We are the Image of God

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October 22, 2017

Matthew 22:15-22, Genesis 1:26

In my previous call, I had the opportunity to sit among fellow pastors and leaders in the community as we came together in an effort to be ecumenical. The intention had mostly been to see how we can best serve the community in which we lived. How, as a varied group of Christians, could we reach out to the needs of the community and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Our own personal theologies would begin to show at this time and honestly, my beliefs did not always line up with their beliefs. This is where it got difficult for me. I was left struggling with this internal debate about how we could possibly do ministry together. While we all seemed to end up at the cross, we all had very different means of getting there. It was difficult to participate is some of the activities when you did support the means. At times, these meetings were more stressful than they were rewarding.

Fortunately, the congregations in Richmond work well together. We have opportunities to worship together and opportunities to serve alongside on another.

However, the stinging rebuke that Jesus gives to the leaders in the temple makes us wonder. This rebuke is one that makes us look within our own lives. “You hypocrites,” he says. A word that seems to be thrown around so easily today whenever we do not agree with the beliefs of another person, or that person is not following our beliefs. We may even hear the word ourselves from others that question our belief system.

We are seen as hypocrites when we do not follow our own beliefs to the tee. Despite the fact that we are broken people living in a broken world. We struggle with many of the things that happen within our world and are left wondering where our Christian faith is getting us. There are Christians on every side of a debate using the bible to back up their side. This leaves little room for the Holy Spirit to work in our midst and the love of God seems to vanish.

The leaders attempt to put Jesus in an uncomfortable place when they ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They find themselves pretty clever because surely Jesus has been backed into the corner now. His response though is inspired as he calls them out. Whose image is on the coin? Oh, Caesar’s? Then give to the emperor what is his and to God, what is God’s.

The Pharisee’s are hypocrites, because they are carrying around a coin with the emperor’s face on it. Not only that, but it also speaks of his divinity! A divinity that we know can only be found in God and the Son, Jesus Christ. They are breaking the first commandment, you shall have no other gods.

What is it then that we should share with God? Perhaps, returning to Genesis may help. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

As we should hand over to the emperor, what is the emperors, then we should hand over to God what is emblazoned with God’s image.

In Jesus’ words, we have been challenged. Challenged to live up to the image that we bear ourselves. The image of God, imago Dei, that is with us all of our days and within it we are called to love and serve one another.

This morning we have eight youth that are affirming this image they were born with. Not only that, they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the sign of a cross in their baptisms. A baptism in which their parents and sponsors promised to lead and teach them in the faith that they are now affirming in their own words and making public profession of that faith.

Imagine what would happen if we were all so public in boldly professing this faith that our youth are professing this morning!

Imagine the difference that we would make in the world if we lived out the image that we bear of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Imagine if we were to truly live into the words of our baptisms and those that we hear in the affirmation of baptism and continue in the covenant God made with us: 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 strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

If we were to truly live out the calling that God has placed upon our hearts and to live out those baptismal promises, the kingdom of God would be in our midst.

Let us pray, God of all, you work in and among us when we are not even aware. May we be open to the words you have placed upon us in our baptisms and strive to live a life worthy of your image in the midst of our brokenness. Amen.

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Welcome to the Feast

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October 15, 2017

As a preacher, this is one of those gospel texts that make you bristle. It would be easy to go to one of our other lessons this morning because they are quite a bit softer. However, our challenge is found in Matthew.

Reading it makes me at first wonder if we have entered into an alternate universe? Our gospel lesson continues in the parables of Jesus, with a turn to the extreme, if not teetering on the absurd! Not only has Jesus stepped up the parable story telling with the Wedding Banquet, the stories get more violent. Last week, it was the religious leaders that assumed violence would occur. This morning Jesus has inserted the violence directly into the parable.

