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Does God’s Grace Include Racists? (August 20, 2017)

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place (Gennesaret of Galilee) and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

What do you make of Jesus’ rudeness? First he ignores this poor woman whose daughter is sick. Then when he finally does acknowledge her, says it’s not his job to help her, and he calls her a dog.

Are you bothered by Jesus’ treatment of this Canaanite woman?

The thing is, for the audience the author of Matthew wrote this gospel for, they likely wouldn’t be offended at all. They may not even notice Jesus’ attitude, because it may have so reflected their own. Matthew’s Christian audience was Jewish historically. They were wrestling with this concept of non-Jews being part of the church.

They understood Jewish Christians to be God’s elect, special people God had chosen to bring light into the world. They believed that their way of life, their view of the world, their belief in God was given to them by God, and therefore the rest of the world should do things the way they did them. Especially when it comes to faith, religion, and Jesus. They had the answers. In order to be doing God’s will, the rest of the world—certainly non-Jewish Christians in Israel—needed to listen to them and follow their lead. They were the ones who knew what God wanted, and how God wanted it.

So of course this Gentile, this apostate, this enemy, this woman isn’t worthy of Jesus’ time. She represents everything that good Christian people ought not to be. She’s wrong in her ethnicity, her heritage, her religion, and her gender.

What’s worse, she’s culturally way out of bounds too. Women of God were expected to be reserved in public. But she’s shouting at Jesus, making demands of Christ. Who does she think she is?

Jesus would be right, according to Christian belief in Matthew’s community, in ignoring her. You can’t encourage such dog-like behavior from a dog-like person. She needs to learn what it is to be a believer in the one true God. Jesus needs to put her in her place. He needs to show her what God-fearing people are like. She’s wrong in every possible way, and Jesus needs to let her know that.

That’s likely the background of Matthew’s audience as they hear this text. So the offense wouldn’t be Jesus’ rudeness, but her un-Christian behavior and inferior beliefs.

So the surprise would be Jesus actually listening to her, then changing his mind and agreeing with her, and then commending her faith! God’s mercy, apparently, is even for people like her—a woman so far outside their Christian thinking that it’s offensive to have to include her.

I want to stop a moment and check in with you. How are you feeling about this story now? Are you more sympathetic with the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s community? Have your views of this woman changed at all? Does their being offended by her affect how they should treat someone like her?

But mostly, I want to see if you are making any connections with our lives right now.

In our American Christian thinking, who do we automatically assume is outside God’s mercy and grace? Who, by virtue of their inclusion, would we be offended by? Who do we all pretty much agree, without even needing to say it, have no place in the church?

I’ll tell you who that is for me. It’s the racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, white supremacists who planned an evil rally of violence and hatred in Charlottesville, VA. I do not want them or any of their sympathizers anywhere near this church. I am desperately offended by their use of the name of Jesus to proclaim such vile, wicked, sinfulness. Their actions and attitudes are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, absolutely, completely, totally despicable. Make no mistake about that. That behavior is truly contrary to everything Jesus lived and died for.

I’ve always known that racism and hatred have been present. But in my own white privilege it hasn’t always affected me. I could ignore it, or at least be silent about it, because I wasn’t victimized by it every day.

But now the lid has been blown off that superficial comfort. Now the very present, even bold, evil of racism is right in my face. And people who look like me are using Jesus’ name to justify horrible, evil actions and attitudes.

And I can’t stand it.

And this gospel text points out that God’s mercy is for those people too. If I ever were to swear in a sermon, right now is when it would come out. Because that offends me in ways that are so deep I can’t express them. The actions of those people, who dare to call themselves Christian, are as far away from Jesus as possible, yet this text says that God’s mercy is for them too. There’s room at the communion table for them too. And it is my job—our job—to proclaim that and live that. Regardless of how offensive that is to me, I’m the one who has to adjust to that. My attitude has to change. I cannot condone or justify their actions or attitudes, but they, as human beings, are included in God’s grace.

If even those who are dispensers of evil are included in God’s mercy, then it seems the door is pretty wide open. Wouldn’t you say that it’s a pretty easy call that people who aren’t spewing vile, hateful rhetoric ought to be invited and included?

