Are You a Mary or a Martha?

SERMON Pentecost 6C Luke 10 38 42

Are you a Mary or a Martha? Isn’t that usually how a sermon on this text begins? I have to say, Martha and I are cut from the same cloth. She is the one who does what is expected of her. Ever dutiful, ever efficient, Martha strives for excellence, for straight A’s. Martha takes pride in making her family proud. The scripture never says that she’s the eldest… but let’s be honest, all of us eldest children recognize our soul sister in Martha.

Martha took great pride in her expected work of sharing hospitality. I have to say, though times have surely changed, I too take great pride in hospitality. Over the 4th of July, Eva’s godparents and their 4 year old son visited us from Pittsburgh, and I spent the days ahead of their visit cleaning rearranging our home so that the 3 kids could sleep in the same room together, and so that Rhys’ room would be comfortable and restful for our pregnant guest. I planned our whole itinerary, all of the excursions we would take and things we would see and do and included backup plans in case it rained. I planned the menu –everything I would cook for them at home, and everything we would need to pack picnic lunches for our outings.

We had a delightful visit, but it was a lot of work on the front end, because I wanted everything to be PERFECT.

My heart goes out to Martha in this story. I know she too strives for perfection in hospitality. Nevermind Martha of Bethany, she tries to be Martha Stewart! And she’s constantly met with frustration when her plans for perfection don’t work out. She is anxious. Distracted by all of the logistics of singlehandedly playing host, chef, and butler.

Can you imagine having 13 very important guests drop by unexpectedly?! It’s one thing to make room at your table for 2 of Jesus’ disciples who are visiting town, but the whole crew of 13?! It’s one thing to have a week to prepare, it’s another thing entirely to have to put on a spur of the moment feast! What does she have in her fridge that she can use to make a spontaneous meal for 15? Does she have to run the dishwasher before dinner can be served because she doesn’t have enough plates and spoons?  While she gets her oven set and ready to cook the main course, she’s probably trying to whip up the dessert at the same time so it has time to chill! All while making bread from scratch and hunting out enough wine glasses to go round. Don’t get me wrong, she LOVES hosting guests, she is HONORED that Jesus has come to dine in her home, she is blessed beyond measure that Jesus wants to eat the food that she will prepare for him… and that’s why it has to be PERFECT. She LOVES hosting guests, she’s HONORED, but there is just… so much WORK… to be done.

Meanwhile, her sister Mary has not stepped foot inside the kitchen since Jesus stepped foot inside their home! She’s seemingly abandoned her most important responsibility –to serve as Martha’s soux chef!

Perhaps an hour passed by, now Martha has worked herself up into a frenzy in the kitchen. The Greek suggests that perhaps Martha is on the verge of what we might think of as a panic attack when she comes out with a tray of beverages for her guests and sees Mary still sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha can’t take it any more. She blows up and begs Jesus –the honored guest- to intervene on her behalf. As the one following appropriate cultural protocol, surely Jesus will agree that Martha is the victim and her sister has wronged her severely.

She says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

But Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen a good thing, which will not be taken away from her.”

So often, we hear in these words a chastisement of Martha, but Jesus isn’t really chastising Martha as much as he is lifting Mary up. The NRSV translates Jesus’ response as “Mary has chosen the better part” which seems to pit Mary and Martha against one another… Mary clearly seems to come out as the winner of this particular sibling rivalry… but the original Greek doesn’t indicate that Mary’s behavior was better, simply that it was equally good. Mary’s not being lazy or dishonorable or cruel to her sister.

Mary is loving Jesus.

Mary is serving as a disciple –one sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening and learning right along with the men. Jesus is her teacher, and she his student. And Jesus names her discipleship a “good thing!” –an identity of value that won’t be taken away from her.

Martha is also loving Jesus. Service is an act of love – in fact, according to modern research it’s one of the 5 love languages! Based on how this word service (“diakonia”) is used elsewhere in the new testament- service is ministry! Martha is also living out her discipleship of Jesus as she refills water glasses and bakes bread and creates an atmosphere of warmth and welcome.

Jesus is not chastising Martha as he praises Mary in this passage. There are no winners or losers in this sisterly squabble, but two different models for following Jesus. Jesus does not chastise Martha, he sets Martha free! He doesn’t say she has to stop serving, he simply says she doesn’t have to worry or work herself up into a frenzy in order to show him her best love. Jesus doesn’t need her to be Martha Stewart. And truly, Martha doesn’t NEED to be Martha Stewart to share warm and welcoming hospitality with her guests!

In spite of our never ending “to do” lists and distractions, in spite of all the modern things we feel like we NEED to do (checking our phones, checking the sports score, wiping up every speck of dust before company comes over, stopping at the store for one more loaf of bread) Jesus says that there is NEED of only one thing. The only thing we NEED to do is spend time with Jesus. Whether you’re a Mary who loves to learn and study and discuss scripture, or a Martha who loves to roll up your sleeves in service to others –all of our discipleship must begin from a place of worship and prayer. The gifts we share with the world flow from the spiritual well that is inside each one of us –the well that is replenished and refreshed as we worship and pray and center our lives around Jesus and his teachings of love.  Jesus doesn’t need our perfection, he simply wants our presence. Jesus doesn’t need us to work ourselves into a frenzy, worrying about whether or not we’re meeting expectations or following the rules, Jesus simply wants to dwell with us in love. This is the very best thing, the thing which melts our worries and distractions away as we set our eyes on Jesus and listen to him.  Amen.

We are NOT the Good Samaritan

SERMON Pentecost 5C Luke 10 25 37

“What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” This is the question that begins one of Jesus’ most famous teachings. The lawyer –that is, the Biblical scholar- addressing Jesus genuinely wants to know what he has to do to “get it right.” He’s not trying to trick or trap Jesus, he simply wants to make sure he’s following all the rules of a faithful life so that he will inherit what Jesus promises –eternal life.  Jesus –the skillful Teacher that he is- responds to the lawyer’s question with another question, saying, “You’re an expert! What is written in the law? What do you read there?” And so the biblical scholar summarizes all of the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures with one statement from Deuteronomy, and one statement from Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Now Jesus is really impressed with this guy! He really IS an expert in the law to have summarized the Bible so astutely. Jesus says, “Great answer, ‘Love God, Love Neighbor,’ do this and you will live!”

And that could have been the end of the teaching, but the lawyer pressed Jesus for further clarification. The lawyer wanted to know just how far his love must go. Is my neighbor the one who lives next door to me? The one down the street? The one across town? Across the country? On the other side of the world? His question for Jesus turned from “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” to “Who MUST I love? Who am I obligated to care about?”

Jesus responds with one his most famous stories. But Jesus’ story does not answer his question. Through the narrative of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shifts the focus of the story away from his original question, “Who am I begrudgingly obliged to love?” to a new focus: “Who shows us what love looks like?”

