reference as eternal life.  Unfortunately, too often eternal life is perceived to be something that we receive only after we die.  However, if we truly believe that eternal life has no beginning and no end, then doesn’t it make sense that we already are living right now in the eternal life that God has created for us?

This gift of God’s eternal life is right here before our very eyes, but too often we cannot see this gift because we are so blinded by our own pride, fear, greed, guilt, and lust for power.  As the result of putting our trust in the things of this world, rather than in the God of love who so passionately desires for everyone to know the truth about this gift of eternal life, and thereby be saved from ever doubting God’s infinite love as revealed in Jesus, we end up missing out on this gift of eternal life and the salvation or liberation of being all that we were created and called by God to be from the moment that we set our eyes on this world.

Jesus emphasizes this point in his final prayer on behalf of his disciples when he prayed to God, “And this is eternal life that they may know you, the one true God, and that they may know me as the One whom you have sent into this world to reveal your love to all humanity.”  To know God is not mere head knowledge that can lead to an attitude of superiority over others.  To know God is to sense the love of God in every cell of our being so that we will become creatures and children of love in a world that so desperately is in need of God’s love and gift of forgiveness.

Here is where the revelation of Jesus becomes so important because Jesus was the One who revealed to all the world God’s gracious gift of forgiveness as he faced his own imminent death on the cross.  “God, forgive them,” Jesus prayed, “for they don’t know what they are doing.”  All who hear and humbly receive this gift of forgiveness also are receiving in this moment God’s gift of eternal life—a life that is meant to set us free from all that we have done wrong, and a life that is meant to free us up to live according to God’s good pleasure.

That is one of the main reasons why we come to this table so often, because here is where we receive another taste of eternal life in this bread and fruit of the vine as the result of the forgiveness that God bestows upon each and every one of us.  Here is where God’s love is made manifest in Jesus, and we are forever assured of the presence and power of God’s Spirit in our lives so that we might resist all kinds of temptations to sin and be able to walk daily in the newness of life—the eternal life that is meant to liberate the whole world that God so graciously loves as was revealed in Jesus, our Savior.  Amen.

 

 

 

May 6, 2018

CHOSEN TO BEAR GOOD FRUIT

John 15:9-17; I John 5:1-6

“You did not choose me but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”  I assume that all of us like the feeling of being chosen—whether that means being selected to be on the team, being accepted into a school to which you have applied, or being hired for a job that you want.  By virtue of our baptism in the name of Jesus, we have been chosen, called, and appointed to be disciples of Jesus, our Christ, as Jesus says today, for the purpose of going and bearing fruit, specifically good fruit that will have a lasting and life-furthering impact on the world.

All of this theology is well and good in theory, except for the fact that this concept of being chosen by God also has been used throughout the centuries as a way of establishing a position of superiority over other nations, other races, other genders, and other religions.  Take for example the reading from Deuteronomy 14 that states, “You are a people holy to God who has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be God’s people and treasured possession.”  Today, many Zionists are prone to grab hold of this declaration with all their might in order to justify all that they are doing to extricate the Palestinians from the land that they believe God has given solely to them.

Our own nation is grounded in a similar theology in which the Puritans fled from England and came to this new land that many of them saw as the new Israel which would become the chosen nation of God in which God would create new heavens and a new earth and the people would establish a city on a hill as their new home of privilege, prosperity, and peace.  When the colonists won the Revolutionary War, many religious people concluded that this victory actually confirmed that America was God’s chosen nation, and this conviction gave the settlers all the more justification to clear their land of “those savage natives,” who were considered to be heathens and sometimes less than human.

Although this perspective of being a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation, as described in the first letter of Peter, continued to raise its ugly head throughout the era of slave trade and the enslavement of those dark-skinned bodies from another continent, many of the evangelical churches in the United States reached the height of patriarchal domination when they set out to Christianize the world in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.  Wrapped up in this effort was an attempt to bring democracy, ala capitalism, to the rest of the world and to get everyone to learn to speak English, which supposedly was God’s chosen language for the world.  By this time, what has become known as American Civil Religion was well engrained into our culture, and, despite early efforts to keep the church and the state separated from one another, many evangelical churches were doing everything in their power to unite the church and the state under one umbrella of nationalism.

With the onslaught of World War I and World War II, this marriage of the cross and the flag took on a whole new meaning, and set the stage for the mid-1950’s which became known as the Golden Age of American Civil Religion when once again the privilege of white men who professed to be Christians and were English-speaking became more visibly apparent as the ones chosen by God to govern this land.  Despite all of the efforts and progress to the contrary during the past several decades, this dynamic persists to this very day in so many ways as has been demonstrated by the most recent outpouring of a huge segment of white evangelical Christian men who are concerned about the prediction that by 2044 the majority of people in this country will be non-white, possibly causing us to forfeit our chosen nation status.

“You did not choose me,” Jesus said, “but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, good fruit that will be lasting and life-furthering.”  I don’t know what seminarians are studying or discussing these days about being a chosen people, but when I was in seminary, the focus of our conversations about being chosen by God had to do with what is known as “the elect”—those who are chosen by God to get into heaven after they die.  I assume that we all know that salvation probably is not limited only to the 144,000 souls mentioned in the Book of Revelation.  However, based upon Calvin’s interpretation of selective passages in our Christian scriptures, God has predestined some people, known as “the elect,” to be saved, which leaves everybody wondering, “Am I one of God’s chosen ones who will receive God’s eternal salvation?”