About 55% of this congregation lives in zip code 80228. The other 45% live in concentric circles around 80228. There are over 32,000 people just in the 80228 zip code. Of those, over 5000 of them are people of color within a couple of miles of this building’s doors. Hundreds of these, just in 80228, are Black. And if only 55% of our congregation lives in 80228, then don’t tell me there are no Blacks who live here. Thousands are Hispanic or Latino. Although I couldn’t find statistics on how many are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, Denver has the 9th largest LGBTQ population in the country. God’s mercy is for them, and we are the ones called and equipped to proclaim and to live that. So why are so few here?

We need to change that. We need to live and breathe the reality that God’s mercy is actually for all people. We need to be the visible witness of the wideness of God’s grace.

And here’s our next step. We, as a congregation, are going to have a conversation in the not too distant future, about becoming a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation. Which means in the ELCA that we state publicly that we openly welcome and affirm those in the LGBTQ community. God’s mercy includes everyone. We may as well say it. We may as well show it. We may as well live it. If you’d like to be part of the team to plan that conversation, let me know.

As disciples of Jesus, Christians are God’s chosen people. But not for privilege. We are chosen to proclaim, to reveal, and to live out God’s mercy and grace to all people. And we each can take another step forward in that call starting today.

My friend, Pastor Meta Carlson recently wrote a simple way to take a step forward, “Turn your face to the truth. The truth about God’s love, God’s people, God’s justice. And then find someone to tell. Wake a child, call a friend, kiss a lover, stand awkwardly outside until a dog-walking neighbor comes by and scare the crap out of them with some love. Tell someone the truth tonight. ‘You are created in the image of God. God made you and said “very good.”’”

You see, God’s grace includes everyone. We begin anew today.

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Posted by on August 20, 2017 in Sermon

 

“Just Get Back in the Boat, Peter” (August 13, 2017)

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus, on hearing of John the Baptist’s death, tried to get away to mourn. Because the crowds followed him and he had compassion for them, he delayed his period of grief and began to heal their sick.

Now, after feeding the 5000+, he tries again to go off by himself. He not only sends the crowds on their way, but he makes his disciples leave too. He orders them to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He was finally able to spend some time alone.

The disciples, however, didn’t have such a refreshing night. A storm came up and kept them from reaching land. Fighting all night long against the wind and the waves, they couldn’t get to the other side of the sea. Even though Jesus told them to go, the storm kept them from obeying him.

Frightened and exhausted, in the midst of the storm they see someone walking across the water toward them. It was still dark, and I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be on top of everything else. Of course they think it’s a ghost. What else would they think?

So even though Jesus tries to reassure them, Peter makes a really stupid suggestion, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I can just hear Jesus thinking to himself, “Peter, just stay in boat with the others like I told you.” But I envision Jesus heaving a big sigh and saying, “Alright, Peter. Go ahead.”

I get being terrified, and I get wanting to be near Jesus. But I’m not sure why Peter would think walking on the water would be the best way to deal with his fear. Why not ask for the storm to stop? Or to be transported to land? Or a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich?

Because here’s how I see Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Not an act of faith, but of selfishness. He not only forgets Jesus’ command to the disciples, but he abandons them in order to ease his own panic. He’s going to do whatever it takes to be comforted in his fear, even if it means leaving the relative safety of the boat and the team effort of his friends. He’s striking out on his own so that he can be with Jesus, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. In the face of his own panic, this is an act of cowardice and selfishness, hardly one of faith.

I keep coming back to one of Jesus’ primary themes in Matthew. You are all in this life together, so you better hang in there together. Quit creating divisions. The parable of the different soils—he seed will still come to you. The parable of the weeds and the wheat—hang in there together. If we abandon others just so we can get closer to Jesus on our own, we wind up sinking.

Now, hear what I’m saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t turn to Jesus when we’re afraid. But I am saying that sometimes “faith” means sticking it out with the other disciples in the boat. Sometimes “faith” means holding to what Jesus tells us to do even if that means heading into the storm. Sometimes “faith” means supporting each other when we’re afraid and trusting that Jesus will meet us there. Sometimes “faith” means recognizing that God is God, Jesus is Jesus, and we are not. Jesus walks on water, we don’t. Sometimes “faith” means staying in the boat together, which, by the way, is where Jesus told Peter to be in the first place.