So often this parable is interpreted as a quaint morality tale and nothing more. The lawyer gets the point that the Samaritan was the one who acted with compassion –the one who behaved as a neighbor should- and then Jesus tells him to “Go and do likewise” and that’s seemingly the end of this story. “Go and do likewise,” of course Jesus wants us to live as good neighbors. Of course Jesus wants us to live compassionately, and to care for the needs that are right in front of us instead of crossing the street to avoid them or pretending like we don’t see the inconvenient needs in our midst.  Of course, Jesus wants us to be good neighbors. And as Jesus chose a Samaritan to be the hero of this story, he made his point abundantly clear to the biblical scholar that there is no limit on who we’re called to love and serve –that even our sworn enemies are our neighbors.

Yes, Jesus does want us to “go and do likewise” as we love God and love our neighbors, but, what if we’re not supposed to be the Good Samaritan in his story? What if that’s not the role we truly play in God’s ongoing story of our world?

Let’s go back to the original question the lawyer asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”   Inheriting eternal life is not something that we earn through our actions. By its very nature, inheritance is a gift –God’s grace poured out on all of God’s beloved children, a grace so precious that not a one of us could ever earn it!

The story of the Good Samaritan in the ancient church was used as a metaphor for God’s grace poured compassionately upon each and every child of God.  This is where the Good Samaritan is transformed from morality tale to gospel.

There once was a person who was travelling down the dangerous road of life, when they were beaten down by grief and shame and disappointment, when they were robbed of joy and opportunities and freedom, when they were so sick they felt like they were left for dead in a ditch along the side of the road.

We are the desperate traveler lying half dead in the ditch…  We are the desperate traveler who simply can’t go on, the one who positively cannot save themself.

We notice that there are other travelers on the road, travelers we think will save us from our desperate circumstances. We put our faith and hope in the priest –our money and stuff and all the security nets we build for ourselves- but it just walks on by unwilling to save us. Our stuff does not love us back. Next, we put our faith and hope in the Levite –our good reputation and all the good works that we’ve done- but our works and reputation do not save us in the grand scheme of things…We can’t DO anything to earn salvation from the ditch on the side of the road of life….

But then, as all hope seems lost, in our darkest hour, he finds us. Our Savior, the Samaritan. Jesus Christ, finds us in the mire. He finds us calling out in prayer, “Help, Lord. I can’t do this on my own. Give me what I need to get through this day, this week, this moment.” This is what I pray when I receive Christ in the sacrament, “Lord, give me what I need this week.” Living a life of faith means leaning on Jesus when life gets hard, and trusting in Jesus to provide the healing balm for whatever ails us. Jesus knows our need and Jesus, our Savior, is moved with compassion for us. In our darkest moments, it is Jesus who takes us by the hand and lifts us up from our grief, shame, and sorrow. He himself gives us what we need to make it through another day. He pours oil and wine on our wounds, disinfecting the wounds that are festering deep within us.

We are the passive patient in this story, the one who can do nothing but lie back in the Savior’s arms and receive his gifts of healing and new life. But our role within this story does not end within that ditch. For Jesus carries us to the place that continues his work of healing in our lives –the inn, a place of rest and refuge. The ancients connected the inn in this story with the work of the church. Jesus finds us, heals us, carries each and every one of us through these doors, and then leaves us in the loving care of the innkeepers. And we don’t stay the passive patients in this story. In time, as we are nurtured and nourished by the innkeepers, we get up from our respite beds, we put on our aprons, and we assume our role as the innkeepers, healing the newest wounded travelers to be brought through the doors by Jesus.

We are not the Good Samaritan in this story, we are the ones he finds and heals, and we learn from Jesus how to heal the ones he brings into our lives.

This story is not about what I must DO to inherit eternal life, it’s about what God in Christ has already done for me. The Good Samaritan is not about what I HAVE to do, it’s about what I get to do because Jesus has found me and healed me. We get to love our neighbors because Christ has taught us how to love.  Our healing of others is an extension of Christ’s healing power at work in us. Amen.

Don’t Bother Packing a Bag

SERMON Pentecost 4C Luke 10 1 11 16 20

When I was a kid, my grandmother from England would come and spend a few months with us every year. As soon as she booked her plane tickets, she packed her bags and lined them up in her downstairs hallway –sometimes 3 and 4 months before her actual flight would depart. Her luggage would usually include just 3 or 4 outfits for herself, and 2 suitcases full things that she’d collected all year long to share with us- a case of her favorite English bath soap, knick knacks and china she found in her favorite thrift shop, sweaters and sweets and torn out magazine pages with recipes to try. One time she even transported a 5 ft long brass fireplace fender on British Airways! My nan was prepared for any and every eventuality. Whenever I would come to visit her as a teenager, she’d always ask me 3 months in advance “Are your bags packed yet? You have to be prepared!”

If I were one of the 70 in this passage from Luke’s gospel this morning, I imagine I would have wanted to pack my suitcase as soon as Jesus announced this exciting travel opportunity! Jesus announced his mission by noting, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” Sign me up, Jesus! What an exciting and important adventure! I’d immediately  want to plan for every possible eventuality. I’d pack for every “what if” I could think of. I’m sure I’d need in my suitcase: at least 4 days worth of clothes, my own pillow, a full set of toiletries and a map of where I could get a daily shower, sunscreen, bug repellant, a first aid kit, a travel fan to fight off the heat, a water bottle, a good pair of walking shoes, and since GPS was not yet invented I would need a compass and a reliable map of Judea and I’d hope that knowing me and my challenges Jesus would partner me with someone who is directionally gifted.

I’d have my whole bag packed for the journey, eager to hear more of Jesus’ instructions for our mission… only to hear him say, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

“Carry no bag, take no stuff, you are enough, you have what it takes to serve as my ambassadors. You have what you need to go before me and prepare the way. You have what it takes to BE my kingdom come near.”

The 70 who are sent out in this passage are not the 12 apostles who have been travelling with and studying under Jesus’ intensively. These folks do not have special training, they didn’t go to seminary, they’re just ordinary folks, followers of Jesus who take the risk to continue following Jesus by going on ahead of him to all the places he himself intends to visit. Jesus’ mission to love and heal the world requires all hands on deck so that Jesus can share love and peace and healing with as many people in this world as possible. He works through his specially trained apostles, but he also shares that message through 35 pairs of ordinary people who trust Jesus enough to go where he sends them and to talk to the people they find there.

I’m sure the 70 were just as anxious as any of us would have been in this situation –being sent out as lambs in the midst of wolves. I’m sure there were a lot of uncertain glances from side to side, as they swallowed hard and took that holy risk to serve as Jesus’ ambassadors. They had to give up EVERYTHING they’d learned to rely on that was not Jesus. The purse or suitcase or wallet full of stuff that would save them in a crisis or avert disaster, they had to leave it all behind. They had to learn to lean on God for guidance and provision.

This passage teaches us that the STUFF we come to put our faith and trust in is not what truly saves us.

God provides what we need to do what he’s called us to do.

God provides. But, God usually doesn’t meet our needs by delivering care packages dropped down from heaven via Angel express. God provides for us through the hospitality and loving care of our neighbors. And that can be an even harder truth to swallow than the need to leave our bags full of stuff behind. God provides for us through the hospitality and love of our neighbors.