Somewhere in my musings long after seminary, I finally realized that being chosen by God in my baptism had nothing to do with guaranteeing my place in heaven and had everything to do with being a chosen disciple of Jesus in the here-and-now, and how I would decide to fulfill this role and responsibility in my life here on earth.  “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus says, “and I have appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that is lasting and life-furthering.”  If we return to the passage in I Peter and read verse 9 of chapter 2 in its entirety, we will hear a similar charge.  “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Jesus Christ who called you out of darkness into the marvelous light of God’s salvation.”

There is nothing in being chosen by Jesus that gives us the authority to lord ourselves over others, to presume that we are superior to others, or to dominate and control other people in our lives.  The Apostle Paul addressed this assertion about as clearly and as succinctly as possible when he wrote to Jesus’ disciples at Colossae, and said, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.  Above all, clothe yourselves in love, which binds everything together in complete harmony.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were chosen and called in the one body, and be thankful.”

Sometimes I am very grateful for having been chosen by Jesus to be on his team, to be educated and guided by the Spirit in his way, and to have the privilege of following along his path of bearing good fruit that will last.  I say “sometimes” because at other times I am terrified out of my mind for what it means to be chosen, called, and appointed by Jesus as one of his disciples.  When I take to heart the testimony and witness of Jesus that caused him to be put to death on the cross, I know that I am not willing to take up my own cross in the same way.  Even though I have been chosen by Jesus to be on his team and be a part of his beloved community known as the body of Christ, I strike out so many times every day because I am afraid to go all the way in following Jesus. Does that make me a hypocrite?  You could say so.  However, I would rather think about this dynamic in terms of being a sinner like everyone else who is need of God’s forgiveness.

Isn’t this one of the main reasons why we come to this table so often to eat this bread and drink from this cup?  Here is where our failures to be and do what Jesus has chosen, called, and appointed us to be and do are forgiven so that we can walk away from this table with a clean heart and a right spirit to go out once again to bear good fruit that is lasting and life-furthering.  Such is the vicious cycle of our humanity, especially for those of us who were chosen, called, and appointed by Jesus in our baptism to be his disciples.

So what do I do?  I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, evangelical, straight, male disciple of Jesus who is privileged in this life to be a citizen of this country that we know as the United States of America.  Here is where I have been chosen, called, and appointed by virtue of my baptism in Jesus’ name to give testimony and witness to Jesus, and to proclaim the good news that he spent his entire ministry, and, as far as we know, his entire life proclaiming and demonstrating until his life was taken from him by those who were too threatened by his words and deeds.  All that I can do under these circumstances is to give my life over to the grace of God, and trust that God’s Spirit will continue to give me the faith and courage to speak and act in a way that is more reflective of and consistent with Jesus’ way rather than the way of this world, and especially the way of our domineering, self-serving, and violent culture.

“You did not choose me,” Jesus reminds us today in this holy meal, “but I chose you and I have forgiven you so that you are free to go forth and bear the good fruit that I have called and appointed you to bear—fruit that will not just be a band-aid solution to the woes of this world, as good as they may be, but fruit that also will have a long-lasting effect in bringing about the beloved community of justice, peace, and freedom for which I so ardently advocated until I took my last breath and gave my life over to the God whose Spirit guided me throughout my entire life in the way of truth.”  Would that we would be able to live even a fraction of our lives in this way of truth—Jesus’ chosen way of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience grounded in God’s eternal love.  Amen.

 

April 8, 2018

PEACE BE WITH YOU

April 8, 2018

John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-35
 

In order to understand our gospel lesson for today, we really need to put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples who have every reason to be terrified for their lives.  Their leader has just been brutally tortured, publicly humiliated, and then executed on a cross—which was one of the most excruciating ways to be put to death ever devised by humankind.  Now that the disciples had discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb where they had laid him, the rumors were circulating throughout Jerusalem that the disciples of Jesus had taken his body.  In order to do that, they would have had to break the royal seal that Pilate had ordered to secure the tomb because the previous day the religious leaders had expressed concern that Jesus’ disciples actually might come and take his body away.  Breaking this seal would have been considered a treasonous act, punishable by death. 

Besides this dynamic, Jesus’ disciples probably were using this time to reflect upon and figure out what they could have done differently to prevent this terrible ordeal from happening.  Not only had Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter had denied him, all of them had abandoned Jesus shortly after he had been arrested.  When Peter tried to prevent Jesus from being arrested by striking the high priest’s guard with his sword, Jesus told him to put away his sword.  Obviously, resorting to the use of violence, even in Jesus’ defense, was not the solution for Jesus.  However, couldn’t the disciples have advocated for Jesus’ release when Pilate asked the crowd whom they would choose to be set free?  Couldn’t they have put themselves in harm’s way and tried to block Jesus’ walk to Golgatha?  Given their disloyalty and lack of courage, these disciples’ hearts must have been weighed down with a ton of guilt.