I’m afraid that sometimes, in order to seek our own personal comfort with Jesus, we abandon the others in the boat. And I think that is the lack of faith—the doubting—that Jesus confronts Peter with. If we are forsaking others for our own sense of spiritual righteousness, we’ll sink. If we want Jesus to save us while ignoring others in the boat, we’ll sink. If we are so terrified of the wind and the waves that we bail on our community with the excuse of getting closer to Jesus, we’ll sink.

Sure, Jesus reaches out and saves the sinking Peter. But the point of the story isn’t that Peter is a good example. Rather, that even if we panic, even if we abandon others in the boat, even if we are so terrified that we do ridiculous things, Jesus still comes to us and reaches out to us. But Jesus is coming to us whether we’re afraid or not.

We all get terrified at some points in our lives and can’t see Jesus there, right? We all have points at which we want to abandon others for our own safety and comfort.

When we face the first holiday without a loved one, we can be filled with dread.

When the symptoms of a disease we thought was gone begin to re-emerge, we can sense the panic.

As we foolishly tinker with the possibility of nuclear war, we can begin to feel the nervousness.

As we look on, aghast, at the hatred and violence and the evil of racism so boldly displayed in Charlotsville, Virginia, and we begin to get concerned about where this will lead.

As we watch our Muslim siblings, our immigrant siblings, our transgender siblings face very real discrimination and even persecution, we can begin to give in to our fear of what’s coming next. And it can take over our actions. We might simply want to abandon everything and everyone else and run to Jesus. We want to escape our fear and be held in his comfort. Even if that means doing something dumb like abandoning those in the boat and trying to walk on water on our own. Fear can do that to us.

But Jesus is coming to us. Just stay in the boat together.

We may not recognize him, but he’s walking across the fear to us. Just stay in the boat together.

At first, his approach may cause even more fear. But he’s there. Just stay in the boat together.

We’re in a boat together. And we sink or are saved together. And Jesus comes to us across the chaos, through the fear, together. And when we’re all together in the boat, and the storm is stilled, we worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Sermon

 

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A Gift Card, Crowds, More than Enough (August 6, 2017)


Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard [that John the Baptist had been killed], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

“[Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

I read recently that the five loaves and two fish would be enough for a meal for about dozen people. Which means the disciples brought enough for themselves. It’s evening so they want Jesus to quit healing the crowds and send them into town so they can get some food for themselves.

The disciples have enough for themselves, but not for everybody else.

They have enough for themselves.

The disciples aren’t mean. They are noticing that it’s now evening, and if these crowds are going to have any chance of finding food for themselves they better get on it soon! Since the disciples have theirs, they want to make sure these thousands of others can get theirs too.

The disciples have enough for themselves. It’s not their fault the crowds didn’t plan ahead. But Jesus invites them to think about their food—and the crowds—differently too. He asks them to give their food away.

I wonder if the real miracle was that these disciples trusted Jesus enough to do it. Trusted him enough to be willing to take the risk of going hungry if others didn’t share also.

If the disciples had kept their mindset of “I’ve got mine, now you go get yours,” some would surely have gone hungry. But Jesus challenges them to think beyond that. Jesus’ message is that it can’t be “I’ve got mine, good luck to you.” Jesus helps us understand that, together, we’ve got more than enough already. More than enough. It’s a matter of thinking differently about our resources. Thinking beyond ourselves and our own needs. It’s a matter of knowing that there is already more than enough and acting on that. When we have more than enough we are free to be generous.

I talked a couple of months ago about a man named David I met in a coffee shop. When I first met him he was sitting at the table next to mine. The sermon I was working on at the time had to do with racism, and as David was Black, I eventually leaned over and asked this stranger to read over what I had written and give me his impressions. Which he generously and graciously did. I’ve seen him a few times since at the same coffee shop, and we always exchange greetings and he gives me encouragement to keep proclaiming the Word.

This past week David and I were both there again. As usual, we greeted each other and he encouraged me to “keep telling them about Jesus.” We went to our separate tables and each tended to our work. A while later I noticed David walking toward my table. He smiled, and as he approached he laid a coffee shop gift card on my table. “This is for you,” he said. “For your faithfulness and commitment to Jesus.” Then he left.

Here’s why I mention this. You see, when I got to the coffee shop that day and had ordered my latte, there was a moment where I didn’t think I had enough money with me to pay for it. I found a $5 bill, I breathed a sigh of relief—I could buy myself my own cup of coffee. And get change besides. With my drink in hand, I could ignore everyone else in the coffee shop, not really paying any attention as to whether they had coffee or not. I got mine.

