Monthly Archives: November 2017

Where There’s Suffering and Fear, God’s Love is Shown (Nov. 26, 2017)

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

There are some events that change history. Pearl Harbor for the Greatest Generation. Nothing would ever be the same after that.

For me and many around my age it was the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

For many now it’s 9/11.

If you live through events like these your world is forever changed.

That’s true with Matthew’s community, too. To really hear this gospel, we need to know the life-changing events that forever changed Matthew’s community. Their “Pearl Harbor” event, their “9/11” event was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 AD.

This gospel was most likely written between 80 and 90 AD. All the original eye-witnesses of Jesus’ ministry are long dead. The Apostle Paul has been dead for 20-30 years. Every Christian living at this time was part of the 2nd generation of the church.

Matthew’s community probably was located in Syria. They were mostly Jewish Christians, who may have scattered and relocated in Syria after the Roman invasion of Jerusalem.

In about 66AD or so, Israel got tired of unjust (sinful) taxes they had to pay to Rome, and they revolted. The revolution escalated until Jewish zealots were killing off Roman citizens in Jerusalem.

Rome, of course, retaliated and plundered the temple, taking all the wealth there, claiming it all belonged to Rome anyway.

The plundering of the temple led to an all-out rebellion by the Jews against Rome.

Rome sent in armies from Syria to put it down and restore order, but by then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem had already set up their own autonomous government. Because Jerusalem was so well fortified (with three thick walls surrounding the city) and well defended, Rome sought out rebel strongholds an eradicated them, beginning in Galilee.

This sent Jews from Galilee fleeing to Jerusalem as refugees. Which would have been fine except that the Galilean Jews had formed their own government too, which now clashed with the rebel government in Jerusalem. That internal conflict escalated too.

So in 70AD, (ten or twenty years before Matthew’s gospel was written), Rome attacked Jerusalem directly. After a 7-month siege, they broke through the third wall, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.

The Jews that weren’t enslaved scattered throughout the region, perhaps with the author of Matthew’s gospel among them. The tensions between he Jews and Rome continued for decades, breaking out into two more wars in the 2nd century.

In any case, this particular community of Jewish people who were disciples of Jesus now lived in Syria with the tension of Roman conquest changing everything. They weren’t native Syrians, they were Israelites. Still living within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, they were still vulnerable.

With all that these Jews had been through in the last 15-20 years, they had to be wondering how God was going to deal with all of it. What does Jesus the Messiah, resurrected 50-60 years ago, have to do with it?

The author of Matthew takes the last couple of chapters in his gospel to address some of that. What will Jesus do to the world at the end of time? This text is part of that speculation.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before him.” All the nations. Including Rome and all the other Gentile regions. Jesus will be on the throne then and will decide the fate of all these Gentile countries. And the same Jesus who taught the Beatitudes, who preached love for enemies, who revealed God as merciful to all, is the same Jesus who will judge these nations.

God hasn’t forgotten the persecution of these Jewish followers in Mathew’s community. God knows their suffering at the hands of some, and also knows the kindness shown to them by others.

On the day of the Lord, at the end of time, when Jesus is rightfully sitting on the throne of judgment, he will separate nations and peoples according, in part, to how these nations have treated “the least of these who are members of my family.”

Do you hear how that would sound to these people whose family and friends are either enslaved or who have had to flee for their lives? God remembers them, the least and most vulnerable of all people, and looks with favor on the nations that have shown them kindness. These refugees matter to God.

And how consistent that is with everything Jesus taught and did! Those who are powerless matter. Those who are poor and who mourn are blessed. Those who are frightened and vulnerable are lifted up in love. Live in hope, because God sees you and remembers you!

And God will also look with kindness on those who are kind to you. Not because they’ve tried harder (in the parable they don’t even know they’ve done things God finds favorable), but because they are filled with God’s love and simply live that way.

So, this isn’t a gospel text about trying harder to be nice to people. It’s two-fold: Jesus remembers you when you are suffering and frightened and helpless. But also, that  God’s love is going to be shown. Because God’s love changes people. Even now when our world feels more chaotic and frightening than ever, God’s love is still changing the world. May Christ’s love continue to change us. May we then be among those who show mercy and compassion to refugees, to the poor, to the vulnerable, to the forgotten.