A third dynamic probably going on with these disciples was trying to understand the meaning of everything that had happened during the past 48 hours, in addition to figuring out the meaning of Jesus’ entire ministry in light of this gross injustice.  These disciples previously had demonstrated that they had little comprehension about the good news of God’s reign that Jesus so ardently proclaimed throughout his ministry. They had been mystified by the way that Jesus could heal people and feed thousands of people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  What did Jesus truly mean when he said that he was the Bread of Life and the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  When Jesus shared some bread and a cup of wine with his disciples and told them that these were his body and his own blood, the importance of this simple meal was lost on the disciples.  Even when the disciples discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, we are told that they did not understand the scripture about Jesus being raised from the dead.     

Into this milieu of terror, guilt, and uncertainty, Jesus suddenly appears among the disciples and says to them, “Peace be with you.”  So as to demonstrate that it was really him, Jesus showed them his hands and his side where he had been pierced by a sword, and said to them again, “Peace be with you.”  Although the disciples were excited to see Jesus, we can only imagine how mystified they were once again that Jesus could appear in their midst and be so conciliatory with them after all that they had done to him.  Nevertheless, by extending his peace to them, Jesus implicitly was saying to his disciples, “In spite of all that you did to me or did not do to accompany me through this terrible ordeal, I want you to know that I hold nothing against you, because I already have forgiven you.”

Well, that was a relief!  However, Jesus did not stop there.  Before the disciples could even catch their breath, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  Was this the same Spirit about which Jesus spoke at their last supper when he said to them, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you?”  If so, then the peace of the Holy Spirit would become the bedrock of their faith and courage to follow in the way of Jesus and do all that they would be called to do for the sake of Jesus and the good news that he proclaimed throughout his ministry by loving others just as Jesus had continued to love them throughout this whole ordeal.

This act of Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit on his disciples is John’s version of what commonly is known as the Day of Pentecost.  In the Gospel of John, the disciples don’t have to wait 50 days before they experience this outpouring of the Holy Spirit and are filled with the peace that comes with knowing that all of their sins have been forgiven and that they have been filled with a power that would enable them to speak truth to power and pursue the justice and peace that Jesus modeled throughout his entire ministry.  Once the disciples received this Holy Spirit, they no longer had to be afraid for their lives because they were filled with the peace of knowing that just as Jesus had been raised by God from the dead, they also could count on being raised by God to a new life each and every day of their lives.

In their book, “Things that Make for Peace: A Personal Search for a New Way of Life,” Mary and John Schramm explore what this peace of God might entail as we set out to follow in the way of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Drawing upon the mantra, “If you want peace, work for justice,” the Schramms examine the whole world of inequity and the correlating injustice of economic disparity.  As they analyze the role that fasting can play in sensitizing a person to the plight of hunger and poverty, they draw the conclusion that fasting without peacemaking is a lie.  In this regard, they remind us that the Hebrew concept of shalom has much more to do with material well-being, security, and personal safety than it has to do with a state of psychological well-being.  Therefore, when we talk about being at peace, we are talking about everyone having a safe home in which to live and enough food to eat.

The early disciples obviously came to understand the peace that Jesus extended to them in this way because as soon as they had received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and established the first communities of faithful followers of Jesus, they made sure that no one in their community was in need of proper shelter and enough food to eat.  As far as they were concerned, no one claimed private ownership of any possessions and everything that they owned was held in common.  Now some people today would love to explain away this early practice of the church as a failed experiment, but for these early followers of Jesus, they all were of one heart and mind about what it meant to be a faithful follower of the risen Jesus who invited them into a realm of peace where justice and righteousness would reign supreme.

As the Schramms so aptly point out, peace is not just a means to an end; peace is a way of life.  In this regard, when we greet one another in peace, as we will be doing in a few moments, we not only are offering another person our desire for their peaceful well-being, we also are saying to that person, “I want to make sure that you are doing well economically and socially.  If not, then let me do something to help you meet your need.”  Otherwise, we become like the prophets who cried out, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace in a person’s life due to all of the economic stress and personal strife that comes from living in a society where the rich keep getting richer and those who are impoverished are driven deeper and deeper into despair.

“Peace be with you,” is a powerful greeting that goes far beyond the casual “hello” or “goodbye” that we normally say when we encounter someone else in our lives.  Jesus spoke these words to his disciples three times in order to emphasize and assure them not only that he had forgiven them and that he held nothing against them, but also that he was praying for their well-being, their security, and their freedom to be able to pursue the things that make for peace in this world.  They would need this peace in their lives because they would be encountering all kinds of harassment and persecution from many of the religious authorities who wanted to silence them for their proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection and God’s gracious gift of forgiveness.

We also are in need of this peace in our own lives because we all have our fears about what may happen to us if we attempt to live up to Jesus’ expectations and do all that God has created and called us to be and do.  We also bear the guilt of having failed Jesus time and time again because we allow the ways of this world and our culture to dominate and control our lives rather than the compassionate, justice-oriented, and non-violent way of Jesus.  We live with the constant uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring, especially under the current administration, and we are so tempted to fall deeper and deeper into despair over the plight of homelessness, the racist agendas, the prevalence of violence in our society, our dependency on our military might, and the increasing disregard for our environment.