But David saw more than just himself in the coffee shop. He saw at least one other person and shared some of his own resources with me. That make me think that there were 16 other people in that coffee shop at that point, and all of them are children of God, all of us are “sitting in the grass” of the coffee shop right then. The hearing impaired couple at the next table, the elderly couple neither of which could walk well, the woman in a wheelchair, the young man mentoring a high school student, the four women playing cards, and all the rest aren’t people to be ignored, but people with stories and lives and who are are worth being cared about.

So, inspired by my friend David, and in an attempt to live out the point of this text, I began to think about what I had that I could share with the multitudes sitting in the grass of the coffee shop. I’m not a stalking creeper or anything. I’m really good at respecting people’s space. But I’m writing this sermon on taking a risk of sharing what you have, and was just on the receiving end of that as the gift card was still sitting there in front of me.

What could I share? I had no more money with me. I wasn’t about to stand up and offer a benediction to all the coffee shop patrons. Interestingly enough, a woman at a nearby table seemed quietly frustrated with her computer. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been inspired by David and this text to look beyond myself at the crowds around me. I left the comfort of my own world bubble and asked her if there was anything I could do. It turns out she couldn’t get on the internet even though her computer was brand new.

I’ve struggled to get online there too, and had kind of figured out how to do it, and offered to share that knowledge with her. There was enough band width for everyone with 12 baskets left over. I just had to look a little bit beyond myself and see what I had to share. There’s more than enough for all of us.

We have enough for everything God is calling us to do. Individually for sure. But as a congregation too. Right now. We have more than enough. Our budget is more than sufficient, our human resosurces are more than adequate, our overall giftedness is overabundant. We’re being called to look beyond ourselves and share the abundance of what we have so that all see the miracle of Christ present, so that all have enough. We have enough for ourselves. And it’s more than enough when we share it.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Kingdom of Heaven: Unwanted, Invasive, Contaminated (July 30, 2017)

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

You know what I think about the kingdom of heaven? I think it’s incredibly frustrating. And slow. And sometimes discouraging.

But before I can explain why to you, we need to be clear about the definition of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus talks about it. First, it is not a place out in the stars somewhere that your soul goes after you die. At least that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. As Jesus explains it, the kingdom of heaven is something that is present here and now. It’s something that he brings into the world. It is any time and any place God’s will of love, compassion, and grace are being done. It isn’t so much a place as a way of living in the world. It is less about getting ahead in the world and more about giving yourself away for the world. It’s loving with Jesus’ love, forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness, and being compassionate with Jesus’ compassion. That is the kingdom of God Jesus is talking about.

And it can be frustrating to me. Jesus tries over and over to get people to understand it, and has a hard time succeeding. Here in this text, he tells five quick parables to help us get this concept. I don’t find it frustrating because of what I don’t get about it. I find it frustrating because of the parts I do.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. A weed that was unwanted by everyone in that day. It would take over a field and aggressively take all the water so no crops to grow. And the birds that come and make their nests in the full-grown mustard shrub? They aren’t cute little song birds. They come and peck at all the good seeds that the mustard bush has left.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Unwanted? Invasive? It just comes in and takes over?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like leaven in bread dough. This is not a nice little package of yeast that makes freshly baked bread fluffy and tall. No, leaven was an impurity, coming from rotten, moldy, old bread. Why would a woman contaminate her bread like that? Unleavened bread was pure and good. Leavened bread was gross.

The kingdom of heaven is like that? Disgusting? Contaminated? Ruining perfectly good bread?

Yes, Jesus says. Like that.

Why do I find that frustrating? Because I tend to agree. I want the kingdom of heaven, i.e., compassion and grace and forgiveness and love to be revealed. But I want it to be revealed on my terms. I don’t want to be compassionate indiscriminately. I don’t want it coming in where I think it has no business being present. I want to live with Jesus’ compassion when I want to, not invading into unwanted places when God wants it done.

I want to dispense compassion to the people I want to dispense it to. Those for whom it will possibly make a difference. Those who will respond to compassion and be open to my compassion changing their lives. Because then I have a better chance of being recognized for my amazing kindness. If it invades where I don’t really want it, happening whenever God wants, my acts of compassion might not be received the way I want. They may think I expect a response from them. They may think that I think they now owe me something. They may be right.