As Christians we are called to serve, but we are also called to allow ourselves to be vulnerable around others, to receive help and support and hospitality from others as if the help and hospitality were being offered by Jesus himself. Why? Because vulnerability –while no one likes it- strengthens the bonds between people. Jesus insists that the 70 stay in the same house for the whole time they’re in a town, so that they can really get to know the family they’re staying with. They’re proclaiming Christ’s peace as they thank their host for telling them where the guest towels are kept. Giving and allowing ourselves to receive hospitality and support is how we build relationship with others. Healing happens through the deep relationships we cultivate, healing happens through vulnerability.

Today, perhaps we’re not staying at people’s houses as we serve as Christ’s ambassadors, but we can do this just out through the course of our normal day. One of our members –a strong and determined woman- shares the story of being in the grocery store parking lot getting ready to put her groceries in her car as she always does. And lately she’s had younger people come up to her on several different occasions and offer to help her put her groceries in the car. Now, normally she would have declined these offers –she can, afterall, do it herself. But, she felt like maybe God wanted her to say yes and let those younger people help her even though she felt like she didn’t really need the help or she didn’t need it as much as some other poor soul might have. But, she allowed herself to be vulnerable and took them up on their offer to help her. In so doing she was able to have a conversation with them and bless them on their way when they were finished.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we create the space that is needed to cultivate relationship, we open the door for conversations about our faith –the kingdom of God- and we have an opportunity to share Christ’s love and peace with those who are providing God’s own care for us.

Jesus still sends us out to the places where he himself intends to visit. He sends us, his disciples, out to cultivate relationships and to share his peace in the homes where his name may never before have been mentioned. We are Christ’s ambassadors! Our mission today is to represent Jesus wherever he sends us- preparing hearts and minds to be open to his love as we share our love with every person we meet. For the love that is within us comes from Christ himself.

We carry with us no purse or sandals, but we bring our hearts full of Christ’s own love, we bring with us the Holy Spirit –Christ’s own spirit- to guide our steps. We bring with us our time –dedicated to the Lord for the purpose of loving and sharing peace with others. And we bring with us our courage –which is another way of saying faith! Our faith gives us what we need to take the holy risks Christ’s mission requires- to let God be God and lead us where we are called to follow.

Love, Spirit, Time, and Faith, these things are more valuable than anything I could pack in my suitcase for the journey! And as we are generous with our love, time, and faith, we will discover just what those first missionaries discovered –that God is more loving, more generous, more faithful to us and to our world than we could ever hope or imagine!

Those 70 missionaries came back to Jesus with a story to tell- a story about how amazed they were at all the wonderful things God had done through them! And God amazes us still today with what God does as we take the risks our faith requires to love the people Christ himself intends to visit. Amen.

Jesus Crosses the Storm to Heal Us

SERMON Pentecost 2C Luke 8 22 39

“One day, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them ‘Let us go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they set out, and Jesus fell fast asleep. And a windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water.” The disciples become hysterical, convinced that they are going to die at sea, they wake Jesus up shouting, “Mayday, Mayday! We’re dying out here!” And Jesus calms the raging wind and seas with just a word. And turns to the disciples and says, “This is nothing! Where’s your faith?” While the disciples are still awestruck at Jesus’ supernatural display of power, they arrive at their destination on the other side of the sea.

The disciples wonder, “Why on earth would Jesus want to come here? What could have been worth the risky journey we’ve travelled? This wasn’t on the travel itinerary. Why has Jesus taken us on this detour?” Gadara –the country of the Gerasenes. It’s Gentile territory. It’s unclean. It’s spooky.

As Jesus steps onto the shore, he sees a man beloved by God, he sees a person suffering from numerous afflictions. Jesus finds the one who was worth the perilous detour and worth the disciples’ hysterical behavior.

But the disciples and everyone else from the city of Gadara see this man as “naked, homeless, unclean, self-destructive, evil, beyond hope.” The community has given up on him. They tried to confine and contain him, they tried to shackle him for his safety and the safety of others, and that didn’t work. They’re at a loss for how to deal with him, they’ve given up trying to help him, so they’ve set him loose to live out his remaining days alone among the tombs, where there’s no one for him to hurt but himself.

But Jesus is not deterred. Jesus just calmed the chaos of the storm like it was nothing, and he will calm the chaos that rages inside this man as well.

He asks, “What is your name?” and the chaos inside the man responds, “Legion, for we are many.” Legion, as in 6000 Roman soldiers, as in those same soldiers who occupy and oppress Judea. Legion, a mighty force indeed. Legion, all of the afflictions of mind, body, and spirit that can hold a person bound. Legion, that feeling of drowning under one diagnosis after another. Legion, the feeling of isolation that sets in as your freedom becomes more and more restricted by all the things your body and mind can no longer do. Legion, that feeling of hopelessness that they’ll never figure out what’s wrong with you. Legion, that gnawing fear that it’s all in your head. Legion, that feeling of despair over the enormity of the treatment and recovery that lies ahead of you.

The saddest part of this story is not that this man is found in such a pitiable state on the beach, the tragedy of this story is that he’s forgotten who he is. When Jesus asks him his name, he honestly doesn’t know. He’s been so consumed by the legion of ailments that afflict him, he’s forgotten his true name, his true identity, his purpose in life. He’s not Isaac, he’s schizophrenia. He’s not Timothy, he’s cancer. He’s not Silvanus, he’s bipolar. He’s not John, he’s congestive heart failure. He’s not Nathan, he’s diabetes. He’s not Jacob, he’s depression. He’s not Sean, he’s Alzheimer’s. He’s not Philip, he’s chronic pain. He’s not Terrence, he’s PTSD.

How many of us have moments or even years of our lives where we feel completely defined by what assails us- by what robs us of joy and health? How many of us define ourselves by our failures, fears, and disappointments? These are the things that possess us today. These are the things Jesus comes to cast out of us. Just as Jesus passed through the storm to heal this one man from Gadera, so Jesus will do whatever it takes today to bring us his peace. Jesus longs for us to feel whole and well, and to know who we are and whose we are. And Jesus comes to us today to share his healing peace and presence with us, and to restore our sense of identity.

In our story from Luke’s gospel, the same Jesus who stilled the raging storm, cast out that whole Legion of affliction and sent it into a nearby heard of pigs. By nature, Legion is destruction, even self-destruction. So that herd of pigs rushed off the steep cliff and into the sea. The forces of chaos which had so imprisoned this poor man were obliterated once and for all.

The man who had been called so many horrible things over his lifetime, is now found sitting at the feet of Jesus as one of his disciples, clothed, and in full control of his faculties. Jesus’ not only healed him, he gave him back his dignity, his humanity, and he reminded him of his true identity. Unfortunately, the townsfolk were terrified by the radical change they had witnessed in a man whom they had written off as hopeless and worthless. Great fear seized them and they begged Jesus to leave them alone.

The man who had been healed, begged Jesus to take him with him as one of his disciples –afterall, who would want to stay in Gadera after being treated so poorly by the locals for so long! But Jesus had other plans for him. This man’s life would be a living testimony to the power of God over the forces of evil and affliction at work in our world. This man himself would be a witness, and Jesus gives him a most important mission: to return home, to rejoin society, and to tell EVERYONE how much God has done for him!

Jesus gave that man back his life, his purpose, his true identity! Go home, tell everyone where you’ve been, and tell everyone what God’s done for you. How has God lifted you up and restored you to life?  How has God taken away your shame and filled you with confidence and dignity? How has God taken away your fear, your anger, and replaced it with peace and trust? How has Jesus been your hope and your healing?