“Peace be with you,” Jesus says, “because I am right here in your midst, especially in this bread and fruit of the vine, and I have forgiven you for all that you have done to betray me, deny me, and forsake the ways that I have taught you to live.  I share my peace with you because I have revealed to you the end of the story—a resurrected life that has defeated the power of death in all of its manifestations.  Therefore, you are free now to experience a new way of life—and that way is the way of peace and shalom.  Amen.

 

 

March 29, 2018

SIGNS OF THE BELOVED COMMUNITY


Maundy Thursday
John 13:1-7, 31b-35; I Corinthians 11:23-26

“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  This expectation of Jesus is a set up for failure because more often than not, we don’t have love for everyone as we ought.  All that we have to do is look around us at all of the homeless people sleeping on the streets to know that we don’t have love for one another.  That’s not to lay a heavy guilt trip on all of us.  It’s just the reality in which we live.  We can be thankful for our night ministry that is out there every night providing socks for the feet of those who so desperately need a bath—a foot washing of sorts.  However, we always have to be careful that we don’t become too dependent upon someone else doing for us what we also are called upon to do ourselves.

Jesus made it very clear in earlier teachings that it’s always much easier for us to love those who love us, who are like us, whom we like, or who are our kindred spirits.  As we are reminded this evening, even Jesus loved his own who were in this world to the very end of his life.  However, what became clear through his suffering and passion is the fact that he also loved his enemies to the very end of his life by refusing to take their lives in defense of his own and then forgiving them for what they had done to him.  In this way, Jesus was able to love all people in the same manner in which he was loved by God—completely and forever.

In this vein, Jesus’ simple act of washing his disciples’ feet was more than a symbolic act of servanthood.  Given that washing someone else’s feet was something only slaves were supposed to do in Jesus’ day, Jesus’ act was a radical sign of what his followers would be expected to do in order to embody the beloved community that Jesus’ proclaimed throughout his ministry—a community in which everyone has a place at the table and no one is in a position of lording themselves over others.  Within this beloved community, there still may be people in positions of authority and power in order to administer or govern what goes on within the community, but for those who have decided to follow in the way of Jesus and are in such positions, the common good of everyone in the community takes precedence over any individual or personal priorities.

Similarly, Jesus’ simple act of sharing a piece of bread and a cup of wine on this momentous evening was a radical reminder of all that Jesus would be revealing to his disciples during the next 24 hours.  They would be the ones who would betray Jesus, deny him, and then abandon him to the powers that be.  Nevertheless, they also would be included among those whom Jesus would forgive from the cross because they also did not know what they were doing.  This meal would be a constant reminder of Jesus’ gracious gift of forgiveness that is offered every time that we eat this bread and drink from this cup.

Yes, one of Jesus’ disciples did attempt to defend Jesus by cutting off the ear of one of the high priest’s guards.  However, Jesus made it clear that shedding another person’s blood would not be the way of his disciples for any reason.  This cup of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood would be a constant reminder of this witness by Jesus as later he would tell Pilate that the followers of his beloved community would refuse to fight and shed the blood of another human being.  As we share in this holy meal this evening, we are reminded that Jesus’ blood was meant to be the last blood that Jesus’ followers would cause to be shed out of love for all people, including their enemies.

The Apostle Paul also reminded his beloved community at Corinth about this truth when he told them that as often as they eat this bread and drink this cup, they would be proclaiming Jesus’ death until his return.  As we learn from Paul’s letters to this beloved community, the church at Corinth was being torn apart by many different conflicts, including the abuse of this holy meal by some who thought that it was just another regular meal of privilege.  No, Paul says, when we share in this meal, we always will remember the night that Jesus was betrayed and how he chose to die by offering a prayer of forgiveness for everyone rather than taking up a sword of death.  From Paul’s perspective, this meal had the power even to unite this community of faith that was being torn apart by so many disagreements and abuses of authority and power.

On this night of his betrayal, Jesus wanted so much for his disciples to understand what he was about to do—to give his life as a testimony and witness to the new covenant of this beloved community that he proclaimed and described throughout his entire ministry—a community in which his people would love God with their entire being by loving all of their neighbors as they themselves have been loved by God.  The basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup were the tangible means that Jesus used to remind his followers of his central message about how his followers were to be in relationship with one another as a witness to the whole world about how God desired to save this world.

Put aside for the moment anyone who is not a baptized member of the body of Christ, and just consider how people who have decided to follow Jesus have related with and treated one another throughout the course of history.  For every example of Jesus’ disciples demonstrating love for one another, we can cite countless examples of how some disciples of Jesus have oppressed other disciples of Jesus, persecuted them, abused them, enslaved them, violated them, tortured them, and, of course, killed other disciples of Jesus—all for the sake of gaining and demonstrating control over other members of the body of Christ. 