I’ve been known to think, “Wow. After all I did for you, that’s how you repay me? After all my wonderful compassion, you treat me like that?” I performed your wedding and you won’t join my church? I gave you a night’s lodging at a motel, and you tell all your homeless friends I’ll do the same for them?

You see, if I can control when I show compassion, if I control where I reveal the kingdom of God, I can also control how it’s received. I’m not so likely to waste perfectly good compassion on someone who treats my compassion like an invasive contaminate.

So, yes, it’s frustrating that I don’t control the kingdom of God. That with me or without me, compassion and love and grace keep showing up in the world. Sometimes where they have no business showing up.

Part of me longs for the day that this kingdom of compassion takes over everything and everyone like Jesus’ last parable of a net scooping up fish everywhere. But another part of me recognizes that the fullness of that is a long way off, and I have a long way to go before I’m doing my full part in it.

So maybe it’s OK that this kingdom of compassion and grace and forgiveness invades like a weed. Because perhaps it will invade me too. Whether I accept it well or not. Whether I respond well to it or not. And I guess that’s not such a bad thing after all.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Play Nicely, Kids. We’re All in the Same Sandbox (July 23, 2017)

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, “An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ “

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

Easy to blame the weeds. . .

“I just don’t understand how those weeds can act like that. Why don’t they just get a job or quit using drugs or go to college or learn English. Why don’t they just behave more like us wheat.

“Immigration wouldn’t be a problem if the weeds obeyed our current laws.

“Society would be fine if those weeds would allow us to put the 10 commandments on courthouse lawns.

“Congress could get stuff done if the weeds would vote the way wheat votes.

“Church would be growing like a wee— . . . uhm, wait. The church would be growing like wheat if those weeds would give more money, make a stronger commitment, pray more, show up more often, or otherwise do things that us wheat are doing.”

Wheat can get away with anything as long as we’ve got the weeds among us to blame. It’s easy to judge. It’s easy to separate. It’s easy to call us “us” so we can call them “them.” As long as we have those weeds to blame, we’re off the hook.

Is your life the way you want it to be? Are you blaming someone?

Is our government the way you want it to be? It’s obviously those weeds on the other side of the aisle.

Is your congregation the way you want it to be? Do you know who it is that is keeping it from being that way?

As long as we’re trying to identify the weeds, we’re damaging the whole crop. As long as we’re able to pin blame on someone else, we’re hurting everyone.

I’m guessing that you know I’m going somewhere with this. And you’re right. Jesus understands our tendency to blame “them” (whoever “they” are) isn’t helpful. He says the problem in this text isn’t those weeds. The problem is that we think we can differentiate between wheat and weeds, saving one and eliminating the other. Lifting up one and pushing down the other. Helping one and hurting the other.  The problem is the desire of the workers to uproot the weeds—but that destroys the wheat too.

This whole teaching section in Matthew can be summed up, I believe, by Jesus saying, “Play nicely, kids, because like it or not, we’re all in the sandbox together.”

The way Jesus prioritizes our lives quite simply, “love God, love your neighbor.” There. That’s it. We aren’t to differentiate between us and them, we aren’t to judge others, we aren’t to blame anyone, we aren’t to justify ourselves. We just love, and show mercy, and forgive, and be generous, and show compassion. All without blame, ridicule, or judgement.

I have a friend who is a real jerk. If anyone acts like a weed, it’s him. He’s a bullying, misogynistic, always-right kind of person. Horrible team player. Goes his own way and makes sure you know that his way is the absolute best way there ever was. He can really put people off and he has a lot of enemies. When we hung around he had a way of making things difficult.

As I got to know him, I eventually found out that he had a rough childhood. He was raised by a single mother who had an untreated and rather significant mental illness. My friend, as the oldest of five kids, because he didn’t know any other way, took the responsibility of being the buffer between his mother in one of her episodes and his younger siblings. He took care of things. He managed the family. It was only because of his compassion and perseverance that he and his siblings could grow up and function in society as adults.

He’s not a weed to be pulled. He’s a person in God’s image who has gifts and intelligence. He has a compassion and resilience that have in his line of work had a huge positive impact on lots of people. He’s a jerk, and it would be easy to stand in judgment—and many do. But underneath his weed-like tendencies is someone who ought to be offered compassion and grace as much as anyone else.