Especially after hearing the rest of our lessons, the gospel makes us double back and wonder what is happening within it. The story that Matthew shares of the Wedding Banquet can be found in parallel in the Gospel of Luke with some differences. The feast in Luke is a dinner party in which the owner of the house invites some guests, and they too, are too busy to attend. The owner is upset over their disregard for the preparations and their ease of dismissing him once the meal was ready. He asks his servants to go out into the streets and invite one and all. Those that are crippled, blind, and lame. When they didn’t fill the house, the servants went out and found even more people to fit at the table.

The gospel of Matthew takes a turn towards a more violent nature. In light of our parable from last week with the evil tenants, the parable that Jesus shares of the Wedding Banquet seems like it would be more fitting for a Game of Thrones episode.

However, in the parable Jesus shares, the king has the guests that ignore his invitation to the feast murdered and their cities burned, after they kill his servants bearing the invite. Not only that, the one person that seems out of place at the feast is bound and thrown out into the darkness.

Historically, Matthew wrote his gospel after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in the year 70. As Christians were being persecuted and martyred, it was a tenuous time and people were on edge. The murders and burning of cities that Matthew added to Luke’s version, could be attributed to this.

Unfortunately, this text has led to many horrendous acts throughout history. One of the thoughts that arose were that the Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus. Matthew plays into this through his version of Jesus’ parable. Those that refuse to feast with the king (or God), and the coming of Jesus, are murdered and their cities burned!

While we are in the midst of remembering the Reformation, it is also important to recognize that everything Martin Luther wrote was not wonderful. Later in life he seemed to be more adamant in his condemnation of those living in the Jewish faith. He seemed to think they had a choice and must be converted to Christianity. These teachings run counter to our calling as Christians in the world to love.

Some of these teachings have unfortunately been used over time to construct false ideologies. The rise of Nazi-Germany and the growth of antisemitism that we will still witness today are a couple of examples. We witness it in the neo-Nazis and white supremacists of our own time, in 2017!

If you look how the parables have stacked up over the last few weeks in our lessons, they are building upon the confrontation that Jesus is having with the religious leaders in the temple. In our Matthew timeline, we are only 72 hours away from the crucifixion. The gospel is telling the story of Jesus’ journey to the cross.

As he journeys, he pushes the envelope more and more. His parable seems so absurd because it is a hyperbole. He is going to the extremes to make his point known that the love of God is for all people. Male or female, free or slave, gentile or Jew. This is where the grace of God shines through in this text. Everyone is called to the righteousness found in God.

This righteousness is the “wedding robe” that is referred to in the parable. Anyone can put on the robes; thus the invitation to everyone to come and join in the feast.  And what does that look like? Paul explains it in detail for us in Philippians: Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (4:8-9)

Our calling in Jesus Christ is to continue on the path that Jesus began. We are to love our neighbors and welcome the stranger. We are to listen to and not jump to quick conclusions. We are to give thanks to God for the grace that washes over us. Are we required to do any of this? No! Through our faith and the righteousness of God we should be compelled to do it.

It is not only from God, whom we receive grace. We can be gracious to one another, and this in itself is a sign of God working in our midst.

In its 1994 “Declaration to the Jewish Community,” the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly repudiated the anti-Jewish views of Martin Luther, expressed repentance for Christian complicity in hatred and violence against the Jews through the centuries, and committed itself to building a relationship with the Jewish people based on love and respect.(ELCA Statement for Lutheran-Jewish Relations)

Trinity Lutheran Seminary, my alma mater in Columbus, Ohio, has a wonderful history of working with their Jewish neighbors and continues in dialogue with them today. As we have asked for repentance, they have been gracious. We can all sin. Luther was no different than the rest of humanity. As Lutherans today, it is of great importance that we continue to move forward in loving relationships that embody the love Christ has for all of humanity. We must put on the robe, or righteousness of Christ, and through this we will begin to see wonderful changes happening in the world around us.

This seems to be a never-ending task. Yet, we are reassured by the words of Desmond Tutu, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book. We win!” We all have gifts to share as we come to the feast. It is a banquet in which all are needed and love reigns supreme.