These examples include burning heretics at the stake, bishops fighting with one another throughout the Middle Ages, Protestants and Catholics waging war against one another, revolutionary Christians killing British Christians, Christian masters enslaving Africans who were grounded in the spirituality of Jesus, Union Christians and Confederate Christians killing each other, Allied Christians and Nazi Christians killing each other, Christian legislators passing laws that force other disciples of Jesus into poverty, and some disciples of Jesus accumulating obscene amounts of wealth while other members of the body of Christ have to sleep out in the rain with nothing but a sheet of cardboard for their protection. 

Tonight we share in a meal that is meant to remind us about how much Jesus has loved each and every one of us and already has forgiven us for all that we do every day to contribute to the impoverishment, enslavement, persecution, and death of so many others in our country and throughout the world, including our sisters and brothers in Christ.  Jesus gave his body over to be crucified and shed his blood so that we might be liberated from all of our pride, fear, greed, and lust that is at the heart of why we do not have love for one another.  This meal that we share this evening is God’s gift of freedom from all that we do to lord ourselves over others, betray those whom we label as non-white, deny our complicity in things like investing in the military industrial complex, and contribute to the death of so many innocent people with our tax dollars.

Jesus gave us a new commandment that we love one another just as he has loved all humankind and that we become the beloved community that would demonstrate to all the world that we truly are disciples of Jesus, our Christ.  If it seems to you that I have concentrated too much this evening on the negative side of our humanity, you probably are right, because being a disciple of the Jesus who called us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him goes against almost everything in our being that wants to protect our own possessions, preserve our own investments, secure our own freedoms, and save our own lives at all costs. 

That is one reason why we concentrate this evening on the basin, the water, the towel, the bread, and the cup.  These are the radical reminders about how Jesus has loved all of us and has forgiven the sins of our fallen humanity, and are the radical reminders of how we are to have love for one another.  As we concentrate on these gifts of God’s grace this evening, 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, our Christ.  Amen.

March 4, 2018

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS

The Rev. Ron Moe-Lobeda
March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

Our first lesson for today is our one opportunity in the 3-year lectionary cycle to take a serious look at what we know as the 10 commandments.  For the many years that I have been teaching confirmation, when we have come to the unit on the 10 commandments, I have asked the youth, “In your opinion, what is the purpose of the 10 commandments?”  Invariably, the answer that I get is that the 10 commandments are meant to tell us right from wrong.  That certainly was my understanding as I was growing up, with the additional caveat that I had better do my best to obey all of these commandments or I could end up going to hell.  Even with the promise of God’s gracious forgiveness that was offered to alleviate my guilt for breaking any one of these commandments, the threat of going to hell was a much stronger motivator for wanting to walk the straight and narrow than any notion of wanting to keep these commandments out of love for God or in response to God’s love for me.  Whatever the motivation for choosing to keep these commandments, the bottom line always had to do with me and my final destination after I died.

All of this emphasis changed for me when I attended a bishop’s convocation at which a friend of mine was one of the keynote speakers.  I had come to know Buzz Kahn when I was working at Camp Lutherland for the summer.  Buzz was the Director of the 3 Lutheran Bible camps in western Washington.  He was a Jew who had come to know and believe in Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  However, he brought to his faith a definite Jewish perspective and understanding about what was in the Bible.

In one of his presentations at this convocation, Buzz talked about the purpose of the 10 commandments from a Jewish perspective.  He explained that the 10 commandments were God’s gift to humanity as a guideline for how we are to be in right relationships—with God, with one another, and with all of creation.  When I heard this explanation, all of my previous perceptions about the purpose of the 10 commandments took a back seat to this new perspective.  No longer were these commandments only about me and my salvation, but rather were about how all of us are to be in right relationships with God, with each other, and with all of creation as a means of salvation for the whole world.  These commandments really are God’s blueprint about how we all are to be righteous together in God’s sight.

As one who supposedly came to fulfill the law and the prophets, Jesus certainly was guided by these commandments just like everyone else in his world.  Unfortunately in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had turned these commandments into such a legalistic challenge that no one except the most devout religious pietists had any chance of earning God’s favor.  As far as Jesus was concerned, these commandments were not so much about individually earning God’s favor as they were about once again being in right relationships with the rest of humanity and thereby being righteous in God’s sight.

In this regard, Jesus taught that committing adultery also included everyone who looked at a woman with lust in his heart.  Murdering another person also involved being angry with someone and holding on to that anger in the form of a grudge or resentment in a way that was harmful to that relationship.  By healing people on the Sabbath day, Jesus repeatedly reminded folks that keeping the Sabbath day holy had much more to do with God’s justice and righteousness than it was meant to be a day for all of the ritual piety in order for an individual to earn God’s favor.  By telling the rich young man to share his wealth with those who were impoverished, Jesus certainly expanded the commandment about stealing to include the refusal of using one’s wealth to alleviate the suffering of those who were hungry, homeless, or impoverished.  Jesus may not have always done what his parents wanted him to do, but he certainly demonstrated the true intent about honoring his parents by making sure that his mother was cared for after he died.