 

Just as surely as Jesus made an inconvenient journey across rough seas, just to bring healing and new life to this one person beloved by God, so Jesus comes to us where we are, in the midst of whatever we’re going through today, and he reminds us of our most important, fundamental identity –that we are God’s children, that we are beloved forever. No matter where we find ourselves, no matter what others say about us, God holds us close and will never leave us.

Jesus comes to us today to cast out all that tries to steal our joy and peace. And like the man from Gadara, Jesus sends us home to tell everyone what God in Christ has done for us –how he’s taken our Legion away and given us new life and freedom and hope and joy in him. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our Family Business is Co-Creation

SERMON Trinity 2019 Proverbs 8

In his early life, my father was a builder. And his father was a builder. In fact, if it weren’t for his vocation as a bricklayer, I might not have existed at all. My grandfather moved his wife and young son from London to Baltimore in 1956 because, as he told my nan at the time, Baltimore was a rapidly growing brick city, it was THE place to be if you were a skilled bricklayer, which he was. Eventually, my father followed in his footsteps after he graduated high school. My youngest memories of my father are of him coming home from work, covered in concrete dust. When I was 12, his bricklayer’s eye discovered that my spine was not level –that I had scoliosis- long before my doctor identified it. Though he moved on to other careers through his life, whenever we would travel through Baltimore he would look around with pride and remember and marvel at all the building’s he helped to build. He was most proud of his restoration work on the Bromo-Seltzer tower, the building in the Baltimore skyline with the clock on the top of it. Whether you’re an artist, a builder, a mechanic, or an engineer, there is something about setting one’s hands to the invention and creation of something new that fills us with pride and joy. And why shouldn’t it?

We are, after all, created in God’s image. And our first reading from Proverbs chapter 8 describes the precision and skill God used in creating every part of our world. It says that God established the heavens, set the limits of the depths of the sea and all its shores, made firm the skies above and carefully measured and marked the foundations of the earth itself. And it describes Lady Wisdom as the master builder who labored along God’s side in co-creating all of this good world.

According to Proverbs 8, God created Lady Wisdom before there was anything else in existence.  Lady Wisdom is God’s child, and she sings, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago, I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths, I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth –when he had not yet made the earth and fields or the world’s first bits of soil.” Lady Wisdom worked with God in bringing forth everything else into existence, she was the midwife of creation. Her response to everything that God created was that of a cheerleader, or a wonder-filled child, rejoicing and marveling and praising God for all that God created. The Common English Bible translates her response like this, “I was having fun, smiling before him all the time, frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.” Having fun, frolicking, delighting in God’s good gifts of creation –these are all fundamental qualities of Wisdom!  

Early Christian communities read in this passage from Proverbs 8 a feminine image for Christ, the incarnate Word. In fact, this passage was used to back up John’s gospel in claiming the full divinity of Christ. John’s gospel tells us that Christ, the Word, “was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Many theologians assert that Christ, the incarnate Word, and Sophia, Lady Wisdom, are one and the same being. Though described in slightly different ways, they were with God in the beginning, they existed even before the beginning, calling forth all things into existence. Word and Wisdom are the content of God’s own speech, God’s words which made manifest every part of our world.

Our one God is a relationship between the Creator, the Wise Word, and the Spirit of life. God has always existed as Trinity, as a relationship, and God created this whole world God loves to expand that divine relationship. Creation creates relationship. God rejoices over us. God rejoices over this whole world, which was designed with such skill and precision. God didn’t create us and leave us to our own devices, but God continues to celebrate this world and everything and everyone in it, like a master builder celebrating a completed structure.

You are God’s pride and joy! You are the apple of God’s eye. The pride we feel when we successfully complete a creative project, or when we watch our children, nieces, and nephews grow and mature and flourish as the years go by, God feels that same pride and joy for us.

Human beings are the crowning glory of God’s amazing work of creation. Psalm 8 writes that we humans are a little lower than the angels. And as God’s crowning achievement, we are ordained with a holy responsibility to continue God’s good work of creation and innovation. We are ordained with the holy responsibility to take loving care of this creation God so loves. For God created this world not for our own disposal, or to use until it’s all used up. God did not create this world so that we could do whatever we want with it, that’s not what having dominion means. Rather, God created this world for God’s good pleasure and God expects us to treat this world with God’s own love and compassion. The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his essay “God’s Dream” writes, “We are made for a delicate network of interdependence….God would have us understand that his dream was of a world in which all would live in harmony together, treating one another as those who had inalienable rights –the vegetable providing food for the animal creation which in turn, through its life cycle, would help to fertilize the earth which nurtured the vegetation; and man and woman would tend the soil, rivers, and atmosphere in a manner that would be consonant with God’s intentions, for they were created to have dominion over all creation as God’s stewards and representatives. Their dominion was meant to be God’s dominion, caring and compassionate, with a deep reverence for each…We were meant to care for the whole creation and offer to God our worship and adoration as rational beings acting as the high priests of a creation that by being true to its intended nature would itself glorify God.”

 To care for this world God delights in is an act of worship unto the Lord.

God desires for us to join Lady Wisdom in marveling in the majesty of this world and rejoicing in the gifts creation offers –the warm sun, the sea breeze, the green growing crops and flowers, the love and beauty of animals large and small.

Our family business is co-creation with God. It’s building up what’s been torn down. With Lady Wisdom by our side, God gives us all the joy, insight, and tools that we need to labor alongside God in the family business of restoring, renewing, and rebuilding this beautiful world, which brings much pride and joy to God’s own heart. Amen.

God Speaks the Language of Our Hearts

SERMON Pentecost 2019

Teta was fluent in several dialects of Arabic, as well as French, but had never learned English in her formative years. And it proved difficult for her to pick up once her family moved back to the US in her elder years. She spent her days cooking and cleaning for her son’s family and caring for her grandchildren –this was her life’s work, which she adored.

I became lifelong friends with her granddaughter about 5 years after they arrived here, when I was about 12. Even though we couldn’t verbally communicate, Teta went out of her way to welcome me and care for me as if I were her own grandchild. Of course, that meant feeding me as much of her delicious Lebanese and Egyptian cooking as I could possibly eat. Because she couldn’t share her love through words, she shared her love for me through food.

But, because of that deep love and respect I had for her, I wanted to be able to speak to her and share that with her in her own language. The more time I spent in their home, the more phrases I picked up to be able to communicate with my dear Teta. And simply from the fact that I chose to put forth the effort to learn her language, Teta  -this woman who gave her whole self in the service and care of others- knew that she was loved and respected and honored. Within a few months, I was able to engage in cordial greetings, saying, “Ahlan, Teta! Wahishtini! Ezayik?… Hamdallah. Ana kwayesa. Shokran.” Or, “Hello, I’ve missed you! How are you? Thank God for that. Me? I’m well, thank you!” Most importantly, I could say, “Bahebic” or “I love you,” and I could sing Teta’s praises in the kitchen. Over the course of the last 20 years, Teta has similarly learned to speak enough English to share her love and gratitude with those important to her and to share her amazement at the wonderful things she sees in the world.