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Posted by on November 29, 2017 in Sermon


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You Already Matter. You Make a Difference. (Nov. 19, 2017)

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I’m not sure there’s much that’s new in this parable. The meaning is pretty clear—God entrusts each of us with different gifts and we are to use them for God’s purposes. In the parable, two slaves used what was entrusted to them well, doing with their respective finances what the master himself would do, and thereby earning praise from the master. And the third slave, out of fear, hides what is given to him, merely returning it to the master. Although there was no loss to the master, he’s still angry because this servant did nothing because he was afraid.

So the moral is to use what you have been given for God.

Simple, right?

I’ve looked at, studied, taught, on preached on this text more times than I can count. And not only do I find that it isn’t very motivating to those I preach to, but it isn’t very motivating to me. I’ve never experienced anyone, including myself, who after hearing this parable says, “Wow! I’ve been using everything I have only for myself! I never realized that was wrong. But, because I heard this parable, as of today, everything I have from now on is for God!” Before this parable, sinner. After this parable, zealot for the Lord. Nope, doesn’t seem to work that way.

So I got to thinking about that. Why aren’t we motivated to live differently by this parable? Why aren’t we more enthused about using what has been given to us for God? Why don’t we pay more attention to what God has given us?

I wonder if it’s because we don’t believe that our gifts matter that much. That which we can do or say isn’t going to matter in the grand scope of the world. God expects big things, and our gifts and abilities aren’t quite up to snuff. We don’t have the resources or ability to change the world. At least not the way God wants. So what we have to offer probably isn’t that big a deal.

So why do so many people feel that the talents and resources that have been entrusted to them aren’t important, aren’t life-changing?

Probably there are a couple of different reasons: 1) some people don’t really believe that. They know they have abundant resources and a lot of ability. But if we say we can’t do much, we feel we’re off the hook with God and can use our gifts and opportunities for our own benefit.

But I think there’s another reason why we often don’t believe our gifts matter: 2) it’s that we’ve never been told that they are important. We’ve never been told that the things we have, the things we can do, the things that have been entrusted to us really do matter. We make a difference.

Think about this. Have you ever noticed how people react to a baby when they smile and laugh? The roughest, toughest, meanest old grump visibly softens and becomes meek and gentle. Babies, by virtue of simply being themselves, have an effect on the world.

Not to be overly analytical about that, but there’s positive feedback for that baby. Given this response from virtually everyone, how long does it take for that baby to figure out that they can elicit that softness from everyone they meet? They come to realize within just a few months that they make a difference in their world. They aren’t being vain or pious or self-righteous. They just acknowledge this reality—they have something to offer that has an effect.

Each one of us has unique abilities and talents. We all have resources in various types and amounts. All of us, already, make the world a different place because of these gifts given to us by God. But somehow we’ve lost the honesty to acknowledge that. We focus much more on what we can’t do that what we can. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do. We’ve been conditioned to focus on the negative things in our world—things that either we contribute to or that we have no control over. But that’s not what Jesus is asking of us here.

What he’s expecting in this parable is that we recognize that we are gifted by God. Each one of us. We are gifted with what we have and with what we can do.

And that there are opportunities to use these gifts, given by God, for God’s purposes. That’s why God has given us these gifts in the first place. They are ways that we are called—and quite honestly, ways that we are expected—to contribute to God’s vision of justice, peace, and compassion. God has given you abilities, God has given you resources, and God continues to give you opportunities to be part of what God is doing. You are gifted—by God and for God!

I started thinking about that. About having gifts and abilities and opportunities with God. If a baby, with one giggle, can make a difference in the world, we can too.

Adults: many of you have jobs. You were hired because you have certain gifts or aptitudes that qualify you for that work. These are gifts from God providing you an opportunity to contribute to God’s work. Probably not with pamphlets or judgment, but with compassion and honesty and integrity. Caring about co-workers and being a light in a dark place. We can do this with an awareness that God is present, that God is calling, that God provides the gifts for this purpose.

Students, you make a difference in your classrooms. Those who are retired, you make a difference in the relationships you share.

We can maximize these opportunities! We can deliberately bring our God-given gifts into each situation we encounter. We can grow in our awareness that God gives us opportunities to be Christ for the people we spend time with. 10 talents, 5 talents, 2 talents. We are gifted. We make a difference. God’s light shines through each of us. The difference today is that we can be assured of that. Christ is present through you where you each day. Shine that. Be that. Trust that.