Our gospel lesson for today is a perfect example about how Jesus chose to fulfill God’s commandments for the sake of right relationships rather than comply with the unjust practices that were sanctioned by the religious leaders of his day.  The sacrificial system that was required by the religious authorities as a way of earning God’s favor was a pretense for filling their own coffers to support their luxurious lifestyles.  According to this system, poor people who wanted to fulfill their religious duty first had to exchange their Roman coinage for Jewish coinage in order that the animals that they purchased to sacrifice would be bought with pure money.  Those who exchanged this money often would charge a high exchange rate so that they could make their profit.  Then the people would be charged an inflated price for the animals that they had purchased—again being ripped off of the little money which they needed in order to live.

Jesus took matters into his own hands as a public protest against this corrupt and oppressive system that deceptively was presented to the people as a way of remaining in God’s good favor.  Did Jesus break any of God’s commandments in the manner in which he went about this public protest?  That this public protest is recorded in all four gospels tells us that this event was a significantly defining moment in Jesus’ life.  By chasing the money changers and the animal sellers out of the temple courtyard, Jesus not only was advocating for those who were being ripped off, he also was trying to get these oppressors to see the error of their ways, to have a change of heart, and to change a system that would be more conducive to the right relationships that God desires among all people.

Some people love to use this event in Jesus’ life as an example of and proof that Jesus was prone to using violence in order to justify a righteous deed. With a homemade whip, he drove the sheep and the cattle out of the temple courtyard and he overturned the tables of the money changers—not exactly actions that would be considered harmful to human life, but certainly actions that were disruptive enough to cause the religious leaders to convene an emergency session in order to figure out how to get rid of this threat to their authority.  When they had asked Jesus by what sign or authority he was doing these things, Jesus’ answer was totally unsatisfactory to them and actually gave them more just cause to conspire how to put Jesus to death.

In the grand scheme of things, death was a small price for Jesus to pay if it meant demonstrating to all the world how the world could be saved from all of the oppression, corruption, and violence that infect our human hearts.  That’s why Jesus taught his disciples that their priority in this life was to seek the reign of God and God’s righteousness—meaning all of the right relationships that are outlined in God’s commandments.  Jesus also taught that the way for a person to demonstrate love of God was by keeping all of God’s commandments, which could be boiled down to two primary commandments—loving God with our entire being and loving all of our neighbors as we have been so graciously loved by God.

When Jesus disrupted the business in the temple courtyard, he was acting out of love for God and love for neighbor—even those neighbors who were the oppressors taking advantage of the people who were coming to the temple to offer their sacrifices.  The relationship between the money changers, the animal sellers, and the people wasn’t right.  The relationship between the religious leaders and the people wasn’t right.  A grave injustice and crime was being committed under the guise of religious piety.  However, out of love for everyone involved, Jesus had to do something about this injustice at the expense of his own life.

In this day and age, we are faced with more than our fair share of issues that would qualify as being oppressive, corrupt, and violent.  What once was an occasional rally, demonstration, or protest has become an almost daily occurrence.  Whether protesting the cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency, the domination by the NRA, sexual harassment against women, tax reforms favoring the most wealthy, the attack on the Affordable Care Act, the push for white supremacy, the escalation of the military budget, or the plight of homelessness, we all could hit the streets every day and barely scratch the surface in achieving the right relationships that Jesus came to establish and pursue.

However, we cannot give up hope for trying.  Jesus certainly didn’t!  When he was challenged by the religious authorities for his disruption in the temple courtyard, Jesus’ response was, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Of course, Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body and placed his hope in the promise of the resurrection.  We have this same hope of the resurrection available to us each and every day of our lives—the promise that whatever we may encounter in this life will never separate us from the love of God in life or in death.  Such hope may come across as being foolishness to most people, but as far as we are concerned, if our trust in the grace of God to raise us up to a new life means anything at all, then this promise is enough to give us the faith and courage to take up our cross publicly and follow in the way of Jesus.  As we do so, 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, our Christ.  Amen.            

February 25, 2018

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Pastor Elizabeth Ekdale

Several days ago, I stepped out of the Intensive Care Unit (Kaiser Hospital, San Jose) into the hospital hallway.  I was stopped in my tracks by beautiful music piped through the speaker system:  the melody to Happy Birthday was being played on a harp.  Later that day I read a sign explaining the significance of the music – the birth of a baby in the hospital. In the late hours of evening, back in ICU at the bedside of my father, I pondered how, if at all, the hospital recognizes the death of a patient.  Imagine, if all staff, visitors and even the hospitalized were asked to pause to honor the death of a patient from this life to eternal life.  I wonder what song would be played over the speaker system?  

I know – it will never happen – it is simply too unsettling.  Too disturbing to have death acknowledged in the open - in plain view.  Today’s gospel story is similarly unsettling because of Jesus openness about his suffering and death.  “He said all this quite openly.”  Mark writes.  Jesus began to teach the disciples that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again.   There was no mincing of words from Jesus.  He said it straight.  No wonder Peter responded as he did.  Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for such honest and direct talk about death.  Rebukes Jesus.   Peter could not deal with such open speech. 