Let us pray, healing God, you are present even when we hurt those that are close. You weep at the broken relationships and the sins that pervade our lives. May we continue to be guided by your Holy Spirit and the love and grace that comes down to us in the form of your Son, who gave up his life for us. Amen

A Vulnerable God

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October 8, 2017

We are blessed in the state of Michigan to be surrounded by some very fertile land. There are a variety of crops that are grown, and the state is a leader, if not near the top in many of those crops. One of those crops that you can find in abundance in Northern Michigan are grapes.

I recall one of my first visits to a winery on the Old Mission Peninsula. For our honeymoon, Tina and I decided that we would travel around Northern Michigan. From Mackinac Island to Petoskey and Boyne City, to Traverse City and then down the Lake Michigan Shoreline. While in Traverse City, we traveled up the Old Mission Peninsula and discovered Chateau Grand Traverse. The peninsulas leading from Traverse City provide the perfect climate for vineyards. We took the tour and tasted some great wines, at least in my opinion.

Tending to grapes and the vineyard is a lot of hard work that requires skill and determination. The beauty of a vineyard is incredible as the vines are pruned and sculpted so that the owners get the most out of the grapes they are growing.

The image of the vineyard appears many times throughout our bible stories, from the Old Testament to the New Testament. The people of Israel were familiar with vineyards and they knew what it entailed to care for and harvest. Jesus uses vineyards in his parables to relate to the kingdom of God. As tenants care for the vineyard, how do we care for the creation that has been gifted to us?

If you have been anywhere near the news this past week, we know that we could be doing much better.

Once again we have been confronted with the evil that exists in our world today. Another sign that the kingdom of God has not come into full fruition yet. While we are living in the kingdom of God, which has been gifted to us through creation, it has not fully arrived. We will not experience this until we learn to fully love one another.

The terrorist act of mass shootings by individuals are not a sign of the kingdom to come. It points to the brokenness of our world and the fact that we would rather point fingers at each other as to why events like this happen then to sit down and discuss how we can work together for the common good. Until the kingdom of God fully comes to us, evil will still exist. Unfortunately, we have come to a point that we wonder when the next horrendous act will happen, not if. In the meantime, how can we do our best to be the face of God in the presence of this evil?

How can we be present with one another? How can we provide help for those that need it? How can we be a voice for proper reform and laws to protect one another and our loved ones? I think that we can all agree that acts like the one in Las Vegas this past week must stop. We must do a better job in providing mental health care for those that need it. Evil will still present its ugly head, but it will be a start.

We must look beyond ourselves and our own personal agenda. When we fail to do that, we reject the humanity of others. When we reject others, it can be seen as a rejection of the God that created it all. As we reject God through our words and actions, the kingdom of God just gets farther away.

Until we learn to care for and accept those that are mentally sick, we put a wedge between ourselves and God. Until we can turn repent of our own tendency towards violence, we will continue to keep ourselves at a distance from the kingdom of God. We still have a lot of work to do in learning how to live with one another in peace and because of this, I am sure that God continues to weep.

God weeps for us, just as God weeps for those servants that were killed by the evil tenants in Jesus’ parable. At this point, Jesus is still pointing to the authority that has been given to him by God. An authority that cannot be taken away, no matter what the political and religious leaders do to him.

We must look at Jesus’ parable allegorically. The vineyard is Israel and the tenants are the religious leaders whom Jesus is speaking. The early prophets could be seen as the first servants that are killed by the evil tenants. The land owner is God, and it is God that sends God’s son to be with the people of Israel. In this realization, Jesus is foretelling the death that is going to come upon him by the leaders in the temple.

They are rejecting Jesus who has come to them in the temple. By doing so, they have rejected the God that has created humanity as we know it. The chief priests and the Pharisees are well aware that this parable that Jesus shares is about them and they would like to quickly quiet him. They can’t though, because of fear for those that are following Jesus. They failed to see what the crowd could see.