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Posted by on November 29, 2017 in Sermon


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Preparing for Non-Violence (November 12, 2017)

(Amos 5:18-24); Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

“Repent! Jesus is coming soon!” is the cry of some Christians. Their point is that you better be ready when Jesus shows up, because your eternity hangs in the balance. Texts like this one in Matthew are used to prove their point. The five foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the wedding banquet (heaven) when the bridegroom (Jesus) comes, because they didn’t have oil for their lamps (weren’t ready).  And “readiness” means whatever.

Although there is an accurate element of being ready for Jesus to come at the end of time, there is, on the part of many of these kinds of Christians, a misunderstanding of what that means.

This parable isn’t just about being ready for the end of the world, it’s about being ready when the end of the world is delayed.

The only difference between the five wise and the five foolish bridesmaids is preparation for the wait. All of them are invited to be part of the wedding procession. All of them bring their lamps. All of them wait. All of them get tired when the bridegroom is later than expected and fall asleep. All of them, when awakened, trim their lamps. The only difference is that five were ready for the delay, and five weren’t.

In the gospel of Matthew, there are lots of these “judgment” scenes—what Amos today refers to as “the day of the Lord.” Some call it the final judgment, others the 2nd coming of Christ. There are all kinds of bad theologies (movies?) around all that, but it is a recurring theme in Matthew. So we need to deal with it.

Because we usually just don’t deal with it. We don’t often talk about Christ’s return or the end of time or the day of judgment or the “day of the Lord.” Usually we say something like, “well, it hasn’t happened in 2000 years, it’s not likely going to happen today.”

That may be true, but what does that say about our preparation? And, for that matter, what does it mean to be prepared, as this text says?

What “the day of the Lord,” and all the other terms, usually refer to is God finally making things right. God’s vision, God’s justice, God’s ultimate peace become the full reality, especially regarding the poor. Every time God’s people begin to act in ways contrary to God’s vision of justice, the prophets cry out that “the day of the Lord” is coming. Where will those who ignore the poor be then? Look out, they cry! It is coming!

That’s picked up in the New Testament, too. Jesus is expected to return somehow at the end of time and bring about God’s ultimate justice and righteousness, establishing once and for all God’s peace where everyone has enough, everyone is fed, everyone is loved, everyone is forgiven.

Matthew gets pretty dramatic about it, the only gospel that really gets into the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” thing. But like so many other places in Matthew, it’s done to get our attention, to be seen as important. Jesus tells his disciples at the end of this parable to be ready, because though delayed, that day of God’s reign of peace is gonna come.

The question for the bridesmaids, then, is “are we preparing for the day of the Lord—for peace?” Are we preparing to live in God’s reign where everyone is being cared for, where everyone lives without fear of violence? Seriously, are we preparing ourselves and our world to live in God’s peace, to live without violence?

It’s one thing to wish the world was less violent. But it’s another thing to actually prepare to live in non-violence—to have the oil. Speaking for myself, I relate well to the foolish bridesmaids, who, because I’ve been waiting so long for some slowing down of violence, have grown tired. I admit that in some ways I’ve abandoned hope that our culture can ever give up our obsession with violence. I hardly blinked after the latest mass shooting in a Texas church a week ago. I knew, before the body count, before the motive of the shooter was known, before we were told whether there was racism or terrorism or mental illness or domestic violence what the responses would be. The same responses over and over. “Don’t politicize this tragedy!” “We need better gun laws!” “If more people had more guns this would stop.” “If we closed the loopholes on gun sales to the mentally ill we could solve this.” On and on. Again and again. Over and over. The same rhetoric having the same results. Which are: none. So we lose hope as we wait for the next inevitable shooting, the next attack, the next act of mass violence. Couple of days, then we’ll start the useless rhetoric all over again.

I would say that qualifies as not preparing to live in a world of God’s peace. I’ll tell you now, if suddenly God’s peace broke out in the world, no one would be more surprised than me. My oil has run out in my waiting. God’s non-violence and justice haven’t arrived, and I’m no longer ready. I’ve discovered that I’ve even quit preparing for it. It seems beyond hope now.