This is the truth of this text.  And a very hard truth to hear.  Jesus response of condemnation to Peter is an important necessary reminder to us in this season of Lent.  As soon as we set our sights and hearts on something other than the cross, we have, as Karoline Lewis describes, traded the “death and resurrection of Jesus with a more convenient and acceptable means of imaging what it means to follow Jesus.  What it means to be a disciple.  What it means to live and be in a world that desperately needs to know that being a Christian is not an easy ticket to heaven.  Is not your guarantee of prosperity.  Is not your bypass around the hardships of life.”  (workingpreacher.org)

We need to sit with Jesus open truthful words:  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  The season of Lent is far more than our own practices of self-sacrifice and focus on repentance.  Otherwise, being a Christian is nothing more than thoughts and prayers that never actually anticipate action. 

Parkland; another school shooting in the United States, the 8th school shooting to have resulted in death or injury during the first seven weeks of the year.  Thoughts and prayers?  As Karoline Lewis says openly, “That’s not what Jesus suggests as an answer.”  They have their place and time.  I have no doubt when it comes to thoughts and prayers, and the power of thoughts and prayers, they work and bring comfort to those who receive them.  At the same time?  “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve,” says theologian Miroslav Volf. 

And so, Jesus called the crowd to him along with the disciples and says to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Because that’s what happens when you are willing to take on the evil powers of this world.  That’s what happens when you are determined to show the world that God’s love and goodness is greater than any human show of might.  That’s what happens when you say, “While we live, we live for Christ Jesus, and when we die, we die for Christ Jesus. Both in life and in death we belong to Christ.”  And then live as if you believe it.  (Karoline Lewis)

Jesus makes it clear – he is willing to die because of God’s great love for the world – which runs smack against Peter’s expectations of what a successful Messiah should be doing and saying.   The High School youth of our nation have captured the hearts and minds of so many because of their plain and open speech with politicians who can only respond to one more tragedy with their “thoughts and prayers”; against the gun lobby who pour millions and millions of dollars into the coffers of our politicians to keep them towing the party line. 

Jesus and these students model for us gospel speaking – addressing the sins of our society and the sins of our communal, national and global world and about how God wants it to be different.  Imagine students who can attend school without any fear of danger of gun violence?  We dare to do more than just imagine – we are called to act by taking up our cross and embodying God’s presence in the world known by the incarnate Jesus.

Most of the time, our minds are set on human things – those impulses and illusions that waste our time and energy and our very lives.  That is why the sacred reminder of Jesus plain and open speech about cross bearing and losing one’s life is so important.  Our thoughts and hearts and bodies are lifted to that which is life giving, justice producing and peace making. 

Today we consider in our own lives how to live out Jesus plainspoken invitation to follow.  In this Lenten season of renewal – we begin first and foremost out of a place of grace – trusting that God so loves us and has redeemed us through Christ’s death and resurrection that picking up our cross, losing our life for the sake of the gospel will bring to each one of us the new life that we yearn to receive.  Amen.

 

February 18, 2018

A GOOD CONSCIENCE

February 18, 2018
I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15; Genesis 9:8-17

During the height of the Cold War nuclear arms buildup in the early 1980’s, Cynthia and I were invited by the American Lutheran Church to participate in a conference here at the Mercy Center in Burlingame.  The purpose of the conference was to gather a small assembly of people from the ALC who had differing opinions about the nuclear arms race, and to engage us in a dialogue so that we might grow in our understanding about other people’s perspectives on this matter.  Among those present were an army general, a politician who favored the arms race, a just war advocate, a few people who were undecided about this nuclear threat, and those of us who were advocates for peace without the use of such weaponry.

Martha Stortz, then a professor of ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, was one of the guest theologians who was invited to give us a foundation and context for this dialogue.  In the course of her presentation, she explained that the word, “conscience,” literally meant “to know together with.”  In other words, the word, conscience, is a corporate word that implies that people have come to a meeting of the minds about some significant matter that might threaten a human life, all of humanity, or our entire planet.  For those of us who attended this conference, I don’t know that any of our minds were changed about the nuclear arms buildup, but we certainly came away with a better understanding about each other’s perspectives on this nuclear threat.

In our second lesson for today, the author of this letter describes baptism as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We don’t often think about baptism in this way because for too many centuries, baptism was understood to be something that an individual must do in order to be assured of a place in heaven.  The corporate benefit of baptism here on earth simply was an afterthought in this context.  Thankfully, our understanding of baptism has shifted in the recent past to include an emphasis on the entrance into the body of Christ as one of the primary benefits of this holy sacrament. Through holy baptism, we are brought into this global community of faith so that we might know together with our sisters, brothers, and all who do not identify with either gender, what is good, right, holy, true, and acceptable in God’s sight. 

In the early church, one of the primary motivations for being baptized in the name of Jesus was for the purpose of joining in the resistance movement against the militarism of the Roman Empire based upon the principle of refusing to shed the blood of another human being.  That is why for almost 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection those who were baptized in the name of Jesus refused to serve in Caesar’s army until the 4th century when Constantine convinced the bishops of the church that it would be to their advantage if they would tell their people that it was alright to serve in Caesar’s army and that it was justifiable to shed another person’s blood so long as it meant that people throughout the Empire would be free to worship Christ as they so choose.