The vineyard imagery can also be seen in Isaiah and the Psalm where the vineyard is created and cultivated until it is misused. In the matter of self-interest, the owner thought he had to protect it, instead of sharing of its bounty. In this rejection of others, the vineyard is destroyed.

Because of this story, the chief priests and Pharisees could expect wrath to fall upon them in Jesus’ parable. Yet, this is where we encounter the grace of God in the midst of evil.

Jesus does not proclaim judgement upon the evil tenants. He does not give up on them. A popular story line we follow today is one of vengeance. We are waiting for Jesus to say that the evil tenants got what was coming to them and were destroyed. Yet, this is the farthest things from Jesus’ story line.

The landowner could have easily sent an army in to disperse of the evil tenants after the first two groups of servants he sent were beat and killed. However, he sends his son. By now, this story line should be sounding familiar. Jesus is the son that comes into the vineyard to fulfill the promise that was made to the Israelite’s. Jesus is more than a prophet. He is the messiah that was promised a long time ago.

In this parable, Jesus shares the vulnerability of the landowner. A vulnerability that opens up to the hope and promise that is found in Jesus Christ. A vulnerability that allows all of humanity to see the righteousness in Jesus and be open to the grace that is abundant for all people.

Because of this promise being fulfilled, there is no proclamation of judgement upon the evil tenants. The hope that comes in Jesus’ parable is that the evil tenants will realize their own humanity and empathy that they might feel shame in the presence of vulnerability.

God allows a vulnerability to shine through that forgives those that seek repentance. It is God’s desire to fill creation with love. This love comes to the Israelites through Jesus. A love that is willing to go to the cross on their behalf.

While it may be hard to come by, that story of love can be found today. We are not a heartless people, despite the around the clock news coverage that seems to espouse the evil occurring in the world. The good things do outnumber the evil. They just do not get the high ratings in media channels like the evil does.

There is a popular Fred Rogers quote that goes around every time we witness some horrific act in our country. He is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

He was a minister and had pretty good theology. We witness Christ in the midst of the evil. Christ is present to hold peoples hands and to present love through others. You may have seen on the news the story of the father and son that used their bodies to shield the young girls in front of them from the gun fire in Las Vegas. The father gave up his life to protect people he did not even know and his son was shot in the arm. This is a visible sign of Christ at work in our lives and working through humanity.

The grace of God comes to us in mysterious ways. The grace of God knows no boundaries and can even turn those that envelop evil towards a love that forgives through Jesus Christ. While this may be hard for us to understand in our time and place, the kingdom of God will eventually be revealed to all.

Let us pray. . . . Forgiving and gracious God, may you continue to walk with us in the brokenness of this world. May your church on earth be a beacon of light for those that seek hope. May we strive everyday to walk with our sisters and brothers in our differences and rejoice in the promise of your kingdom to come. Amen.

 

Authority, What is it Good For?

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October 1, 2017

Who among us, would love to sit down with Jesus and ask him some questions? I am sure that we can all think of some questions to ask.

Would they be much different than the question that was asked by the priests and the elders, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Several years ago Dr. Phil was being interviewed on television. One question asked, was “if you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.” If he had read today’s gospel, I wonder if Dr. Phil would still want to interview Jesus. For one thing, Jesus would not be a good interview. Time and time again, we read of his encounters in the gospels with those questioning him, and it is always turned back to those doing the questioning. Jesus would quickly turn the tables. Perhaps even literally, as he did in the Temple.

Dr. Phil would be sorry that he even posed this question to Jesus. After being turned upside down and inside out, Jesus would be encouraging him to sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and to follow him.

So, who is ready to interview Jesus?

There is clearly a difference in opinion from the chief priests and elders that have shown up in the Temple and what Jesus is teaching to those that are gathered to listen. Those listening to Jesus are eager to learn what he has to say and how that can affect their lives not only in the present, but also in the time to come.