So this parable is for me. Maybe it’s for you, too. The bridegroom is coming, though he’s quite delayed. The day of peace will arrive, though it seems beyond hope today. Violence will end, though I can’t even imagine it now. Call it whatever you want: the day of the Lord, the 2nd coming of Christ, the end of time, whatever. We are called to prepare to live in a world of God’s peace and justice, a world without violence.

Which means practicing non-violence. Paying attention to the movies we watch, the games we play, the way we speak, the politics we heed. Even when confronted with violence in our world, we practice what non-violence would look like. The day is coming. The peace of Christ will eventually rule in our hearts and minds. God’s day of justice will arrive. We can be ready. We can prepare to live in real peace. There’s plenty of oil for our lamps to light the way for the presence of Christ. Let us fill up our lamps today, and prepare for Christ’s peace.

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Posted by on November 12, 2017 in Sermon


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Who Does God Really Bless? (November 5, 2017)

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Before we can really look at the Beatitudes here, we need to clear up some language issues. First and foremost is this word “blessed.” Chances are, anytime we use that word in normal life we’re using it incorrectly—at least as far as the Beatitudes go. When we’re feeling good and life is fine, and someone asks how we’re doing, if we answer “I’m feeling blessed today,” we missed the mark a bit. Or, at least we’ve misunderstood what being “blessed” looks like.

Blessed, or the word translated as “blessed,” isn’t really about being successful or having good health or receiving a financial windfall or living in a free country. The best translation I could find is “greatly honored.” I think that gets at the meaning Matthew’s Jesus is getting at. And it’s a bit surprising at who he says is “greatly honored.”

Regardless of how much our Lutheran theology informs us that God loves everyone and God’s grace is for everyone, do we really believe that? When something really tough happens that has no legitimate explanation, how many of us say, “How could you let this happen, God?” Or, “Why them, God? They deserve better than that”?

Deep down, at some inner core of our being, we have this sense of fairness that flies in the face of God’s unconditional grace. Some people deserve better than they get. Others deserve worse than they get. We all kind of tend to agree on who belongs in which group. Because some people deserve to be honored, and others don’t.

It’s always been that way for us. In our honest moments, we have to admit that it appears that God favors some people over others. These are the ones who we tend to honor, that we often refer to as “blessed.”

We honor those who work hard and overcome obstacles.

We honor those who get good grades.

We honor football teams that don’t turn the ball over 5 times in Kansas City. . .

These are the ones who deserve to be greatly honored. We think of them as “blessed.”

Think about it. We really don’t honor the meek. We kind of feel sorry for them and wish they would stick up for themselves.

We don’t honor the pure in heart; we just think they’re out of touch and naïve.

We don’t honor the peacemakers; we call them wimps or even unpatriotic.

So what is Jesus really saying here? How are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who show mercy honored or blessed?

What Jesus is saying is that we still don’t fully get how God works. Those that we feel sorry for or disregard or lose patience with are the very ones toward which God shows great honor. Those who get bad grades, who embarrass their families, who are addicted, who live on the street, who can’t seem to get their lives together. These are greatly honored by God. Even if they are not always honored by us, they are nonetheless honored by God.

And as the church, our job is to honor those God honors; recognize as blessed those God blesses.

And guess what? That includes you. God won’t honor you any less when life gets overwhelming. God won’t bless you less when you’re in over your head. God still sees you when people are blaming you for their problems. God’s love for you continues when you’re facing an uphill struggle.

That’s the connection to All Saints’ Sunday. That God has honored those we love who’ve gone before us. Not because they were more perfect or holier or never wavered in their faith. No. They are honored by God as saints because God has named them blessed people. God accompanied them when they were low. God stood with them when they mourned. God took care of them when they were dying. God held them when they struggled. They are saints, honored, blessed by God.

And today, we remember them as saints. Today we acknowledge that God loves those we love, that God blesses those we miss, that God honors those we are grieving for.

For in the same way, God blesses us in our mourning today. God comes to us and honors us. That’s how God works.

During the next song, make your way over to the memorial candles, and light a candle for those you’ve lost recently. Write their name and place it in the basket. We’ll read all the names and commend them into God’s care. As we do so, we thank God for honoring them. And remember that in your grief, you are blessed by God too.

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Posted by on November 7, 2017 in Sermon


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