God loves us so very much and God comes to us and blesses us with new  life exactly where we are…. In an upper room, in the streets of Jerusalem, at Luther Memorial, or in an old woman’s kitchen. God and God’s mighty deeds of power could not and would not be restricted by the boundaries of language. God’s love could not be fully expressed through the historic language of the Torah (Hebrew), or the language of the educated elite at the time (Greek), or even the language Jesus himself spoke (Aramaic). God’s love and God’s mighty deeds of grace and power needed all our voices, all our languages, all our cultures to be shared as God truly intends.

Theologian Debbie Thomas writes, “Christians sometimes speak of Pentecost as the reversal of Babel, the Old Testament story in which God divided and scattered human communities by multiplying their languages.  But in fact, Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel; it perfected and blessed it.  When the Holy Spirit came, he didn’t restore humanity to a common language; he declared all languages holy and equally worthy of God’s stories.  He wove diversity and inclusiveness into the very fabric of the Church.  He called the people of God to be at once the One and the Many…

Acts chapter 1 tells us that the collection of followers of the Way of Jesus Christ numbered 120 people at this point. And 50 days after Passover, when the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost drew pilgrims from all over the known world to worship in Jerusalem, those 120 disciples were gathered together in one place. They were waiting and praying for the Holy Spirit, which Christ promised would come to them and empower them for what they needed to do as his Church. But none of them had any idea what that would look like or when it would happen.

The scripture tells us,  “Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.”

They were filled with power from on high, just as Jesus promised, but this power was not so they could perform just any parlor trick. The power they received through the gift of the Spirit gave them the necessary gifts to share God’s deeds of grace and power right outside their doors!

At the sound of this holy cacophony, “a crowd gathered, and they were all mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages.”

Debbie Thomas writes,“What the crowds found baffling was that God would condescend to speak to them in their own mother-tongues.  That he would welcome them so intimately, with words and expressions hearkening back to their birthplaces, their childhoods, their beloved cities, countries, and cultures of origin.  As if to say, “This Spirit-drenched place, this fledging church, this new Body of Christ, is yours.  You don’t have to feel like outsiders here; we speak your language, too.  Come in.  Come in and feel at home.”

At Pentecost God gave the followers of Jesus what they needed to speak God’s mighty deeds to every person present in Jerusalem at that time –people from all across the known world! Because God’s mission is so much bigger than 12 apostles or 120 disciples. God’s mission is bigger than all of Jerusalem, and all of York, God’s great will for our world is for EVERYONE to call on the name of our Lord, Jesus, and be saved.

This is not just about what happens after we die, but it’s about enjoying a lifetime of relationship with Jesus and the peace and strength and new life that he promises. Jesus Christ saves us every single day in a million little ways over the course of our lives. He wants every person in this world to know that they are LOVED and that they are welcome. God wants us all to know that we can call on his holy name when we feel like we just don’t have what it takes, when we’re totally overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before us, when we feel like we just can’t go on…. Call on the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and see his mighty deeds in action.

We all have a story about how Jesus Christ has saved us and lifted us up. Think for a minute about the last time Jesus saved you……… This is your story of God’s mighty deeds of grace. And this is what the followers of Jesus share with all the nations gathered in Jerusalem –each in their own native language- they share the ultimate gospel story of how God raised Jesus from the dead, and then they share their own story of the mighty deeds of grace and power God worked in their lives.

It can be scary to make ourselves vulnerable to others, to share the stories of our faith with others, it was scary for those first disciples on the day of Pentecost to trust God to give them the words when they themselves must have felt like they were speaking jibberish. But by the end of the day of Pentecost 3000 from among that crowd were so compelled by the stories of God’s deed of grace and power that they chose to be baptized. God has already given you everything you need in order to share your story of God’s grace at work in your life. At Baptism, each and every one of us were filled with that same Pentecost fire that burned in the hearts of the first believers. The same tornadic wind that came rushing through that room, that wind that compelled those first believers out the doors with a gust from God’s own lungs, that same all powerful force sends us out of these doors to proclaim the stories we have about God’s mighty deeds of grace and power!

We are inspired and sent out to share about God’s saving acts in the world today because Christ’s Church will not be whole until every person knows that God loves them and whispers words of love to them in the language of their hearts. Christ’s body will not be fully formed until every person knows that there is a place in Christ’s embrace just for them, and that in times of joy and times of struggle and times of gratitude and times of victory, Christ wants nothing more than for ALL of us to call on his name and say something like, “Hello, I’ve missed you, I need you, I thank you, I love you.” Amen.

A Love That Shakes the Shackles Off Our Feet and Takes the Prison Door Off its Hinges

SERMON Easter 7C Acts 16 16 40

Last Sabbath, Paul met Lydia at the place of prayer. For the last week, he’s been preaching and teaching and establishing the Church in Lydia’s home. But this Sabbath, as they walked they met a very different kind of woman. This nameless woman was held captive both spiritually and physically. This unnamed woman was a prisoner in her own body. She was possessed by a Python Spirit –the spirit that guarded the Oracle of Delphi. Like the Oracle of Delphi, this unnamed woman could share prophecies and truths, and her enslavers exploited these unique spiritual qualities to turn a profit.

As Paul passed by, that Python spirit spoke the truth about Paul’s ministry, shouting, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” This is not unlike how the demons always seemed to shout out that Jesus was the Son of the Most High God.

Paul was a preacher and teacher, and had never before felt compelled to cast out demons…. But this Python spirit was relentless! Day after day after day it forced this poor girl to follow Paul and his companions around, and say over and over again in ecstatic speech, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!”

Paul was most irritated. The spectacle of the young oracle was overshadowing the message of the gospel. This Python spirit had to go! In exasperation, Paul cried out, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it did.

The girl’s enslavers were infuriated! Their means of exploitation had vanished. They dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace to be judged by the magistrate. The whole way to the marketplace, they gathered a mob around them, drumming up support for their cause by appealing to the mob’s xenophobic, anti-Jewish sentiments. They were sick and tired of Jewish preachers coming into their town and undermining their Roman customs and Roman ways of life. Casting out an oracle’s spirit… it might as well have been an assault on Rome herself. Everyone knew that Jews wanted to overthrow the empire! They were always starting rebellions. The enslavers told the magistrate, “These men are disturbing our city, they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt and observe.” Of course none of the charges they brought against Paul and Silas were true, but like in Jesus’ own trial, the mob mentality took over, the magistrate was swayed by the crowd’s desire for blood, and Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and thrown into the maximum security section of the local prison without a trial.

The prison cells would have been tiny and dark, the air would have been almost unbreathable, and the stench unimaginable. Roman jailors were notorious for their cruelty. And yet, even with their bodies broken, Paul and Silas stayed up til midnight praying and singing hymns to God. The other prisoners were listening and drawing encouragement from their words and songs. Even in the dankest prison cell, God used Paul and Silas to share the good news of God’s grace and hope.

Suddenly, the whole prison began to shake. An earthquake shook the shackles off their feet and shook the cell doors off their hinges!

“Everyone’s chains were unfastened!”

Everyone’s chains were unfastened…. This is the fundamental work of the gospel –to set EVERY captive free! There is no prison –spiritual or physical- that God’s grace will not break us out of!