The chief priests and elders are the ones that are accustomed to having the authority. People come to them to answer the questions and to solve the problems that come up in 1st century Jerusalem. The people, for the most part, have been complacent. Yes, you do have the occasional radical teacher that gets up and attempts to stir up trouble.

Jesus is different. The chief priests and the elders sense this, yet do not want to admit it. They know the answers to the questions that they are asking. They just do not want to hear them. They are being called out in front of everyone and this is not what they were expecting. They thought that they could quickly shut Jesus down. However, Jesus is different. His authority does not come from any human entity, and this is what they fear, and to some extent, already know deep in their hearts. They sense the authority that Jesus speaks with and are wondering where that leaves them.

Jesus is turning everything upside down and inside out.

Two thousand years later, we are not much different. We place ourselves in the same situations as the chief priests and elders. We question those areas in our lives that we do not like and when the answer is too hard for us to bear we either ignore it or try to make up excuses for our actions.

We struggle with authority today. Of course there are those that are in positions that naturally have authority assigned to them. Our elected officials are one example of this. In the business world, people are hired or placed into positions of authority as well. While it makes me uncomfortable, I know that pastors even hold a position of authority. In all of these positions, there is a difference between the actual authority that someone has and the authority that is perceived. This perceived authority can flow both ways.

Authority works alongside respect. If the person in authority does little to gain the respect of those that they are called to lead, then there is going to be resistance. We have seen this happen throughout the history of the world as we know it. Sometimes those that resist prevail and at other times those in authority attempt to quickly squash it.

While we are in the midst of remembering the Reformation, it is a good example of resistance. Martin Luther resisted the authority of the sixteenth century and listened to God. The more he studied, the more he began to question the direction of the church. In his words and actions, a reformation had been carried out that we are called to still carry forward today.

Acts of resistance happen to this day as humanity struggles to live into the world that God has given to us. This will continue to be so until we can sit down and talk to one another. To let Jesus guide us and take the words of the gospel seriously, compelling us to live as equals with our sisters and brothers.

Jesus brings an even greater resistance to the Roman Empire in the 1st century. This resistance made people uncomfortable and question everyone that was serving in a position of authority. While the chief priests and elders wished Jesus to have no authority at all, it was not theirs to take away.

In Jesus we find an authority that cannot be taken away by any earthly manner. It is not an authority from humans. It is an authority from God alone. As the questions surface, it is revealed that true authority lies in Jesus, and Jesus alone. It is in this that we encounter a grace which is greater than anything of our own making or doing.

Jesus does not say that the chief priests and elders are going to be left out of the kingdom of God. What he is saying is that they are going to have to wait their turn. In his response, Jesus’ intentions in both his question to the religious leaders of John’s baptism and in his question about which of the two sons did the will of the father, is that the God of Israel who gives him authority is the same God of Israel who welcomes sinners and prostitutes. (FOTW, Year A, Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn)

This is the grace of God that washes over all of us in our baptisms. Our role and position in life is not going to get us anywhere. It does not matter how much authority we have. The love of Christ welcomes all and at times may even surprise us. Our desire should be to walk arm and arm with each other, regardless of race, sex, ability, or sexuality. As we begin to do so in our earthly realm, we bring the kingdom of God just a little closer.

While we would all love to ask Jesus some questions, does it really matter. Where we can truly grow is through listening. Listening to our sisters and brothers that have different experiences to share. Listening to the words of Jesus as we read them in the bible. Listening to the Spirit speaking to us in our lives.

Perhaps, the questions that we should be asking should be directed to ourselves. What is it like to answer a question which you know the correct answer but do not want to hear? What is it like to be asked a question that may call you to change your mind, your way of being and doing? As we allow the Spirit to work with us in answering these questions, we begin to grow. Here we encounter the God that walks alongside us.

Let us pray, embracing God, you enter our lives in the most unexpected ways. We find you in the most difficult questions. May the Spirit continue to push and pull us into the kingdom that you have promised us. May our hearts and minds be open to all that is you. Amen.