One of Jesus’ main points throughout his ministry is that there is no longer an ”us” and a “them.” There is only “us.” All of us. People created by God and in God’s image. That’s it. Everyone has a story. Everyone needs compassion. No one deserves to be judged by us.

Martin Luther wrote something about this, too. In his explanation to the 8th commandment, You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, in the Small Catechism, he wrote, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”

This is the day we put an end to separating the weeds and the wheat. This is the day we stop judging others because there’s always more to their story than we know. This is the day we recognize that all of us—because each of us is both weeds and wheat—all of us grow together for as long as we’re here. This is the day love will win, compassion will win, kindness will win. For the sake of the weeds and the wheat. For the sake of everyone.

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Not the Nature of the Soil, but of the Sower (July 16, 2017)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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Jesus talks in this parable about four different types of dirt: dirt that’s trodden down into a hard path, dirt that’s full of rocks, dirt that has thorns growing in it, and good soil. Each of the first three have problems growing seeds, but the fourth—the good soil—grows seeds like crazy. Yielding 30, 60 or even 100 times more than was planted. In those days, farmers would find that much yield unbelievable!

Then, later on, Jesus explains this parable to his disciples. The seed is the “word of the kingdom,” he says. We can talk later about what that means. The different soils are different responses from different people to that word of the kingdom being cast among them. Obviously, those who respond as good soil are those who understand the word of the kingdom and respond very well to it. But not everyone does, apparently. Only those who are good soil.

How do you know who the good soil is? How do we know if we are good soil? Is good soil the “good” Christians? Those who volunteer their time to feed the hungry and house the homeless? Is good soil limited to pastors? People who pray well? Those whose spiritual lives are beyond that of mere mortals? Whatever it is that makes people good soil, that’s what we want to be doing, don’t we?

I think that even with very little thought we can see that it isn’t that simple. None of us are just one soil type. We’re not divided into good people and bad ones. One of the most helpful things in our Lutheran theology is that we understand that each of us are, at the same time, both saint and sinner. Both good soil and not so good. Even if we feel like one kind of soil more than other kinds, we fluctuate during our lifetimes, sometimes we can be several different soils during a single day.

So, I’ll ask again, how do you know who the good soil is? I believe the point of the parable is that we don’t know.

Look at the main character, the sower, throwing seeds everywhere, indiscriminately, extravagantly, foolishly, wastefully. If the sower knows where the good soil is, wouldn’t he just sow his seeds there? Why waste seeds casting them where they aren’t likely to produce anything? Jesus, the one who casts the words of the kingdom, flings them everywhere without regard as to who will produce fruit and who won’t—because it’s not about the nature of the soil, it’s about the nature of the sower.

Think about where and with whom Jesus cast the words of the kingdom—which, by the way, are the things central to the nature of God: love, compassion, forgiveness, lifting up those that are pushed down, justice. Think about where Jesus showed those things, with whom he shared these kingdom experiences. Jesus spent much of his time casting the words of the kingdom—showing mercy and compassion—to sinners, tax collectors, the sick, those left out, even the twelve disciples who never seemed to get it. If ever there was bad soil, it was that group. It looked like a waste of time to those who thought they knew who the good soil was.

Jesus wasn’t picky. He showed compassion everywhere, to everyone. Some who received the seeds of compassion would yield the fruit of those seeds by showing even more compassion, and some wouldn’t. He showed forgiveness even to the worst people. Some who received the seeds of forgiveness would yield the fruit of those seeds by showing more forgiveness, and some wouldn’t. Jesus loved even the unlovable. Some who received the seeds of love would yield the fruit of those seeds by loving others, and some wouldn’t.

Jesus just threw the seeds of God’s grace, love, and compassion everywhere. All the time. To anyone. It didn’t matter if they were good soil or not. It didn’t matter if they were hardened or shallow or had bad priorities. Jesus doesn’t hold back, but keep sowing compassion, love, and grace with wild generosity. To all kinds of soils, no matter what.

Which is amazingly good news. If Jesus is sowing forgiveness and compassion everywhere, to everyone, whether they are good soil or not, that means he’s sowing forgiveness and compassion to me. To you. Right now. Whether you’re good soil or not. Christ’s compassion is being thrown at you. Christ’s love is raining down on you like so many seeds. Regardless of your soil condition today. And who knows, it just might take root.