In his book, Love Does, Bill Goff tells a story about how he felt called by God to travel to Uganda during their civil war and use his legal expertise and governmental connections to help children trapped in their crumbling justice system. He said he visited prison after prison in Uganda, filled with juveniles who had been charged with crimes that should have been a slap on the wrist –petty theft and the like- and had been sitting in prison for two and three years without  going to court because there were no judges available to hear the juvenile cases. Bill and his friend, Charlie, prayed with those young people, sharing God’s voice of grace and kindness, and courageously praying the seemingly impossible prayer that these children would be set free. And then Bill set to work gathering judges from all across the country to hear these backlogged cases, and he and his friend prepared the cases for court. And gradually, all of these children were able to return home to their families. He said in one particularly deplorable prison that 12 young teens were locked away in 1 cell behind a large wooden door. Their cases were heard, their seemingly impossible prayers were answered, and each one of those children were set free. And Bill Goff took that large wooden door off its hinges, and took it back with him to his office in the United States, his only legal fee. He writes, “The last time I saw the warden, he asked for his door again. All of the kids had been released and the cell block stood empty. I looked in the empty cell and then back at the warden and I told him that he didn’t need the door because justice had arrived in that dark place and there was no one to keep in. The thing Jesus said about setting the captives free actually works, so I haven’t given the door back and I told the warden I’m not going to. Sue me.”

 Our Lord Jesus Christ is in the business of jailbreaks…. And our story from Acts is an awesome literal jailbreak story. Except…. That it’s not.

The one who is truly set free is not Paul or Silas or any of the other prisoners, but the jailor! And he experiences God’s grace and freedom precisely because the captives do not flee from their open prison cells, but stay put to save his life.

The jailor was an implement of Roman terror, a cog in the imperial machine, and a prisoner himself to the system and worldview he’d grown up in. According to Roman law, jailors who lost prisoners while on duty would themselves face the punishment intended for those who escaped. This is why this jailor is about to fall on his sword. He knew that someone –perhaps even Paul and Silas- was supposed to be put to death the next day. And he understandably thinks that no prisoner in their right mind would stay in their cell when their doors stood open right in front of them.

But, followers of the Way of Jesus Christ, like Paul and Silas, follow a countercultural Way of being in the world. Instead of viewing the jailor as their enemy, they stay put in their cells to offer salvation and freedom to this man trapped in his role in this system of oppression. Paul shouts out, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”  And the jailor knows that THIS  is the true miracle of this story.

He’s amazed that the prisoners all stayed in their cells, but he knows he’s still in a world of trouble and he doesn’t know how to get himself out of this mess. Rome doesn’t care that an earthquake destroyed the prison.

He heard Paul and Silas praying and singing, from his worldview he may have thought that their prayers were magical incantations that brought on the earthquake. The jailor would have thought, “These prisoners know a kind of power that I need right now!” He brought them outside and asked for their help, saying, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They answered, “Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then Paul and Silas shared with him the source of their power –the good news of new life in Jesus Christ which sets all captives free. The jailor –once known for his cruelty- tenderly washed Paul and Silas’ physical wounds (perhaps even some wounds that he himself inflicted), and then Paul and Silas washed away the jailor’s spiritual wounds through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.  He and his family had come to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ to save them from all the ways Roman life held them prisoner. They trusted. And so, instead of worrying the rest of the night, they feasted and celebrated the new life and new worldview their family now had as believers in God.

The next morning, the magistrate sent the police around to say that Paul and Silas were to be released quietly. Perhaps the magistrate realized that he’d let the mob have too much power the day before. They wanted Paul and Silas to leave quietly and quickly so that they could put this embarrassing episode behind them. But Paul was not about to leave without teaching the Philippian magistrate a lesson about letting the mob attack innocent people. Paul responded to the magistrate’s verdict, saying, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to dismiss us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves!” When the magistrate heard that they were not just Jewish preachers, but also Roman citizens, he knew that HE was the one in trouble, for it was against the law to beat and imprison Roman citizens without due process. The magistrate came and groveled before Paul and Silas, apologizing, and begging them to leave the city so that life in Philippi could go back to normal.

Paul and Silas visited Lydia’s home one last time before they departed. But Lydia’s home was no longer just a home, it was now the seat of a bustling house Church. And the jailor’s home was no longer just a home, but a budding community of followers of the Way of Jesus Christ. And much to the magistrate’s dismay, life in Philippi would never be the same. For long after Paul and Silas left, these new disciples of Jesus Christ would continue sharing the good news that God’s love breaks down every prison wall and sets every captive heart free. God’s love shakes the shackles right off our feet and takes the prison door off its hinges. And always will.  Amen.

 

More Precious Than Purple

SERMON Easter 6C Acts 16: 9-15

After all these years, I still LOVE the color purple! It truly is God’s gift, a miracle of creation! I am amazed at all the new and unusual shades of purple I see as I look around the room today! Lavenders and Mauves and Lilacs and periwinkles, we didn’t have those shades of purple in my day.  We only had one kind of dye that made true purple, Tyrian Purple.  It was derived from the excretions of the Murex sea snail from the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon. It was a 3 day process to go from harvesting the sea snails, which lived in the deep waters, to producing the vibrant dye, more precious than gold. It took over 10,000 snails to produce just 1 gram of dye –just barely enough to produce the hem of a garment. A pound of dye would have cost the equivalent of 300 pounds of gold, or $19,000! Unlike most products which fade and depreciate with time, Tyrian purple became more valuable and vibrant as it weathered in the sun. Like a fine wine, the color purple –the real deal from Tyre, not the knockoffs from Gaul- got better with age. It was a symbol of status, power, and wealth -the Louis Vuitton of the ancient world.

They say if you love what you do, you’ll never truly work a day in your life, and I’ve found that to be true! I love my work, sharing God’s miracle of beauty with all who can afford to possess such luxury! They call me Lydia, because that’s where I’m from -the region of Lydia in Turkey, from the town of Thyatira. Our hometown specialty is producing Tyrian purple textiles. Everyone has their gift, and I may not be much of a seamstress myself, but I have a keen eye for fashion, and I can sell anything! So, I combined my love of purple, my love of fashion, and my business acumen and became a dealer in purple cloth.

After my husband died, I knew I had to use my skills to support myself and my family. I’d heard that Philippi, a Roman colony in northern Greece, was turning into quite the retirement community for officers of the Roman army and members of the Praetorian Guard. They’d fought an important battle of their civil war in Philippi and they all wanted to spend their golden years reminiscing together about their glory in battle. That sounded like just the place to be for a dealer in purple cloth! All those Roman officers –and their wives! All those togas and party dresses! I set up shop in town and quickly built a network of business contacts for myself. I was an outsider, a single woman from Thyatira, a worshipper of the God of Israel –even though I was of Gentile birth. And yet, even my status as an outsider didn’t hold me down. Those Philippians loved purple so much, and had so much money to spend to get their fashion fix, that my business was booming! Soon I –a single woman- had enough money to buy my own house!