Joy is Enough

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September 24, 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

I have had the opportunity to work in many different environments over the last twenty plus years. Since my graduation from college, I have worked for seven different companies and churches. I have been paid hourly, a salary, and even by commission. My favorite form of compensation in my management career was hourly. I knew the hours that I put in and I knew what to expect on my next paycheck. I may have a roundabout idea when I was paid commission, but it was always a surprise. When I calculated the number of hours I worked and the salary I was being paid while in the grocery industry, it was depressing.

When we dive into our gospel text this morning, we are met with assumptions and crushed expectations. If you broke down the hourly rate that each of the laborers received, those that were hired first were paid the least. This is something that the U.A.W. would have been all over!

The laborers in question, the ones that have sweated all day in the hot sun, are not getting anything less then what was promised to them. The landowner said that he would give them a fair wage. A wage that honestly, was just enough to live on. No more, no less. They had no problem with this. The laborers agreed to it that morning when they took the landowner up on his offer. So, where is the problem again?

Oh yeah, those that were hired later in the day received the same wage as those that were present when the sun first broke upon the field. The first laborers assumed that after seeing the last laborers receive one denarius, they would surely get a bonus on what had already been promised to them. (I am sure you know what is said about people that assume!) The landowner does not deviate from his promise and in this we have an anger that builds up in those that feel they were shortchanged. They receive what they need, no more no less. In this, we are reminded of the manna in the wilderness that Moses and the people of Israel received from God. God supplies just what they need, and if they horde, it is gone by the morning.

When was the last time you felt shortchanged? Think about it for a minute!

It may have been a time that you feel you did not get paid for the proper amount of work that you had done. It may have been that time you did not get the job that you thought was coming your way; perhaps, you got looked over for a promotion.

While the laborers hired first thing in the morning thought they deserved more, and rightly so, they fell into the trap of comparing themselves to others. While you may have not been able to think of an example where you felt shortchanged, I am sure you can more easily think of a situation when you compared yourself to another person. We are always comparing ourselves to others. We compare jobs. We compare houses. We compare cars. We compare athletic ability. We even compare our children.

When we start comparing everything, we leave no room for joy. The comparisons begin to take over our lives. We are always striving for more. A bigger house! A fancier car! A better job!

And where does this get us? Farther away from joy! If you remember, joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In joy, we are embraced by something greater than simple happiness. It  gets deep into our beings. Joy cannot come from any material possessions.

The laborers that are grumbling in our parable this morning have left no room for joy in their lives. They have earned enough to provide for their families. In this truth they should be joyful, however, they are too busy comparing. In this parable, Jesus is not trying to justify the landowner. I don’t believe Jesus would be please with the fact that women get paid less then men for the same job. Or that people of color get paid less for the same job as those of their white counterparts.

What Jesus is talking about here is the kingdom of heaven! When we come to finally experience the kingdom of heaven, it should not matter what are neighbors earn. It should not matter who has what and who does not. In the kingdom of heaven, God provides everything that we need. This is the promise that Jesus is making to us in this parable. We have a generous God and this generosity is abundant in the kingdom of heaven.

It does not begin in heaven though. God provides for us here and now.

At the table we encounter Jesus Christ in the bread and wine. Are you going to come up and see that your neighbor received a bigger piece of bread and complain about it? No!!! God meets us where we are at in the bread and wine. In the bread and wine we are all fed and nourished in the promise that Jesus made to us in that last Passover meal he ate with his disciples. He promised to be with us in the bread and the wine and in this we are renewed, but more importantly, we are reminded of the forgiven that is granted to us by no merit of our own. In this forgiveness we are able to find joy as it is given to us by the Spirit.

Let us pray…

Lord of joy, we give thanks for the renewal of life that we find every week at the table. In this reminder, may we be filled with joy and carry it forward into the week to come. May we spread it to those that we converse, and may it allow us to diminish our need to compare and rest in you alone. Amen.