But even if it doesn’t, the generous seeds of an extravagant sower continue to be cast in you. Again and again. Indiscriminately, extravagantly, foolishly, wastefully. Because it’s not about the nature of the soil, it’s about the nature of the sower. The word of the kingdom is flung everywhere. Who knows where it will take root and bear 30, 60, or even 100 fold? Who knows? Maybe in you.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“The Church isn’t so Much in Decline, the Church is Exhausted” (July 9, 2017)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I don’t think I’m telling you anything new by saying that being part of a church is a lot of work. It takes a lot of time, commitment, and practice to be a church. There are programs, budgets, planning, meetings, behind-the-scenes details too numerous to list that so many of you are involved in. Then there’s the whole discipleship thing—growing spiritually, following Jesus, forgiving and being forgiven, loving the world. There’s a lot of action and energy involved in being part of a church. People have invested a lot of themselves into their churches.

So it makes some sense, then, that as churches across the country in every denomination and tradition continue to decline in numbers, people within their congregations take on extra burdens and responsibilities, digging in their heels to try and stop it. They buzz around looking for the answer, seeing what that one growing congregation is doing and trying to imitate that. Each one believes that if the whole church would put more effort into their church, it would turn this ship around. Youth programming! some say. More Bible studies! some say. Spiritual worship! Some say. Better preaching! some say. Outreach and social justice! some say. And because they are convinced that putting more effort into these areas will save the church, they work themselves into a state of exhaustion. And when that doesn’t gain the results it should, they can get despondent, apathetic, and just plain tired. They become so worn out that being part of a church actually becomes a burden. Add that to other burdens they carry, e.g., worrying about their kids, their job, their healthcare, and the state of world peace, they simply can’t carry the burden of being part of the church any more. And they become part of the decline they fought so hard to prevent.

The church isn’t so much in decline. The church is simply exhausted.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

It seems that Jesus understands that we are tired. He gets that we fight so hard to save our churches. He gets that we pour so much of ourselves into carrying this burden of holding up the church that we are all weary. And Jesus comes to us and offers to lighten this load. Come to me, he says. Take my yoke, he says. Find rest, he says. Isn’t that just what we need?

But I cannot find rest while you are still carrying the load. And you won’t find rest for your souls if others are still under this weight. What we don’t yet understand in our culture is that your burden is mine. Mine is yours. We’re in this together—this church thing. Which is why Jesus doesn’t say, “Come to me, each one of you individually that are weary.” He says, collectively, “All who are weary.” Jesus is talking to the crowds here. Everyone. He’s not speaking to each one of us individually, but as a whole. We, together, take his yoke on us. We, together, come to him with our collective heavy burdens. We, together, are yoked with him and learn from him. It’s us together with Jesus, so together we bear our burdens. Together, his yoke is a lot easier when it’s spread among all of us and his burden is a lot lighter when we share it together.

It’s really that simple. There’s more and more sense to the Apostle Paul referring to the whole church as “the body of Christ.” We are joined together in Christ for support, for encouragement, for lifting burdens.

Have you seen that video on Youtube of a farmer that needed to move his huge barn in Bruno, Nebraska? Check it out. 344 people surrounded this barn, all grabbed hold, picked it up, and simply walked it to its new location. Everyone together. No one had too much weight. No one was overburdened. All different ages and abilities. Each one carrying some of the load, but no one carrying all of it. And they did what some said was impossible. Because they did it together.

Being part of the church isn’t easy. But we have to do this church thing together, this Christ thing together. If not, we’ll all burn out and burn up one by one. As the body of Christ, we’re here to lighten the load for one another. We’re here to take seriously the business of forgiving each other; carrying the needs and hopes of even those we don’t know. Going out of our way to show love; being inconvenienced, happily, to benefit someone else here. No one takes he load alone. But together the load is easy and the burden is light.

Being part of a church is not easy; walking with Jesus in the world is a heavy thing to carry. This is just too hard for any of us to do by ourselves. We’re all tired. We’re all feeling the weight. We need one another. To be about the work Jesus has given us, to live as Christ in the world, we need to do it together. We need each other.

“Come to me, you all are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give all of you rest. Take my yoke upon you together, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you all will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Together that sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

 
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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Sermon

 

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