I loved my work, I loved the beautiful city of Philippi, I believed I was where God wanted me to be, following God’s purpose for my life, but I admit I sometimes felt homesick. One Sabbath day, I went to the place of prayer outside the city gates, by the river. We did not have enough Jewish men in all of Philippi to establish a synagogue, but we had a beautiful, quiet place to come together for worship and prayer and lessons in the Torah. As fellow outsiders, worshipping the God of Israel together, our gatherings were always uplifting, but this one changed my life. A few strange men showed up to the prayer place and began telling us about their travels. They’d just arrived in Macedonia a few days prior, after receiving a vision from God to come here and to preach God’s word. And you’ll never guess where they’d been just before they came our way! My home region of Lydia!!!! That’s right, when I was missing my home, God sent these messengers to bring me stories of my homeland and of the amazing things God was doing in Lydia! These strange men had preached all throughout my homeland about the man, Jesus Christ, how he was obedient to God, he was crucified and on the third day rose again, and God highly exalted him above everyone else, for he was not just a man, but God’s one and only Son, the Messiah, and those who believe this good news and are baptized into his death, will be filled with his life-giving Spirit, the Holy Spirit!!

As they preached this amazing good news, the Lord opened my heart and lifted my spirit. I wanted to be baptized and to share this good news also. God gave me the gift of gab –I could sell anything! I knew God wanted me to use my gifts to help these strange outsiders in their mission here in Macedonia. I could show them the ropes of life among the Romans and Macedonians. More than that, these poor men needed a stable place to stay –a headquarters for their mission! God had blessed me with my own house, with guest rooms to spare, with food on my table, and a whole network of business contacts.

I wanted to receive the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and I wanted to learn all I could about the faith from these travelers. Right there at that river, I asked these strange men to baptize me and all my household with me. We were worshippers of God and followers of Jesus now. I said to the men, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” They said I prevailed upon them, which rightfully meant that I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Those strange men, now my brothers in Christ, became some of my closest friends, and my coworkers in gospel as I established the Christian church in Philippi –remembered to this day as the first church on European soil.

If you want a message to spread –leave it to a businesswoman to get the job done!

As much as I still loved Tyrian Purple, my new brand was Jesus Christ, and I would not rest until everyone I knew had heard the story of his life, death, and resurrection. The good news of Jesus, and the joy and peace that his presence provides us–even in times of struggle- THAT is more precious than all the Purple in the world. Amen.

“Love is Who We Become”

SERMON Easter 5 C Confirmation Acts 11

Collin and Ellen have made me aware that I’m “always ragging on Peter.” And it’s true. I am. He’s just so human. Peter is perhaps the most human example we have of what it looks like in real life to follow Christ. As a disciple, as a student of Jesus, Peter always seemed to go two steps forward and then take one step back. He’d get something really right –like naming Jesus as the Messiah-, and then he’d fail tremendously in the next breath –rebuking Jesus when he revealed that the Messiah must suffer and die. I AM always ragging on Peter. Yet, for as many things as Peter got wrong in his life as a disciple, one thing he got REALLY right was his handling of the mission to the Gentiles (which he reminisces about in our second reading this morning). His faithfulness in taking a risk and following God into new and uncharted territory, his faithfulness in opening his mind and his heart up to people he really didn’t want to love, this is perhaps his most important legacy. And this is an important example for us all to ponder today as we celebrate what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.

When our second reading opens, Peter is in trouble. He’s just come back to Jerusalem after his missionary journey, and everyone seems to be giving him the side eye, whispering behind his back. Peter did an unpopular thing. He broke God’s law by eating with Gentiles.  Finally they confronted him, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Why did you go and eat with “those people”? Well, it seems that Peter’s in good company, because he’s being accused of and is guilty of the same thing they accused Jesus of. Why did you go and eat with “those people”? They’re nothing like us. They eat different foods. They have different customs. They’ve grown up with different gods, and a different moral code. Why did you go and eat with “those people”? We’ve been separated for thousands of years.

Peter took a deep breath and trusted that the Holy Spirit would give him the words he needed –just as Jesus promised. He explained everything that had happened step by step.

He started with the vision that he had of clean and unclean animals all wriggling around together in a sheet –more of a nightmare or a gross YouTube challenge than a holy vision. All kinds of critters that had been forbidden for the people of Israel to eat for thousands of years were now on the menu as God said, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.” You can imagine how unnerving this vision must have been for Peter. After thousands of years of kosher living, God was now urging Peter to break even the most basic rules about how to live as a Jew in the world! Peter –in classic Peter form- tried to argue with God. “By no means, Lord! I’m a good Jewish boy, I’ve never eaten any of that stuff, and I don’t intend to start now! Don’t you know the rules, Lord? They’re your rules!”

And the voice from heaven responded, “What God has made clean, you must not call unholy.”

 

But, hardheaded as ever, that wasn’t enough for Peter, they went back and forth like this three times! And then Gentiles showed up on Peter’s front porch, and he knew what God meant. Just as no food would now be considered unholy, so no people should be considered unholy. Every single human….. yes, even those Gentiles I never thought I’d be caught dead eating with….. is loved by God, and if they’re good enough for God, who are we to judge?

Peter told the Church in Jerusalem, “The Spirit told me to go with the Gentiles and not to make a distinction between them and us….  We entered Cornelius’ house and he said he’d seen a vision of an angel who said ‘Peter will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning… If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

Peter loved God and he was learning more and more each day how to love his neighbors. He demonstrated this by putting aside his own wants, his own reputation, and his own biases. He became a physical expression of God’s love for the sake of the Gentiles whom God was calling into relationship. Peter did not love the idea of preaching to the Gentiles, he did not love the idea of even stepping foot in one of their houses, he tried to argue with God at first, but he allowed his heart and his perspective to be stretched and shaped by the new thing God was doing through the Church!

God was changing all the rules for the sake of loving the whole wide, amazing world! God can do that, and God’s doing that again today.

The Church and our world are changing rapidly. People’s lives are very different today than they were even 15 years ago, and I’m sure they’ll be different still in another 15 years. What worked for us as the Church in the 20th century, no longer seems effective. God’s changing the rules, and we don’t yet have the full picture of what our life as Church will look like in 50 or even 20 years’ time. This “in between” time can make us feel a little awkward, perhaps even a little anxious. But, the flip side of anxiety is excitement, and just like the days when God threw open the Church doors to the Gentiles, so today is an exciting time to be the Church! We are venturing into uncharted waters. But God knows where we’ve been and God knows where we’re going, and God will use each one of us as disciples of Jesus Christ to get to wherever it is God’s leading us.

This Confirmation Sunday is truly a celebration of discipleship! Collin, Ellen, and Izzy each affirm their baptismal promises for the first time, taking on the responsibility to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. And all of the rest of us remember and re-commit to the promises we’ve made to God.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, as baptized children of God, we promise to:

-live among God’s faithful people,

-to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,

-to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

-to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,

-and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Each one of these promises of covenant with God are important. But, all of them together can be boiled down into the new commandment, the last commandment Jesus gave to Peter and the rest of the disciples on the night before he died. Jesus says, “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.”

The essence of discipleship is love. Love is what you are committing to this day. This doesn’t mean you have to have warm and fuzzy feelings toward everyone all the time –surely not even Jesus himself felt warm and fuzzy ALL the time! But love is what we practice as disciples of Jesus Christ –it’s our way of life, our core identity.