Rock to Stumbling Block

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September 3, 2017

Matthew 16:21-28

At this point of our Gospel, Peter must be on an emotional roller-coaster. I don’t think it is just Peter that is trying to understand. Most of the disciples probably have the same thoughts, Peter is the only one that steps up to say what he is thinking. Perhaps you have been on the same type of emotional roller-coaster.

Think of that time that you felt like you were on top of the world. Nothing could slow you down and nothing could bring you down. Until!?! Something occurs that makes you realize that you are human after all and are not any different than the person you just passed walking on the sidewalk. I would venture to say that most of us have all been there at one time in our lives. It could be as simple as achieving success at work, only to have your boss come around to degrade you for a little error you have made. It could be as complicated as a catastrophe of some scale to knock you back where you are left gasping for air.

Now imagine how Peter was feeling at this moment, just prior to our passage in Matthew this morning. He has declared his faith in Jesus and proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus answers him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I can tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” I am sure Peter is feeling a little pressure after this conversation. He also must be wondering what God has in store for him considering Jesus’ revelation.

And then it gets messy. Peter throws up a roadblock to the idea of Jesus being killed. This is the first of Jesus’ four passion predictions in Matthew and they do not get any easier. Peter cannot imagine what Jesus is talking about. This was not in the game plan that he received when he joined the team. The plan that Jesus has now laid out before them runs counter to culture. It is in Peter’s failure to understand that he confronts Jesus and tells him that what Jesus speaks of can never happen. Peter suddenly finds himself at the bottom looking up when Jesus calls him a stumbling block. He instructs Peter, Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus knows the plans to come and the pain and suffering he must encounter. Peter must get in line behind him and follow. He must remove himself from the little things and be open to the divine that is in their midst.

Now this is a Peter that we can relate to. How often do we focus on the little things in life and allow ourselves to be distracted from the much greater things? Life itself. Life as it can be found in Jesus Christ. Even when we have no clue what is happening.

God is at work amid it all. In the messy and the unfinished. In the muck and the grime. Jesus is not looking for perfection. Jesus comes to live among us in the reality of it all. In the messiness. In the flesh and the blood that we experience as humanity. He is not looking for a church that is invisible, pure, and undefiled. No such place exists in our earthly realm.

In Jesus, we find life and are promised the realm of heaven. A heaven without boundaries, where love overflows. First, we must experience death. It is in Jesus’ death and resurrection that we are promised eternal life and a love unbounded. Jesus comes to us in our own messiness and faults.

What if we were to follow him and do the same. What if we were to share that same love that has been poured out for us with those that are in need? What if we were to forgive those that oppose us, persecute us, mock and belittle us? If only Jesus’ way was our way. What a different world it would be.

Gather us In

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August 20, 2017

Matthew 15:10-28

This past week has not been easy. It has been full of anxiety. Anxiety about the current dialog in our country and an uneasiness of what will happen in the months, if not days to come. Today’s gospel lesson makes us pause.

First, the disciples come to Jesus to discuss how he offended the Pharisees with his talk of what defiles a person. We could look at this discussion and say that it revolves around the food laws of ancient Israel and what you can and cannot eat. What is clean and unclean. We can also look towards what it means for us today. The fact that what we surround ourselves with often affects our own behaviors and actions. It shapes our thoughts and the words that come out of our mouths. It is then those words that can defile.

Much of the speech that we heard last weekend and this past week defiled. There was hatred, bigotry, and an exclusivism that radiated from it. The actions of one individual driving into a crowd of people and killing one woman and injuring others stemmed from the hate. Unfortunately, we saw a similar act play out in Barcelona on Thursday where fourteen were killed and many more injured. The beginning of this weekend there were stories of police officers being targeted and one officer losing his life. All of this is unacceptable.