Based upon this shift in understanding about what was righteous in God’s sight, these bishops crafted what we know today as the criteria for fighting a just war, never conceiving of the day when fighting with swords would escalate into the possibility of complete nuclear annihilation.  Even today, proponents of this just war theory who are baptized in the name of Jesus would acknowledge that these criteria are still relevant in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils, at which point I would have to ask the question, “If we are choosing the lesser of two evils, then how can we be living and operating with a good conscience?”

Lutherans seem to pride themselves on being a part of the body of Christ that acknowledges and accepts paradox—the paradox of being both saint and sinner, of accepting into the church both baptized people of good conscience and people of bad conscience, and of welcoming militarists and pacifists into the same community of faith without wanting to offend anyone in the process.  This paradox is most evident in the halls of Congress these days as we witness avowed members of the body of Christ calling on the name of God to justify all kinds of military buildup, access to automatic weapons, war on those who are impoverished, and an assault on the environment that could result in the decimation of this planet, the likes of which we have never seen since the time of the great flood.

If the story of the flood was supposed to pre-figure baptism, then it might be good to acknowledge that this metaphorical story actually was told as a commentary on and critique of all of the violence and corruption that existed throughout the monarchy when most of the kings of Israel and Judah did what was evil in the sight of God.  As the end of this story goes, God had a change of heart and vowed never again to kill off humanity and destroy the earth by the waters of a flood.  Today, we don’t have to be too concerned about whether or not God is going to keep this promise, because we human beings seem to be the ones who are intent on killing off humanity and destroying many parts of the world by waters of a flood as the result of global warming.

Nothing has really changed in 3000 years since this story was told.  Our appetite for gun violence and political corruption that is rooted in our pride, our greed, our fear, especially of the NRA, and our lust for power continues to exterminate human life and leads to the extinction of so many species on this planet Earth.  Is there anything that will save us from this pending disaster?  The author of our second lesson for today seems to think that baptism could serve this purpose by giving us a good conscience whereby we might know together with one another what we can do that would appeal to God’s good pleasure.

When Jesus was baptized, he certainly appealed to God’s good pleasure, as we are told, because he had a good conscience—meaning that he was so in tune with God’s will that everything that he said and did by the power of the Holy Spirit would be considered righteous in God’s sight.  After his baptism, Jesus spent the rest of his life giving testimony and witness to this good conscience by proclaiming the good news of God’s realm and calling all people to repentance which would involve turning back to God and being so in concert with the will of God that we might not only know together the things that make for peace in this world, but actually pursue them.

When I was growing up, I was taught that my conscience was God’s way of letting me know right from wrong, and that whenever I felt guilty about something that I had done, that probably was God’s way of letting me know that I had done something wrong.  Then, one day in my early 20’s, I realized that my conscience had much more to do with pleasing my parents and having my neighbors think well of me than actually pleasing God.  That perception became even more clear to me during my clinical pastoral education experience when I discovered that my conscience primarily was informed by my older sister whom I idolized.

Jesus had to deal with similar dynamics in his life.  He was pressured by his family to quit his ministry because he was too threatening to the religious leaders of his day.  His disciples tried to talk him out of going to Jerusalem because they knew that Jesus’ life as well as their own lives were in jeopardy.  The religious leaders and the civil authorities always were present at Jesus’ gatherings and constantly were challenging the good news that he was proclaiming in order to make sure that he would not threaten their authority and power.  When Jesus repeatedly committed religious disobedience by healing people on the Sabbath day, and then chased the animal sellers and money changers out of the temple courtyard because, in good conscience, he knew that those who already were poor were being ripped off, the chief priests and the elders knew that they had to get rid of this itinerant preacher.

The challenge today for those of us who have been baptized in Jesus’ name is to have a good conscience so that we might know together with one another what is pleasing to God and then act according to what we understand God’s will to be.  In any given assembly of the body of Christ, we are going to have differing opinions about matters of life and death.  Therefore, in order to come to an understanding together about what might be righteous according to God’s will, we need to be in dialogue with one another in a safe environment where everyone can have an opportunity to speak and no one has to be afraid for their lives.

At a Synod assembly several years ago, our bishop attempted to create such an environment for the voting members around the issue of homosexuality.  I remember sitting at a table with one of the most notorious pastors in our synod for his public denunciation of homosexual behavior, and being told by him that you progressives keep inviting us into a conversation about moral deliberation which really is a smoke screen for wanting to convince us that you are right.  As an afterthought, my answer to this accusation was “No” and “Yes.”  No, I do want to hear how you in good conscience can be so judgmental and condemning of others, and yes, I do want to convince you not so much that I am right, but that I and many of us in this room have a different understanding about what is pleasing to God according to the revelation of Jesus, our common Christ.

Our challenge today is to be in dialogue with those baptized members of the body of Christ who attempt to justify all kinds of violence, corruption, discrimination, oppression, and decimation of this planet as the will of God and appeal to their good conscience.  Jesus spent his entire ministry proclaiming the good news so that he might appeal to the good conscience of the religious leaders of his day, and for that his life was taken from him.  What are we willing to lose for the sake of this good news—the good news that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the full awareness of what is true, right, and just in God’s sight?  As we wrestle with this question together, 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 Christ, the bearer of good news and the revelation of a good conscience.  Amen.