Jesus knows that love isn’t easy! He knows that living together in community with a bunch of humans (like Peter) can actually be really painful and messy and complicated sometimes. But loving like Jesus loves means walking in his footsteps of self-sacrifice and service in spite of all of the human imperfections of our neighbors.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson says, “It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts –acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.”

Love is powerful and healing and world-changing, but it’s not magic. It takes a lifetime of two steps forward, one step back, as Peter well learned. You won’t instantly be transformed through the laying on of hands today. But the Holy Spirit within you will be stirred up to equip you for a life of loving service as you follow in the example of Jesus. Love isn’t something that we learn in one day, but through one small step of faithfulness to the Lord at a time.  Bill Goff writes, “Love isn’t something we fall into, love is someone we become.”

And if love is who we become as disciples of Jesus, then I can’t wait to see what God has in store for this next chapter of the Church. Amen.

From Peter’s Apostasy to Peter’s Eucharist: The Easter Gift of Reconciliation

SERMON Easter 3C John 21 1 19

According to our gospel lesson for today, it was Jesus himself who invented the Easter brunch! But this Easter story is about so much more than an idyllic Easter brunch on the beach.

This Easter story is a reminder that Jesus Christ doesn’t give up on us, no matter how many times we run away to what is comfortable and familiar, no matter how many times our lives go off course, no matter how many times we deny him or forget our vocation as disciples, Jesus Christ finds us, feeds us, forgives us, and reminds us of our mission to feed others.

In some older copies of the Bible, this Easter story is titled “Peter’s Apostasy.”  Jesus has now appeared to the apostles twice since his resurrection –not counting his first appearance to Mary Magdalene –the apostle to the apostles.  Jesus has shared his peace with the apostles and sent them out into the world to forgive sins and share God’s love! And yet,  Peter seems to have decided that this mission is just too hard without Jesus holding their hand every step of the way. They don’t know what they’re doing, God has not yet revealed their next steps, and they really don’t like feeling uncertain of themselves, so Peter throws his hands up and says, “That’s it, I’m going fishing!” And 6 other apostles say, “We will go with you.” They go right back to where Jesus found them in the first place. After 3 years of sharing in ministry with Jesus, they go back to what they know, where they feel confident in their own abilities. They retreat to the safety of their fishing boat.

But instead of the confidence boost they were hoping for, the apostles’ fail tremendously! They fish all night long and catch nothing!  At daybreak, as they are returning to shore defeated, a figure on the beach calls out to them encouragingly, “Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast the net to the right side of the boat and you will find some.” And they had nothing to lose, so they did. And they caught so many fish that they weren’t able to haul the net in because it was so heavy! And the apostles recognized Jesus through his work –they’d seen him produce a miraculous catch of fish before –in fact, the very first time they met him he nearly burst their fishing nets and sank their boats, so many were the fish they caught through God’s grace! The disciple whom Jesus loved named that which all the others suspected….. all of these fish…. This could only be the work of the Lord!!!

That fuzzy figure on the beach, who spoke so tenderly to us when we were so disappointed….. “he is the Lord!”

Peter dove into the sea to reach the beach first, and the others followed after him. They smelled the roasting fish, the toasty bread, they felt the warmth of the fire. And though Jesus had breakfast all but ready, he invited them to add the fish that they had caught to the fire as well. Though breakfast was a gift they weren’t expecting to find waiting for them, Jesus invited them to partner with him in providing the feast. As disciples, they receive Christ’s gift of nourishment so that they can share Christ’s feast with others.

John includes in this story a seemingly random detail –that there were 153 fish in total in their miraculous catch. Why include such a specific number? Some have said that it just symbolizes a whole lot of fish, or that the number has significant numerological value. But, in the margins of the first manuscript of the Vulgate, St. Jerome scribbled down a crucial detail: 153 is the number of known species of fish in the sea of Tiberias at this point in history. They had caught in their nets one of every kind of fish available, truly a parable for their vocation as disciples of Jesus Christ. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the apostles when he first calls them that he will make them “fishers of men.” Now, at the end of John’s gospel, another miraculous catch of fish reveals to them the nature of the people they are called to minister to. As there is room in the net for every kind of fish in the sea of Tiberias, and that net didn’t even burst a stitch, so there is room in Christ’s church for every kind of person we may encounter. That number -153 fish- is a concrete reminder of God’s ever expansive, inclusive love. It’s a reminder that God’s mission has not changed –that God in Christ has gone to the depths of hell and back and now sends his disciples to go to the ends of the earth and back to reconcile and redeem this whole world God so loves.

But, before Christ sends them out to do this work in the world, Christ must first reconcile and redeem Peter, his right hand man. Just as last week, Christ made a special post resurrection appearance just for Thomas. So today, Christ makes a special resurrection appearance just for Peter. You see the last two times he’s appeared, it’s been in the midst of the large group, he’s addressed his apostles as a collective, but has not had the time or space for the more intimate, vulnerable conversation required in reconciliation. Peter’s heart still aches from his denial. Though he was the first to dive off that boat to get to Jesus, he can barely look Christ in the eyes, so painful is the shame he bears. He can’t forgive himself, let alone asking Christ’s forgiveness. So Christ, in infinite grace, doesn’t wait for Peter to ask for forgiveness, he serves up forgiveness and grace along with the bread and fish he offers to Peter. This is a meal of forgiveness and love and new life. Though it’s a little early in the morning for wine, this breakfast is Peter’s Eucharist.

The last time he smelled a charcoal fire, Peter denied he knew the Lord. Now, on this beach, around this fire, Christ gently scratches at the wounds of his shame to promote true healing. Christ offers him 3 opportunities to take back his 3 denials. “Simon, son of John, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?” To which Peter responds, “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.” And Peter, fully restored to relationship with Christ, is given Christ’s mission for the church: “Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.”

 

Theologian Debbie Thomas writes: “Around the fire Jesus builds, Peter’s fear and denial evolves into trust and worship: “I don’t know the man” turns to “Lord, you know everything.   You know that I love you.”  In the end, Peter realizes that it’s what Jesus knows that matters.  Jesus knows that we’re more than our worst failures and betrayals.  He knows that we’re prone to shame and self-hatred.  He knows the deep places we flee to when we fail.  And he knows how to build the fire and prepare the meal that will beckon us back to shore.  

Jesus’s appearance to Peter — like all of the post-resurrection appearances the Gospels record — speaks volumes about God’s priorities. In the days following the resurrection, Jesus doesn’t waste a moment on revenge or retribution.  He doesn’t storm Pilate’s house, or avenge himself on Rome, or punish the soldiers whose hands drove nails into his.  Instead, he spends his remaining time on earth feeding, restoring, and strengthening his friends.  He calls Mary Magdalene by name as she cries. He offers his wounds to the skeptical Thomas.  He grills bread and fish for his hungry disciples.  He heals what’s wounded and festering between his heart and Peter’s.

In other words, Jesus focuses on relationship.  On reconciliation.  On love.  He spends the last days before his ascension delivering his children from fear, despair, self-hatred, and paralysis…. Peter’s shame meets Jesus’s grace, and Jesus’s grace wins.  That’s the Gospel story in a nutshell.”

Amen.