Returning to our gospel, Jesus encounters the Canaanite woman. This is where I was taken aback. Jesus’ reaction at first seems to be one that we have seen in those spreading hate. He ignored her. He then said he was not there for her, only the lost sheep of Israel. Who is this Jesus? He does not sound like the one in whom we find love and grace. Depending upon the commentary you read, there are many different theologians trying to explain Jesus’ response.

I believe that in this moment, we witness the Jesus of humanity. The Jesus that walked in this world was just as human as he was divine, and in this moment, we see a bit of this humanity. Perhaps he was distracted. Perhaps he had his mind set upon his next destination. In this, we can relate because whether we want to admit it or not, we have all been in this same place. It takes the words of the Canaanite woman to stir him and he sees the faith that she has in him. “Lord, have mercy on me.” It is a cry for help. It is a cry we can relate to in our own brokenness. It is her persistence and courage to step up that we all need to have at this time.

I will be honest with you, there are some days that I really must conjure up the courage to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Because it seems that the gospel speaks so counter to what we practice within our own country and culture. Yet, today the Canaanite woman leads the way. In my ordination vows, I was asked, “Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all you do?” To this, I answered and continue to answer, “I will, and I ask God to help me.” I cannot be a faithful witness if I do not talk about where our faith is leading us today.

I believe we have reached a time where we must move beyond the politics. What happened in Charlottesville last weekend and what we will continue to see and hear in our country points to a belief that is weaved into the fabric of our nation. Unfortunately, some of those strands have been weaved by evil.

It started with the genocide of the Native American people when Europeans first set foot on this land. It was weaved into the fabric through the slave trade and the exploitation of black people and others in the minority. The Civil War may have brought an end to slavery, but those strands had already been weaved in. Those strands were quite visible during the Jim Crow Law era and in the segregation of our public-school system. Those strands separated humanity in the red-lining of our major cities where leaders used their authority to say who could live where. We have even seen it continue to this day in the prison system and the unfair treatment of black people.

The first time I witnessed a similar display of hate was in my own hometown of Charlotte nearly thirty years ago. An inter-racial couple lived a few blocks down the street from my parents and had a cross burned on their yard. I also recall in high school the opposition to having the KKK come rally in front of the historic courthouse. All part of the fabric.

This fabric affects all our lives. Living in a rural white community keeps us insulated from the happenings of our larger diverse cities. Yet, we are only forty-five minutes away from downtown Detroit where the worst effects of these evil strands have been wove.

To borrow the words from Brother Chris Markert, Minister General of the Order of Lutheran Franciscans, “this isn’t a right vs left, liberal vs conservative, Republican vs. Democrat situation. It’s confronting evil that has decided it’s safe to come out in very public and blatant ways.”

I also believe that for us to address the racism and evils that occur in our country, it must be made visible for us. We can then enter into conversation. It has always been present, but now it is fully out in the open, and hopefully we will not sweep it back under the rug. There was a sign of hope yesterday as more people stepped up to call out the hatred in a mostly peaceful counter-protest in Boston.

The Canaanite woman was used to being pushed to the side. She would not have been given the time of day in the past by an Israelite. They would have looked down upon her as if she were a dog. Someone not deserving of their attention. This was not acceptable in Jesus’ time and it is not acceptable today. It may have even took Jesus a minute to see this. Yet, once he did, he showed compassion for the Canaanite woman and carried it to the cross for all of humanity.

While we are in the majority as white Americans, it is our responsibility as followers of Jesus to proclaim his message of love and inclusion of all. We are called to speak to the hatred and evil. We are called to step up boldly and name the evil as we see it. We are to be bold like the Canaanite woman and persist in spreading the love of the gospel.

We must also listen. We must listen to our brothers and sisters that have experienced the hatred and evil. We must not be quick to interrupt as we give them space to share their stories. We must enter relationships as God calls all of humanity together in the hopes of the Kingdom to come. In this all embracing love of God, grace is showered upon each of us.  In this we shall rejoice and be gathered in.